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Writing classics and happy endings

Peter Wicks | Sunday, December 5, 2004

Next year I’m due to start work on my doctoral thesis, so needless to say I’ve decided to start smoking.

Smoking is important for graduate students partly because it provides a regular excuse to leave the library, but also because a thesis takes at least two years to complete and you need frequent doses of carcinogenic pleasure to restore the karmic imbalance created by that much delayed gratification.

There are of course other techniques available for making the arduous task of dissertating more manageable. One tobacco-free method for relieving stress is to fantasize about tenure, taking solace in dreams of all the things one could do with a guaranteed job for life. Popular tenure fantasies include attending faculty meetings wearing a dressing gown, playing “Eye of the Tiger” at the start of every lecture, or finally coming out to one’s colleagues as a Republican. My own tenure fantasy is to write a novel.

I should say right away that my novel will not be a daring work of postmodernist fiction, densely-packed with allusions to everything from Homer through to Quentin Tarantino. It will not feature a chapter in which the playfully erudite narrator digresses with a meditation on the existential significance of quantum physics cribbed from Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. There will be no cameo appearance by a character with the same name as the author, nor any other blurring of the line between fact and fiction. The novel will not hold a mirror up to society. It will not – not even remotely, not in any way – be an unflinchingly honest analysis of the way we live now.

I am going to write a Harlequin romance novel, complete with heaving bosoms, ripped bodices and a happy ending.

Part of my motivation is the childish pleasure I get from the idea that one day I might be a tenured professor with a faculty bio that includes the line “Peter’s previous books include Wittgenstein’s Moral Philosophy (4 vols.) and The Isle of Forbidden Passion.” But the truth is I wanted to write a romance novel even before I decided I wanted to be an academic, ever since I discovered that there’s a kit.

To get the Harlequin novel-writing kit you used to have to write to them, but now everything an aspiring romance novelist needs to know can be found on their website.

Before looking at the guide for writers, I decided to survey the catalogue to check out the competition. Harlequin has a truly bewildering amount of titles. The website provides a book matcher to help customers identify the novels that will best suit there needs, using pull-down menus to select their preferred time period, type of hero, heroine and theme (options range from “hero to the rescue” to the apparently self-explanatory “baby”). Since you can only select one option for each category the hero can be royalty or a bad boy but, frustratingly, not both. For those who don’t want their romance to be set here in the United States there are a range of exotic locations offered, including France, Italy and – inexplicably – Canada.

I am not, I admit, a likely candidate for a romance novelist. For one thing I am a man and romance fiction is written almost exclusively by and for women, Harlequin describes itself as a purveyor of “women’s fiction.” Also, I’m not entirely sure what a bodice is. But with some expert guidance I was confident that these obstacles could be overcome, so I clicked on a link promisingly entitled “learn to write”.

First I came across a Q&A for prospective writers. The tone was markedly defensive. It was noted that the general public fails to give romance novels the respect they deserve. The notion that writing these books is easy was considered and firmly rejected.

Reassured as to the respectability of my avocation, I turned to the writer’s tips, which suggested that I “use commas between compound sentences joined by conjunctions.” A conjunction – I have this on good authority – is “a joining word, such as and, but, or and because.” There was also a helpful section explaining the difference between “its” and “it’s,” although I find that I have forgotten the details.

It’s a mistake to think of romance fiction as second or even third rate literature. It’s not bad literature; it’s something else, with different criteria of success. Part of the art of literary writing is to give characters depth and life, but a Harlequin hero – whether he’s a playboy, a sheik or a bodyguard – must be as two-dimensional as a pin-up poster.

People sometimes argue about whether love at first sight is possible. I think it’s not just possible, it’s easy. Anyone can fall in love with someone across a crowded room, because the unknown represents the possibility of perfection. And so it is with a romantic hero; give him eyes like dark stars, a physique reminiscent of a variety of powerful fauna, a scar in an intimate location gained playing polo or some other suitably exotic sport, and stop there. Leave it to the reader not to fill in the gaps, but to enjoy the speculation.

There is a love that comes after knowledge – you see it in the best marriages – but it is not the stuff of fantasy.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.