The Official Plea to Bring Back Traditional Courtship in Fiction

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content-logobeach-readBY MADDIE SCHAFFER

I’m lying on my stomach, starting to get that prickly needle feeling in my back from a lack of SPF.  The swarms of kids squealing and splashing are just white noise as I chew my way through yet another novel, It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover, that falls under the category “romance.” As it’s summer, and I still have a few weeks before my pleasure reading is replaced with mundane textbooks written by professors adorned with multiple PhD’s trying to make statistical analysis funny, this is my choice of literature.

I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who enjoys an easy, fantastical read when lying poolside. One that lets you forget you’re not on your own secluded island being fanned by a well-sculpted pool boy. When I say “easy read” this is no slight against the piece itself, the opposite in fact. When a book is so well written that the words on the page transform into a motion picture in my head, I begin to think I may have found something itends-bookworthwhile.


Unfortunately, the movie is interrupted when I find myself too preoccupied with hiding what I’m reading, than I am actually reading. I begin feeling uncomfortable, sprawling my hand across the page, and even tilting the book at ridiculous angles as though the person four lounge chairs next to me could read the same words I am.


Since when has the category “romance” been interchangeable with “soft porn”? If I missed that press release, please, let me know and I will take back this whole rant.

I find it so frustrating to be reading a fantastic story, one where I have become so invested in the character that I have no choice other than to finish it in one sitting, for reasons of sanity, and then feel like I am invading that character’s private life on a level I am not comfortable with. The author has made me a peeping tom as I’m reading the specifics of how John Doe is sticking his ding-dong into Jane Doe’s hoo-ha. Can I just get a rabbit euphemism or something, please? I am not naïve, and I am perfectly aware that with love and romance come sexual interactions. Why though, has it become necessary to interrupt the flow of the story with uncomfortably detailed and vivid scenes?

Of course, these scenes and depictions have their place, but the explicit displays of them are not needed in the true romance novel. There is something to be said for modesty, and a lot to be said for needing to say little.

The media promotes sex constantly, for the simple fact it sells. It’s use of celebrities in ads for makeup, movies, cars, even perfume commercials are so insane as to basically say, “wear this perfume and you’ll get laid.” For example, take the axe commercial that starts by panning over a woman, sparkling with perspiration, sporting simply a bra and underpants, performing a shot-put and a pole jump to launch herself through the window towards a man spraying axe. Entertaining…maybe. Necessary…probably not. Compare this with the Ralph Lauren ad for the scent “Romance” where a man and a woman gallivant around on white horses through lush fields, gorgeous locks flowing in the wind. The ads are like night and day, similar to the old romance versus the new.

The easy sell of sex is exemplified by the author of 50 Shades of Grey, El James, raking in a meager $95 million for her dominance trilogy[1]. I would place a hefty bet (not as hefty as Ms. James could place) to say this has influenced what writers are putting in their stories, and they are clearly feeling the pressure to appease the public. Why can’t there be a happy medium? One where writers allude to the sexual interactions, but leave it to the reader to play the rest out in their head? Keeping up with the times is one thing, but it can be done in a fashion that leaves room for some imagination on the reader’s part, which has the potential to be even more erotic than what can be put in words. I know I might be listening to Paul Simon in a time everyone is listening to Kanye, but hear me out.

Romance, by definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
1) A medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural
2) A prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious
3) A love story especially in the form of a novel

Chivalric love is in the definition, people! Books are where we go to find chivalry; a word linked to knights on horseback (knights…shining armor…sweeping off feet…see where I’m going here?). The one place where we think it can’t die since they can so easily take you prideandpback centuries into an entirely different era. What will people think of our generations’ love lives if hundreds of years from now they pick up 50 Shades of Grey? I have a feeling people won’t be looking at our literature and lusting over the romance like we do for stories like Romeo and Juliet. Instead, they’ll probably be thinking we should all be put in padded white rooms for even being able to conjure up something like The Red Room.

Can we go back to the time of Pride and Prejudice that follows the exciting and alluring courtship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and forget the ravenous, animalistic behavior we find in “romance” novels like 50 Shades of Grey? Kudos to the authors for their ability to create images and descriptions I could only hope to one day be able to do, but can’t it be describing the way he opens doors for her instead of her blouse? 50 might be a few shades too many.

I am more confused why books with such great, unique story lines, like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, feel the need to dilute their important messages with these scenes when there are so many other ways to convey to the reader the attraction between characters. I 50-shadesdon’t want to feel guilty for what I am reading, and I would also like my artistic license as a reader back, and have the author leave some things to the imagination.


By Maddie Schaffer

posted by R T Smith

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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One Response to The Official Plea to Bring Back Traditional Courtship in Fiction

  1. Yossarian07 says:

    Just heard about the Shenandoah and was scrolling through to check it out…and thought this was hilariously relatable since I’ve been sort of on-and-off trying to read Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, apparently one of the top postmodern novels. It alternates between two plots, the first covering a documentary about a mysterious, impossibly-dimensioned house, and the second, which perhaps would be of more interest to you haha, is pretty much a thousand highly explicit and salacious encounters between the narrator/main character and a bunch of random chicks. Like you, I was initially quite jarred by what I’d characterize as the bluntness of these scenes–and I use the word “bluntness” because I see the form of exclusion you are prescribing as the opposite of bluntness: a sort of dishonest circumvention or aversion, done primarily, I’ll speculate, out of courtesy for readers who are still influenced by the historical threads of colonial Puritan culture, and who grew up reading authors like Dickens and Dostoevsky in literature classes. Perhaps, too, there is some nostalgia in this age of materialistic, reductionistic, deterministic, and evolutionary theories that make us want to revolt against a perceived demotion of the mystical aspects of love as merely ancillary to a broader, more animalistic and less romantic ideal, which is, of course, crude survival and perpetuation of the species. But just because the advent of sex in books diverges from our Puritan roots and grade-school-imbued Victorian literature preferences, and that such an advent is occurring in age where the Luctretian ideal of pursuit of happiness looks almost monastic and self-abnegating compared to today’s standards of materialistic hedonism, does not give the open-minded person justified grounds to simply dismiss explicit encounters in literature as just an annoying activation of the reader’s lizard brain against his superego.

    In “House of Leaves” for example, many of the sex scenes are extremely creative in terms of the metaphors and euphemisms employed. And often, there is some broader meaning in the context of the story–not to mention the frequent, perhaps overdone, inclusion of these scenes reflects the post-Freudian fact that such emotions are unavoidably built into human nature, an especially relevant acknowledgement to make for any novel attempting to be psychologically realistic. Thus, the exclusion you prescribe is one I definitely sympathize, and perhaps agree with, but I think you arbitrarily exclude the possibility that sex scenes challenge the reader’s psyche in an interesting, perhaps beneficial way that much older literature fails to by being too cognitive.

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