Five Things I’ve Learned from Romance Novels

Elizabeth Camden Ramblings about Romance 2 Comments

So much chatter about romance novels in mainstream America comes from people who have never read one.  Common misconceptions accuse them of generating unrealistic expectations, condition women to await Prince Charming’s rescue, or suggest romance novels contain nothing but smut.  The reality is starkly different.  Strip away the covers of heaving bosoms and the sometimes over-wrought cover quotations, and you usually have a novel that reflects traditional values and celebrates the strength of women.  I would have no concerns about sharing romance novels with impressionable young women, because I think if a young reader embraces the themes that are common to romance novels, they will do well in life.  

Here are a handful of things I learned from reading romance:

1) You can’t judge a book by its cover.  Romance novels have a regrettable history of cringe-inducing covers, but if you crack one open, you are likely to find stories of amazing poignancy, insight, and courage.  Thankfully, most covers of romance novels have gotten much better in recent years, but the rush to judge something, or someone, by appearance is a universal problem.  The plots of some of the most famous romances of all time feature characters who also jumped to famously poor conclusions.  Didn’t Elizabeth Bennett dismiss Mr. Darcy before she truly knew him?  Time and again we see the heroes underestimate the heroine due to meaningless surface details like her appearance, her parentage, the way she speaks.  Always the characters are wiser by the end.

2) No Heroine Should Expect to be Rescued.  Any heroine who waits for a rescue will never get the respect of the reader.  Novelist Barbara Dawson Smith said, “Unlike other forms of fiction, romance novels spotlight a woman who struggles but always wins in the end.”  The heroines of romance novels almost always have something they cherish, and will fight any odds to protect it.  Remember Scarlett O’Hara slogging through the Georgia countryside to get back to Tara?   For every flailing heroine who occasionally appears in a romance novel, she is dwarfed by the hundreds of women who have the backbone, fortitude, and resilience to weather any storm.  Frankly, the Damsel in Distress is not a very attractive character unless she is doing something about her plight.  She is rarely seen in romance novels.

3) If you Don’t Treat Your Man Well, Someone Else Will!  Back to Scarlett O’Hara.  Time and again she snubs Rhett, driving him straight into the attentive arms of Belle Watling. Many romance novels feature a wicked Other Woman who is waiting in the wings.  She is usually portrayed as a dazzling, amoral creature who is sending out lures to trap the unsuspecting hero.  Rarely in fiction, but sadly in real life, she is simply a soft place to land after the heroine has been tossing a load of guff at the hero. That was who Belle Watling was for Rhett.  She is far more dangerous than the cardboard caricature of the wickedly evil woman, and a smart heroine needs to be on the lookout for her.  There is a certain amount of routine maintenance that goes into a great relationship.  Men don’t like being taken for granted any more than women do.

4) Judge your man by his actions, rather than his words.  Heroes in romance novels tend to do extraordinary things on behalf of the heroine.  They take risks, slay dragons, cross a raging sea on her behalf.  One thing they aren’t so good at is delivering the perfect turn of phrase.  That is because men are hard-wired to be doers, rather than talkers.  Ironically, it is usually the villain who is good with words.  He is the man who will tell the heroine what she wants to hear, but when it comes time to deliver, he is nowhere to be found.  I think most teenaged girls would be well-served if they learned to stop listening to what boys tell them, and simply observe their actions. 

5) Falling in Love involves Risk.  For a relationship to take root and flourish, both sides need to open up, share their deepest thoughts, vulnerabilities, fears and aspirations.  This is scary.  When you lay your heart on the line, there is always the danger that it is going to get stomped on.  The characters in a romance novel will learn how to overcome embarrassment, the risk of rejection, and become vulnerable enough to fall in love.  That is huge.  Some people go through their entire lives and never learn how to do it, but not so in a romance novel.  




Happy Birthday to the King James Bible

Elizabeth Camden The Book World Leave a Comment

One of the greatest books in the English language turns 400 this year.  The translation was the work of 47 scholars, who labored for seven years on the project.  First printed in 1611, buyers could opt for loose-leaf pages for ten shillings, or a bound copy for twelve.

In celebration of the famous Bible, the Museum of Biblical Art  is hosting an exhibition that explores the historic context of the King James, an examination of its predecessors, and over fifty bibles of historical interest.  I have heard great reviews of the show. 

If you are in New York City, the exhibit runs through October 16, 2011.



Mary Ann or Ginger?

Elizabeth Camden Ramblings about Romance 2 Comments

If you are of a certain generation, that phrase needs no explanation.  For those who were born after 1980 or so, perhaps it does.  Gilligan’s Island was a popular sitcom back in the 60’s and 70’s, before the typical household had 300 television channels to choose from.  The show featured two pop culture icons who were polar opposites of each other.  

Ginger was the bombshell sex goddess.  Brazenly gorgeous, she oozed sex appeal as she slithered through her scenes with a knock out figure, dazzling repartee, and a promise of unabashed sexuality.  In contrast, Mary Ann was the homespun farm girl with her hair in pigtails.  Low-maintenance and non threatening, it is said that Mary Ann was preferred three to one by men surveyed on the topic.

I’ve always been partial to Mary Ann, simply because I could never carry the Ginger attitude off.  Besides, I think Ginger always seemed like someone who would come to a bad end in a James Bond movie.

In the fictional world of Romancelandia, Mary Ann is also the hand-down winner.  I don’t see many heroines modeled after the sex kitten. It simply isn’t something most women aspire to.  It might be fun to look like Ginger for a day, but I don’t think many women would want to walk in her shoes for a lifetime.

Fireproof: Never Leave Your Partner Behind

Elizabeth Camden Ramblings about Romance Leave a Comment

I loved this movie. This is a very different type of love story, as it does not follow the course of two people meeting and falling in love. Rather, it is about learning to fall in love with your spouse all over again.

The movie opens with a young married couple who have fallen out of love. Their lives developed in different directions and they have slowly become two strangers inhabiting the same home. Disrespect is corroding their ability to communicate or even want to be near each other. When the wife asks for a divorce, the husband (brilliantly portrayed by Kirk Cameron) is ready to throw in the towel as well, but decides to give his marriage one, last-ditch effort to succeed.

Kirk Cameron plays a firefighter in the movie, who is well aware of the preventive measures all people should take to insure against fire hazards that can flare up to destroy a home. The movie is about the concept of fireproofing a marriage. How to spot the corrosive habits, behaviors, and attitudes that can undermine the love that once seemed so promising. How to fix them, even if it means gritting you teeth day after day.

So often love stories deal with the initial whirlwind of falling in love. I found Fireproof a more complicated exploration of an aspect of love that hasn’t found a lot of traction in popular fiction or movies.

I gather the movie has generated an entire business helping couples, families, even businesses put the principles taught in the movie into gear.

Sheer, Magnificent Inspiration

Elizabeth Camden What Inspires You? 2 Comments

I have a picture on my bulletin board at work that I look at whenever I start to feel overwhelmed:

This is Chris Sadowski in the middle of an Ironman competition.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ironman Championship in Kona Hawaii, it involves a 2.4 mile swim in the ocean, a 112 mile bicycle race, topped off with a full 26.2 mile marathon, all of which must be completed in 17 hours with no break.

This is challenging for any athlete, but in 2004 Chris Sadowski had an extra wrench thrown into his race.  When he was 105 miles into the 112 mile cycling part of the race, his bike was struck by a cameraman filming for ESPN.  The back wheel of his bike was mangled too badly to function, but triathlon rules insist you finish the cycling portion of the race with the same bike.  Rules don’t require him to ride the bike, but he had to cross the cycling finish line with his bike.  That meant he had to shoulder the bike and walk the remaining 7 miles of the race.  Like all the athletes, he was wearing only socks for this portion of the race, so he walked on the burning hot asphalt for seven miles with no water, no break, and no shoes.  Other bikers zoomed past him, but he did not give up.  It took him over two hours to finish what a biker could have done in a minute or two.  When he finally completed the bike portion, he had to put shoes on his aching and blistered feet and run a marathon.

Chris Sadowski finished the race.  I cut out his picture from the next day’s newspaper and tacked it to my bulletin board, where it remains….a little curled and yellowed with age, but still an inspiration.  There are days when I feel wiped out, drained, and a little overwhelmed.  Then I look over at Chris Sadowski with that bike over his shoulder and I quit complaining.   Pick up your burdens and shoulder forward.

Genre Fiction: Sometimes Even Publishers Give it No Respect

Elizabeth Camden Ramblings about Romance, The Book World Leave a Comment

The phenomenon of generic products was beginning to take root in the American marketplace by the 1970’s.  Any mass produced product that lacked unique features, such as oatmeal, canned peas, or window cleaner, could be sold in direct competition to name-brand equivalents, but at around a 30% discount.  Identified by their stark packaging, generic products were usually considered inferior to the name brand, but sold well to value conscious consumers.

In 1981 Jove Books ventured into a brief foray of madness when they attempted to launch a line of generic books.  Considered a clever marketing ploy, they launched books targeted at the major genres: Romance, Westerns, Science Fiction, and Mystery.  With a stark white covers, no author, and no blurb on the back, the only description of the content was the tagline on the front. The Romance book read, “A kiss, a promise, a misunderstanding, another kiss, and a happy ending.”  The idea was so ridiculous that some people suspected it was a hoax, but I remember seeing those books on the racks of grocery stores.  No publisher sinks money into a nationwide rollout if they did not intend to make money on the endeavor, and Jove had hopes for this project.   

Without having to invest in cover art and paying the authors a paltry $750 per manuscript, the idea was to pump out genre fiction with the same efficiency as a box of oatmeal.  Did Jove really think genre fans were so mindless they cared nothing for the content?  

People who read genre fiction are intensely brand loyal…that brand being the author.  Although they write in similar settings with comparable characters, a Lisa Kleypas novel has a drastically different feel than a Debbie Macomber book.  Genre readers flock to their preferred author, not the label “romance.”   

Jove had to learn the hard way.  The generic book project was a disaster, and folded after a couple months.  Interestingly, the rarity and novelty of those books has been a good investment for the few people who did buy them.  With a cover price of $1.50, those generic books now sell on the used book market for around $10.

Getting to your Dream

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life, Videos Worth Watching Leave a Comment

I once heard someone say that people tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single year, but underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years.  Dreaming big is scary.  This little video is a great way to put those huge, overwhelming, and scary dreams into perspective.