October 31st, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes & Film

In defense of romance novels

Piggybacking on Mike’s earlier post, I have long found it curious that the romance novel is the one genre no one wants to defend. (See, for instance, this comment.) But time was, romance was the genre.

It seems to me that the contemporary romance novel—of the paperback bodice ripper variety (see right)—arrived on our shores of our literary imagination in no small part due to writers like D. H. Lawrence. And what could be more literary than Lawrence? I myself can conceive of no formal reason why a romance novel can’t be art. Indeed, I suspect that someone out there is already writing great ones. (Hell, isn’t Lolita a romance novel?)

Part of what I love about this Chicago Reader review of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is its understanding of how Stephanie Meyers’s books and the resulting films—regardless of their quality (I haven’t read or seen them yet, though I intend to)—do partake of a larger literary tradition:

Meyer’s genius (if you want to call it that) is having figured out how to repurpose the same old cliches for an era in which even tweens may occasionally feel embarrassed about fetishizing people at the top or bottom of the social scale. Edward has gobs of money and cultural capital, but the fans will tell you the reason he’s enchanting is because he’s immortal and mysterious and goes all sparkly in the sun. Jacob is exciting and exotic because he’s living close to the land, but the fans will tell you it’s because he’s impulsive and physically powerful. The two of them would like to kill each other, but as Meyer would have it, that’s simply because vampires don’t like werewolves. In the novels, when Jacob calls Edward a bloodsucker and Edward calls Jacob a dog, these are not epithets of the class struggle but literal descriptions.

Me, I’m all for genre. As I wrote in this post, the question of whether works of genre can be art doesn’t exist in cinema, and I think that puts the lie to the issue in literature:

“Just think about it: A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery, The Birth of a Nation, Nosferatu, Metropolis, Love Me Tonight, Trouble in Paradise, Duck Soup, Bringing Up Baby, The Maltese Falcon, Cat People, Heaven Can Wait, The Seventh Victim, Out of the Past, The Third Man, Sunset Blvd., The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, Kiss Me Deadly, The Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Written on the Wind, Touch of Evil, Vertigo, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Some Like It Hot, Breathless, Yojimbo, La jetée, Charade, Point Blank, 2001, Rosemary’s Baby, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Two-Lane Blacktop, Solyaris, Don’t Look Now, The Godfather Part II, Night Moves, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Goodfellas, Dead Man, Babe: Pig in the City, The Thin Red Line, The Limey… all widely regarded as great works of art, and all indisputably genre films. I mean, no one in cinema ever says anything as laughable as, ‘2001, great movie—but of course it’s not really science-fiction…’”

Many of the best movies have been romances: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, City Lights, Love Me Tonight, Trouble in Paradise, Bringing Up Baby, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Scarlet Empress, It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, His Girl Friday, Ninotchka, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Casablanca, Heaven Can Wait, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, To Have and Have Not, Beauty and the Beast, Laura, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, Stairway to Heaven, Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes, In a Lonely Place, Written on the Wind, The Cranes Are Flying, Vertigo, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Breathless, Last Year at Marienbad, Splendor in the Grass, Jules and Jim, L’Eclisse, Charade, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Graduate, Little Murders, Love in the Afternoon, The Heartbreak Kid, The Mother and the Whore, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Annie Hall, That Obscure Object of Desire, Manhattan, Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire, Ashik Kerib, When Harry Met Sally, The Double Life of Veronique, Orlando, Groundhog Day, Chungking Express, Love Letter, Open Your Eyes, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Yi Yi, In the Mood for Love, What Time Is It There?, Last Life in the Universe, Howl’s Moving Castle, 3-Iron, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, …

Sooner or later, someone’s going to revitalize literary romance, either by making some great new work in the genre, or by discovering  an existing great contemporary romance novelist who will then get added to the ranks of great “pure genre” writers like Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, Barry N. Malzberg, Dave Sim, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, … (Or … both!)

For a while now I’ve been dreaming of writing a romance novel, a formally innovative and yet broadly accessible romance piece of fiction … I have what I think is a very good idea for one. Well, we shall see.

… This has been much on my mind, because I just got a copy of John Norman’s Imaginative Sex (1974). I’ve long wanted to write something about his Gor novels, and the BDSM subculture they spawned… (literary representations of sex and fantasy being two of my primary interests!)

In the meantime, if you know of any great romance writers/novels, by all means, please chime in! For my own part, I will propose that the following are both great and, in their own ways, romance novels (and this is HARDLY meant as definitive—and I don’t expect you to agree that these are all typical romance novels—but when are we interested in the typical? And I do think a case could be made for all of them):

  • John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (1943)
  • Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949)
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
  • Alain Robbe-Grillet, La Jalousie (1957)
  • Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)
  • Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (1962)
  • Nicholas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968)
  • Ann Quin, Passages (1969)
  • Marguerite Duras, Destroy, She Said (1969)
  • Marguerite Duras, The Lover (1971)
  • Ann Quin, Tripticks (1972)
  • Harry Mathews, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975)
  • David Markson, Springer’s Progress (1977)
  • Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler… (1979/1981)
  • Margeurite Duras, The Malady of Death (1982/1986)
  • Harry Mathews, Singular Pleasures (1983)
  • Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
  • Hilary Mantel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985)
  • Hilary Mantel, Vacant Possession (1986)
  • Dave Sim & Gerhard, Cerebus: Jaka’s Story (1990)
  • Yuriy Tarnawsky, Three Blondes and Death (1993)
  • Harry Mathews, Cigarettes (1987)
  • Carole Maso, The Art Lover (1990)
  • Mati Unt, Things in the Night (1994/2006)
  • Michael Kelly, Ulrich Haarbürste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Cling-film (2007)
  • Jeremy M. Davies, Rose Alley (2009)
  • Tao Lin, Richard Yates (2010)

… Your thoughts?

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  1. Matthew Simmons

      Next let’s find a Chris Higgs post about Oulipo and theorycraft the perfect whip-using, battlefield-controlling monk…

  2. J. Y. Hopkins

      Alright, I can see that. What if I add: not everyone has the same awareness of historical context, therefore someone reading the 20th version of a classic story might not recognize the fact that it’s basically a redundant book (in the big scheme of things.) Some big-time lit-head does see this redundancy and as a result thinks less of the book’s author. He can even make public statements which unequivocally denounce the book as derivative and in no way progressive, nor retro in a way which makes the reader reevaluate the genre, or some other criticism. Does that make him a snob? Perhaps. Or perhaps it only makes him a snob if he’s a jerk about it. Regardless, should the author of this book hold immunity from comparisons to precedent? Based on your statements, which tout the innovation we may find even in well-established forms and tropes, I imagine you would say no. So if some critics have the general impression that the majority of genre writing is neither innovative nor re-imaginative, they could say ‘genre writing sucks’ and while it might actually represent their aggregate experience, and that experience might be more authoritative than that of someone who just reads whatever is on the shelf this week, it is perhaps too broad a statement to be taken very seriously. Do you agree?

  3. deadgod

      It’s pretty clear that your ‘problem’ isn’t “cultural literacy” (‘culturacy’?), but rather, that you’re trying to change a definition that you do recognize as being normally held-to among the culturati but don’t see the compelling rationale for.

      To the end of redefining “romance” broadly enough to mean something like ‘[all] narrative dominated by romantic love’, your analogy is fine.

      (I don’t know Carter well enough to know that she’s a sci fi writer; let me substitute ‘fantasy’.)

      “Carter : fantasy” counts on both Carter’s genre credential and the respect she gets as a good writer-whatever-the-genre; this unity is your target.

      By saying “Duras : romance”, you advance your project of redefining ‘romance’ by a) naming an already-respected writer-whatever-the-genre, and b) putting that writer in the narrowly and derogatorily defined ‘romance’ genre.

      As fantasy has come to be respected–or at least not automatically scorned by at least many readers of ‘literary fiction’–, it’s become normal to call a good writer a ‘fantasy’ writer and ‘fantasy’ a genre with good writing in it.

      (Is fantasy less respected than sci fi because science is for whiz kids? Anyway.)

      That is the normalization you’d like to see accomplished – or to deserve and get credit for accomplishing! fame! glory! – in the case of ‘romance’: it’s normal that a good writer be a ‘romance’ writer and normal that some ‘romance’ novels be good indeed.

      If you were arguing that this normalcy already is the case with romance novels, then you’d be inculturate. You’re plainly arguing that it should be the case.

      Although he misuses the tricky phrase “vice versa”, alan seems to have realized that you’re not being inculturate, but rather, are challenging culturacy. That is why he asks why you’d want to complicate things when culturate “people understand what you mean” and why he changes the subject inaccurately to incomparable stigmas.

  4. Taylor Napolsky

      “Meanwhile, if someone is writing artistic/subversive Harlequin
      novels, I imagine that will eventually come to light. But it might take a long time. Look at how long it took folks to figure out that Patricia
      Highsmith was the shit.”

      Yeah, it often takes a while.

  5. Taylor Napolsky

      That’s pretty much what he did.

  6. Taylor Napolsky

      Maybe Danielle Steel? I think we’re over-analyzing. Certainly, some romance novelists will eventually get recognized artistically. I already listed a bunch but they got dismissed because they weren’t from the 20th century. Also, AD, it may be your perception that people automatically associate romance novels with Harlequin factory covers. When people mention romance novels, my thoughts don’t shoot straight to that. I think 50 Shades or Gone with the Wind or chick lit or…who knows…my immediate thought isn’t Harlequin novels with the cheesy covers.

      I’ll reiterate though—Jane Austen wrote typical romance novels (regarding plot, anyway) and she is now recognized as one of the greats. To ascertain who the great modern romance novelists are would take people with much knowledge in this sector. Probably people who aren’t reading this discussion.

  7. deadgod

      It’s a gassy cavil, but I’d like to see a thumbnail definition of “romance”. ‘Narrative or image oriented primarily by sexual love’ seems too general.

      It’s true of Harlequin and of Georgette Heyer and the Regency… well, romance novels in her wake, but the sweaty straining in words both to make present the experience of sex and–unlike in what I’d call ‘erotica’–explicitly to make of sex something oriented to spiritual magnificence . . . there are those in Austen and Hemingway, but without the clammy prurience. –which combination of prurience and spiritual reach I’d call ‘generic’, generically ‘romance’.

      (Have you tried reading Heyer? I think of her as a romance Agatha Christie. Also, as a bad writer.)

      Is every story that’s a ratiocinatory adventure–that turns on the protagonist(s)/reader figuring out what’s going on–a piece of ‘detective fiction’? I know mystery/suspense/thriller books are made to be literarily less suspect by their having Oedipus the King and Hamlet in their genealogies… does that not seem my-dad-makes-as-much-money-as-your-dad to you?

      I guess I respect it more when genre fans say ‘yeah–it’s not literary fiction–it’s just as good, so fuck off’. –the point being that “literature” isn’t even close to being coterminous with “literary fiction”.

  8. alan

      Not really. In American publishing, “romance novel” has a specific meaning, and that meaning doesn’t cover any of the books mentioned here. Would you really call “Richard Yates” a romance novel?

  9. Taylor Napolsky

      I’ve never read it but even without reading it—no I wouldn’t

  10. Don

      Alan, I agree with you.

      This post does not make sense because it fails to defend the genre of romance. Instead, it lists a bunch of (already critically acclaimed) literary fiction and says – this is romance too! Expanding the definition of romance to include every book that deals with a romantic relationship makes a defense unnecessary. Is there anyone who is opposed to every book with a romantic relationship in it?

  11. Don

      I used to work at a public library, and none of the books on your list are in the genre of romance. The romance genre is really and caters to lots of different tastes – NASCAR, Amish, paranormal, Christian, urban, viking, medieval, military, etc – but the books you list are established (critically acclaimed) literary fiction titles.

      If you want to redefine ‘romance’ in a way that is totally at odds with how it’s understood by those who read and write in the genre, go right ahead, but I don’t understand the point. Totally redefining something is not a defense, quite the opposite…

  12. Don

      Also, most of the romance genre is basically pornography. I don’t say that pejoratively, just as a description. (Anyone who’s ever worked in a library or bookstore knows the ‘women don’t consume pornography’ thing is an absolute lie and has always been a lie.)

  13. deadgod

      Adam is not trying totally to redefine a genre. He is trying to show that the definiendum, the essence, already at work–that is, already being used as a pilot–when we say “romance novels” is also that essence in some writing called “literary fiction”.

      He is saying that, if Harlequin romances are poorly written sensationalistic fare, then they’re poorly written sensationalistic examples of the species that includes Duras’, what, ‘relationship fiction’. –Duras’ novels which are therefore reasonably, if polemically, also to be called “romance novels”.

      One of Adam’s points might be, then, to attack the scornful tribalism of “literary fiction” — eventually to question the priorities and values–the perspective–of the power accumulated and expressed in the knowledge that “romance novels” are generically, by definition, poorly written sensationalism.

      A “defense” of Harlequin novels, or of Georgette Heyer, might be interesting, and might be what the title of this blogicle promises to some readers. A disappointment with the absence of such a “defense” is no great bar to understanding – if not to agreeing that it’s worth the trouble – the point of thinking out loud about a nearly uniformly derogatory and dismissive categorization.

  14. NLY


      Thinking about your post reminded me of this 1986 Pynchon essay, which converges on you here:

      “The craze for Gothic fiction after ”The Castle of Otranto” was grounded, I suspect, in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythical time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake’s dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation – bodily resurrection, if possible – remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel. Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however ”irrational,” to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing. ”Gothic” became code for ”medieval,” and that has remained code for ”miraculous,” on through Pre-Raphaelites, turn-of-the-century tarot cards, space opera in the pulps and the comics, down to ”Star Wars” and contemporary tales of sword and sorcery.

      TO insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings. By this theory, for example, King Kong (?-1933) becomes your classic Luddite saint. The final dialogue in the movie, you recall, goes: ”Well, the airplanes got him.” ”No . . . it was Beauty killed the Beast.” In which again we encounter the same Snovian Disjunction, only different, between the human and the technological.

      But if we do insist upon fictional violations of the laws of nature – of space, time, thermodynamics, and the big one, mortality itself – then we risk being judged by the literary mainstream as Insufficiently Serious. Being serious about these matters is one way that adults have traditionally defined themselves against the confidently immortal children they must deal with. Looking back on ”Frankenstein,” which she wrote when she was 19, Mary Shelley said, ”I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart.” The Gothic attitude in general, because it used images of death and ghostly survival toward no more responsible end than special effects and cheap thrills, was judged not Serious enough and confined to its own part of town. It is not the only neighborhood in the great City of Literature so, let us say, closely defined. In westerns, the good people always win. In romance novels, love conquers all. In whodunitsses we know better. We say, ”But the world isn’t like that.” These genres, by insisting on what is contrary to fact, fail to be Serious enough, and so they get redlined under the label ”escapist fare.”

      This is especially unfortunate in the case of science fiction, in which the decade after Hiroshima saw one of the most remarkable flowerings of literary talent and, quite often, genius, in our history. It was just as important as the Beat movement going on at the same time, certainly more important than mainstream fiction, which with only a few exceptions had been paralyzed by the political climate of the cold war and McCarthy years. Besides being a nearly ideal synthesis of the Two Cultures, science fiction also happens to have been one of the principal refuges, in our time, for those of Luddite persuasion.”

      , but still merits a closer reading for, among other things, its prose and wiles.

  15. NLY

      I should point out that I don’t find this mode of inquiry very interesting. The question of whether or not there’s social or conversational injustice at work in the way ‘some’ nebulously defined group of people view ‘some’ nebulously defined group of books strikes me as at best intellectual indulgence.Your assertions took hold of me because they were attempting to articulate something about the nature of these things, but on the whole I have little to say here.

      I can say that I take it as a given that any book in any tradition from any person has the same arbitrary potential of being worthwhile as the next one, and that people who think their clique is really where the cool kids are will never be right or convinced otherwise.

      Part of the problem is that these guys don’t want what you’re selling–by which I don’t just mean the readers not wanting ‘literature’. I mean writers wanting to understand ‘precedent’, and I mean critics wanting to insignificantly modify their disdain to “‘most’ genre writing sucks”. The best we can say about most of the writers is that they want to titillate, captivate, and monetize, and if every once in a while a Ken Follet musters the cajones to put himself and the rest of us through a Pillars of the Earth, then god bless America.

  16. A D Jameson

      It truly is something I should look into more thoroughly. Can anyone recommend a good history of literary genres? I looked up the term at the OED and found the following:

      1b.spec. A particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work
      characterized by a particular form, style, or purpose.

      1770 C. Jenner Let. 5 May in D. Garrick Private Corr.
      (1831) I. 384 With regard to the genre, I am of opinion that an English audience will not relish it so well as a more characteristic kind of comedy.
      1790 A. Young Jrnl. 15 Jan. in Trav. France (1792) i. 273 It is
      a genre little interesting, when the works of the great Italian artists are at hand.
      1843 Thackeray Misc. Ess. (1885) 23 If..some of our newspapers are..inclined to treat for a story in this genre.
      1856 ‘G. Eliot’ in Westm. Rev. Jan. 4 In every genre of writing it [sc. wit] preserves a man from sinking into the genre ennuyeux.
      1880 S. Lanier Sci. Eng. Verse viii. 245 The prodigious wealth of our language in beautiful works of this genre.
      1882 G. Saintsbury Short Hist. Fr. Lit. 50 A better notion of the genre may perhaps be obtained from a short view of the subjects of some of the principal of those Fabliaux whose subjects are capable of description.
      1967 Radio Times 13 Apr. 10/5 Laike Moussike, the new genre which in the last eight years has given a new impetus..to Greek popular music.

      Interestingly, that 1770 usage is the earliest record of the term in English, in any sense. (The other meanings of the word—1a. Kind; sort; style. and 2. A style of painting in which scenes and subjects of ordinary life are depicted—postdate it, originating in 1816 and 1849, respectively.)

  17. J. Y. Hopkins

      I’m not sure I’d call it ‘injustice,’ but ignorance is ignorance. It might be perfectly alright to be ignorant about something which is ultimately unimportant; but a fact’s import doesn’t make one less-wrong to be wrong about it. If someone is wrong about something unimportant, I suppose that wrongness is also unimportant, unless it’s the result of a regular behavior or outlook rather than special circumstance.

  18. J. Y. Hopkins

      I don’t know of such a history. Someone should write one!

  19. NLY

      I also take the ignorance as a given. Nor, for that matter, am I so willing to privilege the ignorance of the literary intelligentsia by aiming a unilateral critique of its self-interest. There is no conversation, no culture, which is any more or less self-involved, and I’ll know Adam doesn’t invest his own culture with undue authority when he doesn’t invest it with all of his idealism against ignorance.

  20. Grant Maierhofer

      I recently discovered that my two cousins–pretty regular girls, very nice, play lots of sports, etc.–really enjoy seedy, cheap romance novels and have this weird little clique of friends that reads them and passes them around and treats them as some special escape from their otherwise average lives. There isn’t really a point here but I will say that I loved hearing them talk about the books and it gave the genre an entirely different light as a result. Hearing DFW acknowledge Thomas Harris or James Ellroy has a similar effect, I think, not that these girls were touted literary geniuses, but they were discussing work that most people read on airplanes and then ignore as though it wasn’t something worth ignoring and it really seemed to matter to them. I can’t say I felt tempted to pick up the books or that I ever will but I can definitely understand this notion–in an increasingly less literary world, no less–of clinging desperately to those books you love with no justification or reason beyond the fact that you love them. Plus, I’d much rather hear some brilliant author discuss why they loved reading Psycho by Robert Bloch when they were twelve than hear them discuss Umberto Eco or some shit. Maybe I’m just not wired right.

  21. alan

      I think you should check out the work of Tzvetan Todorov (Genres in Discourse, The Fantastic, The Poetics of Prose).

  22. Gabriel Wainio-Théberge

      Actually, I think the fact that there is this long-standing “literary romance” tradition, with D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, and countless others, might be part of the reason why romance is off-limits in the “genre can be literature too” discussion. You don’t need to argue that a Haruki Murakami novel is literature even though it has a love story in it (and usually a really cheesy one at that) the same way you would have to argue that a Philip K. Dick novel is literature even though it involves robots. Romance novels are realistic like literary novels, and character-driven like literary novels. Their central feature, a man and a woman (usually) falling in love and experiencing some sort of happy ending, has been around in literary fiction from the start. The only thing that separates “genre” from “literary” romance, for the most part, is originality and quality (and I guess marketing).