J began by quirking an eyebrow at what seems to her (to him? I don't want to presume) to be a recycling of formulaic elements in Crusie's novels, devices that have been around so long they have grown, in J's word, "trite":
I am not criticizing her use of pets and children. Of course the pets are cute and need rescuing, and naturally the children are loveable and need rescuing. That's what the heroine is for -- to rescue the weak and helpless. And then to be rescued herself by the hero with his sweet kiss.The first thing that strikes me about these comments is their witty, debunking tone: the tone of a reader who is not, by gum, about to let an author pull a fast one on her. I actually rather like that tone, since it reminds me of Min in Bet Me, but as a professor, it also puts me on my guard. Whenever my students strike it--heck, whenever I strike it myself in my own reviewing--I'm generally about to say something funny, but reductive: something that breaks whatever spell a book has tried to cast over me. I'm not a sucker, it says. And, indeed, a moment later, J offers this observation:
The other day I was reading an Amazon review of one of her books, and found the comment "First off, where were the dogs?!" Okay, it's every reader's right to expect love and romance from Crusie, but must our author also deliver canine companionship, as well?
I suppose if I had to write a paper on Crusie, it would be on the topic of women's tendency to seek comfort in familiarity. Time and time again I read women's comments that they read a certain author because "they know what to expect." It's the key to Nora Roberts' empire, I think.Now, maybe it's just because I've been properly humbled one or two times in my day, but I'm awfully wary of generalizations about "women's tendency" to do anything. Are women more likely to seek comfort in familiarity than men? Two days ago I was at a Cubs game with my son: we ate familiar ballpark food, wore familiar sports fan clothing, watched an utterly familiar, indeed utterly rule-bound activity for, what, 3 1/2 hours or so, and drove home listening to extra innings of yet another baseball game. Was there anything unpredictable in what transpired? Well, the Cubbies won, which is certainly an unfamiliar experience this season. But that's a little condiment of unfamiliarity spicing up an utterly comforting-because-familiar, even ritualized activity.
Suppose, then, we change J's comment to read: "If I had to write a paper on Crusie, I'd write it on the topic of the human tendency to seek comfort in familiarity." Fair enough, say I--but to get anything more than a C on that paper, you'd have to address not only the familiar elements in Crusie's books (say, the motifs she comes back to over and over again, like the animal friends and pop culture references), but also the way these novels address familiarity thematically, and also how Crusie attacks the aesthetic problem of over-familiarity, too. What does she do to vary her material, if only just enough to avoid boredom? In which novels is she more successful at this, and in which is she less effective as an artist? Does she ever address the question of familiarity directly in narrative or dialogue, or otherwise show some literary self-consciousness about the issue? (She was, after all, an academic before she became a novelist, and her dissertation was on narrative structures in men's and women's fiction. Surely she's as aware of this issue as any of us are.)
Now we're not asking snarky questions, but serious ones: in fact, the same serious ones we can ask about Petrarch, or about the Jewish poets of the Golden Age in Spain, or about qasida writers in Islamic world, of haiku poets in Japan, or about virtually any other literary artist working within a highly conventionalized framework. (Such conventionalized frameworks are, I would hazard, the norm in literary culture, except in isolated periods that value individualism and originality. Those are the exceptions, not the rule.) We may call romance fiction "romantic," but it's a classical art, and needs to be read as such.
Bet Me, I would argue, is a profoundly self-conscious book: probably Jenny's most visibly structured, visibly "designed" novel, and one in which the appeal of the conventional, the familiar, and the predictably appealing is addressed in many ways. J could write about how the superfluity of fairy tale material in the novel--allusions, both subtle and obvious, discussions of fairy tales between characters, and so on--makes the text both familiar and playfully self-conscious about that appeal to narrative and explicatory comfort. (It's a literary game as old as Alexandria, but here it's one that many readers, not just the cultured elite, can play.)
Min's resistance to the fairy tales, and her need to give in and articulate her own HEA, would then seem to match the reader's need to give up his or her cynicism in order to savor the text. (I think here of J's later comment that "I don't believe in fairy tales. They have much to teach us, like don't eat houses made of candy and don't expect your birth parent to keep your wicked step-parent from tormenting you. But if you lie around waiting for your prince to come and rescue you, you'll end up sleeping for 100 years.") It is also congruent with her resistance to fats and sweets, which suggests that fairy tales are the literary equivalent of those culinary pleasures, all of which we are suckers for, simply due to biology. We slim ourselves down by refusing them, the novel suggests, but at what cost? Is that cost worse than throwing up if we eat too much of them, as Harry does? Certainly we can't cook [create] our own chicken marsala [HEA] while leaving out essential ingredients, although we may want to, since those ingredients are the ones that some Nanette voice inside us insists we refuse. (It took me longer than I'd care to admit before I caught that joke about "No, No, Nanette.")
J finished that particular post with this challenge:
That stated, I reiterate that I enjoy the books; I enjoy the cute little pets that never seem to make nasty puddles on the heroine's carpet or chew her favorite shoes; I enjoy the children who are never hideous, spoiled brats. The writing is funny. But is it more than an entertaining and comforting formula? Is it "important"? Does it challenge us in any way?I don't have time to address each part of this at length. For now, suffice it to say that I do not admit that "importance" is equivalent to "challenge," nor do I buy the notion that entertainment and comfort are unimportant, unworthy of intellectual inquiry. These seem to me the cliches of modernism, beloved of English teachers everywhere who want to show their students that the texts they enjoy are not as worthy of attention as the ones they are now being forced to read and write about for credit. In many moods, I think that NO literature, no art at all, is "important" in the way this question assumes. Rather, there are works that let us flatter ourselves that we are doing something important when we read them, like thinking about, I don't know, war and famine and political corruption, as opposed to the pleasures of food and sex. Less cynically, let me just suggest that Crusie herself addresses this question in Bet Me, embodying it in the pair of restaurants her characters visit.
Other kinds of art may get more credit, more acclaim, than romance fiction, Bet Me suggests, because they "challenge" us. In the end, though, they are the Serafino's of literature--places where an author "makes a statement," but does not please. We may convince ourselves that food that tastes bad must be "important," especially if the restaurant critics all concur. But do we really want to, in the end? Emilio's may boast innumerable cliches both of menu and decor, like romance fiction itself, but it also satisfies: not least, it satisfies our most embarassing, because most conventional, cravings.
That's not a full-blown essay, J--just an hour on a Tuesday morning. Give me time and coffee and I can do the job better, but this will give you some idea of how I think about this novel, and about the very good questions you raise!