Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love, not Romance

So I sat down to rewrite the Helotes scene in the lesbian western, in accordance with my new information, and instead I spent the entire morning staring at maps and thinking about Love. This made for a disappointing word count, but since the love story - or rather, the story of how Len and Di get to the point of being able to have a love story - is an integral part of the book, and I've neglected it in my quest for historical accuracy, I can't accuse myself of wasting the time.

I am not a romance reader, except in the strict critical sense in which "romance" is used to indicate a story in which incident is emphasized over character. In this sense, "Jack the Giant Killer" is a romance because Jack undergoes lots of interesting adventures, but no character growth to speak of. I can read critical-sense romance all day, but I was once left alone in a parking lot for half an hour on a rainy day with a grocery sack full of Harlequins, and I couldn't get past the first paragraph on any of them. I like books, like the Vorkosigan saga, in which love relationships are an integral and important part of the protagonist's life, but one reason I prefer young adult to adult literature is that adult literature tends to be much less subtle and realistic about those relationships.

My ideal of a literary romance is Muggles and Mingy in Carol Kendall's wonderful The Gammage Cup. If you haven't read this (not nearly enough people have), I cannot recommend it too strongly. The plot and its themes of rebellion, conformity, freedom, and heroism play out with domestic Muggles and grouchy Mingy providing the practical guidance their more conventionally heroic friends require. In the last chapter, Muggles - in the middle of hospital duty - says to him: "You haven't a thing to do. And you'd better come back here and let me dress your foot properly. And so as not to waste your cantankerous time, I'll tell you right out that if you want a wife, I'm it!" Only then did it dawn on me (the first time I read this, when I was 12) that from Mingy's first appearance in Muggles's house - complaining about frivolous public spending, letting Muggles feed him, warning her about impending social upheaval, engaging in surreptitious charity, and mending her rickety stool - Kendall was prepping us to accept this unromantic couple as a couple. The young, artistic, charismatic pair, Curley Green and Gummy, are taken for granted. Of course they get married. But Muggles and Mingy provide all the chemistry.

I reread that book five times the first time I had it checked out of the library, and I don't know how many times since. I think I see how she did it. But can I do it? Especially given that Di and Len are nothing like these two, or like me and Damon. (Hmmm...Damon and Mingy have a number of traits in common, come to think of it.) Plus, Len is telling the story in first person, so I can't do that back-and-forth scene thing like when Mingy is captured by the bad guys and Muggles is under siege. Too bad; I'm pretty good at the back-and-forth scene thing.

Perhaps Jane Eyre, which I have been reading and re-reading almost as long, is a better model. First person, and secrets, and lots of Victorian dancing around the sexual tension, which naturally produces more of it; also, more humor than most people acknowledge.

It discourages me, the number of people who read Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen's body of work, and other novels of character with strong love elements, as if they had no more depth or emotional realism than a shopping bag full of Harlequins. And I know that this is egocentric favoring of my own reading over those of others, but I'm am convinced in my heart that nobody who came out of Little Women wishing Jo had married Laurie has experienced the full potential of that crucial work.

One of the things literature, and media in general, does is give the inexperienced a script to follow when encountering a common situation for the first time. How well we succeed in the hard labor of happiness depends largely, I have found, on our ability to adapt when these scripts clash with experience. Literature is full of good scripts, but under Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crud), bad scripts outnumber them; and it is possible for the prepared mind to take a good script and read it into a bad one.

Charlotte Bronte, writing from the heart of the patriarchy, wrote a script that subverted the dominance/submission model provided to her by her society, creating a sexually-charged equality between the governess and her "master;" but romantic emphasis on the "Alpha Male" has skewed many readings of this book over the years. And the Alpha Male script, face it, is not a practical one that will lead to happiness. The women I know who insist on using it in real life don't prosper, not least because it's an onerous role to foist on one's partner.

By definition, the lesbian western can have no Alpha Males; but the script in Di's hands assumes one, and she doesn't want him. Len has written herself out of society's script for her and doesn't know how to write herself into anybody else's, so she assumes she can't have what she wants. Once I get them to the point of exchanging secrets, the answer to their problems will be as obvious to them as to me; but how do I lead up to that exchange in a way that persuades the reader they'd do it? And how do I make the reader (most of whom will be straight) fall in love with Di as the reader of Jane Eyre inevitably does with Rochester?

And where do the Cave brothers fit into all this?

No wonder I haven't been thinking about this. Compared to the love story, the action plot will be a piece of cake.

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