Before I became a romance writer, I hadn't read romance for quite a number of years. And yet, on the strength of my memories and the buzz of my own more recent erotic writing, I somehow had the chutzpah to believe in the stories I was imagining, to feel they were mine, to trust my gut and stumble on in.
Beginner's mind, the Buddhists call it. I think I'll always write better when I feel a little like a stranger in a strange land. But I can still surprise myself (and scandalize some among my fellow writers) by how little I know about the genre and the market.
A recent case in point being when a friend remarked that surely most romance novels must be historicals.
Well, I thought, at least I know better than that
No, I told my friend. In fact the biggest percentage of published romances are contemporaries (single-title and series, though I doubtless did a lousy job of explaining what a series romance was). Probably, I continued (confidently, wrong-headedly), historical romance doesn't account for more than 30 or 35% of genre's readership.
Hah! Check out the statistics
, courtesy of Romance Writers of America's web page. Historical romance (which includes Regencies) accounts for only 16% of the market
! (And note that if you count in at least half of the romantic suspense, women's fiction, and inspirationals published, there are probably three romance novels with present-day settings on the shelves for every historical.)
But present-day just doesn't say "romance" to me -- any more than it did for my only slightly more ignorant friend.
Why, I began to wonder. Why, for a certain kind of readerly sensibility, is romance a matter of somewhere that's not quite here, sometime that's not quite now?
A while back, in one of our hoyden discussions, I remember Mary saying that she read for escape. Perhaps, I thought, we're trying to create a hermetic, believable place of refuge (which, for a history hoyden, would be as free of anachronism as you can make it) for when life just gets too tough.
But upon reflection I want to put it differently. There's always anachronism. I don't just mean inevitable errors of detail (hey, my husband found one in War and Peace
). The essential, inevitable anachronism -- a feature, not a bug, as the computer programmers say -- is the simple fact of history itself: it's impossible to write or to read about there and then
except from the point of view of here and now
We know we're living in the present because
we don't know how it's going to turn out. Iran, Afghanistan, the Dow. Sarah Palin. Global warming. Who knows, who can
know? In the present, the rules are always changing, the ground shifting under our feet. It's bracing, crazy-making, and not at all romantic to be alive and adult in this ticking time-bomb of a real world we call home.
Whereas in the worlds of historical fiction (and in other genres as well -- sometimes, I'd suggest, in the most dystopic sci fi) we know where we stand because we know where we're going. Reading our way through the early chapters of a genre novel, we're offered a simultaneous double pleasure: first of recapitulating the early thrill of learning language, gaining mastery over codes and the manners, clothes and tchotkes; and second, of return to and recognition of what we already know.
Critics of the romance genre like to diss it for the inevitability of its happy ending; in response, Julia Quinn rightly points out that in a mystery, no one expects Hercule Poiret not
to solve it.
But there's more to it, I think, because in historical romance not only do we know who's going to marry whom, but what's going to happen to Brummell and Byron, Prinny and Napoleon. Equipped with past-and-present parallax vision, the historical romance reader can even see that the heroines (or at least the heroines' daughters' daughters) are eventually going to achieve fuller humanity; we can enjoy all that pretty, protected, muslin-and-corsets second-class citizenship with good conscience, secure in the knowledge that that the witty, sparkly, rebellious moments are actually going to add up to something.
The historical romance doesn't just plop a romance plot into history. It romanticizes history itself, by giving it the beginning, middle, and end we can never get from the rough strife of living our lives.
Some people damn it as costume fiction. Indeed, having gotten my fiction-writing start in fetishistic BDSM erotica, for years I did think was mostly about the props and costumes. And according to one of the most stimulating critical studies I've read in a while -- Historical Romance: Heterosexuality and Performativity
, by Lisa Fletcher -- I was partly right; and moreover, the elements of masquerade, role confusion, and
crossdressing that I've always been so fond of are pretty important and central to the genre as well.
I should confess that I read this book because I'd heard that Fletcher uses my Almost a Gentleman
as one of the examples in her chapter on cross-dressing in popular romance fiction. But what I learned goes far beyond a vindication of my obsessions and intuitions. I'll be mulling over it well into the future, but in right now I've only got space for one zinger of an idea that I want to share. With great gratitude to Lisa Fletcher, for citing this observation by Umberto Eco, the critic and author of The Name of the Rose,
who suggests that we think of:
...a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
Oh yes. That's how it for me anyway. I may be a stranger in a strange land, but I'm no false innocent. And I suspect that (in our present Silver Age of the Smart, Romance-reading Bitch) few of us are. That we're all learning to say I love you
in the present tense by knowing that we've been this way before, by the great circle route of the recreated romantic past.
Definitely more to come, especially on those gnarly notions of heterosexuality and performativity
.But now I'd love to hear from anybody with whom this strikes a responsive chord. Or any innocents out there, false or perhaps not.Heartfelt thanks to romance scholar Dr. Eric Selinger, of Depaul University and the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (note to romance geeks: join IASPR!) for turning me on to this terrific critical study.
Labels: Almost a Gentleman, Eric Selinger, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, IASPR, Lisa Fletcher, Umberto Eco