The Inherent romance of the UnRomance

So, I am a little bit obsessed with “We share the same dreams, Libby.” If I were the sort of person to get tattoos of meaningful quotes or have them written lovingly in cursive on some item in my home, it would be on the shortlist for sure. You would think in the intervening 10 years I might have found something better, but, well. Ponder with me for a moment, and I will explain why this quote is so unique to me.

I think we can all agree that I have read more than my fair share of ace fanfic over the course of my asexual career. I have read for fandoms I belong to, fandoms I follow, fandoms I have a general idea about, and fandoms about which I’m utterly clueless. I have read across different time periods and different sub-genres, so many it would be difficult to estimate. Certainly not all 28,254 works on AO3 (at time of writing), but quite a lot for a single person.

Given fanfiction’s reputation with regards to “Romance,” by which I mean the definition of “literary genre largely concerned with overwhelming emotional connections and love relationships, typically including a sexual component,” one might assume that acefic fits nicely within such a categorization, just with a little more talking about boundaries before the sex. As one has likely guessed from the syntax of the previous sentence, however, one would be wrong, or at least, not quite right.

Now, we don’t have time (nor I the inclination) to unpack all of the reasons for this (although the tenor of my post before last might give you a clue), so I am going to cut straight to the chase: many fanfics, especially those of the last decade, are better thought of as UnRomances.

Okay, okay, that is a term I am “making up” here to serve my purposes, so it would be rude of me not to tell you what I mean by it, and for that, like many hacks before me, I now call upon that universal authority of last resort: the dictionary.

What is interesting to me is that “romance,” through an accident of proximity, is a word with a a complicated layering of etymologies and meanings. In its original meaning (and, incidentally, the cognate that still commonly appears in European languages), it is a reference to the vernacular of France (as opposed to Latin), and, by association, to long-form prose or novels about chivalric knights and their adventures. These stories were chiefly for entertainment, which one supposes is how the association with love stories came to be (about 300 years later), but what really distinguished the romance was the larger-than-life characters and deeds and emotions. This sense is very clear in the so-named Romantic Era of the late 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, it seems the meaning of “love affair” is only attested from 1916, the verb for wooing someone from 1938. Being “a romantic” continues today to be a lot more about one’s outlook on the world than one’s love affairs or lack thereof.

So, for the purposes of this post, an UnRomance is something that could be termed a sort of love affair but without any of the attendant romanticization that comes along with it’s un-cousin. Instead of big emotions, grand gestures, swelling music, or crystalline tears, the UnRomance revels in the quiet moments of the relationship, the little joys and the mundane sorrows. I don’t mean to imply that this type of story does not provide that traditional emotional high; in fact, by being so grounded, the happy resolution can feel like almost more of a triumph. An UnRomance is, still, a romance at heart, just with a different character.

The modern fanfiction landscape of the archive with the highest saturation of ace fans and acefic, AO3, is awash in this type of story, symbolized most potently by the proverbial Coffee Shop AU and the 200k Slow Burn. There are certain fandoms that write UnRomances to the exclusion of any traditional sort of Romance. You may have guessed by now that the vast majority of acefics that include partner-type relationships are UnRomances; indeed I cannot think of a single example of an acefic that isn’t. Even fluffy ones with trope-filled plots still tend to avoid the big gestures and the dramatic declarations.

One might think that pattern was an accident of necessity, that ace people are forced to talk about the details of what they want their relationships to look like, tedious though it may be, lest they be misunderstood. This concession to reality certainly contributes to the UnRomantic tone of many fics—but it need not be this way. Thus, finally, we return to Shortland Street.

“We share the same dreams, Libby,” is stuck looping in my head precisely because it is Romantic while sacrificing nothing ideologically. What is a Bigger Gesture than making a last ditch effort to prove your relationship should be recognized by everyone, up to and including God, who may or may not have been sending you trials to overcome for the entirety of your engagement? What more dramatic declaration than standing in the rain listing all the reasons your love is real and specific to this person?

I am very susceptible to romance, I admit. I get swept up in the idealism and the big emotions probably too easily, and so this Romantic scene from Shortland Street, the exception that proves the rule of my experience, has yet to be eclipsed as a single, discrete, quotable particle. But if I were to pick a favorite story… Well, the UnRomances would win out any day.

And I think, for an ace, an UnRomance is almost more romantic than a Romance would be, if you’ll permit a final contradictory thought. To be an ace in a Romance, that’s easy: show up, cry your crystalline tears, stick it out to the end, make your big gesture; punch the card and collect your happy ending. But to be in an UnRomance, you have to dare to believe that your ideal relationship is actually achievable in reality, not just in your fiction, and that might the the bravest—or most foolish, if there’s even a difference—bit of idealism you can hold onto.

13 Comments

  1. P.S. Could we talk for just a sec about how delicious it is that this Masterpiece of a romantic Dramatic Declaration is in the context of a relationship that is clearly, explicitly, 100% not “romantic”? That they are, and remain, best friends? That they “““can””” by orientation fall in love and yet they choose each other? Neither of them are in love, but they do love each other, enough to tap into those Big Emotions, that Romantic Ideal. Like, if you have trouble understanding what I mean when I call romance more of an instagram filter than anything of substance, or when I say that the concept of romantic attraction seems to me not to be particularly diagnostic, this is maybe the best example I can give you. “Romantic relationships,” pssh, all of your relationships can be romantic if you’re not a COWARD!

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  2. In my writing, I keep coming back to the idea that a relationship can be non-romantic in the modern sense of the word but still be Romantic in the old-fashioned literary sense. I’ve applied this logic to many relationships, most notably Mulder&Scully from The X-Files. It seems like your UnRomance would be the complement to that: a relationship that is romantic (in the modern sense) but not Romantic (in the literary sense). Does that sound right?

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    1. Ugh, sorry, this is so complicated, I ended up making a key:
      [1] the romantic of “romantic attraction”
      [2] romantic in the traditional definition
      [3] romantic as in subject to romanticization
      [4] romantic as in pertaining to the modern literary genre
      [5] romantic as in a member of the romance family of languages

      Not…. necessarily. I mean, well, in the simplest sense, I mean it to refer to a literary style, so it doesn’t really comment on the nature of the relationship portrayed in the work. But to get at the deeper question (and, disclaimer that I don’t put much stock in trying to divine whether relationships are “romantic[1]” or not), the UnRomance is still a romance[4] at heart, and so is romantic[2] but not romantic[3]. What I guess I’m really asserting in this post is that romantic[2] is a necessity for romantic[4] but romantic[3] is not. I would agree with your idea that all of this is independent of romantic[1] and [5]

      I think–okay, I know it’s perfectly possible to have relationships that are romantic[2] and/or [3] without being romantic[1], so in the actual world, so even outside of the romantic[4] context, I think romantics[2] and [3] are independent of romantic[1]. I would also submit, from talking to married couples, that there exist many romantic[1] relationships with little to no romance[2] and/or [3] (and often that’s how they like it!), so while I personally appear not to be wired that way, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence they exist.

      To speak to the actual extant body of what I would term UnRomances, in the vast majority of its iterations, the relationship portrayed within is romantic[1], because the vast majority are garden-variety ship fics. But when it comes specifically to acefic, one can find a lot of ambiguously romantic[1] or non-romantic[1] relationships, especially in older works where romantic[1] was a lot squishier of a concept, but not exclusively. An interesting example here would be the schism within Good Omens (TV) fandom into the Traditional M/M and Very Queer factions, and I think it’s noteworthy that there are GO acefics but also ace-friendly GO fics. From what I have read, the Very Queer faction produces a lot of romantic[4] fic that is purposefully, obstinately non-romantic[3], whether or not it takes a stand on if the author believes the relationship is romantic[1].

      Okay, I don’t know if I’ve answered the question… but I’m lost myself at this point… so just let me know and I will clarify after I’ve had some sleep

      EDIT: Incidentally, my lack of attempting to comment on romantic[1] is why I didn’t include the text that went along with the tumblr version of this post, despite it being the actual reason I wanted to talk about it in the first place lol. I’ll copy that text into a comment now instead of waiting for the tumblr import.

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      1. Thanks for the explanation. I know this is a complicated subject to talk about!

        Okay. So, to clarify, romance[2] would be romance in the literary sense, right? The “larger-than-life characters and deeds and emotions” sense?

        I think I also need clarification about romance[4]: “the modern literary genre”. Isn’t the romance[4] genre as we currently understand it any story dealing with romance[1]? Are there romances[4] that aren’t about romance[1]? Or is that your point, that we need to expand our thinking about what the romance[4] genre means?

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        1. Thank you for asking!! I’m excited to talk about, so I’m more than happy to–indeed, invested in–clear anything up.

          Okay. So, to clarify, romance[2] would be romance in the literary sense, right? The “larger-than-life characters and deeds and emotions” sense?

          Yes :)b

          Short answer:

          Or is that your point, that we need to expand our thinking about what the romance[4] genre means?

          Yes!!!

          Longer answer:

          Isn’t the romance[4] genre as we currently understand it any story dealing with romance[1]? Are there romances[4] that aren’t about romance[1]?

          No, the romance[4] genre is a collection of tropes and story structure and tone &c, not just any story dealing with romance[1]. That’s how Venom (2018) can be a romcom but the Harry Potter series, which at points seems to lose track of death eaters for all its romantic[1] drama, is not. Certainly romantic[4] literary grammar was created to serve stories about romance[1], and most romances[4] involve romance[1], but our current body of particularly ace works shows that’s not necessarily true.

          I was trying to think of a really good example of what I mean by the UnRomance still being a romance[4], and the story that comes to mind is “What All This Time Was For” by Lady Ragnell. To spare you having to read it yourself (although if you would like to, it should be comprehensible to you if you know the basic premise of the Netflix Daredevil TV show; it does a pretty good job with exposition), the entire thing from start to finish is a classic romance[4] trope: fake dating someone you’re secretly in love[1] with. There’s even some of those big romantic[2] emotions: one of the characters gets swept up in the moment and kisses the other. In a traditional Romance[4], that’s the resolution. Aha, it turns out you were secretly in love with each other! You can live happily ever after now!!

          But in this story, which is an UnRomance, that’s actually the point the tension is the highest, not when it’s resolved. Instead, the resolution comes after a calm, open conversation about their feelings and how they want their relationship to go forward. And the reason why this story springs to mind is that the author kind of lampshades the UnRomance a bit: in the conversation, one of them says to the other “we’re not romantic[3] people,” kind of as a, ‘what did you expect?’ MY DUDE, you just took your best friend who you’re secretly in love with to your high school reunion where he pretended to be your boyfriend?? That is very much romantic!! But, it’s romantic[4] because what is doing is calling on that shared literary vocabulary and tradition. And I think that idea of “we’re not romantic[3]” people carries over into most ace stories about partner-type relationships, regardless of whether they’re romantic[1], making them UnRomances.

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    2. Okay, sorry, I guess what’s missing here is, why do I care about this? And there are several reasons for this but the main one is that I’d like to encourage both ace people who are not fans of the romance genre and writers of ace-inflected instance of the genre (or perhaps subplots in non-genre works) to 1) re-examine what they may or may not be able to get out of the romance genre and 2) think about whether or not they’re putting limits on the types of aces stories they think can be told, especially within the romance genre. If that happens to have as a byproduct an intellectual decoupling from and/or downplaying of romance[1] within the genre… well, let’s say I wouldn’t be crying any crystalline tears over that.

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  3. Ahh, interesting way of looking at things. Apparently, I’ve also committed some ace UnRomance both in AO3 fanfic and original writing. (Also, my fanfic pairings have yet to end up in romantic relationships instead of QPRs, so … they can be UnRomance, but would never count as Romance? I do tend to favor QPRs or poly arrangements over traditional romantic pairings in general when writing aces, given how I hope to end up, as an arospec ace. And even then — the relationship is rarely the main plot.)
    As to your convo with Blue Ice-Tea:
    I’m reading (and writing) fic where aces are paired off for distraction from the Daily Drudgery (TM), for the hope that there is a happy ending for some of us out there (and it’s rarely a big gesture but hope, courage and determination that will get aces there, no matter what happy looks like for them), and to see less heteronormativity than in daily life.

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    1. Hahaha glad to be able to offer an interesting perspective! I definitely think we can never have too many QPRs/polycules in UnRomances!

      and it’s rarely a big gesture but hope, courage and determination that will get aces there

      !! YES, EXACTLY, THIS!

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  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post and your use of “UnRomance”. I’m beginning to wonder if a lot of my favourite romantic[1] stories are in fact my favourites because they are not romantic[3], but I’m worried I may still not have grasped the concept of the UnRomance correctly.

    I actually talked about disliking “romance” in stories in a post I wrote about The X-Files. For context, The X-Files was a story that might be considered a romance[4], about a relationship that was not (initially) a romance[1], but that I would argue was always a romance[2]. In the post I argued that one of the strengths of the relationship was its lack of “romance”, and I’m wondering if the way I used “romance” in that post would correspond to your understanding of romance[3]. The post itself is quite long, so rather than linking to it I’ll just quote the relevant passage in its entirety:

    “Besides never putting any sexual pressure on Scully, Mulder also makes no attempt to romance her. Some people may see that as a drawback, but I’ve never been big on ‘romance’ myself. That is, I like the idea of physical affection, emotional intimacy, and companionship, all of which Mulder and Scully have as a natural part of their friendship. But when it comes to dating relationships, ‘romance’ seems to mean something slightly different. What, I’m not exactly clear on, but lisa_b at Ace of Arrows [link:https://aceofarrows.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/53/%5D offers an explanation that I found helpful. For them, ‘romance’ is ‘the bit where you fall in love with someone based on the best version of themselves that they’ve shown you while dating, and they fall in love with the best version of you’. And that certainly seems consistent with the way dating relationships are usually portrayed. My stereotyped image of a heterosexual date goes something like this: Woman puts on a nice dress, does her hair and makeup, shaves her legs, and maybe adds a little perfume. Man picks the woman up at her house and takes her out for a fancy dinner, which he pays for. She smiles at his jokes; he holds the door for her. She redoes her lipstick in the bathroom; he lends her his coat when they go outside. She performs a normative version of femininity: beautiful and helpless. He performs a normative version of masculinity: powerful and chivalrous. Every part of the interaction is calculated to impress the other person, to play down your more eccentric qualities and be the person they want you to be.

    “It sounds exhausting. It also sounds like a terrible basis on which to form an intimate relationship.

    “If you’re always showing the ‘best version’ of yourself while dating, then you’re essentially building a relationship based on deceit and setting your partner up for disappointment when they realise you’re not who you pretended to be. Ace of Arrows theorises that eventually you ‘[learn] all the things about them that they didn’t want you to know, and likewise you reveal to them all the things you don’t want people to know, and you spend a year negotiating every single day whether you can take that thing you learned about this month, or whether that’s finally too much.’ If you can take all those things, then you slip into ‘companionate love’, which is basically the same kind of love that friends share.

    “The question for me is, why go through the ‘romance’ phase at all? If your ultimate goal is to learn to love your partner as a friend, why not approach the relationship as a friendship from the beginning? And if they’ll eventually need to learn to love you as you really are, why not be upfront about who you are so that that’s the person they fall in love with?

    “From that perspective, Mulder’s approach to Scully is the much more attractive one – whether as a friend or as a potential lover. He isn’t trying to be the person she wants him to be, and so she is able to love him for himself. He isn’t trying to impress her, and so she never has to worry what dark secrets he’s hiding from her. She knows about his obsession with his missing sister, knows about his fear of fire and hatred of insects, knows what kind of movies he likes to watch [i.e. pornographic].”

    I’m also wondering if you could give me some concrete examples of UnRomances, ideally a relationship from a book or movie I might know, or a fan-fic that isn’t too long and that illustrates the concept clearly.

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    1. First: Thank you for continuing to mull it over! I’m really glad to hear it’s given you something to think about and gratified that you would take the time to come back and talk about it.

      Second: I think you are on the right track with liking shows like the X-Files for not being romantic[3], but as far as what specifically I meant by UnRomance in this post, something like the X-Files wouldn’t fit the bill. I’m not saying maybe we couldn’t expand the usage out that way! I’m just saying “Arcadia” would’ve ended a lot differently if it were, if you know what I mean ;P In this post (and again, I’m not saying this has to be set in stone), an UnRomance has to be playing on the tropes of the romance[4] genre, either by being a Romance[4] or borrowing them for a subplot (e.g. how Shortland Street is a soap opera, not a romance[4], but calls upon romantic[4] tropes for its storylines all the time).

      Third: To answer the direct question, no, I don’t think what’s being talked about in your post and romance[3] are the same thing. I will be honest with you that I read your post when it came out, and unfortunately while I thought it made a lot of good points, this part wasn’t one of them. (I also didn’t feel I knew enough about the X-Files to be entitled to an opinion!) I have major problems with the post you cited, both methodologically (sorry I’m a hopeless pedant) and more importantly philosophically. I don’t really want to get into them here, unprompted and likely unwelcome, but it’s an account of the Invisible Elephant that seems to me like it came from someone who was touching it in a particularly unhelpful part. Romance[3] is the verb of being romanticized. It is the dramatic race through the airport to the gate, the boombox outside the window, the foot pop, the swell of the violins, the look back over the shoulder as they’re parting.

      Fourth: I am with you that I tend to enjoy both romances[4]s and romantic[1] subplots better when the romance[3] is either toned down or absent completely, and I also agree that you’re more likely to find romantic[1] storylines that are light on the romance[3] in other genres. (Of course you are also more likely to find ones that are entirely romance[3] in other genres, too, so that can be a double-edged sword.) The SciFi series Stargate SG-1 had a weird, weird romantic[1] subplot in it’s last two seasons where the two characters at issue were both emotionally unavailable and so I think they were trying to play it as “the head gets in the way of the heart” but it actually ends up coming out (at least to me) more as “people for whom a conventional romantic[1]/sexual relationship would not be a healthy choice trying to figure out what actually stands a chance of working for them,” but it’s in a Science Fiction show and therefore it’s hard to class as either a Romance[4] or an UnRomance because the story just doesn’t follow those beats, you know? The most romance[3] you can generally expect out of this genre is a dramatic scream of the love interest’s name when they’re in mortal peril. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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    2. Fifth: As for examples, I am not well read in the Romance[4] genre (I tend to take in more Romances[4] as films), and the generalization I am about to make is maybe a little suspect; however, I think the UnRomance is mostly a phenomenon within Romance[4] Fanfiction, and it’s hard to think of examples that aren’t fic. I tried to look for something short that would fit the bill, and I think the best I have is Plus One by Sineala, which is only 2.2k words, but is also a bit truncated, so. What I would draw your attention to is that it is a romance[4] trope (go as the platonic date of someone you have romantic[1] feelings for) but there is no overstated pining or contrivance, and the crucial part where the truth comes out is not even a direct statement, but an implication of what is said. There is a little bit of the more traditional romance in the middle, but then we head right back into UnRomance territory when they have a little laugh and, more importantly, the scene is grounded right back down in reality.

      I really did try for something more mainstream (I even watched a couple of Romances[4] yesterday), but the closest I can come is probably my experience with Emma (2009)? It doesn’t quite work in the sense that Emma is more part of the foundation of what would eventually become the romance[4] genre than a part of it itself, but the miniseries was certainly made after the romance[4] genre was a thing and would be aware of its tropes (especially its cinematic grammar), so it doesn’t not work. Now, I watched this miniseries without knowing the plot of Emma, and so I don’t know if someone who did know it would be able to watch with the same eyes, but I really appreciated how this adaptation made me feel that Emma’s revelation was not that she had been wrong about herself but that she had been wrong about what romance[1] is. (It is my understanding that this is not the traditional interpretation of her revelation, but honestly, thematically, doesn’t that make sense why she’s a terrible matchmaker and wrong about everything??) Anyway, I bring up Emma in this context because the Dramatic Confession is immediately interrupted by reality. Unlike the other Austen stories, where the main obstacle seems to simply be the characters’ feelings and expression thereof, Emma can’t enjoy the romantic[3] confession scene for 2 seconds before she’s leaving in tears because surprise! Marriage for her time and place and station is a thing of cold reality, not of romance[2]! It’s actually kind of interesting, since Austen did write so much about how un-romantic[2] marriages were in her society, and yet Emma is the least disadvantaged of all of them since she has no material or financial need, nor pressure from her family. Emma’s problem is solved so easily, and yet it’s still allowed to shatter the romance[3] of what in any modern story would have been the high point before the wedding-scene ending. But, you know, Emma was also written when “romance” meant romance[2], so it’s not really surprising that it would be so unconcerned with the other meanings.

      I also think this is kind of why modern retellings like Clueless kind of… I don’t want to say “fall apart,” because I do like Clueless, but they don’t seem to have the same power. Like, apparently contemporary commentators thought Emma lacked “incident and Romance,” and so it’s not really strong enough to be removed from it’s context without other elements added to build it back up. Clueless did so, and so I think it mostly works, but like, when I put in those ILLs a couple of months ago, I also did one for an f/f Emma retelling called If I Loved You Less and…. it was…. not….. good. Not that it was bad either, but a lot of the plot points ended up being confusing or flat out non making sense because we live in a world concerned a lot more with romance[1] and inclined to only be able to perceive it through romance[3]. And, you know, ultimately why I want people to consider the UnRomance is make them question the importance of or even discard romance[3] as a lens for their lives even if it might be hard for them to do it in their media, so. In that sense, your thoughts are on the same track as mine. (^^)

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