Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Confessions of a Romance Outsider

I rolled my eyes at romance.

I mean, not romance... romance is great. And not Romance, some of my favourite poetry is Romantic. But, you know. Romance. That supermarket stuff. The pastel pink chunk of the bookstore with the clutching couples, the shirtless (and headless) men. Well, at least the men have chiseled torsos (but no heads?). Might as well get something out of it. If that's the sort of thing you're into. And that's fine. But I'm not. I'm just waiting in line to buy milk.

Not that I have anything against escapism. Fantasy is all about escapism. It's just, you know, I'd rather escape to  an intriguing world and things I've never seen before. Not just escape into someone else's torrid relationship with a guy with amazing abs and no character depth, when I have my own marriage, which I have never wanted to fantasize my way out of, with my husband who has depth (and a head).

I was working toward an English Lit degree, I was up to my eyeballs in theme, metafiction, iambic pentameter. Romance was fine. For other people.

But I was working toward an English Lit degree, up to my eyeballs in theme, metafiction, iambic pentameter. In the literary canon, which deems what literature has value, and by extension what doesn't. Half of what I loved was included. Half wasn't. When it came to writing, and the majority of my leisure reading, I didn't look to this group to find like-minded friends.

At university, however, I saw a poster for a workshop on writing -- the business of writing, which was an area I knew little about. (I've always been arrogant enough to think my craft was strong.) In the midst of one of the worst stretches I've been through, and a hefty school schedule on top of it, I took a day away for myself and went to the workshop.

The Saskatchewan Romance Writers hosted it, and the original Honorary Chick, Donna Alward, led an engaging afternoon on publishing, deadlines, editors, the never-ending agent debate, and every unpublished author's greatest concern -- do we get a say on our cover art? The workshop had (understandable) emphasis on romance publishing, but I wasn't the only one who came from outside the genre. It was a great day, a lovely atmosphere, and very nice people.

The following spring, I started thinking about writing groups, online communities, and the like. Somewhere to find a bit of community, some feedback, and other people who got what the heck I was going to do after graduating (hint: it didn't involve teaching English). After so long immersed in the literary side of the lit/genre divide, I didn't want to take my writing into a group that might just jump on my genre-side work and tweak me to death trying to push me toward something I wasn't passionate about writing. I remembered the SRW, and how I'd enjoyed my afternoon with them. We didn't have a genre in common, but I liked my odds, having in common escapist-accused forms of writing. And I did have romantic elements in my work.

That same year, I actually read a romance novel. A true, romance-is-the-plot novel. I plopped it on the counter cover down, expecting raised brows from the clerk. My book had a shirtless man on the cover with a chiseled torso (and no head). But he had a sword, and the tiny bit of chin and long hair reminded me of one of my characters. Good enough, I thought. And the back cover/abs guaranteed titillation. I mean, I wasn't getting good plot or compelling characters for my money, I might as well get something, right?

It met my expectations exactly. It was cheesy, it was predictable, it wasn't an amazing story. I rolled my eyes as the ending wrapped up so neat even the dogs got together. I mean, good grief! But dammit it was fun, and riddled with sexual tension, which was what I came for.

Since then I've read a few other romances. Some because they were free, some because they were recommended, some for academic study. Some were fun, some were bad, one was infuriating, one was a massive, catastrophic disappointment I cannot utter in public or everyone on this blog will tear me limb from limb for my blasphemy.

And I've gotten to know the wide range of writers in the SRW, and through them the vast and thriving romance community online. The array of styles, stories, sub-genres, and strengths of the romance genre is staggering. From the adorably chaste to the astoundingly racy, latching on to every other genre out there and leavings its mark, taking what it likes back to its own genre. Dear lord, this beast is unstoppable! One of my first favourites in the fantasy genre, Merdeces Lackey, regular writes for Harlequin's Luna imprint now, and I actually know this because of the people I'm around (her books are still filed in fantasy, but they've always been heavy on the romance).

I'm still not truly a romance reader. I don't like knowing how a story will end, that I can't ever truly wonder if things will work out. Hey, sometimes it's nicer when someone dies, and we can explore a different kind of catharsis. Yet my favourite movie of all time is at its heart a romance, The Princess Bride. The novel I studied the most and wrote several papers on at university is, in essence, one of the greatest romance novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice. When Shakespeare's lovers aren't committing suicide or smothering one-another, they're getting together through some of the most ridiculous, convenient, over the top wrap-up final acts out there.

But I don't roll my eyes anymore. I always tried to be even about genre, and not encourage the lit/genre divide, but I know I had some prejudices when it came to romance. I bought my first for a minor thrill every few pages, because I expected nothing else of it. That one didn't have much to offer, but I know that's not the rule for every single romance novel ever written. Nor is the purpose of romance to offer fleeting titillation for a couple quick hours of an afternoon. That baked-right-in ending I don't like guaranteed is the promise of true romance, love, emotion. Regardless the heat level (another term I'd never have known), romance isn't about causing heart palpitations and naughty tingly feelings in lonely and unhappy housewives.

So it was I found myself quite offended upon hearing a recent anecdote about a Sunday morning service, in which the pastor apparently spoke on not letting tempting thoughts linger in the mind and lead toward breaking ye olde commandments. He then paused, and with complete sincerity said, "So ladies, stay away from those romance novels." In turn he warned the men away from internet pornography, because, logically, the two are synonymous.

It was that frustration that made me realize how much my perceptions have changed. There are terrible, awful, ridiculous, cheesy romance novels. There are terrible, awful, ridiculous, cheesy fantasy novels. And some equally awful, terrible, et al, novels elevated to literary status by the powers that be. It is all a matter of taste and personal perception. Given what I enjoy, I may find fewer stories in the romance genre that appeal to me, when I don't often want romance to be the sole purpose of the plot. It's not my reading genre, nor my writing genre, but if I roll my eyes now, it's over book, or a hilarious paragraph. Not over a section of the bookstore, or those poor headless men at the Zellers checkout. Headless guys need love too.

I may not ever be of the romance community, but I can skirt the edges and watch you steal my fantasy as I steal your romantic elements for my own purposes. In the end, we'll all get shelved in our categories, but we can still creep off the shelves after hours and play together until someone turns the lights on.

And who knows, my books may still get headless men on their covers.


P.L. Parker said...

Oh, I love it. "Headless men." Great post - so fun.

Ban said...

I can totally empathize ... thanks for saying (typing) it for all to see.

Helena said...

Love it! Would also love to stick around today to read comments, and make lengthier comment about how I hop around the genre issues, but I have to hustle off to the city for a meeting today and won't be "in range" until tomorrow night.

Maybe some late-night gab sessions on the topic at the Sept. retreat!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I didn't realize you were that workshop with Donna Alward. It was really great.

I have to confess that I was something of romance snob myself at one time. Maybe it was because I was an English major too. I think I picked up my first romance when we were on holidays and I needed something to read. I was hooked. In my arrogance I thought, "I could write those." Ha! I learned pretty quickly that it was easier said than done.

I feel kind of the same way about fantasy as you do about romance. I appreciate them when on occassion I read them, but it's not my comfort zone. But I figure a well-written book is a well-written book. It doesn't matter the genre.

Thanks for your thoughts, and the visions of headless men.


Karyn Good said...

Hey, I like the headless, bare-chested men covers! In fact, I'm reading one right now. LOL

Like Jana, I feel a well-written book is a well-written book. I just happen to prefer well-written romance novels :) Glad you found us, Hayley! And we're glad to have found you!

connie said...

I went from a gal who wouldn't even be in the same section of the library as a romance novel, to an addict.

But, I still hide the covers.

Somebody may thrill to the abs but no guy in one of those stunned poses would find me in contortions such as the ladies in question. In search of a kiss or the name of a chiropracter?

Some of them would do better headless. Many of the headed ones would send me rapidly in search of a basin. The exception is the guy on the cover on 'The Laird'

Husband isn't cover material. His chisels are fizzled but he is the funniest man around. Love him! (me, not you)

I was a history major but all first year teachers had to teach English - which shows you the importance of English studies.

Meanwhile, I have forgotten so much history I am no longer certain of the dates of the war of 1812. BTW the British bunked down in my old highschool (200 years old and counting) and their headquarters were across from my home in Niagara.

Genl Brock (British commander in Upper Canada) was cover material but someone shot him in the head.

Do you suppose that is start of the headless dreamboats?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi everyone, sorry for the delayed responses! I wound up in town for the day without time to post an alert.

It's great hearing the perspectives on this, where we make our judgements, the things we shy away from for no particular reason.

I wonder if somewhere out there, there are a bunch of poor books with heads on them and no bodies, longing for some chiseled abs to call home.

connie said...


That is priceless!

The question of what has happened to the heedless headless horseman's head also needs to be addressed

Tahlia said...

I like a strong romantic element in my fantasy, but a romance that is just romance doesn't really inpsire me - recommend a good one that deals with other themes as well. and I'll be into it. I agree that in the end it's not about genre it's about whether the book is any good or not. I hate books that are shallow and predictable.

I was pretty surprised when I realised that the novel I'm working on now is a romance - eek, how did that happen, but I'd never put it in the romance category because it's fantasy too and really it's about things like freedom, choice and inner power. The romance is just the way I explore those themes.

I do like a good chest on a cover. If there's a head and I don't like the face, that's it, I won't buy the book. The headless chest is a safer bet.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hah, you're right Tahlia, a chest with a bad head is always terrible. It's really better to crop it and let us fill in the blanks (I prefer a bit of vagueness with character-style covers too, rather than have the whole appearance filled in for me).

The line between a story being about the romance, and including a romance, can be pretty blurred sometimes. My own WIP's romantic elements play a significant part in my protag's character development, but the plot isn't about whether she finds someone and falls in love with him, it's about her individual journey.

I think romance is a great means of explore freedom and inner power, especially when romance stories can wind up giving up inner power for the sake of love, especially if one person gives up more than the other so they can be together. Great themes to explore :)