As a Reader: Pleasure
I’m going to try a new “series” in the blog here, a lot of it stuff I’d like to organize into classes someday but have to admit I don’t have the time for now. I’m calling it “As a Reader/As a Writer” because there’s such a flood of information out there on how to write but so very little on how to make a reader happy.
And I am a reader, big time. I was one of those kids who walked around reading, had a book at the dinner table, read under the covers, the whole works. In grad school I wrote a paper called “Put Down that Book!” for a history of reading assignment where we were supposed to talk about what the reading culture in our house was growing up, because I read so much I was told to stop reading and do the dishes, practice piano, pick up the living room, take a bath, go to bed—you name it, I was reading during it. At church I read the hymnal. At my Grandmother’s I’d read the prayer books and Ladies Home Journal. If it had print words on it, I’d try to read it, even if it was a foreign language. Words were good to me.
Mostly, though, I read things I liked. If I was bored by a text, I worked the minimal amount of effort to get through an assignment. In my undergrad studies especially I encountered a lot of heavy reading that was sold to me as important but didn’t really turn my crank. I loved British novels and anything European pre 1900, but put me in the modern era or American lit and I pretty much endured until I got out of there. My advisor and sanity lifeline during college was a Johnson scholar, cementing even further my love of 18th century British literature. Even so, I had to work to get into these texts and work harder to talk about them. For four years I immersed myself deeply in the work of dead white men and how to dissect it, lay it out on a table, make it defend everything from socialism to existentialism to feminism to pessimistic treatises that verified nothing meant anything and the whole world was a big lie.
And during those four years on my weekends off of classes I devoured twice and again as many romance novels as I’d consumed Important Literature during the week.
Looking back, I’m kind of amused. At the time I thought I was preparing for my eventual doctorate program: I wanted to become Dr. Heidi, professor of British Literature. I wanted to teach college because it was the only thing I could think of to do with my life, and in hindsight I know I was really hoping I could hide out in the ivory tower because the real world was a bitch and a half and I wanted none of it. I worked like a dog because to slow down meant descending into what I know now was very probably mental illness or at the very least a deep need for heavy therapy. I was at a small Lutheran college, and my occasional breakdowns were dealt with compassionately, and the Humanities department adopted me as their surrogate child, arranging scholarships for me, part time jobs, places to hang out on weekends, and even did the occasional interference with the controllers office when they made their monthly threats to remove me from school for inability to pay my bill. (It’s good to have six-foot-four male professors go down and glower at an entire office and demand they “stop making Heidi cry.”)
No, I was not okay in undergrad, not even close. But as much as the small school, college pastor, college choir, support groups, and my adoptive fathers and uncles were part of my sanity, those romance novels were hands-down my most important therapy.
At the time I wasn’t making the connection between the contrast of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Raider, but oh, man, yeah, that was where my real education was happening. As I came closer to graduating and was piling on independent studies of literary criticism and scouring professors’ discard piles for books I thought I should be reading (and reading a lot of them), I was also inhaling every single romance novel I could get my hands on. I made a weekly pilgrimage to the local library and to the drugstore across the street from my college so I could grab whatever I could find and afford to read in the romance genre. During the week I read “The Rape of the Lock” and Milton and why each work was important, and then on the weekends I read about women lawyers and doctors in the American West falling in love with the intrepid heroes resisting happy endings almost always for dumb reasons they eventually got over. I made no analysis of why these piles and piles of “trashy books” were such an important part of my life, why instead of going to the bars or finding someone to get me booze I was reading formulaic books that always ended happily. At no point did I stop and think, gosh, isn’t it interesting how very good these books make me feel? Isn’t it amazing that no matter what bad news from home, no matter how broke I am, no matter how tentative my grip on my sanity is, one romance novel, even badly done, can make me feel okay again?
I never made that connection consciously, but the juxtaposition of my formal education and my self-therapy via romance novels did seep into my psyche. By the time I was in grad school getting my MAT English Education, I didn’t need the professor— who’d not just written our textbook but most of the textbooks the schools I’d apply to be employed the following year—to tell me to respect the fact that what teachers thought was important literature wasn’t half as important as what my students thought was important literature. I didn’t need assignments about reading history to prove to me that what people read for pleasure is powerful. I appreciated him saying it out loud, though, because until that point the knowledge was simply working in the back of my head. He also unwittingly shifted me onto the first long, strange track from teaching to writing: he assigned us to read two Harlequin serial romances, the one kind of romance I hadn’t yet read, deciding even I had to have some standards about trash. As it turns out, it wasn’t trash at all, and soon I was inhaling every category romance the Iowa City Library, Read Books in Cedar Rapids, and Walmart could provide for me. And somewhere in the middle of that I picked up my pen for the first time in over a decade and for the first time in twenty years, I finished a novel.
It’d be lovely if I could say that when I sit down to write I consciously write to please my readers. Sometimes I do, but mostly I’ll admit I’m just trying to survive the novel and get out. But what I can tell you is that the importance of the reader, while not always in my conscious mind, is such a strong part of my subconscious it’s pretty much in every spine of every novel that works. It’s in every one of my sappy syrupy moments, my big crazy twists and turns. Damon Suede helped me with a beta the other day and said, “You know, when you don’t know what to do, you put in an explosion, literal or metaphorical, don’t you.” It’s true, I do. But I do it because I love those suckers. Twists and turns that make a reader go, “Whoah! I didn’t see that coming.”
My favorite comments to this day are still when people read Special Delivery and tell me they worried all the way to the end of the book that Sam and Mitch wouldn’t get together. I hope to god they do that on rereads too, because to me that is the gooey chocolate center of a novel. I still reread Pride and Prejudice and worry that Darcy won’t come back. I know damn well he will, but I get all nervous. I reread A Civil Campaign and have to devour the last act of the novel because I worry this time Gregor might not be able to keep things under control and something bad will happen to Mark and Miles. I read Kim Dare’s With a Kiss two days ago and I restarted it again last night, and every damn time something bad is going to happen to Liam my heart beats faster until Marcus shows up to kick ass.
When I was learning all about the important shit in dead white men’s literature, nobody ever told me story could save your soul. Nobody talked about how picking up a book and knowing it will end happily created a safety more powerful than any antidepressant or anxiety medication science has yet invented. Nobody mentioned how a familiar author whose skill might never be dissected by coeds can become as important as a mental health counselor. Nobody ever told me that the safety created in the world of a romance novel had the power to make the awful reality of life temporarily more bearable, though that grad school professor came very close.
Nobody told me all that stuff, but I figured it out. I wish more writer-advice people talked about that, because while plot is important and character is vital, while showing not telling is good and infodumping is bad, while headhopping really is sloppy no matter what anybody’s house style allows—while all the stuff you usually get from “how to write” guides is important, at the end of the day it’s still the equivalent of the dead white men during the week and the romance novels on the weekend.
Good books make you feel good, make you tingle and sigh and above all feel safe. At least in my world. It’s what I try to write, but you can be damn sure that’s what I’m looking for when I download your excerpt to see if I’m going to buy it. You have whatever space your publisher puts up into the free sample to convince me you’re going to make the world go away and give me the kind of hit that takes away the demons. If you get the job done, I’m buying your book, and if you maintain it through the novel, I’m giving it a five star rating on Goodreads and telling everyone who subscribes to my feed it rocks, and if it really takes me back to that safe spot I learned to love in undergrad, I’m going to hunt down people and tell them to read your book too, some of them far more influential than me.
And for every me out there behaving like this, you can count on thousands of potential other readers doing the same thing.
Readers, especially readers of romance novels, read to escape and feel good. Something to keep in mind.