Re-re-reduplication, romance novels, art and armchairs
SCHMANCY, adj. This word isn’t from a Romance language, exactly. It has international origins. Usually you see “schmancy” as part of “fancy-schmancy,” which is a Yiddish construction that entered US English along with Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants.
Yiddish has a linguistic feature called “rhyming reduplication,” which is what’s happening in “fancy-schmancy.” Take a word like fancy, rhyme it while replacing the first consonant with schm-, and you end up with a dismissive term that says sure, maybe it’s fancy, but I’m not impressed.
My other favorite use of Yiddish rhyming reduplication is a line from the Christopher Guest film Waiting for Guffman, which you can hear Eugene Levy do in the video below. (A dybbuk, for context, is an evil spirit from Jewish folklore that can possess your body and make you do bad things, like, say, eat ham.)
“Fancy” was originally a contraction in English, a short form of “fantasy.” “Fantasy” came to English from French (fantaisie), which came from Latin (fantasia), which in turn came from Greek (phantasia). Phantasia is an image or a perception, a thing that you see or imagine.
People in the 17th century sometimes wrote “fancy” as “fant’sy,” and at that moment, it meant “inclination, liking.” This meaning comes from “fantasy” in the sense of “desire.” “Fancy” didn’t come to mean “ornate, elaborate, not plain” until the 19th century, and a few decades later, American Jews seized that idea and said “feh.”
This was on my mind this week because I attended a conference in NYC. When I ordered a ginger ale at the hotel bar, I was charged six dollars. Fancy-schmancy indeed.
Two more notes, just for fun: Yiddish is not the only language that has rhyming reduplication. Hindi also has it, but it’s used totally differently. In Hindi, instead of replacing the initial sound with schm-, you use w-, and the connotation isn’t dismissive, but expansive. Chai is tea, chai-wai is “tea or something like tea.” It’s a neat, efficient way of adding “or something/whatever,” as in “we could get coffee or whatever.” Every time I heard someone do this in conversation, it was very exciting, like seeing your favorite animal in the wild.
English also has its own native form of reduplication, although it doesn’t rhyme. Ours is not dismissive, or expansive, but emphatic, and it is most evident in the sentence “I like him, but I don’t like-like him.” “Like” and “like-like” indicate different levels of intensity. You could do this to other verbs (“I speak Hindi, but I don’t speak-speak Hindi, you know?”) or adjectives (“it’s blue, but it’s not blue-blue”).
Isn’t that cool? It might even be cool-cool.
I spent most of this week at the Romance Writers of America conference at the aforementioned fancy-schmancy hotel in New York City, thus I did not make any progress in Les Mis. I was too busy reading romance novels, talking about romance novels, and sometimes meeting and hugging their authors.
I joined RWA last year after publishing my first romance novel. I wanted to be part of this organization to meet other writers. I also wanted to vote in the elections to help move the organization in a different, more inclusive, less horrifying direction. RWA is the largest organization of romance writers in the country, and the association gives out the genre’s major award, the RITA. This year was the 38th annual RITA awards, and before Friday night, no Black woman had ever won one. This is despite RWA being co-founded by a Black woman, Harlequin editor Vivian Stephens, and—obviously—Black women writing many, many praiseworthy romance novels over the past 38 years.
When this year’s RITA nominations showed up in March, they were depressingly white (and straight, and cis, and able-bodied, and all the other things you might expect). Racism in America is always both shocking—in the sense of appalling—and not shocking at all. We’re swimming in it and always have been. After the nominations, there was a general outcry about systemic racism in the award nominations. Predictably, some white women came forward to say we should all calm down and let the nominees enjoy their moment, which was garbage. An award that excludes huge numbers of writers is meaningless. A lot of arguing ensued all over the internet. Given this context, I had no idea what the conference would be like.
The RITA ceremony itself was a delightful, direct response to the controversy, highlighting trailblazing books in the genre’s history and featuring speakers from diverse backgrounds who talked about their experiences writing and reading romance. And then Kennedy Ryan (Long Shot) and M. Malone (Bad Blood) became the first Black women to win a RITA, and Nisha Sharma (My So-Called Bollywood Life) joined them as the first Desi author to win one.
It was moving to be in the room as these women made long-overdue history. There was a lot of screaming and a lot of tears.
RWA still has a long way to go—we could start by nominating way, way more authors of color for next year’s awards—but it was encouraging to see this step in the right direction.
And my friend and writing buddy Elia Winters won the Erotic Romance category with her queer, polyamorous book Three-Way Split (m/m/f, contemporary), which is, in addition to being well-deserved and really exciting to me personally (it’s a great book! she’s a great friend!), another promising step forward.
This week in small-r romance, I read two works by Rebekah Weatherspoon, Rafe (m/f, contemporary) and Treasure (f/f, contemporary, novella), which were both good fun. They’re both sweet and sexy and relatively low-conflict romances—each of them has a meddlesome friend or family member who tries to cause trouble at some point, but 90% of the story is about the main characters developing feelings with only a few minor doubts or worries. Being a bloodthirsty angst monster myself, this is not always my jam—I want a happy ending, but I want that ending to feel unlikely—but Rebekah Weatherspoon is a great writer, and the world needs books like this. Sometimes it’s nice to read about good people trying their best and succeeding, and also having hot sex. The main characters in Rafe are remarkably mature and communicative for being in a romance novel, which makes for a refreshing change, as does the accurate portrayal of kid characters, another rarity.
If you, too, are a bloodthirsty angst monster, then you will love the other romance novel I read this week, Kate Clayborn’s Luck of the Draw (m/f, contemporary). You know how when they score gymnastics at the Olympics, they give a score for how hard the routine is and a score for how perfectly the routine was executed? Perfect execution of an easy routine (“easy” as if any of us could be Olympic gymnasts, lolll) might not get as high a score as imperfect execution of a difficult routine. Or at least that’s how I think it works. I’m not into sports, really, just analogies.
My point is that this book executes a hard routine: Zoe, the heroine, used to be a lawyer at a firm where she defended a pharmaceutical company in a wrongful death suit. She hated it, and winning the lottery allowed her to quit her job, but she was still miserable afterward, feeling guilty. She decides to use her new free time to make amends for some of the wrong she’s done, and she starts by trying to apologize to the family who brought the wrongful death suit. Naturally, they want nothing to do with her—except maybe Aiden, the family’s surviving adult son, has a use for Zoe after all.
If you’re saying “how on Earth is that scenario gonna end in romance?”, you’re not alone. I told you it was a hard routine to execute. Clayborn sticks her landing and more—this book is warm and funny and hard to put down, even as it takes on questions of grief and healing. I think, as romance (or fic) readers, we sometimes conflate “tropey” with “not serious/intellectual/worthy/Art,” and there’s a whole other newsletter (or a hundred other newsletters) to be written on that conversation, but my most succinct version is
Life is short. Read books that make you feel good.
Life is short and hard. Any book that makes you feel good is performing a dazzling feat, and is therefore Art.*
Luck of the Draw centers around the trope of a fake relationship: if Zoe poses as Aiden’s fiancée for a few weekends, it might convince the owners of his childhood summer camp that he’s the best of all their prospective buyers. Then he can turn the camp into a wilderness/wellness rehab center for people suffering addiction, the kind of place that might have saved his brother’s life. The emotional stakes of this fake relationship—a trope that is often played as rom-com goofy—are high. Zoe and Aiden make bad choices motivated by guilt and grief, and they lie to their friends and loved ones while doing it. The book exposes all of that fearlessly, making the third-act despair all the more wrenching, but I still cared deeply about these characters and rooted for them to sort their shit out. Most impressive of all, Luck of the Draw did all that and it still made me laugh. That’s a hell of a routine. Ten out of ten.
*Books that make you feel bad can be Art, too, sure, but they generally get accepted as such without anybody having to fight over it.
In books that are neither Romance nor romance, I read A.S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories, an anthology of three stories inspired by the works of Matisse. Byatt is a marvelously specific writer and each of these three stories lavishes detail on its descriptions. For instance, one character is wearing, among other things, “a royal-blue jumper embroidered all over with woollen daisies, white marguerites, orange black-eyed Susans.” The focus on wild color and pattern feels like a fitting tribute to Matisse, and all of Byatt’s little flourishes make me want to slow my own prose down and look around a little more.
The stories themselves seem to be about quiet moments of everyday life and then they reveal something raw and uncomfortable, which is not an experience I associate with Matisse paintings. Byatt’s prose is beautiful in all three, but my favorite was “Art Work,” which was the least painful. (A warning that “The Chinese Lobster” is primarily about suicide and suicidal ideation, and also discusses depression, anorexia, and sexual assault.)
Despite what I said above about how books that make you feel good are Art, sometimes I still feel like I have unsophisticated taste for strongly preferring fiction (and other art) that ultimately makes me happy rather than unhappy. Millennia of Western culture prizing tragedy over comedy—serious, sad things are worthier subjects than lighthearted things—are hard to shrug off.
Matisse said something about this issue—should art make you feel good or bad?—when speaking of his own work, and Byatt quotes him in “The Chinese Lobster,” having one character accurately identify the passage below as one of the most shocking things Matisse could have said about his work. Being me, I looked up the original French.
Ce que je rêve, c’est un art d’équilibre, de pureté, de tranquillité, sans sujet inquiétant ou préoccupant, qui soit, pour tout travailleur cérébral, pour l’homme d’affaires aussi bien que pour l’artiste des lettres, par exemple, un lénifiant, un calmant cérébral, quelque chose d’analogue à un bon fauteuil qui délasse de ses fatigues physiques.
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue. (Translated by Jack D. Flam)
Naturally, Matisse comparing his own work to an armchair horrified his contemporaries and generations to come. There’s something weirdly exclusionary in that paragraph about who his art is for (mental workers, businessmen), and part of me suspects he said that just to really stir some shit. (Contrary, I know—Matisse says he doesn’t want to provoke anyone, and I accuse him of being deliberately provocative.) Still, I think it’s the armchair bit that made people the maddest.
But what’s wrong with armchairs?
I own one. You probably do too. They’re comfy. It’s not wrong, or lesser, to make art that’s soothing, calming, or relaxing. Pleasant subject matter, a happy ending, these things don’t make a work worthless. They might even make it necessary.
The trouble comes when you’re trying to decide who deserves to feel comforted or satisfied by art. Matisse didn’t mention women in the lines quoted above. He didn’t mention anyone whose work isn’t “cerebral” (despite offering his work as a respite from physical fatigue).
I can’t read this quotation without thinking of the conference I attended. Who is art for? Who gets to make art? Which art is the most worthy? The whole RWA just had a giant fight about whether Black women can write award-winning Happily Ever Afters, which is also a fight about whether Black readers deserve to see themselves represented in stories that make them feel good. Romance writers, almost by definition, make art that is soothing, relaxing, and calming—plenty of luxury, calm, and pleasure to be found in romance novels—and sometimes that feels radical as hell.