Here at the library we like to keep a close eye on the publishing industry. We like to be informed of any upcoming “big ticket titles”, the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick, the most recent big purchase by film or television studios. For the most part, it’s pretty smooth sailing. But lately it seems like every month or so the publishing world becomes embroiled in another scandal. Even ignoring the ridiculous high school drama that breeds on Book Twitter, there’s a surprising amount of self-inflicted drama from the big publishing houses that should be easily avoidable. So what’s the problem? Well, to put it bluntly: the industry—like so many others in the West—has a problem handling race.
My colleague Karen wrote a brilliant piece in 2018 about the troubling statistics of race in the romance publishing industry, and two years later it looks like not much has changed. This particular segment of the industry has descended lately into full-on scandal with the whole Romance Writers of America drama that erupted over Christmas in 2019. It’s far too long and convoluted to get into here (if you want the whole scoop, enjoy Pajiba’s cohesive summary), but I’ll give a rundown of the basics. In August of 2019, Courtney Milan (a Chinese American romance author) called out Glenfinnan Publishing for employing a woman named Sue Grimshaw (whose support for Trump, ICE, and history of racism can be traced through her Twitter likes). Soon after, Milan discovered that one of Glenfinnan’s editors Kathryn Lynn Davis had some questionable content in her past, and called out Davis’s 1999 work Somewhere Lies the Moon as racist against Chinese people. Now, I don’t know how helpful it is to be calling out works from 20 years ago (there are a whole host of things from the 90s that would be unacceptable today—that’s how progress works), but the fact is Milan is not wrong and can frankly discuss whatever she wants on her own Twitter. What followed was a deranged, out-of-proportion response from the white members of the Romance Writers of America, an organization to which Milan belonged.
Ah infidelity, that age-old device.
So of course it’s no surprise in Intermezzo (1936), when the older famous violinist, Holger – happily married with children he adores, something that is established in the first few minutes of the film or so it felt – falls in love with Anita, his daughter’s youthful piano teacher. It’s the “second spring” trajectory that has been rehashed again and again before and since this film, and yet!
I found that the portrayal of both parties was rather sensitive and well done: although it does adhere to the good ol’ “Older Man Falls For Young Woman & Rediscovers His Love of Life/Living, Leaving His Wife & Children For His Second Spring” trajectory (… spoiler alert?), if there’s one word I can use to describe the way the affair and the characters are portrayed in this film, it’s that it’s incredibly generous. Holger, a famous violinist and quite absent father (due to his tours) returns home and promptly falls in love with his daughter’s piano teacher (while she’s playing the piano, of course). It’s not particularly inventive, but Gustaf Molander did a pretty fine job with character development as the relationship progressed in the film, especially with Anita’s character (Ingrid Bergman). Gösta Ekman (Holger) is spectacularly expressive, cementing straightaway that Holger loves his family, adoring especially his daughter, and I enjoyed this expressiveness quite a bit throughout the film. I’ve read a couple reviews saying it was a bit on the slow side overall, but I never felt it was a drag to watch.
OK, actual spoiler alert coming up ahead, so if you have yet to watch the film (it’s from 1936, so there’s been plenty of chance to watch it since its release) and would like to watch it without knowing what happens (even if it’s painfully obvious with multiple foreshadowing elements spoken by the characters – mostly by Margit, actually), skip the following paragraph below the cut.
Some might call December holiday season. And it is! But it’s also the season of another cheerful, warming tradition: the romantic comedy. Think about it. What goes better with cozy twinkle lights and a steaming mug of tea than two people falling in love? With Hallmark finding new life with the Christmas rom-com boom—and Netflix getting in on the action—it seems like we’re all yearning for a little something sweet come the holidays. Personally, my current watch list is stocked with Love Actually, The Holiday, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the like, and it will be until the post-holiday blues wear off.
The sudden resurgence of the rom-com genre in both film and book format seems ripe for analysis. Why are these stories so satisfying to us, when we can accurately map out each plot point and know literally from the beginning how they’re going to end? And why do they go through periodic booms? Well, like any genre, rom-com popularity is surely at the whim of trends, which come and go mostly without explanation. But I think there might be something more to it.
The most obvious place to look is, quite simply, the state of our world. With our relatively new access to the incessant, depressing, soul-crushing 24 hour news cycle—giving us access to previously obscure horrors from around the globe in addition to our own backyard—it’s easy to lose faith in just about everything. Whether or not the world is in a worse state than it’s ever been, the fact is we now know how terrible things are (whereas before, we may have only gotten the news in bits and pieces). So what better antidote to real-world horror than candy-coated, perfectly contrived narratives that by necessity end with a happily-ever-after? As Hugh Grant’s character says in the opening scene of Love Actually, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere.” Hugh’s version of Heathrow Airport holds the same kind of heartwarming, best-version-of-humanity qualities that we love in romantic comedies. It’s a world where the good outweighs the bad, where love always wins, where you know exactly how things are going to play out. It is, in a short word, comfort.