The Death of Courtship in Contemporary YA Lit

My friend Ana has been working on a series of deconstruction posts at the center of which is Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Basically, Ana goes through the book with a fine-toothed comb and offers insights during her reading. (Read it and subscribe if you already haven’t.)

When I finished reading a particular ARC, I suggested she do the same using that book because there was so much potential, but it suffered from some serious flaws.

Ana turned the suggestion around and said I should do it. I hemmed and hawed because I’m really not a deconstruction type of girl. I’m afraid I won’t be able to properly convey my ideas coherently, that my objectivity would be horribly skewed by my annoyance. But after thinking more about it, I decided I should at least try. If it works, yay!, and if not, oh well.

What also tipped the scales was my sudden epiphany regarding my annoyance, not only with The Nameless Book, but with most of the contemporary YA lit that’s crossed my path: the complete and utter lack of courtship.

The main characters see each other, decide they’re super-hot, therefore destined to be together, and suddenly they’re in love. Um, that’s not love, that’s infatuation. What’s worse is that there’s not even a reason for the infatuation.

But why not use Twilight, which is a more popular offender? Well, that’s because Twilight isn’t really an offender at all. In my eyes, Edward does court Bella (as does Jacob in New Moon), though not necessarily in the way most people expect (or respect).

And my annoyance is with the death of courtship in general, not the health of said courtship.

To break it down, females often seek out mates who are most capable of protecting them and their offspring. The side effect is that those males tend to be more domineering, overprotective, and aggressive, which sometimes leads to increased danger for said female and her offspring. It’s a fine line to walk.

As humans, we like to think we’ve progressed beyond this—and for the most part, rational thought does take precedent—however, it’s part of our basic survival instinct. (That’s just my way of saying that we haven’t, not really.)

While the perceived dangers have changed (i.e. the bank coming to collect on a debt as opposed to a hyena scavenging food), our desire to do what’s necessary to survive hasn’t, to include finding a mate most likely to protect against having the car repossessed or the house foreclosed. It’s why financial problems often tear families apart. But I digress.

And even though the way males demonstrate those abilities has altered (i.e. being a breadwinner as opposed to spearing a wildebeest), females still get a bit giddy when a man can display a certain amount of physical strength and mental acuity. It plays on that dormant part of human nature. (Finally, those anthropology classes come in handy.)

But, back to Twilight and how Edward courted Bella. All of that was to say, rather than relying on the modern conventions of courtship (think flowers and candy), he relied on the primal conventions. He displayed traits a female would look for in a suitable mate: agility, strength and power, a willingness and ability to protect her.

Though it’s been a couple years since I first read the book, a few illustrative scenes still stand out in my mind:

  • Edward saves Bella from a runaway van using only his arm (strength);
  • Edward caught an apple that fell from Bella’s lunch tray (agility/quick reflexes);
  • Edward saves Bella from a gang of thugs ready to do heaven only knows to her (willingness and ability to protect);
  • Edward pulls away when he and Bella are kissing (he’s so bad-ass, he needs to protect her from himself);
  • Edward watches Bella sleep at night (creepy, yes, but also a display of his omnipresent protection)…

There are actually a lot of other scenes, but you get the idea, right? Edward’s goal throughout the book is, simply, to keep Bella safe. And he leaves no doubt in her mind that he can do it. Ultimately, that’s why the budding romance (however unhealthy) works in Twilight.

Most contemporary YA lit lacks that. Or, in some cases, a misguided attempt to make the heroine seem less feeble than Bella Swan backfires. (Please note that a girl can be tough and still get courted on a primal level, it just needs to be handled with care. Example: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.)

Now, I’m not saying that every man must go out and club something over the head or stalk the object of his affections in order to court her, but he must still court her in some way (and the reader needs to see it)—a pretty face only gets you so far.

Which brings me back to The Nameless Book. I’m not singling it out specifically to be mean or anything, because many titles suffer from the problem, however, it’s the most recent one I’ve read.

The goal of my upcoming deconstruction is to breakdown the romance that brews between E. C. and M. W. and the almost romance with K. B. and outline why it simply didn’t work for me. I may even do a compare and contrast with another title. We’ll see.

(NB: I’m well aware that males also have specific criteria when selecting a potential mate, but I’m excluding that angle because most of the YA romance lit is geared toward girls and women.)

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12 Responses to The Death of Courtship in Contemporary YA Lit

  1. I think you have pin pointed what has been bothering me for a while without realizing it. The same death of courtship is evidenced in “Low Red Moon” and “Demon Girl”. Although in the latter, the males involved do exhibit some strength and do some rescuing. The problem is that it all happens in 1 day!

    I do wish authors took more time to DEVELOP the relationship, or give it to us ready made, because this quickie falling-for thing just kills the story.

    • J. D. Montague says:

      I have that same wish, Charleen. Taking the time to develop relationships will not only make the story go down smoother, but also make it more memorable.

  2. “Now, I’m not saying that every man must go out and club something over the head or stalk the object of his affections in order to court her….”

    Made me laugh (now everyone at office is staring at me).

    I agree and disagree with what you say. I was lucky enough to meet my finance when I was 15 years old. Did I like him immediately, no I though he was a brute, but turns out he’d known about me for many months before I’d actually met him. To the point of where he told my cousin I was going to be his (which I found suitably creepy). I agreed to go out with him (and haven’t been able to shake him in the eight years since, lol). For me the insta-romance/love-no-courtship thing is a reality because it happened to me, and I relate to books that have it (to a degree).

    However, I do agree that it appears way too often now, and is not the reality for most people.

    I still find it sweet though :)

    • J. D. Montague says:

      Hi Penelope,
      Thanks for stopping by. :D

      By sharing the personal story of you and your fiancé, I think you may have bolstered my point without intending to.

      By your own admission, when you first met him, you thought he was a brute…so no instant romance there. ;)

      “[H]e’d known about me for many months before I’d actually met him. To the point of where he told my cousin I was going to be his [wife? or girlfriend?] (which I found suitably creepy).”

      Even something as simple as sending an affirmation to a close friend or loved one that the suitor intends to win the heart of said girl is in itself a form of courtship. (Think of a lion marking his territory.) :)

      “I agreed to go out with him (and haven’t been able to shake him in the eight years since, lol).”

      Now, think back to the earliest days of your relationship, did you see him for the first time and think, “Oh wow, he’s hot, I’m in love.”? And ask yourself why you agreed to go out with him in the first place. (Did someone talk him up? That’s indirect courtship.)

      Plus, chances are he did things which endeared him to you. He courted you in order to keep you. He may not have courted you in a major way (i.e. skywriting or clubbing anything over the head), but maybe he did a number of smaller things. Since I don’t know you or your fiancé, I can’t say for certain.

      And that’s something I wouldn’t have a problem with either…having characters start a tentative relationship with one another and then taking the time to develop it.

      But in most contemporary YA lit, not even that happens. Girl sees boy, girl thinks boy is hot, girl loves boy. Boy doesn’t have to show girl that he’s worthy of her affections.

      If boy does something wrong on a massive scale–which would send most clear-thinking females running in the opposite direction–early on in the relationship, before he’s earned his place, it’s just glossed over and made to seem somehow smexy, when really, it’s not.

      “[instant love] is not the reality for most people.”

      Frankly, I don’t think it’s the reality for any people. (I’m speaking of love in the romantic sense as opposed to kindred love.) The idea of love at first sight is sweet, but I’ve yet to hear of two people meeting for the first time and announcing two minutes later that they love each other and mean it.

      I have, however, heard stories told fondly by older couples (think married 40 and 50 years) where they start off with, “It was love at first sight” and then proceed to tell me all about their courtship which then negated that first statement.

      For authors, it’s about making it seem like love at first sight when in reality, it was love developed over the course of a relationship.

      Gosh, I hope that makes sense. :P

  3. Karen Nilsen says:

    Interesting observation. My parents met in a bar and married two months later and were happily married for 31 years before Mom passed away (Dad, a tough Merchant Marine, tenderly nursed Mom for the last two years of her life–it about broke my heart to see them together like that.) They knew relatively soon after they met that they were destined to be together–they were both very intuitive people and had enough life experience to know what they were looking for in a potential mate. I do believe from their experience and from my own dating experiences that a person can form an accurate intuition about a potential mate early on and perhaps base the feeling of “love at first sight” on that intuition. However, there has to be some interaction between the man and the woman first before this intuition, or psychic flash, can occur. There has to be a why and a how before true love can happen. I think that writers are tempted to avoid scenes showing why and how people fall in love because such scenes are difficult to write, and in our quick fix, instant gratification culture, the subtle cues and tender flirting leading up to the big moment are seen as boring, when really they’re necessary to give the big moment its bang. Books where the characters fall in love instantly for no discernible reason remind me of those silly action movies where things blow up for no reason aside from the adrenaline rush.

    • J. D. Montague says:

      What a beautiful comment, Karen. And you’re very right. I concede there is a bit of the unexplainable where love in concerned, but as an author, it should be explained (or at least shown) to the reader otherwise it’s disingenuous. The length of time spent wooing each other doesn’t so much matter–as evidenced by your parents–as long as the essence of the relationship is clearly translated. If it’s true as you say that writers are tempted to avoid scenes showing why and how people fall in love because such scenes are difficult to write, to me that’s just plain lazy.

      • Karen Nilsen says:

        Thanks! My parents have been a major inspiration to me over the years.
        Although I agree it’s lazy to skip such scenes, I think it may be fear rather than laziness on the part of some authors. It’s difficult to make love/courtship scenes convincing because of all the strong emotions and subtleties of attraction involved–much easier to tell rather than show. Unfortunately, skipping these scenes leads to an unconvincing denouement–as a reader, I end up questioning character motivation if I don’t understand the reasons why a character behaves as he or she does. And once I question character motivation, I end up questioning character development, and then the whole story is a loss for me.

        • Karen Nilsen says:

          Sorry–meant to add something, and I didn’t manage it in the time allotted for editing. When I wrote that some authors may fear writing courtship/love scenes, I didn’t clarify what I meant by fear. Courtship/love scenes, like scenes of intense conflict, provoke a lot of emotion and may stir up an author’s personal issues; hence, the author may subconsciously dull such scenes down or avoid them altogether.

          • J. D. Montague says:

            I think I understand what you meant the first time around, but I appreciate the clarification and I can see what you mean. Fear of dealing with the emotions that are dredged up is a legitimate concern, but I think the authors who consciously power through and use that energy add something visceral and touching to their writing.

            You have some insightful comments. Would you mind if I used them for a spin-off blog post?

  4. Karen Nilsen says:

    I’m flattered :) Since your initial post inspired my comments, feel free to use them as you see fit. I look forward to following your blog~


  5. Jetso (the Chronicler) says:

    I actually find the “dating” model pedaled by romcoms quite limiting when it comes to reflecting how relationships around me (and mine) have formed. There’s often a long period of dancing around the issue, growing affection and “hanging out.” Structured dates that involve food and movie and such feature much less prominently.

    But that is not to say the above isn’t courtship. It very much is, this mutual period dancing around each other.

    I’ve noticed a similar trend in romance novels and I think the issue is twofold:

    1) it’s simply easy to write. Instant love/lust, and in the case of romance novels, instant boners, is easy enough to write. A more gradual period of growing affection and slow relisation is much harder.

    2) it’s shorter. Thus allowing for more time for the plot andor obstacles to come tear the couple apart. The author is often interested in the torments of that forbidden love and the consequences (“I love him so much! But why him?!”) rather than examining the relationship itself. They want to skip to the bit where the love defies death and demons, and the longer it lingers in an examination of the relationship itself, the more likely it is that the flaws of it may become evident.

    Take Bella and Edward. Though above you state much of their “courtship”, Bella actually confesses herself willing to die for Edward before most of it occurs.

    3) the romance of certainy and lack of choice. I think this in part stems from a grass in greener thinking, but note the number of narratives about the apparently modern difficulties of finding Mr Right. The problems involve too much choice and a lack of certainty. “He’s nice and all but is he The One?”

    I theorise that this mirrors the way medieval narratives are about choice (with a proactive lady who spies the knight, decides he is suitable and sends her damsel over to initiate courtship with rings and other presents). They are, to put it simplistically, exercising a choice that they don’t have in real life.

    I’d argue this lack of courtship feeds into the greater themes of destiny and lifemates (etc) that are prominent in romance novels (as well as a certain romanticisation of arranged marriages and matchmaking friends). The underlying theme is certainty. They know from the first moment of love at first sight.

    Sorry for incoherence am typing this on a train.

  6. aravind says:

    This post made me think of this difference-

    Ella Enchanted (the book, published in 1997): protagonist and love interest fall in love over the course of years. They originally are friends, he develops a crush, she eventually does too, then the plot has to be overcome for them to get together, literally a decade or so after they first meet.

    Ella Enchanted (the movie, made in 2004): protagonist and love interest fall in love over three days, the first three days after they met of course.

    This isn’t just a new trope. It’s one that’s hit hard and fast.

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