Monday, March 03, 2008

Are Romance Novels Books? (Long)

Hilzoy stirred up a hornet's nest when she declared that romance novels aren't books.
[R]omance novels* ... are not "books", as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that's probably because I'm just a dumb woman.
She subsequently backtracked, but I'm wondering if the hole just got deeper.
About whether genre romance novels are "books", as that word is normally used: that was undoubtedly the wrong way to put what I had in mind, and I regret having put it that way. However, I also think that there is a decent point here, which I expressed in a needlessly dumb way. What I meant was:

Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints. There are plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints. ... When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.

Assessing genre romances is different, precisely because there are so many rules. I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules. And I assess a genre romance novel not by its quality as a work of creation ex nihilo, but as a novel written according to those rules.

I think it was Tanya Modliewski who wrote that genre romance is, for this reason, best thought of as something closer to a very constrained kind of performance than to non-genre novels. If I recall correctly (can't find the book, but I am trying to give credit), she said: think of football. Football is not like a sort of spontaneous dance, nor do you assess it primarily for its imaginative virtues. In football, there are a very strict set of rules, and those rules allow a limited set of basic options for a team. You only rarely get to assess a particular player or team for something like: coming up with a whole new option, or for any other work of pure creative imagination. Normally, you assess them for the way in which they do what they have to do, within the rules. You ask: do they do it well? with flair? Are they good at picking the best of the (relatively small number of) options that the rules allow -- e.g., passing when they should, and running when they should? Do they do it with athleticism and grace and speed?

Similarly, Modliewski argued (I think), with romance novels. The basic parameters are laid down in advance, and what matters, if you're writing a genre romance at all, is the grace and style and beauty with which you do it. In this, genre romance is strikingly different from non-genre novels (I'm leaving other genres out, as I noted above).
With this as backdrop, when I said that "romance novels are not "books", as that word is normally used", I should, first of all, have said not books but novels, and specifically non-genre fiction. For better or for worse, I think that genre romance (again, I'm agnostic on, because largely ignorant of, other genres) is a different thing than non-genre fiction, and different in large part because it is best seen as a highly constrained performance -- as more like the compulsory program in figure skating, while non-genre fiction is like the freestyle part, where you really can do whatever you want.

I did not, and do not, mean this claim to imply anything at all about the merits of genre romance novels. ... I do think genre romance novels are a different sort of thing from non-genre novels. But that doesn't imply anything at all about whether the kind of thing they are is a better or worse thing to be.
I like the Modliewski theory, but this particular exercise in line drawing rubs me the wrong way. There are some pretty porny romances, but are books featuring male sexuality classified as porny? I can think of a couple of male authors whose works are, if not formally subject to a set of well-defined constraints, just as much variations on a standard (sexuality-based) theme. Are those repeated explorations of the sexual lives and misogynist impulses of middle-aged guys "books"?

Hilzoy's separate-but-unequal treatment of rule-bound fiction also doesn't seem to carry over well in other fields of art. Were the Renaissance artists who painted hundreds of portraits of Mary, Jesus, and saints mere "genre painters"? Is someone playing Hamlet not really acting? Is Michelangelo's David not a true sculpture? Are these works qualitatively different from similar works of the imagination? (This ties in to the discussion at Belle Lettre's on cover songs. Are covers of a jazz standard less meritorious than an original improvisation? Can't a cover song be more artistic than the original?)

I don't even read romance novels, but I'm not willing to cede the word "book" to lit-fic, especially since it can be just as formulaic as the most plodding mystery or bodice-ripper.
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