Thursday, January 08, 2009

Taking an Idea for a Spin--veinglory

A serious essay writer posted the following today:

"It was ... rather discomforting when I had to realize that the formula of the standard mass-market-romance ... fits rather too well to describe major plot elements of my cherished Jane Eyre."

Oh noes! She may be a romance reader. What next? Tuning into NASCAR while biting the top off a bottle of cheap lite beer? Because this is obviously a fate worser that death. But here is the basic point of the essay:

"Once I had got over the fact that I had something in common with fans of the ‘bodice-ripper’ ... what Heathcliff and Rochester share with the heroes of mass market romance is that they too can be considered to be examples of the dangerous lover."

Hmmm, the alpha male in my romance is like the alpha male in other romances. Who'd've thunk it. But never fear, the natural order of literary superiority with soon reassert itself.

"By introducing the dangerous lover the Brontës use the same concept as modern mass market romances, but they explore it more thoroughly ... fully embraces the ambivalence of love ...their love is great – but it is also ultimately destructive. Modern mass market romances with their obligatory happy ending shy away from fully exploring this second aspect, thus invariably hollowing out the concept."

Love that ends in a committed relationship is hollow, love that ends with people destroying each other is far more... thorough. Hmmm.

This overlooks, to my mind, a few things:

1) The Brontes wrote books with happy endings (the essayist's favorite, Jane Eyre, for example).
2) Modern love stories come in happy, ambivalent and tragic forms, genre romance just happens to be heavy on the happy--other types of books can be found on other shelves.
3) The Brontes wrote genre romance.

Not all of their books fit the genre definition and it would be somewhat revisionist to apply it--but if the hat fits, no need to spit on it. The Bronte's actually helped to invent romance fiction as we know it today, and the similarity of the alpha male in the modern day to Heathcliff, Rochester et al is not exactly coincidental. Authors read the classics too.

Their books were the genre romance of the day. What set them apart is how damned good they were at it. Less talented writers in the same genre certainly existed in abundance--they just aren't much thought of today. And there are people alive today who write genre romance and literary love stories that are in the ballpark of the Bronte's talent. History isn't entire populated by the authors of undergraduate reading lists, nor are the shelves today entirely the domain of hacks and harlots.

The Bronte's were good not because their books 'aren't romance', or because their stories didn't have HEA. They were good because they were good. Their prose, their characters, their plots, and yes--bodices were actually ripped on occasion. Shockingly, some modern romance writers are also good--for the same reasons.


Anonymous said...

Very well said, Emily!

kirsten saell said...

Actually, when you think about it, many of the "enduring classics" were considered plebeian dreck in their day, suitable only for the great unwashed. Austen, the Brontes, even Dickens weren't considered highbrow. Pretty much anything that had a broad appeal was scorned (and still is).

Makes me wonder if Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer won't be lauded as literary giants in a hundred years...

Fiona Glass said...

"By introducing the dangerous lover the Brontës use the same concept as modern mass market romances..."

Is it just me or does that sentence sound as if the Brontes were copying the modern mass market romances? O.o

JS said...

Makes me wonder if Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer won't be lauded as literary giants in a hundred years..

Absolutely not. The Brontes were massively outsold by dozens of forgettable writers. Mrs. Henry Wood, for instance, sold a bazillion copies of EAST LYNNE and is now remembered only as a grad students' joke. And then there's Bulwer-Lytton...