Tag Archives: abuse

In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match, by Wendy Moore

This was an absolutely horrifying story. The manipulation and psychological abuse that Mary Eleanor suffered, as well as the near-fatal physical abuse, is almost beyond belief. And Stoney seemed to hide it so well from outsiders – not only that, but he continued to make people fall for him and his stories throughout their marriage. I heard a reference to Josef Fritzl today on a comedy show and Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes was that level of abuse and deception. It is one of those things that makes you wonder about humanity.

Seriously, how does this type of thing happen? Why is there an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to “painful lives” or whatever it is they call it? I’m not asking why the books are written, or why they’re read, but why these lives have to happen in the first place. Why did the “unhappy countess” have to endure eight years of systematic, deliberate abuse and another two or more of manipulation and harassment through the newspapers, public opinion, and the courts before anyone would take her seriously? Some of it is the attitude toward women in general, from a legal perspective, at the time, but abusive relationships still happen. Rape is still difficult to prove. Divorce battles still come down to a war of words in the press, with both sides seeing who can smear each other the most.

The edition I read is a book-club oriented one so it has discussion questions at the end. One of the questions is “Would [Stoney] perhaps have been diagnosed with a psychotic personality disorder?” I have to hope that he would be. His upbringing was not that unusual; he wasn’t apparently abused as a child; his siblings were all ‘normal’ for lack of a better word, at least as far as we know. There is no obvious rationale for his behavior, no explanation for his completely disparate public and private personas. That’s the most chilling thing, I think: that he could so completely mislead people as to his true behavior and that he apparently believed his excuses himself. He either believed them, or knew enough of society’s morals to know that his behavior was out of the ordinary and therefore he needed the excuses. I’m not sure if it’s worse to think that he was delusional enough to believe his own hype, or if it’s worse to think that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Mary Eleanor’s life wasn’t completely innocent, of course. She wasn’t a paragon of virtue; if anything she was the opposite. But she reflects every rape or abuse victim who has been blamed for their situation because of the way they dressed, or the fact that they were drinking, or “they should have known better than to…..” And that’s another thing that sickens me sometimes: even with all the advances that have been made in women’s rights in the last two hundred years, there are still people who blame the victim in these situations. In Mary Eleanor’s case, even her own children blamed her. Let’s come to an understanding here, shall we? Just because a woman (because it’s usually a woman) doesn’t conform to your standards of morality or behavior or dress or whatever you are judging her by, it doesn’t mean that she should be abused, raped, tortured, imprisoned, kidnapped, molested, attacked, harassed, etc. She is not “asking for it”. She doesn’t deserve it. No matter what her past or even present behavior might be.

As a book, this was fairly well-written and definitely well-researched. There were a few phrases that recurred to the point where I noticed them, which is not necessarily a good sign – I wasn’t making notes or anything so I don’t have the specifics to find them again – but women tend to be more sensitive to repeated words and phrasings according to one study that I heard about, and by the end of the book they’d either stopped or I’d stopped noticing them. It started slowly (for me, at least) but I raced through the end, hoping for at least a peaceful ending for Mary Eleanor and getting increasingly angry at Stoney’s manipulations of her and others. I forgot about the writing and just cared about the characters and the story. This is particularly impressive when you know how incredibly boring I normally find the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (“Blah blah blah lots of politics” is my typical reaction.) But this book made me actually care about the people and the time and wonder about some of the auxiliary characters (like Jesse Foot, for instance. What made him so loyal to Stoney in life and so disloyal after Stoney’s death? Interesting character. Or some of the “notorious” nobles, et cetera, mentioned – they may be notorious, but I have no idea beyond the hints given here, and it makes me curious).

It’s not a book that’s for everyone, I don’t think. Like I said, it started slowly and if you are badly affected by tales of physical and emotional abuse, it’s definitely not going to appeal. But it’s more than worth reading if you’re interested in historical biography, women’s rights, survivor stories, the Georgian era in Britain, or any combination of the above.

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