Purple Haze

…or more precisely, why I don’t think all romance is properly categorized as containing purple prose–and why I don’t think that would be bad even if it were true.

What precisely is purple prose? According to A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman (8th Edition), a “purple patch” is

Now and then authors in a strongly emotional passage will give free play to most of the stylistic tricks in their bag. They will write prose intensely colorful and more than usually rhythmic. When there is an unusual piling up of these devices in such a way as to suggest standing out a self-conscious literary effort, the section is spoken of as a purple patch … Although sometimes used in a nonevaluative, descriptive sense, the term is more often employed derogatorily. (421)

I eliminated a few sentences explaining the reference to Horace, but this is a workable definition. Purple prose is excessively descriptive for its context and that, therefore, draws attention to itself.

Genre romance regularly stands accused of trafficking in purple prose. The Missouri Review ran a column in 2013 comparing Nora Robert’s descriptions of sex (“absurd”) to Nabokov’s in Lolita (“poetic”). Such accusations are so common that AAR use to run a purple prose parody contest. And certainly love scenes lend themselves to description. The Literary Review awards an annual bad sex in fiction award–one that invariably goes to a literary novel.

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Romance and Feminism

I’ll post a version of this at Dear Author too, but I want to respond to Robin’s post from this morning about romance and feminism. Her thesis is, “Romance is not a feminist genre – and that it doesn’t have to be for us to enjoy, celebrate, appreciate, and feel empowered and liberated by it.” I agree that feminism isn’t the sine qua non of literary merit; it isn’t the only thing books can and should be and isn’t the only way women can be empowered and liberated by reading.

Hers is a definitional argument. Robin says that in order to consider romance feminist we’d have to use a definition like, “Romance celebrates women” or “empowers women.” I agree that’s weak sauce. Such definitions aren’t good for feminism or romance.

Here’s what I’d offer instead: feminism is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (bell hooks, Feminism is For Everybody, viii). Or maybe a “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes; the movement organized around this belief” (Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism, 13). To my view, feminist writers, scholars, practitioners would (should?) share a few assumptions about the world: that gender is a pervasive social construct; that systems of oppression are interlocking; and that equality will require the dismantling of those systems and the creation of new relationships, new ways of being in the world.

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Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here

I was thinking about Louis Althusser…as one does. I have a long-time, complicated relationship with the neo-Marxists. More specifically, I’m fascinated by the Frankfurt School (and would like to write a romance set in a fictional version of it), but I’ve read many of the later, post-WWII generation of Marxian theorists too.

Althusser is not, to be clear, my philosophical boyfriend: he had a troubled personal life, with the whole killing his wife thing, so that honor belongs to Jurgen Habermas.

(Hey, Jurgen. It’s been a while. You’re looking good. Remember that time I saw you speak about democracy and communication and it was like we were the only people in the room?)

Anyway, I was thinking about the essay Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus. In the most famous section, Althusser discusses how ideologically-driven societies (like our own capitalist one) require subjects to function. For him, subjectivity is a self-conscious identity–indicated by things like interiority and agency–that’s produced by an ideological society; the entire thing is pretty circular. We’re products of our education, interpretive communities, social practices, etc. and the ideological state produces people in its image who think they have their own desires, choices, thoughts, and so on but who are merely doing exactly what the state wants them to do–like we think we have a choice about what we drink, but it all comes down to Coke vs. Pepsi. And this goes on replicating itself forever. (Except when it doesn’t.)

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The Dashwood Rule

If you are a person who reads about media on the Internet, you’re probably familiar with the Bechdel Test. Taking its name from Alison Bechdel a Gilmore Girls actress (ETA: or not. Yeah, I’m an idiot. It’s actually named after MacArthur Genius Grant winner Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Fun Home is way super awesome. I’m going to leave this error here so we can all laugh at my silliness, which is legend), the Bechdel Test grades books/movies/TV shows/etc. on the basis of whether they include two or more named female characters talking about something besides men. It is astonishing how much media, and specifically media targeted at women, fails to meet this standard. Even within genre romance, in which female friendships are frequently represented, not every book passes the Bechdel Test.

Over the weekend, I read Erin Satie’s excellent historical romance The Secret Heart. One of the things I liked about the book was not just that it passed the Bechdel Test–the heroine, Caro, and her close friend, Daphne, discuss art and paint–but that the hero and heroine have conversations about things other than each other and their relationship.

For example, early in the book Caro and Adam talk about their respective (and suspect) passions, ballet and boxing. Caro explains,

“Dancing makes me feel powerful. In control. Like— I don’t know— a watchmaker— and my body is the watch— and some people say God is like a watchmaker—”

“So dancing makes you feel like God?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know, maybe a little.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts and hunched her shoulders, tipping her chin into her chest. “I don’t mean it like that.”

“Like what?” Adam snorted. “Blasphemy?”

“It’s just. So, God the watchmaker.” She raised her arms and let her hands illustrate her words as she spoke, enthusiastic despite herself. “He builds the whole universe”— she mimed a child stacking blocks—“ and he winds it up”— the fingers of one hand twisted while the other held her imaginary watch steady—“ and lets it go, and then…” She flicked her fingers wide, miming a starburst. “Everything works!”

She glanced in his direction, something sad and solemn in her expression. “Except that the universe is nothing like a watch. It can’t be. It’s full of living things.”

(Kindle Locations 446-453)

As good passages tend to be, it’s wonderful on several levels, but for the moment, I want to focus on how the conversation reveals the characters’ philosophies about the world. Caro and Adam pursue their arts for disparate reasons, seeing the relationship between their bodies and their human-ness differently, which is part of how we know even before they do that they will understand each other better than anyone else in their world and would thus be good together. These ideas come out of their backstory, but I don’t think Satie could have substituted any other conversation here that would have as concisely or effectively shown us who the characters are, why they are different, and why they are similar. Sure they’re talking about deism in a way that reveals their education, the early Victorian world in which they live, etc., but this is all about character development. And it’s a way of doing that development that doesn’t feature in every romance.

I proposed on Twitter yesterday that we need a new test to capture this quality, namely a way to celebrate when the hero and heroine (or hero/hero, heroine/heroine, etc.) have a conversation about something other than their respective personal histories or romantic relationships.

I suggested calling this the Dashwood Rule. I was thinking about a scene in a Sense and Sensibility adaptation in which Margaret Dashwood defends her mother’s cousin and his mother-in-law, saying, “I like them. They talk about things. We never talk about things.” But Miranda Neville pointed out that the “things” Margaret likes are the characters talking about people, love, scandal, gossip, and so on, which is sort of the opposite of what I mean. So perhaps it needs a different name.

But regardless I think we should recognize and celebrate romance in which characters talk, really talk, about art, music, philosophy, history, sports, beliefs, and ideas of all kinds–in which, in other words, all the things that we love about our partners in real life get represented on the page.

So the Dashwood Rule*: live it, learn it, love it.

* Or whatever we decide to call it.

Book-Ends

(This is the latest in a series I’ve been writing about how we read, why we read, and what we read. It’s, um, a bit ponderous. These things happen.)

Over at Dear Author today, Janet writes about how the specialness of books should be determined by readers:

If anyone should be deciding whether books are special, it should be readers. No, let me correct that. Anyone can believe that books are special. Authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, marketing advocates – whoever. But the only people who should be deciding for readers if and when and which books are special, are readers.

I agree with this whole-heartedly, as I do with most of the piece. Books are consumer goods whose use value is determined by the reader. Their worth isn’t intrinsic. While gatekeepers like marketers, reviewers, booksellers, teachers, academics, and other readers influence these determinations–insofar they shape our taste and teach us how to read/make meaning from texts at all–it is ultimately the individual with the book on her couch or on the subway who decides if Moby-Dick was worth the slog.

To the extent that anything separates books from other consumer goods, it is that books in their physical or digital form are unfinished. We must decode them. And I do think that the reading experience provides a more intimate communion with books than consumption does with many other consumers goods. When I read, I have a reading voice in my head that repeats every word (or every few words if I’m skimming). I literally re-articulate everything the writer transcribed (and which editors, formatters, etc. shaped) and then filter it through my education, my past reading experiences, my mood, and so on in order to decide what it means. This is a somewhat different experience than eating an apple, wearing a shirt, or even looking at a picture.

I don’t think that my Moby-Dick is necessarily your Moby-Dick. And my Moby-Dick isn’t the same as when I first read the novel seven years ago. Today’s would be shaped by the first and the subsequent reading experiences. A rose is a rose is a rose: the first rose isn’t the last.

We must “finish” other consumer goods, of course, either by assembling them (e.g., Ikea furniture), making things out of them (e.g., groceries), etc., and we do have to decode other cultural goods, like film, music, and television, but books have always seemed different to me both because I value them more but also because the process takes longer. I’m a fast reader, but it still takes me four to eight hours to read a 70,000-100,000 word novel. I’m going to spend a lot of time with the writer (and the editor, etc.) in my head. And the form in which I’m going to experience a book is closely aligned with the form in which it was produced. A writer wrote on a page and I’m looking at a page, or a screen as the case may be. This may give books a sort of…liveness that other cultural productions don’t have. (I’m not sure what to call this quality.)

So books aren’t special but they are participatory in a way that marks them among consumer goods.

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The Invisible Hand

I’m fascinated and repelled by the idea of the artistic marketplace–as in “right now the romance marketplace is constricted in terms of historicals.” I say this sort of thing all the time. And indeed since at least Adam Smith, people have been invested in thinking about the marketplace as if it were sentient. Smith coined the term “invisible hand” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), where it describes how rich people’s consumption helps the poor. But he most famously used the phrase in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

And thus were a thousand neoliberal economic policies launched. But I digress.

What Smith is saying (I think) is that we’re running around acting irrationally in terms of our self-interest but unbeknownst to us, our production and consumption decisions are being shaped by (and are shaping) the market in which we participate. This market is greater than the sum of all the choices the producers and consumers in it make. If we try to shape the market consciously–for good, but maybe also for profit–we will fail. The market is uncontrollable but real.

Or you know, something like that.

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