by Sherwood Smith
Paranormals and urban fantasy, historical romances, romantic historicals . . . futuristics and science fiction. Various definitions float around, and as more authors cross old genre plot and content boundaries, the definitions have to be reinvented, retrofitted, expanded-to-include. But one thing I see persistently, far too often: “Oh well, this one I’m reading, it’s not a romance novel!” In the tone of voice usually reserved for the discovery of something many-legged in one’s salad.
I’ve been trying to figure out why romance gets such a bad rap, besides the obvious—written mostly by women, bought and read mostly by women, the main plot arc being finding a mate ending with hero and heroine as a committed couple.
For the most part, I’ve seen this dismissive stuff from people who haven’t actually read any romance, or maybe took a peek inside the cover of a random one, saw some infelicitous prose, and condemned them all for ever after. “I don’t have to read one to know they’re crap. I mean, just look at those covers!” Like, we don’t judge books by their covers . . . except for romance novels.
I’ve met people who enjoy romance, but admit it with that slight duck of the head, the dropped voice of embarrassment. I understand that embarrassment from people my age or older, especially if there’s a man in the room, because it’s difficult to get completely past that early training that grants whatever a man thinks automatic authority, and of course no man would read anything “domestic” or “girly” or “emotional.” [insert glyph of much eye-rolling here]
But I mean among women. What is this implication that reading a romance novel causes an automatic IQ drop of fifty points?
Is there a sense that romance novels betray the precepts of feminism because these novels are about seeking and finding a mate? That seems odd if one stops to consider that these books are edited by women, bought by women who speak out firmly about what they like and dislike to the extent that the guidelines for romance novels have ramified to a fascinatingly tangled degree. Women have become a mighty force in the publishing world by writing and publishing the type of fiction their readership wants. Seems to me that’s exactly what the feminist movement was about: having what we want, instead of having what a man wants us to have. Even if what we want is a man.
But that’s another topic. Back to romance novels. What does its readership want? What constitutes ‘romance’ is an ever-evolving and fascinating question ranging from the hot’n’spicy to teenagers just making the first tentative steps into the world of courtship, and set against backgrounds all over the world and time . . . and in space. Or other worlds.
The days of the Harlequin heroine whose only attributes are beauty, passivity as she waits for that alpha male to dump the Evil Mistress, and virginity, are long gone. In fact, it’s worthwhile to find some of those old novels in the dime-a-throw bin at used bookstores to discover just how many of the unquestioned assumptions in the novels have changed in the last thirty years.
But that was then, and this is now. Anyone perusing a just-published romance novel is unlikely to find a wilting flower of a heroine waiting around passively (and “purely”) for her prince to come. Yet mention romance around general readers and watch the little signals of superiority and judgment. What’s going on?
I have a couple of ideas to throw out. The obvious one is that what we don’t like we label as bad. So obvious I don’t see any use in elaborating. And some are not going to like the basic structure of a romance any more than I like the basic structure of a horror novel. Doesn’t fit your wishes? Move on.
But what about the bad rep, the implication that readers who like romance are tasteless twits? The theory I’ve been playing around with is the use of intimate space. Quick definition: the god’s eye view, or third limited (staying outside the characters’ thoughts, only reporting what they do or say) is public space, and personal space is when you gain access to the thoughts of characters. Intimate space is when the clothing comes off, figuratively and symbolically. Because intimate space is not all about sex.
Romance writers are aware of this. They choose their intimate moments deliberately. We might follow a couple into the bedroom and stay while the clothes go flying to every corner of the room, but we don’t follow either of them into the bathroom after the fun. We don’t follow them to the dentist for a root canal. We don’t follow them to the post office for that forty-five minute wait in line on a Friday afternoon while they stand there picking at a hangnail and worrying about Auntie Susu’s doctor visit. That intimate space is explored by writers of what’s called ‘literary fiction,’ though fifty, eighty years ago, literary fiction stayed strictly out of intimate space, requiring the reader to guess what was in the characters’ heads. It, too, has its fashions. I’ll come back to that.
In a romance novel, one expects long scenes in intimate space, that is, we are inside the characters’ heads as they experience attraction, then begin the courtship dance, and in spicier novels, we follow them into the bedroom. And even here, the writer chooses that which will convey a romantic emotional experience to the reader, instead of dwelling on the details of intimacy inevitable with human bodies–the moments that are painful, humiliating, or unintentionally funny. Though some writers will deftly touch on these, too. This is part of where the art comes in.
The prompting for this post was my thinking about the handling of intimate space when crossing genres. In the last couple of decades writers have been experimenting with combining elements of various genres that used to be neatly pigeonholed. Finding marketing terms for them has been interesting. This is where you hear about paranormals on one hand, and urban fantasy on the other, etc.
To keep this riff from expanding to novel length, I’m going to confine myself to an example in which a romantic historical becomes a historical romance. A couple years ago, someone recommended a novel that takes place during the Napoleonic era, about which I’ve read a great deal. Dashing nobleman spy, thief heroine spy who turns out to have some sensory issues, adventure. Sounds like something I’d really enjoy. Opens with a bang—hero and heroine have been captured by the French and they are going to be executed!
But here’s where the story lost me: the hero and heroine are so attracted to one another that that’s pretty much all they think about, which deflates the sense of any danger. I wouldn’t have minded if the setting for that meet-and-let’s-kiss was a marble ballroom or a fusty parlor or a ride in a park, but in a dungeon with the threat of death hanging over them? Where I expected action and derring-do, maybe some wit, I got pages of lust. I am not saying this is a bad book, it’s just that for me, the intimate space overbalanced the rest of the elements to the degree that I could not believe in them. But for other readers, it was a perfect blend of a hint of danger and lots of romantic potential. These readers were coming to the book primarily for the relationship in intimate space. They only want the trappings of danger. They don’t want to feel danger.
I think a lot of the resistance to romance comes to that question of long passages in the intimate space. In ‘slice of life’ stories, the author describes other intimate aspects of life, thus you get the root canals and the long afternoons of quiet personal misery, the deathbeds and the agonies of being dumped on for no reason, and with no promise of justice. This fiction can have a powerful effect, especially I think on young readers who haven’t much life experience. Or readers of any age who are seeking to read about the intimate lives of people in radically different circumstances from their own.
There is a lot of assertion out there that this type of fiction is ‘better’ or ‘literature’ whereas romances or genre adventures aren’t literature. This ‘suffering is good for you’ attitude causes a sharp divide between readers–as sharp a divide as purposes for reading. A book that delves into the darker aspects of human experience can be intensely disturbing, but I am not convinced it’s better than other types of fiction. It’s not always wise, or enlightening. In fact, as you get older, it’s not even shocking.
I was talking to some older women about this very thing, and one pointed out that she’s been there, she’s already seen the full range of little horrors that life deals out. Nobody has anything to say about it that she hasn’t already heard.
Another said that that she has no interest in a work that eschews the full range of human experience in favor of the petty and disturbing. She pointed out that the details of people killing and eating a human baby was supposed to be literature whereas a beautifully written romance isn’t? Then she said, “It makes as much sense to call that kind of thing award winning as it does to walk around with dogpoo smeared on my glasses, so I see the world through a grundgy stench. Who’s going to be impressed?”
To which the first woman said, “If it’s done by a white man, I just bet you another man will call it art, and slap a fifty thousand dollar price tag on it. And if they hang it in a hotsy totsy enough setting, another man will pay for the exclusive right to that art, and publish an article in the New Yorker about how it symbolizes the decline of Western Civilization. Then for a season or two the poo fellow’s the bee’s knees.”
To which the third woman responded, “I’d read about that! I love sting stories. But give it a happy, romantic ending. Because when I close a book I want to smile. You get to my time of life, and you really treasure the smiles.”