The moment I read the title of this short story, “Church Camp,” I rolled my eyes — there was no doubt that it would be anything but innocent, or fun, or even religious, God forbid. The narrator, John, a 16-year-old Catholic, goes to a Presbyterian church champ where he meets 15-year-old Mary (no, definitely not like the virgin Mary). Thereafter, the narrative follows your typical romance-story-pattern that has been recycled googolplex times; boy meets girl, they flirt, solidify a mutual crush, then they must overcome the obstacle which prevents them from coming together (differing religious denominations, camp counselors, jealous college boys), and then they finally have their fumbling yet beautiful sex in a field by a pond under the rising moon. Loons are calling, the air is warm and moist, and all seems perfect in the narrator’s world as they lay together in the afterglow of love. And then they lived happily ever after!—
In the words of Charles Baxter, a well-known literary essayist, “To complain about a tragic work of art is to be afraid or resentful of the pain of others” (Baxter 203). About halfway through the story, the narrator interrupts to set things straight with the reader: this isn’t a love story. “Amazement and passion and lust… but not love, perhaps not even respect” (Spilman). Sure enough, the sun of reality rises on the camp and Mary disappears without even saying goodbye to John. Besides a few jocular, frivolous text messages, John never sees or speaks to Mary ever again. So no, this isn’t a romance story — it isn’t even a sad love story, like The Notebook, or a tragic love story such as the classic deaths of Romeo and Juliet — it’s what I like to call an anti-love story, the rare case in which the non-celibate protagonist ends up as alone as he was before, his relationship a pointless waste of time. If “Church Camp” were adapted to film, nobody in America would wish to watch it; everyone would walk away asking themselves, their families, and their friends the same depressing question:
“Why can’t the two lovers stay together in the end?”
Spilman could have written a whole novel in which John meets Mary again later in his life, but he left the ending the way he did for good reason. Charles Baxter has written an essay which outlines the conventions for writing happy characters and writing happiness in short stories and novels. Assuming ideally that two characters “in love” are happy, happiness can only work in fiction if a character is always aware of that suffering from which he has been freed, and his happiness must be short-lived. But romance is a chronically optimistic genre. Take it from the Romance Writers of America organization, which clearly states on its website that its stories must always have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA). If Spilman’s short story conformed to that popular standard, its profound effect would be lost and it would fail to be meaningful. Romance in narrative, which in this essay I will refer to as the law that two lovers must always end joyously in each other’s arms, violates Baxter’s rules regarding authentic human happiness in storytelling.
No narrative is entirely happy. Every story, even a romance, is molded by conflict, which is caused by or produces pain that removes the character from a state of happiness and ultimately destroys his innocence. “Narratives designed to hold our interest seem to depend on trouble, conflict, secrets, duplicity, pain, cheating, lying, violence, sexual activities of every splendidly grungy variety and kind–all the features of an adult life” (Baxter 201). Madison Smartt Bell, in his book Narrative Design, takes a step further to say one cannot write a story at all without acknowledging any unhappiness in the character’s world. “To write a story with no vestige of these [rising and falling action, conflict and resolution] would be virtually impossible” (Bell 29). Every narrative is required to employ a central conflict, the problem which is introduced at the beginning of the narrative, and then our main character spends the length of the story attempting to bring to a resolution.
Even though romance is absurdly optimistic, it still adheres to the rule of conflict in narrative. Billy Mernit in his book Writing the Romantic Comedy describes the stages of plot specifically to a romance story: “The inciting incident brings man and woman together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come” (Mernit 111). In “Church Camp,” the narrator via exposition presents his background information to the reader — he was dropped off at camp by his parents, had aspirations to be a priest, describes key details of the camp’s environment, explains his abrasions with the rest of the campers and the elusiveness of girls. Then, in what we can label the inciting incident, he meets Mary in a theology class and they bond arguing about celibacy. After the class laughs at John, she secretly holds his hand, and they flirt while the teacher pretends to ignore them. The tone of their relationship remains throughout the story as something forbidden and transient.
Spilman’s story continues to follow the typical formula of a romantic narrative. After we’re introduced to John and Mary, we move into Bell’s second act consisting of rising action. As defined within the framework of romance, this is when “A new development raises the stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; most successful when it sets man and woman at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal” (Mernit 112). Such a bittersweet opposition is presented when the narrator interrupts the story to announce his disappointing disclaimer. “When things were beautiful, we savored them because we knew they wouldn’t last” (Spilman). As the two lovers bond, the stakes are raised simply by clarifying the inevitable fate of separation at the end of the camp program. Romantic narratives also include the necessity of “A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist… and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship” (Mernit 113). There are plenty of these between John and Mary: their arguments on the canoe about everything from God to baseball to ants develops their characters together; during a prayer session, Mary slips into tongues and John is the only camper who understands her passion; and their conversation about their parents’ relationships by a pair of birch trees, Mary’s divorced parents hints at her own inability to truly love.
Then we come to Bell’s third act, the climax, “the moment where whatever forces have been released in the opening stages of the narrative have their definitive confrontation” (Bell 27). In a romantic narrative, this would be when “Stakes reach their highest point as the romantic relationship’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his/her state goal—or vice versa—and his/her goal shifts” (Mernit 115). This moment of excitement is clearly the night they finally have sex. The tensions created from flirtation, naughty dreaming, jealous college boys, and wary-eyed counselors has not proved enough to thwart their love. After the climax, we experience falling action, “A decline of the plot’s movement… away from the highest peak of interest and excitement” (Bell 27). The morning after, Mary and John are separated by the camp counselors, which proves to be an inconvenience but not quite as debilitating as what a romance story typically demands. “The humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever” (Mernit 115). This fourth act is rather anticlimactic, but there is enough tension between John and the rest of the camp that it fits a vague form of humiliation and loss.
Up until this point, it would appear that a romantic narrative represents accurately the human condition; the rules for a story about two people woven together in love coincides dutifully with Bell’s rules for a coherent linear narrative and Baxter’s rule that a character cannot remain happy for too long. But when we come to the resolution of a romantic narrative, it derails and crashes, killing all of the readers on board.
According to Billy Mernit’s guide to writing romance, every romantic narrative requires the following for its conclusion: “A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the relationship; usually a happy ending that implies marriage or a serious commitment, often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the protagonist” (Mernit 116). Every narrative calls for a resolution of some nature, but this sort of wrap-up simply does not occur in Spilman’s story. Mary does not respond to John’s text messages. He muses that he will meet Mary again in twenty years and be introduced to her family, but there is no sign of hope that this fantasy is not utterly futile. But John is not too hurt by the parting—we hardly even know how he feels—because throughout the relationship, it was clear there would never be any serious commitment, no sacrifice, and no gain. Many readers would probably feel their time was wasted, and even I as a reader am tempted to feel a bit cheated by Spilman’s ending. But this resolution is more stirring, profound, and beautiful than if John and Mary had become pen pals and went to college together and then got married.
“Church Camp” is a coming-of-age story; John loses his innocence to Mary and is awakened forever to the realities of the adult world. Imagine if their relationship had worked out like a romance; it would be like reading about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, very boring and predictable. “Adam and Eve… are virtually non-narratable. Adam does not sit down and engage in troubled speculation concerning why he feels so good all day long” (Baxter 199-200). Instead, John develops the Aristotelian virtue of eliminating all craving, since craving leads to anguish, and so John finds himself in the garden-like setting of the pond. While John watches the lake, waiting for Mary to call back on his phone, he experiences “Das Glück im Winkel,” a German phrase, the state of being free from the longing of things you do not own, a thankfulness for the small things in life. He is not burdened with the emotional pain of having “lost” Mary, but instead appreciating the miracle of nature.
At one side of the white house, in spite of the commotion across the way, does nuzzled a stand of raspberry that grew next to a vegetable garden, picking out leaves and chewing them with a sidewise motion. When one pushed aside a branch to get further in, the exposed leaves glittered with dew (Spilman).
There is another small passage in which he observes the loons feeding at the lake, and this moment deeply affects him. Instead of dwelling on the loss of Mary, John appreciates the simple beauty of these loons: “It’s amazing how long they can stay under water” (Spilman). We can see that John, while watching the loons, is inwardly observing his own inability to preserve his chastity and not drown in the overwhelming futility of love. But the formulaic romance rules out any possibility of an epiphany, except when the main character “SUDDENLY REALIZES” (a popular cliche of epiphanies) that she loves her Prince Charming, or that she actually loves Mr. Biker Stud Dude more, or—oh wait!—there IS a way they can finally be together and be happy forever!!! Romances have a strong inclination to be “flashy,” since we are, after all, dealing with human lust and passion. However, “Radience doesn’t need anyone to add anything to it” (Baxter 49). But the insight John receives in Spilman’s story does not leave him stunned or immobilized. The romance is prone to excessive emotions, which leads to artificiality and chaos, wheras the best insight can land on a character as lightly as a falling feather. “The insight follows the images but is not secondary: it balances them” (Baxter 45).
John’s insights about the true beauty of nature are far more profound than anything he observes in the artificial glamour of Mary — in the eyes of a young man, a girl becomes a prize to be won or a pretty thing to dote upon, and so any passages regarding Mary’s appearance are shallow, sensuous, and undignifying. “Amazing how much ground you can cover facing each other in a canoe, especially when your canoe partner is wearing a one-piece that fits like an anatomy lesson” (Spilman). The other extreme in illustrating female human beauty is deification (take the works of Dante Alighieri for example) which is in even more desperate need of disillusionment. Note that the story is narrated in first-person, from the perspective of a John who is probably much older than the John of the story. “Happiness is not experienced, happiness is remembered” (Baxter 199).
The state of John’s being at the end of the story reflects closely to the attitude of the speaker in Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Gift.” “Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers/There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess” (Baxter 203). Interestingly, this poem’s rhetoric consists entirely of negations and minimal narrative; the speaker is triumphant simply to experience a day without pain or trouble. Had Mary not abandoned John, he would have missed this vision of true beauty. “Happiness is not just a state of being but a state of being discovered in the midst of an activity” (Baxter 204). This is quite unfortunate, because this means the popular romance narrative has ingrained in the minds of the consumer-masses a materialistic fallacy that happiness consists solely of acquiring and retaining commodities, and in this context, the commodity is glamorized love. But the novelist Christopher Bram says “happiness often arises from a character’s adaptability to changing conditions” (Baxter 207). Even an award-winning romance novelist agrees that there is something artificial, even harmful, about the idealism of romance. “It perpetuates something dangerous, that there’s this notion there’s this perfect love out there, and it can distract you from the work of loving yourself” (Pritchard).
Romance is purely and always a flaw in narrative, or at least any narrative that wishes to be considered seriously by readers. Heart-throbbing passion, mutual lust, and the idyllic fantasy of perfect harmony between two people is an aped mockery of true happiness that reaches the core of a character and ushers the most insightful change. A story that will bring every pair of star-crossed lovers together is merely entertaining, a drug for those who are too weak to accept their solitary circumstances, but a good story will invite the reader into a far greater experience — the chance to learn the beauty of simply loving one’s self.
“About the Romance Genre.” MyRWA : The Romance Genre :. Romance Writers of America, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
Baxter, Charles. Burning down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1997. Print.
Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy: The Art and Craft of Writing Screenplays That Sell. New York: HarperCollins World, 2002. Print.
Pritchard, Melissa. “Melissa Pritchard: Publishers Weekly Q&A.” Melissa Pritchard: Publishers Weekly Q&A. Publisher’s Weekly, 03 Mar. 2005. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.
Spilman, Richard. “Church Camp.” Baltimorereview.org. Baltimore Review, 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.