Sweeter Than Wine

18 March 2014

There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
proverbs 30:18-19

Even as the writer thirsts for reality, drawing it up in dripping handfuls and painting it on her story's canvas, she ignores it. Even as the writer longs for that sense of something breathing, burning, and Real behind the mask of her characters and plot, she rejects the qualities that would infuse it with life.

Even as she plots a map, she destroys the road.

One of the quirks among Christian homeschooled authors — and it is not new — is an aversion to romance, attraction, and love. It's the taboo subject, the elephant in the room, eternally ignored under the guise of good taste. Books are measured not by the quality of the stories, but by the presence or absence of violence, profanity, and affection extending beyond platonic friendship. The irony of it all is found in the result that comes when one pairs these tight-lipped condemnations with the amount of how-to posts on writing stories that breathe with life, for if authors really wanted their books to depict truth, they would not be so hesitant about romance. (They also would not have the opportunity to tout their scruples had their own parents shared their trepidation!)

Why do we shy from writing romance well? Is it because we are faint of heart and want to mince words and gauze over subjects that God Himself did not ignore? Is it because we have no experience and cannot write something of which we know little? Or is it a combination of these two, a measure of societal restraint that says some subjects cannot be mentioned in the same room as the lace curtains and clinking china?

Over time, our bookshelves come to mirror these concerns. Literature rarely treats love as it ought to be treated, either cheapening it to artless grocery-story drivel or doing away with it altogether. Even (dare I say especially) Christians have encouraged this mindset, veiling their delicate daughters' eyes from an honesty that at twenty-one should no longer make them blush. The results are quick and apparent. From this sort of lifestyle comes the family of daughters nearing thirty who hide behind their embroidery because they cannot relate to the other sex. We've all seen the requests posted on social forums like Goodreads: "I'm looking for a good story with dynamic characters and a solid plot, but please no romantic love."

Good luck to the girl who makes the plea, for I've never found such a book.

Love is spun through every aspect of us. It was not good for man to be alone even in Eden's paradise and it still is not good for man to be alone in the gritty world of the twenty-first century. We can hear this preached from the pulpit and come across it in our morning Bible study, and we nod in prosaic sagacity, but when we sit down to write, we shudder to apply the wisdom and its value crumbles away into nothingness. Romance is evil. Romance is ugly. Romance is ungodly. We hear these words pound through our minds, the last statement the most startling of all in its blatant inaccuracy. The God Who called us into being created the woman for the man and the man for the woman, bringing them together in holy and blessed matrimony as a small shadow-glimpse of the love between Christ and the Church, but if we mention such things, we soon bear the wrath and curse of the conservative Christian community.

You already know that one of the layers of Rifles in the South Field deals with blossoming romance. You may not know that my next book centers on a married woman. As I write certain scenes in Rifles and plot scenes for other works in progress, I meet a point of conflict. I can fill the mold that Elsie Dinsmore set, or I can clear the weeds from an ancient path and hold on tight to an ancient mast. Every author must make this decision, and her answer will determine the direction her story takes. Do I strain my dialogue and description down to artificiality for the sake of my own sensibilities, or do I dare to write honestly and beautifully about the most powerful thing God created: the natural attraction, kinship, and two becoming one of male and female?

It can only come to fruition if we have the fortitude to pursue it. Love does not have to make us stutter, blush, and quickly change the subject. If you are of the precious few who will write love stories akin to that of Isaac and Rebekah, Boaz and Ruth, and David and Abigail, do so. Do not let man-made strictures hold you back from spilling light on the all-encompasing love that comes from God and can be reflected between a man and woman He has guided; a love in which there is no shame, but rejoicing.

13 epistles:

  1. This is fantastic, Elizabeth. You know I've always needed some sort of romance in a story - whether I'm writing it or reading it, it brings in another aspect of life. There will always be romance and couples around us; why do we feel the need to hide them from our books?
    Psst...step on as many toes as you like; the shoes look nice on your feet. ;)

    Oh my luve's like a red, red rose...

    1. You're right, Bree, because in real life we are not limited to Platonic love. It has its place and serves its purpose well, but I think Christian authors cloak it in an additional holiness that it just as bad as the romance novelists who destroy the beauty of romantic love.

  2. I loved this too, Elizabeth. I think there is something extraordinarily beautiful in love, romance, and even sexuality. Of course we must be careful how we represent the latter, as it is a topic none of us unmarried people need think to hard on. Still, God saw fit to include an entire book in the Bible discussing it. I mean, who REALLY thinks Song of Solomon is strictly a picture of Christ and His church?
    For a long time, I shied from writing romance because I didn't know any of it. Or so I thought. But then, as I let a little romance, a little attraction creep through, I realized I do know it. I know it because it is ingrained on my heart, this attraction. It is as much as part of the fiber of my being as thinking, or appreciating a sunset, or feeling that the tap-water is too cold or too hot. Naturalness. It's beautiful when done justice.

    1. Naturally I do not have experience in many areas, but that's why we read the old stories! I did not write this post to say that authors need to throw several bed scenes in their novels just for the sake of reveling in it. If romance is out of place, by all means leave it out, but if it fits, there is a way to gracefully and truthfully present even the married state without wallowing in subjects that are best left between a man and his wife. I'll tip my hat to Jenny once more and say she handled this especially well in The Shadow Things. Indi and Syllvia's romance never felt forced, unnatural, or gaudy; it flowed naturally and was beautiful as a result.

  3. Oh, here I was all ready to chime in happily on this subject, and then Elizabeth Rose complimented me and now I'm all shy. Sexuality I can talk about, compliments are hard to swallow. :P

    It is so nice that you should have posted this topic, you know, because between the three of us, Anagram, Mirriam, and I have all been kicking these thoughts about our own heads. I've actually been thinking about it on a more, shall we say, practical level, in that most girls (myself included) are not made comfortable with our own sexuality - and if we're not made comfortable with our own bodies and the way we work, how can we 1) face a husband without layers and layers of psychosis to peel off and 2) write a decent (pun only marginally intended) romance in a book?

    I have the same topic coming up in Cruxgang as you have here in Rifles in the South Field. (I love that title, by the way; always have.) In general, the folk of my Plenilune universe are large as life and red-blooded, equal parts dust and divinity mingled into the human form, and they do not balk at the sensual aspects of life. I have always wondered a little how that will go over in the reading community, but more than that in Cruxgang I have two very potent characters who are very much in love, have been married for some time, and are very familiar with each other. At this point I'm not really worried about "reining them in," as it were: I'll let the story guide itself - it works best when I give it its head. But there, I have that same - not problem, but circumstance pending in a story. You're not alone. ;)

    ...I often feel a little out of place mentioning these things, because I am one of the only married women of my blogging circle. I hope no one minds me chiming in. :/

    1. Oh goodness, Jenny, we need your chiming in to confirm our blind guesses! Romance of any kind is entirely confined to the page for me at present, and I appreciate hearing from one who's in a different stage of life.

      You've hit on one of the aspects of the more conservative Christian community that irks me. Many of the young women dress as if there is something shameful about their shape, which could not be farther from the truth. God commands us to dress decently because the human form is lovely and should not be displayed before everyone, but there is a way to clothe yourself beautifully and attractively without baring all. It's a balance.

      I've noticed the red-blooded hints in the snippets you've shared, and it suits your world well. I'm glad you're not changing it. ^.^ My own characters are more dust than divinity, being children of this mortal coil, but certain stories demand certain things. More than anything, I don't want to strip these men and women of their identities even as I veil them in overt modesty. I guess it all comes back to portraying your characters authentically. I will not be descending into licentiousness, certainly, but neither will I sterilize my romance. (I'm also concerned with historical accuracy and being that this book is set in the 18th century, there's probably little to nothing to offend even the most sensitive readers. :P)

  4. This is excellent. And I know exactly what you mean. I can understand the word "romance" having been a little tarnished in the arena of books and reading, with the extent and content of the genre it's used to label. But, especially lately, I have been noticing with a little bewilderment those book reviews cheering the absence of romantic subplot or complaining that a historical romance is too romantic (!). There is a difference between a "romance novel" and a book that presents a beautiful love story. I enjoy a good love story, and I'm with you on this: I'm not going to avoid trying to write one for fear of the response.

    I think maybe it's partly what my mom calls the pendulum-swing: a violent reaction against a trend in culture that goes to the other extreme. We've had the books presenting immorality or an unrealistic depiction of love, so the reaction against it is to avoid love completely—but like you said, the result is almost as bad, because it's unnatural. A pendulum-swing is unnatural because it isn't necessarily based on standards, like the standard of Scripture, but merely a reaction to something else (bad as whatever-it-was may have been).

    1. I agree so much, Elisabeth Grace Foley, with your mum's 'pendulum-swing' in regards to romance - and to be honest, in a lot of other areas and topics of life... hear, hear!

    2. Elisabeth, I completely agree. I didn't have space to address that as much in this post, but there are two extremes and your pendulum analogy works well. I understand that people are afraid of glorifying immorality, but they end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Romance executed well can be one of the most beautiful layers of a story, and Christian readers and writers are missing out when they ignore that.

      Sometimes I wonder how the Bible would come out if it were subjected to the same standards as Christian fiction. The results are almost laughable.

      "Pros: Strong message. Cons: References violence, adultery, theft, murder, and idolatry, among others. Man kills his younger brother. King suggests cutting babe in half. Protagonist dies on cross to redeem His people. I would have enjoyed this Book more if the Author could have portrayed his theme without mentioning sin."

  5. I am so happy to finally see someone saying something about this. I agreed wholeheartedly with your previous post "On Christian Sincerity". It put into words what I've felt for a long time about creating works, whether in literature or the visual arts (which is my field) that do not beat the reader over the head with Bible verses and sermons. If we are to impact the world as Christians, we can't limit ourselves to writing, painting, and composing nothing but things that directly deal with Christianity. It would be akin to a carpenter never making anything except wooden crosses instead of chairs, because chairs are "worldly" and have nothing to do with the Bible.

    And this post touches on another aspect of Christian literature that can apply to art in general as well. There are numerous Bible stories and even a whole book of the Bible that deal, not just with romance, but sex (The Song of Solomon being the best example). Even if the Song of Songs is only an allegory of Christ and the Church ( which I don't believe, I think it is that and also meant to be a very real depiction of lovers) it should be obvious that if God is using sexual terms to describe the relationship of Christ and the Church, then such things are not sinful, taboo, or embarrassing but rather beautiful and holy.

    Now, I don't think, as you said, that one should throw in bed scenes or explicit details, any more than I would paint something of the sort. But romance and sex are a commonplace part of life, as the Bible itself readily shows, so pretending they don't exist is ridiculous.

    And then you get the other trite Christian literature that is about nothing BUT romance, finding a spouse, and dreaming about marriage. I'm married (never say you'll never get married, God has a sense of humor), and yes it is amazing; but it's also difficult, and not the ultimate pinnacle of life's achievements as so many conservative Christians bring their daughters up to believe. Obsessing over romance and marriage are just as harmful as pretending that it doesn't exist. The pinnacle of life's achievements is fulfilling God's will, not getting married. Sorry ladies, it's not that easy.

  6. Ah, this is so true!
    I feel our society has attacked the word "romance" and has twisted it into something that it was not meant to be, especially have they done so in historical fiction.
    I know leaving romance out of our writing, simply because we don't want our books being labeled a "romance novel", is not a correct way of thinking. Scripture gives us numerous examples of how the Lord has orchestrated romance in the lives of individuals. . . and it a truly glorious picture.
    Our Lord created romance, and it is a beautiful, wonderful thing that can add such lovely simpleness to our writing and stories when done in a wholesome way!
    The world needs undistorted pictures of what romance is, and though the ultimate picture of this is found in God's Word, I pray that all of us in our writing might be able to give a little glimpse of that wholesome romance that is found in the Scriptures.
    Thank you Elizabeth for this inspiring little article. . . very well said. :)

  7. It is for beautiful posts like this one that I've nominated you for the Liebster Award. Thank you for continuing to fearlessly post your perspectives!

  8. I bookmarked this post to come back to after course-finals...it is beautiful, Elizabeth. When I find myself hesitating as an author, it is because a) without experience, I'm afraid I'll mess romance up (quickly overcome with the thought that I've never fought in a war or been a slave or any number of other things my characters do, and that hasn't stopped me there :P) or b) I'm afraid I'll offend someone. Which I think is part of the problem - people fear things that are dangerous, and there is little more powerful or with as much potential for pain as that kind of love. It is so easy for it to go wrong...but if we're afraid to even come across it in our reading as young adults...that's messed up. :P So thank you for this post...it was encouraging to see that others agree and not everyone will run from my stories just because I refuse to cut out the romance. :)
    Also - YES I've said that exact same thing about the Bible. It would never make it through many Christian publishers.


"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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