My last read was a pretty gory ghost story, so facing the giddy, flushed face of romantic fiction is a tad disorienting. Disorienting, but also strangely compelling. There’s five of them on my desk at the moment, all written by Indian authors and each representing its publisher’s answer to that genre a lot of us insist on calling “chick lit”.
There’s Glitter and Gloss by Vibha Batra, A Forgotten Affair by Kanchana Banerjee, A Crazy Kind of Love by Megha Rao, It’s All in the Planets by Preeti Shenoy, and It Must Have Been Something He Wrote by Nikita Deshpande. They’ve got a healthy legacy. Plenty that came before did very well, their authors now celebrities— Ravinder Singh, Chetan Bhagat and Durjoy Dutta, Nikita Singh, Preeti Shenoy and Sudeep Nagarkar. Even if you haven’t read them, you’ve heard of them.
Romance sells. And because it sells so well, it spawns more and more. There’s no point scoffing and judging, because all the finely-refined taste in high literature cannot fight the force of the world’s need for good, old-fashioned love stories.
This demand and success, though, seems to be working both for and against the genre. Barring a few (Anuja Chauhan’s Thakur Girls and Rupa Gulab’s Girl Alone come to mind), almost everything else flooding the market today carries a kind of tired sameness. In their bid to fit in, they are doing a pretty good job of getting lost. Just because a formula works doesn’t mean you don’t need to fine-tune it. Just because one plot got away with a stereotype doesn’t mean the rest should. Sure, a straightforward girl-meets-boy story works, but like every other genre, romantic fiction requires shaking up too — new plots, new stories, and a new look.
The first hit is taken by the cover. All these books insist on using — in some variant — make-up, clothes, shoes and bags, flowers, hearts and silhouettes of couples. They use these images like flares, sending signals to all the women in the area. Simultaneously, they alienate the men, reinforcing the “chick” in chick lit. The result is both amusing and infuriating.
As for plot, all five books in front of me turn out quite different. In Glitter and Gloss , a make-up artist and her drop-dead gorgeous fiancé navigate an engagement that doesn’t suit the said gorgeous man’s sister. In A Crazy Kind of Love , Rao’s protagonist, Heer, battles with depression and self-harm, rehab and trauma, finding love with a man fighting his own psychological battles. In It’s All in the Planets , Shenoy weaves a story about healthy friendships and unhealthy love, and in A Forgotten Affair , Banerjee talks of abusive marriages, extra-marital affairs, and the mirage of stability and security. Finally, It Must Have Been Something He Wrote is set in the world of publishing, the heroine a publicist for an author of cheesy romances.
But what it boils down to is execution and writing. Romantic fiction demands not just good but empathetic writing. Reading about people falling in love, becoming estranged and coming together again, and feeling nothing for them, basically spells death for a romantic novel. The whole point is to get swept away, relate to the characters, live vicariously, to celebrate this impossibly great love as it builds or mourn as it crumbles.
So, it doesn’t work if your heroine makes you want to grind your teeth. Batra’s Misha, the make-up artist, does. Batra’s book tends to work with characters that are difficult to identify with, considering they are so much of just one single thing. Misha is irrepressible and irresponsible, giddy and giggly. Her boyfriend is impossibly handsome and almost entirely perfect, and her friend is, well, every boisterous friend in every romantic plot ever. At one level, Batra’s book is an easy, breezy read. At another level, it cashes in on unrealistic stereotypes and clichéd plotlines. Nothing is explored with any depth, and the result is hackneyed.
Shenoy’s book, on the other hand, is a pleasant discovery. Her deft handling of a nicely rounded and original plot is impressive. Chance brings a 30-something woman, Nidhi, and a 20-something man together, and they become friends. Shenoy gives us complex characters with complicated lives, and her handle on different kinds of relationships is strong. Her writing is simple; too simple in fact, with almost no layers and subtleties. All of the punch, then, lies in the story and its insights. You find yourself rooting for her protagonists, and feeling none of the irritation of reading about damsels in distress.
Both Banerjee and Rao deal with intense subjects. The concept is interesting, even if not unique. Love stories pegged around memory loss (in Banerjee’s case), and mental disorders (in Rao’s book), have been extensively written. The Irish author Marian Keyes does this without fail in nearly all her books, covering drug abuse, domestic violence, death and more. Sophie Kinsella, when she’s not writing about an infuriating shopaholic, has also handled memory loss, death, and more recently, agoraphobia. Even so, in India, where arranged marriages, college sweethearts and unrequited love dominate plotlines, these books widen the ambit. Both have a kind of self-conscious, weighty writing, and don’t carry the easy flow of Shenoy’s novel, but they do manage to keep your interest alive. And finally, Deshpande’s novel, which works at several levels, including the convincing first-person voice. It’s clever in approach, sitting within the genre and turning it on its head, so that a lot of Amruta’s inner monologues are rants about generic, assembly-line romances. It Must Have Been … is like its contemporaries, but the execution is smoother, cleaner, and it comes across as more natural than forced.
The fact that all these books are really quite different from one another, makes their overt sameness more difficult to digest. They get away with it because no one seems to be taking a serious look at them. They aren’t critically analysed and examined and many don’t get reviewed with any degree of seriousness. This in turn seems to increase the speed of the assembly line. Somewhere down the line, we’ve decided that romantic fiction is not to be taken seriously, and that might or might not have something to do with who their primary readership is, or at least meant to be. But all stories, whether they answer life’s questions or serve as a quick read on a flight, are stories — and now, more than ever, don’t we need some great love stories?