A criticism frequently levelled against romance genre fiction is that it is shallow. It’s trash, or fluff. These criticisms have been voiced about my own work. I can see why, on one level. Everybody in The Warrior Queen is handsome or beautiful, stunning or smouldering or intriguing. Or, Lancelot’s case (as my friend texted me to tell me) “a rugged enigma, wrapped in manly quietness”. In part, I wanted to get across this sense of a kind of golden age, a special world, a time of greatness. Anyone who has read any medieval romance will notice that each man is the “byggest” man that ever there was, and every woman is the “faryrest on lyve”. There’s a sense of wonder and magic and specialness about the whole Arthurian world, especially as Thomas Malory tells it, and I wanted to communicate something of that in my own writing.
Another point is, that it is also part of the romance genre. It’s part of the giddy escapism, the lure into fantasising that this genre offers. Why shouldn’t we enjoy what we read? Why shouldn’t we want to imagine a sexy encounter between two sexy people?
But beneath this is something more uncomfortable. I’ve talked a little before about the idea that if women are clever, they should be like men, and women’s-interest fiction is generally held to be the trashiest of the trashy, and I’m not going to rehash that, because that’s such complete bullshit that it isn’t worth my time, but I will say, that is a part of it. The other part is, there’s an underlying idea that anything about love, sex and emotions is somehow shallow. Oh, but wait, it’s only shallow if it’s written by a woman.
That’s right ladies. A man writing about women and feeling and all that is breaking boundaries. If we do it about ourselves, for ourselves, we’re – what? – being shallow? I just don’t understand what is shallow about emotions. Just because some characters are attractive, does that mean their emotions are shallow? Or, because the plot develops according to genre-defined conventions that means the whole writing is shallow? And who ever called Shakespeare shallow?
It’s a crazy idea. And just think of all the literary fiction written about women by men. Stories about love and sex. The one that springs to mind, of course, is D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Here is how I remember the whole book:
“Ursula, come and look at this,” said Rupert.
Ursula was weighed down by an inchoate sense of something just beyond her reach. She sighed.
“I cannot come, Rupert,” Ursula said. “Rupert, don’t you ever wonder what it all means? And not just that window, Rupert, but all windows? And all views beyond those windows? How can we live in a world where the windows look out onto such things? And what will it mean when all the windows are gone?”*
So, that’s deep, and love’s shallow? I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, because I don’t get the same feeling of emptiness from something that’s truly emotionally engaging – and often, that is done through love – than I do from something that, however good, strikes me as abstract, or philosophical, or somehow too cerebral and cold. It’s the same reason that I read all the way through Lord of the Rings, and never really felt anything. There was no human connection. No love. It felt shallow. I think love stories – any kind of love, with any ending, in any context and between any people – is what saves stories from shallowness. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but to me, it’s love that gives this world meaning. And I mean, thank fuck for Wuthering Heights.
* I actually love D.H. Lawrence, although tbf mainly Lady Chatterley’s Lover….