Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why I never read romance novels

It's the content, stupid.

The Wall Street Journal informs us that books that used to require a brown paper wrapper have assumed a new disguise: e-reading devices. Apparently women are increasingly using their Kindles, Nooks, or iPads to read romance novels in all their increasingly bizarre incarnations:  Amish, historical, pastoral, tragicomical, erotica, and now romantica, in which it seems that couples can have their sex cake and eat their happy ending too. And how convenient is it to have an e-reader so that you can have all 17 volumes of your favorite series without having to display them on a shelf to the scorn of your friends?

The Journal obligingly provides us with a brief excerpt from this literature. I won't give their summary of the plot of this particular book since it doesn't really matter anyway, but get a load of this (yes, it's fairly safe for work):
' "Thank you for spilling wine on my shirt," Elec said, stepping back and unbuttoning his shirt. He yanked it off with little care or concern for the fabric and tossed it on the floor with hard movements. His T-shirt, which also sported a smaller wine stain, was peeled off and sent after the dress shirt.
Tamara almost choked on her drool. Oh. My. God. "My pleasure," she said and gawked mercilessly at his ripped chest and abs.'
Well, I guess if you're churning this stuff out for the consumers, the quality is bound to slip a little.

"He yanked it off with little care or concern." How do you yank off a shirt with care but no concern? With concern but no care?

"And tossed it on the floor with hard movements." Again, how do you "toss" something with "hard movements"? Maybe you can hurl something with hard movements. Maybe you can throw, or possibly fling (though that sounds too airy), or sling or cast it. And with hard movements, no less. Did he karate chop his shirt to the floor? Maybe he did the robot while undressing -- kind of a jerky little dance. I assume his hard movements were meant to be the opposite of sinuous movements, though I bet the author gets that adjective in there somewhere in the book. It's too good not to use.

"His T-shirt, which also sported a smaller wine stain..." Now this is just lazy writing, but I bet we can make it more interesting. How 'bout: "The wine had seeped through his dress shirt and bled onto the chest of his T-shirt"? How 'bout: "He peeled off his ruined T-shirt and thrust it at her. 'Wash it,' he demanded." That's got a little air of realism to it.

"Tamara almost choked on her drool." I actually have seen this sort of thing happen, to infants, and believe you me it is the antithesis of erotic.

"and gawked mercilessly". How does one gawk mercilessly? How does one gawk mercifully, if it comes to that?

I'm reminded of Florence King's observations on pornography from the hilariously unrecommendable When Sisterhood Was In Flower:
About this time, I came across an anti-porn essay by Pamela Hansford-Johnson, who claimed that the literary worthlessness of porn can be proved by transposing its style to a description of the boiling and eating of an egg.
I gave it a try and came up with this: 
I took the glistening, virginally white oval out of the fiercely bubbling cauldron of hot, hot, hot water and cupped my hand around it, feeling its contours with sensations of shimmering delight. I reached for my long, sturdy, battering egg knife and tapped. The shell slipped off and I touched the tender, moist, protein-swollen membranes of the secret softness. The steamy slice of hot, ready, delectable egg burned my fingers but I thrust firmly with my rigid tool and inserted the erect, serrated blade. The lubricious, golden yellow, ambrosial nectar of the pulsating, quickening core gushed out into my egg cup. I centered my mouth over the slickened surface of the gently curving silver spoon and ate, ate, ate. 
When I finished this exercise, I stared at my long, yellow, blue-lined Nixonian legal pad in horror.
Wrap that egg in brown paper!


Rebekka said...

Hilarious! But criticizing the writing of romance novels is shooting fish in a barrel...

Anonymous said...

Well, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel, too.

It's worth remembering the proverb: "90% of everything is crap." Music, art, literature, whatever - 90% of any genre is going to be crap, and this applies to sub-genres and sub-sub-genres all the way down. I've never found it to be false.

There's a bright side to this: negative reviews are often much more fun to read than positive ones.


Tom Simon said...

No, Sir, Pride and Prejudice is not a romance novel. It is a novel; it is a comedy of manners; it is many things, but it is not a romance either by the definitions of the 19th century or those of the 21st. Back then, a romance (pronounced row-mance) was an adventure story; today, a romance (pronounced row-mance) is a potboiler written to a particular narrow formula about two people falling in love in a particular, passionately unbalanced way. Emotion-porn, if you will: writing that does for (or to) the feeling of being insanely infatuated what Florence King did for (or to) the egg. Jane Austen didn’t write adventure stories, and she certainly didn’t write emotion-porn. Neither row-mance nor row-mance.

MrsDarwin said...

Thank you, Tom Simon. I can't let such a slur stand against Pride and Prejudice on my own thread. The term "romance" has a number of different meanings. In terms of basic plots, it can mean any plot in which two people fall in love, and sure, that happens in P&P. But in modern parlance, it connotes a genre devoted solely to the emotional and sexual relationship between the characters (to the detriment of most other kinds of plot and character and thematic development), and as such, is a pretty serious aspersion to cast against one of the foundational English novels.

It is a problem, perhaps, that many fangirls of Pride and Prejudice read it as a romance novel than as a work of literature, but that's hardly Jane Austen's fault.

Brandon said...

But it is true that there's a fair amount of diversity in quality. Bettina Von Hutten's novels are usually classified as romance novels, but they are quite good (they had the same kind of audience, but predate the explicit-sexualization of the genre -- you get the sexual topics, sex outside of marriage, seducers, etc., but it's handled more subtly).

The egg passage actually reminded me of things Cormac McCarthy has written; I've always said he writes like a romance novelist about things other than romance.

Anonymous said...

Heh. That was fun.


Foxfier said...

"Blouse rippers," basically?

There are even levels of modern romance novels-- I'm rather fond of Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms novels, although I have to flip past some of the filler stuff. The story is nice except for one or two pages' worth. (Kind of like how there are a lot of movies that are great, if you skip past the five minutes of pawing and flashing skin.)