and still, we will fall in love

ANNA

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 AwakenedSo 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 Undonewas 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.

***

CECILIA

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.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 48 Responses

  1. Pingback: My Manifesto, Such As It Is « Cecilia Grant

  2. Alyssa Alexander

    And this, Ms. Grant, is why your writing is so brilliant. You don’t shy away from the truth, which is that everyone has dark places. We have hopelessness. Humans are crazy and scary and complex, and still warm and loving. I commend you on writing this truthful thing! And on writing some of the most complex and dark characters it has ever been my pleasure to read. I’ve enjoyed watching them fall in love, and can’t wait for your next release!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I was so grateful she made the time to write this post. What a joy to have her electrifying words on my blog! She really is forging her own path in the genre – and when you see how deeply she understands what she’s doing, it’s no wonder.

  3. Jackie Horne

    Thanks, Anna, for hosting Cecilia, and thanks, Cecilia, for your evocative but never pretentious manifesto. I’ve been drawn to studying two literary genres–children’s literature and romance– both of which share an insistence on hope. Your manifesto helps me to understand just why I find both genres so compelling.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Agreed, Jackie! This didn’t read as pretentious to me at all. I think anything that takes an emotional risk can’t be pretentious. I love the idea that children’s literature stands in the face of the world in the same way. Something I read recently is tickling my brain on this topic, but I can’t remember what it was. I’ll link back if it comes to me!

      1. Liz Mc2

        I’ve thought about the parallels too, Jackie, particularly if you accept Perry Nodelman’s suggestion that a hopeful ending is a generic feature of children’s lit.

        I’ve always been struck by the parallels between the online worlds or these two genres, too, where fans, scholars and authors come together to talk and share their perspectives. It makes for such rich conversations.

      2. Cecilia Grant

        I had to chew on this overnight because it made me think. (I’m not a quick thinker.)

        I think there are a lot of people out there who believe that romance is an immature genre, precisely because it has that hopefulness in common with children’s lit. As if the people who read romance are stunted in some way; still stuck in that place where they have a child’s naive view of the world’s hospitality.

        Obviously, I don’t agree. A taste for happy endings doesn’t mean you’re unrealistic or immature. Everyone who gets married (more or less) is evincing that same taste.

  4. Arabella Stokes

    So true. I often think of the women in cultures where they are oppressed and treated as not 2d class citizens but non-humans.. For them, reading romance is a political statement, a revolutionary act. It proclaims that we are all equal, we all have worth, and we all deserve to be loved and valued for ourselves.

    1. Cecilia Grant

      I love this comment. I have trouble with the “romance is inherently feminist because it’s written mostly by women for women” contention that we so often hear, but what you say – for oppressed women, reading romance is a political & revolutionary act – I completely agree with.

  5. Cecilia Grant

    Thanks, everybody, for reading and for leaving comments. Writing about romance demands a significantly different skillset from writing romance, and in a lot of ways it’s harder. I’m so appreciative of romance bloggers, and also of people who leave thoughtful comments on blogs. The level of discourse in this community makes me proud to be a part of it, and makes me want to work harder and produce books worthy of discussion.

    Thanks, again, Anna, for having me. I’m so looking forward to the day we can all be discussing your books!

  6. Kaetrin

    I’m one of those people who say that one of the main reasons I read romance is for the HEA – there’s a lot of not -HEA in the real world and I want a guarantee in my reading. But that’s not to say that I want to read light and fluffy (although, sometimes I do). My favourite books are the ones where the MC’s go through the wringer – but they come out the other side successful, happy, together. Victorious. When life beats the optimism out of me, romance gives me hope. So I’m more than happy to have realism in my books, as long as there is an HEA! :)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      And I think that HEA is the finger Cecilia’s talking about. It’s uncompromising hope that something good and bright can exist in such a grim, perplexing experience (life). Long live the HEA!

    2. Cecilia Grant

      I’m glad you brought up light-and-fluffy books, because a point I wish I’d made more explicitly is that a light-and-fluffy romance is just as affirmative of what I’m talking about as is a darker one. A light-and-fluffy romance is an unapologetic expression of hope, and therefore a good, gutsy thing to write or read.

  7. Talia Quinn Daniels

    My brain isn’t working terribly well tonight, or I’d try to be as smart and poignant as this post. All I really want to say is yes! I think the concept of the light, fluffy romance read equalling the substance-free read is faulty at its heart, because if there’s nothing in the book to engage us, we fall out, and it goes flat. If we’re engaged, it’s because something resonates. What resonates? Emotion, connection, pain, vulnerability. The human condition. Even if you tread lightly on that terrain, you’re still going there.

  8. Liz Greeley

    I am really enjoying this series. I don’t normally keep up with any of the blogs I follow, but I find myself looking forward to seeing these pop up in my inbox.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying them! I invited people whose minds interest me to guest post, and I reckon it’s been a pretty effective method, for a very interesting series.

  9. Julia Broadbooks

    I love the idea of reading being an act of defiance. Rather than cowering in bed with the covers over my head, I’m walking around in black leather and heavy black eyeliner daring the world to look at itself through my eyes.

  10. Natalie L.

    I love this post so very much. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like that bit in “A Room with a View” where Mr. Emerson is talking to Lucy Honeychurch about his son and he says something along the lines of “Instead of an everlasting ‘Why?’ there is a yes and a yes and a yes!” (I’m paraphrasing from memory and I know that line’s in the movie, it may not be in the book–I’m at work and can’t check right now.)

  11. Karenmc

    What a wonderful read with which to start my morning. I was feebly trying to make the same kind of point in an email last night, and it took hours of stumbling and bumbling in my head. If I’d seen this post then, I could have just put a link in the email and gone to bed earlier.

    At its best, romance points out the idiocies and cruelties of life and still says “yes” to hope and joy and love.

  12. Tamara

    I read the Williams quote a little differently, not so much glib as a sharply terse view coming from a world of pain. Still, it’s as relevant to what you’re saying. I used to think I read for escape (and in my early twenties, when I read fantasy novels, I think that was true.)

    But after a half century of sometimes lovely, sometimes horrible existence, I’ve come to know that what I’m looking for in a romance novel is not escape, but the emotional equivalent of a hug in a moment of fear or despair. I want to follow characters through their darkest hours because those are my darkest hours. Their triumph over adversity is my triumph. Their revelations that come with love are ones I know by heart.

    I think this is why I love your books so much and why fantasy novels and Cinderella stories no longer speak to me. I don’t look to romance to transport me away from real life. I would rather it just continue to remind me gently that all things are bearable with a pair of arms around you.

    1. Cecilia Grant

      Confession: I don’t think the Williams quote is glib either. I forced that description, because I wanted a third thing in that sentence to go with the other two. Literally, I thought, “yeah, enough people will think it’s glib, and enough will skate on by it to the rest of the sentence, that I’ll get away with it.” Expediency. I need to resist that temptation more often in writing.

      I love your writing. “All things are bearable with a pair of arms around you” is so sweet.

  13. Amber Belldene

    Cecelia and Anna, thank you so much for this insightful post. Perhaps because of my day-job as an Episcopal priest, and my seriously overactive brain, I also think a lot about why I have chosen to write in this genre–you’ve touched on so many of the same conclusions I’ve drawn. For me, I’ve come to think of reading and writing romance as a kind of prayer of hope. Here here to being fools for love! So happy to make both of your acquaintances, and to find this blog!

    1. Shelley Hughes-Mills

      ” I’ve come to think of reading and writing romance as a kind of prayer of hope”–What a beautiful, beautiful idea. That one sentence just made me cry. Thank you for sharing it.

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