There has been a great deal of discussion taking place about Jessica Miller’s review of Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels. The review provoked many interesting questions, responses, and queries. I don’t want to engage specifically with the review, but to offer another perspective on EIKAL.
Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse writes: “Everyone will understand that X has ‘huge problems’ with his sexuality; but no one will be interested in those Y may have with his sentimentality: love is obscene precisely in that it puts the sentimental in place of the sexual.”
I’m guilty of sentimental reading and writing, and I find these sentimental or affective responses to reading and writing to be particularly interesting. Indeed, this is what makes romance reading so interesting – romance novels thrive on the sentimental (and sometimes the sexual). But, I don’t think we should treat these “sentimental” moments without criticism.
For instance, in Miller’s review, one of the most interesting lines from my perspective was: “I haven’t said much about the specific lessons Wendell finds in he romance genre. This is because, as a romance reader and therefore a member of her target audience, I’m too embarrassed.” I love this moment in the review, not because I agree with it, but because the reader is “too embarrassed.” Not just embarrassed, but excessively so. Barthes writes: “To try to write about love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes of which love diminishes and levels it)."
The romance is excessive precisely because it is about love. Love is excessive. But Barthes is not alone. Richard Terdiman writes, “people love being in love, and when they are they talk and write about it with an expansive intensity.” Adam Phillips writes that falling in love is “traditionally overwhelming, [an] excessive experience.” To fall in love and to fall out of love (or worse, to be thrown out of love, to be rejected and rendered abject) are excessive experiences and we tell these stories so as to come to terms with them.
Why, for instance, if we know that love is dangerous, can cause harm, shatter, and perhaps ultimately destroy us, do we continue to desire, long for, dream of, and write about love? Just consider the excessive story of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero tells his reader: “without doubt, the only thing that makes Man’s life on earth essential and necessary is love.” All of our love stories and romance novels talk about the possibility of love, loving, and being loved. I admit that this reading of love is hopelessly romantic. Romance novels provide readers with ways of imagining love and loss, the muck of language, things being too much and too little. These are stories that need to be told, need to be listened to, need to be read because they are so essential to the human experience. The desire to read about love and tell love stories is a way of coming to terms – a search for lost terms – with a love that cannot and will not be excessive enough.
For some readers of EIKAL, I imagine there is a recognition of not being alone in their love of romance, for others, I imagine they are “embarrassed.” I think varying reactions are testament to the complexity of romance. Readers, like the romance novels they read, are not a monolithic group.
EIKAL puts on full display the wonderful, luscious, beautiful, problematic, heart-breaking excessiveness of romance. Readers of romance, critics of romances, and scholars of love are, I think, coming to terms with, trying to capture, and falling in love with love and its excesses. Perhaps an all too optimistic vision of Everything I Know About Love, but to quote my favourite writer, Marcel Proust, “if a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all of the time.”