Thursday, June 23, 2011

A little romance

A few days ago, I read a review at Dear Author of what may have been the first official "romance", "The Flame and the Flower". Go take a minute and read the review- I'll wait.

Done? Okay now: oh my God! Whoa! Joan/Sarah F. lays out some writing issues that, I'm sure, were painful to get through. Good for her, because I'm too focused on the plot. Wow. I know I think nothing is more romantic than starting off a relationship with some sexual violence. And I love that this happened to a teenager. This is exactly how I want my girls to start off their lives as adults. (Living off slave labor? Sounds downright idyllic.)

Don't get me wrong. I know there are people who genuinely enjoy bondage, dominance and sadomasochism. But the difference, to my mind, between that and what's going on here is that this character doesn't seem to be aroused by it. It sounds like she tried to flee being raped twice, and was only once successful. She ends up back with her rapist only because she's pregnant, not because she enjoyed it... because it was rape.

If this is indeed the book that birthed the romance genre, I understand why it has such a bad reputation. Still, as someone who wrote something that could be classified as romance, it stings a little to read this comment on Thea Atkinson's blog. I take hits on a regular basis for my feminism- in 2011!- so to know that I am walking into something that could make people think I have retro-femme ideas about how women should conduct themselves in the world makes my heart ache.

I know I'm not the only person with this sensitivity. At the end of 2010, I read "I Think I Love You" by Allison Pearson. I was assured that this was historical fiction, and it sort of was. It centered on a young Welsh-German girl whose life revolved around David Cassidy in the early 70s and who attended his ill-fated concert in England where many were injured and a few died. Fast forward a few decades, and we see our heroine grasp at a chance to meet Cassidy at last.

Historical fiction? Um, maybe, but I would actually think it was more "women's fiction" at this point. But there's more! At the end of the story, the main character ends up with the "second lead", and we know that they go on to have the HEA (Happily Ever After) that's one of the essentials in any romance. Their romance- yes, romance- is also loosely modeled on a certain fairy tale that authors have been using as a template for romance for at least four decades. "Women's fiction" might still be the best categorization, but someone could make a good argument for putting it in "romance".

This wasn't the only thing I read in the last twelve months that was more romantic than I thought it would be based on the editorial reviews- or even the genre it was marketed in; "Blindspot" and even "People of the Book" come to mind. Most of them were good books that I didn't mind reading after I discovered this, but I have to wonder why the publishers hid that, especially when, at least the last time I checked, romances were still selling best out of all genres, especially in e-books. These stories have genuine crossover appeal, and denying that serves to cheapen the genre and perpetuate the notion that romance or any story with romantic elements is ultimately inconsequential and can't carry a deeper theme.

I bet you're thinking my next move will be to outline my plot and defend my main character, but what's bugging me isn't what I like to write but what I like to read. I... like to read romance that doesn't insult my intelligence. I don't need to read it exclusively, but I shouldn't have to feel like every romance I read lowers my IQ by a point. *Of course* HEAs are not as clear cut in real life, but in real life baby boys don't usually survive attacks by serial killers with magical powers, vampires and werewolves don't save young girls from a life of mediocrity, historians do not and will not have the power to create a utopian world and, I'm sorry, Middle Earth does not exist. (Sadly, I realize this means there probably aren't dilithium crystals either.)

What I'm asking is this: am I obligated to feel that an amazing story of a group of people unified through different eras of time by the creation and salvation of a holy book was cheapened because the heroine ended up with something that looked like a Happily Ever After with a man whom I grew to respect and admire? Or am I shallow and inconsequential because I still think about some of the scenes in a historical romance and feel moved and even inspired by someone's commitment to a greater ideal- and person- in the face of adversity?

Here's an even better question: Is Vladimir Nabokov really a better inspiration to have than Judith Krantz? Because they both use sex in their stories, right? Only one wrote a riff on someone's destructive obsession with regaining his youth and another wrote about heroines overcoming early adversity to craft successful, independent lives. Nabokov's wasn't a romance though, so he wins, right?

The answer to all of the above is No. However we're moved or inspired, be it magical creatures, a dream of the future or simply an admirable character- fictional or otherwise- we should enjoy it. If we can't do that, then why read at all?


  1. Thoughtful post. I hadn't read that Dear Reader review, and I felt compelled to add to the KW defense there :-)

    I won't address that here, except to say that more than even being moved and inspired by a book, we should reject any shame for having been moved and inspired by something that affects us in a primal (and occasionally horrifying) way. I haven't read the Twilight books, but I've talked to lots of people who have, and who loved them. So I read the commentary against Meyer with the faint ghost of harsh feminist critique again "bodice-rippers" echoing in my mind.

    It will always mystify me that romance is 50% of the market and yet to hear people talk about it, no one reads it (or enjoys it if they accidentally do :-) HBO and Showtime can depict mechanical quickies without the same condemnation that a romance with the bedroom door open ... or closed, I suppose ... receives.

    What the heck is it about love that both fascinates and frightens the human animal so?

  2. I just want to be clear- I'm not criticizing Meyer here anymore than I am Rowling, Asimov or Tolkien (or *sniff* Roddenberry). I know people who thought the Twilight series was horrible, and I know people who happily spent hours reading it. I haven't read them, so I can't comment. (Don't get me started on what I did see of the movies though; wow, ever hear of direction and lighting?) But I'm not going to backhand anyone a la Stephen King for their writing or their taste. (And isn't it funny to read Stephen King of all people criticizing anyone after all of the smack downs he's had to take?)

    It might not be a surprise to read that I used to love soap operas. I cannot tell you how much guff I've had to take off of people for that. I write "used to" because with maybe one exception, they just aren't that good anymore. I think the networks took their own negative press too seriously and went in the wrong direction. Viewers liked *story* as much as we did pay off, and we weren't tuning in solely for eye-candy. (Tommy Lee Jones is many things, but that's not one of them.)

    I write that because I know everyone cannot get enough of "True Blood"- my husband included. From everything I've heard, it sounds like a soap opera to me! Is it that it has a lot of explicit sex and violence that it escapes the stigma?

    What frightens and fascinates us about love? Sometimes I wonder if it's like everything else and we want to make sure we're, ahem, doing it right :-)

  3. Wow what an amazing post Deborah. This is the first piece of your writing that I read and I totally loved your style without any exaggeration.

    And btw it is quite interesting what you stated in your comment here that perhaps we really try hard to make sure...we just make no mistakes in love...absolute divine perfection :)

  4. Thank you Zaira- how sweet :-) And yes, I suspect I'm not the only one- and certainly the only writer- worried about "getting it wrong".

  5. Hi Deb:

    I'm sorry to hear a comment on my blog upset you. even a little. I followed a link to here from my dashboard and thought I'd pop in to say hello.

    Genre is a tough bird, I think. there will always be folks who don't like paranormal but will read fantasy or don't like chicklit but will read Harlequins. I can't say I'm a die hard romance fan, but I can't say I've never read romance either. That would be a lie. But I do respect folks that can write it. I respect paranormal and fantasy and crime and other genre authors too. Recently, I spent a month writing flash fiction for a variety of blogs in a variety of genres and boy, it was tough. Left me with a whole new respect for writing in a niche. Writing to a niche is tough work because you have to LOVE it enough to make it authentic. And for me, it's about character and authenticity.

    Good luck with your writing, and I'm happy to guest post you anytime over at my blog. Maybe a rebuttal to romance or some such. Let me know.


  6. Thea, I hope you- and the other commenter- on your blog- don't take offense or think I was offended. If it had been an off-hand, "romance sucks/only idiots read romance", then I would have scoffed and moved on. But as someone who is concerned about media literacy, I know where she's coming from. I think we should write what we want to write, but we also have to be cognizant about what we're telling our readers, especially our young readers. We're story tellers, but we're also part of a larger cultural conversation. Yes, to some extent, maybe we should call things as we see them, but some of the most interesting fiction, in my opinion, doesn't just call it but also calls it out. Hawthorne did a really good job of that.

    Part of why I can't do fantasy, sci-fi or paranormal is that I could spend a lot of time getting caught up in the back story and the rules of the universe, both before and after I write. I could easily get lost. And I love a good mystery or suspense, but I can't do it. I not only admire the people who can, I root for them. Of all of the things I've heard about publishing recently, the news that mystery/suspense has weak sales is the most disturbing to me.

    That is the sweetest offer- thank you. I'd like to take you up on that as soon as I get my courage up, so it might be a little while :-)

  7. ah, that's so good to know. I'm relieved and I'm glad you weren't offended. I think discussion drives us to think deeper and love getting comments on my blog for just that reason.

    GEt thy courage up! I'd love to have you over.

    btw: if you think mystery sales seem weak, try litfic. ugh.