About that Time Magazine Article

March 2000

"Childlike restrictions and simplicity."

That's the bottom line that governs romance novels, according to Paul Gray in his March 20th Time magazine article. From my point of view, Mr. Gray didn't do his research. Relying on one essay from the Jayne Ann Krentz edited Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women and the apparent reading of one romance novel - Nora Roberts' Carolina Moon - Mr. Gray condemns the entire genre.

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Here are some of the points Mr. Gray makes, along with my own refutations. Based on a single quote from JAK and Linda Barlow's essay on The Hidden Codes of Romance, he determines that moral ambiguity, which enriches the writings of every author from Homer to Jane Austen, is not allowed in romance novels. First of all, most romance readers, particularly those who read historical romance, consider Jane Austen to be a romance novelist. Secondly, his definition of moral ambiguity seems to be based on a single type - infidelity.

I would instead argue that moral ambiguity fills many romances. Back in an earlier issue of Laurie's News & Views (Now At the Back Fence), I had the chance to talk with Katherine Sutcliffe about tortured and tormented characters, because, as I wrote then, "they are often morally ambiguous." Although our discussion occurred more than two years ago, she could well have been answering Mr. Gray today. She wrote then: "[romances] are often considered escapism from the rigors of reality. True. However, I, personally, don't want to be so removed from reality that I can't find some thread in the story or characters that I can connect with, and relate to. If the character can fight their way back from their problems to find happiness ever after, then perhaps I can as well."

Certain authors excel at writing about morally ambiguous characters - among them I would include Sutcliffe, Anne Stuart, Connie Brockway, Christina Dodd, Laura Kinsale, and Karen Ranney, to name but a few. Each of these authors have written books where their lead characters (either one or both) behaves badly, takes action that would be considered immoral, yet is considered "heroic" at the end of the book. What would Mr. Gray make of Lorraine Heath's Always to Remember about a man whose principles did not allow him to fight in the Civil War, who wore his "dishonor" as a badge of silent courage and who was pilloried by his Texas town as a result?

Unfortunately, while many "serious" romances (as opposed to the lighter, more humorous ones) do include what appear to be lapses in morality, these lapses do not conform to Mr. Gray's ideal of moral ambiguity. He writes: "Fiddle with the romance formula - make the heroine as passive office temp with an eating disorder and the man of her dreams a philandering salesman with a wife and three kids in Cleveland - and the story suddenly resembles real life."

It seems Mr. Gray "doesn't get it," doesn't it? I doubt even Jane Austen, were she alive today, would be writing books with such a storyline. What sort of a happy ending, which Ms. Austen is famous for, can come from this sort of a story? It's called "romance" for a reason, and the breaking up of a family is not something most of us consider romantic. Can you imagine the delightful Emma had she fallen in love with a married man and pursued him? I wonder - does Mr. Gray?

In that quote from the Time article, Mr. Gray refers, inevitably, to romance as formulaic. He adds that it is formulaic in a different way than is other genre fiction. Based on discussions we've had at this site for some time, the only rule I know of to govern romance novels is that the ending be happy, and there are some readers and authors who would dispute that. There are stories of younger men and older women, stories of men, not women, who come into love relationship as virgins, stories of characters in wheelchairs, . . . where is the formula in that?

Mr. Gray makes a big point of discussing "fantasy and its proper place in adult imagination." That old line about women spending too much time reading "impossibly glamorized love stories" is yet again trotted out. And while he doesn't exactly accept that statement, he seems unable to find a corollary when it relates to men. I can and do.

When was the last time you read a three page article in a weekly newsmagazine about a man you may know very well - a man who is either watching or listening to sports in all of his spare time? My brother-in-law made a horrible first impression on his (at the time) prospective mother and father-in-law when he would not get up from watching a game on T.V. to bring their luggage in from the car. That was something like 20 years ago. More recently, last summer to be exact, he left a large party for our nephew at a restaurant to walk across the street to a sports bar to watch another game. His own son, btw, wasn't feeling well, and was not able to leave the party early as a result.

Call my brother-in-law a boor, but is he alone in his endless pursuit of sporting events? I don't think so. And yet, I can't think of an article I've come across condemning sports, which feature grown men like children chasing balls around diamonds, fields, or courts. I happen to be a basketball lover myself, but you get my point.

Then, of course, Mr. Gray does what every critic of romance does - he briefly excerpted a love scene in his article. Years ago, on a 48 Hours episode devoted to the romance novel, a firefighter was featured reading a love scene to hoots of laughter and derision by his co-workers. Had he been reading the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, I have no doubt the result would have been the same. I can take a line or two from any book and it might prove any point I wish to make.

Without dissecting this article further, I'd like to further discuss one of the original arguments I posed in this article - that Mr. Gray did not do his research. Aside from reading Carolina Moon, it doesn't look as though he read any other romance novels. I may not write for such an august publication as Time, but even I do more home work than this. For instance, when I interviewed fantasy author Neil Gaiman, I read two of his full-length books as well as a number of his short stories. How else would I be able to understand him and/or the genre he writes in?

I generally try to maintain an even temper when articles are written negative about romance novels. Still, it's hard to remain resolute when confronted with this particular article because I'm not sure the author actually comes to any conclusions in his story. He does condemn the genre, but doesn't actually answer his own questions.

Why do women read romance novels? Why do women escape into this form of imagination?

Women read romance novels because they are written for women by women (primarily), who understand that although we all live in the real world where bad things happen to good people, where people lie, steal, cheat, and die, its nice to visit, for a while, a place where there are happy endings. We read to be entertained (when did that become such a bad word?) by authors who write stories of love and redemption, action and excitement, tears and laughter, small acts and large deeds, that speak to our hearts, souls, and minds.

(A copy of this was sent in to Time as a Letter to the Editor)

 

Romance Readers Respond to Paul Gray's article in Time
Paul Gray's article in Time
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