recently i’ve been reading two things i’ve never read before: romance and fanfiction.
i’d like to think it wasn’t sheer snottiness that kept me away, but it probably was. i had a vague, well-meaning protectiveness toward fanfiction, borne of many friends who have written and read it, but i somehow never picked it up myself. i had an awed respect for romance writers, having been on book-twitter long enough to know that one of the cardinal rules of book-twitter is thou shalt not fuck with the romance writers--but i never actually read them.
i write to you now having read Red, White, and Royal Blue, four books of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and no fewer than three novel-length fics about space wizards. Reader: i regret every second of time i wasted not reading this shit. it’s joyful and smart and indulgent and wise, and i was a fool and a snob.
i’m aware that “romance is good, actually” is a room-temperature take at best. nothing i’m saying is particularly novel; lots of writers before me have figured out that--surprise!--one of the most popular and beloved literary genres has something to teach us all. but this newsletter is my reading journal, not breaking news, so indulge me while i think about what made these books so damn delightful.
lesson #1: hearts first, everything else second
romances are a little like SFF books turned inside out. instead of prioritizing plot and concept and structure, romance prioritizes character. and not what’s done to them or what challenges they face, but just how they feel. the stakes are rarely higher than a single human heart. entire scenes exist simply to move our heroine from irritated to intrigued; whole three-act-structures are built around the slow accumulation of trust.
it was revelatory--and honestly pretty radical--to see so much attention paid to the interior lives of women. to see their fears and fantasies given weight, the fulfillment of their needs prioritized over literally everything else. so many narratives only care what is done to women characters, or what they do to and for men; romance cares what they want.
when i brainstorm books and outline plots i’m often thinking of things my characters will do, things that will happen to them. it’s often only deep in the drafting process that i unearth all those pesky whys and what-fors and wants, the beating hearts inside my poor puppets. what if i started first with their hearts, and built the stage around them?
lesson #2: readers first
maybe even more than the hearts of its characters, romance cares about the hearts of its readers. i’ve never felt so indulged, so cared-for. it was like falling asleep with an absolute guarantee that my dreams would be good ones. i knew, knew, i was going to get the kiss, the proposal, the triumph over (sometimes hilariously contrived) obstacles, the happily ever after.
until i read romance and fanfiction i didn’t realize how often i read with my heart braced, my armor half-on, never sure if the hands i’m in are good ones. i wonder now if that’s why i re-read books so often: because it’s exhausting to read with my breath held.
my second book is a lot darker than my first; i struggled to write it. i veered too heavy and then too light again, caught between the hideous realities of women’s history and the wonder of witching. in the end i returned to the reason i write fantasy in the first place: because it’s better than reality, just a little. because i want the truth, but not unvarnished. because i don’t want to read with my armor on.
i regret to inform you all that i’m a regular listener to John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. it’s pretentious; it’s slow; it sounds like something Parks and Rec would invent to make fun of NPR. and yet i’m generally brought to tears at least once an episode because i am exactly the kind of overwrought angsty millennial for whom this show is made. last episode, it was a quote from Donald Hall’s memorial essay for his wife, titled “The Third Thing.”
i finished Camilla Bruce’s forthcoming You Let Me In, about a little girl who speaks with faeries or maybe just invents them to survive. it’s cold, harsh, cutting, vicious, dark, cruel--everything i just said i didn’t want. and yet i can’t stop thinking about it. in the end i think it actually was the truth rendered a little bit better--it’s just that the truth, in this case, is so crushingly bleak.
i adored Gerwig’s Little Women, and this account of her artistic and literary influences was honestly a delight. the seriousness and attention she brings to the inner lives of young women is not unlike the romance genre as a whole, now that i’m thinking of it.
i’ll be doing a little Q&A and signing at the Shelby County Public Library on thursday, february 13th, from 6-7 pm
i have a story coming out in the next issue of Fireside Magazine (along with a bunch of other writers)! it’s basically labyrinth mixed with the ransom of red chief, and it’s only 1500 words.