Hard Work

I was thinking about a review that I read for Ruthie Knox’s latest novella, Making It Last — which in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read yet — specifically of a line in which the reviewer called it and other ‘marriage in trouble’ romances Important.

I can’t find the exact review now; I don’t mean to establish a strawman. I doubt the reviewer capitalized Important, and yet I sensed the emphasis, the sort of 18th century abstract, personified ideal attached to the pronouncement.

Certainly it is accurate to say happily ever afters do not simply happen. They must be cultivated and protected. Relationships are, as your aunt explained to you at your bridal shower, hard work.

More seriously, not every moment of a long-term relationship is sunshine and flowers and champagne. The trust that you build up in the difficult moments (and years) bears fruit in the balance. You love each other more for the wee small hours when you’re caring together for a sick child, or for the unconditional support he offers you during a professional crisis, etc. I’ve been in my relationship for 14 years (married for 9 of those); this is not simply something I believe, but something I live.

To the extent that romance doesn’t represent past the happy ever after and that ‘marriage in trouble’ romances are corrective, I am behind this designation. And yet…

Sometimes when I hear discourse about marriage in the United States today, I wonder why anyone would want to get married. We’re told over and over again that marriage is hard (even Beyonce says so!). No doubt this reality should be represented along with the flowers and celebrations that are so much more fun and so much less real.

But must we talk about narratives like this?

Because once we’ve said representations of the choices one makes to prioritize a relationship are Important, once we’ve found fifty different ways of expressing just how much work marriage requires, I sort of feel like what we’ve done is put a big ole sticker on the cover that reads “HIGH IN FIBER.”

In part, I’m worried because I write high-fiber books. My first romance, Brave in Heart, is set during the American Civil War. I wanted it to read like it could have been written in 1860, with these old fashioned grammatical forms and diction. Did I mention also the war and imminent death and politics and slavery?

Right now, I’m writing a contemporary series that plays out against the background of professional politics. There are pages and pages of conflict about public policy, corporate giving scandals, etc. But hey, isn’t it romantic?

I don’t think anything I’ve written is Important, but I do worry that when I describe my books, they sound like work.

Hard work as a reader can pay off. I adore Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove. Every time I re-read it, I’m always astonished how long it takes me to read every page, but how much James accomplishes therein. The introduction of Susan Stringham Shepherd is a sight to behold. She’s a minor character, but give James a few pages, and we know everything about her, and not in a precious, Dickensian way. We know where she grew up, what her school experience was like, everything about her marriage. Beyond the bare facts, we have a sense of her as a person. Her worldview. Her values. Her disappointments.

Yet despite my love for the text, I don’t read it more often than once every two or three years. I’m simply not always up for spending 10 minutes fumbling with the meaning of a single, paragraph-long sentence that must be diagrammed to be understood.

It’s not, of course, a zero-sum game. Sometimes I want James, sometimes I want something important, and sometimes…not.

Wait, stay with me. In my defense, I realize that that this an unilluminating observation. Like no kidding we read different books in different moods or sometimes even the same book in different moods. I’ve done lazy re-reads of Pride and Prejudice and intense re-examinations and everything in between. What I’m trying to interrogate is what happens when we say, “This book is Important.” Particularly when the book in question is genre fiction.

A few weeks ago, I considered the “what” of romance. This is a companion post in the “why” column.

The thing that moves marriage from merely hard work to “something I want to spend the rest of my life doing” is love. If you love your partner, if you’re compatible, you don’t care that struggles await you. You will do the work, you make the sacrifices, and you will choose the relationship again and again because this is your best beloved.

The thing that moves a book from being Important to being worthwhile is artistic success. If a book is good, if it is working for you — and yes, for those playing along at home, I still haven’t tackled the tricky question of what that means; the “how” post is forthcoming — then the work of reading disappears into the pleasures of it. It’s like those hidden vegetable cookbooks that are suddenly so popular — you don’t even notice the fiber! — and this is surely what the reviewer meant in reference to Ms. Knox.

But as someone who’s still working on craft I struggle without how to write the high-fiber book that will also find readers, the Important book that’s also good with the potential to be popular. It’s a grail quest, I tell you. The only answer I can find is both painfully obvious and relentlessly comforting — say it with me now, once more with feeling, hard work.

9 thoughts on “Hard Work

  1. I love this post. I have a moue of discomfort … sorry, reviewer, I remember reading this too, but can’t remember where … when literature, yes, romance too, I consider it literary, is Important because it is functional, good-for-you, therapeutic, didactic, and/or sheds light on an Important issue. I’m a little nonplussed by this; what makes, no pun intended, “Making It Last,” better than a cupcake-ridden froth of romantic comedy because it’s more “serious” in subject matter? That’s privileging content, isn’t it? And literature is only part content. (James is certainly a testament to that!)

    On the flip side of that, does this make me an aesthete? And then the quandary of subjectivity and sensibility comes up … you see, I’ve never read a James novel I could abide; those long, convoluted sentences drive me batty. Yet, when Proust does it, in French to boot, I love it. I don’t have any interesting answers for you, but I loved reading this and wanted to add a humble comment.

    P.S. I really liked “Making It Last” and I’m a spinster without any experience of marriage, other than married friends and colleagues, but it spoke to me. I never once thought it was Important though, and neither are James or Proust. What art can be, I think in a haze of apologetic confusion, is, for want to a better word, revelatory. (Mazel tov on the 14 years!)

    1. The original title for this post was, “Trust me, it will only sting for a minute,” but that seemed wordy. It is, however, what I hear when someone tells me that a novel is Important. “Important” is like the reviewer equivalent of saying a book has a good personality: not comforting if we’re heading out on a blind date together.

      I like revelatory as a category. I want to leave a book having been moved, having seen something about human nature that astonished or surprised or delighted me, not because the book has done anything as prosaic as to instruct, but through fantastical or honest representation.

      Yeah, I’m not looking forward to writing the “how” post whenever I get there. ; )

  2. I agree with “moved … astonished, or surprised, or delighted.” And I would add, as a source of pleasure, recognition, not in the sense of something I’ve articulated, but something that the writer articulates for me and that I often couldn’t for myself. I like those solitary nodding moments when I’m reading. I look forward to the “how” post. ;)

    1. Have you seen The History Boys? I think often of the moment when the teacher says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” Yup, that.

      And we’ll see if I’m ever brave enough to write about how I think books should — or can — be read.

      1. I have seen and loved THE HISTORY BOYS, but didn’t remember that moment. Heart-breaking film … great scene. Thank you for reminding me.

        Please do write it. I’m fascinated by the idea.

  3. To continue the marriage metaphor, you don’t arrive at success in marriage overnight. Your 50th wedding anniversary takes 50 years to get to, 50 years of surviving sharing your life with the same person day in and out.
    I think the key to writing success might be similar–day after day of honing your craft, polishing this, rewriting that, throwing out entire scenes. (Or chapters. Or entire books!) Until one day, years later, you’ve grabbed that brass ring. Then you wake up and do it all over again the next day. :)

    As for important books, I find that what I read falls into two catagories–romances I call chewy, that I can let my mind gnaw on for a while like a dog with a bone, or ones that transportive, where all I care about is that those two crazy kids get together in the end. Rarely do the two come together though, but I’m OK with that. I suppose those novels would be your example of how the work of reading disappears into the pleasure, but sometimes work IS pleasure for me. But I also don’t get quite as much intellectual stimulation these days as I used to. ;)

    1. I’ve been thinking about this distinction for a few days, and I like it, though I feel like the work can show more in a transportive novel. Like if all I care about is how the crazy kids are going to get together, then I feel like I’m seeing the author’s work very clearly. I get transported out of the book so to speak. “How is she,” the book’s author, “going to get herself out of this mess?” I’ll think.

      Whereas in a chewy book, the author’s work can disappear (the book erases its origins in labor, as Marx might say) because I’m swept up in the emotion, or in thinking about some issue the book raised, not because I’m thinking about the mechanics of the plot.

      I need to think more about this, but Marshall McLuhan’s hot/cold media theory might be helpful here.

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