Romance Novels Need Love Too

31 October 2012

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Star, by Danielle Steel. I know, why the hell was an eight-year old reading Danielle Steel in the first place? There are answers to that question, but maybe I should just move on. Nowadays, no matter what the post-modernists say, there is still a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ fiction.

Playing ‘who read Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is like the game Six Degrees of Separation, except it’s more ‘geez I know a lot of people who’ve read it’ instead of ‘I’m six people away from knowing Beyonce!’ I haven’t read it myself, but I assume it’s an experience you can infer from others — just like how I haven’t seen Two Girls One Cup and I already know what it’ll feel like (watching it, not doing it).

I pride myself on the way I consume books like a large predatory animal, and I am happy to discuss Dostoyevsky, Austen, Kundera, Vonnegut, Garcia Marquez, Kerouac, Capote, Fitzgerald, Orwell… oh frick you get the point. But I will also shamelessly ingest a Margaret Dickenson omnibus. There’s a reason why Mills & Boon top the publishing charts every year. I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight; that’s another camp.

These romance novels operate where the stakes are unreasonably high—someone has cancer, someone gets sent to war, something ruins the wedding—and whilst we know what the ‘deep dark secret’ is three pages in (there’s always one), these authors simplify emotions to their utmost naivety. Most people argue that’s why their characters are unrealistic and superficial, but I’d argue that this innocence doesn’t exist anymore—and these books are where we find it.

Just like how the Greek kept watching Oedipus even though they all knew what was going to happen, we read these novels not for profundity, but because it’s cathartic. These characters are misty eyed, soft hearted, and at times way over the top—but they do what we can’t do in real life. They give themselves completely, taking emotional risks that most of us hard-hearted cynics can’t, and are either rewarded… or suffer. Yet they don’t care what the outcome is. The point is to love in the first place.

We usually calculate our romantic encounters prudently: Does that special someone tick all the boxes? Can they jump through all the hoops? And am I safe, at the end of the day, to give myself away like that? Pragmatics take away the Star-quality of romance. I may be a hopeless romantic, but I also drink beer and watch the footy. They do the sewing, the sitting by the phone, the praying for their lover to come home safe for me. You can call these girls complete mops, but I think that their fragility is a form of rock-hard bravery.

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