Pride & Joy

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.

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10 Responses to Pride & Joy

  1. Kaetrin says:

    Yes. This.

    My point is that the happy endings of genre romance 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.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      To be clear, I don’t think selecting “joy” as a prompt was meant to erase or deny this, and I noticed some of the posters saying similar things. But I think the overall effect of a single word as a prompt is oversimplification. Especially if it comes with an emphasis on celebrating romance and seeing at as a positive force.

  2. Sunita says:

    I have Thoughts about how pleasure, happiness, and joy are distinct emotions, and how those distinctions, matter, but I will spare you those. 🙂

    If we have to have Read A Romance month, I’d love to see one without a prompt. I wonder what we’d get then.

    Great post! I definitely read for the non-joyous parts of the journey, even though I’m not a fan of lots of angst. But the flip side of joy, happiness, and pleasure, are despair, misery, discomfort, and lots of other negatives. It’s the experience of the entire journey that makes the genre so distinctive to me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t see how you could have a journey without downs as well as ups (and again, I think writers would agree with this–the prompt just doesn’t encourage talking about it).

      I don’t see how 93 (93!) posts on one topic, even one this broad, is a good idea.

      I don’t think all those emotions or states are the same either. I meant them as examples of the kinds of positive terms people use about romance. I’d agree with Schone that the definition of “joy” is somewhat subjective. I read a few of the interviews, and when people were asked to talk about something that gave them joy, it was more what I’d call contentment or happiness. I see joy as more extreme than those, and perhaps that’s why it’s not something I associate that strongly with romance (or any) reading. I’d be more likely to say reading brings me pleasure than joy.

      I know we’ve talked about this, but the desire to show romance as a positive force of some kind, making life better, is odd to me. I blame it on the general idea that reading makes you a “better person.” I’ve read plenty and I’m not sure I’d claim reading changed me or made me better (look at me being critical of people’s joy!). Sometimes it gave me ways of articulating things I already believed or thought. But why should reading have to affect our character, or improve our lives or moods, have some kind of utilitarian value, to have A value?

      • Sunita says:

        I think it’s related to the argument that the romance genre is about empowering readers, specifically women readers. It’s treating novels as aspirational, as vehicles to solve (in the text, through the characters) things we don’t like about the world around us, and once you go down that road, there’s going to be more of a didactic, pedagogical emphasis. That in turn makes novels that don’t do that seem like they’re not about anything, because they aren’t part of the general project.

        Even contemporary romances I really like and think are very good are sometimes careful to separate the heroine’s personal journey (and sometimes the hero’s journey too) from the development of the relationship. Threading the needle between the Scylla of “cured by True Love” and the Charybdis of “my True Love is compartmentalized from the rest of my life” is really tricky. And in historicals it almost never works for me, because it often does it by ignoring or distorting the structures in which the heroine and hero are enmeshed.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          One thing I meant to say in the original post is that I am not at all questioning the experience of writers and readers who say that romance fiction gave them hope, changed their lives, brings them joy, taught them things, etc. I totally believe it CAN do that.

          My problem is with universalizing that, with saying that is MUST do that, that’s its purpose, or that it ALWAYS does that. That magically, we learn good things from romance fiction but never bad (where can parents get some of that magic?). Where does that leave people when they are not having those experiences? those who turn to TV or thrillers or no stories at all when they’re going through a hard time, those who can’t write through grief or depression? Are they doing it wrong?

          Writing can be hard and isolating and reminding people of the joy it can also bring is important (this is something I deal with in my job, too–it’s easy to complain about the bad parts and forget the things that drew me to it in the first place). But things like the well-attended panel on Writing Through Depression at RWA are a reminder that if we ONLY dwell on the joy we’re going to leave some experiences out and maybe make those people feel worse. It’s tricky for something like RARM, which is about “celebrating.” But what if romance-writing DIDN’T bring you joy or change your life, but you still do it well and have lots to say about it? What are you allowed to talk about?

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I was thinking as I read this about Mary Balogh and how well she writes embarrassment. Or Cecilia Grant with those discomfiting sex scenes. Or Seidel with her intellect, the way she treats her characters as psychological puzzles to solve. There are so many reasons to read in the genre besides joy.

    At the same time, it’s easy to zero in on the joy because of the happy ending. The goal of every romance is to bring the couple into a happy, even joyous union (witness the number of corny joy out the butt epilogues). I don’t know how many readers experience romance this way, but I think there’s sometimes an emotional high that comes with reading it, and like any other high, it can be habit forming. I’ve sometimes wondered if this isn’t part of why romance readers read so many books.

    I wonder, too, if we’re at a moment where that emotional high is being privileged over the other things romance has to bring to the table. I’ve read a few buzzed about books recently that were tremendous fun, but didn’t have much substance. In an inundated market, it seems like those are the easiest books to find and talk up. I hope we don’t lose other kinds of books because of it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The difficult, painful scenes are often when I most identify with the characters. The joyful moments can feel less particular and more conventional to the genres (is it SuperWendy who talks about unicorns farting rainbows in epilogues?). Maybe Tolstoy was on to something when he said all happy families are alike (I don’t really think so–maybe it’s harder to write joy in a unique way?).

      The happy ending is such a defining feature of the genre that I do think it’s easy to have it become the focus of celebrations/praise. It’s certainly one reason I like reading romance. And I think because it’s so often a point of attack or criticism, it feels extra urgent to defend the HEA as a valid and valuable literary choice. When I was pondering this post–I’d been writing it in my head all day and had to get it out–I thought about the “emotional justice” part of the RWA definition, and I wonder if that is part of why I feel sorrow, or struggle, or pain is as necessary to the genre as joy: does there have to be some “injustice” or wrong to be rectified by the happy ending? I think there does.

  4. lawless says:

    I spaced on out replying to this after it was originally posted. My feelings about Read a Romance Month were pretty well summed up by Ridley, whose exact words I forget but who pegged it for the promotional ploy it is. Some subgenres, like historical or queer romance (despite the fact it shouldn’t be considered a subgenre, given that its audience isn’t as wide, it is) may need our help or support, but romance as a whole doesn’t, so the whole thing comes off as unbalanced (because it only dwells on the positives) and commercial. Celebrate Romance Month may be closer to a concept I could more easily support. Which makes me wonder: Will there be any dedicated queer romance authors among the 93? Or just those who’ve written “mixed” (m/f and other) romance?

    I think the impulse to show romance as a positive force is a reaction to outside criticism and the general derision aimed at the genre. So celebrating romance makes sense, and if that’s your theme, avoiding the negative also makes sense. But if it’s going to bill itself as Read a Romance Month and be promotional, then we ought to be talking about the entire genre, including its flaws. In my case, the flaws sometimes includes the HEA requirement and how strictly readers interpret that (as in a HFN is often better for me and for the story, imo). The HEA is an integral part of the best, most convincing romances, but just as it’s much harder to pull off writing a truly good (though not perfect) character who’s three-dimensional and interesting than a bad guy, it’s much harder to write a happy ending that’s satisfying, believable, and well-crafted than something more tragic or open-ended. Some writers, like Jane Austen (I realize she’s not genre romance) and Megan Hart focus almost entirely on the journey and let the ending more or less take care of itself.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I didn’t read–or at least remember–the whole list of contributors so I’m not sure about your question re. m/m. I do remember that last year Sarah (Frantz) Lyons wrote a post for it. I suspect the choices are partly a function of whom the organizer, Bobbi Dumas, is connected to.

      Oh, Austen is famous for rushing her endings, and things like little or no dialogue in the (successful) proposal scenes. Because the big happy payoff isn’t what interests her, but what they learn to get them to that point.

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