Cover story: Addicted to Love

19 August 2013 Toni Jordan

Cover story: Addicted to Love

Illustration by CSA Images

Toni Jordan, Ed#438, August 2013

On the screen and on the page, romance is big business. And, as author Toni Jordan reveals, it’s a genre destined to live happily ever after.

As any writer knows, it takes great effort to deliver readers in-depth, thought-provoking and accurate articles. Seriously. We’ll do anything. That’s why I’m sitting here in my tracksuit on a Monday afternoon, armed only with a tub of salted caramel ice-cream and a spoon, playing YouTube videos of romance movies.

Yes, floppy-fringed Hugh Grant. Stand in the middle of the press conference in a pink shirt and tell Julia Roberts you’ve been a “daft prick” so she’ll stay in the UK “indefinitely”. Go on, young skinny Billy Crystal. Run and catch Meg Ryan at the New Year’s Eve party to the theme of ‘It Had to Be You’. Adam Sandler serenades a beaming Drew Barrymore in a plane, Colin Firth jumps in a lake, Tom Hanks goes back for the teddy bear, Dustin Hoffman barricades the church door with the cross. And voila. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, two-and-a-half hours have passed before I know it and all I have to show for my afternoon is an ice-cream headache.

Okay. Tom Cruise telling Renée Zellweger “you complete me” still makes me nauseous, but creepy co-dependency issues aside, I’m a card-carrying hopeless romantic. And I’m not alone. Ever since The May Irwin Kiss (1896), one of the first movies ever shown commercially, romantic love has been an enduring plot line. So, clearly, audiences love them. Right?

“Selling the idea of romance has always been big in popular culture,” Melbourne’s 3RRR radio film critic Thomas Caldwell says after a thoughtful pause. “It’s selling a dream or a myth – an ideal of what romance is. So that you can try to convince yourself that it’s real.”

Caldwell is chatty and friendly, with an encyclopedic knowledge of film. But the way he stresses “selling” and “try to convince yourself” makes me think he’s not all that keen on following Katherine Heigl into the sunset. “My biggest frustration with the depiction of romance is that it often feels so false and sugar-coated and removed from any real experience,” Caldwell says. “They’re churned out and repeated without any diversity. I’m increasingly at the point where I feel short-changed.”

But Caldwell doesn’t think it’s all humbug. He quickly lists films he finds genuinely romantic, including Secretary (2002), in which a sexually dominant James Spader (as the resonantly named E Edward Grey) finds his perfect partner in the submissive Maggie Gyllenhaal; Amour (2012), winner of the Oscar for best foreign-language film, showing the heartbreaking finale to a lifetime romance; and The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, in which youngsters Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine find love based on decency rather than power. Films like these, Caldwell argues, explore different dynamics than most romances that are driven by “the cultural anxiety, which has been around since day one around masculinity and femininity. A lot of it is packaged to buy in to gender stereotypes.” 

I can see his point. The high points of my YouTube afternoon were Hugh, Billy, Adam, Colin and Dustin doing something, proving something or solving something to win their pretty prize. Perhaps this is less an overarching philosophy, though, and more about giving audiences what they want. Caldwell argues that it’s “clearly the product of the people who control a lot of the popular culture. In terms of Hollywood, that’s a fairly bland, straight male perspective. I am a straight white male and I find it tedious as well.”

If films that treat romance with integrity and truth are rare, why do filmmakers keep producing formulaic rom-coms? “The popularity of these films is never going away,” Caldwell says. “We are all so preoccupied with love and romance. And we all get so anxious about the idea we might be doing it wrong.”

Movies about love may be popular, but it seems that there aren’t that many homegrown examples. Independent filmmaker Cristina Pozzan, lately an investment manager at Film Victoria, has seen a great many proposals for Australian films looking for production funding and “not that many are for romances. I don’t even think, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen any romantic comedies at all.”

Pozzan points out that this isn’t related to commercial or critical potential. “Romantic films, and comedies particularly – they can be really successful.” She points to television, where Australians are very good at contemporary relationship dramas with a strong romance element, like Offspring, Tangle and Love My Way. For recent film examples, she offers Warwick Thornton’s painfully gorgeous Samson and Delilah (2009).

For Pozzan, this lack of films is partly technical and partly cultural. “We will eventually get there,” she says, talking about the number and quality of romantic movies made in Australia. “Much of the talent base that’s currently working on this kind of terrific television will work its way through to the bigger screen. It’s not been part of the interests of filmmakers, and at the moment I don’t actually think we have the craft skills or the sophisticated attitude to relationships.”

I’ve heard this argument before: Australians are unsuited to romance; we find it difficult to deal with on-screen (and, some might argue, off-screen) intimacy. Romantic movies require some kind of a grand declaration delivered without irony. Perhaps Australians are too easily embarrassed, with a too highly developed gag reflex. Audience demand, though, is high. “You only have to look at literature to see how important romance is to a wide range of people,” Pozzan says. “There is a big market for it. It’s a real conundrum.”

Pozzan believes casting is also important: “It’s got to do with identification. And that’s becoming easier, because now we have a whole group of actors who have ‘Hollywood’ credentials, and that’s the kind of status that can attract audiences and distributors. And that means there’s a greater chance to get them funded.”

Unlike the publishing industry, where some readers and writers identify a critical backlash against romance, Pozzan says there’s no such division in film: “I love a good romance. It’s the thrill of the chase.”

Critics might not approve of romance novels, but readers certainly do. The figures for last year’s mega-hit, the Fifty Shades trilogy by EL James, are enough to make a grown novelist weep into her salted caramel ice-cream: more than 70 million copies sold worldwide. 

Kat Mayo is not a Fifty Shades fan, but she understands the reasons behind its success. Mayo, who blogs at bookthingo.com.au and also edits Romance Buzz, the romance newsletter for online bookseller Booktopia, believes that classic genre romance is popular for two reasons: the unashamed focus on the concerns of women, like domestic, family and career issues; and the satisfying emotional payoff of a guaranteed happy ending.

For some readers and critics of literary fiction, it’s this ‘guaranteed happy ending’ that’s most problematic about romantic fiction. Mayo argues that literary fiction is not a byword for ‘realism’. “We have a lot of literature that deals with death, suicide, infidelity, paedophilia, depression – literature runs the gamut of emotions,” Mayo says. “The optimistic ending is no more or less realistic than any other kind of ending. They’re all fiction.” She believes this well-defined sense of how the story should end offends certain literary sensibilities. “That’s an ideological standpoint,” Mayo says.

Mayo loves a good happy ending, but the journey of the protagonists is equally important. “The stories are really about power exchanges. The characters are in conflict, intent on self-preservation, and love makes them feel vulnerable. How do they negotiate that, so that there’s a successful relationship at the end? These themes of power and identity are expressed differently than in a literary novel, but they’re still there.”

Genre conventions govern any kind of book, including inner-urban literary fiction and its sense of ennui, but the sheer size and breadth of the readership for romance novels precludes a cookie-cutter approach. “People in happy marriages, single people, divorced people, both men and women – there’s not one kind of readership,” Mayo says. “It would be a mistake to say it provides wish fulfilment for people. You can’t conclude that by looking at the statistics.” 

There might be no stereotypical romance reader, but there’s certainly a stereotypical writer: a Barbara Cartland-esque elderly spinster with a pink feather boa, reclining on a chaise longue while dictating her bodice ripper. Melbourne romance novelist Anna Cowan isn’t remotely like that. She’s thirty and chic, and could be an inner-city designer. Her debut novel, Untamed, which features a cross-dressing duke and an unattractive heroine, has divided critics and readers. 

“It took me ages to give myself permission to write romance,” Cowan says. “The fact is that many people have an idea about the genre that’s divorced from what it actually is. We have such a base longing for human affection, but we’re embarrassed to express it.”

Cowan has a degree in literature from the University of Melbourne, but she’s conflicted about the academic approach to romantic fiction. “The idea that these books are divorced from the intellect is completely false,” she says, and points to the online romance community as a source of fascinating discussions about the ideas behind the books. This shouldn’t, however, develop into a kind of hierarchy. “It’s as if you’re not allowed to dream and think about romance without it being an intellectual pursuit,” she says. “A book is not worth less because it delights everyday readers.”

Fifty Shades also wasn’t for her. “The storyline didn’t appeal to me,” Cowan says. “Naive young woman and the experienced powerful man is not my thing, although it does have a raw, unedited quality common in fan fiction that a lot of published romance doesn’t have.”

The convenience of e-readers and a wide range of subgenres are attracting new readers to romance. And they love it. “These books are an extremely powerful way for women to think about their identity and their body and their desires,” Cowan says. “They are unashamedly about the things that are important to women. My husband, for example, has been incredibly encouraging, but I know he wishes I would write something with laser guns in it.”

In the bookstores and in the cinemas, romance keeps coming. On the page and on the screen, we fall in love, over and over again. Those who wait for our addiction to end will likely wait in vain. As we age and the world ages, is it so wrong to count on a happy ending? For many of us, romance can be, as the American novelist Cecilia Grant calls it, “a tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.”

» Toni Jordan is a Melbourne novelist and creative writing teacher. Her most recent novel, Nine Days, won the 2013 Indie award for best fiction.

 

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