Thursday, June 14, 2007

I Don't Want to Rant Here, But ...

NOTE: This blog entry contains spoilers for Moulin Rouge and A Walk to Remember.

Quite awhile back, I read an interview with author Nicholas Sparks, where he helpfully pointed out that (and I'm paraphrasing here), he did not write romance novels (Did I imagine the "eeeuwww" behind the words?) because romances have happy endings, while his more literary works end tragically.

Now, I don't mind the occasional tragic ending--Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Willa Cather's O Pioneers are two of my favorite books ever in the history of ever, and they both have horrible endings. I adore the film Moulin Rouge, even though I was a sobbing mess at the end. (Jose also loves that movie, but while it's one of the very few films he's ever wanted to watch more than once, he steadfastly refuses to even acknowledge that the tragic ending exists. He either stops the DVD after Satine and Christian sing their special song and foil the Duke's dastardly plan, or he walks out of the room, sticks his fingers in his ears, and goes "Lalalala-LA!" until I finish watching. How adorable is that?)

But the underlying assumption a lot of readers seem to make--and that Sparks's comments play into, intentionally or not--is that a romance that ends horribly (and, coincidentally, is written by a man) is somehow better than a romance that ends happily.

AMUSING ASIDE: My brother Troy is a huge movie buff and is in love with Mandy Moore, so when we were both visiting my parents sometime last year, he busted out his DVD of A Walk to Remember and informed me that we were watching it. Always game for a good film recommended by Troy, I sat down and was quite enjoying the charming story of the unlikely romance between a popular jock and a slightly nerdy Christian girl. Somewhere in the middle, Troy noted that the movie was based on a Nicholas Sparks book, at which point I threw a handful of popcorn at the screen and shrieked, "UGH! That means she's going to end up with CANCER!"

And sure enough....

Here's some Sparksian wisdom about romances versus "love stories" from his Web site:

"Though both have romantic elements, the sub-genres have different requirements. Love stories must use universal characters and settings. Romance novels are not bound by this requirement and characters can be rich, famous or people who lived centuries ago and the settings can be exotic. Love stories can differ in theme, romance novels have a general theme; 'the taming of a man.' And finally, romance novels have happy endings while love stories are not bound by this requirement. Love stories usually end tragically or at best, with a bittersweet feeling for the reader."

A comment like that begs for a response, so, seeing as this is my blog, I'm responding (As if anyone doubted that I would.) Limiting women's writing (And yes, some men's, but let's face it, romance novels that actually go in the romance section of a bookstore are written mostly by women.) to a central theme that is both creepy and melodramatic denigrates our work. Although you can argue that Jane Eyre was about the "taming of a man, romance novels are as varied in theme as books in other genres. Implying that there is nothing universal or relatable about our characters is not factual in the least. And while there are some romances that have exotic settings or larger-than-life characters, those characters, on the average, tend to be people the reader can relate to at least on some level.

Sparks is right that romance novels, by definition, have happy endings. But is it just me, or does he seem to be clinging to his tragic endings, that knife edge that separates him from the romance writer plebeians, with everything he's got? Not that I really blame him, what with the current stigma romance writers labor under.

Please note that I don't begrudge Nicholas Sparks his success at all. Something about his writing obviously resonates with a lot of people, including the habitually tragic endings, or he wouldn't regularly appear on the New York Times list, nor would a New York editor have believed in him enough to give him the marketing support that helped vault his first book onto that list in the first place.

But what I do wonder about is why it's OK, why it's literary even, to like Nicholas Sparks, and not romance novels? I worked in a Barnes & Noble bookstore while I was in grad school and also when I first got married and was job-hunting, and most of the booksellers were most vociferous regarding their disdain for romance novels. In fact, one of the assistant managers in the Boston B&N I worked in actually said to me that "Barnes & Noble caters to the literati--it's too bad we have to carry romance novels, too." (A romance novel apparently killed his brother....)

The manager of the second B&N store where I briefly worked held the same attitude toward romance novels, but she was absolutely over the MOON about Nicholas Sparks.

I read my first Nicholas Sparks novel, Dear John, recently for a book club I'm in. I was surprised to discover that there were only two main differences between the Sparks book and the average romance novel:

1) Dear John centers mainly on the hero and his character growth and development, where a romance novel will generally center mainly on the female, and her character growth and development.

2) Dear John had a tragic ending, while a romance will generally show a woman "having it all" at the end--the cool job, revenge on her enemies, and a fantabulous new boyfriend/fiancee/husband (who presumably picks up his smelly socks, occasionally cooks dinner, and scrubs out the bathroom he exclusively uses at least once per century, BEFORE things start to fungus *cough* Jose *cough*). In the case of a romantic suspense, which I write, the ending will also include the heroine being instrumental in bringing a vicious criminal to justice.

That's it. Oh, and that no editor is ever going to saddle Sparks with a title like Cowboy Cootchie Coo or the Runaway Bride's Secret Baby. Lucky him.

Interestingly, Sparks' prose didn't strike me as any more literary than that of many female romance writers. His characters didn't seem any more universal or developed than those in a romance novel. And sometimes, homeboy got downright sentimental, what with the characters saying stuff like (since I don't have the book with me, this is an approximation), "I still think of you whenever I look at the full moon."

But it's universally OK to like Nicholas Sparks's books because he is a MAY-aaaaaan, while fiction written by women about women has been put down as "sentimental" and "parochial" since some fat, pasty white men* got together and decided what books were considered part of the "literary canon." Today's romance novels are the whipping girl of the so-called literati, taking the modern-day place of works by Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, the Brontes, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, ad way-too-many-marginalized-women-writers.

Now I'm not saying romance novels are all great literature--but neither are all sci-fi novels, all mysteries, or all mainstream fiction books. And not everyone has to like romance as a genre--we all have different tastes. But there's no doubt in my mind that there's a negative, kneejerk reaction ("Trash! Bodice rippers! Melodrama") toward romance that prevails in popular culture, and it's curious to me why a sentimental male writer could largely escape this reaction.

To me, Sparks satisfies the self-conscious reader's craving for a good read about human relationships and the push-pull dynamics of desire. It's socially acceptable to read Sparks. It's socially acceptable to love Moulin Rouge or Rear Window or Miss Congeniality or When Harry Met Sally, but it's not OK--or, at the very least, it's the literary equivalent of slumming--to read a romantic comedy or a romantic suspense or a romantic adventure or any kind of romance at all. But here's the kicker--Moulin Rouge (with Jose's alternate ending), Rear Window, Miss Congeniality, and When Harry Met Sally would all be shelved in the romance section if they were in book form. And so would Nicholas Sparks, minus the knife-edge difference of a tragic ending and a male name and photo to slap on the book jacket.

It's enough to make a girl change her name to George Sand.

* Actually, I am exaggerating here. I do not have firsthand knowledge of whether the arbiters of our modern literary canon were fat and/or pasty. But I would bet my last Hershey bar that they were most certainly white and male.


Jennifer McK said...

This argument has been going on for YEARS!!!!!!

I have disagreements with my hubby about this often. He is under the misconception that I write romance because "it's easy". Um, no.

I HATE tragic endings. Barbara Kingsolver did NOTHING for me. Anne Shreve irritated me. I LIKE my happy endings.

I think that most romance has to be more sophisticated these days, more realistic. And I think that the reaction to romance is to the novels that no longer exist. The cotton candy Harlequin of yesterday won't fly in the market IMHO. So, now romances are filled with "real" stuff.

And I love it.

*shrugs* Obviously, Sparks wants to separate himself from the romance genre.

Great that he made a name for himself.


Tracy Montoya said...

Yeah, I'm a little behind, Jen, because I've never been able to get through a Sparks book until this book club forced me to.

I think you're definitely onto something when you say that people are reacting to books that don't exist--at least not to the extent that they did in the 80s. (Some HQ Presents books I've read have been a little non-PC.)

I'm whatevering right along with you.

Maggie said...

So you call this Sparks dude a "Maaaaaay an" or something like that. Need I remind you that you are also part Mayan?

Tracy Montoya said...

::snort:: Thanks, Tom.

Jennifer said...

I know I'm chiming in a little late here, but I have to say that I have yet to be able to get through one of his books. When I read a romance, I read it BECAUSE I want to feel good. I want that happy ending... the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to be reassured that love really does conquer all. When I pick up a romance novel, I know that an hour or so later, when I come to the end of the book, I will be cheered up. All will be right in the world again.

I kinda feel the same way about movies. There seems to be a trend in the last couple of years toward sad ending movies as well. "City of Angels" for example. God, I balled my eyes out... right there in the movie theater. This bad ending trend isn't only in romantic movies, either... action flicks are in on it, too. Although, in the action and horror genre, I think it's more to leave the door open for 100 sequels down the line, but still... I want to see the bad guy get it in the end! LOL There's something rassuring when the bad guy (or the real jerk) meets an interesting end. Satisfies my bloodlust a little.

Anyway, I'm getting away from myself now... hence the reason I'm not a writer. I prefer the camera to the pen. LOL

Sparks seems to be the perfect male for a romance novel... the whole "Not into the squishy, wishy-washy stuff" kinda guy. The perfect man for a strong heroine to tame. LOL One does have to wonder why he seems to protest so much... maybe he's afraid of admitting he has a softer side... can't be the big, bad man and be in touch with your feminine side, now can you?

Tracy Montoya said...

I agree, Jenn! I love happy endings. Sometimes they make sense and are still weirdly satisfying, like Gladiator's ending. But sometimes, they're just manipulative ways for the authors to make themselves believe they're more literary. And if you ever do get through a Sparks novel, you'll see that he's plenty squishy and sentimental--overly so. Yuck.

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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