Every time I watch the Nero Wolfe TV series from the early 2000s, I think about how Rex Stout intentionally wrote Nero and Archie as eternally the same age, but constantly adapting to culture as it changed from the 20s to the 70s. They didn’t ever get older but they DID acquire a television. Eventually.
And it makes me want to sit down and write a modern-day Nero Wolfe novel with an Archie who goes clubbing and is tethered to his cellphone, and a Wolfe who finally broke down and bought a tablet but insists on only using it for reading books, and Fritz probably has a youtube cooking show, and Lily Rowan runs a super hip startup and owns a microbrewery on the side or something.
Then I sit down and try to write it and remember that I don’t know how to write murder mysteries and I am aspiring to fill shoes WAY bigger than my feet. And I make sadfaces and put it away until the next time I watch the show.
It’s the best and also most frustrating vicious cycle ever.
The novels I came to first were romance novels. The fact of the matter is that my family wasn’t (and still isn’t) big on reading. I come from a big Southern family, but we didn’t have a storytelling tradition. My parents didn’t read to me. My grandparents didn’t weave tales out of thin air. The only stories handed down to me were the thin and mangled narratives my brother spat up to scare me at night.
The only person in my immediate family who read anything with any kind of consistency was my father’s sister. She was a nurse’s aid at a local nursing home, so most of her books were medical texts. Aside from my older cousins’ textbooks and the backs of soup cans, these were my formative texts. I was in love with the illustrations, how the human body had been pulled apart and accurately labeled. I read her books on pathology and remedies. There were entire sections on the path psoriasis takes through the skin, and how you come undone one cell at a time, in great clumps shedding form your arms and legs. I acquired my love of reading at an early age. I pulled it up out of excavated bellies.
She gave me my first novels. They were slim Regency Era books, all with the same ugly cover. I made the mistake of assuming they formed some sort of series, and I read them end on end, counting up the numbers on the side. As the numbers climbed higher, the characters all shuffled in and out, around and around. The names changed, but their core, the characters were the same. Powerful men with lots of money and questionable tempers fell in love with stiff-backed women hard on their luck. Wealthy women came to ruin and rose again with the aid of men of abundant character but limited financial resources. Duty. Dignity. Class. Regency Era romances are also known for their humor, usually delivered in the form of a wealthy spinster with an incisive tongue.
Next came the anthologies of erotica I found stashed in her cabinets. I passed entire summers reading through complex sexual scenes, feeling something heady and wild rising in me. I didn’t feel bad. I didn’t feel naughty. It didn’t occur to me that sex was a forbidden thing, something beyond the reach of children. Rather, I sat reading about milky breasts and strong, hairy thighs. I knew the sequence of events that proceeded from a first glance. I knew that it would lead to a flash of heat, a flicker of desire, a quickening in the chest.
My aunt spoiled me. At Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie or Food Fair, she let me wander to the book aisle and stare at the bare chests of handsome men. I think I must have been reading about five books a week in those days. I read it all. Highlander, cowboy, contemporary movie star, Regency Era, historical America, erotica, soft erotica–I devoured the whole world of erotic fiction, even to the point of neglecting the books I should have been reading for school.
I did squeeze in The Giver and Holes, though. To be honest, I only read the second halves of the Harry Potter books, and when I took the quizzes on those books for our accelerated reader points program, I failed miserably. I was a gifted reader, though, with a college-level reading comprehension in third grade (whatever that means).
My favorite romance novelist of all time is Kathleen Woodiwiss. No one can touch her prose. When I first picked up The Flame and The Flower as a sixth grader, I was bowled over. Never had I experienced writing so beautiful and full and rich. Kathleen Woodiwiss’s prose is lyrical, sensitive, wild, and gorgeous. It hadn’t occurred to me that writing could do more than just describe. It hadn’t occurred to me that writing could contain a feeling, could be a vessel for emotion. Her writing startled me and changed me forever.
When I was twelve, I was always cruising around on my cousin’s AOL account to find something to give name to the amorphous, surging tide inside of me. I found an ugly site with a horrendous layout: Gay Sex Stories. It was, as you can imagine, filled with gay erotica. And yet, I knew that this was what I wanted. After months of secretly accessing the site and copy-pasting the text of these stories to notepad files for offline viewing, I began to want to read more than just sex. I wanted more than just stories about beautiful boys getting their bodies opened and taken apart. So I became a fastidious user of the online archive. I carefully poured over the story descriptions, looking for key words like jock and nerd and geek.
In the Gay Sex Stories archive, I discovered that rare thing that all queer boys search for: the love story. And perhaps that’s why I was especially lovesick in my teenage years. The thing about gay romance stories is that they are entirely wish fulfillment. In every story, the jock turns and notices you. The straight boy gives up women for you. The jock you’re tutoring brushes his thigh with yours, and suddenly, he loves you more than anything or anyone else in the world. Not only does he love you, but his love makes you worth something. So I went into middle school and high school in search of my wonderfully malleable jock, the one all gay boys are entitled to. I went in search of the corners of their eyes, where I would expand and glow to be the center of their world, blotting out their vision like a shroud.
And yet I found myself time and again turned inside-out by hurt because the thing romance novels don’t tell you is that straight boys are straight. When a straight boy looks at you, he doesn’t even see you. He looks right through you. When a straight boy brushes by you in the hall, he is trying to get to the bathroom or to the lunch room–he is not sending you furtive messages. When a straight boy puts his hand on our shoulder, he doesn’t want to turn you slowly so that your gazes will meet. He likely just wants to borrow a pencil. It’s the worst kind of growing pain. It’s not in the bones. It’s in the heart. It’s in your skin. It’s a fever you can’t sweat out. It’s a constant ache in the pit of your stomach, because you feel their eyes every time they pass you and do not speak your name. It’s a pain you have to endure.
I owe the romance genre a great deal. It’s the genre I know best. I read a lot of literary fiction. I love literary fiction. I love classic literature. French literature is a fave. But my native tongue is in the romance genre. It’s in the hand brushing layers of fabric, the heat between one’s thighs, the deep, dull ache that persists long after hope of relief has faded.
The romance genre is the genre of waiting–waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the shoe to drop, waiting for lightning and then the thunder. The core of the romance genre is not love. The core of the romance genre is frustration and foiled expectation. The romance genre is about the lost. It’s about the forfeited. Love is the reward for enduring.
I think many people misunderstand this fundamental principle of romance novels, including many authors of romance novels. They think that if you give the reader some sultry sex, some witty banter, and a triumphant reunion in the end, things are fine. This is not romance.
Often, the characters in modern romance novels lack definition. They fall in love within days. Authors write chronologically, unwilling to jump ahead months or years even. There is a terrible miscalculation of scope. The characters say things like, “You’re so beautiful and wonderful” when there is nothing to the other character, they have no characteristics at all. Writers dash off novels that have no patience in them, and that is the biggest failure of all.
Romance novels require patience. If the writer is unwilling to make the reader wait, then they are doing the reader a disservice. If the writer is unwilling to make the characters wait, then the writer is not doing it properly.