Thursday, May 18, 2006

What Does It Mean?

What does it mean when books that celebrate true affection between two consenting adults are considered childish and inappropriate? What does it mean when a comic book depicting love (not even gratuitous sex) is banned when ones where people routinely destroy each other are acceptable?

I was recently asked when I leant some romance novels out why I still read them. Hadn't I grown out of them?

The question is nothing new. For years, I hid my reading material the way we used to hide comic books inside of our math textbooks. I spoke of romances in a hushed voice, stunned to discover other people read them too.

But through all that, I never stopped reading for long. Where else can you find a book that focuses almost entirely on the moment of connection and the emotions growing from that moment? Despite their trials, whether through kidnappings and murders or just a disapproving father or a business about to fail, the characters hold out for hope and love and all the tender emotions so often missing from our daily lives.

If each of those road rage monsters out there shooting people for fun would read a romance or two, maybe they'd calm down a bit. Maybe if we weren't surrounded by violence in our reading, television and down at the corner store, maybe if each of us could reserve a moment for those tender emotions that bind us together...

Okay, maybe that's taking it a bit far, but I'd be interested in a study of the emotional states and stress levels of people after they read a romance novel compared to reading a thriller. How about compared to reading a literary novel about child abuse or suicide?

I know that romance novels are not out to change the world. They don't intend to so why anyone is surprised, I don't understand. Why is it that mysteries and thrillers (about violence and death) are acceptable and romances (about love) are not? It says something that romance novels make up the majority of annual book sales at least in the US. So what's with the brown paper packages?

I had an interesting discussion once with a Swede I believe about how in his country, the violent books, magazines, and movies were behind the counter and the sex magazines were up front. It's a cultural distinction and a fascinating one.

Now I'm not saying I'm ready to answer the questions that would come from my boys reading porn, but I'd love them to read some romance novels. Sure, the books have passion and sexual tension in them. And they certainly don't hold to the "no premarital sex standard" anymore, but they're about committing to one person. Finding the right match for you and hanging on through all sorts of trouble. They're about optimism and about it all coming out all right no matter how bad it seems. When I'm stressed or depressed, I know I can count on them for just a smidge of positive thought. Where else can you be sure of that? How many people suffer from temporary or permanent depression (non-clinical), whose lives don't even have a spark of hope or optimism? Wouldn't they be better off with material that holds out hope for the future no matter how grim today is?

Okay, here's my Pollyanna moment, but I read a psychological study once that found when people forced themselves to smile, their attitude actually improved. Doesn't it then follow if you can sink into a book with characters full of that same optimism and happiness that some will rub off?

Are they works of literature designed to stand the test of time? No. Can frequent readers quote special passages that touched them in some way? You betcha. That's what romances are all about: touching people's emotions in a way that lingers and gives us something to hold on to. That doesn't sound like something I want to outgrow. I hope I never become too cynical to appreciate moments of hope and optimism. I hope that seeing people achieve happiness, whether in life or literature, always charges me a little myself and offers up energy to share with others. Who knows what type of person I'd be if I didn't read romances? I, for one, have neither the inclination nor the intention of finding out.

Go ahead. Step outside your prejudice and read a romance novel with an open mind. Does knowing the killer will be caught make a murder mystery not worth reading? Then why would knowing that they'll somehow find their way through the obstacles to true love make a romance formulaic and crass? Do they have to die in each other's arms like Romeo and Juliet to make it worth the time? All I'm saying is that few of the people who have questioned my reading have actually read romances, especially not modern (post about 1985) ones. No one questions my SF or Fantasy reading. Or when I read Marx or biographies of Manhattan Project scientists. It's not my reading that lacks variety and scope, so it must be a choice. Maybe after this, some of the reasons for that choice will be clear.


Deirdre said...

They are the ultimate in brainless reading. Did it make Titantic a worse story because you knew the boat was going to sink? There are romances that have made me cry, laugh, and put down because they were just awful...but there are books in every category that have made me do that.

Go on, read a romance! Be swept away when Brazen Temptress and Manly Man don't realize that Only Child and Foreign Visitor are actually the same people, and if they only knew their love could build mountains!

Heh, I love romances. Gotta go read another one soon, it's been too long.

Random Walk Writer said...

Why don't I read romances? Because love by itself isn't a story. Sorry. I love romance in my mysteries and fantasies and science fiction. I love it as part of a whole picture. I just don't see it as the picture by itself.

It's like girls being told their wedding day is supposed to be the happiest day of their life. If you really believe that, if you really think marriage itself, living and growing and sharing ups and downs with the person you've committed your life to, is going to be all downhill from the wedding day--don't get married.

I love love. I love romance. I just can't take it as the whole story.

April said...

In high school, I had a friend who was from Belgium. He was shocked by American tv. He said at home, you may find sex on tv, but you would never see guns, blood, violence. That was strictly forbidden.

He said it was odd to him that we allowed such violence, but strictly forbade anything remotely showing nudity or sex, even if it was a love story or sorts.

In his eyes, it was a display of American priority. And what a sad statement that is.

Random Walk Writer said...

I didn't tell the whole story before. I used to read romances. Not very many contemporary romances stayed with me, but Regency romances definitely did. And, yes, occasionally I'll reread a Georgette Heyer. And some of the sensibilities of the Regencies undoubtedly come into play when I'm writing romance subplots in my own stories. Which is rather sad, I suppose, since they tend to presuppose a gender inequality that I don't believe in.

But it's rare for me even to read Georgette Heyer. It's like eating cotton candy--I like it, but I can't take a steady diet of it.

Margaret said...

It's funny, April, but I still find it easier to write essentially sadistic sex scenes that loving ones...I guess negative emotions require less work.

And Random ;), I'm just saying don't knock it until you try it. If you don't find them fulfilling now, at least you're not condemning them out of hand, nor, I'd guess, would you dismiss anyone who does find something still fulfilling within them. I loved the Georgette Heyer's as well and still read Regency on occasion. Like you, they seep into my stories, though not so much the gender inequities as the sense of responsibility toward each other.

On love as a central theme, honestly, you're not alone. That's why the intrigue and paranormal romances are doing so well. People want something else to go along with their romance. For me, I look around and see all these struggling marriages and people divorcing, and I think trying to capture love and hold it together is definitely hard enough to take center stage. *Shrug* On the other hand, I rarely read romances back to back or more than 2 in a row at least. When I need that emotional recharge, I know where to turn. When I don't, I'm more likely to pick up a good SF or Fantasy...even a historical or biography :). However, I will say the same thing is true of any fiction that follows one premise (using a word I recently learned from "How to Write a Damn Good Novel"--a book I dislike and like in almost equal measures ;)). I couldn't read mysteries back to back even when I did read a number of them, I can't read British naval fiction back to back though I love it, because after a while I grow numb to that premise. So my personal opinion is variety is the best answer :).

Random Walk Writer said...

But romances don't deal with the struggling marriages and divorces. They're all about what comes before that, aren't they? So reading about a romance isn't going to address that disillusionment, IMNSHO. ;)

Margaret said...

That actually depends on the romance (Anne McCaffrey's Lucy I believe for example and the Next line from Harlequin), but I find those elements in every romance. Basically, you have two people who love each other and that love is faced with all sorts of challenges. That's what I compare to a marriage. Sure, they're not married yet, but within the constraints of the genre, it's their job to work through their differences, find a common ground and commit their lives to being together. Isn't that what marriage is all about? And sometimes in life, it seems like that cycle is a daily endeavor :).

Zoe said...

I agree that there's nothing wrong with romances. I've read some romances, and find that I generally only like the ones where there is a whole lot of other plot in addition to the romance - but that's a matter of personal preference, just like some people don't like science fiction or fantasy. I don't think romance novels are childish. I don't think they even need to be considered guilty pleasures. Is a mystery novel a guilty pleasure? Many of the criticisms people like to level at romance novels - for instance, saying that they're written to a formula, or complaining that you already know how it will end - could be applied to mysteries, but people don't generally feel ashamed for liking mysteries. So why should people be made to feel ashamed for liking romances?

Margaret said...

Can't say that I disagree...obviously ;). But your comment sparked another question. I wonder if this is like the difference between sex and violence between the States (puritan based) and Europe. So would thrillers be considered trashy, brown-paper wrapper novels in Norway?


Nicole said...

Very well said.

I've only recently started reading romances, and while I do like the paranormal and suspense versions more than straight romances, I definitely think they have a place in the world that many people would rather ignore.

I agree with Random that "love by itself isn't a story". But I would argue that a murder by itself isn't a story, either. It's what the people involved do, both before and after, that make the story, in both cases.

Margaret said...

Thanks :).

You know, maybe if more "complete story" books contained complete relationships as well readers like me wouldn't go seeking the isolated romances. Though I'd have to say that few of those are truly isolated. Yeah, they might not have a murder, a ghost, paramilitary activity or other big sideplots, but the story is people's lives, co-worker backstabbing, situations they have to handle, responsibilities that seek to overwhelm their ability to love. Maybe that's the big draw for me. It's easy to fall in love when you're thrown together with a knife at your throat (okay, maybe not but... ;)), I want to see that falling in love is possible while juggling career, family obligations, money, location, etc., the stuff that real people have to contend with. The predominance of dating helps and divorces show the negatives easily enough. Where are the possibilities tauted?