Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Little Bit More Romance

While my desire for romantic comedies has been sucked dry for the time being by the marathon that produced the last pair of comentaries, I've still been interested in the romance genre. I've just added a links section to the blog, and I've included a site that I have visited regularly for the last year: Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels. It's a fantastic site, and even as I have yet to read what can be precisely categorized as a romance novel (I swear, I've moved Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me to the top of my To Be Read Pile, just as soon as I finish my required textbooks and Green Man Review books), this site has seriously opened my eyes to how interesting a genre Romance can be.

The web mistresses, Candy and Sarah, are a hoot. They are intelligent, well-read women who are perfectly aware of the ire that can fall upon the Romance genre, and while they are quick to defy the convention that only Lonely, Ugly Women with Cats read romance, they are just as willing to admit that the romance genre has produced a lot of shit (as much as any other genre, really). They give raucous and hilariously scathing reviews of bad romance fiction, as well as insightful and well-written reviews of good romance fiction. They are the reason I went out and bought Bet Me.

As luck would have it, one of my classes - a Popular Culture Comparative Literature class - ended up being about Popular Literature, ie genre literature: sci-fi, romance, adventure, mystery, horror, etc. The professor is fabulous, and the class is so fun that I often make a complete ass of myself because I want to participate and raise my hand and argue all the time. Anyway, right now we're on the Romance section, and while there are a lot of new things I've learned, there are few things I'm beginning to dislike, and downright disagree with.

The things I do agree with are quite interesting: my professor has not been the only person to suggest that one of the reasons Romance is villified more than any other genre (despite taking up an astonishing 40 percent of the paperback industry) is because it is written for, read by, and published almostly exclusively by women, so people are more inclined to take it less seriously (as opposed to say, mystery and science fiction, which were pioneered by mostly men). Argh! Stupid men! More people are inclined to believe that the women who read romance are lonely and undereducated, who read about the adventures to make up for what's lacking in their own lives, which is just silly.

In an essay called "Trying to Tame the Romance," Jayne Ann Krentz goes on about how new female editors who haven't actually read romance have tried to "tone it down," thereby eliminating part of what makes Romance so special. For instance, these women are tired of aggressively seductive heroes and vulnerable virgin heroines. I really enjoyed how Krentz says that part of the Romance's allure is that the hero, by being the sexual aggressor, is both the hero and the villain, that it adds to the romantic conflict which beefs up the narrative, and that because the hero ends up tamed and romantic by the end of the book, it is the heroine who is in control, by having brought this man down to size. Awesome! Krentz also wrote how virginity, in both myth and folklore (mythology being one of the foundations of popular and formula fiction), has been accorded special importance - but that in the modern romance, keeping the heroine a virgin doesn't make her a childish, vulnerable naif who is schooled by the hero, but an intelligent and sexually responsible woman who has simply been saving her virginity for the right man, which I think is a fantastic, and in my mind, more romantic concept.

After that essay, I was also required to read Krentz's own novella "Connecting Rooms," which I enjoyed. I was a little put-off by some of the language (and the rather twee last names of the protagonists - Amy Comfort and Owen Sweet), and the "love (or at least desire) at first sight" concept, but I ended up liking the story immensely. It had a little bit of a mystery tone to it, and basically involved a neurotic romance author/real estate developer having to pretend that her sexy hired private investigator is her fiance in order for him to stakeout a relative's new boyfriend to see if the dude's legit or a golddigger. The conflict is that as a very masculine and overbearing male, Owen is very inept at communicating with Amy, but they eventually discover that they can communicate just as well without words (but not without moans and grunts, hint hint).

Now, after this, I was required to read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' "The Kiss" and another essay written by Krentz and Linda Barlow called "Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance". Those readings did not go over so well. "The Kiss," well, let's just say I initially thought it was a parody of romance stereotypes. Supposedly a "historical" romance set in Antebellum, Georgia during the plantation years, I can pretty much describe the plot in about thirty seconds:

Jeff, the dark-haired, filthy-rich, and unattached Bachelor: I need a woman!

Untrustworthy Brit: Woman for sale! Woman for sale! Get her while she's hot!

Raelynn, the poor, but fiesty and preternaturally beautiful heroine: I fiestily object!

Jeff: Why, she is hot! I'll take her!

Untrustworthy Brit: Cha-ching!

Jeff: Servant, see that she's giftwrapped for marriage! I instinctively know that despite never having seen her before, and having to buy her like a common cow in front of dozens of people, that she is the woman for me! Conveniently, I will now mention that she bears a startling resemblance to the woman I've been having lushly described, romantic, but sex-less dreams about for the last few months!

Raelynn: Hooray! I think.

Jeff: Let's go meet the family!

Brandon and Heather, Jeff's brother and sister-in-law, whose own forced-marriage backstory is unnecessarily shoe-horned into the narrative: You mean to tell us that you bought a poor, foreign woman with no social connections and that you mean to marry her today, without knowing her for more than twenty-four hours?

Jeff: Yes. Are you angry?

Brandon and Heather: We're ecstatic! After all, what kind of wealthy 19th century plantation owners would we be if we opposed a marriage simply based on the lack of social circumstance on the part of the wife whom you've never met before and have absolutely no prior knowledge of! HOORAY!

Raelynn: Oh, but I do have social circumstance - my father was noble before he died and my untrustworthy Brit uncle took me to America.

Jeff: HOORAY! But I'll still refrain from having sex with you, because our marriage was so fast.

Raelynn: Oh, but I like sex!


Brandon and Heather: HOORAY!


Despite the fact that the names and attitudes are pretty anachronistic for a "historical" romance (a quick web search told me that Raelynn, meaning either "beautiful lamb" or "ewe lake" is a modern English varient of Raelyn), there was absolutely no conflict in the story whatsoever. Everyone accepts everything without any qualms or second thoughts or doubts . Raelynn doesn't object, Jeff's family doesn't object, and the language is as sickly-sweet and as purple as grape jelly.

Now, while I agreed with most of the "hidden codes of romance" in the Krentz and Barlowe essay, there was a part where the essay deals with the repetitive, flowery and hyperbolic language that critics of romance love to make fun of (you know, passages about "tender savagery...and souls joining as one" etc. etc.). The essay actually says that this language is integral to the romance genre, that it touches on narrative codes that every reader can instantly understand (thus creating a shared community of readers who all gather the same shared meaning from one story), and that it raises the narrative to mythological levels. This is what I disagree with. The essay believes that romance writers all using the same expressions and lines creates a "shared" voice over an individual, artistic voice - but I call it lazy writing.

I've nothing against lush and descriptive passages during the more important parts of the novel - like the meet-cute, the realization of love/desire, and the requisite sex scene, but not throughout the whole thing. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything is mythological, then nothing is. Chocolate is all well and good, but if someone is forced to eat nothing but chocolate without interruption for hours on end, by the end of it even the most ardent chocolate fan is going to be pretty sick of it.

Part of what I like about reading is discovering the new ways that certain authors describe things. If I've understood the essay correctly, there's nothing wrong with every romance author describing green eyes as being "like sparkling emeralds" - because that expression is so familiar that no reader can possibly mistake it for anything else. Emeralds = really green, thus heroine's eyes = really green, thus no reader will wonder if the heroine's eyes are really more hazel, or sea-green, or something silly like that. To me, that simply seems to encourage the stereotype that romance readers are stupid and uneducated - that they have to be led through a story with obvious metaphors in order to understand it correctly. It also suggests that certain romance authors aren't comfortable with their stories being open to different interpretations - they want to hammer home their stories so that they are read the way they want them to be read, not necessarily how the readers want them to be read. I'm more of the opinion that authors only write half the story, and the other half comes from the readers who interpret it through their own acquired codes of understanding.

Also, as I have previously mentioned, it comes across as a little lazy. Her eyes are "sparkling emeralds"? Really? Wow, I'm certain that no one else in the history of literature has ever thought about comparing green eyes to jewels before. How original! Did you come up with that all by yourself? Ever thought about comparing them to "spring leaves" or "glass bottles" or "the Chicago river on St. Patrick's Day"? I'm not saying there aren't exceptions - for instance, if the context of the characters would make this metaphor plausible. For example, if the hero was dashing jewel-thief, I wouldn't think twice about him comparing his lover's eyes that way.

Anyway though, I also have to consider that not all romances are equal. Just like any genre, it has its' awful examples and its awesome examples. Still, despite the disquieting "codes" included in the essay, I'm still going to give the Romance genre a shot - I already peeked at the first page of Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me and liked what I saw.

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