Since the 2016 election cycle shifted into full gear, I’ve had a hard time reading. There aren’t very many books that can compete with all the bizarre plot twists we’ve been living through. In real life, you also don’t have the comfort of being able to flip ahead to the last page to see how it all worked out.
Someday there will be piles and piles of books about the Trump Era. The children of millennials will be as tired of hearing about the late 2010s as we are of hearing about the 1960s. By then, of course, Trump will be gone and everyone will be able to parse the chain of events that led to his rise, and so many fictional characters will have had epiphanies after the Women’s March or Charlottesville or the Las Vegas shooting or from watching NFL players kneel during the National Anthem or seeing all the #MeToo posts on social media that all these things will have become cliches, just like Woodstock. (Needless to say, Twitter will become an overused plot device, the way misdirected letters were in Victorian novels.)
But we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re in the middle of it. Something could be happening right now and I’ll be the last to know because I turned off Facebook and Twitter and Slack so I could write this without distractions. Going to the movies makes me anxious. (While I was watching La La Land, Trump fired Sally Yates.) But when I try to sit down and read a book, there’s no social pressure to keep my phone off.
At first I tried to read for guidance of how to get through these times. I thought Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America might be instructive because it was about a celebrity who becomes a fascist president. Roth’s President Charles Lindbergh even campaigned under the slogan “America first!”—the same phrase Trump used in his inaugural address. When I’d read The Plot Against America before, sometime during the Obama administration, I felt like it tapped into a universal Jewish-American nightmare and was more than happy to submit to it. But reading it again last January, it seemed crude and unimaginative, because real life had just turned far more strange. Anyway, I already knew how it ended.
There isn’t much fiction about Watergate, but I’m avoiding all that, too. It would just make me too hopeful. History never repeats itself that exactly. The Handmaid’s Tale filled me with terror and rage, even though, like most dystopian fiction that was popular earlier this year, it probably won’t happen.
So I have retreated into pure escapism, books that have nothing to do with the state of affairs of America in 2017. Food books are good. Social history and travel sometimes work. I spent several weeks over the summer immersed in a history of ballet. Literary novels that have lots of plot and absolutely no political commentary whatsoever are delightful. For a while I read children’s books aloud to my dog (but only books about dogs with no deaths at the end, which limited our choices). We both found this soothing.
Mostly, though, I find comfort in romance novels. Some are escapist in that they’re set in places long ago and far away, mostly England, though nobody ever mentions who happens to be ruling or takes any notice of the American president. But that’s not the reason why I like them. And I’m not even referring just to the sex, though the convention that the woman (or in a lesbian or gay romance, the less experienced partner) come first is a nice development. The reason they make me happy is that they present an idealized world.
Recently, Ready for Wild by Liora Blake landed on my desk, and I read it outside on one of the last warm afternoons of the year. It concerns the relationship between a game warden and the star of a reality show about hunting, set mostly in modern-day Colorado. Even if you’ve never read a romance novel in your life—even if you profess such a deep loathing of the genre that you’d never, ever go near that section of the library—I promise, you already know how it ends. That in itself is comforting. It’s the same principle as mystery novels. The puzzle always gets solved. The right people always end up together. Everyone is better off than they were before. It’s what you hope for from life but have trained yourself not to expect.
Anyway, about halfway through Ready for Wild, there’s a scene where the heroine ends up back at the hero’s cabin. They’ve already established that they are interested in each other. There’s been lots of flirting, both in person and in text messages. There’s been some making out. They’ve just been on a date. She’s wearing a sexy dress which she’s told him she chose especially to turn him on. So they’re sitting there, drinking whiskey, late at night, in this cabin in the middle of nowhere, utterly alone except for the dog. She waits for him to make his move. He does nothing. Finally she asks if he wants to have sex. He says that he does. She asks why he didn’t jump her bones the minute they walked in the door. He says, “I didn’t want to assume.”
This is what consent looks like! I thought. This is how life should be! Even in the most compromising circumstances, no one should ever assume. Even if I remember nothing else about the book in a few years, I’ll remember that.
This is just a single example, but romance novels are full of scenes that demonstrate the ways people would treat one another in a perfect world. They are full of men who understand that listening isn’t just a seduction skill but a way of life: these men are respectful and kind not just to the women they want to sleep with but also their female relatives, friends, and coworkers. They’re full of characters who work toward solutions to their problems, not just in love but also their jobs and families. Difficult relationships are resolved. People who were stuck somehow get unstuck. Friends and lovers stand up for each other.
It’s true in the world of the romance novel Donald Trump doesn’t exist. Publishing is a business, after all, and it’s no good alienating customers by informing them that they voted for an evil human being. But in these books, characters who are bloviating, ungenerous, small-minded, racist, sexist, incurious, and prone to sexual assault and slut-shaming are usually easy to identify as villains and are always punished.
As a work of art, Ready for Wild doesn’t compare to The Plot Against America. I admit this freely. Like a lot of romances, the world it creates is flimsy and not intended to linger more than a few hours. But it’s also the fulfillment of a lot of wishes: that we will not always be angry all the time, that people can treat each other kindly, that men can show women some respect and even admiration, that sex can be both consensual and not feel like sex-ed class. That’s what I need right now, even if it’s only for a very little while. This doesn’t make me special in any way. Sarah Hollenbeck, one of the owners of Women & Children First, tells me that immediately after the election, there was a great deal of interest in nonfiction that rapidly turned into a desire for escapism. And if you think that’s foolish, ask yourself, do you have your Star Wars ticket yet?