Rom-rants novels

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WEB-romance novel-Mark Burnham

Don’t be so quick to stigmatize an entire literary genre

By Denise Wong
Photos by Mark Burnham

When I told my friends that had purchased a ticket to a Nicholas Sparks book discussion and signing, the reactions ranged from “You like that crap?” to “Who’s Nicholas Sparks again? Oh, him?” But as soon as I mentioned a) the entire thing was a ploy to earn a profit by reselling my signed book on eBay; b) free cocktails were provided; and c) I wanted to see Josh Duhamel in the flesh, all was well again.

It struck me then that women who like Nicholas Sparks novels — or any type of contemporary romance novel — are typecast as some sort of inferior simpleton. If I am seen reading a Jane Austen novel for class, people tend to assume for some reason that I must love her books and I’m one of “those girls:” the girl with her head up in the clouds dreaming about some Prince Charming to sweep me off my feet. The point is, once people see me this way, no matter what I say afterwards, I’ll usually be met with skepticism.

The statement “what we read reflects who we are” is true to a certain degree; it’s a representation of the types of things we are interested in. If I want to read beautiful ornate sentences that are five lines long, I might read Dickens. If I want to read depressing novels about how a regressive society punishes modern personalities, I might read some Thomas Hardy. And if I want to read about social class and young women falling in love — I’d read Jane Austen? It somehow doesn’t sound quite as respectable.

Those watered down descriptions; there’s a difference between one person’s unfair summary and an existing stereotype. The problem is that we don’t get to choose the stereotypes that come with our interests.

So the question is: are romance novels as worthless as our society deems them to be? And should they be deemed as unintellectual books for women?

Any English literature student will know the difference between the early eighteenth and nineteenth century romance novel and the contemporary definition of a romance novel, but the “romance novel” didn’t always mean a sappy love story that ends with an almost guaranteed happily ever after. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, the romance novel was characterized by “improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting.”
The very definition of a romance novel requires it to oppose realism.

The common critique that romance novels are “unrealistic” is a bit of a cheap shot if the genre isn’t suppose to be realistic — which many of great novels aren’t.

The assumption that romance novels have no merit and only attract foolish and impressionable young women is an age-old belief. Initially the stigma applied to all novels. In fact, it irritated Jane Austen so much that she incorporated the issue in her novel Northanger Abbey.

“I never read novels; I have something else to do,” she wrote. “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff.” These words are uttered by one of Austen’s most irksome dimwitted characters, John Thrope, but if we add the word “romance,” then the above sentence sounds like something we’d hear today.

I went into Sparks’s book signing event for the promotion of his latest movie adaption of Safe Haven as someone who scoffed at his redundant and poorly written stories. I firmly believed (and still do) that he was milking the former success of The Notebook for all that it was worth.

It really doesn’t help that each and every single poster advertisement for a Sparks novel-adapted film features the same image of Caucasian romance. If the posters are all the same, advertisers are also suggesting that the novel-based films are the same — and for the most part, I suppose they are: someone dies, someone cries, and two white people fall in love somewhere in North Carolina.

But the truth is, his new novel Safe Haven isn’t awful. I won’t venture so far as to say it was original or even well written, but Sparks writes in a third person limited narrative throughout and switches between three characters. His exploration of an OCD sociopathic husband’s psychology was interesting, and his heroine’s escape was well plotted.

It was almost a book about a strong independent woman who took a stand and ran away from her abusive husband — until she ran right into the arms of the next available and attractive man, after which it became a fullfledged romance novel. The point is, it wasn’t just a silly Nicholas Sparks romance novel; I left the book signing focusing less on his limited range of adjectives and more on things worth focusing on, like how a normal writer might sit down and write from the point of view of a sociopathic police officer.

Sparks explained that he wanted to write a novel with an element of danger, and given the choice between a dangerous person or a dangerous place, he decided a person was more interesting to explore. In fact, the passages that explore the character’s psychology are chilling.
It reminded me that domestic abuse occurs in a variety of ways and sometimes goes completely undetected, but that doesn’t make the problem any less urgent. Certainly, if a romance novel is able to bring these issues up, it can’t be completely worthless, simple, nor exclusively for women.

Maya Rodale is a proud romance reader and author of Novels, Explained, which was based off of research she conducted for her MA at NYU. But she hadn’t always endorsed the genre, and had been reluctant to even begin. “When my mom suggested I read romance novels, I laughed and said ‘Maybe when I’m finished reading Ulysses and other serious literature,’ ” Rodale has said.

She knew how to mock romance novels well before she had even read one — and that poses an interesting question about the stigmatization of romance novels. We’ve all done it at some point: scoffed at the mention of Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or any Nicholas Sparks novel, often mocking the books before we’ve even read them.

The scorn and shame surrounding romance novels that began in the
18th century has since been passed down the generations despite transformations within the genre. But what is so particularly dangerous, so awful, and so nonsensical about romance novels? Rodale believes it is in part because romance novels depict female characters in scenarios where they are ultimately rewarded for living and loving to a higher standard despite all odds.

There are a million differences between canonical works of literature and contemporary romance novels, but one interesting fact to note is that the former often feature women who choose love and passion in life, and end with her death — usually in suicide, as exemplified in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. They are also written by men, as if to condemn and warn women about what could happen if they aren’t dutiful wives.

Jane Austen, for example, writes romance novels in the sense that they are about the great man hunt and are also unrealistic. Not only do her heroines live after the last page is written, but they also marry charming rich men who love them back. While Austen is a canonical author, many students would never read her books unless they are required by a course — and even then, they are hard pressed to say the novel was enjoyable.

Last semester I took a course on Jane Austen that required reading every single Austen novel, be it finished or not. Every single person in my seminar was a female. Whether the assumption is spoken or sidestepped in some subtle manner, there exists the idea that even Austen’s novels are not as worthy as those of Charles Dickens or other male canonical authors.

I’ve read a few contemporary romance novels and they all seem to be about a woman figuring out her feelings about who she loves, and then pursuing that. Based on my perhaps limited experience with romance novels, they are all pro-choice, proself-discovery, and pro-love.
When a male author writes from a male perspective and begins a journey of self-discovery in order to sort through his feelings about a girl, the novel is often written for teenagers, read again by a predominantly female audience, and the object of the hero’s affection is usually some complex unhappy girl. We can look to examples such as Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Must we be unhappy in order to be complex? And must all women be unhappy in great works of literature?

Traditionally, this approach was born out of a fear that women would now have free choice. They couldn’t own property, divorce, or fight for custody, but romance novels presented them with the choice of perhaps being able to choose who they married at the very least.
“[M]an has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,” says Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney. Women can choose whose marriage proposal they want to accept, which is not to say they won’t be faced with the threat of dying poor and alone if they refuse, only that they have the basic choice.

But how does this translate to our contemporary Western culture, where women can vote, own property, marry, divorce and fight for custody? Why do romance novels still carry such stigma? It could be that many of them are poorly written, but surely not all. Comic books don’t usually qualify as intellectually stimulating pieces of text either, and yet they aren’t met with the same flames of fury that romance novels receive. As with many nuances and double standards in our society, this may be one that will continue to be explored by feminist scholars for decades.

It’s simply not fair to assume someone is an idiot because they read romance novels once in awhile, and it does not mean the characters will inspire the exact same mistakes. Not all romance novels are worthless pieces of writing that are only meant for female readers, and not all romance novels deserve our scorn. While romance novels are certainly capable of being superficial and sappy, they are nonetheless a genre like any other and at the very least deserve to be looked at critically before being written off completely.