Sunday, August 10, 2008
My not-so-secret get-rich-quick plan is to write marginally successful romance novels and use the proceeds to finance an ashram or a change of identity; I haven't decided which. Really, it's a perfect plan- except for the fact that writing romance novels is a lot harder than it looks, and requires you to read a whole lot of romance novels, besides.
In the last two years (I was not, prior to the inception of the plan, a romance novel reader) I've learned that the ostensibly uniform badness of the genre is actually a spectrum, encompassing every qualitative gradation from good-bad, bad-bad, and eye-crossingly horrendous. I've learned what constitutes good-bad (you stay up past your bedtime reading it even though you feel guilty about doing so and will deny it in public) and what constitutes bad-bad (boredom). I've also learned quite a bit about, for lack of a a better term, the romantic Zeitgeist. By which I mean the stories we tell ourselves, the narrative molds into which, often unconsciously, we try to pour our lives.
Here's the interesting thing: the molds have changed. I watched Persuasion yesterday. It's my favorite Jane Austen screen adaptation, mostly because it contains a lot of gratuitous shots of livestock. I've seen it eight or nine times, but this was my first time subsequent to adopting the get-rich-quick scheme outlined above, and I was startled to see how naked the Romance (capital R) was under the skin of the story. Persuasion has a classic Cinderella plot: unappreciated middle daughter, overweeningly virtuous but gently abused by her family, attracts man with status who cannot forget her and finally comes to her home to stake his claim.
This is the old mold: attraction and understanding comes first, then social union, last sex. The meek shall inherit the earth, and quiet acceptance eventually brings its reward. There's an element of rescue to the story I don't like, but then again, I'm still watching the movie.
Besides, the new mold's no better. I've got a crackpot theory which states that, in romance, whatever is forbidden comes last. When Persuasion was written, sex was what was forbidden; romance functioned as a prelude to marriage and its consequences. Sex isn't really forbidden anymore; what comes last in modern romances (and the mushrooming crossover genre of Chick-lit) is, interestingly enough, love.
Here's the paradigm. Boy meets girl. They are mutually attracted, and start getting it on. This mutual attraction, coupled with gradually increasing liking and attachment, meets and surmounts various internal and external obstacles (other partners, class differences, common sense). Boy and girl make no commitments. In fact, they actively seek to avoid commitment, declaring, for example, that they are free to see other people. This never works. Rather, their unquenchable ardor forces them together until their resistance collapses and they commit in an orgiastic flurry of I love yous.
I make it sound laughable, and it is. But just as romance novels are harder to write than you'd think, their narrative frameworks are more powerful -and more profoundly embedded in our culture- than most people understand. I could name any number of people off the top of my head who are consciously or unconsciously conducting themselves according to one of the preceding scripts. Never mind that waiting for rescue usually gets you squat. Never mind that folks who try to "see other people" often get back together not because of their unsquelchable compatibility, but because they are lonely and it's easier.
I am persuaded we are all hostage, to one degree or another, to the romance novel. The question is whether or not we should try to wiggle free.