Archive for the ‘Watch Me Make This About Romance’ Category

Somewhat by accident, I took 14-year-old Seconda to her first rock concert this past December.  It was one of those radio-station-sponsored affairs, with a lineup of ten bands and a running time of seven hours, and I bought the tickets assuming 17-year-old Prima, usually an exemplary sister, would be willing to go with her.

Bad assumption.  Prima had no interest in seeing any of the bands, no stomach for the seven-hour ordeal, and insufficient sisterly devotion to just grit her teeth and go anyway.  Reason didn’t sway her.  Strategically applied guilt had no effect.  She would not even consider a bribe.

Assuming (again with the assumptions!) a 14-year-old would rather wade a mile through leech-infested waters than go to a rock concert with her mom, I proposed other escorts.  Cool childless aunt?  Guitar-Hero-playing cousin?  Maybe… Dad?

No, no, and no.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, my daughter had made up her mind that, if her sister couldn’t be persuaded to go, I was the escort of choice.  And so it happened that I went to a seven-hour, ten-band rock concert.  Nine hours and ten minutes, actually, counting the time we spent standing in line and the twenty minutes the thing ran over (and believe you me, I was counting).


Picture of rock band

I saw these guys, but I have no idea who they are. In my day, the people onstage at a concert looked like Boy George, or maybe Prince. Nowadays they all look like this, and you can't tell one from another. (Edit 2/1/11: Alert reader Karen has plausibly ID'd these two as Martin Johnson and Paul DiGiovanni of the band Boys Like Girls. There was indeed a band called Boys Like Girls in the lineup, so I'm going with it. Thanks, Karen!)

The headline act, and really the whole reason for going, was Seconda’s favorite band, Paramore.  And towards the beginning of the show, in one of about a billion attempts to pump the audience into a frenzy, the concert overlords reminded us of the lineup, with pictures on the big video screens:  “Coming up:  Blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah… and Paramore.”

And when they said “Paramore,” my fourteen-year-old daughter squealed aloud, entirely without irony, like a kid half her age.  It was as though, until that moment, she hadn’t quite let herself believe that Paramore was truly going to be there.  Like it all might prove to be some elaborate bait-and-switch somehow.  Anyway it was ridiculously adorable, and it made me glad no other escort had panned out.

I’m also glad I went because partway through Paramore’s eventual set, there came a kind of goosebumpy moment.  They played this one number – a quieter love song that had been a radio hit – and the audience, most of whom seemed to be young women and all of whom seemed to know the words, sang along.  And when the chorus came around for the second time, the singer stepped back from the mike and the audience kept on singing by themselves.


Paramore! These guys I can recognize, because the singer was tiny, red-haired, and female.

I suppose this isn’t uncommon in rock concerts, but in that moment, it just seemed like such a clear and lovely illustration of the audience’s role in realizing – completing – a piece of popular art.  The artist writes the song, records it, sends it out into the world, and it’s not really complete until it’s received by someone to whom it means something.  The audience gives it that last little spark; makes it real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.

I don’t believe all art works this way, or all artists.  Some artists, I’m pretty sure, create what they feel compelled to create, and put it out there, and, while they certainly hope people will like it, that’s not really the point.  Maybe they’ll be appreciated in posterity; maybe not.  Doesn’t matter.  They’ve answered to their muse.

But in the romance genre, as in pop music – I guess I should speak for myself here but I’ll go out on a limb with the gross generalization anyway – it doesn’t work like that.  Posterity and the muse take a backseat, I think, to actual people alive on the planet right now.

Does that make the product more transitory?  More disposable?  Well, maybe.  Think of the Billboard Hot 100, or the romance shelves at Barnes & Noble.  There’s always something new coming along to push whatever’s there now out of the way.  Whereas nobody’s ever going to shoulder out Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or War and Peace.

Nevertheless there’s a value, I think, in that personal connection.  In that special, quasi-collaborative relationship between artist and audience.  And to see it so vividly enacted – to witness this crowd of young people laying claim to this song, with its resonant-to-them impression of love – gave me chills, and reminded me of what a privilege it really is to write the most popular of popular fiction, romance.

Am I off base?  Did I go too far out on the limb? Is a comparison between pop music and romance legitimate?  Or do you think the seven-hour concert might have impaired my critical faculties?

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A week ago today, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game.  For the non-baseball fans among us, a perfect game is when the pitcher not only doesn’t give up any hits, but doesn’t walk or bean anybody either.  It’s exceedingly difficult, and, as you may imagine, exceedingly rare.  Only 20 have been recorded in all of Major League baseball history.

Galarraga’s would have been number 21.  But he lost his perfect game on the very last batter, due to a wrong call by umpire Jim Joyce.  Joyce called the runner safe at first, when replays show beyond any doubt that the throw beat him there.  (Scroll a bit down this page if you want to see for yourself.)

Joyce has admitted he blew it, feels terrible, etc., but nothing can be done because baseball does not use instant replay to overturn umpires’ calls.  This one mistake, by this otherwise competent professional, has cost this other professional his place in the record books and the full measure of glory he would otherwise have enjoyed.

And it occurs to me that one of the things I find so compelling about sports is the potential for witnessing great big jaw-dropping mistakes, and the consequences that can ripple out from them.

We’ve gotten so imprecise lately in our use of the word mistake.  “I made a mistake by taking that bribe.”  “It was a mistake for me to say that really rude thing on tv about my colleague.”  And I wish we had another word, a word that specifically labeled an ethically/morally wrong choice that you knowingly made and now sincerely regret.

Because a mistake, to me, is something different, and something that crops up with such clarity in sports.  Steve Bartman reaching for that foul ball.  Chris Webber calling a timeout when there were no timeouts to be had.  An outfielder tossing the ball into the stands because he thought it was the third out when it was only the second.

And Jim Joyce, no doubt swearing he would not be swayed by the pressure to swing a close call in the pitcher’s favor, and stumbling in the other direction instead. It’s a well-intentioned person trying to succeed at something, and, through either a mental lapse or a general lack of competence, coming up short.

Now here’s where it gets to be about romance (and hang on; I’m kinda taking this corner on two wheels).  Historical romance heroes, by and large, do not make that kind of mistake.  They may make mistakes in their emotional lives (wrong assumptions about the heroine, irrational unforgiveness of a parent, etc.), but in general the historical romance hero is thoroughly, not to say relentlessly, competent in his “profession,” whatever that profession may be.  If he’s a spy, he’s a master spy (perhaps even a Spymaster).  If he’s a merchant, he’s the shrewdest wheeler-dealer on two continents.  If he’s an idle rake, the ladies all want him and other men all want to be him.

And I wish I’d see more heroes who screwed up sometimes, I mean not just said something that they later had to apologize for, but really truly screwed up and had to maybe experience a moment of humiliation – or worse – and then deal with the aftermath.

I know a lot of readers approach romance looking for a fantasy, and that’s an entirely valid approach.  But does fantasy necessarily rule out a man who’s not already self-actualized in the professional sphere?  Or a man who, while mostly capable, is also capable of failure?

And are there other readers out there who would like to see more fallibility in their heroes?  I have to hope so.  I’ve written one hero who struggles, and undergoes some humiliation, in the course of assuming his “professional” responsibilities, and I’m working on another who’s carrying around the consequences of having made a disastrous mistake.  (Like Jim Joyce, only not broadcast on national tv and rehashed on Sportscenter.)

I have some vague unformed thoughts on the reader/hero relationship, and how maybe the degree to which you’re willing to identify with the hero drives your tolerance for hero fallibility.  (Think of Luke Skywalker, who screws up a lot early on but that’s okay because we’re taking that journey with him; i.e. identifying with him; i.e. he’s not The Other.)  But I need to let those thoughts simmer a bit longer.

In the meantime, because I’ve read that you’re supposed to put pictures on your blog to make it snazzier, here’s Jim Joyce, fallible-hero inspiration:

Umpire Jim Joyce with a Shih Tzu

Doesn’t he look like a decent guy?  Holding a Shih Tzu and everything.  You can’t really stay mad at him, can you?

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