Monday, June 18, 2012

Lowbrow literature. It's the new thing.

I've been pigging out. Not in the food department (well, yesterday's vanilla and blueberry rolls may beg to differ), but when it comes to literature.  It all started when a friend of mine said I should probably read 50 Shades of Gray.  I think she wasn't 100% sure of her recommendation since I can be a pretentious bitch when it comes to literature, but whenever someone recommends a book to me, I do try to read it.  I'm not really a fan of reading blurbs or reviews, I just want to know what someone thought about the book, what kind of experience they have while reading it, and decide whether I want to read it based on that.  Since a certain someone had sent me a link to an article dealing with 50 Shades of Gray a month or so earlier, and I knew how popular it was, I decided I just had to read it.

 At least one publisher has understood that
the traditional covers of Romance books are
not helping the genre.

For the first time since I was fifteen I read until late night.  I should perhaps mention that this was during the final exams, and I was bored to death with reviewing Ancient Greek grammar.  Still, I was absolutely consumed by how easy it was to read the book.  Almost everything I read has some kind of educational purpose (fiction included), so I'm used to forcing myself to read another 20 pages before I go to bed.  I'm not used to forcing myself to go to bed. It's not that the books I traditionally read aren't good, but they are definitely the kind you can put down when The Big Bang Theory is on TV.

Once I had finished the first book, I was a bit disappointed since the author took something that could have been very, very good and ruined it.  I still wanted to read things that would keep me glued to my Kindle, since in my dream world, that's where I'm always at (with a drink in my hand), but I usually only find books that entice me to that degree every two or three years. So to hell with prestigious literature. I had my friend dump a dozen or so books on me.  As I mentioned, I did use to read lots and lots of fantasy when I was younger (15 or so), but this stopped after a couple of years, and I never read in that way again.  I gave science fiction a couple of tries, but it never really captured the.  I'm still intent on reading more science fiction, since I don't like to limit myself to a couple of genres.  That's also my goal with this new guilty pleasure reading I'm indulging in: to explore all the sub genres of romance novels.

Now, what is it that separates romance novels from ordinary novels?  I've been wanting to write this post for two weeks or so already, but I wanted to explore the genre more thoroughly before I did so.  I've probably written this post twice in my head already, and both were most likely better than the final result.

People seems to look at the romance genre with distaste, like the soap opera equivalent of literature.  Is this really true?  Is that all it is?  Ordinary books usually have some sort of human relationships in them, quite often a bit of sex (just like a great deal of perfectly respectable movies), even though it may not be very explicit, but they are not placed in the romance genre. In Swedish and Norwegian we have nice derogatory terms for these books: husmorsporno (housewife porn) or tantsnusk (old ladies' filth), which are included in the wider concept of kiosklitteratur (newspaper stand literature). There are many Norwegian additions to this genre, the most famous of which may be Margit Sandemo's Isfolket-series, comprising 40+ books about a family line with some special... skills. It spans several centuries and deals with Scandinavian history at the same time. It was immensely popular when it was written, and almost everyone in Scandinavia knows what it is. It sold more than 25 million copies. There are several of these series in Norway, and they are so easy to read.  You pick one book up, and put it down when you finish it. But you kind of keep it to yourself, unless you're 12. The general plot of Isfolket is the following (from Wikipedia): "The Ice People are cursed with a terrible forefather, Tengel the Evil, whose actions resulted in at least one cursed individual being born in every generation. The cursed individuals were born with magical and mystical abilities, but also the potential for bottomless evil. They have yellow eyes, malformed shoulder blades and Mongol features. Some cursed individuals fight their tendency for evil, whilst others embrace it."

This here... is a serious dose of nostalgia.
You used to be able to subscribe to these books
and get one every month. Perhaps you still can.

Back to the question, what is it that makes these books Romance novels?  Is it because they only revolve around love?  They don't. Just look at the Isfolket-series. The genre has a myriad of sub-genres, and usually, there is quite a lot of plot involved. It is not simply man meets woman, man and woman hooks up.  There's always a twist, there's always a bigger picture.  The bigger picture is not always carried out artfully, and the writing may not be the best there is, but it sure does suck you in.  If you start browsing lists on Goodreads, you soon realize the extreme amount of books out there that are all subsumed under the label romance. I do think that the only concrete thing they have in common is explicit sex. Very explicit sex.

I've set out to check all of these sub-genres, and I am having such a good time.  I think my favourite so far this m-m romance. Quite frankly, reading about two men is much more interesting than reading about a man and a woman.  I am quite certain that the m-m sub-genre also has its annoying stereotypes, but since I haven't read more than two books yet they have not started to annoy me.  The female stereotypes in general romance books does.  Easily breakable, scatterbrained and helpless virgins, anyone?  No thank you.  Other sub-genres I am dwelving into are para-natural (parts of which I would personally deem science fiction), steampunk, vampire/werewolf, suspense. Some of these have much more interesting female characters, so *hint*, stay away from the too mainstream ones. 

One thing that is quite easily identifiable in these books is that, in general, what you expect to happen, or rather, what you want to happen, will happen. A counter example would be Ayn Rand's books where you think that "this or that just has to be sorted out" and it never happens and there is misery for 10 years, and you kind of feel like that's against some sort of law of literature. It's the kind of thing you would never see in a Hollywood movie.  When you read a romance novel, you get what you want, quite often including a happy ending, but not always.  Getting what you want may get boring in the long run, and many of the endings do get on my nerves. One Goodreads member distastefully called the 50 Shades epilogue in book three a "carebear epilogue" and I think that fits very, very many epilogues and endings in general. The problem may be that the authors, some of them actually very good, know that they are writing to a certain audience, and that they will be marketed towards this particular audience (hence the god-awful covers that scare anyone with an ounce of self-respect away). So they start out their books very well, often with great stories, but somewhere in the middle, they seem to think "ah well, now I have to conform to what people expect" and it all goes according to a not that very interesting pattern. Problems are intricately built up throughout the book and then solved in two pages, there's a happy couple and talk of babies, and the book is over. And I often want to throw up. Instead, I pick up the next book, so obviously, they are doing something right. I just wish that some of them could be a little bit more bold, and I will keep reading until I find some that are. 

Anyone who got curious about this little hobby of mine can check out my dedicated shelf on Goodreads (of which all are not new, since this includes classic erotica as well).

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