Smut Reporting

Realism in Romance: Or, A Rant Less Academic than Holly’s Piece of the Same Name

For reference purposes, here’s Holly’s piece on Realism in Romance.

I sometimes get lost in Goodreads review rabbit holes, and that’s a whole thing –  

(For starters, do you know what’s not helpful? “OMGGGGGG!!!! This book was AMAZING!!!!! But I’m not going to tell you anything that you might be specifically looking for or why it was so amazing but it just WASSSSSS!” That. That’s not helpful. Anyway.) 

– but I was down this Goodreads rabbit hole, and I suppose at some point in my reviewing life I’m guilty of this, but I keep reading these reviews that are a variation on, “This was SO unrealistic!”

And I just – We’re reading the same genre, right? Romance novels, like, um, other novels, movies and TV shows, are highly dramatized stories, with romance novels specifically being designed to tap into our pleasure centers. 

You want to talk about not realistic

I should stop here, because I actually regularly text Holly and Ingrid asking, “Are people really like this? Are these normal feelings? This doesn’t make sense to me at all.” To which Ingrid typically replies, “Yes, Erin, people are really like that. Sometimes I wonder what planet you live on.” But I have been called a robot (among other things) before, so I guess it’s just a good thing I have useful people to tell me how other people function. 


Let’s get back to that whole “lack of realism” thing.

Whatever it is isn’t “realistic” (today it was sex in an isolated but technically public place, and, ma’am, I think you are confusing “realistic” with “responsible”), but:

  • Every billionaire CEO ever would proposition their assistant, who’d be down with that, and it wouldn’t be an HR nightmare?
  • All these kidnapping victims would just be like, “Yeah, that’s fine, I was annoyed but in no way terrified for about four days, but that’s boring, so let’s bang because you’re hot”?
  • People legit Cyrano de Bergerac other people? Is that a real thing? (I actually want to know if it is – please tell me.)
  • Everyone is out there like, “You know what would solve my problems right now? A fake relationship”?
  • Nobody in the world keeps their hands to themselves when there’s only one bed?
  • Adorable, awkward nobodies really do exist as manic pixie dream people who capture the attention and hearts of the wealthy and powerful?
  • Literally no one in the world just optimistically dates without massive heartbreaks ensuing? It’s either all the sex or all the abstinence?
  • Grown men are running around punching other grown men in the face for dating their sisters? (I mean, this one is a possibility, but I really hope we’ve evolved as a society in this respect.)
  • People who’ve given up on their marriages suddenly…don’t?
  • All the lords in Georgian London were altruistic with hearts of gold? (But not actually enacting laws to that effect, apparently, so I have my doubts.)
  • HUMANS AND ALIENS COULD LEGITIMATELY BREED FERTILE OFFSPRING? (I mean, that’s basic biology, folks. But I guess PNR is excluded from this rant. I won’t get into shifters, then.)

Please. I’d like to read all this “realistic” smut everyone keeps talking about.

Except that I probably really wouldn’t because it would be spectacularly dull. 

And really, it’s not just annoying that readers and reviewers respond to books with inconsistent claims of a lack of realism. It’s sometimes actively harmful. Because when people start questioning realism in romance fiction, it’s not just that they believe a kidnapping plot is NBD, but two professionals having sex in a semi-public place is bananapants. It’s also that they don’t identify with a marginalized group, or don’t have a history degree in the socioeconomic power structures of Golden Age New York (for example), and they start using that exclusive language to negate cultures or subcultures or language or behaviors that don’t mesh with their own vision of reality. A reality that is largely based not on historical or cultural verisimilitude but rather on generic verisimilitude. And that’s a huge bummer.

P.S. “It felt so real” doesn’t evoke the same frustration for me, maybe because it’s positive and indicates a sense of resonance? Whereas “unrealistic” seems used to externally validate what is essentially a feeling of dissonance and has very little to do with realism? What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Realism in Romance: Or, A Rant Less Academic than Holly’s Piece of the Same Name”

  1. Just my take and therefore super subjective: I read romance SPECIFICALLY to avoid all forms of “realism”. I like my escapist fluff straight up on the rocks, thanks. Historical verisimilitude is a valid point and yes, real-life human beings are generally garbage to other humans, passing discriminatory laws and keeping to their own social/economic sphere and all kinds of other non-romantic things. It’s just…why would I want to read about that realistically, when I can live it every day? Real life is also much lacking in kinky sex and orgasms. Definitely spectacularly dull.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like this take! I’ve gone back to Holly’s piece many times since she wrote it (because it is very useful), but I think what I managed to distill in my own head when writing this piece is that it seems like “unrealistic” actually means “didn’t resonate with me.” But whereas the latter statement takes ownership of the sentiment, the former seems to put the onus on the writer.

      There’s so much smut to read out in the world! Fluffy, dramatic, fantastical, gritty, and so on. It just doesn’t seem necessary to funnel stories into “realistic” and “unrealistic” barrels. Sigh. And yeah–sometimes real life is just not where my head needs to be.

      Liked by 1 person

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