I am fairly catholic in my choice of reading material; in a pinch I will read whatever is lying around. At summer houses, and in insomniac wanderings in my own house I have read everything from Zane Grey to Boethius, and I actually like things like YA series fiction and “cozy” mysteries. Historically, I have drawn only one line in the sand: I will not, under any circumstances, read a romance novel. I can swallow chick lit, although I don’t like it much, and I delight in a love story woven among the threads of a great novel, but I find the mechanical, predictable storylines and ridiculously overblown language of the average Harlequin to be unpalatable. I know that many women love them, and that’s great. My share may be distributed among all of them, neatly decreasing my suffering and increasing their joy.
Because my reading glasses are broken, and because I was reading books downloaded onto the Kindle on my iPhone, I accidentally bought a kind of supernatural bodice ripper the other night. I swear there were no identifying marks, and that it seemed to be just $2.99 worth of entertainment involving covens, fireballs and demons. (I told you I’d read almost anything). Had I bought this title in a bricks and mortar bookstore, an unlikely proposition since this is a “work” of the type that thrives only in the forgiving universe of e-books, I would have been warned off by a cover featuring a busty woman with her head tipped back in ecstasy, her long hair blowing back as she offered her neck to the cleft-chinned hunk about to kiss her…somewhere. As it was, I went in blind. Literally and figuratively.
Once I had downloaded the thing and adjusted the print size to Geezer, I started to read, and to realize what I had done. The women in the book were all incredibly and uniquely beautiful, from their “caramel” hair to their “emerald eyes.” There was much flashing of eyes and tossing of curls. I had suspected that I was not reading Henry James, but around the time “Paige studied the white blonde hair as it shagged across her forehead and noticed the hardness around her sea-blue eyes” I knew that I was in trouble. Then Shauni met Dr. Black and there was a “shock” when their hands touched, his grey eyes clouded, and his voice became gruff with desire. He longed to touch her hair to see if it was as silky as it looked.
I had spent $2.99. Did I have to finish it, or could I just delete it? Could I just throw away money? Would I possibly find that romance wasn’t such a bad genre after all? Was I being too judge-y? Tastes do change, over time. I used to hate mushrooms, for example, and now I love them.
I persisted, and as it turns out, this book is no mushroom. I am worn out by the language, which assaults me continually with the moist, turgid, ravenous, breathlessness of everything, and the swollen lips, trailing kisses and, well, all that throbbing. These people can’t sit quietly in a chair and think without being hit by a wave of emotion. “With a deft finger, he found her throbbing center.” What, exactly, is a “throbbing center?” Is it like a chewy nougat center?!
I am also left cold by the fact that I can figure out how everything is going to happen based on the time-honored “Captain Kirk Can’t Actually Die” rule. If one of our nine (!) differently-but-equally-beautiful heroines is in danger, we know that they will not only live, but live to have at least one more thoroughly turgid exchange of fluids with a man named Cliff or Brick.
We also know that if there is shocking and flashing and breathlessness going on between a man and a woman, they are Destined to be Together and will wind up together despite all odds (they seem to have an insurmountable difference! He sees her in the embrace of another man but it’s really the groundskeeper comforting her and he’s totally in love with his crippled wife!). In what I would archly classify as a “real novel” of any quality, the sparks would fly in the direction of someone unattainable, or the sparks would be a manifestation of some more complicated emotion, or there would be no sparks at all. Boo Radley and Scout Finch never exchanged a longing glance or shot a single spark, and they remain my favorite fictional pair.
So I know that there are women all over the world who get great pleasure from the romance genre. I actually watched a pretty fine documentaryon the subject, which probably left me a little more open to my present experiment. Bottom line, though, is that I just don’t get it. If reading one of these things makes me break out in literary hives, how do people read bags, and shelves, and bookstores full of them? THEY’RE ALL THE SAME!! (Sorry, I got a little turgid there for a minute).
There is no complexity in these stories, there are no people who aren’t beautiful, there is no subtlety and I miss the voice of a human author sending messages about life as he or she sees it. I miss the opportunity to think for myself, to decide whether a rainy day is “ominous” or “welcome” based on context. Even if I adjust my standards for the genre-est of genre fiction, a good mystery, thriller or fantasy novel can be written beautifully, have well-developed characters and make you think. I’d put Elizabeth George, John Le Carre and Ursula K. Le Guin up against authors of any genre. But I bought this thing, I’m almost done, and I’m going to finish it.
Breathless with anticipation, she moved her finger across the tiny screen, the nerve endings throbbing with the need to make contact with the cold, smooth polycarbonate. Nearly panting, she paused to tie her thinning, greying hair into a sultry knot at the back of her neck. She was so close she could feel it, flipping faster and faster, feeling the satisfaction just out of reach, and then it came, the release, THE END, the time to read a real book without guilt, knowing that she had fulfilled her destiny.
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.