What I Wish I’d Said

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Recently, as I was making my rounds in one of my British Literature classes, listening to what the groups had to say, and clarifying some confusing points, I stopped to chat with a group of particularly bright and funny students. I don’t know exactly how the subject of romance novels began, but I know I wish I had ended it very differently.

My students don’t know I write historical romance, so they don’t know how I feel about the topic. Like many writers I use a pen name. I do this for several reasons, as I’m sure you do too, if you use one. I am not ashamed of my writing, but I understand that some people might not see it that way, and at the moment I’d rather keep my writing life separate from my day to day life. Nor do I talk about my writing in the classroom. I generally say I write historical fiction, which is true but doesn’t carry nearly the same connotations.

So, when one of my bright students started lambasting romance novels for all of the tired reasons you’ve heard before she didn’t know she was speaking to a writer and reader of romance. She just thought she was talking to her professor of “High Canon British Literature”. And I was thrown off my game a little bit, trying to maintain my professional persona, and wasn’t prepared to defend the genre. So I said nothing and I did nothing. But this is what I wish I had said:

“Hey, B. I hear what you’re saying about romance novels, that they are ridiculous and overly romanticized and nothing is ever really like that.  And I agree. Romance novels are ridiculous, overly romanticized and unrealistic. But I want you to stop and think about why you are criticizing a genre that millions of women (and men) read and love. What is it about the genre that you find so distasteful? Is it the fact that it’s unrealistic or overly dramatic? Because in that case you should also be criticizing the Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stories we just read. Or the latest Avengers movie or Stephanie Meyer novels. Vampires and superheroes and monsters and green knights who challenge people to beheading games are unrealistic and overly dramatic too.

No, I don’t think it’s the overly dramatic quality that bothers most people. I think it’s deeper than that. We have a hard time accepting sentiment and emotion. We are uncomfortable with our soft, squishy feelings in the light of the day, and so we joke about them. We make them less important than they really are. We are uncomfortable with passion and so we pretend it is silly, except when we want it ourselves, and then only as long as it stays tidy and doesn’t expose our vulnerabilities to others. I do this too. I get it.

Or, maybe you think it’s a silly genre because women are the primary readers of it? In that case, I’m disappointed. It hurts all women when we look down on our gender as somehow less than because they make up the majority of fans for a specific type of creative endeavor. Do you see other men making fun of each other because of equally ridiculous action movies? No. So why do we think it’s okay for people to make fun of romance novels?

Perhaps it’s the sex? Perhaps you are uncomfortable with a genre that accepts and praises and revers sex? Why exactly? Why can people be okay with feeling emotions of fear and anxiety in a horror movie, and be moved to scream or cover their faces, but aren’t okay with being turned on or moved by descriptions of sex?

See, I think that people are afraid of all of these things when it comes to romance novels. They’re afraid that the overly romanticized plot lines will make women unhappy with their real lives, (and if they are, is that always a bad thing? Maybe they need to change). And they’re afraid that the “formulaic nature of genre writing” will somehow dull our brains (Law & Order, any body?). Or they are afraid of the emotions or the sex. It’s a sad world we live in when we accept monsters and fear and blood, but get squeamish at the thought of love and sex.

Or maybe it goes deeper. Maybe we make fun of romance novels because they are written by women and for women. We’ve been reading a lot of literature in our class and very little of it shows a woman’s voice. Not until recently were women even allowed to be writers, and even today women are rarely recognized for their writing as men are (See: Jennifer Weiner’s campaign to get equal reviews in the NYT). We call women writers “subliterary” and we call their writing “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”. And that’s a problem, because male writers don’t face the same kind of criticism, even when their writing is formulaic as well. We don’t say that mystery writers, or sci-fi, or fantasy writers who are men are “subliterary”. We don’t have a derogatory term like “bodice-rippers” for the types of lighter fiction that men write or read. No. We save it for women. And we save our disdain for the genre of romance because women write it.

In addition to the other issues we discuss, my class has been focused on helping you and your classmates see that women’s experiences are often overlooked, negated or not acknowledged. That women are accused of being “lewd” or “coy” and everything else, but are rarely allowed to speak on their gender’s behalf, or even on their own behalf. Many of you have stated that things have gotten better, which is true, but we still undermine women at every turn, and making fun of a genre of literature is just another example of this and I’m sick of it.

The romance genre is about people falling in love, and fighting for that love. It’s about a plot that ends satisfyingly, just like John Grishman novels do. It’s about acknowledging what makes us human, and flawed and working to overcome or accept those qualities. And I don’t see how those things are some how beneath us, or should be mocked. Do you?”

Had We But World Enough and Time I Could Make You Love Poetry Too

In addition to writing about love, I spend a lot of time talking about the literature of love, and of sex. I teach British Literature as a professor at a community college in Texas, and I get to teach high school students all about British Literature from 1000 to 1800.  I say “get to” because it is my privilege. I feel very fortunate on most days to be the one who gets to introduce them to the complex wonders of Chaucer, Donne, Marvelle and yes, Shakespeare. I love showing them why I enjoy sonnets and love extended metaphors and all the other ways that poetry challenges us, and makes us respond to the words on the page. And sometimes they point out things that make me pause and re-evaluate my own responses and then I have a deeper appreciation for the poems we’ve been reading for the past 500 years. Today, I got to experience that, and it was a great way to finish the day.

Today we discussed two of the better known “Carpe Diem” poems, Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. (The latter happens to be one of my all time favorite poems and the link I’ve included has a great version of it read by someone who sounds awfully like Patrick Stewart.)

As we were reading the poem I pointed out why he praises various body parts of his lady, and what he is trying to do by focusing on her eyes, forehead and heart, and also why he is trying to convince her that if they had “but world enough and time” then he would be committed to loving her “ten years before the flood”.

One of my students mentioned that parts of the poem are really weird, and that the idea of worms trying her “long preserved virginity” was a really gross image. When she said this I agreed, and I also pointed out that he compares them to “amorous birds of prey” and suggests that they “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife,” and that these are not usually images or birds we associate with love. When we think of birds and love we think of songbirds, or doves or lovebirds. We rarely think of falcons and hawks.

But, I went on to say, this is one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem. Andrew Marvell contrasts these gruesome or unpleasant images with some astoundingly beautiful ones. He says to his mistress that “my vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires, and more slow” which brings to mind green growing life, and vines curling outwards across the land. I love the idea of vegetable love. It seems so precious and earthy, and yet it brings forth life and nourishes us. Or, if you aren’t a fan of vegetable love, you might prefer, “the youthful hue / sits on thy skin like morning dew”. I would swoon if someone said that to me. But, shortly after that he’s talking about death and ashes.

And for me, the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly is what makes this poem startlingly great. It’s like life, in that beautiful things are set right next to ugly ones. Amazingly beautiful flowers grow out of mud, and lovely, wonderful things are right next to gruesome, awful ones. This poem sees the reality and the beauty and isn’t trying to hide one with the other. And that makes the beautiful things all the more marvelous (get it? Marvell-ous?) and the ugly things take on their own sort of loveliness.

So many of the poems from this era try to disguise their intentions with flowery, lovely language, or complex rhymes so that we don’t notice the truth. Or, we might notice it but we see it as insincere. Marvell might be insincere in his commitment to this woman, but he’s honest about it. He’s saying if we had time, I’d make you all sorts of flowery speeches, but we don’t. We’re going to die and it will be awful. Let’s enjoy things now while we can, and even if we can’t stop time, we will give it a run for its money.

That right there is how I finished my class. *Mic drop*. Isaacks Out.