NYT best-selling author, Tess Gerritsen, has an interesting post over at her blog today, talking about her move from writing romantic suspense to writing thrillers, and the reactions of readers – including some that were, shall we say, less than complimentary about her earlier romantic novels. Like many of the comments I’ve read and heard from non-romance readers about the genre, these weren’t ‘not my cup of tea’ type comments, but strong, destructive comments about the genre.
To me, this is another example of a phenomenon I’ve been observing for a while: the fact that some readers are extremely discomforted by books about love – and sometimes, discomforted to the extent that they attack them, as though they might be afraid of them. And it’s not just books – people in general seem to skirt away from the topic of love in conversations. Oh, we’ll talk about sex, divorce and infidelity along with politics and religion at dinner parties – but how often do people talk about love? When was the last time you had a meaningful, positive discussion about love?
My pondering over the past couple of years has brought me to the conclusion that, despite the strength of the emotion and its importance to us individually, collectively and as a society, we don’t have many useful, meaningful frameworks within which to conceptualise and discuss love – at least, not commonly known. We have Hallmark and Valentine’s Day cliches and the language of sex, but little beyond that in the common language. Some theorists, such as CS Lewis, have drawn on the Ancient Greek notions of eros, agape, philia, storge; the medieval notion of courtly love is explored by historians and literature professors; and biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists have researched various chemical, biological, and psychological responses to sexual attraction and interactions – but I don’t think any of these get, shall we say, to the heart of the matter: the complex, fascinating and potentially joyful experience of loving another and building a strong, committed, long-term relationship.
For some, there is a religious framework and purpose for love and commitment. However, as there are many of them, often different, and there are very many people who have no religious beliefs, but who love and have strong committed relationships, I don’t think the religious frameworks are universal ones.
The romance genre has love at its core. While the genre ranges from gritty realism to the most escapist fantasies, love is affirmed within every story – in the same way that other genres affirm other values important to our societies.
We have a reasonable understanding of physical courage, and a significant cultural respect for it: look at the ways we speak of military personnel, the language of sacrifice and honour and bravery. This understanding of courage is reflected and affirmed in many of our ‘male’ genres of books, movies and other stories – thrillers, adventure, fantasy and crime. We have analytical tools such as Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and numerous archetypes in heroic stories that we recognise.
But what do we have for stories about love? Romantic tragedies and romantic comedies are represented in the literary canon, but few stories of positive, enriching, successful love. And when they do appear – well, what did your formal studies of Jane Austen concentrate on? Let me guess – social structures and mores of the period; use of language and wit in the text; narrative structure and style; the themes of pride and prejudice. Did anyone’s studies explore the heart of the stories: the development of the relationships between the leading characters, their emotional courage and vulnerability, the representations of love and emotional intimacy?
I suspect that this is one of the challenges that romantic fiction faces; while many of the stories show the depth, complexity and challenges of love, as a society we skirt away from actually discussing love, and our language for telling about it is inadequate – and often negative. Love makes us vulnerable; talking about love can also make us vulnerable – and for some, to avoid the discomfort, they mock it, disparage it, or ignore it.
A few weeks back, I wrote and submitted a workshop proposal for next year’s Romance Writers of America conference, to explore some of these issues and offer some thoughts. I won’t know until February whether the proposal will be accepted, but whether it is or not, I’ll keep exploring and discussing, because I think this is an important issue.
So, what do you believe about love? Does romantic fiction, at some level, affirm those beliefs or values for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!