Cecilia Grant is another author I first discovered through AnimeJune’s excellent (hilarious) review. And then I realised it was kind of hard to move on the internet for glowing reviews of her debut novel A Lady Awakened. So naturally I read it immediately. Highlighted in my Kindle:
Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.
I’ve tried to describe why I love that passage so much a couple of times, and deleted every attempt. It speaks most clearly for itself. Also, sex and dead fish.
Since then Cecilia and I have struck up many conversations, and come to realise we share ideas about sexuality and gender – and even more so, the passionate desire to embody those ideas through romance.
Her second book, A Gentleman Undone, was a tough, uncompromising, incredibly romantic book. Cecilia’s post gives a glimpse into why it touched me like a hand around my bones. And it makes me want to read everything she hasn’t yet written.
Warning: I’m usually a perfectionist, and fiddle with things I’ve written until I’m reasonably sure they won’t embarrass me. But one of the things I love about Anna’s blog is the risks she takes in her topics and her opinions. So I promised myself I’d write something truthful here, and not try to file away the sharp edges. You’ve been warned.
“I asked most of my guests some specific questions,” Anna said when inviting me to write a post in this series, “but I’m curious to see what you might come up with on your own.”
I’m guessing this is the last time she makes that mistake.
Because I’d like to start by saying a few words about the dull horror of the human condition.
Or rather, by calling on Tennessee Williams to say those words.
Asked once for his definition of happiness, the playwright thought it over for a few seconds and then said, “Insensitivity, I guess.”
I love that quote. It’s really kind of appalling, isn’t it? It’s glib, it’s indicative of a piss-poor attitude, and it’s insulting to people who consider themselves happy.
And it resonates with me, from the back of my skull right down to the metatarsal bones in my feet.
Back in the days when I had vague thoughts of writing, but didn’t yet know I wanted to write romance, I kept a clipping of that quote thumbtacked to my bulletin board, for inspiration. Alongside other, equally inspiring quotes. The “Out, out, brief candle!” speech from Macbeth. The Holocaust survivor in the documentary Shoah who sums up his state of existence with, “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” (God help my shallow, missing-the-point soul; the incisive brilliance of that image gives me chills.)
And for variety, the passage in William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he names -
“…the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
So now that I’m writing escapist genre fiction, I’ve retired all those quotes and the thoughts that go with them, right?
No. Not anywhere near right. I keep those quotes closer than ever. Because genre fiction, in my opinion, is the most faithful keeper of those virtues Faulkner championed. And because hopelessness, meaninglessness, and human suffering are not only the backdrop against which romance exists; they’re the very compost out of which our genre grows.
I often see people defining romance’s worth in terms of its “escape” value. “Life is hard; I get enough exposure to sadness by reading the daily news; I want a book that can transport me away from that.” And I do think that’s a useful function for literature to perform. I’ve gone through difficult times myself when I was deeply grateful for the power of a book or movie to give me respite.
But respite reading suggests a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face. And I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.
“Yes,” says the person falling in love, “We know. All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yep. Got it. No further questions.
“And still, we will fall in love. We will find meaning in one another. We will bring further generations into this world, with full unblinking awareness of how painful life can be. We will take stock of all the evidence that suggests hopelessness as the most reasonable attitude, and we will hope anyway.”
And some of us… some of us will read and write books that celebrate all the poignant quixotic bravery of the human attachment to romantic love.
That’s what writing and reading romance means to me. I’m cringing already with the certainty that it sounds pretentious, but I’m not going to go back and tinker. This is the truthful thing I wanted to write. Thanks, Anna, for giving me the opportunity.
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