Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reading Pleasures

I have friends who from time to time feel compelled to tell me why I should not be reading or, God forbid, writing romance. Despite what you may think, they are friends. They have my best interests at heart, and they sincerely fear that my brain will atrophy from my reading romance. When I ask them why I should give up a genre with a guaranteed optimistic ending to read only novels that will end in destruction, despair, and death, they use words like “complexity,” “multilayered,” and “universal.” I ask, “Is human sexuality not complex? Are relationships not multilayered? Is love not universal?” Then I end with the question they will not answer: “I’ve read many hundreds of works of ‘literary fiction.’ How many romance novels have you read?” They are engaging in the very worst stereotyping based on little to no evidence, a practice they are the first to condemn in other circumstances.

I read an interesting article in the books section of The Guardian yesterday. The long list for the Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious UK literary prize presented annually to a woman author of any nationality for the best novel written in English and published in the UK in the preceding year, has just been announced. Generally these are novels that critics and scholars have deemed significant literary fiction. But the chair of this year's judging panel found the current crop of 129 competitors lacking in one quality. Author and TV producer Daisy Goodwin said, “There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there. . . . Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.” My immediate reaction was that I could easily give them a long list of books that were complex, multilayered, as well-written as literary fiction, and filled with wit and joy and pleasure—every book on my list a romance novel.

My friends, and other literary scholars and critics, somehow think that writing books in which people suffer wounds that cannot be healed, discover life is essentially meaningless, and conclude happiness is an illusion takes more talent and intelligence than writing books in which characters find healing, meaning, and happiness. I really like what Jennifer Crusie wrote in “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century,” a 2003 essay for Writer’s Market: “Dying is easy, commitment is hard, and romance has no room for writers who weasel out by killing people off or leaving them to yearn hopelessly for lost passion. Romance is about optimistic, life-affirming emotional catharsis.” I’m weary of weaseling; I want that “optimistic, life-affirming emotional catharsis.” That’s why I read and write romance.

To be fair, not all literary fiction is gloom and doom. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte gave us heroines who grow and win, and even in contemporary literary fiction, a rare book that ends in an affirmation of life and human potential can be found. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is filled with the atrocities human creatures perpetrate upon their fellows, but Celie is a survivor. The book ends in an affirmation of her spirit and the possibility of moving through horror into hope. And Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is also a wonderful book, one filled with the pleasure of characters who find meaning in the ordinary moments of life and discover forgiveness, hope, and love great enough to offer transcendence. It's also filled with the pleasure of words that sing in the ear and linger in the memory—words like these: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, everyone of them sufficient.” But in literary fiction, such books are rare. Not so in romance fiction.

I’ve read romance fiction for almost all of my reading life, including the years I was in graduate school analyzing literary texts and the years I was in classrooms teaching them. I perused Putney along with Proust, chose Chase along with Chaucer, and read Roberts along with Rossetti. For many years I was a closet romance reader, fearful that acknowledging my love of a despised genre would render my intelligence and achievements suspect. But I’m out of the closet now, ready to wear my “I <3 Romance Novels” button and march in HEA Pride parades and feel sorry for friends who lack the joyful, pleasurable reading in which I indulge every day.

Why do you read romance fiction? Have you ever been a closet romance reader? Do you read literary fiction as well? Do you agree with Daisy Goodwin’s claim that much of current literary fiction is joyless?


irisheyes said...

Why do you read romance fiction? It used to be solely as a means to escape my hectic life. A sort of "take me away" when I couldn't physically get away from two young toddlers. Now it is more about exploring/visiting new worlds and living vicariously through countless heroes and heroines. It is like a feast for my emotions now. I take numerous roller coaster rides through other people's lives/experiences and it is so extremely satisfying. So much so that it has resurrected my vivid imagination and I've gone back to writing myself.

Have you ever been a closet romance reader? Oh yes. Sort of still am. I suppose I'm just a closet reader period. I don't hide my reading choices but most people don't know what an avid reader I am. I've basically stopped hiding pretty much all aspects of my life and just live as I like. It's an amazing fact that, contrary to what I believed in high school, not that many people are all that concerned with how I live my life. LOL

Do you read literary fiction as well? Not usually. When I was younger I read a lot of psychology, self help and relationship books. There wasn't a whole lot of literary fiction after high school. When I jumped back into reading again my life was at a point where I really needed that HEA. It also fed my lifelong fascination with the ins and outs of relationships, along with the psychology behind personality types. Still does!

Do you agree with Daisy Goodwin’s claim that much of current literary fiction is joyless? I couldn't say for a fact because I don't read current literary fiction.

MsHellion said...

I read romance because the good guys win. (And not restricted to "romance", even mystery or thrillers within POPULAR fiction is what I prefer to read. And if the literary types are going to sneer, they need to sneer at the DaVinci Code just as much as they do at Nora Roberts. It's just as talentless... *LOL*)

I read POPULAR fiction, where romance resides, because heroes win. Justice prevails. Life is worth living.

We want to triumph.

Literary fiction seems to be under the gun of "No matter what you do, you will never succeed, you will never be happy, and if you do something wrong once, you will be punished forever by it." Anna Karenina sleeps with a married man and throws herself in front of a train. Where is the justice and triumph in that? A real heroine, a true heroine, would have dusted herself off, said Yeah, not the brightest choice, and lived her life differently. She would have created her own happiness, which is what popular fiction teaches us to do.

You don't FIND happiness. You CREATE it. It is within you to perpetuate. It exists.

No, I don't read a lot of literary fiction. I will read things outside of the "norm" of what I consider popular fiction or romance, but I don't read the classics. I don't absorb well into the voice and style of writing that was popular in earlier years. I have tried more and more to read some of Gaskell's works, because I think they will be very informative and entertaining of the mindset of the Victorian period and also the social and industrial age. She's more readable to me.

I tend to read more women authors--I don't like men authors that much, which cuts off a lot of fiction then. *LOL*

MsHellion said...

I think we can learn from popular fiction. I think it can make us better human beings.

TerriOsburn said...

I haven't read mainstream fiction in a couple years. Mostly because of time constraints. I don't read nearly as many Romances as I once did.

I've never been a closet Romance reader and I either was good at tuning it out or no one cared, but I've never been belittled for this choice. Not by strangers, family, friends, or co-workers.

I think literary fiction can be good at examining humanity and our collective consciousness. It's easy when you're life is pretty good to miss the atrocities running rampant on this planet. But I don't see why everything has to end as if there's no hope.

I wonder if literary fiction authors who choose to write more uplifting material get this same flack from their peers.

quantum said...

When younger I read quite a lot of 'literary fiction' and found that certain authors appealed to me more than others, much the same as with romance novels.

I think it’s somehow connected with the way an author views the world and the human condition, together with writing style. Some seem to resonate with me while others are just out of tune.

I went through a phase of trying books by Nobel Prize winners and read most of the Herman Hess novels for example. I was totally captivated with 'The Glass Bead Game' and also with 'Siddhartha'; both books seemed to me to have an optimistic outlook. I also dabbled with classic science fiction and particularly liked John Windham and H G Wells. I even joined the 'H G Wells Society' at college.

A man who can write a history of the world in one volume and then write his autobiography in three volumes just has to have something interesting to say!

I don't think that I crave a HEA, but on the other hand I do read fiction for relaxation and entertainment so don't want to be left feeling depressed. I choose my authors accordingly.

The romance novel is a more recent discovery for me. I think that the quality that most attracts me is the warm inner glow that the HEA can produce. It’s the perfect complement to that other warm glow produced by my favourite tipple!

I think that the genre has produced some awful rubbish, perhaps aimed at teenagers awash with hormones, which may be the origin of the 'mind rotting' criticism. It also has some very fine writers, many of whom I have still to read, particularly in the historicals category.

Men may dismiss the genre as 'soppy' but few would deny that 'love' is a big driver for good in the world and has a perfectly respectable evolutionary origin and should therefore be of interest to those of a scientific bent.

I have no problem justifying my interest to myself, but would find it daunting to try and 'sell' the books to colleagues where the old prejudices still run deep. I enjoy a peaceful life, so it’s easier to remain in the closet at work ...... for now!

Good to find you on top form Janga. *smile*

Janga said...

I apologize for not getting back to respond to comments this week. I've been buried in research.

Irish, Nora Roberts said in an interview that she started reading categories because she could finish one while her small children napped. We all know what that led to. :)

Hellion, you and Jenny Crusie are kindred spirits. She thinks as you do about Anna Karenina. LOL! Honest, some literary fiction does end well.

Terri, I think grimness and meaninglessness has been dominant in literary texts since 1922. One of the reasons I read so much romance in graduate school was to escape the depression created by the required literary works.

Q, someone said that about 10% of books published is truly great and about 10% is truly terrible; the rest fall somewhere in between, I think this is probably true of all genres. Romance certainly has its 10% on either end of the spectrum.