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.