A month or so ago I embarked on a quest to deconstruct the literary merits of the ubiquitous Romance novel. Well maybe merits is too strong – perhaps mechanics is the word I was looking for. In any event, what I was trying to work out was what made these books such colossal sellers. I was sure that if I looked hard enough, I would find something in the genre with some merit, some meat on the bare bones of a too-thin plot, poor editing and mediocre writing. But what happened to me along the way, reading all those junk books, was that I become the literary equivalent of Morgan Spurlock – I was mentally Super Sized – and I don’t mean that in a good way. Reading Romance novels was the mental equivalent of eating MacDonald’s every day and it did to my brain what The Whopper did to Mr. Spurlock’s liver and other assorted internal organs.
In case you have been living on a desert island and missed it, Morgan was a fairly regular sized guy (well in Canada he would be – not so sure about in the US) who took on the task of eating three meals a day, for 30 days, at MacDonald’s. And if he was asked by the helpful staff if he wanted to “supersize that” – he had to. And he had to finish every meal. He documented the results, which were devastating to his health, as well as lot of commentary of agribusiness, in the movie Super Size Me.
And in case every single thing about MacDonald’s has not previously pissed you off (ok, maybe the Frozen Strawberry Lemonade gets a pass) watch this movie and it will. Don’t get me started on the commodification of food . . . .
And that describes fairly graphically how my poor brain felt after six weeks of research into the world of the Romance novel. I embarked on my Sisyphean task because I was thinking that even if I never write the next Girl Who Played With Fire, I could probably work out the formula for success in Romance land and start cranking out some cheesy novels that would pay me an income that would allow me to retire permanently from corporate servitude. I could take up residence somewhere nice and warm with white sand, palm trees and margaritas, where I could ply my trade electronically in nothing more than a bikini and flip flops. My own little nirvana, or so I thought.
What I found out from my “research” is that Romance novels are so formulaic, so mind-numbingly robotic that a computer program could write them. I’m not kidding, no matter what type of “romance” it was, they all followed a wholly predictable plot. Downtrodden (or just plain helpless in the more annoying ones) female meets stalwart man and they take an instant dislike to each other, despite her winsomeness and his obvious masculine charms. There is a simplistic problem and over the course of this adventure they are forced into proximity with each other where, somewhat reluctantly (they are always reluctant at first) our heroine submits to the overtures of her would-be hero. Nature takes its course and true love ensues . . . fade to sunset.
And this “plot” holds true no matter what genre of Romance you read – from your basic Harlequin to Ellora’s Cave the “premier publisher of erotic romance for women” whose novels must contain, by definition “abundant and explicit sex described in graphic detail” to quote their website. Wow, who knew? But no matter how exotic – there were a few things that I seriously don’t think are physically possible, even with paranormal creatures – the basic plot remained unchanged and I was bored with even the racier ones two books in. End of research.
So where does this leave me? Well first, I had to go on a mental nutritional rescue mission. I headed down to Vancouver’s Central Library (a building I love . . total aside) ditched the junk and came out with an armload of intellectual rescue. Some Cormack McCarthy – difficult to read, but one of my favourite writers of all time, Catcher in the Rye and Walden, Thoreau’s classic piece of writing that I find myself quoting liberally and often. It was like intravenous Vitamin B for the brain.
I also re-read Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist as a reminder to myself of what I should be doing because, in the end, selling out is selling out. Writing garbage romance novels in the hope of financing a different lifestyle is really no different than writing garbage pop songs because you think it will get radio play, or appearing in train-wreck reality TV series just for the 15 minutes of fame. Selling out is selling out, a failure to follow our own personal legend. To paraphrase Mr Coelho, our dreams are buried because we become convinced they are impossible to realize; because we are afraid of hurting those we love by abandoning everything to follow our dreams; because we live in fear of the defeats we will meet along the path and, finally, when faced with realizing our dreams, we are overcome with the guilt of getting what we always wanted when those around us do not.
He goes on to say that “if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then . . . you understand why you are here”. And I seriously doubt that I am here to add to the pile of written dross that already exists out there. So it’s reality check time. If I plan to do more writing than my blog, I’m going to have to figure out a way to devote more than a couple of hours a week to it. I don’t know if I have a “cabin in the woods” , Waldenesque time coming my way anytime soon, although I have, in the past, actually lived in a cabin in the woods (yet another story). But I’m still very much enjoying my singleton lifestyle in the big city . . . . So, I will keep banging away at the blog and encourage myself with the thought that I AM writing and that maybe one day out of these stories will come the thread of something good. It’s just taking some time to spin the hay into gold.
Today’s soundtrack was easy – Massive Attack is a band that has always remained true to their artistic vision, no matter how out there. The results are mesmerizing, brutally honest, sometimes violent and frequently erotic. They have been fearless in writing and recording what they believe in, regardless of how it “sells”. Here is Dissolved Girl.