Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts and discussion around the topic of instalove (probably due to Paola’s Instalove 101 Event), and it’s no surprise. Instalove is a very polarizing topic. Sometimes we just casually complain about it, and other times it can inspire post-long rants about the phenomenon. So what is it about instalove that drives us mad? What does that say about us? And why are readers so divided on the topic?
Instalove: A Defintion
Defining instalove is actually quite difficult, because it is a relative phenomenon. This means that for many readers reading a single story, some will categorize the love story as instalove and others will argue that it was not instalove. So it is important for me to define what I consider instalove for the purpose of this post.
Instalove is when two characters fall in love immediately, often without knowing each other beyond physical appearances or a single conversation. An important feature of instalove is that this moment seals the deal for long-term (often forever) love between the two characters. Sometimes the bond is created by a supernatural element (eg, fate or destiny), but that is not always the case.
It is not a requirement that instalove be first love, but that is often the case. The characters may have had serious or non-serious relationships in the past. For the purposes of this debate, I am limiting my definition to instalove as it appears in young adult novels. I read far more YA novels than adult novels, so I’m going to work with what I know (though please feel free to discuss instalove in adult novels in the comments!).
Both Sides of the Debate
So what is the debate? On one side, there are many readers who hate instalove with a fiery passion. In general, the argument is that this is a sign of poor writing on the part of the author. Instalove is convenient to write, but fails to give a reason for two characters deciding to fall in forever-love with each other. In short, instalove does not feel authentic to these readers. It feels like a contrived fantasy, and the resulting romance feels fake as well.
Defenders of instalove argue that instalove happens in the real world. It is not unusual for married or long-term partners to explain that they just KNEW that their partner was THE ONE when they met. Some of these partnerships even occur at a young age, with couples starting life-long relationships in middle or high school. It does happen, and defenders of instalove like that these relations are a mirror of their own experiences. And for those who are not in forever-love just yet, they believe (and like to believe) that such a relationship is possible, either for themselves or others, and like to read about it.
The Problem With Instalove
Instalove is easy to write, especially considering the length of the average YA novel (50,000 to 80,000 words, or 250-350 pages). Authors do not have a whole lot of real estate for developing more than one relationship, especially if they are trying to add other elements to the plot as well (world building, conflict, historical elements, a mystery, etc). Moreover, YA protagonists are young. They have years and years ahead of them, and readers are never told if the “whirlwind romance” actually extends beyond the last page of the novel. In other words, forever does extend beyond high school graduation. Think of all the couples you know that broke up over Thanksgiving/Christmas break in the first year in college. They are all determined that they will be the couple to defy the statistics (and yes, some couples do), but most do not survive the transition.
While I acknowledged that instalove might exist in the real world, I feel it is overrepresented in adolescent literature. A lot relationships start out with a spark of attraction, yes. We might even call this insta-attraction or lust. This might even turn into a relationship. Maybe even love. But the vast majority of these end. Every spark does not equal life-partner, but looking at literature would give us the false belief that it does. YA literature would lead us to believe that he phenomenon is more common than it actually is. Which is fine — books are filled with all sorts of fantasy elements that do not exist in the real world. This becomes problematic when teenagers do not realize that instalove may not be their personal reality. Readers can easily understand that they will not ever see a unicorn or attend Hogwarts (as much as we may want to!), but the reality of instantaneous forever love with the perfect partner can be more of a gray area.
In fact, I would argue that this is a dangerous belief for teenagers to hope for. In the modern culture of hookups and casual intimacy, relationships are incredibly difficult to navigate. The way our culture socializes boys and girls can be very different, and this does not always result in healthy relationships as teens date with cross-purposes. In the beginning, lust can look a lot like love. For those who do meet their forever-love in high school, the lust-to-love transition is a positive one. But for many couples, shifting feelings and life changes can mean the end of a relationship. This is a good, even healthy pattern, but not one that is always represented in adolescent literature.
I would argue the prevalence of instalove can make the natural ending of adolescent relationships feel like a failure. It can also convince young adults to stay in unhealthy relationships. Literature, and much of popular culture, romanticizes the ideal of “the One.” The boys in these books are bad boys who turn good for the right girl. They are the previously-unnoticed boy-next-door. The boys are sensitive, romantic, and show up on the girl’s porch with flowers after a fight. Conflicts are often just misunderstandings that bring the lovers close together. And the boys never engage in uncomfortable sexual pressure or coercion, because they respect their girlfriends’ sexual boundaries. In reality, some boys lie and some boys coerce and some boys manipulate. Some boys never apologize. Some conflicts are not just misunderstandings. Of course, some boys do not do these things. And many girls do, and some do not. People change, people grow apart, and people meet other people who are a better romantic fit. The point is that it is healthy and normal for relationships to end for myriad reasons, but it is not sexy or romantic to consider these possibilities in novels or in the start of a new relationship.
Books show us a million beautiful, butterfly-inducing ways a relationship can start, but very few healthy examples of how they might end. This leads to the false assumption that happy endings are forever, and instalove is normal. Of course, this discussion also leaves out how instalove is largely a heterosexual phenomenon, and that many LGBTQ novels are not as fixated on instantaneous love — a topic that could deserve a whole post of its own (hmm, I’m writing that down). So yes, let it be known that I am not a fan of instalove, and I would like to see less of it in YA literature.
Okay, now I want to hear from my readers: what are your thoughts on instalove? I’ve included these book covers to get you thinking both about the theory of instalove AND how it has played out in actual novels. These are six books where I could make an argument for instalove. Do you love instalove? Hate it? Agree or disagree with my selections below? Have others to add? Let’s open the debate in the comments!