My notes for a panel on the topic “Is Romance Dead”

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I found a hand written draft of this in a filing cabinet. Any electronic version has long since vanished (it would be on a 2 inch disk!) I was in the habit then of presenting essays and talks with these subheadings – thanks to the titanic influence of Anne Carson on my work at that time. This is a portrait of the author before The Vintner’s Luck. I hadn’t even begun Glamour and the Sea (though my thinking about that novel is all over this). I was 34 when I wrote this. My son was 1. These notes were, I believe, my contribution to a panel at a PEN conference (the NZ Society of Authors as was). 

 

October 1993

Having decided that all I can talk about in any focused way for this panel are my feelings about romance in my own writing, I thought I should do that by sorting out a few subheadings. I’m all about the illusion of organisation, these days. (And I’m digressing already – the illusion of organisation it’s pretty unromantic, it isn’t Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.)

 

Pacification

My first year tutor in English Lit at Vic marked me down in early essays for “sounding too sure of myself”. Subsequently I was – I hope – just as emphatic, colourful, rhetorical, but I adopted the habit of starting at least one sentence in every paragraph, “Perhaps…”, “Maybe…”. “I will attempt to demonstrate,” I’d write – and my marks improved markedly.

 

Too sure

The teething, chickenpoxy baby is asleep. I’m at my desk and, according to tradition recent and respectable, I’m now supposed to fight my way up to some still space free from thoughts of the shopping not put away, and how I’ve left Fergus to do the dishes, the blood in Jack’s spit, tomorrow’s lousy forecast, and the inexplicable petrol smell in the downstairs toilet. And I’m not free of any of it. The future looks like the present to me. I’m always starting again, trying to do something differently, something that will work out better for me than After Z-Hour and Treasure. I think of my pleasure writing those novels and my past pleasure is now a hard place to land. Something I can’t launch from; like a sprung diving board. I can’t trust my pleasure, because I know I never quite feel what I should.

 

Party-pooper culture

When you meet someone and they ask “How are you?” what is the suitable reply? “Fine” and “Can’t complain” are good. Even “buggered” is acceptable, since it’s never indecent to be tired. “On top of the world” is pretty suspect however, since it asks to be asked for the story – of good news, a triumph, a happy holiday, of somehow having things sorted. “No comment” and “next question” are far too droll, and also sound like fishing to be asked the story.

What exactly is it that is uncouth about the exceptional answer? Not its honesty. More likely a lack of reserve. Enthusiasm. A need to tell the story.

Fergus says I have a heroic world view. Sometimes he says it in exasperation, sometimes in dismissal, sometimes almost in envy, and often just like: “The wind is from the north and Elizabeth has a heroic worldview.”

 

My heroic world view

Why is my fiction romantic in a general sense?
My heroic worldview doesn’t so much influence what I notice about the world, as the way in which I notice it. Here I am, 14 years out of my teens, and still being gripped by excitements, and totally taken up by things.

Here is a mundane example of the sort of thing I mean: The sound of a collection of exhausted matchsticks blowing about on the pavement. This observation appears in After Z-Hour. Kelfie hears the sound. “And” he tells us, “I forgot everything I knew.” I wrote that in 1984. I stood listening to the melody of matchsticks on Porirua station in 1978. Fifty or more same-sized wands stirred on the rusty bitumen by one of those winds that comes, and tries to clean the corners of any room open to the weather.

 

Rooms open to the weather

There’s a wonderful essay by WH Auden on sacred moments and sacred beings. My world is swarming, it seems, with sacred beings. And this has an effect on my fiction. The world my characters inhabit is as likely to make meaningful and dramatic gestures as they are – demonstrations of animation, vitality, physical beauty, desirousness even.

The thing about my heroic world view is that I didn’t decide to adopt it. I didn’t catch it from my culture (fat chance) or learn it from my family. It’s brain chemistry I suppose, which is terribly unromantic – all that loveliness and significance simply pathology.

 

I will attempt to demonstrate

So – to address the topic of the panel – is romance dead?

What I feel when I write is desire. And that’s what I want my readers to feel. I want to pump up their dreams with mine.

I have a number of letters from readers of Treasure who wrote that for a few days after finishing the novel they were “in love” with Mayhew. That was my intention. I like to try to beguile. I like to contaminate other people with a sense of the sacred beings and sacred moments that leap up in my face on an almost daily basis. And desire is desirable. Desiring, you know you’re alive – alive and desiring despite endless banal inducements to buy stuff, to pay heed, move forward …

Is romance alive in my work? Yes, because my work is a concentration of my feelings about my world. And because it reflects my amorous intentions towards my audience.

1 comment to My notes for a panel on the topic “Is Romance Dead”

  • Christine Gordon

    Delightful thoughts: still true, do you think? I have the sense that you feel this even more intensely, given the arc of your work. And I definitely appreciate your amorous intentions toward your audience: would that more writers felt the same!

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