Pandemic Diary — Escapism

What makes a great romance novel? This is a personal preference, and everyone has one. My reading preferences are all over the place merely because, as I previously stated, I am purposely eclectic, unbiased, and permissive in art and literature; I would also add music to that list—that is if you don’t include music as art. I have found that some people do not and place it in an entire category altogether, which I find odd, but whatever does it for you. I don’t spend energy arguing with people about their preferences or kinks or oddities—it serves no real purpose and it is not conducive to sharing knowledge or studying the human condition. If it is a critical analysis and has merit then I’ll read, but if it is a personal preference, I’ll listen for informational or social purposes, maybe ask questions, then move along because it is none of my business. People will like and dislike regardless of how my ego feels about it and it is best to conserve energy for more important things rather than why someone hates to read YA novels or romances with no profanity, or why someone doesn’t listen to rap or country or opera, et cetera, et cetera. The more limits I have or place on my art or literature or music consumption, the more ignorant and limited I allow myself to be. Yes, I also read politically conservative and religious ideology—although lately, it reads more like Mein Kampf, Mao, or Stalin. 

Reading is escapism so calling romance escapism is redundant. Even in college, it was such. I make no apologies. I loved all those assigned readings. I was eager for them even if I failed to read them in the time allotted. 

Someone on Twitter angrily demanded why tell anyone what we dislike when we can tell anyone what we like—well, if that is the case, why share anything at all? Why even talk? Why write? Why not just sit there and listen and observe—can’t we do all these things? This only listen to things you like radiates toxic positivity and I’m not a fan of toxic positivity—it reeks of anti-intellectualism. Also, fascism and censorship. If you are reading to avoid discomfort, you are reading wrong. I’ll get pushback for that statement. Some will say read to read regardless of discomfort—yeah, okay, but will you learn? Like Dr. Tressie says, learning is difficult and uncomfortable. Are there degrees of discomfort in reading? Of course, but shouldn’t everything be a learning experience? Should we open ourselves to the unknown? This Claire Messud quote applies: If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ 

I will pass along here what I love and hate, what I love to hate and hate to love, and especially all the parts that make me uncomfortable, irritable, infuriated, frustrated, et cetera—I think the kids call it triggered nowadays, which I read the triggers and move on. Triggers are simply things that I need to work through on my own, successfully or not. 

The themes that I love the most in romance? Chemistry, companionship, intimacy, passion, sentiment, independence, humor, knowledge, and philosophy, and the books I love tend to balance them wittingly. I also categorize a book on whether or not I would read it again. Some poetical descriptions would be aesthetically pleasing but not necessary. The only other thing would be trope preferences, but I’ll go into that another time since this is a lengthy topic already. 

Favorite themes—how do you mean, you ask? Allow me to give an example of the last five books I read by one author I previously acknowledged in an earlier post, and please bear with me and my meandering ADHD writing. 

I prefer giving an author the benefit of the doubt if I’ve never read them before and eventually having read one of their books and not liking it, especially romance novels—unless it was really bad. What is bad, you ask? Mostly bad writing—clichés and bad euphemisms are the worse. Authors that continuously use the protagonist’s name over and over and over in every sentence or the overly extravagant use of pronouns tend to be tedious. Excessive exclamation points are annoying but I can tolerate them as long as the writing is good. A preoccupation with I is never a good thing in a person or a novel unless it’s autobiographical in origin, like memoirs, or this post😉. A single sentence paragraph should be an exception, not the norm. 

As for romance subgenres, I am partial to historical romance novels but do read what’s available (e.g. contemporary, fantasy, time travel, science fiction, et cetera). I avoid overtly religious themes or religious romances. That said, Julie Garwood has written several of my favorite romances and she tends to have a bit more religion than what I usually like to endure—however, she’s a good writer and also writes great chemistry, sex, intimacy, companionship, and humor. The most annoying thing about her books is no one has sex without getting married first. My suspension of disbelief can tolerate only so much. 

Let’s discuss the suspension of disbelief in regards to romance novels → this is something that must be consistently practiced, like wisdom or empathy, or creativity. 

A recent Twitter question—How do you respond when someone says this? Men in real life are not like the ones in the romance novels you read. There is no right answer to that question—there are only discussions of experiences and everyone has their own. If you respond with you’re not meeting the right men then—again, my suspension of disbelief can only tolerate so much. I usually avoid generalized statements like that but my personal response would be there is a reason the majority of women write romance novels. 

What about social issues like rape, racism, misogyny, fatphobia, classism, bigotry, et cetera? Context is key. These are mostly women’s stories—to deny any of those social issues would be to deny that they happen and that is the worse censorship of all. The story could be the author’s way of telling their story through the lives of their protagonists. The author chooses to highlight and romanticize the good and the happily-ever-after despite trauma. Ask yourself, do you want your trauma to be your sole story arc? You may then I would direct you to memoir or literature—everyone’s story matters. It’s up to them how they write it and we should encourage them howsoever they see or think fit (←cliché?!?).

This is where my suspension of disbelief performs the most as I balance my experience amongst the pragmatic, the fantastic, the romantic, the pessimistic, and even the fatalistic—this may happen eventually to those older with lots of trauma and worldly experience. If not, you are a better, far more adjusted person than most of us and likely very dull and annoying. 

Since I’ve blathered on quite a long time, the five books that I read and the likes and dislikes I’ll highlight—read at your peril:

  • The Countess—This book was more a gothic mystery than a romance. There was no sex and no kissing. The chemistry between the protagonists was ambiguous because the author chose to focus on the plot more than romance and to reveal anything further would be to divulge spoilers. The happily ever after was in the last few pages and more like an epilogue so if you’re looking for chemistry, romance, and passion, this was like if you’re drunk and have vanilla sex with a hot person and anxiously and tediously waiting and waiting and waiting for the orgasm then being disappointed and unfulfilled when it finally arrives ultimately realizing they weren’t really that hot to begin with (sorta maybe like the sex in that short story Cat Person?). Also, this book has lots of misogyny—internalized and violent and I wasn’t really expecting that degree of it. The villain was predictable. I would not read this book again.
  • Fire Song—This was medieval. A very dark and bleak story, not romantic in the least. There was very little chemistry between the protagonists. There is spousal rape and the happily ever after comes (no, the fuck, you say—I’m serious), once again, in the last chapter or pages. This is the kind of book that if I were the woman protagonist, I would be hanged for murdering the male protagonist in a grisly style, like gutting him with a spoon slowly and painfully watching him bleed out after hanging him upside down, but I suspect this was and is what it is like for many women that don’t have a choice and the only thing they can do is make the best of it. I would not read this book again. Ever. I don’t care if it was the only book left. I take it back—I will read this book right before the war against men so I’ll be appropriately hostile and ready for battle. 
  • Rosehaven—In historical romance novels, especially in these medieval books, there is a level of historical patriarchal toxicity that is presumable and most likely authentic while certainly not acceptable in any era. I don’t dismiss it outright because women today are still experiencing this medieval form of male behavior as is evident every day on Twitter and in the advice columns I see popping up everywhere; also, on Fox news and generally all conservatives and tech bros. This author’s male protagonists are mostly assholes and you have to have a certain level of tolerance for degrees of male assholish behavior to experience these books accordingly. This so you can have empathy for those women who are still enduring it and this so you can recognize it when it happens to you so you can plan your poisons, along with your girlfriends, and rid yourself of the nuisance accordingly—the nuisance being the male(s). This book and the following one are my favorites of the five, relatively speaking. There is humor and I can relate to the woman protagonist; this is funny if you read the book because there is a certain level of irony here that I’ll let you infer. I would maybe read this book again. Depends on what kind of mood I was in. 
  • The Penwyth Curse—This book was mystical medieval. This author never really gives me the amount of sentiment or intimacy with the characters that I desire in narration and definitely very little passion. I want them to tell me who they are and what they feel, especially between each other. The sentiment is shallow, like it was written by a man—a British man. This book was interesting as there was a parallel story and couple and it had a bit more passion but was ultimately made tedious by the mystical male character going on and on about his wand. No, don’t laugh, I’m serious—it wasn’t a euphemism, or perhaps it was, I dunno and I don’t really care. No, I would not read this book again, but perhaps I would. Depends on what I have in front of me. 
  • The Prince of Ravenscar—This is a romance novel about a 32-year-old aristocrat that calls his mother mama. You may like mama’s boys—I’ve had my fill and certainly have no desire to read a romance novel where they are at the center. The women’s personalities are all over the place and the same if that makes any sense; it didn’t to me either. There are two couples and confusion about who is going to end up with whom until like 55% into the book. Plot over romance, again. No sex, again. The mama’s boy allows his mum to fix him up with someone twelve years his junior which I wouldn’t have a problem with if he didn’t go on and on and on about it till he made it tedious and creepy. Also, the one dude and his vampirism whiteness and wanting to mingle it with the woman’s whiteness—I swear the author actually put that in writing, I ain’t kidding. It ended up with the murderer, who gets away with it, dancing and hanging out in the colonies with President Andrew Jackson who the character says, I’m paraphrasing, is an affable man. Well, okay, they would’ve been deported as an aristocratic criminal to the so-called penal colonies anyway and they’re hanging out with like minds apparently. I would never, ever read this novel again unless you paid me money—lots and lots of money. 

I’m tired of writing and hungry and it is almost Superbowl time to which I’m not going to watch—I’m going to read. Toodles. PS—this post will be subject to edits once I get around to it. I apologize for any mistakes or errors as I have yet to reread and edit it.

© 2022 Matilda London/Pamela Gay Mullins

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