Love and Romance

My first failure of 2011 was to get some 50 pages into a novel deemed to be a classic of its kind, and to dislike it so much that I had to give up on it. I used to persevere with books on principle, but now I think 'so many books to enjoy - why bother with the ones you can't stand?' - I give them 50 or 60 pages and if they haven't hooked me by that time, I mostly give up on them. Of course I'm not passionate about everything I read. That would be too much to ask. But if you start reading something and are (a) deeply bored or (b) profoundly irritated, there's seems little point in carrying on. It's one reason why I don't belong to a book group. I rather like being challenged by a book, and am quite happy to tackle supposedly 'difficult' books. I've done it often enough when reviewing. But I don't think I could bring myself to soldier on with a book I truly disliked, just because somebody else had chosen it for me. The only good reason for doing that would be because somebody else was paying me!

But I digress. For me, one of the most irritating features of this particular book was a plethora of descriptions of  women with 'voluptuously swelling breasts' and 'curved thighs'. Didn't seem to matter which character's pov we were with, his (they were all men) perception of women was the same. The women he was describing weren't real women at all. They were a part of his fantasy life. About as real, come to think of it, as Jessica Rabbit. Now I'm not saying that this author isn't with the majority here. Why wouldn't he be?  And, of course, women writers do something similar when they fall in love with the heroes they create and model them a little on, for instance, Richard Armitage, Rufus Sewell, David Tennant - to pluck a few examples out of the contemporary air!

But what makes me very angry indeed is that when a man taps into his fantasy in this way, he will almost certainly not be judged for it, for the simple reason that it will not even be noticed by male critics. He may still be deemed to be writing a powerful classic novel, whereas no matter how elegant the prose, how epic the tale, how excellent the characterisation, how deep the insights, a woman's love story can still be dismissed as 'romantic nonsense' or - God help us - a 'guilty pleasure.' According to so much critical appraisal, young men write powerful coming of age stories about the male experience while young women write about relationships. Men write searing insights into emotional problems. Women write about love. Men write about the state of the world. Women write about the narrowly domestic.  It's a bit, come to think of it, like that old joke about the man who says that his wife handles all the trivial things, like where they live and where the kids go to school and how they spend their money, while he decides the big important things like the state of the nation and the economy and whether we'll ever achieve world peace...

Romance is, of course, a term with a long and distinguished history and a multitude of meanings. Some of my best friends - fine writers too - write 'romance'.  But it has become a sort of critical shorthand for everything from beautifully constructed but lighthearted commercial fiction, (I'm absolutely certain that the critics who dismiss it so scathingly wouldn't be able to do it to save themselves) to epic and densely constructed tales of relationships in a difficult political climate - and everything in between. This allows the reviewer or literary commentator to trivialise or dismiss the novel, story or play which centres on the female experience in a way that I think almost never happens with a male writer. It shouldn't still be happening. But I'm afraid in all too many cases, it is.


Bill Kirton said…
First, I have to confess that I don't even give books I'm not liking 50 pages - 15-20 is more like it. Life is definitely too short and there are so many books to read.

Second, I agree totally about the curse of genrification, especially when it comes to romance. My first ever (and truly excellent) editor said of an early draft of one of mine that it needed to make its mind up about whether it was crime or romance. It wasn't a remark on the quality of the novel but rather on its commercial prospects. If characters in a crime, fantasy, sci-fi or any other genre start being attracted to one another, that's their business and we mustn't interfere.
Linda Gillard said…
Could you hear me cheering?

I once picked up a copy of Ahdaf Soueif's THE MAP OF LOVE and because of the unfamiliar name, I was unsure of the author's gender. But not for long. I only needed to turn over and read the blurb from which it was easy to deduce this must be an epic love story written by a woman. It was short-listed for the Booker and Soueif was a political commentator, but the style of the pb blurb indicated that the novel was being marketed (and trivialised) as a romance. This would never have happened if the book had been written by a man.
Absolutely agree, Linda!