October 26, 2009
Romance for the Rest Of Us
There comes a point where even I, perpetual outsider and pop cultural imbecile, start to feel the pull of social pressure. The final straw came this weekend, when shopping with my younger sister in a mall. In search of a cheap, generic hoodie we wandered into a shop which was branded top to bottom by a popular franchise – not in the sense that they sold t-shirts featuring the characters or lunchboxes like when I was a kid, but the fashions themselves were featured in an upcoming film, and this season the young and pretty would all be dressed like characters from the movie.
Something in me snapped, and I had to know what all the fuss was about.
This is why I acquired the first Twilight film (with, admittedly, the Rifftrax commentary), watched it, and then borrowed the book. I needed to know. And now, 150-or-so pages in, I’ve thrown it a few times, sworn outloud in exasperation several more times, and come perilously close to having my face frozen in a permanent sneer. Far from being an indulgent gift to my fourteen-year-old self, the book is terrible, offensive and outright insulting. But then, I knew it would be. This isn’t a review.
Twilight has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. Forty million. Though we tend to dismiss it as pandering to the imaginations of 12-16 year old girls, a huge bulk of the franchise’s fans are adults – adults I know – who are drawn to the romantic storyline. I suppose it avoids the stigma of the Romance Novel, though Harlequin makes about a bajillion dollars a year selling Romance Novels, and apparently half of their readers are college educated and employed, mirroring “the general population” demographically rather than being, as we might want to believe, the genre of the barely literate. But that’s not surprising either, given the massive cult of educated young women built around the work of Jane Austen. Who isn’t in love with Mr. Darcy?
I’ll admit it – I am a huge sucker for romantic stories. I have read Jane Austen’s oeuvre twice in its entirety and specific works more times than I care to admit. And I really did want to enjoy Twilight in some guilty way. I’ll hide behind the statistics here – we, women, educated, self-confident, modern women, love romantic stories. And isn’t the Love Story the greatest literary trope there is?
So why, exactly, am I having such a hard time finding the upscale replacement for Twilight? I don’t want to read this series – it sucks (ha ha ha). I don’t like my men overbearing, controlling and liable to eat me, thanks. I want to put it aside and read something for me – the well-written but nevertheless tragic/intense/melodramatic story of love and passion. I don’t see how it is possible that, given the market and archetypal nature of the story, there is nothing between Jane Austen and Stephanie Meyer.
I have taken a quick lap around my bookstore (okay, actually, I have spent a months worth of hours combing the place in desperation over several years) seeking my romance fix. There are a few paragraphs worth of indulgence to be found in War and Peace. I liked Carol Shields’ Republic of Love well enough though she is frustratingly restrained, and Doctor Zhivago has its moments. Don’t start me on those Brontes.
Love stories are in shockingly short supply among the literati. Either the genre is used with bitter irony to underscore some bleak topic or “realism” takes the stage and leaves us with some dull drawn-out affair the likes of which most of us have had in real life and have no especial desire to revisit. Happy endings are utterly taboo. The message seems to be that if you want a romantic indulgence, you can get it from the pulp-and-paperback section – greater minds are dedicated to higher things. Yet where in the Romance aisle are the strong, educated, indomitable women portrayed?
I don’t have an answer or a witty conclusion to draw now. Call this a plea for recommendations. We need a Twilight for the rest of us. We’re a huge friggin’ market, people. Surely someone has found a way to tap us directly?