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Can romance novels save heterosexual sex?

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

A red rose is used as a bookmark in a book with pages turning in the wind. A.G.A / Shutterstock
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of January 6, 2019.

  • On LitHub’s Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, they’re talking literary publicity. (There is a transcript at the link, I would not send you somewhere audio-only.) As someone who still receives coloring book pitches on the regular because I wrote one article about coloring books three years ago, may I just cosign this section on matchmaking books with critics:

It’s important not to get too bogged down in — oh, this person wrote about this subject, so let me make sure to pitch them on something very similar, because nine times out of ten they’re not gonna wanna write about the same exact thing, particularly if they’ve already written about it in the past year or so. So it’s kind of important to keep in mind that you want to find someone who has broad interest in what the book is about, or who the author is, if that makes sense, because you don’t want to come to them and say: do you want to write about the same exact topic for this book that’s coming out in three months, ’cause you’ll either get an emphatic no, or more likely, just no response at all.

We should grab readers by the collar and never let go, I learned. Write stories so transporting our prose becomes invisible. Use as few words as possible to move the story forward as fast as we can. Never be sentimental, and avoid “purple prose.” Great emotion manifests only indirectly, we were told. When a frustrated classmate in my MFA program declared himself a maximalist, I chose to pity him. Poor guy: everybody knew restraint was superior, but he’d missed the boat.

There is, in the minds of the speakers of any language, especially those with extensive written histories, a “Golden Age” that the language was perfect in, and now it’s corrupted and gross and evil and slimy and stinky and has to be handled carefully with a pair of tweezers that are corroding as we speak. They wish to artificially revert the language back to that state, and accuse anyone speaking the actual modern form of that language of having bad grammar.

It was then only a short step to the situation we find ourselves in today, where conspiracy theories are customized to achieve desired political outcomes and then injected into the news stream via social media. (This itself may sound like a conspiracy theory, but only if you’ve forgotten what an inveterate and transparent fabricator today’s theorist-in-chief is). No, with swiftboating, birtherism, voter fraud, anti-vaxxing, Pizzagate, crisis actors, false flags, and alternative facts, the conspiracy theory has clearly been weaponized in the most cynical and partisan way.

I want people to read my stories—of course I do. That’s why I write them. But knowing, in that immediate and unmediated way, what people thought about my writing felt . . . the word I keep reaching for, even though it seems melodramatic, is annihilating. To be faced with all those people thinking and talking about me was like standing alone, at the center of a stadium, while thousands of people screamed at me at the top of their lungs. Not for me, at me. I guess some people might find this exhilarating. I did not.

Like many writers, I am a packrat, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am lazy, or that I don’t like to throw anything away. I’ve long bought into the notion that messy people are smarter or more creative, self-serving, yes, but also validated by a University of Minnesota study that found being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. The reason, I’d suggest, is serendipity, for mess requires a certain openness, a willingness to give over to improvisation, to respond to what is there rather than what has been predetermined, to learn more than to know. Do I need to say this echoes the process of writing?

I must have wanted it, at least a little, because one day I bought a romance novel. Probably a cheap Harlequin one at Walmart. I was to a point where I realized the stories I had been given weren’t going to work for me. The view of sex I’d grown up with seemed both exhausting and unsatisfying. I didn’t want to believe anymore in the narrative I’d been given. At the same time, I had very little confidence that I deserved a better relationship narrative, or that I would be granted one even if I did. At that point, I’m not even sure if I wanted to have sex or just wanted to not hate the idea of having it. I wanted desperately to find some middle ground. I wanted some reassurance that I could have intense sexual feelings and intense sexual experiences without losing myself or becoming tainted.

Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting Happy reading!