Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.
That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”
But I’m not banging in the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.
I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.
Why every man MUST read a romance
Not to pick up girls. And not, if you’re married, to improve your odds of staying out of the dog house.
Every man should read a romance — and think about these things — for an entirely different reason. It’s the first part of the question, the “What’s worth living for?” part.
See, I could walk into (1) a cubicle farm, (2) factory break room or (3) sports bar and show any random 10 single men a photo from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and ask them — drunk or not — whether they would marry this swimsuit model. I’m only half kidding when I say nine of those men would shrug and say, “Sure.” Because we men can be stupid that way.
HOWEVER: We need to get over it, and start thinking about these sorts of things. And yes, a fine first step would be reading a romance novel. Watching a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey, who’s last name is impossible to spell, does not count. Neither does firing up Netflix for SEX AND THE CITY 3: SARA JESSICA PARKER SHOPS FOR PURSES IN PARIS.
You must read an actual romance novel, with words and sentences, though I’ll leave it up to you whether it involves Men in Kilts.
I’ve written a few things about romances. (See below.) And my thinking has evolved quite a bit, not just because I’ve met 5,092 romance authors and talked to them, using this thing I like to call the Series of Tubes.
On the surface, sure, romances are about relationships. How two people meet, how they fall in love, all that.
Beneath that, romances are often about a massively important choice: Who should you commit to and love?
Classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE feature a lot of talking, thinking and scheming about who should get matched up with who. At first I thought this was a lot of gossipy gossip nonsense. But it’s not. These choices are hard, and they mirrored real life. Back then, who a woman married meant everything. It wasn’t like folks had a lot of career choices and birth control options. Could this man be a good provider for oh, eight or ten kids? You’re damned straight if I were a woman back then, I’d want to marry a handsome prince. Tell me that story. Let me live that dream, not the one where I die in squalor giving birth to child No. 9.
High stakes back then. High stakes now, and a big deal for everyone involved. Who should you marry and have kids with? Oh, that’s massive, especially before the invention of The Pill and no-fault divorce. Can’t think of a bigger decision, and it’s definitely worth thinking about, if not agonizing over at least as much as the average man obsesses about his fantasy football picks.
Most men I know are generally horrible at this. We tend not to talk about love and relationships with our buddies, our sisters, with anybody. A lot of us tend have the attitude, “What happens, happens.” Then two years later, they’re married to somebody they’ve either (a) dated since ninth grade or (b) met last Thursday and flew down to Vegas to get hitched. Four years later, they have two kids. Seven years later, they’re divorced. Not cool. Not smart.I know a lot of good, educated people who made bad choices and wound up like this.
I feel lucky. Also, my beautiful and brilliant wife devours novels like candy, including not just lit-rah-sure but romances of all shapes and sizes. So I know enough to be dangerous. I know that there are romances which really dive into the struggle to choose between two different partners. I know that it’s cheating to make one a villain and one a hero. Both choices must have merits and demerits. Thought I hate the stupid movies and books, TWILIGHT highlights this choice: the sparkly vampire or the hot werewolf? THE HUNGER GAMES — great book, great movie — also features this tough choice, and does it well. BRIDGET JONES‘S DIARY makes you think twice about the handsome bad boy and take a second look at Colin the Firth and his ugly Christmas sweater.
There’s a long list of stories diving into that decision. They’re worth reading, and watching, and talking about.
Because in the end, a lot of people figure out “What’s worth living for?” isn’t about money, fame or spending more time at the office. Life’s about your kids and family.
Pick wisely, men. Get all the help you can get, and not from your buddies, because they’ll say things like “Dude, the choice is obvious: Kelly the waitress with the sweet Mustang, unless you want to cruise around town in Sarah the lawyer and her hand-me-down minivan.”
Why every woman MUST read a thriller
Thrillers answer the second half of the question: “What’s worth dying for?”
If you answer the call to serve — as a firefighter or homicide detective, a Marine or a smokejumper, a coal miner or logger — there’s a chance you’ll die on the job. And if somebody breaks into your home and threatens your wife and kids with a gun, it’s your job to take a bullet and take the guy out while you’re family gets away safe. This is how men think, and it is something that we talk about. It’s also why we tend to be obsessed with violent sports like football, MMA and hockey. (WWE, however, is fake and lame.) To men, these things are practice for real life.
The question is, how often do you roll the dice?
You can’t run around pretending to be Superman, spending your nights cruising dark alleys looking for muggers and rapists to duel to the death. (That’s because Superman is kind of a dipstick, invincible and annoying. Batman, now, is the man. You can go ahead and pretend to be him.) Yet you can’t be a complete nancypants, either, running from every fight and challenge.
When do you decide something is worth dying for?
Thrillers answer that question in a visceral way, with the stakes raised as high as they go.
Just as betrayal is a common theme in romances, it’s also a huge element to thrillers. Because there’s nothing worse than doing dangerous, deadly work for a boss who is secretly an evil jerk. Not only did you get duped, but you did dangerous things, maybe violent and murderous things, for the wrong reason. That tends to piss men off.
Even though it’s a cliche, there’s truth to the typical action movie nonsense about a lone wolf detective / Green Beret / assassin who’s weary and retired from the game. It takes a lot to convince him that he should return to work, because he doesn’t fully believe that all the suffering and sacrifice is worth it. He’s seen too many good people die already. Often, the story proves him right. He’s a cog in the machine, a machine that will use him up and throw him away. Is that worth dying for? Probably not.
Action movies and thrillers are about the need to make that choice decisively and wisely. There’s no “I’ll go halfway with you on this assault the Death Star thing.” There is no halfway. You only die once, except in Bond movies, thought I’m not exactly sure why Bond gets to die twice. I do know this: Bond has terrible taste in women. Are they beautiful? Sure. But after they sleep with him, they all turn up dead. EVERY TIME.
Not your usual sitcom nonsense
All this is why romances and thrillers can be epic. The stakes are high. The emotions are visceral. It’s not the usual nonsense you see in a sitcom every night, where Bart Simpson shoplifts for the first time and in 30 minutes learns the important life lesson that stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong. Roll credits.
Harry Potter is really one big long thriller about whether Harry will get Voldemort — a serial killer who happens to be a wizard — before Voldemort gets him.
STAR WARS takes an unexpected twist, with a father sacrificing his life to save his son and free a galaxy from oppression. I expected the new Death Star to simply get blown up in an even fancier explosion than the first time. I did not expect Darth the Vader to toss Emperor Wrinkly Face of the Lightning Fingers down an endless shaft. A father’s love turned out to be the biggest deal in the end. Interesting, though having Darth Vader be a sad old man with a wussy voice was a let-down. J.J. Abrams, I have faith that you’ll do better.
There’s a reason why many thrillers start out with a family being slaughtered and the lone survivor setting out to avenge them. You’re taking away what’s worth living for, and that leads the hero answer the question of what’s worth dying for.Your wife and kids mattered. You can’t let that slide. And you won’t.
Thrillers aren’t as compelling when the hero is aloof and the mission has nothing to do with his emotions, family or country, when it’s just a job where the hero is busy looking cool while wearing sunglasses and shooting guns. There’s nothing behind it. It’s flat and empty.
Everybody wants something worth living for, to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to something, because otherwise, what’s the point of waking up, fighting traffic and slaving away in a cubicle for thirty years until you die, right? People get that. It’s why people become obsessive fans of the Green Bay Packers or STAR TREK, why people dedicate themselves to politics, religion or a cause. Some folks divert this urge into collecting every Beanie Baby every made. Don’t.
Great stories — in movies and novels — speak to this need to matter, to belong, to put a stamp on life, to give your all, even if it’s bonkers.
And truly great stories take us deeper.
Harry the Hedonist will argue that lovers leave you, husbands divorce you, kids randomly get leukemia, and in the end, we all die, so pass the wine and live it up.
Isaac the Idealist says you should dedicate yourself to great ideas and institutions, which are the only things that last.
Ned the Nihilist trumps THAT with “Nothing truly lasts. Institutions don’t care about you and even a killer asteroid, nuclear war or homicidal robots from the future fail to destroy us, the sun will eventually turn into a red giant, doing a burnt-toast number on earth before ruining THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD by going supernova.”
Do I have video? Yes I do.
But if nothing truly lasts, there’s no point in sacrificing friends and family for an institution or an idea. Be good to others. Do the right thing. Love with all your heart. Or use two cows on a silly blog to explain all of politics and philosophy. (The world explained by TWO COWS)
These questions are tough, interesting and complicated — and every tough, complicated problem has an easy, simple to understand wrong answer.
You can get into these kinds of questions with romances and thrillers in a way that Philosophy 402 classes simply can’t touch. Because if you put human faces and names behind the ideas, and real emotions, the neat logic about the deontological notion of equal treatment versus the greatest good for the greatest number — all that abstraction turns to dust.
Also, take it from Plato and every dictatorship on the planet: literature and stories are the most powerful, and dangerous, way to talk about ideas. That’s why evil governments burn books and censor movies.
So men, read a romance.
Pick something that won an award, or one with Fabio on the cover. But grab one. And don’t buy one at Barnes and Noble, because I know you won’t do it. Ask your women friends for their favorites, read the back covers and pick your favorite of the bunch. Also, hear me know and believe me later in the week: romance novels are more interesting, and useful, than reading Cosmo when you’re waiting in the doctor’s office, despite all the tempting headlines. (Secret truth: every edition of Cosmo is actually the same. They swap out the covers, change the headlines of the stories and NOBODY NOTICES.)
Then start a literary knife fight in the comment section about Men in Kilts versus Haunted Homicide Detectives Who Are Allergic to Razors.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.