Lest My Fiction Melt Your Fevered Brain: Why Susan Quilliam and Samuel Johnson are Both Wrong

Your backstory for this essay is this post from Time magazine. See also this article from The Guardian, which at least was journalistic enough to get a quote from a romance publisher. Here is Quilliam’s full article.

I encourage you to read it. Within you will find no examples at all of any big bad romances destroying women’s concepts of reality. Not anything modern, and what you will find the single example of is so ironic I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Quilliam is bringing up a very, very old argument: we must consider the moral impact of fiction. People are gullible. Patterns often repeated lead to peril. As one of Quilliam’s fellow worriers writes, books are

chiefly written to the young, the ignorant and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account (Samuel Johnson, “On Fiction”).

As Quilliam says in the aforementioned article:

We want women to be aware of their own desires rather than be ‘awakened’. We aim to reassure our female clients that their first time may not be utterly joyful and that they may not gain reliable orgasms through penetration, but that they themselves are none the less existentially valid and that with affection and good humour things can improve immensely. We warn of the stresses of pregnancy and child-rearing, and we discourage relentless baby-making as proof of a relationship’s strength. Above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak. But are our lessons falling on deaf ears when compared to the values of the Regency heroine gazing adoringly across the Assembly Rooms to catch a glimpse of her man?

She argues, without any documentation outside of browsing shelves at a bookstore (yes, you read that correctly), that romance novels are the opposite of what good mental health professionals advise for women. They promote the wrong kind of relationships. They encourage escapism from reality. Etc. The example? Books (referenced vaguely, no citations) from the 1970s (!!!) and, best yet, a book from 1740. I’m not kidding you. Pamela, a novel by Samuel Richardson.

The punchline? Samuel Johnson, quoted above and who argued a hell of a lot more eloquently (and with a lot of backup examples) for the moral responsibility of authors of fiction, used that novel as his example of a good one. I’m serious. Why? Because Pamela holds out for marriage. She doesn’t give in cheaply. She’ll only sell her virtue for MARRIAGE. This is the stuff our girls should be reading!

Okay. Johnson is actually more in favor of Clarissa, which is another of Richardson’s work, but it’s more of the same. He did like Pamela as well. He hated Fielding, especially Tom Jones. (My favorite novel of all time.) But Johnson is wrong. Richardson is wrong. I am a disciple of Henry Fielding, and I am Team Shamela all the way.

It’s true. Some people are a little bit silly and believe everything they read. And watch. And play. And yet isn’t this interesting that such criticism is ALWAYS reserved for art? Is Fox News or MSNBC criticized with any success for polluting minds? Well, sadly, Fox is, all the time. Why do I say sadly? Because they have a right to everything they do, and I would sign up for the military and die to defend their right to be a network that drives me nuts. Sure there are probably people only listening to them and their sanctioned pontiffs of opinion. Sure they have probably inspired some crazies. That happens on the left too, by the way.

It is not Fox News’ job to be a moral compass, and it’s not mine either.

If someone reads my book and decides I have written a new truth and uses it as a Bible, that’s a little weird, but okay. As it pleases you. If I go to Target and say something offhand to the register clerk and she quits her job, joins a convent and then blows it up and that was all triggered by something I said, is that my fault?

I have a mea culpa here. Awhile back, on this blog, I got mad at Sarah Palin for the crosshairs. I still am. I do worry that the kind of angry rhetoric inspires more. I do get mad at angry networks–for the record, on the right and the left. I do feel they contribute to problems. And I’ll contradict myself by saying I’m okay with them getting flack for going too far. And you know what? I got some for being angry and making that post. Someone said something very, very nasty to me–in public, and this was someone very close to me–and I’m still hurt by it. So there’s my contradiction and my karmic bite for it, and I include this segway because I blogged it, and I own it.

And I bring that up because I think this is where we start to go south. Free speech and ownership of our own actions is fine until the free speech seems to inspire bad things and those bad things are things we really hate, and so is the free speech. It’s just so easy to lump them together. Those romances are so trashy. Oh look, there is a loose correlation between what two of them are like and some relationship issues for their biggest demographic. Let’s get ’em.  That Sarah Palin makes my blood boil. Oh look, her stupid crosshairs were over someone who got shot by someone mentally disturbed who might, maybe, have seen her website. Let’s get her.

Quilliam, I hear you. Sometimes things that you don’t like are hard to swallow. And man, don’t you hate it when your own statements get contradicted by other information? When you only quote one romance novel, and not only is it so old and weird NOBODY has read it but some of us weird lit people, but it’s championed by someone who argues your case better than you?

Jon Stewart was right. I am wrong. Sarah Palin gets to put up crosshairs, and it’s not her fault somebody got shot and several people died. Yeah, I kind of enjoyed that she got flack for it. Yeah, that makes me a hypocrite and a bit of an ass that I picked up a pitchfork. Sorry, Internet. Human again, goddamn it.

But let’s get this clear. Romances don’t cause relationship issues. Not in a provable way, and not at all by that miserable excuse of an article with no documentation or proof, just a lot of opinion that people who want an excuse to pick up their pitchfork can use. It may be true that people have done stupid things based on books and movies and conversations and news networks. It may not even be their fault. It may not be anybody’s fault. It may just be the best they could do, which was pretty damn bad.

My suggestion is you work with your patients on the reality in their lives, not their fictions. I also suggest you study syllogisms, to grasp the idea that one person’s insistence on viewing fiction as reality (and even multiple persons doing so) does not necessitate a flaw in the fiction consumed. It might mean that person has a problem with reality. Removing the non-reality will not fix that. It will just mean that you will have to keep removing everything until it’s just you and that person in a white room with no input but themselves, and in the meantime the rest of us are mad because we have nothing to do.

And I disagree with Johnson. People are not generally stupid. Certainly not women, who at the time were thought to have smaller brains and shouldn’t be bothered with heavy thoughts lest they overheat. Or something close to that, but I know the small brain bit is truth. (I should cite it. I’m going to make you do it, sorry.) People read fiction, especially genre fiction with guaranteed happy endings because sometimes life is so bitter and hard that we need a break. People read fiction because it makes us happy. People read fiction and watch movies and news programs and read the Internet because we like to engage with thoughts and ideas.

People are pretty smart. Women are wickedly so. And we deserve a hell of a lot better than that nonsense of an article, Quilliam. So do your patients. Leave my books alone. Leave art alone. It’s quite possibly the only thing keeping most of the world sane.

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