Girl with an appleWarning: TL;DR post filled with questions without answers ahead.

Romancelandia is fond of self-examination and since I come from an academic background, I often find discussions of what books are or are not capable of fascinating. When Fifty Shades came out, and to a lesser extent when it’s predecessor Twilight was released, there was a huge uproar about the glorification of stalking and abuse. “You’re giving women terrible ideas of what a good relationship should look like,” people screamed.

And I was one of those people. (Though I like to think I kept my statements to a dull roar.)

When I was in college, I dated a man who was emotionally abusive. Never physically abusive in ways that showed, he did enjoy hurting me in small ways, embarrassing me in public, and generally making me feel stupid. As a result, those are all huge, massive triggers for me. Nothing will make me abandon a book faster than a hero who does that to anyone, not just to the heroine.

So when people started talking about how “romantic” Christian Grey was, I begged to differ. To me, he was a creepy, stalking abuser who carefully separated the object of his obsession from her support system.

But this is not about Grey. It’s about two arguments I hear in the world of romance with regularity and how they are simultaneously true and not true. I believe (and this being the Internet, if I am wrong, someone will correct me instantly) it was Kierkegaard who originally discussed the human ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time. As regards romance, those two things seem to be

1) Fiction can influence your view of yourself and the world

2) Fiction cannot influence your view of yourself or the world

Instinctively, I lean toward the belief that it can, and does. And yet, whenever I hear someone (usually a man) say “romance gives women unrealistically high expectations for relationships” I think to myself, “well, that’s a crock.” Because I don’t believe that. Not for a minute.

And when people ask why I am so sure that it’s not true, I say it’s because the people reading romance know they’re reading fantasy, the same way people reading thrillers know they’re reading fantasy. You don’t really believe people live the way Jack Reacher does, do you?

But if that is true, if all those people understand that they are reading fantasy, then why should we even bother to talk about the glorification of patently unhealthy behaviors and relationships? Go read what you enjoy and be done with it. It can’t possibly have any influence over anyone.

(Of course, some people don’t know the difference between fiction and reality, a fact that the marketing firms for books like The DaVinci Code and FSOG capitalize on. But those people aren’t the ones I am talking about. Those people have other problems.)

And yet, I’ve heard any number of people say that they learned about healthy relationships from reading romance, and when I read those articles I think “yes, that’s spot on. Reading a story can show you you’re worth something.”

And I believe many, many people need reminding of their own value. People you’d look at and think “oh, she has it all. She’s filled with self-confidence.”

I am absolutely sure that most people thought my college relationship was great. In fact, several of my friends told me they were jealous. I did not have any objective reason to put up with the crap I put up with from that man. I had no weak female role models. Anyone who knows my family knows that. My grandmother divorced four husbands because they could not keep up with her. I had had a solid, strong relationship before that one with a man who respected me. I was not the person you would ever have thought would end up with an alphahole. When I got out of that relationship, it took me a long, long time to trust my own judgment enough to get into another.

I started making rules. “Thou shalt not date a man who…”.  And right up at the top was “a man who denigrates you in front of his friends.” It was the first time I consciously started to defend my own worth.

WomanThe books I write are filled with people—both men and women—learning their own value. And to me, some of the most satisfying books to read are those in which the characters discover their worth. Perhaps that story works so well for me because I know if I don’t keep reading it I might forget.

In college, I was heavily invested in epic fantasy, which is filled with relationships—good and bad, healthy and unhealthy—but I don’t think I took much away from them except for a certain wistful desire for a life away from the one I had. I was a psychology and literature double major and yet I still didn’t didn’t make any connection between reading and life.

After epic fantasy, I moved to historical romance and romantic suspense, two genres utterly removed from the reality of my life. They both provided that same sense of escape I’d gotten from fantasy. And I began to realize that all genre novels were fantasy, no matter how closely they might mimic reality. People didn’t read genre fiction to get a picture of the world.

And that, I guess, is where I land in my debate between “can it or can’t it?” Genre fiction is fantasy, and while fantasy can change a reader’s  view of reality in broad strokes—”I deserve to be treated with respect”—readers who understand that they are reading fiction don’t expect to, say, find themselves courted by a vampire…or even a billionaire.

Of course, this doesn’t actually answer the question of whether books have influence, but I didn’t expect to come up with an answer. As the title suggests, this is really a ramble around in my own mind.

But in case you’re still with me, I should point out that regardless of whether people are or are not influenced by the fiction they read, I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of authors to change what they write. Nor do I think we need to consume everything critically. We can consume simply for enjoyment.

I do, however, believe that critical consumption has benefits and I don’t think we do nearly enough of it. I know I don’t. I am always reminding myself to do more, do better. And I think it’s important to listen to the people who are critically consuming the very same things we are consuming for enjoyment. And perhaps that is what makes it so hard for me to reconcile my varied feelings about books as models—I want to have my cake and eat it without thinking about sugar, but I know diabetes lurks around the too-much-cake corner.