As a connoisseur of YA lit, I don’t know when romance started to be less a subgenre and more of something to mark off a checklist, but it definitely happened. Young protagonist? Check. Absent parents? Check. Romantic subplot obtrusively shoehorned into this story about survival in the midst of the Irish Potato Famine? Check.
Actually, I think this is how it happened:
Big CEO at a publishing house, banging his fists on the table: WHAT DO THE TEENS LIKE? His subordinate: They seem to like romance novels, sir. I think that could be a big seller. Big CEO: BY GOD YOU’RE RIGHT. WE’VE FINALLY CRACKED THE TEEN CODE. I WANT A MILLION OF THOSE, STAT. I CAN’T EVEN WITH THE KIDS THESE DAYS. DID I USE THAT CORRECTLY, CHAD? “CAN’T EVEN”? His subordinate: I believe so, sir. Big CEO: VERY GOOD.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love a good YA romance. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. What I don’t love is romance being presented as the be-all, end-all, which seems to happen a lot. More than anything else, I think it’s a structural problem. Regardless of whether the romance is part of the major storyline or just a subplot, there are loose ends to tie up, conflicts to resolve, trials to be vanquished, and obligatory love interests to be finally snagged in the final pages. Thus:
Subordinate: Sir? Maybe we should shoot for a little variety here. A lot of these YA books seem to end with the characters getting together. It’s kind of repetitive. Big CEO: THAT’S A TERRIBLE IDEA. EVERYONE WOULD BE SAD. Subordinate: Sorry, sir. Big CEO: DO YOU LIKE SADNESS, CHAD? Subordinate: No, sir. Big CEO: GOOD. I WANT A MILLION MORE. AND MAKE THEM DYSTOPIAS.
Look, I get the appeal. Novels are about escapism. Why would anyone want to read about the romantic failures, misfortunes, and disappointments of real life? I’ve got enough of that going on in the post-apocalyptic underground bunker that is my love life, thanks. Besides, it’s just so much easier to tie up everything with a nice bow and yield to the societal expectation that a Happy Ending equals Getting the Girl/Getting the Boy.
But the frequency to which this occurs simply reinforces ideas that can be harmful to those currently plodding through their formative years—ideas such as “having an S.O. will fix you” and “your first love will be your only love” and “acquiring a romantic partner is synonymous with the story’s conclusion.” Don’t even get me started on the “MEN AND WOMEN CAN’T EVEN BE FRIENDS, IT’S ALL ABOUT SEX ALL THE TIME” mythos.
In YA novels, acquiring a boyfriend or girlfriend usually signals the end of the conflict stage and the culmination of all previous character development as we round the corner into the resolution. Now, I’m not saying teens can’t tell the difference between real life and fiction. Teens are savvy. But when a narrative trope is so deeply ingrained that it has 13-year-olds already worried that they’re never going to find somebody, well, that’s where we’re entering problem territory. And maybe you guys are more emotionally well-adjusted than I was, but I always felt like I wasn’t living up the quintessential Teen Experience™ because I had never made out with a boy, and because I went to dances dateless more often than not, and because the Hottest Guy in School had not inexplicably discovered my Inner Beauty.
The tomes of Teen Town (which is a place we made up because ALLITERATION) often tell us that Getting the Girl/Boy is the Happy Ending, but it’s actually the beginning of a lot of things. It’s the beginning of exploring your identity and your sexuality. It’s the beginning of figuring how to do things like compromise and use the right amount of tongue. Relationships are just another facet of coming into your own, but they’re not the only facet and they’re certainly not a necessary one if that’s not what you’re into (hello, aromanticism and asexuality!).
I LIKE ROMANCE. I LIKE YOUNG ADULT NOVELS. I EVEN LIKE THEM TOGETHER, I PROMISE. They can be well-written, engaging, and transformative. But when they’re overdone, and done wrong? When they’re feeding the demon voice in my adolescent brain that was always saying “YOU MUST FIND ROMANCE EARLY IN YOUR LIFE OR YOU WON’T FIND IT AT ALL”? Whoo, boy. Suddenly you’re collapsing to your knees in the YA section screaming things like “UGH” and “WHY” and “RELEASE ME FROM THIS HELL,” and you’re wishing there was a little bit more to choose from.
Do you think YA novels try to hard to include romance? Have you read a YA book recently that DIDN’T involve a “finding-love-and-landing-an-SO” storyline? Does Chelsea Dagger remind you of the CEO above because THEY BOTH TALK LIKE THIS AND ARE INCREDIBLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH WHAT’S CONSIDERED “COOL” THESE DAYS?