Monday, February 15, 2010

Love as a Practice of Freedom

L.G.C. Smith

At fourteen, my reaction to reading "Romeo and Juliet" was "Really? Did they try talking to each other?" Too stupid to live was invented for that pair.

My approach hasn't changed much over the years. Faced with the power of love in a public forum (that isn't fiction), I intellectualize it. In that spirit, I offer a bit from the conclusion of my my doctoral dissertation, an ethnographic study of romance writers completed a very long time ago (1997). I still stand by it.

The romance genre is not devoted to providing erotica for women readers, even though sexuality and sex are important components in many books. It is not about simple stories for bored housewives who need to be reconciled to the indignities of patriarchy. It is not about changing gender relations, even though almost all of the writers I studied consciously addressed those issues.

Romance novels are about love. Not love as a syrupy excess of florid prose, flowing locks, and brandished sabers. Not love as the sweaty realism of hormonal need and available bodies. Not love granted as a reward to pretty girls by powerful men. Or to pretty men by powerful women.

Romance novels are about what hooks (1994) calls "l
ove as a practice of freedom." They are about the kinds of love that are willing to explore differences when one human being spies a speck of humanity in another that they did not expect. Romance novels are about love as a border crossing. The borders lie between two individual, historical subjects. Often they involve the types of borders that confound us so much in our public and personal lives: race, ethnicity, class, gender. Some writers are more skilled than others, certainly, but the stories told in romance novels are inherently and necessarily about transformation.

As a society, we need to learn more about what it means to love as an act of will and choice, and this is the purview of romance novels. It may be fevered glances and glowing smiles that bring romance lovers together, but it is determined practice that keeps them
there. The primary message in romance in that love is possible for everyone, the kind of love that is strong enough to build families and communities out of individuals with differences that might just as easily isolate them.

Read the novels, and this becomes apparent. Read Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Kathleen Eagle, Laura Kinsale, Barbara Samuel, Judith Ivory, Loretta Chase, Lynn Kerstan, Pamela Morsi, Connie Brockway, Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, and so many, many more
. hooks (1994) writes that the "moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others." The vast majority of evidence I found in romance writers lives demonstrates that they use literacy practices as part of liberatory life practices that understand love as the fundamental basis for action in the world.

hooks, bell. 1994. Outlaw Culture:Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.


sarahjayne smythe said...

I don't as a rule read romance. I don't write romance. Because honestly, my reaction to "Romeo and Juliet' is about the same as yours. Poor impulse control I can see in and outside of my classroom at any time.

But this may make me rethink that, at least as far as reading goes. It's an insight that's never come to me, perhaps because I never looked. It's brilliant, actually, as is hooks.

Rachael Herron said...

(I know that's kind of a dumb response to such a great post, but it's my gut reaction.)

Adrienne Bell said...

I never liked Romeo and Juliet. The first time I saw it I wanted to scream at them. Too stupid to live is right, Lynn. I always thought of Romance as more Beatrice and Benedick.

Beautiful post. And of course I have to second Rachael's "Hell Yeah!"

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh, me too. I'm always thrilled when a smart, smart sister steps up and reminds everyone what's really going on between the covers.

Tom Neely said...

Well said. Clearly if romance novels were written only for needy housewives living dismal lives then they surely wouldn't resonate with guys like me who read them like crazy. You've gotta post more of that dissertation :^)

As to Ms. Smythe's comment I don't quite get it. In effect she said she never wanted to have a dog as a pet because she's scared of horses. and that if she wanted to see trash she'd look in the dumpster, except now she's willing to give it another look. Kind of a funny endorsement for a rather crucial genre.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Sarahjayne, your response made my day. I studied romance writers because my own experience was so entirely counter to what the prevailing conversations of the day said romance novels were all about. None of the academic work at the time came close to addressing the sense of freedom and meaning I found in reading and writing romance. I didn't think I was alone in that, so I studied what other romance writers' experiences were like.

It was hard to be working in universities where no one I knew had even read a romance but thought they knew all there was to know about the genre. It was important to me to be able to articulate why I choose romance and not another field of literature. More than anything, in doing that research, I wanted people to look more closely at romance, with more depth, and a willingness to think about why so many women read and write romance in the face of generalized and obligatory derision. That you might be willing to do that is all I can ever ask of anyone. It's a lot more than many of my fellow writers and teachers are willing to consider.

Tom, I love that you read romances and crow it for all the world to hear. That takes a special kind of confidence and good will that is a complete joy to find in the world. I do get what sarajayne is saying, and I appreciate both of your comments. Because of my experiences with professors, teachers, librarians, writers, newspaper editors, students and many others who have dismissed romance out of hand as inconsequential, I see a radical openness in "but this might make me rethink that."

I appreciate that very much, along with everyone else's comments.

sarahjayne smythe said...

Well, Tom, that makes us even. I don’t quite get your response because that is not what I said either in effect or in actuality. Those are quite a lot of words and a position that you attribute to me that are not mine, and your analysis of my response really isn’t a valid or accurate one and is in effect, putting words in my mouth.

My comment ‘I don’t as a rule’ was me prefacing up front with my preferences, practices, and parameters coming into the discussion. Given that, the rest of my response was as follows: That based on what I had read from Ms. Smith, I was willing to look at the genre through a different lens, the one she had just provided for me, and rethink my position. Rethinking a position based on new information or a new perspective that’s been offered is a good thing, opening one up to new horizons, and the complete opposite of the closed-minded, out-of- hand dismissal that you seem to accuse me of making.

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