When I go to a bookstore, especially in an overly-cerebral place like Madison, I expect to find erudite and educated people who would rather curl up with a good book than watch a soap opera.
What I had forgotten about is that there is such a thing as soap operas in print form. They may be even worse. With a soap opera, you know what you're getting: bad acting, bad lighting, bad scripts with predictable plots. Mostly garbage, but so is eating a Big Mac, and occasionally, one must eat a Big Mac.
Harlequin Romances bear responsibility for teaching three generations of women how relationships are not. For 60 years, they've been providing unrealistic pictures of falling in love, falling out of love, falling in love again, then being left at the altar to find out your pregnant the next day, but realizing it was Charles all along who loved you, and would marry you to take away your reproach, while Clint became a lonely alcoholic, surrounded by women but never really knowing intimacy.
The protagonist's name, of course, is Sylvia. Sylvia Bradstreet.
Other than the label, how can you tell a Harlequin from a regular book? Two ways. First, search the text for a greater than average use of the words "shuddering" or "throbbing" (women shudder, men throb, apparently). Sweet, tropical-scented breezes must caress her [alabaster, porcelein, bronzed, ebony] skin. She must feel urges from deep within her soul. He must utter, at least once in Chapter Ten (entitled "When the Dam Breaks") the words, "You don't understand. I must have you. I must."
Second, the titles that give it away. Here are the top titles from last week:
- The Once and Future Prince
- Pregnant: Father Wanted
- The Tycoon's Rebel Bride
- Temperatures Rising
- Billionaire Extraordinaire
- Propositioned Into a Foreign Affair
- The Moretti Arrangement
- The Sicilian Boss's Mistress
- His Mistletoe Bride
My favorite is The Sicilian Boss's Mistress. I am almost tempted to buy a copy just to mock the stereotypes. Number 2 seems like a 1940s pulp fiction. Here's a typical dust jacket description of a typical romance novel.
Montana Territory in 1883 was a dangerous place—especially for a blind woman struggling to make her way through an early winter snowstorm. Undaunted, Noelle Kramer fought to remain independent. But then a runaway horse nearly plunged her into a rushing, ice-choked river, before a stranger's strong, sure hand saved her from certain death.
And yet this was no stranger. Though she could not know it, her rescuer was rancher Thad McKaslin, the man who had once loved her more than life itself. Losing her had shaken all his most deeply held beliefs. Now he wondered if the return of this strong woman was a sign that somehow he could find his way home.
"Homespun Bride" by Jillian HartShockingly bad. Schlockingly bad, really.
And yet...according to the Romance Writers of America website, Romance fiction generated $1.375 billion in sales in 2007, with over 8,090 titles in the Romance genre released. That means that the genre generates sales that is larger than my segment of the outdoor industry by a factor of four, and all that at $10 a book.
I'm a pretty vocal critic of pornography, as I believe it objectifies all involved with the process. Moreover, it corrupts the beauty of a healthy dyadic relationship, what Martin Buber would call and "I-Thou" relationship between two people, two complete people. Contrast that sort of relationship to Buber's "I-It" relationship, that between a person and an object. There are too many I-Its in the world, and after spending 25 years with a wonderful wife, I consider myself to be extraordinarily blessed with a wonderful I-Thou gift.
I could make the claim that a romance novel is a more subtle, socially acceptable form of pornography, which is from the Greek for "harlot writing." Just like the air-brushed pornography presents impossible images of "perfect women," so romance novels present impossible scenarios of perfect men -- usually, rich, single, and gorgeous.
Just like there are no pimples on centerfolds, there are no men with too much hair on their backs and not enough on their scalps. They drive exotic sports cars, live in St. Lucia, and we're never quite sure where they get their money except "their investments." They do not drive Honda Elements with kayaks on top, and certainly don't work in any sense of the word. That would leave them far too exhausted to really be with a woman.
The thing that I find interesting is that both visual pornography and romance novels are, on the whole, boring and banal. To quote Francis Bacon (1625), "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Perfection is an illusion anyway, and to seek physical perfection seems like a Sisyphean task...you can't fight aging. Some years ago at my 20th High School Reunion, there were a lot of 38 year olds trying to look 18 (especially the cheerleaders, interestingly), and they just looked like a 38 year-old who had been ridden hard and put up wet.
I suppose my preference is for what is Real. I like my wife's wrinkles (they're the smiley kind), her belly (it gave me two beautiful children), and the occasional but increasingly frequent grey hairs. She is comfortable in her skin, and that makes her beautiful.
Yours for Reality,