When Urania was young/ All thought her heavenly/ With age her eyes grow larger/ But her form unmaidenly

Monday, January 16, 2006

It's Not About Your Unnmentionables

In an idle sweep of blogland, I came across that old canard that the Romance genre is undervalued by literary types because it’s a largely female preserve. It must be pretty to think so.

Look, ladies:

Romance is a market driven by voracious and, for the most part, not terribly discriminating readers. The demographic calls for a pretty-low-common-denominator, hence: the literary form can’t be too demanding and postmodern and whatever raging social issues appear should be handled at the made-for-TV movie level. If you don’t score on either formal innovation or challenging ideas, the only academic attention you will get is from the same culture studies programs that do Gilligan’s Island, not from English Departments.
This is emphatically the same for the male equivalent: international thrillers. Decent writers like Frederick Forsyth – who surely has equals in the romance world - don’t rate that kind of attention, and there are Ludlums and Clancys out there long before you descend to Mack Bolan. Sure, you can range upward through Le Carre and get a few nibbles and to Graham Greene and get some chomps, but that’s because modern marketing Romance is simply decapitated (highest points removed) Love Stories, which in my view would include well-received (and terrific) books such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

But I also admit that I find writing about romance as dreary as listening to actual people talk endlessly about theirs. As with vacations, only the disasters amuse. I ransacked my mind for a book I like that seemed to me primarily about romantic love and came up empty. I finally settled on lyric poetry, but then discovered that from Catullus’ bitching through They Flee From Me to La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the rule still applied. Joy and successful struggle to a wonderful joining-together and all that: personal box office poison. You want Rabbie Burns, have at him.

Of course all this flies out the window for a truly great comedy, which is, after all, about the reconciled end as well as all the grins before then. But as Alec Guinness might have said, nookie is easy; comedy is hard, and, like the music that makes a happy love song somewhat more bearable, maybe it does need to be performed. But I’m game: any romance novels out there as bubbly and enchanting as Congreve or Sheridan? Or Wodehouse?