Thursday, March 18, 2010
In her The End of the Novel of Love, Vivian Gornick suggests that the novel of romantic love is dead. Well, she doesn’t suggest it. She tells it to us as a fact. Her reasoning is that we all know now that love fails us. That people get divorced, that husbands cheat, that wives run off. Her book, a tracing of many great love novels and the ending thesis that they can no longer exist, is smart and so so so sad. And true. I agree with her. But I don’t completely agree.
I’ve had readers note that many of the stories in my debut collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, tend toward the tragic. This is true. But they’re also about love. Something I still stupidly believe in, despite being a divorcée myself and despite witnessing horrendous marriages among my family and friends that just won’t die. The stories in my collection have characters who believe in their love. One characters ask that his love be chiseled into his gravestones. But the collection also has characters so unsure about the hard love of their marriages that they boldface lie—claiming love is easy. I have a character who ends up in jail for love. Another who carries an actual cross on his back for love. Another stuffs a crucifix down his pants, as a replacement for the hard-on he wished he could get for his girlfriend. Some of these characters are white. Most are not. In Gornick’s book, most of the great love novels or novels about the end of love, are by white writers with white characters. I’m simplifying Gornick’s excellent book, but I’m left wondering if Gornick’s thesis might be true in some cases, but not in others.
When my fiancé and I went for pre-marital counseling the therapist, a black woman, seemed to be discouraging us from marriage all together. Privately I told her that I really wanted her help us start in a healthy way, not discourage us. I was already divorced once and didn’t want to be divorced again. The therapist looked at me like I was a crazy woman. Really crazy for wanting to rope myself to…of all things…a man. “Why do people want to get married?” She said. “I’m single and I love it!” We never went back to her.
I went to literature instead. I read novels and poetry collections about love (oh, thank you, Pablo Neruda; oh, thank you, Charlie Baxter). I even proposed teaching a class called “Love Books” with hopes that teaching the class would teach me something about love. But when I suggested it, the powers that be didn’t think it seemed that interesting for the curriculum. Maybe they were over the whole love novel thing.
As I thought about how I still want to read love novels and learn from them, I wondered why I still wanted this when Gornick had shown that smart people have moved on. Maybe I wasn’t so smart. It did seem that any search for life affirming romantic love in a novel brought a find of mostly archaic Brontë narratives. I kept thinking, trying to be smart about it, and then it dawned on me that there just aren’t that many love stories with…well…with people that seem to look like me. I mean real love stories where love saves the day. Maybe black readers or Caribbean readers or Latino or Asian readers can’t be “over” the novel of love because…well, they didn’t have many to be over.
What do we have? Whitney Houston saying “now, that’s black love!” about her really fucked up relationship with Bobby Brown. We’ve got the street/urban fiction where the love looks more like a rap video than anything a sane smart person would want to be involved in. On the more literary side, we almost had Toni Morrison’s brilliant novel, Love—but that didn’t turn out to be about romantic love at all.
Essence Magazine has been chronicling, debating and at times defying, the seeming “crisis of black marriage” in America. The crisis being that black people don’t get married (marriage, in this case, being the official and public announcement that you’ve chosen romantic love); or that black coupling, marriage or not, is dysfunctional, and particularly destructive for individuals involved. An Essence blog, written by a married couple, invites happy black couples to write in and testify love’s transformative power in their lives. We’re not over it, they seem to be saying. We’re fighting to get to the top of it.
So, I’m doing something that my old therapist would definitely see as a form of public self-denial. With How to Escape from a Leper Colony out doing its tragic thing, I’m now writing a new novel where two people of African descent use romantic love as the transformative power in their lives. My literary agent, who will be charged with selling the novel, might also say that this is crazy. The publishing industry is, alas, very white. Many of my potential editors and publishers might be “over” the whole love thing in literature. I’ll probably have a hell of a time trying to get the thing published. Or maybe not. Maybe enough people, like me, are still hopeful. Maybe some of us still need and want literature about love.
Any hopeful editors or publishers out there? Anybody? Anybody?