Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Romantic Heritage and a (temporary) goodbye

Before we begin: This post was inspired by Ana Mardoll’s Twilight posts, in which she uses the Smart Bitches’ “Beyond Heaving Bosoms” to illustrate the themes of Twilight.

Genre snobbery. Those two words come up a lot, the last time being in relation to the cover of the 50 anniversary edition of “The Bell Jar”. Apparently, someone thought it looked too much like the cover of chick-lit books, and that stirred a lot of controversy, particularly in the feminist blogosphere.

Now, humans are different, and as such, one develops an affinity to a certain type of thing, in this case a genre. Also, there is a little bit of snobbery involved everywhere. “I only read non-fiction.” “I only read books that are over 50 years old, and have withstood the test of time.” “I read science-fiction, and if you think that’s bad, you haven’t seen fantasy!” And so on, and so on.

Really, there is no genre that hasn’t been snubbed, and yet when one thinks about the whipping bitches of literature, three particular genres come to mind: Chick-lit, YA and Romance. (Not erotica, mind you. They have the Marquis de Sade in their midst, so whatever you do, they’re covered on the “stand-the-test-of-time” category.)

Also, some of you might ask what the difference between chick-lit and romance is, and for the sake of this post, let’s say that in romance the main focus is on the romantic subplot, the snark, the shagging and the big-ass happy ending. Chick lit can have all that as well, but with the romance working more as a subplot rather than the main plot. YA… well, we’ve been talking about YA on this blog for more than a year now, so it doesn’t need an introduction.

Interesting that three of the most decried genres out there (as in, the three that are taken the least seriously by critics) are also the ones where more than 90% of the writers are female. Why, if I were less feminist, I would have cried “sexist bias!” but if that were the case, surely somebody would have spoken up about it by now.

*whispers* What, wait? Somebody has spoken up about it? So why isn’t this a major talking point. *whispers* Oh, I see.

Yeah, we ladies will never be free of the “hysterical” label, even after Western culture has accepted that an orgasm is perfectly natural and vibrators are no longer perscription-only. Our sentimentality will always make us seem less credible, whether it’s at work, at school or in our books, the logic being that we cannot possibly make any important statements while our judgement is clearly influenced by our emotions.

Yes.

Okay.

Let’s go with that.

Believe it or not, this post isn’t necessarily about genre hate and sexism. We already have a couple of those. Rather, today I would like to look at the influence Romance as a genre has had on literature.

YA literature in general.

Now, regular readers know that I’m something of an Ana Mardoll fangirl, invoking her in every other post I make, and a major reason why are her Twilight deconstruction posts. Really, all of her work is great, but the recent posts where she uses “Beyond Heaving Bosoms” to talk about the themes of a YA novel have been something of an eye opener for me. (Note: I have not, as of yet, read “Beyond Heaving Bosoms”, but in my defence, I haven’t read much recently. Like… at all. But it’s on the list.)

Reading the deconstruction posts, I suddenly realised why 90% of YA feels so predictable to me - it recycles tropes straight out of the romance genre, one which I have been reading on and off ever since I perused the Samurai Chronicles for the sex scenes. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few:

The Hero is, like, the Most Awesomest Thing EVAH!
 
I’ve already spoken about beauty in YA when it comes to the ladies, but the guys aren’t exactly hideous either. In fact, their appearances are always described in loving detail, sometimes subject to baffling superlatives. In addition to that, though, they’re also the fastest, strongest, smartest, richest, most speshul badass-flakes that you ever laid your eyes upon. But oh, they’re also sensitive and gentle and really, really excellent carpenters. They fix their own super-awesome cars. They can cook. On dates, they lavish attention on the heroine while simultaneously flaunting their wealth, and when they take off their pants… wait, which one was I talking about?

(Sadly, the ratio of YA books that describe penises in loving detail is rather low, so I can’t compare. However, the protags often say sex was awesome, so we’ll take their word for it.)

Since we came to the topic of sex, if you read through Ana’s posts and the quotes from BHB, you will also notice that YA repeats tropes from Romance like violent courtship and veiled rape allusions. Basically, though the descriptions of the characters being intimate (whether they’re only talking or engaging in some of the old in-out-in-out) read like something incredibly unhealthy (or downright violent), we, the readers, are supposed to make excuses to see them as romantic, since, you know… designated mates and all that. Which brings me to:

Everything the heroes do is right!
 
Further building on the No-means-Yes courtships, YA also has the unfortunate tendency to make excuses for its protagonists. So the heroine is (in)directly responsible for the deaths of her friends? No biggie, they were just pawns in a bigger game. The hero stalks the heroine? It’s for her own good! Her womanly sensitivity makes her incapable of spooning food in her mouth, let alone walk from point A to point B unharmed! They steal, lie and cheat to get their way? Well, there must be a reason for it!

In romance, or its sister genre urban fantasy, heroes and heroines are often put into situations where they have to commit a minor crime to stop a big one. And yes, while hot-wiring a car does not seem like a big deal in the long scheme of things, the person they stole it from surely feels differently.

Also, this:

The book must absolutely end with a HEA!
 
Okay, so maybe not EVERY book. But with Romance, you’re pretty much guaranteed a wedding at the end, or at the very least an engagement. There are also some that skip over the wedding hassle and right onto the two protagonists living their golden years surrounded by their brood and reminiscing about the crazy adventures they had when they were young…

YA, by virtue of having most of its protagonists on the cusp of leaving high school, doesn’t always end with a wedding, but it damn sure wants to prove to people that the main leads got the ending they deserve, together for ever. Even the Harry Potter franchise needed to end with this image of white suburban bliss, with the heroes acting like this huge war they played a part in only got them to kind-of-sort-of admit that Slytherin house is not so bad.

Still unconvinced? Then ask yourself this: What is now the big thing in publishing?

There’s certainly some speculation, but what I see generating the most buzz is New Adult books, YA versions of 50 shades, and every single p-2-p fic that sells for a seven figure sum.

The big thing right now are romance novels… derived from Twilight fanfiction… whose major, major focus is to take the series past its abstinence porn roots.

The circle has closed.

So where do we go from here?

My first stop would be “Beyond Heaving Bosoms”, because it sounds really awesome, but since I haven’t had time to sit down on my arse and read anything since Christmas, that feels a wee big moot.

I guess that, by understanding better the relationships between genres and the influence that goes on, we would be less judgemental of other people’s reading choices (wishful thinking, I know). More to the point, I hope that, by understanding these tropes better, we can push them out, test the boundaries, go beyond the predictable and see what we get.

***

So that was about the Romantic Heritage, but there is also one thing I’d like to talk to you about today, or rather, something I’d like to say. This may not come as a surprise to you, given my rather limited Internet presence this year, but for the next four to six months, I’m going on a bit of an Internet hiatus.

What does that mean?

Basically, what it sounds like. I won’t be on the Internet for a while.

I will upload the reviews of the ARCs I have received (”Dear Cassie” in particular), and I will occasionally pop up on GR and twitter, but I won’t be writing any more posts for the Book Lantern, running interviews or guest posts or whatever. I'm still answering my email though, so if you have general queries or questions, I'll answer if I can, or delegate them to the other ladies if I can't.

Why?

Some of it has something to do, unfortunately, with the fact that I’ve quite lost my taste for Internet and book blogging. My general sense of ennui when it comes to the most popular titles out there has, sadly, left me burned out, and I don’t feel like pushing myself because I want to meet a GR target or whatever.

Also, since I entered a traditional working place, I’ve found myself with a rather limited amount of time and energy, which I want to use more efficiently, and running a blog is quite a serious task. I would much rather do less and do it well than keep on doing something half-assedly. (Now who’s making up the weird vocab?)

Will I come back?

Yes! Absolutely! Even though I’m currently burned out, I still care for YA and want to get back to it. And the community, too. But 2012 has been hard on the book blogosphere, and sad as I am to say, it’s not nearly as fun anymore. I want to step back and see if I feel more comfortable in it when I come back, so I hope that makes sense.

What now?

Ceilidh, Cory and Christina will be running the show from now on, so keep an eye out for their next pieces. We’re all on GR and twitter. We like hearing from you, so pitch your guest posts and let us know about your ideas.

As for me, I’ll focus on my studies and my personal projects for now, and hopefully, I’ll have a massive update to feed back to you after my hiatus is over. So… yey?

Stay safe, y’all!