Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Read a Romance Novel

I owe all of what follows below to one person, and one person alone: Matt Simon. The story really begins about a year ago, at a used bookstore/coffeeshop located on the ground floor of an old woman's house in the ghost town of Louisberg, NC. Matt was buying a stack of used books, and was looking for one more so that he could qualify for some special buy 3 get 2 free deal, or something. I looked at a shelf of old paperbacks and grabbed the one with the most garish spine. It turned out that it was a book called "Sweety Baby Cookie Honey." I didn't then, nor do I now know what it is really about. All I know is that I opened it up to a random page and was greeted by a particularly explicit sex scene. Naturally, I told Matt that he had to buy this book, and not only that, he was going to read it.

That book is an entirely different story though. Months later, when he and I decided to form a two-man book club in which each person would select a book for the other every other month, I was dreading what I knew was inevitable. When Matt said he had sent my book, I was not in the least bit anxious to find out what he had drudged up from the abyss. I knew only that it would probably leave my brain shriveled and me curled up in the laundry room dry-heaving. An illustrated guide to horse breeding? A kama sutra from the seventies?

I should have been so lucky. My book was called "Santa, Honey," and was a short anthology of three Christmas-themed romance stories. I've read a lot of things, but none of those things have ever been a romance novel. My life is full of metaphorical potholes, but never has it occurred to me that a fictionalized love story would be just the thing to fill any of them. Needless to say, I put off reading it for as long as I could. This week marked the final week before the next selections in our book club would be exchanged, so there was no beating around the bush. I had to read the book, and I had to get it done fast. To become motivated, I freebased more caffiene than I'd ever consumed in my life (seriously - it was a truly massive amount), sat down on my couch, and began to read.

All three stories followed the same basic format: a frigid woman with no interest in a relationship (either because of having been previously burned by her boyfriend or because she's too devoted to her job, or some other selfless humanitarian cause, such as an orphanage, etc.) meets the sexiest man in the universe. They're forced together due to circumstances beyond their control, usually for a matter of days. In this book, a blizzard was used twice, and in the other story the guy had to work as a mall santa as community service to avoid a parking ticket, which is in steep competition for the most implausible thing to have ever been written. Take some sexual tension, multiply it by a factor of a thousand, and end with a poorly written sex scene that did nothing but made me question the author's choice of metaphors.

If this wasn't bad enough, add in every possible Christmas-innuendo you can think of. It's all here, as shameless as can be: peppermint sticks, jingle bells, "decking the halls", a partridge full of pear trees. If it was Christmas-themed, it happened. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.

One thought that I was unable to expunge from my mind as I read these three stories was that of the identities of the authors. Having no picture in the back cover to refer to, I was forced to use my imagination coupled with inferences from what I read. Several things were apparent to me from the stories - the women who wrote them had never been in a real relationship, or if they had, they were willfully ignoring realism in favor of giving the reader exactly what she presumably wanted without any burden of thought. Also, these women must have had an extremely optimistic view of men, as even the most reprehensible guys in these stories turned out to be massive charmers.

The scariest thing about these stories to me was the fact that the biggest fantasy focused not on the sex scenes or the seduction or the romance, but the personalities of the male characters. No man on earth has ever acted or ever will act like these characters did. I'd be lying if I said they were completely selfless or without ulterior motivations - one character starts out as sort of a slimeball focused on nothing but sex, but even he quickly turns into a selfless drone with only his mistress's needs in mind. Not only that, but he's good with kids, rich, holds a job that has acquainted him with celebrities, and is willing to be completely and utterly devoted to this woman for life. Nobody on earth could ever be this guy.

It's worth noting that at the end of this story, the guy calls up all his celebrity friends and has them visit the orphange where the protagonist works. I'm not kidding. In the book's most absurd twist, Janet Jackson (who must have been a celebrity in 1996) shows up and has Christmas dinner with the orphans. Then they all sing and dance. This coincided with the peak of my caffiene high and nearly sent me over the edge.

A surprising amount of the stories were written from the perspective of the men. Reading these parts of the stories provided a strange experience: viewing the mind of a man as it is imagined by a woman. As an example of how incorrect the authors got things, I'll draw upon a particular example from the orphanage story. When the guy meets the girl, the first thought that goes through his head is something along the lines of "Wow, is she beautiful!" The second thought is: "I need to ask her to marry me - how can I persuade her?" Then, finally, "I would like to have wild sex with her." While I hate to burst this particular bubble, I'm willing to bet that in reality, said slimeball wouldn't have thought of marriage second, nor third, nor fourth, ad infinitum.

The whole issue of fiction as wish-fulfillment is tricky. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels, and while sci-fi at least has the excuse that it's provoking thought on the future and such, fantasy doesn't always. Some things I read are purely escapist, and I'm okay with that. Everyone projects themselves onto the protagonist of a novel to some extent when they read; that's what makes reading fun - experiencing things you wouldn't otherwise through the lens of someone else is great. I think there's a line an author crosses that takes them into the realm of indulgent wish-fulfillment though. Would I like to slay a dragon? Hell yes. Let's say, for the sake of argument that this is something I deeply desire. There are two ways an author can work this into a story for me. 1) I can read a book where a hero slays a dragon and then has to grapple with the larger implications of the slaying: why was the dragon there? Why did he slay it? Did he feel sorry about it afterward? Is he scorned for his actions, or treated as a hero? This gets me, as a reader, thinking about what the actual consequences of dragon-slaying might be, if, of course, dragons existed. 2) I can read a book where there's this huge dragon - like, the biggest most monstrous dragon ever. This thing doesn't mess around. Enter the awesome flawless most valiant hero in the history of the world (clearly meant to represent me). He tries so hard to kill the dragon, and it's not easy, but eventually he does. He completely and utterly slays it and is rewarded with fortune, fame, and acolytes. Happily ever after, etc. Can you guess which formula romance novels follow?

Harmless, right? Except that in these stories, it's not dragons or swordsmen or other clearly imaginary things that are being focused on, it's people in relationships. The way I imagine dragons can't be distorted beyond reality because it's not real to begin with. But when a book plants unrealistic notions about interactions with other human beings in your mind, then what happens? Like violence in video games, it's probably harmless 99.9% of the time. People in general are pretty good about separating fantasy from reality. I just found nothing else even remotely redeeming about this book, and it made the strangeness and distortion of reality stand out that much more.

To say that reading this book left me with no insights would be a lie. Rather, I think I've plunged into depths to which I had no intent of ever delving. It makes me somewhat frightened that this fictionalized notion of romance (which is very different than fiction containing romance as a plot device) is being sold in such vast quantities. However, I now know for a fact that I will never have to read a romance novel again.

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