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Monday, October 17, 2005

Liz Becomes Socially Conscious

A recent trip to a new/used bookstore I hadn’t visited in a while led me to the discovery that the owner was scaling WAY back on her old categories (the shorter romance novels published by Harlequin and Silhouette). As in, she wasn’t going to carry anything more than a couple of years old, unless it was by a major name. This of course saddened me, because the old categories are getting harder and harder to find. My sadness turned to delight, however, when said bookstore owner generously told me I could go through her collection and take any old books I wanted for free.

Free books. Oh, my. Life doesn’t get any better than that. Unless they’re free books that spawn all kinds of happy reminiscence.

So I gleefully pawed through scores of old, old Desires, since Silhouette Desire was the line that made me rabid for category romance. I started reading them while majoring in English in college, and after a week full of 500 and 600 level literature classes that had me reading dense (in more ways that one) tomes featuring heroines who were either a) driven mad, b) abused, or c) killed off in a variety of ways, often by their own hands, it was kinda nice to come home and crack open a slender Desire where the heroine was in command of both her life and her destiny. More important, the heroine was happy.

But it didn’t strike me until I dove into my old, old Desires last week just how socially significant the books are. The one I began last night was published in October 1984, exactly five years before my first book (likewise a category romance) was published. At that time, I was only months away from abandoning a Master’s Degree in English midway through my studies, because I was reaching a point where I was beginning to loathe the written word--both written by others and by myself. Obviously, a lot changed in that time. But, hey, that’s the 80s for you. A time of change.

This book is SO different from the category romances written today, and truly, were it written now, it wouldn’t stand a chance of being published. Not just because it takes place in Denmark. And not just because both the hero and heroine are archaeologists. And not because it’s poorly written, either, because it’s actually very good. But it isn’t timely. Any reader younger than me would throw it against a wall by chapter three, because she’d consider the hero--a total beta male by the standards of that time--to be a jerk. For example, in the first chapter, he insinuates that the heroine should bring him a cup of coffee, simply because she’s a woman. The heroine, of course, declines--and in a deliberate gesture, instead gets herself a cup of coffee she hadn’t wanted before his request.

But that’s what’s so significant about these books, what makes them so important. They are a snapshot of the times in which they were written, far more than any other literature produced at the time. Two hundred years from now, if anthropologists want to know what life in late twentieth century America was REALLY like, all they need do is read a bunch of category romances, starting from the time they began to achieve popularity in the 70s and following through the turn of the century.

At the risk of sounding sexist, women are far better equipped to be recorders of history than men are. We’re the ones who are most involved in the daily tasks that keep the world turning. We’re the ones most likely to maintain the familial and social relationships that constitute society. And we’re the ones who dictate popular culture through the products we buy. Consequently, WOMEN’s fiction is going to be a much more accurate reflection of the times than men’s fiction is.

And MAN, are those old categories a reflection of their times. A time when the women’s movement had made a difference in women’s lives, but sexism was still alive and well. A time when women were told it was okay to have a career--as long as we took care of the family, too. A time when perfectly nice men still felt they were entitled to special treatment simply by virtue of their gender.

A time when women were genuinely beginning to realize just what an adventure their lives could be. Those early categories took place all over the world--I found books that day in the new/used store that were sited in Greece, South America, Scotland and Hong Kong. The jobs the heroines have range from art collector to herbalist to CEO. And in every book, the heroine is doing just fine, thanks, when a man turns up in her life who, unlike other men she encounters, ultimately learns to respect and admire her for her accomplishments and herself.

That’s what the 80s were about to women in large part: Winning respect and admiration for their accomplishments, both large and small, that they had deserved and been denied throughout history. And exploring myriad opportunities, both personal and professional, they hadn’t had the chance to investigate until then. I hate it that the books that reflect such a significant part of the feminine experience in American history are becoming so scarce. So I’m going to start snatching up as many as I can. And two hundred years from now, anthropologists across the country will thank their lucky stars for my library.

So am I the only one who likes to take trips down memory lane with my old romance novels? What made you start reading and loving romance? What in those old books still speaks to you? What are your favorites from ten or twenty years ago, and what makes you go back to read them over and over again?
Elizabeth Bevarly, 8:37 AM