Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Insta!Love and The Unconvinced Reader

One of the big problems people--especially avid YA readers--have with young adult books is the romantic love timeline. Often the term used (especially by me) is insta!love. But I'm starting to think that sometimes, we are feeling the symptoms of an illness without identifying it properly, like every time I get a cold and call it a sinus infection.

"People don't fall in love in a day/week/[insert short unit of time here]" is a phrase I often see, and have said in the past, but it doesn't match up with my current experience or the experiences of people I know. I fell in love in a short time at 22, which doesn't make me Old, Wise, and Adult, or anything, but it means this isn't a "silly teenager thing." And for every person I know who took their time falling in love, I know four or five who didn't, including my parents, and now my stepparent+parent combo deal. Yet before my experience this year, I myself uttered the phrase "people don't fall in love in a week" often, and I think I know why.

Those of us who have either been in a long-term, serious relationship before (or at least have "realistic" as opposed to "idealistic" views of relationships) tend to define romantic love narrowly. We have either experienced a quieter, deeper kind of love, based not on an idealized view of a person but on a more grounded view of them, or have an idea of it, and we believe anything that doesn't fit into our definition can't possibly qualify as love, it has to be infatuation.

I have thought that many times, and in that belief, I was a little arrogant. First, because it assumes that I know what it is not to have an idealized view of someone. Just because I'm aware that the person I'm with has flaws doesn't mean that I don't still idealize him. I mean, no one knows some of the awful things I think and then discard with shame. It's true that right now, one person knows them better than anyone else, but even he can't read my heart with complete accuracy, and he never will, even if he gets very close. So I try not to assume that I know him perfectly, either.

And second, it's a little arrogant because I am telling people who are in the early stages of falling in love that what they're experiencing isn't real, and that they're too blinded to know that. "You'll understand one day" is what I'm saying. Man, that's annoying of me.

If it's a little arrogant, it's also completely understandable. We look back at the obsessive need to be in someone's presence, the fluttering heartbeat, the daydreaming, and we think, "that was great, but it didn't compare to the depth of feeling I felt later." But the question I'm now asking myself is, just because I feel something deeper now, does that mean that I should discount what I felt at first? Does the presence of a deeper feeling negate the validity of a shallower feeling?

Or is love a kind of continuum that you move down, beginning with the moment you are aware of it, and progressing into a deeper and fuller and stronger version of itself?

I propose this: the symptoms of insta!love are disbelief and eye-rolling. But the illness is not the timeline, it's the fact that we remain unpersuaded by the author.

Most of the time, for me, the problem is "You're Hot, So I Love You." That is: the only in-text justification for the intense feelings of the characters is their physical attraction. We get many paragraphs dedicated to description, but none devoted to conversation or experiences that transcend the physical. Maybe the author even tells us something like "they talked for hours about this and this and this," but we don't get to see any of it, so we remain unconvinced.

So, for writers (and I'm reminding myself of this here): one of my writing professors in college said that often, when people say in critique that part of a story is not believable, the writer will say, "But that's what really happened!" And she told us, basically, that that response is total BS. It doesn't matter if something you write about happened in real life-- it matters if you convince the person reading it. And I think that's true of love stories. Yes, of course you can write a story in which the main characters develop a really strong connection in a week, because it really does happen--but the trick is, you have to make it feel real. You have to show the reader rather than insisting within the text that it's true, it's true, they really really like each other! Because otherwise, your reader is going to call your bluff.

Other thoughts for writers: A. Just because a character says "I love you" doesn't mean they have to mean it, B. just because your characters are ga-ga over each other doesn't mean they have to be in love yet, and C. ...I don't have another thought, I just like lists with three items in them.

And for readers, of which I am one: it's not that I think we should stop evaluating love stories for their believability. But I do think that it's important to make an effort to experience a story alongside the main character, rather than standing over the main character with our experiences or beliefs in hand like some kind of anti-insta!love weapon. And if, after we put the weapon down, we still read something and say "this is insta!love and it's annoying," I say, fair enough. Even if you say it about my books. I promise.

Because I am having a TOTAL BRAIN BLANK on all the books I have ever read, I asked some writer friends for recommendations of books in which a romantic connection develops quickly but not superficially, and I got these:
-Before I Die by Jenny Downham
-The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
-Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green
-It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (love story subplot)

Feel free to post other examples in the comments, if you have any!


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