Saturday, January 10, 2009

Coming Out- Of the Back of the Bookstore

Although an out-and-out scorn for novels in the romance genre rarely bothers me, the faintly pitying dismissals of other avid fiction readers never fails to get under my skin and fill me with an impotent anger. Sadly, it is only in the past few months that I realized what the problem was: I have been ashamed of my reading habits all these long years. I have been that furtive buyer of bodice-rippers, clutching her brown paper parcel upon exiting bookstores like a drug fiend afraid to be seen in the wrong part of town. I have feigned interest in the high brows of people's private bookshelves while secretly scanning the spines for the flowery script and pastel colors favored by romance cover designers. But today I'm coming out in defence of my beloved genre.

The thing is that I understand perfectly well people's misgivings. It is not all Jane Austen out there, and there are copious amounts of execrable materials that get printed in the genre. I know that a number of readers who are high in the instep tend to look down on us romance lovers as precious but misguided literary idiots, though we would thank them to remember that our insatiability is what keeps book empires afloat so that they may afford to offer them more refined fare. Sure, the unimaginative may assume that we cannot discern between the fairy-tale worlds of love stories and the complex, unpredictable, elusive yet curiously universal experiences of love in The Real World. And by keeping silent, I feel that I have tacitly agreed to these and all the other rude misconceptions about this wonderful genre and those that write and read it.

La Dee and I proudly display our hodgepodge collection at home to the enduring irritation of Our Lady of the Fixed Smiles: "Must you put all those...those...books where people can see them? What will your visitors think!" I don't blame her; the bookshelves are laden with about 70% romance novels, bolstered by texts we will never read after college but could not bear to part with, very excellent fantasy/science fiction and the odd literature grandee. As it is, people usually think and state the obvious: 'Wow, you guys really like books! you really like those romance books, eh?' To which there is no polite reply other than 'yes.' Nothing like a Regency to teach one sardonic understatement.

So what is the big deal, you ask? I had a straw-that-broke-the-camels-back moment a couple of days ago when having a discussion about literature and fiction. As my colleague snarfled on about having read 'Judith Whatever' when he was a child as his only experience of romance, for the first time in my life I suffered an acute attack of testosterone allergy. As a person who fits snugly into some pretty classic 'disempowered' boxes, (African, Black, Female, and Young) I have lapped up romance as an escape tool and a refuge from the patriarchy. I like Le Male enough to consider myself a true androphile, but sometimes even in literature He needs to STFU so that the other noises can filter through. Don't think I am not aware of the patriarchal conformity in classic romance novels mind you, with their marriage and reproduction ideal. But we can get to that another time.

You see, romance has always been my go-to place when relentless masculine ego threatens to overwhelm me. Throughout high-school, literature was heavy on Le Male and His Angst, whether we watching Oedipus self-destruct, or MacBeth self-destruct, or Okonkwo self-destruct, or that little snot from Catcher in the Rye also, you guessed it: self-destruct. Kafka, Faust, Theatre of the Absurd, and nary a healthy female character in sight. This diet was leavened by ye Sylvia Plath and Bessie Head poetry to guarantee that our budding sexual identities and politics would be fully saturated with wariness for the Madness that is Woman. Did I mention MacBeth*? Yeah.

So on holidays I would cool out with a little romance, inhabiting worlds where gentler passions were allowed to see the light of day, female sexuality wasn't a red-toothed dragon waiting to devour someone unworthy man of feeble character, and humor was welcome. It was a wonderful introduction to some simple truths, such as Guys Have Feelings Too, Beware The Villains, and Don't be Afraid to Buck Convention if You are Fighting For Your Happiness. And it wasn't until Mrs. O'Connor made us read some Magical Realism towards the end of high school that the literary horizon changed for me (Thanks, POC!).

Enter: that female voice. Prior to reading books like The Red Tent, The Poisonwood Bible, A Thousand Splendid Suns and Purple Hibiscus I had never even imagined that someone out there might articulate my politics, feelings, thoughts and other less tangible experiences with so much more eloquence than I ever could. How to explain? Achebe will always be great but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made me cry for half a day after reading her book. In many ways, my favorite romance novelists of yore guided me to them by giving me the tools to recognize the sound and cadences of that particular voice within seconds of browsing any title in a bookstore.

But it doesn't end there- no genre worth its salt remains static or rigid. Just as Fantasy branched out from Tolkien into Phillip Pullman, Guy Gavriel Kay and numerous others authors' mind-bending works, so has Romance gone forth and multiplied into a variety of offerings to suit all tastes and brows. Some of the big name romance authors have secondary lives as university professors, computer programmers, eminent physicists, farmers, librarians. Along with happily-ever-after, a romance reader can get a mass of information on the most interesting things- like the difference between a clusterfuck and a snafu in American military slang.

Best of all is that this genre lends itself handily to whatever place the author is coming from for the dissection of whatever issues the author cares about. It is easy to overlook the fact that a genre need be nothing more than a format, a vehicle for the author. Romance has mushroomed democratically in recent years in all kinds of interesting directions: erotica, paranormal, gay and lesbian, ethnic 'minority,' futuristic dystopia- you name it and the likelihood is someone is trying to get their manuscript published in that sub-genre. While in the 1980s the M&B (that's Mills and Boon to you uninitiated) industry was heavily pushing the dominant-man-submissive-inexperienced-woman schtick, these days their offerings include second or third marriages, older-woman-younger-man relationships and even mild BDSM and polyamory themes. And these are the conservative publishers of "cheap" romance. So whatever your flavor, there is romance for you out there. And if there isn't: write it. That's how some current best-sellers got started. Like the best literature, the good stuff in Romance can capture the intangibles and explore the human condition with insight, poignancy and artistry. It just does it with a good dollop of lovin' thrown in.

Wheeeeeeeewooooooh, glad to have gotten that off my chest. Alright with the world now. What's this got to do with Paradise, say you? Nothing much, other than the sad fact that it is damn hard to get your hands on good romance out here but yours truly is always willing to lend a book or two (after you swear on the blood of your unborn children that we will get them back). And if its not your thing, no worries- we all have our blind spots. Mine is anything vanilla-scented so naturally La Dee loves vanilla-scented things.

Have a loving weekend.

* Is any other Lady MacBeth fan eternally disappointed that she descended into madness in the end? And has anyone watched that pivotal scene in Mystic River? Somebody should have gotten her Oscar nod that year.

A little birdie told me...

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