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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