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.


  1. Hi Magdalen--
    I'm not even going to go to cabbage-relative's post, because I don't want to give him any more hits (except physically, with a 'clue-by-4').
    Your essay was wonderful and now I need to go read Dream again.


  2. Ditto! What Barb said. I love your essay and I just reserved Dream at the library. This is one SEP I don't believe I've read before. I'm looking forward to it.

  3. Thanks, Barb. I actually don't mind giving him the traffic because every hit is more than offset by his stupidity. If getting more traffic meant revealing my, uh, "shortcomings" I don't think I'd do it.

    Oh, I hope I didn't spoil anything for you, Phyl. I should have said something about spoilers. Sorry!

    1. Oh that's ok, I don't mind spoilers. It's the journey that counts.

  4. Hello!
    I found your blog because I did a google search of McCaskey after reading that certain post of his. It made me wonder what literary masterpieces he composes... but, never mind him! (he's not important)
    I'm glad I ended up here. Your essay is fantastic. I love SEP too and 'Dream...' is so awesome. Like the other commenters said I think I need to go back and read it :)

  5. Kavya, welcome! He may be unimportant, but I'm finding McCaskey fascinating. It's the knee-jerk quality of his thinking. It's almost as though he's angry at romance fiction and their readers for some reason. (Perhaps his mother read romances and ignored him in the process--? Certainly there's a hint of petulant toddler in his post.)

    What's stunning is how hard he resists evidence of the intelligence, education, and erudition of readers and writers of romance. He says that romance novels aren't taught at Ivy-League schools, then when someone shows him that they were taught, he tries to argue that the course offering isn't the "right sort" to qualify. As they say on Twitter, o_0 (or WTF?).

    1. He seems to have misunderstood my comment about Jung Choi and Bill Gleason. I've added a comment to clarify that Jung Choi is indeed teaching at Harvard. She's written that:

      As a graduate teaching fellow at Harvard, I have taught sections of a course called “The Romance,” which examines women’s genre fiction such as the Harlequin and “chick lit,” along with works by Austen, the Brontë sisters, and DuMaurier. Based on my teaching experiences, I would like to explore why teaching romance fiction matters; what we can learn from students’ responses; and how we can address the issues of women, gender, and sexuality while studying the romance.

      and, at Princeton, William Gleason has placed romances on the syllabus:

      I have been teaching “American Best Sellers,” an upper–level undergraduate survey course on American popular writing, since the mid–1990s. Moving from the colonial period to the present, the course examines roughly one text and historical period per week while simultaneously introducing students to a broad range of genres, including the tale of seduction, the sentimental novel, children’s fiction, the western, the detective novel, the adventure series, and (with increasing emphasis in recent syllabi) contemporary romance fiction. In this talk I will discuss the challenges of (and opportunities for) teaching romance as one among many genres in the popular lit survey.

      That comment hasn't appeared yet. I think he's banned me from his blog for "spamming" him by mentioning my book. I thought its examination of the literary art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon romance was entirely relevant to the discussion, given his low opinion of romances, but apparently it's not.

    2. Exactly!

      I can't tell if he's so convinced of his rather Neanderthal grunting "Romance novels bad!" that he has to squelch evidence to the contrary, or is he genuinely not very bright? Certainly, he seems to know nothing about how higher education works.

      He reminds me of a conversation I had with my father, who *did* go to, and teach at, Yale Law School. (Yes, that's right: I failed to get in as a legacy, although I got a charming rejection phone call from one of the last faculty there who remembered Dad.) It was when I was in high school. Daddy accused me of having no intellectual curiosity.

      I asked him for his evidence of this. First, he said, I didn't read the New York Times. Well, I did, but I only read the bits he didn't read: the non-news bits like reviews and articles on home design or cooking. Second, I read romances. (The jury is still out on how this will fare as a career, but I have more intellectual curiosity now, and work harder satisfying it, than I have had in any other career.)

      Finally, Dad said, I watch soap operas. That one really bothered me, because what was it about watching soap operas that equaled a lack of intellectual curiosity? I had a spirited debate with my father, and to his credit, he conceded that the two weren't mutually exclusively, let alone soap opera watching being a reliable indicator of intellectual indifference.

      I'm disappointed in McCaskey. If you're going to state something so categorically, do your homework. Research your claims before you make them. And don't squelch debate by making more categorical and indefensible statements about those who disagree with you.

      And read Laura's book! For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance

    3. what was it about watching soap operas that equaled a lack of intellectual curiosity?

      Of course, if you'd decided to read up on, say, Greek mythology or the Arthurian cycle, presumably that would have demonstrated intellectual curiosity? Not that soap operas are identical to myths/legends, but you could argue that both are episodic, and feature recurring characters, feuds, and (often) unlikely events.

      Oh, that reminds me, I once came across a paper in which someone tied himself in knots trying to explain why Homeric epithets weren't really formulaic.

    4. I had dinner with my brother Dan on Monday. I hadn't seen him in a while, so I got to explain all about my writing, the MFA program, etc.

      He's a classical musician (he plays the French horn) so he knows all about the sonata form, the fugue, etc. (Here's Wiki on musical structure.) Even so, when Dan started to talk about romances having a formula, I stopped to think about that.

      I thought about the Harlequin authors I know online. I don't get the impression any of them write to a formula. Structure, yes. I attended a lecture on how the Hero's Journey as explicated by Jung and investigated by Joseph Campbell informs the structure of all sorts of movies, most obviously Star Wars. "Story structure" isn't pejorative; "formulaic" is.

      But here's the funny thing. In the course of this lecture, the instructor (a writer of Harlequin romances who now writes books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Teen Wolf) told us the 7-part structure for short stories:
      1. A man
      2. In a world
      3. Has a problem
      4. He tries to solve the problem
      5. He fails
      6. He tries to solve the problem again
      7. Conclusion (leaving open the question of whether the second attempt works)

      The subtlety, of course, is in the way the short story writer works through those steps. (Similarly, a mystery writer told her audience that there's a formula for mysteries: Crime - clue - clue - crisis - clue - clue - crisis - clue - clue - denouement.)

      Yes, romance novels have conventions, although at this point there are only two I know are absolute rules: 1) There have to be at least two people who fall in love, and 2) they have a happy ending. But, like soap operas, any more granular structure is either specific to a sub-genre, or it's not exclusive to romances.

      In fact, Stonecoast recognizes four genres: Fiction, Popular Fiction (sci-fi, mystery, horror, fantasy, thriller, and romance in all their permutations, lengths, and types), Creative Non-Fiction (memoirs, mostly), and Poetry. I'll improve as a writer of popular fiction because what works for a sci-fi story can also work for a romance novel: vivid description, believable details, engaging characters, and a plausible plot. All that changes, really, in Pop Fic, are the proportions.

  6. I didn't pump up his numbers or his ego by venturing over but I sure enjoyed reading about one of my fave SEPs: thank you! He just sounds like an ill-informed num*nut. Janet W

  7. That guy is obviously ignorant. Even if he did read a romance novel and liked it, he'd be like, "This isn't a romance novel. Romance novels BAD!"

    What annoyed me more were the comments that were like "Oh, I totally agree!" From women, no less.

  8. Actually he didn't "elevate" Pride and Prejudice out of romancelandia. He said in a comment "Pride and Prejudice was trashy, and I certainly would classify it as romance. Jane Eyre was an animal of another color. It was more of a morality play/novel--not a romance. Unfortunately, neither of the Bronte sisters ever wrote anything else on the same level. Emily's Wuthering Heights is one of the worst stories I've ever had the displeasure of making the acquaintance of. She and Jane Austen were in my opinion the initiators of the romance genre."

    Why argue with someone who doesn't get the genius of Austen?

    1. He also said in the comments that "classical music is jazz played wrong." That made me laugh! Anyone who knows anything about the history of music would have to smile at that.

      I would love to know what specific differences--other than his opinion, which he's entitled to and which may on occasion by right in the sense that a broken clock tells the right time twice a day--he can cite to distinguish Jane Eyre from romance fiction. It's got the two necessary conditions: two people fall in love and have a happy ending.

      In fact, I believe it's more of a romance novel than Pride and Prejudice because the experience of falling in love is more central to events of Jane Eyre. In P&P, there's a lot more going on than just Darcy & Elizabeth falling in love, which happens but rather obliquely. (I'd argue that Persuasion has a more direct examination of the central love story.) In Jane Eyre, you're right there watching them unable to resist their feelings. There may be a morality component, although clearly Bronte had to have thought that Jane and Rochester had paid their dues because she does allow them to have an HEA.


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