Over the past few years I read a well-written series of novels, an alternate history with an intriguing magic system, and good along-for-the-ride adventures which appealed to my plot-bunny nature. And yet I dropped the series, due to the nature of the romance.
Romance is not a necessary component of a good book for me (I love early Norton SF, and most of her characters may as well be asexual), but it's fair to say it's an element I like to see, whatever the genre, and which I invariably include in my own writing. The romance in Series X had plenty of potential - the main character was in his late teens, child of a famous family, and deeply interested in magic. He falls hard and fast for a strong-willed, independent and intelligent young woman, who likes but does not fawn over him.
It should have been exactly my cup of tea - I love romances involving independent equals finding what they need in each other. But the more the romance sub-plot developed, the less I wanted to read. I could accept that the competent, assured main character becomes a stammering self-doubter in the presence of the object of his affections, but I didn't enjoy reading him that way. And then, when he foolishly tries to manipulate a situation (for her safety), I was okay with him being called on it and told to stop. But as the next two books dragged through him being chastised, barely forgiven, and finally being tolerated once again, I seriously started hoping he would meet someone else. Because every time his love interest became involved in the story, he became less than the person than he ordinarily was: he became not only a stammering mass of nerves, but also this person of lesser morals who had to be forgiven, to win approval.
This is an approach to romance which is not too rare - an assured, competent main character (almost always a man) who meets a love interest who somehow lessens him. In the cause of pricking his bubble of ego (or humanising him, which I expect is meant to be the aim), she lectures him, bests him effortlessly at his own game, patronises him, or just leaves him looking foolish. For the romance to succeed, he needs to be cut down to size. I call it a Dimunition Romance.
One of the tests I tend to apply to romances, particularly when I'm writing them, is to gender swap the main participants to see whether the story would still be tolerable to me if the characters behaved the same way. Dimunition romances are uncomfortable for me to read when it's a male main character, but it's only clear to me just how much I dislike them when I turn that man into a woman.
A prime current example of this is a (probable) romance which is quite popular among Doctor Who fans - River Song and the Doctor. If the Doctor was female and River Song a man who pranced onto screen, overly affectionate despite the Doctor's obvious discomfort, calling her Sweetie, showing her up as being such a bad driver, and wagging his finger and tutting "Spoilers!" (while tossing out spoilers left, right and centre), then the audience reaction would be...wow, I can just imagine.
Why is it okay to portray a woman doing this to a man?
Dimunition romances = not for me.