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Loop Lit #4: What Makes A Good Love Story?

From the moment Loop Lit was conceived, I knew I wanted the February edition to be about love. In fact, this column has existed in my mind since December 2019, a testament to how long I’ve been thinking about love in stories.

So many of our expectations for romance are shaped by popular culture, and especially by literature. Where readers were supposed to find a cautionary tale about feuding families, they found the connection between Romeo and Juliet. They found themselves enamored with Darcy’s pride and all the adaptations that came of it. We, as a society, are in love with love.

Despite that, I still wonder what makes a “good” love story. 

If you asked me if I shipped these characters or those characters, I might have an answer, but when it comes to identifying a favorite romance, I draw a blank. For one, I actively avoided romance as a child; if it was woven into the story, that was fine, but if the main focus was a relationship I shied away. Eventually, I eased myself into stories about people, about how they grew close and grew apart and grieved and fought, and this coincided with a growing awareness of myself and how I wanted my humanity to be portrayed.

Many writers have described love as being an expression of humanity, of justice. James Baldwin once said, “if I love you, I have to show you the things you don’t see.” 

Hence, when that humanity was absent and a lack of respect took its place, I noticed. The Stranger is arguably not a love story (because that’s not the focus of the plot), but love is said to be present in Marie. And yet, I never understood why. It’s no secret that Meursault is meant to be a terrible, amoral person -- Camus does not pretend otherwise -- but what vexed me was that Marie was so utterly devoted to someone who clearly didn't even like her. Was this meant to show how far removed Meursault is from human emotion, so that he can’t even love another? Possibly. But why do so many characters (often women) end up being endlessly loyal even when it hurts them? 

Sometimes it’s a result of the belief that women are endlessly forgiving, willing to bend to the whims of others and should stick it out no matter how they are treated. Other times, I think it just stems from the fact that people believe love should be unconditional. 

While it may not be the easiest to identify where they originate from -- whether our upbringing, our personal experiences or the media we consume -- we all have some semblance of understanding of what our standards are. I didn’t know precisely what love was, but I had an idea of what it should look like. What I wanted it to feel like.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not a sad movie by any means, but the final scene still manages to draw tears from my eyes because it spoke to something I wanted; not necessarily the grand declaration of love as the music swells, but rather the simple acknowledgement that I am cared for. Peter and Lara Jean could probably be described as loving each other unconditionally, since they stuck together through all the conflict. But, I’d argue that it was conditional to an extent, with the conditions being “Peter stops pursuing Gen” and “LJ actually shows interest in spending time with Peter instead of distancing herself”. Conditional love is not a bad thing. It doesn’t make for a bad story.

I remember Fifty Shades of Grey was a frequent topic of discussion in sixth grade, since the books were still being released around that time. It was often the subject of whispers, giggles and the usual expressions of disgust. Once at recess, a friend declared that she would never read it.

Yet, two years later, she and others in my eighth-grade class would devour the entire trilogy, gushing over how perfect Christian and Ana were for each other, and how wonderful it was that he had changed for her. I had never read the series, but I knew about the backlash, the cries for readers to see that the relationship depicted in Fifty Shades wasn’t true love. 

Was it love because Christian changed? Because Ana stuck around? Does abuse invalidate love, or do they coexist?

Of course, when talking about my exposure to romance, it would be a disservice to readers to not acknowledge Fanfiction dot net, Archive of Our Own, and all those other sites, especially because I wouldn’t even be able to finish this column without acknowledging the fact that Fifty Shades was Twilight fanfiction at least once. Fan stories hold a mirror to our influences and values, and while many aim to create healthier narratives for their audiences, others perpetuate the same harms that affected them. I remember one Wattpad story where the main character was put down by others and herself so often that it was actually upsetting to me, and countless more that relied on power imbalances or other unhealthy behaviors. And in the end, the main protagonist and their love interest were still devoted to each other, even when they should probably go their separate ways.

Some stories highlight the price of this unconditional devotion. One of my favorite short stories, By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison, centers around a woman who has invested a significant amount of time into her collection of decorative plates. At the end of the story, her partner destroys her entire collection in the yard while she watches. Publishers Weekly said that Goodison’s love stories were “overly precious” and “lacking in sincerity”, but I think they’re sincere. The idea that a story has to be profound or incorporate more complex themes to matter doesn’t make much sense, given the amount of classics that are about literally nothing. A good story, let alone a good love story, doesn’t need to be complicated.

Speaking of Twilight, if you read YouTube comments at any point during the 2010s, you’ll find plenty about the series. In particular, comments that say something is “still a better love story than Twilight”, particularly on videos that don’t show love at all. And what’s the reasoning behind that? The people who leave these messages aren’t commenting on the unhealthy dynamics depicted in Stephenie Meyer’s writing (because most likely haven’t read it to know about them). They’re subtly conveying the common belief at the time that Twilight was vapid, cheesy, bad writing. It lacks the profundity that they’re looking for. 

But a good love story doesn’t need to be profound; it just needs to capture the humanity of the people involved. Even if it’s primarily a romance, they need to exist outside of their relationship. Each individual needs to be worth rooting for. The relationship needs to be healthy. It doesn’t have to end with a committed relationship, although that would be nice. There needs to be a sense of completion - everyone involved gets something that they want. 

When all of that’s taken into account, the grand romantic gestures feel much sweeter.