Tess, He’s Just Not That Into You

About two months ago, my English-instructor roommate and I stumbled onto the subject of toxic romantic relationships in literature. Now, as embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I read a lot of fanfiction.[1] Part of the reason for this is because, hey, it’s free, but it’s also because there are a lot of really good stories out there examining relationships between two adults with grown-up baggage and emotional states. Though obviously slashfic (gay romantic or sexual relationship stories) has a bad reputation, the non-explicit examples of this kind of short fiction often have important things to say about gender roles, power dynamics, and self-identity in relationships. Moreover, most of the best of these stories have believable and realistic happy endings wherein the protagonists acknowledge and deal with their issues and actually communicate with each other. This makes for pleasant and occasionally joyful leisure reading.

Unfortunately, that kind of relationship is hard to find in “serious” literature, or even in non-genre fiction. [2] My roommate is a PhD candidate in English literature. I minored in Comparative Literature. It’s not like we’re not well-read. Yet between the two of us, we could only come up with a scant handful of books (particularly among those considered romantic “classics”) in which the predominant heterosexual romantic relationship was between two adults who, even if they generally behaved badly or made serious errors, managed to “get it right” in the end. Overweening jerks were not invited to apply. (Yes, that means you, Lizzie and Darcy, as much as I love you. Neither of you is very nice.) I argued for honorable mentions for Tess and Angel, because they did sort of try to get it right in the end, but my case for Jude the Obscure’s hopeless striving was, sensibly enough, dismissed.

We initially came up with four:

  1. Jane Eyre
  2. Persuasion
  3. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels
  4. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books

Further discussion with a mutual friend from undergrad (who also has a degree in English lit) produced one more: Jo and Professor Baer from Little Women and its sequels. Taking the question to Twitter produced one suggestion multiple times: the works of Jenny Crusie. Other suggestions were:

  • A.S. Byatt’s Possession [3]
  • Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles stories [4]
  • Laurie R. King’s Russell-Holmes series [4]
  • Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land [5]

Now, if we move into fantasy and sci-fi, I can think of dozens. Heck, Mercedes Lackey has an entire cottage industry built on plucky young protagonists learning how to be in grownup relationships while also fighting evil mages, becoming fairy godmothers, or just generally being fairytale princesses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Somehow, though, when people talk about the great romances, they tend to refer to horrifically toxic and self- (or other-) destructive relationships like Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, or even Scarlett and Rhett. These aren’t stories about grownups, or even adolescents learning what it means to be a grownup. These are stories of selfish, petulant, often vicious children in adult or semi-adult bodies. Is it any wonder that Edward and Bella are so popular, when we’ve been told for generations that this kind of toxic melodrama is “love”?

Readers, am I missing something? Where are the stories of self-aware grownups falling in love?

1. Blame the BBC and their licensed Missing Adventures books – once you get used to thinking about what happens to your favorite characters “offscreen,” it’s hard to go back.

2. Genre fiction here is predominantly sci-fi and fantasy, because that’s what we know best, though Western, romance, etc. may have the same issues.

3. Full disclosure: I tried to read this book three times and found it so boring I couldn’t finish.

4. Mystery/crime stories are generally considered to be genre fiction, I know, but the list was so short I felt compelled to keep these suggestions.

5. This one has fantasy-ish/magic realism elements, but it’s mostly about people in the real world, so it counts.

Snobbery at the Reference Desk

Because the academic library I work at is on an open, urban campus of a college with open enrollment, we often get requests for books for pleasure reading. We have a relatively large fiction collection, but many of our books are older and certain popular genres and categories (street lit, YA) are fairly underrepresented.

A patron came to me today looking for something to read now that he’d finished up the Hunger Games books. Not having read them, I Googled for some RA guides, safe in the knowledge that the HG books were popular enough that SOMEONE would have written one. (They did; I used the easy-to-read Lawrence, KS Public Library’s guide at http://www.lawrence.lib.ks.us/2012/07/if-you-liked-the-hunger-games-3/.) My patron and I looked through the selections, searched for them (fruitlessly) in our catalog, and eventually I ended up sending him to the public library to ask for further recommendations.

I Tweeted the issue (“Patron question I am woefully unequipped to answer: “I liked the Hunger Games. What should I read next?””) and a friend of mine replied that I should suggest “something better.” Now, I’m not particularly well-trained in reader advisory, but my philosophy with fiction recommendation is that what the reader wants is far more important than what I like. I’m not, for instance, a fan of the Harry Potter books. I haven’t read the Hunger Games, I hated what little I could stand to read of Twilight, and I wouldn’t touch 50 Shades of Grey with a ten-foot pole. Despite all that, if a patron came to me requesting more in the vein of one of those series, I would do my absolute best to find something similar. If I can also recommend something I like (I enthusiastically suggested The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson), that’s great – but only because it’s convenient for both of us that I can speak more directly to the appeal of that particular choice.

We as librarians ought to be judgmental about resources used for research, but should strive to be open to all possibilities when recommending books for pleasure – if we can cement the culture of reading for one more patron, it can only help the cause of libraries in the long run.