My friend Janine wrote a heartfelt entreaty a few weeks ago at Dear Author, wondering why we don’t see more breathtaking writing from genre fiction in general, and the romance genre in particular. Her opening example was a bit unfair, being that it was only from the greatest American novel ever penned. But Janine’s lament on the dearth of style and gorgeous word-smithing has long been my own.
As I read the elegant examples she gave, my mind turned, not to words, but to something that has occupied a special place in my heart since I first saw it fifteen years ago.
This program, skated to Franz Listz’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love), was and remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. From the choreography, to the execution, to the individual qualities the skaters bring to the ice—his strength, presence, and flair, her loveliness, fragility, and seemingly inborn sadness, their unusual chemistry of both intimacy and distance—I lose myself in it every time.
It is a dance of poignant longing and stunning intensity. And yet it is more than a dance, it is a sports program that had won world championships and an Olympic gold medal in its time. The skaters—the great and, alas, no-long-together team of Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev—performed all the risky elements required of elite pairs skaters in their era: side-by-side triple toe loop, side-by-side double axels, one triple twist and two triple throws.
Because mere beauty is not enough to make a competitive program work. You have to deliver the elements too. Falls on the jumps and breaks in unison make the audience groan and ruin the overall effect. In this, I feel, an Olympic-eligible figure skating program is very much like a work of genre fiction.
People read genre fiction with some rather specific expectations. SF is about saving the world. Fantasy is about the quest. Mysteries need to bring the murderer to justice. And romance, in my understanding, has to deliver hope and fulfillment.
Ergo, since most genre fiction is driven by factors other than beauty of prose, cadence of language, and powers of imagery and metaphors—as if a figure skating program required only the elements—most genre fiction isn’t known for stylish writing. And what stylish writing we get is from writers who, though they choose to work within the boundaries of the genre and compete on its terms, can’t imagine sending their stories out of the door without having polished their prose until it gleams like the Taj Mahal at dawn.
Meaning, they are doing extra work. Work that may or may not be appreciated by readers who pick up a book mainly for the story—not for splendor of the writing itself. Work that would demand extra time and effort on the writer’s part when s/he already has to contend with the major elements of plot, character, dialogue, pacing, and, if you write romance, character growth and chemistry. Work that doesn’t have a market mandate, given that a breakneck pace or a pair of hotly interacting lovers can sell quite well even when depicted in pedestrian language.
I choose to do that work. Because the stories that touch me most are not only beautiful, but beautifully written. Because I find that lovely writing, when married to an expertly crafted story, adds immeasurably to my enjoyment. Because I want to build the Taj Mahal.