Time for a Truce

Today I want to talk about a blog post over at The Awl, Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing. It's really nice to see someone take Romance seriously and write about it thoughtfully, but I disagreed with the author, Maria Bustillos, on almost every point she made. So let's talk about that.  I agreed with a lot of Bustillos's initial points:

[R]omance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010....It would be crazy to fail to pay close attention when that many people are devoted to something.

True.  And yet, as Bustillos points out,

Romance literature is underground writing, almost never reviewed or discussed in the newspapers or literary rags, or at a dinner party. One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.

This is also true, and I think it's a shame.  Especially because, again in Bustillos's words,

For all the scoffing from various quarters at the fairy-tale messages they contain, romances largely deal with practical, everyday matters; they're more like field guides for resolving the real-life difficulties women face.  As those difficulties have changed over time, the romance novel has adjusted accordingly.

This is even true of historical romances.  These days, the heroines in a lot of historical romances are aristocratic ladies who are so involved in their charitable activities as to effectively be career women (A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh, Trial By Desire by Courtney Milan, and Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt are all recent examples of this trend).  And then there are the historicals featuring women who must work to earn a living - like Anne Mallory's Seven Secrets of Seduction, whose heroine works at a bookstore.

Bustillos does a great job talking about what romance is, why it's important, the big ideas that it concerns itself with.  Her arguments about romances fall apart, in my opinion, when she starts comparing genre romance to literature.

People in the romance community complain all the time that romance is typecast.  What a shame to see an author who clearly has felt the sting of this prejudice turn it around on another genre which, let's all be frank here, is struggling and deserves a little more understanding.  Yes, I mean literature.  Or maybe Literature.  With the capital L.

Bustillo defines literature as "'serious' fiction".

"Serious" or literary fiction is supposed to be that way because it's meant to be like Dostoevsky, leaving no stone unturned in the human psyche, shocking us, showing us things we'd never understood or even thought about ourselves before. There's not much room for fun in books like those.

She includes Art Spiegelman's Maus as an example of genre-bending apparently because Maus - a comic about the Holocaust - is just as "serious" and depressing as Dostoevsky.

Too many people already think that literature can't be fun, and that's a horrible misapprehension.  I've read a few books by Dostoevsky and I've read  Maus.  I love them both, but I'm horrified by the idea that literature is inherently melancholic or unhappy.  Or that self-discovery must be inherently melancholic or unhappy.  That's just not true.  Two cases in point: Tom Jones is about as fun and cheerful a book as I've ever read, and ditto Tristram Shandy.

Having begun to dig herself a hole, Bustillos grabs her shovel and makes it even deeper:

But surely it's not necessary to point out that the rarefied world of American literary fiction is brimming with dull, predictable and zero-ly engaging books.  Most "literary" novels, in fact, take not one single risk, offend no taboo, and leave every sacred cow grazing undisturbed in the placid fields of their conventionality.

She's suggesting that books that take risks and break taboos must be riskier, edgier -- better.  This, from an author trying to defend genre romance, with its predictable HEAs and often conventional morals.  That's a false dichotomy.  Risky doesn't mean engaging, any more than breaking taboos guarantees quality.

To sum up: literature cannot be defined by the fact that it's depressing. That does a disservice to literature.  Literature cannot be defined by its ability to shock or break taboos.  That's a poor litmus test, since it would exclude plenty of amazing books (is Pride and Prejudice shocking?) and include all sorts of awful ones (dunno what to name here...shocking but awful...shocking but awful....maybe it'll come to me later).

So what is literature?  I'm going to point back to a post I wrote a while ago, Story vs. Ideas, where I try to answer the question.  Check it out for the full argument, because I'd like to see it catch on.  In short: the more literary a novel is, the more irrelevant the story becomes and the more important the ideas in it are.  Nothing to do with who's smarter, better, anything like that.  It's a fundamental difference in nature.  There are books with great stories, there are books with great ideas...and there's a place where they meet in the middle.  Which is a great place to be, by the way.  The sliding scale has nothing to do with quality.

Bustillos seems proud to tell us that she has no idea what the "lit-fic novel du jour" is, in a tone of deep contempt.  What do we feel, romance readers, when people tell us with a sneer that they've never read a romance?  Haven't we learned not to take pride in ignorance?

Right now I'm reading a "lit-fic novel du jour": Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory.  It's fun.  Really fun.  It's full of wit and humor.  It breaks conventions and taboos.  It's edgy.  It's more or less realistic (so far, though Houellebecq often sneaks in an element of sci-fi by the end of his books).  It's everything Bustillos thinks literature can't be.  Good thing the people who gave Houellebecq the 2010 Prix Goncourt weren't judging according to her rules.

Before The Map and the Territory, I read Kim Harrison's new release, A Perfect Blood.  You know, the tenth book in her super, insanely awesome urban fantasy series, The Hollows?  I loved it too.  Love.  She's built a series full of fantastic characters that feel so real, impossible conflicts, high stakes, friendship, romance, a series-spanning plotline that blows my mind.

Bustillos does a pretty good job when she stick to defending romance on its own merits.  But she also shows is how easy it is to make exactly the same mistakes that have kept so many romance readers insecure and ashamed about our reading habits.

Enough with the war.

We can have it all.  We can read it all.  Literature can be fun.  Genre books can be smart.  We do not need to hole up in trenches, literary snobs on one side and romance proletariat on the other, sniping at one another.