Thursday, March 18, 2010
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?