Tuesday, 25 September 2012

INSTA-LOVE: I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday. As you can see by the fact that you're reading this, I did survive my author visit on Friday (even though my travel jinx was in full affect and resulted in more train shenanigans). Thanks for the warm welcome, young women of Sheffield High School! It was great to meet you.

Now onto today's post which hopefully doesn't read like a rant - because it's actually the result of a lovely and interesting discussion between me and the writer R.J. Anderson (author of ULTRAVIOLET, KNIFE, REBEL and other wonderful books which I heartily recommend). R. J. takes 50% of the credit for this post - basically it's a series of emails we exchanged which I then edited together and typed up (and R.J. edited again. We're writers, what can I say?).

The topic of this discussion: Insta-love.

Yep, I can already hear the chorus of retching noises, frustrated screams and face-palming.

What is this fearsome thing? It's a trope that's become pretty common in YA (especially in paranormal and fantasy novels), in which a couple meet and almost at once fall deeply, irrevocably and passionately in love, quite often without knowing much about each other at all. Usually the main component of this love seems to be either an extreme physical attraction which causes the POV character to ramble on endlessly about how hot the object of his/her affection is, or else some kind of irresistible force of destiny written into both their DNA which means the pair are now mated for life (whether they like it or not). Its major feature is that the POV character is convinced that what he or she feels is no mere attraction, liking or lust. It can only be love. Capital letter Love. TWU WUV. The most extreme example of insta-love is probably the 'imprinting' in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight

Now, a great author can do a lot with love at first sight. It's a classic plot device, and the results of this kind of headlong plunge into emotion (requited or otherwise) can be moving or hilarious or tragic or all three. It doesn't have to be done badly or unrealistically, by any means.
But a lot of novels seem to use this concept as... shall we say, a shortcut. Creating two characters who are destined to be in love, and who feel an instantaneous, unbreakable bond of devotion the moment their eyes meet, relieves the author of the need to do the heavy lifting. They no longer have to actually show how this particular pair of individuals fall in love, and the ways in which they fit with each other and work together, because they've already explained to the reader that this couple are Meant To Be. Which means you get a bit of talk about dizziness and shock and irresistible forces and BOOM! Two attractive near-strangers are vowing to die for each other within a chapter and macking like crazy within two. 

So yes, this trope can be pretty annoying. In fact, I think we've all seen quite enough of the lazy version of love at first sight. There aren't too many readers, writers or reviewers who'd admit to liking this plot device anymore.

But the tide of insta-love stories seems to have swept another, equally baffling phenomenon along with it: a growing tendency among readers and reviewers to apply the term 'insta-love' to romances which... well... aren't.

Romances where the couple don't fall in love at first sight. Romances where the couple hate each other at first, or are friends first, or have a spark of attraction and then gradually get to like each other more and more, and trade furtive glances and quick touches for half a book before either of them even asks the other one out. Romances which aren't insta by any reasonable definition.

You wouldn't think it would be so easy to get these two kinds of fictional relationships mixed up. The the sketchily justified passion at first sight and the spark of attraction that takes a while to develop are pretty different. But apparently, just as everyone and their cousin Betsy hates insta-love, everyone and their cousin Betsy has a different definition of insta-love, too.

When R.J. and I were discussing this we each brought up several books that we, as fans of repressed, slow-burning romance, adored... and then later saw labeled by other readers and reviewers as insta-love. Both of us were clear on all the ways in which each of these books avoided insta-love and it puzzled us exceedingly to see them called that. However, rather than mentioning any other authors' books or names, I thought the fairest thing would be to use myself as an example.

I've seen a few reviewers say that they thought Daughter of the Flames was an insta-love story. On the strong likelihood that you've never read this book, I'll tell you that I deliberately wrote the story in order to use one of my favourite plot devices, which is that of an arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. (Which is also one of my favorite tropes, specifically because it forces the author to do the very opposite of insta-love -- RJA) When I wrote it I was clear in my own head that the couple, although initially attracted to each other, don't really fall in love until late in the story. And even then the heroine isn't aware of her own feelings until pretty much the end. 

Well, I mean, that's my interpretation of events. And of course other interpretations are just as valid as mine. (No they aren't, because I've read DotF and you're right. :) -- RJA)  But it's always baffled me to see this story called insta-love because it doesn't fit the definition. Or, at least, the definition which I assumed we were all working from. The two characters don't instantly fall in love at first sight. They meet, they're attracted, and they go their separate ways. Later circumstances and desperation bring them back together and they team up, but there are no declarations of love, no obsession with each other, or with saving each other, or with each other's looks.

But clearly, as far as some readers are concerned, there *is* a definition of insta-love which fits there. There's another one which fits with a whole slew of other books that don't seem to have much 'insta' in the romance either.

So I don't know what reviewers mean by insta-love anymore. If I see a book criticised for having insta-love in it, my immediate reaction is to assume that there's a cheap and rather unnecessary romance jammed in there, something unrealistic and tawdry which reflects badly on the author and their attempt to jump on the YA romance bandwagon (yes, I'm snobby and judgmental - Zolah). But then I have to stop and remind myself that this might not be what the reviewer is actually saying at all! It's highly possible that what they really meant was that there's an entirely different kind of romance in there which simply did not work for them for whatever reason.

It's pretty obvious that every reader has a different idea of what constitutes romance - that what we look for in a romance, and the things we find attractive or sexy or romantic are highly individual. For some, scenes will not read as sexy or romantic unless it's spelled out; unless there is actual, unequivocal sexy touching or kissing involved, or the POV characters are confessing their romantic and sexy feelings. So even scenes where two characters share significant personal information or physical contact don't necessarily count to those readers as romantic, because the characters haven't declared their mutual love or kissed yet. Meanwhile, others (RJ and I, for example!) are fanning themselves and groping for the smelling salts.

So one person's insta-love is another person's slow-burn romance, and one person's swoon is another person's yawn. All part of life's rich tapestry.

The problem is that when readers say 'insta-love', it makes the whole thing sound like a cheap, tacked-on, superficial romance, when it's entirely possible that it's just a romance that failed for them for whatever reasons romances fail for them. And how can anyone work out why that is, if all they get in the review is a phrase which, by now, is starting to feel extremely dodgy and inexact?
  
The more R.J. and I talked about this, the more we started to feel as if 'insta-love' was never a very useful term in discussing YA novels anyway. After all, the main reason people sneer about insta-love romances, or books which utilise love at first sight, is that they're supposed to be unrealistic and convenient. But are they?

In real life people meeting and feeling a kind of 'spark' of instant attraction is all too common. It used to happen to me (Zolah) everytime I was put into a new class at school, and very inconvenient I found it, especially when within a few weeks I'd nearly always had it forcibly born in on me that the object of my young passion was a right little berk. Even as an adult you're not immune. Sometimes this spark of attraction is mutual, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn't. But that's the way people generally react to each other when they first meet: they assess each other for attractiveness. Even where people have been platonic friends for ten years before they ever kiss, they'll usually admit that they fancied each other like crazy for about thirty minutes when they first met, before they ended up being mates instead.

Then there's this idea that it's too convenient for young people who've only known each other for a week, two weeks, a month (whatever) to confess true love. But I (Zolah again!) can't remember many occasions when I had a relationship as a teen when I wasn't saying 'I love you' after a couple of weeks or even less. Sitcoms and films might depict this confession as a moment of immense, life-changing significance and imply that people should only say 'I love you' after dating for a year, sleeping together, and possibly moving in together, but real people, especially young ones, don't hold to that standard at all. Why should characters in books?

It occurs to us that what some readers may be complaining about with the 'insta' label is the pacing of the romance. It's not that they necessarily believe the characters fell instantly in love or rushed into love at the beginning of the story, but rather that at first the romance was extremely subtle and moved at a very slow pace - slow enough that the reader didn't realize it was a romance. Then all of a sudden it seemed to speed up and things became intense and serious. Which - again - actually does happen in real life (including for R.J and her husband!). So here you have what *we* would call a slow-burning romance... but because the reader hasn't picked up on the developing relationship earlier on, it seems to come almost out of nowhere. And it gets an insta-love label even though it doesn't really fit that definition of an instant romance.

If a romance seems unrealistic or too convenient, then that could be about a failure in the writing, or something in the individual taste of the reader, or a mixture of both. But it doesn't necessarily make it 'insta-love'. And the current level of hatred for anything that might be called insta-love doesn't mean that love at first sight as a story device is worthless, or that no one should ever use it again.

What we decided between us, in the end, is that while we should all feel free to critique romances and examine why they work or don't work for us in reviews - and call out the ones that do feel cheap and unnecessary to the heart of the story - the phrase insta-love is now so widely used to cover such a huge variety of different kinds of romances (even ones which aren't instant at all) that it's become kind of like that infamous term Mary-Sue.  

A term that hides more about your opinion than it actually reveals.

20 comments:

Essjay said...

I so agree! For me insta-love is as you say, that dna-wired-in meeting of two people who are destined to spend the rest of their lives together from the first second they meet. I really don't enjoy reading about that. I love, however, the whole glancing, accidental hands meeting love that grows as the plot develops.

Zoë Marriott said...

Sarah: Me too! I've tried to do that slow-burning thing in all my books so far - but with The Trilogy, one of the challenges I've tried to set myself is to write this epic story that takes place over a week, and part of that is a love story. I've worked so hard to make it credible that the main characters can fall in love quickly without it being this cheap insta-love sort of thing. I hope it works...

Elyndra said...

Like you, I prefer the slower types of love stories. Those where it takes an entire book (or most of it) for them to realize their own feelings, or dare to express them. Once they do, you as a reader feel like these two have something real. Not a love that’s there because they are both perfect and meant for each other, like two puzzle pieces fitting together seamlessly like they were designed to do so. Instead it’s two flawed people who know the other one isn’t their ideal dream mate, yet choose to stay together because their love outweighs the arguments and problems that will surely follow.
That being said, I don’t mind it when things move faster, if it is believable. In those epic adventure stories you mention, the characters are usually on an emotional roller-coaster that spans an entire rainbow of feelings. In those cases, when you have to depend on each other for survival, I don’t think it’s weird that emotions like love or friendship develop a lot more quickly than they normally would. So I’m sure you could pull it off.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elyndra: Fingers crossed, anyway! The thing is, I know some people are going to call it insta-love regardless because... you know, if people can see an arranged marriage story as an insta-love story they can see ANYTHING that way. I might as well just go ahead and do what I want.

Maureen E said...

I do know what you mean, and I'll certainly try to be more thoughtful of how I use the term. At the same time, I do think (as you've addressed) that in some instances it is a legitimate gripe. However, it would be good (for me personally) to try to address why I had that reaction to the romance, rather than just using the lazy shorthand of the insta-attraction term.

Maureen E said...

I do think too that there's a problematic (anti-woman) component to the Mary Sue term that isn't necessarily there in the insta-love idea, though I could very easily be wrong.

Zoë Marriott said...

Maureen: You're right, I do think Mary-Sue is more obviously sexist. On the other hand, deriding romance can be problematic because most romance readers and writers are female (or at least pretend to be!). The thing about insta-love is that when you think about it you realise that we all know what it truly is, but at least 80% of the time that you see it in reviews the books mentioned don't seem to *be* insta-romances. You'll see readers saying 'Oh, there was no romance between Simon and Mary until 2/3rds of the way through and then suddenly insta-love!' and it kind of drives me crazy because that actually *isn't* insta-love is it? It's an entirely different kind of story. Obviously it didn't work as a romance for you, but how can I possibly tell why? And what's more, like we said, it kind of implies the author's done something a bit tawdry and cheap... when that probably isn't the case at all. So call insta-love out when it really IS insta-love, fine... but make sure you're not just saying insta-love because you didn't like the romance and can't put your finger on why. Does that make sense?

Maureen E said...

Yes, it definitely does make sense. Thinking about it more, I suspect that when I use it, it's less about actual timing/pacing and more about the type of romance--when the attraction seems to be purely physical, for instance. Though often it's a sign that I have larger issues with character development--if I'm enjoying a book and believe in the characters, I don't tend to notice timing as much. So again, breaking down my actual reaction would be a good thing.

Thinking out loud at this point, but thank you for 1) writing such a thought-provoking post and 2) responding kindly. :)

Cyndi Tefft said...

Great post! I actually despise the term "insta-love" because of the connotation that it's unrealistic and wrong to fall for someone else quickly. Sometimes it happens that way, especially for teens (see my blog post on Crazy, Stupid Love That Lasts a Lifetime: http://t.co/7V6m9liY).

In many romance novels, saying "I love you" is almost a check box that indicates the story is just about over. They've overcome the obstacles, slept together, and now comes the L word. The end.

In real life (especially for teens), saying "I love you" often comes much earlier in the relationship. Maybe it's because it's a way for them to know where the relationship stands, maybe teens are better about expressing their feelings, or maybe teens just *feel* things stronger up front. I know I certainly did!

Calling a story "insta-love" is dissing it altogether, I feel, so I never use the term. If the relationship comes across as unrealistic, it's better to say so. I'd chalk that up to poor character development, rather than tagging it with a derogatory label.

Thanks for the discussion! :)

Cyndi

Zoë Marriott said...

Maureen: You're very welcome.

Cyndi: Bravo! I agree with you completely. Thanks for commenting.

Isabel said...

This is a really interesting post! Insta-love is definitely an over-used term, but also a problem in romance these days. You always make such intelligent points!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: I think insta-love is less common than we might think based on how often we see people throwing the term around. What I do think is more common is romance overall - which means, in turn, more romances that don't work for us personally. Hopefully it also means more good romances as well. But romance is definitely king these days in YA lit.

Kristen Evey said...

Hmmm... I don't think I've ever seen this phrase misused. Maybe I need to read more blogs? I only apply the term when it's two people who have just met and are already "in love" with each other. I don't know why you would use the phrase otherwise...? True insta-love is one of my biggest pet peeves in YA (and only grudgingly forgiven in the case of fairy tales). I feel it's a lazy way to get characters to fall in love. I also admit to being very biased towards the slow burning romance though, one of my favorites being the enemies to lovers trope.

Thank you for writing this. I'm gonna try to be more aware of using that phrase and see if I can expand upon my thoughts a little more when I talk about romance in books. :)

PS For the record, I LOVE the romance in DotF.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kristen: When I've really loved or really disliked a book I tend to head onto Goodreads to read a random sampling of reviews about it. I think this is why when there are trends in the phrases that reviewers use, I'm likely to see them, and also see when they start to be misused or redefined.

Melanie Stanford said...

Great post! I actually did a (way less detailed) post about this on Monday- more of a question about the difference between insta-love and insta-crush. What other people often dub insta-love, I feel is an insta-crush and I don't mind that at all. I have gotten sick of the "drawn to each other for some inexplicable reason," but I don't mind the "he's so hot I want to get to know him better."

My MS has been found guilty of insta-love. I didn't mean to do it, but I've figured out why it came across that way: My MC as an insta-crush but then gets a little obsessive and possessive of the guy for really no reason, aside from this crush. When I go revise, I'll make sure her initial attraction is there, but she's not quite so possessive of a guy she doesn't even know yet.

Again, loved this post!

Zoë Marriott said...

Melanie: Don't make your heroine too sane and grown-up though! Lately sometimes I get the feeling that the prevalence of insta-love has made people so cranky that their ideal heroine acts like a wealthy forty-five year old divorcee, only allowing herself to develop feelings (and then only sane, rational, proportionate ones) after the love interest in question has formally introduced himself, taken her out on three dates, and passed a background check. That's... really not how teenagers are. That's really not how most people are! So don't take the fun out of it for your MC :) She can be a littke crazy and over the top so long as it's in character, right?

mclicious.org said...

Interesting! Whatever I think of as "insta-love," then, is something I find gross and unreal and silly and inauthentic, but I will concede that it's a personal understanding that comes from experience and also, as a completely different thing, has to do with your own reading interests. I find basically anything that is cataloged in the "romance" genre or that has "romance" anywhere in the flap copy to be insufferably awful, boring, and inauthentic when I read it, but obviously there are scads of people who don't agree with me and who keep reading and writing it.

I think what I (and maybe others) object to so much with "insta-love" is that even when it's not instantaneous because of a prophecy or burning "I just know it's love" thing, so much fictional romance just seems to develop out of no actual time spent getting to know each other, and I just don't understand the how of it. It's a cause and effect thing that's missing, in my opinion.

On the other hand, insta-lust makes complete and utter sense to me, and I think exploring the delusions, obsessions, self discovery, and nuanced relationships that come out of that are endlessly fascinating. While I want to believe that we can all use "love" in a non-BIG TELEVISION EVENT kind of way, I think since I've been acculturated into thinking that we can't and don't and won't, I just can't buy that the vast amount of characters I'm reading actually are in that kind of "love."

Then again, I'm 24 and always single, so I'm clearly missing something anyway. haha.

AmieSalmon said...

I know I'm a little late to the party here, but what an interesting post. The insta-love thing is something that's been bothering me lately, because of a book I read recently. As I started reading this post I was all - yea that's what bugged me about that book. Now I've finished reading this post, I'm not so sure I was right to label it insta-love.

This is definitely a really thought-provoking read. One I'll always be sure to remember.

Tuteh Wylie said...

At first, I'd think that I'd despise this trope with a firey passion. But, after getting into Robin Hobb's "Rain Wilds Chronicles", I've actually discovered a fondness for relationships that come out of nowhere. But in the good way; like when both readers and two equally flesh-out but very different characters are blindsided by this sudden spark. And it isn't even "pure" love. It mostly manifests as different aspects of relationships like infatuation, jealousy, betrayal, commitment, sexual awakening and control. In one chapter a character can be pining for this love interest only for them to be falling for a completely different character a few chapters later. It's interesting to see where each character's flights-of-fancy will take them because it does something I feel most romances should set out to do from the beginning: inform character development; evolve with their changing perspectives; mature as they grow and learn. Just like with people in real life. While this may not always be positive it doesn't make it any less meaningful than the traditional, puritan notions of monogamous love the romance genre seems married to.

When it comes to romance, I think the number one thing that holds writers back is the notion that relationships always have to be "true". The wish-fulfillment, that a spark should always culminate in this true, "everlasting" love regardless of how much the connection between these two characters could actually keep them afloat realistically. There's this idea that a relationship can only be valid or meaningful if it's true love otherwise it's false. Not to mention w***ish on the heroine's part.

KashyaCharsi said...

Not like I were a social or emotional expert, but as I know, attraction can indeed form in the first moment of meeting, but that's far from True Love yet. I have felt sometimes what I called love, but later I realized it was only what TvTropes calls "Loving a shadow".

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