Hi, I’m Lou Sylvre, here for my monthly post on Love Bytes. This is a ridiculously serious-minded post, but at the end you’ll find a giveaway based on something a little silly—monsters and such. I hope you find both, (the serious and the silly) good compensation for the time you’re taking to be here—which I appreciate.
I was casting about for a topic for this post, because for once I didn’t have an eager little idea poking at me trying to get me to write about it. I thought for a moment of writing about the history of romance novels, and how that evolution is continuing these days with the slow-motion explosion of LGBT-Q and other alternative romances. It’s not a bad idea, and maybe I’ll write about it sometime. But as I began to research that topic, I ran across a summary of a scholarly book, a treatise arguing against the broad academic dismissal of romance as a genre.
This is from the summary for A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Pamela Regis, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press), which I found at Project Muse:
“The romance novel has the strange distinction of being the most popular but least respected of literary genres. While it remains consistently dominant in bookstores and on best-seller lists, it is also widely dismissed by the critical community. Scholars have alleged that romance novels help create subservient readers, who are largely women, by confining heroines to stories that ignore issues other than love and marriage.”
The salient thing in this summation is the idea that romance “confines heroines”—and by extension you’d have to include the men in gay romance—to anything at all. Bear with me, as I’m going to take a circuitous route to get to my destination, but I promise I’ll bring this back to the books we love and why we should go on loving them.
One of my favorite words is “education.” It means, deep down, a lot more than going to school and acquiring skills and credentials. According to the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, It comes from the Latin word “educare,” closely related to the Latin verb educere, a compound formed from words meaning “to lead,” and “out.” I bring this up because I think reading the quality fiction in any genre provides education in that very sense.
Let’s start with the following quote:
“Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge.”
― Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Yes, I agree. Fiction is an escape hatch, and most readers read it with escapist intent. Which is fabulous. You know why? Because our lives are chock full of stress, and stress inhibits learning, and we can’t be led, lead ourselves, or lead others out of any mental, emotional, or spiritual ‘confinement’ if we can’t learn. (The literature showing the impact of stress on learning is so abundant, I’m not going to cite anything here. Just do a Google search on “does stress affect learning” if you want to know more.) Neil Gaiman, a man who has a decided way with words, made the argument much more eloquently.
“If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”
(Incidentally, he had a lot more to say on the subject in the article that appeared in The Guardian, which is entitled, tellingly, “Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.”)
A few things I love about that quote: (1) He says books are real places. Oh, Neil, that is music to an author’s ears. (2) Fiction shows you a door. Right, an exit! (3) Fiction gives you (teaches you) what you need to “escape your prison for real.”
I suppose I have to argue now that we are all, indeed, locked up in our prisons. I don’t mean to sound glum or negative. Perhaps a more useful way to put it is just that we cannot see what’s on the other side of the walls and partitions that make up our current ideas about the world we live in. Books, then, help us break the mortar, expand the space farther out into space, time, and humanity.
Bringing things back down toward the concrete, romances are, in general, love stories. If you think I’m going to say that love stories teach us about sex and romance, you are unfortunately mistaken. What we learn from a well-conceived, well-written love story is about being human on a much deeper plain. And if you think I’m going to try to name some of the things you might learn, or even some of the things I’ve learned from fiction or romance novels in general—oops, wrong again. I won’t do that because I can’t.
Oh, I could toss about vague generalities like “this book taught me about loyalty,” and “that series taught me about courage.” Such statements wouldn’t be untrue, but they miss the point. The treasures in fiction are the things you can’t quite put into words, because you don’t learn them in your head, you learn them in your heart, and if you believe in something like a spirit or universal identity, perhaps we learn it there, too. The part of this that we call our “heart,” not, of course meaning the physical organ, doesn’t translate its knowledge into words. Instead, when the heart learns it changes who we are, as certainly as if it altered our DNA.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what you learned from the travails of Tolkien’s Frodo and Sam, from the love and fear-inspiring episodes endured by Jordan Hawke’s Whyborne and Griffin; from Sue Brown’s Nothing Ever Happens, Suki Fleet’s This is Not a Love Story, Kade Boehme’s Where the World Ends,or Rafe Haze’s Next. Put it in words. You can, but I believe if you’re honest with yourself you’ll find it less than satisfying, because there is something more you can’t quite shape into language.
Escaping into books is nothing to scoff at, I think. It makes us smarter, wiser, better, freer people. And the world needs that—especially the wiser and freer part.
So much for serious stuff. I’ve got an $10 gift certificate I want to give away one month from today, and in the spirit of the upcoming All Hallow’s Eve and Dia de Los Muertos, anyone who comments here to tell me their favorite spirit, monster, or fantasy creature from a romance novel gets their name in the hat.
Thanks for reading! See you next month. Maybe I’ll be more lighthearted then….