Stranger than Fiction

I wrote–am writing–a series of contemporary romances set in and around American politics. The first one plays out against a budget negotiation. In the third act, the clock is running low on a possible a government shutdown when…okay, you’re going to have to read the book when it releases in April (APRIL!) to find out. But it should come as no surprise that as I’ve been working through my edits, I’ve been watching current events with more than my usual level of interest.

I am a very long-standing political junkie. When I was a kid, I embraced the gamesmanship of it, the pageantry. If war is politics by other means, as von Clausewitz tells us, then elections seemed like politics by metaphor. I was obsessed.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 1988 election with my family. They coded the maps differently then. I remember watching the country slowly filling up with Republican blue and imaging a blue tide sweeping the nation. As if elections represented something real and permanent and not a choice between not-all-together different candidates, likely all rich white men okayed by party bosses. The winners, chosen by a small majority of the percentage of the enfranchised who choose to vote, likely going on to careers of no import in a system where the outcomes resolve conflicts ground out in decades prior, like the 2004 election litigating issues from circa 1972.

In college, politics stopped seeming like a game. I became involved with a number of issue-based causes, including sexual and relationship violence response and prevention, which led to the years I spent in Washington <redacted>. Then I left DC for graduate school, for a far more healthy relationship with books and nineteenth-century periodicals. And by far more healthy, I mean not at all healthy.

For me, politics is 90% cynicism and 10% fervent, irrational, glowing hope. While I listen to Americans talk about the government shutdown today, I share all of their frustrations even as I want to scream, “But we have to sleep in the bed we’ve made! We are complicit in this system!”

And if we made it, we can unmake it. We can make it better.

Against history, against empirical evidence to the contrary, I believe that. I believe we are empowered and choose not to act. I believe we can be and do better. Alone and collectively.

So while I watch the news, I’ll be dreaming up plots. Plots about the overworked, largely powerless, aides who are working on too little sleep and too much caffeine to enact dreams conjured about a Washington that doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, existed.

And none of those plots will be stranger or less realistic than what’s happening on the Hill today.

(Edited for clarity.)

Politics and the Romance Novel

Go ahead and get a cup of tea, this might go on for a while.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the literary marketplace as a fiction writer and literary scholar, pondering questions like, does the buying and selling of art for money detract from aesthetics? What pressures does the marketplace put on writers? What types of fiction (in terms of form and content) will perform well on the market? Are literary gatekeepers (e.g., editors, publishers, marketing people, critics, agents, etc.) correct in their assessments about marketability? And so on.

One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. (ETA: it’s two years since I wrote this, but this post at AAR is an excellent example of someone complaining about authors “adding” politics to romance novels.) Many believe readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.

This idea may be related to the stagnation in historical romantic fiction that’s been widely explored in the past month (see for example this recent post at Dear Author). A novel about upper-class white people in the Regency period tends to be seen as apolitical and thus preferable to a novel about upper-class white people in Africa in the early 20th century (which reeks of colonialism), for example.

I’d like to offer a response to the truism arguing for a different, more expansive, notion of the political. I’m invested in this question because the books I’ve written outside the mainstream vis-a-vis the political, but also because I think it’s pertinent to how we see the genre.

Continue reading “Politics and the Romance Novel”

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