A couple of years ago, I freelanced at a publisher, and one of the perks of the job was free book. I learned a few months later that many publisher buy their own books in bulk so the book can make it into the NYT bestseller list, which I think explains where these “free books” came from. I picked up a lot of romance novels because I’d never read one before since I didn’t want to spend money on something I was 90% sure was crap. So I breezed through the romance novels, and honestly, they were making me kind of depressed. Here’s why:

  • The characters were too perfect on the protagonist side, and too despicable on the antagonist side. I was especially struck by the romantic leads because they were EXTREMELY considerate of the heroine. Now I don’t mean to disparage a whole gender, but the guys I’ve met don’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking about how other people feelor how their action might negatively affect others. I kind of envy that about them: being able to shut out the suffering of others so you can selfishly pursue your own goals. Anywoo, I felt like the more I read about perfect men, the more my perception of reality was going to be distorted and the more I was going to be disappointed with reality.
  • More importantly, I wasn’t convinced that what I was reading was a love story. I think if anything it was an “infatuation” story on the side of the guy. On the side of the woman, it was a story about self-affirmation through having a handsome guy being interested in you. The feelings of the characters towards each other read as very shallow and juvenile. Kind of like “Hey! You’re hot and I want to bang you. I must be in love” and “The hot guy wants to bang me. I must be really awesome”.
  • The last thing that was depressing me was the thought that romance novels have a lot of fans. Now I don’t begrudge people for wanting to read silly escapist fantasies, but I started to have that feeling that a lot of people’s concept of love was actually as shallow as what was described in the novels.

About a year later, I downloaded the kindle app and read some free novels because I like not spending money. I will talk about two novels in particular which kind of, sort of, fall in the “romance” category: “Pride and Prejudice”, and “Jane Eyre”. Now I’m not going to go in detail about my opinion of the books (I liked them), but a couple of things struck me.First of all the depiction of love felt a lot deeper than the ones in current romance books. Granted, both books have their moments of escapist fantasy, but on the whole, the romance felt a lot more genuine and deeper. Instead of being penultimate examples of manhood and femalehood that anyone of the opposite gender would love to bang, they are individuals who happen to have personalities that suit each other. Mr. Darcy may be rich and handsome, but he’s a snob and very socially awkward. Mr. Rochester is rich, but he’s old, not attractive, eccentric and reminiscent of Bluebeard…I mean you really have to love him to want to marry him by the end of the story.

The second thing that struck me about the books was a preoccupation with morality. Morals, in the context of the books, was choosing to do something that is hard because picking the easy way out would go against all that the character stood for. Now I started to reflect on our current society and feeling like we’ve really gone astray. In fact, the lack of actual “love” in modern romance novel is symptomatic of that (when I start thinking, I start making weird connections). If I remember correctly from my art history class, the notion that everything is meaningless, therefore do whatever you want because in the end none of it matters started after World War I. This kind of nihilistic notion became worse after after World War 2 and the counterculture in the 60s. I can understand the existential despair that nothing you do matters, but at the same time, I feel like culturally, we’ve become way too permissive of behavior that should be frowned upon even if in the grand scheme of things we’re just specks in the universe. For instance, why do we let talentless rich girls become famous through sex tapes? Why do the bulk of our female singer have to pose naked at some point in their career? Why do some people see drug dealers and pimps as role models? Why do people think Donald Trump would make a good president when he’s demonstrated ample times how morally bankrupt he is? These are but a small sample of questions I’ve asked myself since reading “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”.

Well, that’s it for this post. I’m going to have to continue this ramble at another time.

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