Let's All Fall in Love: Reading and romance
Tonight quite a few of my clients and I will be at The Romantic Novelists' Association Annual Awards, the RoNAs: several prizes will be awarded to authors of romantic novels published in 2014.
The RNA are quite specific about what constitutes a romantic novel in the terms of entry of their annual competition:
It is not enough that the protagonists find love at the very end of the book, having just met each other. Any novel submitted should embody a deep and moving love story in the traditional sense, or be a novel in which the romantic content and love interest is at the core of the story.
Oh when is it ever enough, to only find love at the very end of a book? But the RNA is right to try to differentiate romantic novels from every other kind; I could mount a pretty good argument for every novel being a love story of one kind or another. Goodness knows that's what the heart yearns for in life - in books too, love or wounded love is the catalyst for almost all action.
Some category romance offers us what life cannot; the guarantee of a happy ending and the promise that love is the answer. We read series romance for the unpredictable journey to that predictable end. Others of the books shortlisted tonight hold us in suspense, just as life does. Can love be the answer? Will we be happy, in the end?
I'm sure every agent develops a few phrases to which they turn again and again because they are so satisfyingly expressive. One of my old familiars is a line I use in rejection letters: "I'm sorry I didn't fall in love with your book in the way I had hoped". In other words, the bar is set very high: either a book matters immeasurably to me, or the author should approach another agent. It's not that the book I am rejecting isn't good (although it might not be); it's that I haven't seen something in it which might obsessively interest me.
Many of us who love reading, experience the act of reading great books as a kind of falling in love - a tumbling out of oneself and into someone else's imaginative world. When an author demands that a reader 'suspend disbelief', they are asking for the complete trust found between loved ones. When the reader turns the pages feverishly, it is a kind of desire which drives them. When you hear a story, and immerse yourself in it; feel moved by it, and cry or laugh; when you consider it intimately in the context of your own loves and losses: then you open yourself up to emotion in the way you might helplessly leave yourself vulnerable when falling in love. And romance isn't all joy; no love story worth reading is a straight and even path. What we're vulnerable to when we fall in love is love's flipside - joy's darker shadow.
In this way, reading wonderful novels can sometimes feel like a risky or difficult activity. How much more so it is, then, to write such stories. Many of us walk around wearing a sort of protective armour (more of a cloak maybe) - a necessary layer between us and the dangerous things (bad memories, fear, grief; all kinds of love and the effects of love) - because living every day is about getting through to the next day, not dwelling on the last one. Authors can't do that. They have to remove the cloak of invisibility and open themselves up to love and tragedy. They have to accept: It might happen to me. And, if it did, this is what it would feel like. Or: This happened to me once and I have kept every detail of it safe.
The RNA are heroines in my view: a huge sisterhood of novelists encouraging one another in their careers - offering friendship, mentoring, congratulations and friendly peer rivalry. Each of the authors at the RoNAs tonight has experienced the joy and pain of love many times on our behalfs. And we in our turn have fallen in love with their books - we've found ourselves in their pages, in the grips of passion or despair.
They're right that it isn't enough to just find love at the end of a book. The winners tonight will hopefully all be the authors who asked us to fall in love from the very first page.