True Romance by Sarah Kuhn
The collected edition of The Ruby Equation—writer Sarah Kuhn’s story with artist Sally Jane Thompson for the comics anthology Fresh Romance—is out this week. To celebrate its release, Sarah visits Shelf Pleasure to talk about why romance writing rules.
I’ve always loved romance.
As a geeky, sci-fi/fantasy-obsessed kid, I delighted in tales of world-saving superheroes, fire-breathing dragons, and galaxies far, far away. But the parts I reread/rewound/revisited the most were always the parts about people kissing, people declaring their love, or people staring at each other longingly from across a crowded room (or a crowded dragon palace/space vestibule).
I came for the fantastical settings, I stayed for Leia and Han and Scott and Jean and Lessa and F’Lar. Don’t even ask me how many times I reread the first kiss scene in the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back. (It was a lot of times.)
When I discovered romance novels, it was a revelation: full books dedicated to that one piece of story I always seemed to respond to the most! And rendered in such glorious, loving detail, each specific piece of the characters’ emotional journeys and the process of falling in love beautifully tracked. I was and still am in awe of so many romance authors’ ability to bring this process to such vivid life. (Some current favorites who I think are particularly amazing at this include Courtney Milan, Kate Noble, Victoria Dahl, Molly Harper, and Nalini Singh.)
It wasn’t until I was an adult (I use that term loosely since I still collect superhero action figures) that I keyed into how disrespected and dismissed romance is as a genre. When I say I read superhero comic books, the most common response I get from strangers* is incredulity (“But you’re a girl?!”). But when I say I read romance novels, the Shitty Cheap Joke Machine gets fully deployed, the range of rejoinders encompassing everything from Those Fabio Covers to Those Unrealistic Fantasy Scenes of Sexual Acrobatics** to The Inherent Terrible Quality of Any Writing That Dares to Put Feelings Front and Center.
I don’t think the reasons for all this disdain are a mystery—the world tends to count anything written by and for women as lesser—but this attitude still gobsmacks me because crafting a truly swoony romantic relationship, the kind that sends you back to the dog-eared pages of that one part of the Empire Strikes Back novelization over and over and over again, is one of the hardest things to pull off really well in writing. It should be honored and respected and celebrated and the Shitty Cheap Joke Machine should be pushed off a cliff to die in some desolate ravine-type place.
I’ve heard this refrain many times from people reacting to a piece of art—book, movie, show, whatever: “It was really good…except I didn’t buy the romance.”
Right, because that piece of story is not easy to do (which brings up another bizarre, untrue notion about romance novels: that they’re easy to write! So churn out-able! If every dude I’ve met who claimed he could “write a romance novel in a weekend” actually did so, I would have…well, probably a lot of terrible novels with “KISSING GOES HERE” written in brackets on every other page). You have to match people up, make us invest in them both as individuals and as a pairing, and create some damn chemistry. You have to get to know your characters intimately, so you can track every nuance of feeling. And you have to do it in a way where we don’t see the seams, the mechanics propelling the attraction and giving us that intangible feeling of swoon.
The discounting of romance—as a genre, as an element of a story, as something that’s important in fiction and in real life—is something I wanted to explore in The Ruby Equation, my story (along with artist Sally Jane Thompson, colorist Savanna Ganucheau, and letterer Steve Wands) for the Rosy Press comics anthology Fresh Romance. The main character, Ruby, is a cranky barista who also happens to be an otherworldly being sent to our dimension to help humans find love. But she sees her mission as the equivalent of a tedious, inconsequential, and really, really easy day job, something she’s just using to pass the time until she gets sent on a “more epic” mission. She dismisses the work she’s supposed to be doing, uses her own version of math to match people up—and never, ever accounts for the swoon.
Basically: Ruby as a character starts off in the mindset of people who fire up their Shitty Cheap Joke Machines as soon as the words “I love romance novels” cross my lips. But of course, since I wrote her, she’s not going to stay that way: she learns that making true romance happen involves complexities and nuances she never dreamed of, and that when it’s done well, it can be as epic as journeying to a far-off planet to herd laser seahorses. (Yes, Ruby’s initial idea of “epic” involves laser seahorses—she’s kind of weird. Don’t judge her too much).
If Ruby were also a writer or reader formerly dismissive of romance, her ultimate realization would be that crafting such a thing in fiction contains the same level of difficulty as it does in real life: it’s akin to the challenge presented by the biggest boss at the end of a videogame, like Bowser in Super Mario Bros. Writers who are able to dodge all the hammers he throws at them, grab the axe on the other side of the bridge, and save the Mushroom Kingdom should be immortalized as our one true gods, or at least get to hang out in the castle with Princess Toadstool.
Romance novelists—and all writers who realize this element of a story is important, tough to pull off, and deserving of care and respect—save the Mushroom Kingdom with every damn book. So maybe cool it with the Fabio jokes.
*I’m specifying “strangers” here because these sentiments would never come from friends—I am only friends with cool people who respect both female comic book readers and romance novels.
**If your objection to scenes of sexual acrobatics is that they are unrealistic fantasies, I have to say that I feel a little bad for you.
Sarah Kuhn is the author of the forthcoming Heroine Complex trilogy, starring Asian American superheroines, for DAW Books. She also wrote the geek rom-com novella One Con Glory and The Ruby Equation for the comics anthology Fresh Romance. Her articles and essays on such topics as Sailor Moon cosplay, comic book continuity, and Vulcan mating rituals have appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, IGN.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Back Stage, StarTrek.com, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. Visit her at heroinecomplex.com or find her on Twitter @sarahkuhn.
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