Friday, March 30, 2007

Taking it on Faith

Okay, I admit it. In addition to loving romances and comic books, I am an opera freak. So there I was, watching Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” (the major Czech opera that set the standard for all others), and suddenly the hero did something that heroes used to do all the time in romances. And sometimes, still do. He demanded blind faith from the heroine.

The hero, Jenik, is putting one over on the whole town. He claims to be a stranger from Moravia, wherever the heck that is. And he’s in love with and has been wooing a young girl, Marenka. But her parents need money and want her to marry a rich young man. Lots of machinations later, Jenik makes it seem as if he has sold out Marenka—given her up for 300 ducats. Now that’s a familiar romantic situation, the hero being paid off to get out of the heroine’s life. And then of course someone tells the heroine that he has sold her out, betrayed her, denied their love, etc.

At this point, she confronts him, which is certainly better than a lot of romance heroines in books I have read. They tended to just run away themselves, usually into becoming Daddy’s Little Stepford Daughter, or whatever. They certainly did not listen to any explanations. Unfortunately, this heroine confronts her lover only to demand a yes or no answer as if they’re in court. And she follows another classic pattern by refusing to listen to the hero’s attempts to explain his trick. And so that gives rise to a funny argument scene, and a rather tragic-sounding song she sings. But he keeps trying to get her to take him on faith, to ignore what facts she has learned, and to just believe in him despite the facts. In direct contradiction of the facts. And she balks.

This reminded me of an explanation Gay Talese gives about mafia family dynamics in his book Honor Thy Father. He says that gangsters deliberately try to break their women down, so the women cling to them personally but have no will to adhere to any other moral compass. In other words, they accept their male relatives’ word as law, and even as truth. One sees this in the Godfather movies when Fay confronts the antihero about his killing his own brother-in-law, and he just lies to her to control her. Although Fay eventually figures him out, at the moment, she blindly takes him on faith.

This has always seemed wrong to me. When heroes playing a double game lead their women into believing that they are crooks, they frequently demand that the women believe in them to the detriment of the heroine’s own moral standards. Or the heroine voluntarily believes, and tries to save the hero, either from himself, or from the approaching consequences she fears will happen to him when his villainy is discovered. This always makes me squirm. It’s so embarrassing: here she’s desperately worried about him, possibly contravening her own moral code to try to help him escape, and he’s inwardly laughing at her or patronizing her. He knows what’s going on and she doesn’t. And he won’t tell her. It’s on a need to know basis, and she, the very woman he loves, isn’t in his inner circle. I hate it. It’s such a demeaning dynamic.

On the other hand, there are people in your life for whom you would commit crimes. People for whom you would risk your life so they would escape the consequences of their actions, even their evil actions. People whose actions you deplore, yet whom you would support no matter what. So I understand that the act of faith that the hero demands of the heroine (or the author demands of her) is in reality just another way of showing the depth of the heroine’s love. Of showing that it has no boundaries, etc.

But then consider the Meat Loaf lyric, "I Would Do Anything for Love (but I Won't Do That)" There are limits. There should be limits. Limits to what a lover should ask of another lover. Limits to what a heroine should forgive in a hero. Limits to how much power in a relationship one person should cede to another.

The faith the hero should expect from the heroine is not the same as blind trust in the face of evidence that he has betrayed her. He needs her to believe that he is not the man to commit wrongful acts. Thus, he needs her to have confidence in his honesty, confidence in his fidelity, etc. So in the future when she sees him with another woman or doing something else that could be misconstrued, he needs her to have the confidence in him (and in herself) to assume that nothing bad is happening, and then to find out the facts. Not instantly to assume that he has betrayed her. This is the kind of faith a lover needs, not the other kind.

But true to the folk origin of this story, in this case, the hero is playing a trick on the matchmaker and on his own estranged father. He’s doing it to attain his own ends, and not counting the pain his behavior causes the heroine. Considering the grudging reunion with his father (grudging on both sides), his double dealing is even more destructive. Why hurt his beloved and show up his father as having been tricked, if he hopes for a happy future with either of them? It doesn’t make sense.

And that’s the unintended consequence of a hero’s demand for the heroine’s full faith, for her abandonment to love. Once he has shown her how deeply he can lie to her about who and what he is, once he has betrayed her innocent initial belief in him, she will always at the back of her mind have a niggling doubt: Is he lying to her again? Will he betray her at last? The suspicion, once planted, will always be there. How ironic that a demand for faith is what can cause a permanent lack of faith.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 23, 2007

You Talkin’ to Me?

I’ve been visiting some writers’ web sites and noting the criticisms writers have received and their responses to that criticism. And the responses of third parties, which is of some significance in the blogosphere.

You read something on a web site, and you fire off a flip comment. Boom. You’ve flamed someone. They respond. Or their friends respond. They flame you back. More levelheaded individuals run with the topic and explore it in a more intellectual manner. You and everybody else vie for the last word until the possibilities for insulting, arguing, and just acting weird get used up.

And that’s the negative side of all this blogging. People who speak rashly and without any checks (other than filters or web mistresses to keep extreme comments at bay) attack other people with their words. In real life, face-to-face, most people wouldn’t say these things. Maybe at Thanksgiving dinners after everybody is sick of everybody else. Or at bars when people are drunk. But in general, home truths are meant for families, not for strangers. Fight at the family gathering, and you may become estranged. Fight at the bar, and somebody gets hurt and/or you wind up in jail. Fight on the Internet? No consequences! Yippee! Let’s fight!

Of course as soon as web hosting was invented, people realized that there would have to be standards and controls. But despite all kinds of moderators and filters, plenty of annoying, stupid, filthy, and basically useless comments get through anyway. But I’ve also noticed that a lot of people have figured out what to do about this. (Aside from having their friends beat you up.) They just don’t respond.

Awhile back I wrote about how the romance writing world is filled with lots of holier-than-thou harridans intent on teaching each other good manners. I cited the chiding responses to romantic suspense writer Anne Stuart’s saying in an interview something to the effect that she did not think her current publisher was doing a lot to promote her books. These words of Anne’s provoked horror, dismay, disdain, anger, and many other negative reactions. She was charged with being unprofessional and worse. Miss Snark wrote a column about it. Others wrote columns about Miss Snark. Jenny Crusie wrote a long declaration of writers’ rights defending Anne’s absolute right to say what she thinks in public. Many people weighed in on Jenny’s blog both positively and negatively. And elsewhere, no doubt, but I haven’t tracked them all down.

Meanwhile, Anne Stuart went back to writing, what she does best and what she also happens to do better than at least 99% of all romance writers. Really. She’s that good a writer. I can name fewer than ten—and that’s being optimistic—romance writers in the past 30 years who write as well as she does. I don’t always agree with her take on life, and thus I don’t rush to read all her books. I usually save them up for a few years, and then wallow in her world view for a while, alternately heavy breathing about her sexy, manipulative, dominating heroes, and hating their guts. Well, that’s me. What I’m trying to say is that Anne Stuart is a very good writer indeed. She tends not to get the numbers or the acclaim that her talents deserve, so maybe you haven’t heard of her. If not, check her out. But other writers know how good she is. Anyway, so Anne (that’s her nom de plume, by the way, not her real name) reacted to all the lecturing and sniping and flaming on the Internet by doing what she does best—writing. She alluded to the unfortunate incident on her web site, indicating that she got the message to shut up and write. And then she busied herself with her fiction writing and book promotion from then on.

That’s one way to deal. Use the Internet as a publicity tool and introduce a new topic when the tenor of the talk or the topic isn’t to your liking. We live in an intensely critical, rude world. Everyone believes themselves fully qualified to tell others off, to try flog their own point of view. (And you know, maybe we are.) The blogosphere is the easy place to do it because one can be more or less anonymous even while saying some rather wild and crazy things. But clearly, lots of people who initiate discussion don’t like the connection to be fully two-way. They love to write. Some of them also love to talk. But when you visit many writers’ web sites, you will see that the writer tends to talk on a topic, allow commentary, but then talk on something else. It’s not a conversation. Despite being described as a very busy highway, the Internet is more of a one-way street than it at first appears to be. Regardless of all the hype that everybody is now so connected, the fact is that we aren’t. We are each in our private worlds. Don’t like the content of a site? Leave that site and find another. Getting too much e-mail from spammers and flamers and other assorted jerks? Change your e-mail settings or address, and dump them all. Not anonymous enough? Get a fake name and e-mail account to use for all your contacts on the net. And so it goes.

Another popular variant is the loop, whether formal or informal. Someone starts up a web site, or a group on Yahoo, and then a small group of people routinely talk to each other through it. It’s an open forum to the degree that most of their comments can be read by anyone (although some loops are members only and some forums have members only areas), and others can join in the discussion. There’s nothing evil about this, per se. But in both situations, the individual author site and the group site or forum, the person just randomly coming to a site is going to realize in short order that each site is like a new high school. You have to learn new rules and figure out who the popular girls are and who are the bullies. And woe unto you if you raise your hand too soon and draw the wrong kind of attention to your newbie self.

Which brings us back to the subject of saying indiscreet things, whether on a blog or on a website or even just in an interview that gets on the Internet. You want to express yourself. You want to join an interesting discussion or two. Ideally, you might like to make some new friends. But you also want to control the parameters of the experience, just as you would in real life, by choosing the people with whom you associate. But on the Internet such selectivity is impossible. If you want to talk publicly, you have to be willing to risk getting all kinds of responses. Even dead stupid ones from hostile people who just like being nasty. So what’s the lesson here? Say what you think, and ignore the reactions? Say what you don’t think, and try in vain to please the millions of people out there on the Internet (at least some of whom, statistically, will believe that anything you have to say is useless drivel)? Say what you think, and listen only to people you like? You tell me. Maybe I’ll listen.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, March 19, 2007

HEROES—OR RICH DOLTS?

I just finished reading a story in which the hero was a dolt. A very sexy dolt, but a dolt nevertheless. He was rich, and rich men are idols of fantasy regardless of dolt status. Women like to think that successful romance with a rich man would be the ultimate pleasure. Or maybe the ultimate worldly triumph, a la Cinderella? But a romance with a dolt? I’m not enthusiastic. Reading about this rich guy’s doltishness did not amuse me. Watching the heroine win his doltish heart did not imbue in me a sense of romantic completion. I thought this guy was a waste of her time.

I’m sure the writer did not sit down and decide to create a hero who was a dolt. I suspect this happened as a byproduct of the plot she created. She needed him to be stupid or to act stupid at a key moment. The only way the story would work was if his intelligence suddenly took a nosedive. This happens more often than you think. In fact, in the writing world there’s a name for it and the name is: The Idiot Plot.

The idiot plot is a story that would not happen if some major character didn’t behave like a complete idiot. He sees something and leaps to an idiotic conclusion about it, which causes various other idiotic plot complications. Or she overhears or reads something, but the bottom line is that instead of doing what any normal person would do, and just ask the other person what’s up about this, the character takes some kind of action or has some kind of reaction that moves the story along in the path the author intends.

When a hero is behaving like an idiot it helps if he’s rich and glamorous, because these elements are distracting. Few can see a rich man without the powerful shadow of his wealth behind him, tempering his idiocy. And glamour, while it can be said to be a mere offshoot of wealth, can also be a separate category, as when a man has a mystique or a charisma about him. This can be from his looks or his bearing, or even from his profession. Movie stars (and TV actors) are glamorous, even though many of them aren’t all that rich or good looking. Their glamour is their chief appeal. After all, there are plenty of rich men in the world. Only a few of them ever get any major media coverage as glamorous. The rest are just rich. But back to idiocy (see how distracting wealth and glamour are?), the point is that a man who has the power of wealth or glamour can behave like an idiot and there will be consequences. He can close a company down, or date the world’s sexiest woman. He can command people. I once had a handsome man come up to me and ask me to do something, and it took me a minute to realize that he was using the power of his good looks (his glamour) to distract me from the truth that he had no business asking me anything at all. Such is the power of glamour.

The writer of a romance featuring a rich and glamorous hero is offering the reader a combination of powerful distractions. But the hero can still be a dolt as long as the reader doesn’t catch on. The writer’s task is to avoid disillusioning the reader. Creating heroes with credible personalities is a key step. The writer of a romance carefully seeds in bits about the hero’s personality so that his actions, however implausible, seem possible. This is often a matter of delicate balance. Make the hero too sensitive, and he comes across as a weakling. Make him too macho and he comes across as a jerk.

Well, how do you create a romance hero? There are two main ways. The first is to glamorize a real man. The second is to take a glamorous ideal and humanize him. An example of the first would be using one’s wonderful husband as the hero of all one’s romances. The writer enhances his sensitive qualities, beefs up his sexual ingenuity and energy, and magnifies his worldly success. But the key is that the writer uses the personality of a real man. His way of approaching the world and reacting to it. His way of dealing with conflict. The glamorizing bit comes in when not mentioning that this wonderful man routinely does not know where his socks are.

The second approach would be to take James Bond or any essentially fictional person, including that old TV ad character named the Marlboro Man (a craggy western guy on a horse, who smokes) and try to give him just enough personality to fit the storyline of this romance. Yes, even an actor seen for a mere 30 seconds in a commercial is a glamorous enough figure to be a character concept for a writer.

When a writer is using a real man as her base, she doesn’t take him whole. A romance hero is an exaggeration of a man, and his flaws are not the mundane flaws of real life. Not only is the romance hero magnetically attractive to the heroine, but others feel his power, too. A romance hero is an independent, confident man, strong enough to take onto his shoulders all the heroine’s problems. He doesn’t drag home exhausted from overwork, cursing the big mortgage and the kids’ bills that keep his nose to the grindstone. And most important, a romance hero does not need, as so many real men do, a motherly role from a wife, that of taskmaster, maidservant, and cheerleader combined.

When the writer is using a fictional hero as her base, she gives him personal quirks. If he’s a prince of a Ruritanian country, he’s a reluctant prince. If he’s a computer tycoon, he has a secret misery over some long-ago personal failure. If he’s a glamorous movie star, he’s desperate to be treated like a normal person by someone not out to steal his millions. And so on. So this unreal man has real yearnings or qualities added in, and what he needs from a heroine is a dose of the very reality that the real man (see the previous paragraph) doesn’t want.

But what keeps either hero type from becoming a dolt? Masterful writing can do it. Charlotte Lamb, who wrote many Harlequin Presents novels, had an especially fine touch with taking an implausible plot and creating such a tense, sexy, emotional drama that the reader would believe every ridiculous plot twist. A favorite was the one in which she took a cheap encounter in a bar, followed by an even cheaper sexual encounter, and turned it into a smashingly successful romance about love at first sight. (When I think of the title, I’ll post it, or you can if you remember it.) The novel was much imitated by other aspiring writers, but it was the deft writing that made the story work and they lacked her masterful touch.

The other way to keep the hero from looking like a dolt is good plotting. Good plotting requires that the hero and heroine do everything that a person of normal intelligence would do in their situation. They ask the questions. They consider the possibilities. Most important, they do not ignore the obvious. It’s okay for a hero or heroine to leap to an unfounded conclusion, but the writer must first set up this person as the type who is emotionally prone to such leaping. And ideally, there should be another character or a little voice inside who tells the hero, “You’re being an idiot!” But having set up that the hero is driven by his emotional demons to behave like an idiot, then the writer can get away with making him a dolt.

Sometimes. Sometimes the writer has tossed in too much idiocy and the character cannot recover. That’s when a reader like me suddenly notices that the hero, good looking, sexy as hell, even rich, is still a dolt.

From Poison Ivy
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Unrequited Love

I went to a movie in which a romantic teenage girl in the boondocks falls hard for a worldly older boy from the big city. She’s been waiting all her life to meet her true love, and she decides he’s it. So she daringly sends him a love letter. The very next day, he rejects her, coldly saying that she’s way too small town for him. She is totally humiliated. Worse, at a big party he flirts with her sister. Her sister enjoys it, but her sister’s fiance is hurt and furious. He fights with his best friend from the big city, and one thing leads to another, and the worldly boy kills him. Cut to a few years later, and the worldly boy is older, sadder, but a not a lot wiser. When he sees the girl at a fancy city party, now a socialite and married to a rich older guy, the worldly boy tries to seduce her. She loved him before, right? Why not now, now that she is glamorous? But she tells him to forget it. She won’t betray her husband. Even though she admits she still loves this boy she had recognized years ago as her one true love. He is totally humiliated. She is heartbroken.

And it ends that way. Nobody is happy, the best friend is long dead, and who even knows what happens to the sister! But people love this story. They loved it when it was a poem in novel form by Alexander Pushkin over 170 years ago, and they still love it as an opera today (yes, it’s “Eugene Onegin” and I saw it at a Metropolitan Opera simulcast at a big movie theater). Versions of this sad tale of unrequited love have been retold all over the world for more than a century, including various actual movies.

People who like romance, a type of story devoted to happy endings, also like to see suffering. They like to see the risk involved in getting to a happy ending, and the pain that results when two people’s hopes are not in perfect alignment. At the end of this story, the heroine Tatiana says that she and Onegin had a chance when they first met. They could have experienced true love. But instead, he threw it away, and their chance (what we now like to call a window of opportunity) ended. Although she never cites the fact that he probably ruined her sister’s life and that he killed another man (in a duel, which was legal enough in tsarist Russia), it is implicit in her rejection. Onegin didn’t just crush Tatiana’s love. He did other things that could never be taken back, never erased. Although he sees a hope of recapturing his earlier innocence by recapturing Tatiana’s love, she has taken her own permanent step beyond the moment when she loved him. She has married another man. (And by the way, no, she couldn’t have gotten a divorce, but in that society she could have had an affair with Onegin with few social consequences.)

At this point in a conventional romance, the hero works on the heroine’s will, shows her that he has changed significantly, helps her solve a dire problem, or otherwise redeems himself and wins his way back into her arms. By contrast, in a conventional opera, people die. Friends, relatives, enemies, and even wars interfere, and the hero and heroine realize that the force of destiny is against them. (There’s an opera by that name, “La Forza del Destino.” By the end, every main character is dead.) But in “Eugene Onegin,” the story concentrates on the feelings of the hero and heroine, comparing and contrasting their out-of-synch personal realizations. The result is the greatest possible amount of misery they can each suffer while still living to be miserable another day. In a romance, after a suitable period of enjoying the hero’s repentance, the heroine allows herself to forgive him. That way they can both be happy. In “Eugene Onegin,” love does not win. Onegin realizes too late what he has lost.

Oh, the aching beauty of such suffering! The power and beauty of love, even unrequited and badly-timed love, are what make this story timeless. For a general audience, evoking these feelings, unrequited as they are, is sufficient. For a romance audience, not so. In a romance, the main characters have to end up happy and with each other. That is the enduring requirement. The resolution must be more than understanding how love went wrong. It must actually fix things.

Of course the very insistence on a happy ending is why romance is a genre, as murder mysteries are (after all, they insist that the real killer gets revealed). In real life, many people love and their feelings are not reciprocated, or their situations do not allow them to be together. By touching on what happens in real life, eliciting suffering consonant with real life miseries, romances gain important emotional depth and believability. But in a romance, the probabilities are organized so that the lovers find their way to each other. By the end of a romance, all difficulties are swept away, and a rose-petal-strewn path lies ahead.

Since audiences know that a romance will end happily, why should they suffer along with the hero and heroine, worrying about unrequited feelings? And romance audiences do suffer. They shed tears as the heroine sheds tears. But why do they? It’s not mere suspension of disbelief. Romance audiences want to feel these painful feelings, but in a safe context, a context in which the ache of unrequited love will go away. By the end of the story, they don’t want to be weeping and thinking that nothing ever works out, that life is cruel, that one’s youthful hopes will all be crushed, that it’s stupid to have dreams, and so on. They want to believe the very opposite.

And this is where the romance audience and the mainstream audience part company. This is the very crux of the reason why so much scorn is routinely heaped on romances. It’s not the quality of the writing. It’s not the characters or the setting. It’s the happy ending. The determined view that unrequited love and idealistic feelings and all those mushy emotions will lead to happiness, not tragedy, sticks in the craw of people who view life as a vale of tears. The mainstream audience believes in unrequited love.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.