When one hears people denigrating Twilight and other books meant for teenage girls, one often hears the complaint that such books are angst-ridden. This is often said as if being angst-ridden is a fault in and of itself.
Adam and Eve, the original angsty love story
When I hear this, it reminds me of my theory that Twilight’s main vice is that it has spread beyond its intended readership. (Mind you, I haven’t read Twilight myself. I don’t like vampires for personal reasons. I am judging from the reactions of those who like it and of those who do not.)
Because when it comes to teenage girls:
Angst is not a bug, folks, it’s a feature!
Angst, heartbreak, is what we girls daydream about, especially back when we were tweens. When I was 12, I would lay in bed at night thinking of sadder and sadder romantic situations. I loved doing this. (Many of the tragic scenarios involved Captain Kirk or Spock or maybe Prince Caspian suffering a deadly wound or disease or some other heartbreakingly sad situation.) Eventually, I got so good at imagining heartbreaking scenarios I could make myself cry.
Why? Why would a girl want to make herself cry? Well, why would a young man want to undergo the grueling discomfort of an adventure? Dare violence, endure explosions?
For a hero to be great, he has to face a fearsome beast and overcome it. The same thing is true for love. For love to conquer all. It has to overcome the pain within, the darkness and the sorrows in our heart.
Adventure would be dull if the hero just walked up and killed the dragon. Without challenge, there is no story. Romances, too, are dull if there are no huge obstacles to overcome. How can the hero prove his worth, if he does not stay the course despite the terrible odds? The more obstacles overcome by the lovers, the more real their love seems.
The emotion which obstacles to love produces in the feminine heart is: angst.
This is what I think most readers are missing when they mock stories meant for teenage girls. The very thing they criticize it for having is the thing that makes it valuable to the young girl. So often, I hear the complain that a story is angst-ridden, as if that alone was evidence of its poor quality. Even many adult women tend to forget they once felt that way—the ones who no longer read tearjerkers.
It is not the fact that there is angst, but that it is often not done well, that leads people to denigrate it. Angst in romances is a lot like violence in action stories. A good action story has a brave hero, a great plot…and lots of violence and explosions. A cheep action story tries to replace the hero and plot with more blood and more explosions. Angst works the same way.
A really good heartbreaking, angsty story has problems that are outside of the main character’s control and these problems threaten to keep her from a happiness that she cannot live without. The main character expresses her pain and sorrow as she faces these terrible situations. Bad angsty stories just consist of stupid misunderstandings—things that are in the main character’s control but which she does not avoid.
Watching characters whine over problems they could avoid tends to annoy people. A good deal of angst’s bad reputation comes from this.
If no one wanted angst in stories, how could have an entire industry—soap operas—existed for well over half a century now running on nothing but angst-laden tales?
I mentioned that angst was the emotion in a young girl’s heart when she feels the pain of star-crossed love. It is also the emotion of facing problems that are outside of one’s control. This is a big issue for many teenage girls, to whom it sometimes seems as if everything significant is outside their control.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with friends about the movie Suckerpunch. In this movie, a girl in an insane asylum imagines she is an inmate in a brothel, where she dances and imagines she’s off fighting baddies. (If you haven’t seen it, yes, it’s that weird…and more.)
My friend said he could not understand why someone in a bad place would imagine they were in a worse place. But, he noted that some of his female friends, especially those who had suffered some kind of abuse, really emphasized with this and thought it made sense.
I tried to explain to him why one does this: imagines one is in a worse place when things were bad. I could not quite do it, but it is something like this:
There is somewhere in the back of the feminine psyche—way, way, way back—an unspoken assumption that sorrow can only get so bad. The thought is that if you can just pile on enough heartbreak, you will, some day, hit the breaking point—where either the universe itself shatters and rights everything that is wrong or, like an elf, you die of a broken heart.
That idea—that elf maids are hard to kill physically but more vulnerable to perishing from heartbreak—is one that goes very well with angst. Because the idea that no matter how sad you are, you are going to get over it eventually cuts against the premise that love is all and the only thing worth living for.
One cannot help being curious, then as to where this breaking point is? How much sorrow can I suffer before I cannot go on? How much can Juliet endure before she gives up? How much can Prince Charming overcome?
The greater the amount of heartbreak overcome, the greater the victory of love.
Because if love is worth having, then it will triumph, victorious, and the lovers will come together, despite all.
And that, by the way, is the unspoken assumption of all romances: that the couple is destined to be together. They belong together, and if they do not, their lives with be warped and ruined. There is something in their togetherness that is so important that they—and the entire universe—cannot function, cannot become whole, without it.*
If you buy into this premise…the romance genre makes sense, and stories of heartbreak and angst, when well done, will delight your heart.
If you don’t, they will makes no sense at all.
*A reader asked: what about love triangles. In a true romance, the assumption is always there that the true lovers will find their way through the triangle and triumph together. The girl may not know at first which love is the one meant to triumph, the story is then about her coming to recognize it. But the assumption that there is one right boy and he is The One is there. If it is not there, the story is not properly a romance. It becomes instead a harem comedy or some other type of literature.