In Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel, Drama (2012) Callie is in love with a fellow ninth-grader who never seems to notice her. After they share an awkward kiss (largely to console Greg, who is recovering from a breakup), the boy spends the rest of the story avoiding her, since he sees her more as a ‘friend’ than a potential love interest. By the end of the novel, after Callie is disappointed in yet another boy—who turns out to be gay--Greg appears with a change of heart. Walking her home in the moonlight, they stop on the same bench where they shared their first (and only) kiss, and he says, “I didn’t realize that the girl I should really have been with was right before my eyes. Will you give me another shot?” Callie is confused and outraged, and comically resists his epiphany with the words, “Are you for real?” The frame widens: we zoom into his wide-open eyes, expressing desperation and desire, as he says “Don’t be confused…be my girlfriend.” He then leans in for the kiss…
In Hollywood this moment would cue the appropriate pop song, perhaps a chestnut from the 80’s to plop it squarely in Sixteen Candles territory. Instead, Callie reaches out to stop his lips, her brow furrowed in anger. She then leaps up and says, “I think I’ll walk home from here. Thanks for the company, Greg.” Of course, this is still quite expected, since the guy is supposed to leap up and grab her arm, coaxing her back, telling her she’s the only one, now and forever. Instead, he seems dumbfounded by his role in the plot, lamely adding, “You’re going to walk home all by yourself?” She replies, her eyes mere slits of boredom, “I only live one block away.” The frame expands to show her walking home, still in her prom dress (where her boyfriend came out to her) utterly her own woman. No Greg, no last minute heroics. In a story about teenage love, Callie unexpectedly finds it in her pocket like a used tissue and discards it. In the end she finds commitment with her theater crew, who have lovingly promoted her to stage manager. She falls completely, madly in love…with her art.
Can a book dedicated to high school ‘drama’ and love affairs opt out of the genre? Doesn’t a ‘good’ heroine deserve a ‘good’ romance? And doesn’t a good reader, who goes in expecting virtue to be rewarded with love, deserve a proper send-off? This all begs the question, what is the role of romance in the modern novel? While literary fiction has delightfully diverted reader expectations for decades, in commercial fiction, we usually play by the rules. Bad guys are vicious—yet thwarted. Bad girls are wicked—but redeemed. And a love story suffers complications by the second act—only to be restored in the third. That’s why people buy commercial fiction, since it offers the promise of future fulfillment. Everyone who says they want a “new voice” and a “new author” is only telling half-truths. Most of us want the same thing, told slightly differently, with a warm, fudgy center of love in the middle. Instead, we lustily bite into a molten chocolate cake and taste—toothpaste? A cool rush of minty fluoride instead of cavity-inducing cacao.
So why did Telgemeier do it? Why did she disappoint her heroine—who seems quite happy at the end of the novel, by the way—and her Young Adult readers? Aren’t these readers the least discerning—and the most demanding—in the entire demographic of publishing? Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that Telgemeier didn’t see her audience as a demographic (sorry publishers) or her book as a product. She looked at both in terms of story: what story was she trying to tell? Teenagers might prefer Young Adult literature, but readers always prefer a good book. After all, even if readers ‘marry’ exclusively in one genre, and want the expectations of these genres fulfilled, they’re also notoriously promiscuous. Readers always peek at other genres, other books, often with longing…oh, I could never read that kind of fiction, though it DOES look so interesting. Maybe next time. Though we claim to like the same relationship day in and day out, everyone likes surprises. And a good story is all about the unexpected. Not completely, not topsy-turvy, but a little twist here and there to spice up our reading love life.
In Drama, the love affair looks like boy-girl, but turns out to be boy-boy (the most romantic scene is a kiss on-stage between two boys) and girl-friends. Callie’s friends are the ones who offer her a stable and lasting relationship, and give the awkward ninth-grader a home in the theater. If the book had ended with her kissing Greg and thinking “wow, I did it, I got the guy and pulled off a successful play!” we would have closed the book and not thought twice. By having her walk away and realize that love is largely a daydream, something better encountered in the theater than on a park bench, we think to ourselves, “wow, that’s just how it happened to me.” Sure, we often sink into a book to escape our mundane lives, but we often hope that instead of escape we find understanding. Callie learns that a girl doesn’t need love to complete herself, any more than a boy does; true love starts with finding yourself in the hustle and bustle of life. Love often gets in the way, or replaces your own dreams with someone else’s. Greg clearly had no interest in theater and would have pulled her away from her friends and ambitions. And once you leave that stage it’s hard to find your way back.
In the end she had to make a choice…and she chose the road “less traveled.” But like Frost’s poem, the road isn’t really less traveled, since as he reminds us, “the passing there/Had worn them really about the same.” In other words, she took the road that many people take every day, a road well-worn by the self-sacrifice of others. In fiction, however, most writers go the other way, with its sign posts of happily ever after and true love. Yet not every story can be reached on that road, as some stories require love to end tragically or fizzle out completely. Love, like life itself, has many roads, and the job of fiction is to map them for future generations. Genre fiction might read like a map, but it should be a map of an unknown land with familiar signposts. Where the signposts lead, however, is another story. And that’s why we keep reading books…we want to know where to go, but not what to think when we get there. Or who to fall in love with.
[This post is inspired from our Inkitt Academia discussion on Romance in Fiction, which you can find here: https://www.inkitt.com/groups/academia]