There was an interesting post a few weeks ago, on the review and discussion web site DearAuthor.com, about whether there's a room in romance fiction for the extravagances of style we tend to associate with "literary" fiction - or whether romance readers prefer (and romance writers ought to be content to achieve) a narrative that’s clear, clean, and quick to deliver the goods. I recommend the discussion (and I was delighted to have a few lines from The Slightest Provocation chosen as one of their examples of lyrical description in romance).
But I prefer to think about these matters a bit differently. I mean of course I'm of the opinion that romance ought to be rich enough to comprise any damn kind of writing an author wants to try her hand at - aren't love and sex big and important enough to be approached from like a gazillion angles? But I'd like to take the discussion beyond the craft of description. Because taking time out from fast-moving narrative structure isn't just a matter of "literariness" or lyricism.
It's about trying to write about time itself. And for me, it’s also usually a way of writing about sex - which is, I think most of us would agree, a matter of timing.
So it makes sense that writing about sex has got to be a matter of knowing when to take your time and when to hurry. And writing a sexy romance is about finding or creating the style that catches the rhythm you need.
...there aren't enough tenses for all this to happen in, the past and the present fragmenting as they bop off one another...This line - from a wonderful poem called "Erotikon" in a book of the same name by Susan Mitchell - expresses one of my core credos and favorite conundrums about sex: that it's never completely in the present or in the past. Because every moment in the present was once in the future and soon enough will become the past. Because how can anybody know exactly when anticipation becomes experience or experience becomes recollection (and how can any writer resist trying to pin it down)? And because when you're paying attention to each moment, when you're living it intensely and in the round (so to speak), your time sense gets confused, enchanted, or bent into new and surprising shapes.
I've been musing and meditating on this sort of stuff for most of my adult life - or at least since my late teens, since I first read T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."
Well, I sort of read it. I mean I didn't read it all the way through to the end that first time; I stumbled and got lost among the weird arcane references. And anyway, I didn't see any point in going further when I was already so knocked out by those famous opening lines:
April is the cruellest month, breedingBeing in the April of my own young adulthood at the time, I knew that "cruel" was exactly right for what I was feeling. And that although "stirring/ Dead roots with spring rain" almost hurt to read and think about, it was the good kind of hurt I was learning to recognize as "desire" (and to begin to consider how yearning is the flip side of remembering what you've lost, cherished, or almost forgotten).
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
So at least that first time I gave up on whatever Eliot was trying to tell me about European culture and mythology, and went back and read and reread about April and the lilacs and the spring rain about a hundred more times.
After which (well many years after which, and having dutifully finished reading and even sort of understanding the hard parts of "The Wasteland") I became a writer of erotica and erotic romance - a job that demands, imo, a constant state of itchy confusion about the linked mysteries of memory and desire, and of attention to verb tenses that have to be tweaked and stroked until they signal the sneaky permeability of the erotic past, present and future tenses. Not to speak of the conditional, past perfect, imperfect, and the subjective… because I also sometimes wonder if French came to be called the language of love because of the exquisite care their writers pay to all those shifts in tense and mood. Though of course there are also the strange and exotic things that speaking French does to your mouth and throat...
…which would be a different discussion. For some other time, perhaps.
But meanwhile, I’d love to know if anybody else out there thinks about these issues, and what they mean (or don't) for that narrative arc so critical to genre fiction.