I have a humiliating confession to make: I like reading romances. I got turned on to Georgette Heyer in the late 1970s, and have spent the subsequent decades looking for the current reincarnation of that wonderful and witty writer. For those of you who may not know, Georgette Heyer began writing romances (and very good murder mysteries) in the 1920s, and continued publishing until shortly before her death in 1974. Georgette Heyer took Jane Austen as her model: her books are set in the Regency period (early 19th Century England), and focus on the upper classes and the upper middle classes. More importantly, just as in Jane Austen's books, her main characters are always intelligent and charming. The books' complications arise because of believable misunderstandings and prejudices. I always read one of her books wishing I could enter her world and actually interact with her characters. (By the way, if you want to read books by a writer who has imagined a world where fiction and reality intersect, you must check out Jasper Fforde's books. They are marvelous.)
Frankly, Georgette Heyer is a tough act to follow. Nourished as I was on her romances, I want intelligent and funny characters, and believable plot complications. I've been lucky enough to find two writers who satisfy these requirements: Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Crusie. Both of these writers are genuinely funny women. You'll never see in their books one of my least favorite writing techniques: this is the situation in which a writer has a character voice a flat, humorless line, and then writes immediately after "Bob was stunned by her wit." If you have to tell the readers the line was witty, you've already failed.
In the mold of Austen and Heyers, Phillips and Crusie both have female characters who are competent, intelligent, and charming. They may also be misunderstood (they're often charmingly eccentric) or hampered by family or work complications, but they're usually people whose company you'd enjoy. The same can be said for the men they write about: they're physically attractive (a prerequisite for romantic novels), but their real attraction lies in their personalities (something Georgette Heyer also understood). Another woman who succeeds pretty well in this area is Jayne Anne Krentz, although she isn't quite as good, or as funny, a writer as Phillips or Crusie. Although all these writers use sex in their books (this is, after all, the 21st Century), none of the books are about sex, they're about relationships.
There's another type of romance book out on the market right now, and it's called chick-lit (or, chik-lit). As far as I can tell, these are books that draw inspiration from Helen Fielding's witty Bridget Jones book. What none of these chick-lit writers realize, though, is that Bridget Jones itself relies on Pride & Prejudice for inspiration. That is, its success almost certainly derives from the fact that it is a wacky rehash of the P&P plot, with the main characters' relationship towards each other shaped by their biases and misunderstandings, complicated by a villianous male character.
Since Fielding's would-be imitators don't recognize her plot's origins, in their books they focus on Bridget's personal failings: her drinking and weight obsessions. Bridget, of course, was a charming enough character to make these seem interesting, not depressing — which is a testament to Fielding's skill as a writer. It's a bad precedent, though, for those less skillful, and the market has been inundated with romances aimed at young women, mostly coming out of England, in which the lead characters are overweight slobs who drink and smoke too much. Most of them have a network of equally screwed up friends who validate their own self-destructive behavior (and most of them usually have at least one intelligent, self-aware gay male friend).
The plots are always the same: these messy, self-destructive women nevertheless manage to attract the coolest, hippest, and often richest man around. In this category fall books by Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, two of the best chick-lit writers. I say "best" because, even though their books follow this depressing and unrealistic template, they're good writers and carry it off. Most chick-lit, though, is appalling and the message it sends to young women is horrifying: you can be an incompetent, self-indulgent, smoking and drinking slacker, and you will nevertheless attract someone that everyone else admires. Please note that I don't say that you'll attract someone charming and intelligent — the men in these books aren't. Their attractions are measured by how valuable a commodity they are in the heroine's marketplace of people.
By the way, as a romance reader (and someone who wishes she had the narrative skills to write such a book and cash in on the market) I've been thinking a lot about what women want in a man — not something that's easy to figure out nowadays, with women all over the board on that one. I've concluded, based on books and conversations with friends (married and unmarried alike) that women want a manly man who cherishes them.
The manly part means that women don't want a girlfriend in men's clothes. They do want someone who is truly a man, with a man's view of the world. That manly view, however, has to include a belief that this specific woman is the most wonderful person in the world, someone whose company the man wants to enjoy and whose well-being matters deeply to the man.
It's with regard to this last bit — focusing on the woman's well-being — that I think men have the most problems. Some, tamed by women's lib, abandon entirely any sense of responsibility for a woman's well-being. It seems to me that this passivity abrogates a fundamental male role and that feminine women resent this. Some men, though, go in another direction entirely: they confuse caring for her well-being with dominance, which involves power, not love. That is, their impulse towards the woman isn't to care for her, but to control her in the way they think best. This is insulting, demeaning and, in extreme cases, scary.
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