ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

March 17, 2010

Quick Shots – It’s A Love Story, Baby Just Say Yes

So I read this article about Nicholas Sparks, who has penned a novel which has been made into a Miley Cyrus vehicle. Sounds like the captain of the literary fiction brigade, n’cest pas? This article reveals his hilarious douchebaggery, including a classic moment where he paints himself as the heir to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Genius.

But he also gets hating on romance. He bristles whenever anyone tells him he writes romance novels – no, he writes love stories. To quote from the article:

‘Sparks cringes at the word: romance. But since it comes up again, isn’t he kind of splitting hairs with this whole “love story” vs. “romance” thing?

‘”No, it’s the difference between Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet,” he says. “(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”‘

 This, I think, is indicative of one of the biggest challenges romance fiction faces – the perception that all romance novels are the same. And Nicholas Sparks (douchebag extraordinaire) isn’t helping. But what really comes out of this article is that Sparks is super-anxious that his books aren’t classified as romances because he thinks it is reductionist… and sort of girly.

And because he is obviously the heir to Sophocles as well.

And I think he’s obviously playing into the ‘I am a man! I would never write a book in which Fabio might appear on the cover!’ There’s the notion that romance is women’s fiction. Which is obviously not Sparks-exclusive, but a widespread idea.

Sparks says:

‘”A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms.”‘

Quite apart from the monstrous size of Sparks’ ego, he does raise an interesting question. What is the purpose of romance? Is it simply escapism? To what end do we write and read romance?

Sparks’s love stories are different, he contests, because you don’t know that the ending is going to be happy. But the meat is still the same – it’s a story of human interaction and human relationships. What I usually focus on when I write this blog is the gendered nature of these interactions and relationships, which I suppose might be considered the means to the end – in romance, the happy ending.

Just because Sparks’s books don’t necessarily end happily doesn’t mean that these means are any different. I’ve never read any Sparks, I confess, but the desire for the two characters to end up together is still there, yesno? You’re still rooting for them. In romance, you get a guaranteed pay off. You know that what you want will happen in the end. It takes place largely in a moral sphere where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished and we all live happily ever after. (Exactly what constitutes good and bad is contentious for me, but that’s another issue).

Does this set Sparks apart, because this payoff is not guaranteed? His means do not necessarily end up at the same ends, but he’s essentially cooking with the same ingredients. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: is romance that happy ending? or is it the path that leads the characters there?

When does a story that features human interactions and human relationships change from being a Sparksian ‘love story’ to a ‘romance’?

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5 Comments »

  1. Sounds to me as though he’s writing “romantic fiction” because the “optimistic ending” required for a “romance” (in the way defined by the Romance Writers of America) isn’t usually present but the novels are “love stories”.

    “Sparks’s love stories are different, he contests, because you don’t know that the ending is going to be happy.”

    From what some of the commenters are saying here it seems as though in his love stories you know that the ending is going to be miserable.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — March 18, 2010 @ 9:32 am | Reply

  2. Actually, he’s writing romance, because I know exactly what to expect every single time I see a story of his, and that’s what a romance is–a formula. His formula is forbidden love + letters + cancer + a sad ending. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he writes tragic ROMANCE novels. What an ass.

    Comment by Anna — April 7, 2010 @ 8:03 am | Reply

  3. Love exists in many forms….it can be boring, dysfunctional, heavenly, passionate, obsessive…etc- but most important….love exists passively…whether we want it to or not. It exists in a passive form. Romance is the active action/declaration that demonstrates that “this person is important enough to you to single them out and woo them”. Romance however is the individual dance that each couple takes to actively fan the flames of love.

    Love can often be selfish (grieving or feeling sorry for one self and not taking action due to fear or insecurity)….it does not require any interaction or focus on the object of your affection, while Romance is sharing and giving to another.

    This dance is like any ballroom dance…the steps and overall goal remain the same. However the execution of the steps and the definition of the goal (happiness) are unique to the couple (hero and heroine).

    He uses Jane Austen as an example of “love story” however her novels follow the “Romance formula” perfectly. Hero and Heroine need to overcome conflict (whether internal or external – and one major conflict in each story is always the societal constraints which retard the ability to more passionately/directly demonstrate or more speedily advance the “Romance”.)

    He chooses to take the “active” choice out of his romance and make the characters passive victims. I prefer my characters to take action and to be rewarded for that action. Others may choose the “Romeo and Juliet” way….I would have just taken my Romeo to a different City State in Italy….or anywhere else for that matter. When we are given the gift of love this intense….it is sinful to waste it…but, rather demands ones’ so gifted to take active/passionate Romantic steps to embrace this special gift.

    No one or nothing else should be more important than your soul’s other half.

    Comment by sheila b — April 21, 2010 @ 4:44 am | Reply

    • “I prefer my characters to take action and to be rewarded for that action.”

      This is, I would contend, one of the philosophies on which romance fiction is founded. There is a kind of moral hierarchy in romance fiction which means the good are rewarded (with love), the bad are punished and all is right at the world. The promise of the happy ending is one of the most attractive things about romance fiction and I think it is this, not the titillation factor, which makes romance so attractive.

      I am very interested in how you would take your views and apply them to criticism of this genre – I kind of feel like you are missing the point at the moment.

      Comment by Jodi — April 21, 2010 @ 9:53 am | Reply

  4. I wonder what Robert James Waller response would be to the Sparks interview? He wrote ‘Love in black and white’ and was later reprinted as ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and later on made into a film which starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Lest we forget Erich Segal’s ‘Love Story’.

    This constant distinction between romance and love story gets tiresome and old. I can name countless of stories written in the same vein as Sparks but call them literary novels; the same with crime, the same with westerns, the same with any other genre. Where does one draw the line?

    We read books because we want to escape, we’re looking for answers, intellectual empathy, an understanding of the human condition in whatever crisis we meet it, at whatever point we are in our lives. The pleasure in reading is personal; we turn to books for solace, joy, consolation, validation.

    Reading the article, I can’t help but conclude that Sparks is confused. And more importantly in search of writer’s validation.

    Comment by girlofdistinction — September 26, 2010 @ 9:46 am | Reply


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