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.