Romances: Trash versus Treasure

By Poison Ivy,

Here we go again: The latest version of the usual debate has been raging on various web sites. You know, the one about whether romances are serious literature, or should be considered seriously, or even should be reviewed by serious literary reviewers in serious literary publications (see Smart Bitches: Litblogs vs. Print Reviews: FIGHT! 6/15/07.) A new wrinkle on this debate has been for print journalists to slam at blogging in general (see Adam Kirsch’s The Scorn of the Literary Blog). This even though it should be obvious that blogging enfranchises thousands of people to weigh in on what they themselves are interested in and not what the literary establishment thinks they ought to care about. Apparently, free speech by the readers themselves isn’t legitimate criticism. Only that of serious print journalists counts, and by the way, it just so happens that they don’t think romances are worth reviewing.

Well! Time for some free speech here, y’all:

• The people who read books have a perfect right to express their opinions of those books in any medium to which they have access.
• The (chiefly) women who read romances have a perfect right to read them without some huffy literary establishment taking pots shots at them. (Just as, to be fair, do the readers of any other genre, be it manga or self-help.)
• The people who read romances because they like romances are probably the best people quipped to review them. But not the only ones.
• And nobody has any call to rag on and dismiss a particular literary genre because it is a genre.
• Especially because it is a genre mainly written and read by women.

That said, some books are better written than others. Some books fully articulate significant themes. Some do not. Out of all the millions of books ever published, there aren’t a whole lot—certainly not thousands and thousands—that uniquely say something unique. Some authors are not even trying to be unique. They’re just trying to get in their two cents’ worth, adding to the collection as it were.

Inevitably, some romances are better written than others, and some are fashionable and then fall out of fashion, leaving later generations to wonder why anybody cared. To be honest, I feel that way about Dickens. Some of his themes still have some validity today, but I just hate his sentimental lies, his cutseyness, and his hypocrisy. Guess what? His huge reputation has been sinking for quite a while, and these days almost nobody reads him voluntarily.

But then, few people outside of college bother with Pamela, the first English novel, which is a work of such lasciviousness, hypocrisy, melodrama, and outright balderdash that it’s a wonder anyone has ever taken it seriously as literature. It should more properly be called a singularity, or a breakthrough, because it started a fashion that continues to this day, of writing about people who are not tragic kings and queens or mythic heroes, but more or less ordinary mortals. For millennia, art was only supposed to be about people in high life, people of importance. When the opera “La Boheme” (popularized yet again recently as the Broadway hit “Rent”) opened in the late 19th century, it scandalized audiences because it was about ordinary people. Ordinary people as the subject of serious literary fiction have been in the ascendant ever since. Find me a popular drama today, in the 21st century, that is about a princess, or a Greek hero, or a god. (I am not counting anything about Princess Diana, because she firmly belongs in the pantheon of exalted tragic heroines. Somebody ought to write an opera about her. But instead, they’ve written an opera about Sweeny Todd, a guy who kills people and …yuck.)

But wait. Romances today sometimes do feature stories about fairy tale princesses! (Who live happily ever after, let it be noted, not who live unloved and who die and whose rival then gets the prince.) Romances seem to be the most utterly conventional of here-today-gone-tomorrow literature, and yet they explore all kinds of deep-seated, mythic themes. What is going on here? Could it be that, disguised as ephemeral claptrap, authors of romances have something serious to say?

Possibly. And then again, maybe not. It is the proper place of serious critics to figure out what is going on in romances, to point out themes, and hypocrisy, and political subversiveness, and failure. It sure would be good if these same critics also told us readers which romances are the best, and warned us about the ones on which we need not waste our time. Movie critics do just that, and they do it for some of the most godawful tripe that Hollywood has mashed together and dared to call entertainment. We could use a sourpuss movie critic to take romances seriously and do some slash and burn through the large amounts of dreck that see print.

This would be a deeply appreciated service, because not every romance is wonderful. The tenor of what little romance criticism so far exists sometimes is a little too nice-nice. Make that way too nice-nice. There is room for someone with a good critical eye to hold romances to the standard to which other novels are held. Because, really, writing humorous or best-selling romance (I will name no author names, but insert a couple of well-known ones here) does not make those romances works of great literary importance. Yet the huge numbers of people reading romances should make literary critics sit up and pay attention. And not just read one and think they’ve read them all.

Who is paying attention? So far, readers of romances, writers and commenters on blogs, and home-grown forums of all sorts, that’s who. Who is not paying attention? Readers, writers, and critics who consider the romance genre to be unworthy of any serious interest. It bears repeating: Anything that so many people like so much is important in understanding our culture. These stories may even be important in understanding human existence, period. Of course there is plenty of trash out there in genre land. Even in romance genre land, much as I love romance. But there is treasure, too. I urge anyone with the chops to do serious literary criticism to take a serious look at romances.