(…because Famous Penultimate Words just doesn’t have the same ring…)
Next month I will write my last column for The Cultural Gutter.
I wrote my very first column as a Gutter Guest way back in 2005, about Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson. Although Ibbotson died in 2010, she was then and remains today one of my favourite writers, and Magic Flutes is still one of my favourite books. A lot of things have changed during my tenure with the Gutter: it’s good to know my feeling for that particular book is still the same.
I came on board as a Gutter Editor back in… holy crap, was it really 2007? How is it that I’ve been writing this column for so long and yet am strangely no older than when I started? Weird. We’ve covered a lot of ground since then. Author profiles; book reviews; comparisons and contrasts; lists; patterns; likes and dislikes; recurring themes; new advances — there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the largest slice of the fiction publishing pie. And I’ve had a great time doing so.
But now it’s time to say goodbye.
Or just about. Next month is December, which is the perfect time for a listy, best-of-the-year sort of column. I want to keep that spot open for the chance to highlight the books I’ve liked most and possibly even make predictions as to what might come next. So this month I thought I’d enumerate some of the reason I read Romance. Those are some of my own personal reasons: your mileage may vary. I hope it does.
I read Romance because many of its archetypes speak to me on a primal level. I can’t seem to get enough of folk tales, the foundational rebar of so much of the narrative impulse. No matter what form they take, exploring different facets and aspects of the same basic pattern is just so interesting to me. The way those stories adapt to culture and time tells us something about both.
I read Romance because it helps, sometimes, to see things work out well. We live in the real world, which means we know the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they’re not even allowed in the race. I was going to link to a bunch of recent stories to prove that point, but frankly it was just too depressing. The world is full of injustice, of oppression, of fear. Sometimes it seems we haven’t learned at all from our collective past even as we find new and more frightening ways to jeopardize our futures. The happy ending found in every Romance may just be a tiny flickering match against that kind of darkness, but it’s visible. Sometimes, that’s enough.
I read Romance because it reminds me that I’m not alone. It reminds me that other people also make stupid life/relationship/work decision and survive. That no one has to stay mired in the sorrows or terrors of the past. That people can live and learn and grow and change, even if they’re fictional. And, even if they’re fictional, they can inspire me to do the same.
I read Romance because, well, let’s face, it: I’m nosy and I like to find out about people’s relationships. It’s true in real life too: I’m curious about friends, family, lovers, and how each of us chooses and are chosen in turn. It fascinates me. Reading Romance has given me a certain level of fluency when it comes to relationships: in terms of recognizing what’s going on, what might happen next, and what it all might mean.
I read Romance because — and I can’t say this enough — it’s not about how women want to be rescued: it’s about how men are capable of change. Right now, given some of the sections of the internet I inhabit, it feels particularly important to remember that. Change is happening. It’s not always pretty, it’s rarely easy, but it’s happening. Go, us.
I read Romance because it offers connection. In this case I don’t mean to the characters, but to other readers. No matter what stories and writers I like best, I know that I’m part of an enormous community. I can greet total strangers on the subway with “Oh, that’s a great book!”, and get back a smile and “Isn’t it?” Reading Romance lets me know that someone else out there loves what I love. Many someones, in fact. Hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions.
I read Romance because it can be hilarious. Not because I think the plots or particulars are a joke, but because the stories are all about people, and people can be amazingly funny even in difficult circumstances. Sometimes especially in difficult circumstances. And sometimes that humour is a mirror, reminding me that just because something’s not funny now doesn’t mean I won’t be able to laugh at it later.
I read Romance because it can be painful. Like surgery, it can be ultimately healing. Some characters emerge out of devastation to create something beautiful and lasting for themselves. Splendid monuments don’t have to be architectural; sometimes they’re emotional.
I read Romance because it provides behavioural models. Occasionally, mind you, they aren’t the best of models, but even that’s worth learning from. Like the saying goes, good judgement comes from bad experience. But it’s not really the characters that provide the example, rather it’s the broader strokes of behaviour. Romance reminds me that sometimes I have to be brave and make the first move. That it’s up to me to take the steps that will lead to better things. That I get to choose what I want in my life, and what I don’t, and that it’s up to me to make those things happen.
I read Romance because I love it. Which, basically, is what all the other reasons boil down to.
Even if you don’t like or even read Romance (which is totally cool) Chris Szego hopes that during her time at the Gutter you’ve at least learned to understand why so many others do.