Sunday, April 3, 2016

Classics and Trash

My apologies to anyone who clicked on this for an informative or splenetic rant about some education issue. But my niece has a writing question, and I hate posting long notes on Facebook, so I'm just going to put it here. This is far more than she asked for and certainly not what anyone not-my-niece signed up for. TL;DR.

So Paige-- here's the question you asked.

Very serious question- what distinguishes a classic/timeless romance novel from a nicholas sparks, or a harlequin romance?...what are examples of books that I should read to maybe find that more obvious difference? Or is it just the right marketing and publisher?

This is my niece.  Doesn't she look like someone you should hire as a super-vp of marketing or some other equally zillion dollar job?

Categories of Written Stuff

I learned this from Mike Eichholtz, and with some modifications, I've used it ever since. I have no idea if he borrowed it from somewhere else.

There are three four categories of writing.  Good trash, bad trash, and classics. I add great works to that list.

Trash is written to make a buck and pay the bills, and it is meant to be commercial. But there is good trash and bad trash, and the difference between good and bad trash is the level of craft, skill, and quality (I will get back to that). Twilight is a good example of bad trash-- actually, terrible awful no-good very bad trash. It's poorly written on every level, from the badly constructed sentences to the artless images and plot to the flat and unbelievable characters all the way up to the romantization of behavior that checks off every item on the "Are you hooked up with an abuser" checklist. So, bad,  but clearly highly lucrative.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is good trash. Well constructed, well-written, well-drawn characters, compelling stories. Stephen King- good trash. John Green- arguably good trash. Hunger Games- arguably bad trash.

Classics, of course, are works that stand the test of time. They have a universal quality, something recognizable and relateable over time. Nobody knows whether something is a classic or not until a few decades have passed.

The dirty secret of classics is that they mostly started out as good trash. Take Shakespeare-- he was not trying to create genius work for the ages, but was just trying to make a buck and do his job. He just happened to do it very, very well, with genius command of the language and a full understanding of how human beings work, so that centuries later we can recognize his characters as real people and the themes and concerns of his work as still with us.

Good vs. Bad

Characters that are  recognizable as human beings. Concerns that connect to deepest human motivators. Themes that offer ideas and insights that are both specific and broad. Good command of the language. Good control of organization, structure and materials of the work. Does the writer say what she has to say effectively.

Great Works

Works that have large or important qualities but for one reason or another, can't quite transcend their time and place, and may, in fact, have value because they are a window on their time rather than having a universal, timeless quality. Moby Dick. Maybe the Great Gatsby. Their characters are recognizable and real in the sense that you can think, "Yeah, if I was shoehorned into the societal boxes of those specific circumstances in that particular time and place, I might turn out like that."

I suspect that Austen is at least partly a Great Work writer-- her characters are recognizable and human, but they live in a world that is so strictly defined by its rules that it's hard to relate to some features of it. On the other hand, great fantasy and SF creates entire worlds that nobody lives in and still manages to create legit classics.

So, Romance

Your aunt wondered if romance and classic are mutually exclusive, and that might be a good question-- "romance" is so culturally defined, along with the gender roles that feed into it, that it might be a super challenge to come up with something that's universal. Romance itself is arguably pretty specific-- that your dream relationship is specific to you, and then how that plays out in the actual world is very specific to your own situation. But I have to believe there are universal elements in there that somebody ought to be able to capture in literature.

Romance novels seem similar because (at least this used to be true) the publishers literally handed writers a chapter-by-chapter outline of how the romance would play out. Nicholas Sparks is the king of recycling certain story elements in different ways ("Where will I insert the tragically dead character this time?") but these kinds of writing, whether they're good or bad trash, are aiming to evoke emotions rather than explain or explore anything. In other words, instead of saying, "Let me show you something about how the world works," the writers are saying, "I want to show you something that will make you cry." Maybe there's an argument for calculated emotional manipulation as a worthy literary goal, but I'm doubtful.

The really challenge about romance writing is that while the story may seem to be about a couple, it is almost always one person's story. Titanic the movie is Rose's story; Jack is just a prop for her growth. Your beloved OC was Ryan's story and Seth's story. Romance can be a critical element of how the character changes and grows, but ultimately it's all about how the character changes and grows, not about the romance. Writers of continuing fiction like soap operas, tv series, and comic books have all struggled with showing how a character can grow within a relationship-- generally speaking, when the couple finally get together, the writers can't figure out how to not be boring and show characters that continue to change and grow, and do so as part of a couple.

The need to have a narrative center (a point of view character) is also problematic for writing about romance because it makes the romance appear one way-- we look at what the relationship means just to the main character, which feeds some people's desire to see their prospective partner in terms of "What that person means to me and what I get out of this" instead of a more complicated two-person thing. Now you've got me wondering about how well any literature portrays relationships at all. 

So as with a travel novel or a fantasy adventure novel or a war novel, the "genre" is not so much the thing as it is the bucket that the thing is carried in.

So can you be a trashy romance novelist without hurting your brand? I'm no expert in branding, but I do think you can probably write trashy romance novels that are also great pieces of writing. I would imagine you do it by honoring both the tropes and traditions of the romance novel while filling it up with real characters, well-observed behavior, and a world that is real and recognizable. And it doesn't hurt to have sold something-- book publishers seem to ask "Is this a great work of literature" far less often than they ask "Can we get a bunch of people to give us money for copies of this?"

Your great grandmother did indeed say on more than one occasion that she liked Harlequin romances because she could fall asleep reading them and they were so light that they wouldn't wake her up when they fell on her. As readers, we might want something more, but maybe not a a great romance novel so much as a great novel about a character who finds a way to be in the world and as part of that finds a way to be with another person. If I were trying to write a romance novel, I would try to write that.


  1. What you've described is why we publishing types have two categories for romantic novels. First, there's romance, which in the genre definition requires the HEA (Happily Ever After), which is usually implied because what really happens ten or fifteen years down the road for the H/H (hero/heroine) is a crap shoot. The other we call "women's fiction," which is a little sexist and probably should get a better name, and is fiction that may or may not have an HEA but on the way covers a broader agenda than is usually the case with category romance.

    But even there the line blurs. As the romance genre has taken a solid hold, there has also developed a growing body of readers who are no more pleased with the standard cliches than anyone else. They may still want their HEA, but they demand more realistic ways of getting there by people who have complex characters and real emotions.

  2. Sometimes the actual form of a novel gives as much pleasure as the plot. Reflecting on structure, the macro world of the plot in contrast to the micro world of the individual characters is also gratifying. When students go beyond simply tracking the sequence of events and the character profiles, they often make pleasant discoveries. Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth" can seem tedious if read on the surface, but a reflective analysis of various dimensions turns it into an eye opening experience for students, even with regard to their own lives.
    Most people need some training to develop that kind of analytical skill. Junky novels don't stand up to that analysis. They are for passive reading only.

  3. My favorite romance writer is Nora Roberts. I really do think she's a good writer, especially in her descriptions and dialog. She improved a lot from her early writing, one reason being that after the first few years she started telling the story from both viewpoints. In her best books I always learn something, and come out of it feeling like I understand at least somewhat what it's like to live in Alaska, or be a fire jumper, or an artist, or a search and rescue dog trainer, or how the gem trade works. She's spoiled me for any other romance writer except Elizabeth Lowell.

  4. My understanding is that the word "romance" was originally applied to things written in the vulgate, the languages that developped from Latin in the places the Romans conquered, while things that were considered serious and important were still written in Latin.

    The "father of the modern novel" is said to be Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who wrote Don Quixote. (The full title is El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, but in Spanish we just refer to it as El Quijote.) The reason why Cervantes is called this is that he was the first to write a novel in which the characters and events, however crazy they seem, follow a logical and psychological sense, instead of things happening or people doing things without rhyme or reason.

    Cervantes wanted to be a playwright, but at this time (around the same time as Shakespeare), you had to write plays in verse, and Cervantes just wasn't that good at it, especially since he had the misfortune to live in the same time period as the most prolific playwright of the Spanish Golden Age of literature, Lope de Vega. But Cervantes' prose was pure poetic prose. It took him until he was in his 50's, though, to realize that this was where his talents lay.

  5. (don Quijote part 2)
    At this time, the main genre of novels written were fantasy knight-errant adventure novels originating from the Breton King Arthur tradition, arriving in Spain by way of France. They were so hugely popular that everyone was trying to make a buck writing them, and they were all pretty much trash. It galled Cervantes that people would read this garbage.

    We think of don Quijote as being about the valor of the idealist fighting for a noble, seemingly lost cause, but that's actually an interpretation of the 19th century European Romanticists. (Epitomized in the play Man of la Mancha, which, while it captures part of the spirit of the book, burns me because it's not factual, like saying Cervantes was imprisoned because of the Inquisition, which is not true at all. He was in jail for a time, but that was because he was trying to earn a living as a government tax collector, and the banker he entrusted to hold the money went bankrupt and fled to America.) Actually, Cervantes wrote the book with the idea of making don Quijote such a ridiculous laughingstock of a character that no one would want to read or write this kind of novel ever again.

    Along the way, the book became many things. It's very personal and autobiographical in some ways. It's also very universal and philosophical. (In the second volume, there's an incredible ode to feminism.) It's also a chronicle of the life and socio-political issues of the time. it's also insanely funny and uses all the kinds of humor there are --puns, farce, irony, satire. Unfortunately, it just doesn't translate well; puns and poetic prose make it particularly difficult

  6. As someone who's been reading romance novels since age 8 (starting with Ivanhoe), I would argue that there are classics within the genre. That said, are there trashy romance novels? Of course--see also, 50 Shades of Gray and their ilk. But there are also some truly high-quality romance novels, with smart protagonists (not all are written from the female POV), intriguing stories, and generally excellent story-telling. Courtney Milan, Nora Roberts, Ilona Andrews, Lilith Saintcrow, Grace Burrowes, Robin McKinley, Lois McMaster Bujold...I could go on, but you get the idea. The other point worth noting is that romance is by far the majority of books sold in the US, hands down. Less so when you include non-fiction, but according to my local B&N manager, 85% of books sold are fiction, and romance novels are more than half of them. Even an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters can produce Shakespeare.