Come a Little Closer

(Warning: I was up with a sick child all night. When I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking. And I have to write this idea out. It isn’t fully-formed, but tell me where I’m wrong so I can finish working this out.)

In The Melodramatic Imagination, literary scholar Peter Brooks defines melodrama not as something aesthetic–not in other words as a genre defined by mustache-twirling villains, perfect heroes, and damsels in distress–but as a narrative structure and a moral imperative. He writes of a scene in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin,

The narrative voice is not content to describe or record gestures, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” (1)

Brooks is saying that Balzac pushes closer to his subjects in order “to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality” underneath (2). Brooks argues that in melodrama “nothing is left unsaid” (4), which helps to reveal the “operative spiritual values” (5) that are present but hidden in other works. He applies this schema to Henry James, in whose work he sees this “melodramatic imagination” operating when “things and gestures are necessarily metaphoric because they must refer to something else” (Brooks 10).

As far as I can tell, no one has applied Peter Brooks to genre romance–but we should because romance seems to work in much the same way. Romance is closely cropped onto a few key pieces that carry metaphorical significance and its narrative resolutions (e.g., the creation of a stable couple) are moral ones.

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10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome

Today, Book Riot published a piece entitled “5 Romantic Books to Read in February (even if you hate romance).”

I could rant about this (see me respond to romance trolls here and here), but I don’t want to–not because the assumptions and commentary in the Book Riot list aren’t frustrating but because I’d rather celebrate the wonderful writing that I see in genre romance.

Every book here I’ve recommended to friends and family. Many I’ve forced onto people when they insist to me, “No, I don’t like romance.” I can’t say that every one of these conversion attempts has succeeded–but these books all have sharp writing, smart plots, and fascinating characters. These are perfect for February or July or anytime; they aren’t organized in any particular order.

1.) The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, novel with strong romantic elements

Kearsley’s prose is lovely. Anyone who thinks the writing in romance is substandard should pick her books up. From the opening page of The Winter Sea, they’ll find a strong sense of history and place and not one but two compelling romances. Once I’d started it, I could not put it down. I’ve given easily half a dozen copies as gifts, and almost everyone I’ve gifted it to has gone on to read everything Kearsley has published.

2.) The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
Brook writes my favorite steampunk world in the Iron Sea series and any of the books or novellas in it would be good for those individuals who think they don’t like romance. (It’s worth saying that the titular Iron Duke does something almost unforgivable in this book.) Brook’s prose is crisp and compelling, the characterizations interesting, and the world, well, riveting. If this series isn’t adapted into a film, I’ll be pissed.
3.) Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie, contemporary
As far as I’m concerned, Crusie is the queen of smart, hilarious contemporary romances. This dance between grifter-adjacent Sophie Dempsey and small town mayor Phin Tucker is my favorite. The dialogue is delightful and the chemistry sizzling.

Continue reading “10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome”

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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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.

Nationalism and Romance

This is a quasi-follow-up to this post–at least the part about the American literary canon. I’ve been thinking about my books’ American-ness and wanted to put that into a historical context. But I’m going to start with a digression about publishing history.

It has always been difficult to make a living as a writer. Prior to the nineteenth-century, it was all but impossible with the notable exception of Shakespeare and a handful of others who managed to obtain patrons. But these guys proved the rule: most writers were wealthy folks, almost exclusively men, who pursued writing as a hobby. They didn’t need to make money and for the most part, they didn’t.

Books themselves were expensive until new printing processes and paper manufacturing developments lowered the price in the late 19th century. The circulation figures for 17th and 18th century texts are generally small. Additionally, difficulty transporting goods meant that book markets were largely regional. But even for a given local printer, it didn’t make sense to invest a lot of money to obtain a manuscript.

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Writerly Ethos

I am a heroine-centric reader and writer. My heroines tend to be a bit of a mess, but they are all finding their way out of the mess. I tend to catch them on the journey down into the valley, so to speak. While my heroines may be in the process of becoming, regardless of what stage of life they’re at, they all have agency. I feel more sympathy and understanding for them, which may lead me to paint them in watercolor.

I write heroes who are really into their heroines, often from quite early on in the narrative. I’m not interested in aloof, mysterious heroes who may or may not be open to love. Sometimes my heroes pretend to be that guy, but they are desperate for her. I write heroes who in the process of falling love, learn about their vulnerability and how to share with at least one other person their exposed heart.

I write settings that feel like characters, because I think people are shaped by place and history. I am more interested in how, why and where than what; plot doesn’t drive my stories.

I like books, music, art and politics and my characters do too. I’m not writing autobiography, but if two characters fight about Dickens, that’s shorthand for the differences between them.

If I am writing it, there will almost always be a scene where two people walk around in the dark and say things they wouldn’t during the day. There will almost always be exchanged written words: letters, texts, emails. There will always be kissing.

For my characters, love is hope. Love is optimism. Love is a talisman against all the bad they see in the world.

Sometimes writing romance in our world feels added on. Unnecessary. But when I remember why I write, I know there is nothing extra about it.

Once More With Feeling

I read part of Finnegan’s Wake on a dare and you guys, literary fiction is such an execrable waste of paper and ink. I don’t know anything about that James Joyce guy, but he was obviously a pervert and he lacks a basic command of English conventions and grammar–indeed some of it wasn’t even in English. The part I read was simultaneously puerile and pretentious. There didn’t seem to be a story or narrative at all. It was a collection of words and sounds–crappy ones at that. An infinite number of monkeys working on an infinite number of typewriters could have produced Finnegan’s Wake. In fact, I’m pretty sure they did. That anyone reads it at all is Joyce’s cosmic joke on English departments.

I’m guessing if I sent an essay with that thesis to William Giraldi, whose meditation on 50 Shades of Grey graces The New Republic today, he’d object. He’d probably say something like, “You’re missing the point of Finnegan’s Wake. Finnegan’s Wake is absurd and avante-garde; it is the leading edge of experimental Modernism. It must be read in the context of Joyce’s other works, as the final flowering of the stylistic innovations started in The Dubliners and Ulysses. It’s probably best not to start with Finnegan’s, or to read short bits in a group setting where you could debate its meaning. And even if it’s not your cup of tea, it still has artistic and cultural significance.”

All of which I’d agree with. (Though I don’t really like Finnegan’s Wake. But Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist have lovely, lovely bits. But I digress.) But all of this also applies to genre romance.

I don’t have a lot to say about the genre that I didn’t say to Talking Points Memo yesterday. Giraldi has read part of one romance novel and from this he feels confident speaking about (and dismissing) the entire enormous genre. He didn’t talk to any readers about what they liked or didn’t like about 50 Shades, but hey, that’s okay because he refers to what he thinks he knows about them based on heavily edited footage and interviews from the Summer of 50 Shades. He also thinks Katie Roiphe offers trenchant analysis–which might be the most damning piece of the entire thing. (I’ll leave Roiphe for another time.)

I have a master’s degree. At some point soon, I hope to have a PhD. In a given month, I read like goats eat: I wander from literary fiction to non-fiction to current events essays to popular fiction published in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of what I read is middle brow. Some is high and much is low. I know enough about history to know that these distinctions are fleeting and culturally and historically bound.

To these texts, I bring many lenses. At times, I read intertextually and closely. I skim. I consider form and theme. I put some things down. I write and talk about some of my reading. Some I keep close for fear of appearing stupid or because I cannot bear to share it. I know that it is possible to read low brow texts deeply and well and to read high brow texts shallowly and badly. At times I have done both. But I know more than anything that I respect readers and trust that they do as much and in as complicated a way as I do.

In terms of 50 Shades, some readers may have read it because everyone else was, some may never have read sex represented graphically and found that liberating, some may never have had any language to express or insist on their pleasure (never mind that Giraldi thinks the language in 50 Shades isn’t the right language), some may have found it silly or stupid, some may have hated it, some may have compared it to literary erotica by Anais Nin, and many saw it in contradictory and multiple ways.

Literary criticism has at its heart a triangle with three points: writer, text, audience. At times, critics have been more interested in one point or pole at the expense of the others. Giraldi thinks text is most important. But without audience, text is nothing. At the very least, he’d do well to admit the kind of criticism he’s writing–but why would I expect a man who didn’t finish the book in question to meet the standards imposed on schoolchildren writing book reports?

ETA: Erm, I fixed a couple of typos. Also, I wrote more about my reading here.

Feeding the Trolls

Yesterday, one of my favorite political blogs linked to a Bill Maher bit where he chastised Rupert Murdoch in the style of a Harlequin Presents (or at least what he and his audience think an HP is). It wasn’t the first time the blog has used romance as a joke; so I dashed off an email in protest. For your reading pleasure, it’s appears below the fold.

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Never Say Never Again

(Religion and Romance Parts 1, 2, and 3)

This entire series began as a discussion of why religion was never mentioned in non-inspirational romance, but we quickly decided “never” was too strong a word—people of faith do occasionally appear in genre romance. But what purpose are these people of faith serving in genre romance in the absence of a larger conversion narrative?

So let us count the ways in which it’s acceptable to represent religion in genre romance!

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