Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why I Love SEP (And Why She's Brilliant) (And Why Cale McCaskey Isn't)

A writer named Cale McCaskey has a blog post up about "The Problem with Romance Novels." It's a bad essay with an over-reaching thesis (really, dude? all romances?) and the only examples he provides are of three works of literature (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Romeo & Juliet), which he argues--badly--are not romance novels.

Yale (I admit I didn't get into Yale Law. I went to Penn)
So, being the uber-bitch that I am, I posted a comment. I'm not proud of this, but I mentioned my Ivy-League law degree (McCaskey makes a "so what" point about Ivy League colleges not teaching romance novels, which is absurd because Yale had a course recently on romance novels) and my top-ten MFA program. Specifically, I said that Stonecoast (that's my MFA program) requires its students to write an essay in the proper format: State a thesis in the first paragraph, cite three examples that support your thesis, and then write a concluding paragraph. His blog post would fail, I argued, and then I (being a bitch, remember) suggested that he revise it and repost.

Cale McCaskey (I want to make sure Google Alerts lets him know what I'm saying about him) deleted my post, which is pretty ballsy considering that I'd at least read something he'd written. I bet he's never read a romance novel.

Which is too bad, because some of them are pretty damned fine. It just so happens that I wrote an ESSAY for school about just such a novel. And here's that essay:
       In Dream a Little Dream (Avon Books, 1998), Susan Elizabeth Phillips uses two little boys to get the reader emotionally sucked into the story. One little boy, Edward, is alive but his well-being is at risk and he could be taken from his mother by Child Protective Services at any time. The other little boy, Jamie, is dead, so Edward’s presence triggers intense grief in Jamie’s father, Gabe. Even though neither Rachel nor Gabe seeks our empathy, their near-frantic emotions surrounding their sons grab us by the throat almost from the first page. (Conveniently, Edward also serves as a wedge of conflict keeping the adults apart for nearly all of the story.)
       Rachel is living in her car when she returns to Salvation, N.C. on a quest to find some money she thinks her late husband, a charlatan televangelist, squirreled away. That money is her El Dorado, where she’s no longer one disaster away from losing her son to a social service agency. Phillips has stacked the deck against Rachel: no immediate family, hated by the community, broke (as a result of Edward’s recent hospitalization for pneumonia), and scrawny. Even though she denies herself food that she could give to him, she can’t guarantee her son’s physical well-being.
She experienced a surge of helplessness so powerful it nearly crushed her. She wanted to stockpile everything for [Edward], not just food, but security and self-confidence, a healthy body, a decent education, a house to live in. And no amount of self-deprivation would do any of that. She could starve herself until she was a skeleton, but that still wouldn’t guarantee that Edward’s belly would stay full. (Dream, p. 77)
Offering sex in exchange for a job (admittedly with the hero), a step that was previously unthinkable for Rachel, becomes a deliberate, desperate choice. She will do anything for the money to feed her child. And the reader is acutely aware of how close she is to failing her son. It’s her love for Edward that fuels our love and fear for her.
       Gabe falls for Rachel slowly, but he can’t stand Edward. Everything about Edward bothers him; the boy is a weakling where Jamie was robust, timid where Jamie was fearless, and miserable where Jamie was joyous. Of course, those complaints are all just manifestations of Edward’s real fault: he’s right in front of Gabe while Jamie is gone. Gabe has shunned his family’s sympathy but he’s also blocked his grief, preferring an emotional limbo. Edward makes that numbness impossible. Worse, Rachel’s devotion to Edward eats away at Gabe’s humanity, his decentness, mocking his memory of his wife telling him he was the gentlest man she’d ever known. If Rachel had been childless, they could have had a less complicated affair, but the way Edward reminds him of Jamie is a barrier Gabe can’t breach.
       At five years old, obviously Edward doesn’t have much depth as a character, although Phillips gives him lots of personality. But he makes a delightful Cupid. Toward the end of the book, Rachel has given up on finding El Dorado and decided to leave Salvation because she loves Gabe too much to stay. He proposes, but they both know that a future is impossible while Gabe can’t love Edward. Edward (who wants to be called Chip) has dreamed up a way to keep Rachel from taking him to Florida: he and Gabe will pretend to like each other. But Edward can tell that Gabe’s not pretending very well, and he yells at Gabe, then causes an accident. Gabe spanks Edward.
    The child rubbed his elbow, even though it wasn’t his elbow that hurt. He tilted his head to one side and caught his bottom lip between his teeth. It quivered. He didn’t look at Gabe. He didn’t look at anything. He just tried not to cry.
    And in that moment, Gabe finally saw the child as himself, instead of as a reflection of Jamie. He saw a brave little boy with flyaway brown hair, knobby elbows, and a small, quivering mouth. A gentle little boy who loved books and building things. A child who found contentment not in expensive toys or the latest video games, but in watching a baby sparrow grow stronger, in collecting pinecones and living with his mother on Heartache Mountain, in being carried around on a man’s shoulders and pretending, if only for a moment, that he had a father.
    How could he ever have mixed up Chip and Jamie in his mind, even for a moment? Jamie had been Jamie, uniquely his own person. And so was this vulnerable little boy he’d struck. (Dream, pp. 317-318.)
It takes Rachel a chapter or so to believe that Gabe’s let go of his grief, but by that time they’ve found the money, cured a little girl’s leukemia, and sorted out all the subplots.
       As a writer, I admire the efficiency with which Phillips tells the reader to care deeply about Rachel’s well-being. Without Edward, Rachel’s quest is self-serving, not self-sacrificing. Without Edward, she’s rootless and even prickly. Without Edward, her resistance to Gabe would seem stupid. Similarly, Gabe’s grief for his own son would surely have muted faster if Edward had not been an affront to his heart. Most importantly, Phillips takes care to make Edward plausible and distinct as a fictional little boy.
Now, that's an essay! And that's a great romance novel. I'd be happy if I could write one even half as effective as Dream a Little Dream.

As for Cale McCaskey, here's a comment he posted, probably around the same time he deleted mine:
I will not rehash stupidty [sic] people. Read prior comments before trying to post your own to make sure your nonsense has not already been gone over or it will be deleted. I don't have the time, nor the inclination to deal with a pack of throw-away housewives who still sit around thinking about romance like a 13-year old girl. You can do that if you want to, but do it away from me. I like women, not little girls. I think you'll find most men in the upper half of the IQ spectrum feel the same way, as do most women.
I could write a five-paragraph essay on the thesis that McCaskey's blog post fails because it's riddled with restatements of the thesis instead of supporting evidence, plus his comments are larded with ad hominem attacks, but I won't bother. I think Google Alerts has enough to work with here.