Why YA Shouldn't Require Romance

Sat Jul 29 2017

So as not to bury the lede, let me just come out and say it: I believe requiring all YA books to include romance does a disservice to YA readers. Particularly girls.

Now let me tell you why.

Last weekend I was at the PNWA Writers Conference. Fabulous conference, if you ever have the chance to go. While talking with Sarah Sage at the Friday banquet, I was relating an experience I'd had some years ago pitching a book to agents.

The book was a YA western. I pitched it to four agents that year. Two said "Sounds interesting. Send it to me." The other two flat-out told me "There's no romance. I can't sell it without romance to appeal to girls too."

That frustrated me, because romance was not at all the point of the book. It was a story about an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder who needs to learn to adjust his attitude in order to find his place in the world. The setting was the Pony Express trail. The two main characters were the kid and the grumpy old dude he's forced, by circumstance, to get along with. They're out in the wilderness, with literally nobody else available to talk to.

Where am I supposed to find romance in that? Lay a thick coating of white privilege over the book by inventing a native princess for the kid to fall in love with? No thanks. Turn it into an uncomfortably "Mrs. Robinson" style gay romance? I don't think so.

Barring something along such lines, there's not going to be any kissing in that book. There's no place for it.

I reject the premise

Anyway, I was telling Sarah this story, and she said something along the lines of, "Yes, but what do 90% of teen girls have on the brain?"

The answer, obviously, is romance.

Sarah's right, of course. And I see the agents' point, too. They need to be able to sell the book, and having crossover boy/girl appeal would surely help them do so.

But I reject the premise inherent in that demand. Just because girls all have that on the brain does not mean that's all they have on the brain.

To jump from "Teen girls are fixated on romance" to "books for teen girls cannot work without romance" is to dismiss everything else teen girls care about. Here's a short, woefully inadequate list of other Serious Topics teen girls are concerned with:

You're telling me you can't sell a book based on any of that stuff?

To insist on shoving romance into every YA book is to convey the message that girls shouldn't be interested in anything besides romance. I see precious little daylight between that and openly advocating a Handmaid's Tale view of women, making that message a humongous, steaming pile of patriarchal bullshit.

To force romance into teen girls' view, everywhere and in every possible instance, is to call worthless the breadth of mind teen girls possess.

To think so narrowly of what teen girls want is unfathomable to me. I know the Bechdel Test was created for movies, but come on! Y'all agents and publishers have heard of it, right?

Not gonna do it

If a given agent doesn't think they can sell a story on other merits, fine. They're probably not the agent I want anyway. If publishers don't want it unless it provides some arbitrary quota of spit-swapping, fine. Their loss.

All else being equal, I'd rather have the help of a good agent and a good publisher than not. But not at the cost of sending a message I disagree so strongly with. If that's what they insist on, I can put the book out without them.

So screw 'em. I'm not putting romance in a story that doesn't organically call for it.

I will not tell girls that all they're good for is sex. And I sure as hell won't tell boys that girls are only good for sex either.

I refuse to treat my readers with such disrespect, no matter who they are.

If I sound a little worked up, good. I have a daughter. These things matter.