One of my jobs as department chair is to re-read assessment test essays that fall into a specific gray zone (the essays are usually scored by a computer; don’t get me started on this). I find it difficult, because the writing prompts are so vague and anodyne that no one could write a good essay in response to them. Can any obstacle be turned to something good? How much free will do we have in our life choices? (I don’t see the actual prompts but I can infer them from the essays). I’m left going with “hey, they can write a sentence!” because logical structure and supporting examples, let alone interesting ideas, are hard to provide in these circumstances.
I was thinking about this as I pondered the theme of this year’s Read a Romance Month: joy. My biggest problem with RARM is that I think it’s a big promotional exercise. But I also think that if you’re soliciting 93 essays, 1. you shouldn’t limit them all to a single theme (won’t we be totally unsurprised by joy by August 31?), and 2. “joy” is so vague and anodyne that it’s hard to say something interesting about it. Celebrating the genre with a focus solely on positive, feel-good terms sells it short. To describe romance fiction, and reading and writing romance, as only about joy, hope, and happiness flattens the genre and our experiences of it, and leaves out a lot of what makes romance fiction great. It suggests such novels can’t, or at least don’t, include the breadth of human emotion and experience.
Well before RARM began, I’d been thinking about this tendency, prompted by a comment lazaraspaste made:
I’m of the opinion that we should abandon the slogan. The slogan being, “Romance is about celebrating women’s desires and fantasies!” It isn’t. At least, it isn’t ONLY about those things. It is also about women’s fears and anxieties or just fear and anxiety full stop sans “women’s”. Romance is a genre about injustice and death, violence and loss, as much as it is a genre about sex and love.
I recalled her words this morning when I read Jessica’s praise of Meredith Duran in Book Riot’s Best of July list:
People often associate romance with lightness, sexiness, and joy, and those are present, but Duran is equally adept at writing heartbreak, pain, and fear, all elements of an intense love relationship. Duran is not only one of my personal favorite authors, but one of the best writers in the genre, and with Lady Be Good she is at the top of her game.
Of course, romance readers and authors alike already know this about the genre. Hence features like Heroes & Heartbreakers’ “Delicious Despair” columns. In its first few days, many of the RARM essayists have gone beyond the prompt word to talk about the sorrows of romance fiction and life as well as the joys, and how sorrow and joy go together.
Here, for instance, is Robin Schone:
But honestly, “joy” is such a subjective term. I sometimes wonder if our love of romance—rather than romance, itself—might not be a deterrent to would-be readers. For example, when I think of joy, I think of precious puppies that never pee on the carpet, mischievous-but-never-malicious children laughing, forever-young women spritzing perfume, and chronically fit men tossing back a beer. . . .
But I don’t think romance is about “joy.” I’m not even sure it’s about romance.
She goes on to describe a letter from a reader who wants those puppies that don’t pee:
She wanted the fantasy of romance.
And those types of romance novels exist. But should they define the genre?
Because that’s not my version of romance. Truthfully, if that’s how romance was promoted to me and I had never before read the genre, I wouldn’t touch it.
If Schone made my point, what am I complaining about?
I still think the prompt invites flattening, anodyne responses, including from the genre’s best writers. A lot of the essays talk about the joy of romance as “escape” from the hard parts of life. And I do think for many of us, a romance novel can provide escape from our own troubles. But they don’t (at least the good ones don’t) depict a life without troubles. If so, how could they give us hope about our own lives? That’s what I mean by “flattening”–if we only talk about joy, we seem to be claiming our genre offers only escapist fantasy, even though we know there’s much more going on in it.
Sherry Thomas, for instance, writes that “Falling in love is one of the most wondrous, most enjoyable experiences there is.” And it is. But anyone who’s read Thomas’s books knows that she knows it also involves terrifying and painful vulnerability. That’s not in her essay. Which leads to her writing this about Pride and Prejudice:
Remember that moment in Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy come across each other accidentally on the grounds of Pemberley? Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of both were overspread with the deepest blush.
Talk about sexual awareness beneath all that decorum and all those layers of very proper historical garments.
Maybe my problem is just that this got my English prof self going. I wouldn’t argue that the blush isn’t at all about attraction. But I think that reading is very much influenced by the BBC’s wet-shirted Darcy (whom Thomas goes on to cite).
In context, the blush is about embarrassment (the word is used twice in the paragraph after they meet; Elizabeth is “overpowered by shame and vexation” at being found there). These two have mortified each other: she by telling him his proposal is “ungentlemanly” and he by showing her how much she has misjudged him and Wickham. Pride and Prejudice is not a book about how enjoyable falling in love is. It’s about being humbled and humiliated so that you can remake yourself into someone worthy of love. (Yes, Austen believes not everyone deserves it). Even at the end, the only one who feels unalloyed joy is Mrs. Bennet, and her rejoicing embarrasses Elizabeth and mars her happiness. I think Austen got her own novel wrong when she said it was “too light and bright and sparkling.” The comedy and wit are necessary to make the pain bearable.
My point is not that Pride and Prejudice is “better” than genre romance because it’s not just about joy and happiness. Nor is it that “serious” literature requires an unhappy ending, or that joy isn’t worth talking about and celebrating. My point is that the happy endings of genre romance are joyous because they come after suffering and struggle. Don’t we always say what happens on the journey to the end is the point? The reason that romance novels can offer hope is not that they depict a perfect, painless fantasy world, but that they insist joy can and does exist alongside pain. It’s a possibility open to all of us. That’s worth celebrating. But you can’t depict joy like that with heart-shaped balloon clusters.