I had to leave off this argument to go post at the Hoydens about Sex and the Historical Sensibility. But I promised to come back and finish it off with “subtleties, shades, differences.” To ask — of a genre that guarantees its readers a happy-ever-after ending every time — whether it’s possible to mix things up a little.
And to say something more (in clarification of my comments to Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight) of what I think of the politics implicit in claiming total innocence for your side.
“Hold the presses,” I wrote. “I’m not for it.”
Nor would the characters of my novels be, burdened as they always are with selfish desires and impulses (which they sometimes act on, even if they are also evidently good people with kindness in their hearts.
In any case, that’s how Mrs. Giggles once described the characters in Almost a Gentleman. I wonder if Mrs. Giggles would be surprised to know how seriously I took her words — as a charge and a challenge, to situate my romance stories in a world where things can work out for flawed, selfish, impulsive people with kindness in their hearts.
Which is to say, for people like you and me (though my characters are probably prettier), in a better world than the one we live in, but one that looks something like it on its good days.
My mom put it best some years ago, at the beginning of my romance-writing career — when, as a ferocious reader of mid-list literary fiction, she wasn’t sure about this romance thing.
“Still,” she said, “I can understand it. Because after all, the most important story of my life was meeting your dad and having you kids.”
The most important story of my life. Think about how you met your life partner. Isn’t there always a narrative quality to it? A conflict to be overcome? An accident, a misunderstanding, an irony, a long wait, a rivalry? Something.
Finding a life partner is such a huge event, the decision to share your life so momentous — all this has to bring with it complexities that want to become narrative. Reading a romance, no matter how perfected, idealized, and glamorous the details on the page, is a way of revisiting the simple, single, living, human love story you carry around at your core.
To make the association of your own life with a romance novel is to see yourself with the love and admiration a romance reader gives to her heroine, the desire a hero directs to her. The extravagance of a romance novel is another way of marveling at the richness and serendipity of your story; its happy ending is a celebration of life’s continuity against the odds.
Romance is often called “escapist,” but I don’t buy that any more than I buy the notion that we’re “escaping” those times we set aside to celebrate life’s continuity. Weddings and anniversaries, and (in my family anyway) bar and bat mitzvahs and school graduations.
Romance should be proud to take its place among the art of festive ritual — especially if, like the best of such rituals, it doesn’t entirely forget the terrible other parts of life: meaninglessness and chaos; stupid, needless pain and exploitation; and the inevitability of death.
Because celebration is always bittersweet. Happiness is always provisional. We and the world are always on the brink, even if we try to love and educate our kids into some imagined better, safer version of it. Which is why, although I love to include children and babies in my festive romantic world, I don’t enjoy portraying pregnancy and parenthood as a moral absolutes (nor do I take comfort from those moments when anyone — in or outside a book — claims an absolute moral primacy for him or herself as advocate for helpless, victimized innocents: children, babies, and the unborn).
Especially across generational boundaries, I prefer moments of community and communication between flawed, incomplete, but desiring selves. In Janet Mullany’s A Most Lamentable Comedy I loved the accommodation and solidarity between bad-girl heroine Lady Caroline Elmhurst and the smart little bastard (literally), Will, who saves her butt during a round of amateur theatricals.
I like to think of Lady Caroline as a descendant of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ fabulous bitch heroine Sugar Beth Carey, in in her fabulous Ain’t She Sweet (if a romance writer can make you sympathize with the girl you loved to hate in high school, she can make you sympathize with anyone). But even Ain’t She Sweet, which draws so much of its vibrancy from its heroine’s relationship with smartass pre-adolescent Gigi, seems to need to sugarcoat Sugar Beth by also making her the sole protector of a developmentally disabled stepdaughter. (Yes, I know that that plot element provides tension and motivation, but it’s still my least favorite part of a book I adore.)
And yet. It’s your job to protect the innocent, a character tells J.D. Robb’s heroine Eve Dallas. Maybe (given romance’s religious roots), certain of this element is necessary for the genre — even, in my own case, as a kind of moral/emotional adversary for my characters to knock their heads against. Probably every romance writer has to choose her own place on the scale of moral absolutism and every reader to choose her own mix.
And so (and because I’ve been thinking about these things almost as long as I’ve been writing romance), I’ll end in the (inner) voice of Marina Wyatt, heroine of The Edge of Impropriety.
So this was the child he’d been protecting so zealously. From everything that seemed to him dangerous and corrupt. From his mistakes and the world’s too.
One must want to do so when one loved a child; one must want to do it even if it were impossible. One must want to build walls between the pure and impure, draw the strictest lines of demarcation between innocence (as a very strange but favorite poet had had it) and experience.
Only one couldn’t. One could only look for wisdom and honesty to pass along, to help the child make her own way through the necessary, perilous middle ground of building a life.
While as for one’s own […] self? For it had quickly become clear that the person Marina had been endeavoring to protect was herself. But wasn’t that an equally impossible and quixotic endeavor?
What do you think?
Do let me know.