Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why "They" Disapprove of Romance: Another Angle

Brian Attebery, in his Introduction to the latest issue (Volume 21, No. 1) of the JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS, discusses the value of examining fiction from the perspective of "cultural work," that is, "not in terms of what it *is* or even what it *says* but rather what it *does*." In a passage highly relevant to the problem of why "serious" critics often disdain romance, he writes:

"Like women's literature, like socially activist literature such as Stowe's, like literature written for children or by outsider groups, fantasy has been largely ignored or demeaned by the literary establishment on grounds that are presented as aesthetic but are covertly political. Genres such as fantasy and science fiction are dismissed not because the writing is weak or the imagination inferior but because they do the wrong things. Code words like 'juvenile,' 'time waster,' or 'cult' are all clues that the critic disapproves not of the text but of the work it performs."

What does romance "do" that offends its detractors? "Escapist" is another term often applied to all kinds of genre fiction by those who disapprove of it. (We also hear the "beach read" label, implying a frivolous, self-indulgent function for genre novels.) If you've read Tolkien's classic essay on fairy tales, you'll remember that two of the important functions he assigns to "fairy stories" and, by extension, some other kinds of fantasy are consolation and escape. In his argument about why escape can be a good thing, he inquires what sorts of people are most obsessed with keeping others from escaping. Answer: Jailers! When a prisoner breaks out of a concentration camp or a POW compound, we regard him as a hero. We might view romance as "escape" in a similar light.

It's not uncommon to see romance demeaned as "porn for women." Setting aside the nuanced distinctions among erotic romance, erotica, and pornography, if the accusation refers to the fact that some romances arouse sexual feelings—among other kinds of emotions—I have to ask: And what's wrong with that? Why is it legitimate to use candlelight, lingerie, decadent desserts, and soft music to incite passion but not to read explicit fiction for the same purpose? Sometimes detractors of horror or extremely violent stories (and I confess I don't care for ultra-violence myself) label them "porn" by analogy. All fiction, for that matter, has as one of its functions the excitement of emotions in the reader, whether suspense, fear, repugnance, sadness, joy, or others.

Would those who scorn romance and erotica claim that all fiction designed to stimulate the emotions is bad? If so, they'd eliminate all fiction, period, or transform reading it into a purely intellectual exercise. Not to mention throwing out Aristotle's theory of catharsis, enshrined in classical criticism for thousands of years. Or do they mean some kinds of emotion and sensation are legitimate for literature to arouse and others aren't?

So what "work" done by romance causes the "serious" critics to disdain it? (Or they have until recently, at least; now some academic studies of romantic literature are being done by respected scholars.) Romance appeals to emotions often scorned as "sentimental." It usually portrays sexual passion in positive terms. It also celebrates lifelong commitment to a partner in love. What's wrong with "escaping" from the cynicism and violence that pervade too much of our world ("facing reality," the critics might call that realm of experience) into a world where loving relationships (which are also part of "reality") have the highest priority?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

7 comments:

  1. In his argument about why escape can be a good thing, he inquires what sorts of people are most obsessed with keeping others from escaping. Answer: Jailers!

    Interesting. So, what we should be asking is why does everyone spend so much time attempting to analyze the popular fiction readers instead of the ones putting them down, shouldn't we? :-D

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  2. Thanks for posting this.

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  3. I think perhaps that the critic is only looking for what he/she considers "art". Problem is all art is subjective and depends so much on the eye of the beholder. I think this is the same problem with the collage creative writing courses, because they set out to teach one to write "literature."

    I don't think any story starts out as literature; it only grows that way because it has touched so many people. I have an idea that Charles Dickens didn't set out to write literature, only to tell a good story.

    As far as being escapist, well don’t all great stories allow us to escape to another place, isn't that why it continues to be great? Even Emily Dickinson said, "There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away,"

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  4. Margaret wrote:
    What's wrong with "escaping" from the cynicism and violence that pervade too much of our world ("facing reality," the critics might call that realm of experience) into a world where loving relationships (which are also part of "reality") have the highest priority?

    ---
    Thank you for this excellent foray into the land of question-asking!

    You're right, the question has to be about "who" doesn't want readers to "escape."

    But your final question leads, I think, in a direction where there are no answers to be found.

    The assumption behind your question is that the world of reality IS full of cynicism and violence.

    If you work from that assumption, then you can never "sell" the HEA to the general reader.

    The assumption sets you up to fail.

    My series on FAILURE OF IMAGINATION and previous entries on the HEA problem tackles this pervasive assumption - that "reality" actually is ugly, violent, and hopeless.

    http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/07/failure-of-imagination-part-ii-society.html

    And there are a few more parts to that discussion yet to come after my series on Editing.

    The thing is that SF, Fantasy, Romance and any mixture of the three are NOT "escapist" at all.

    They do not work as fiction or as art unless they reveal a truth our normal consciousness rejects. That's what Art does - reveal truth that isn't apparent but is very real.

    The brutal, disturbing, and inescapable truth is that beauty, peace, and LOVE are the essence of what all reality actually is.

    That is the unthinkable postulate "they" can't allow anyone to consider. "They" experience true panic at that idea. Why that is, we can only approach through conjecture.

    So what kind of a "jail" are "they" trying to keep you in? You don't need to know why in order to walk through their illusionary walls.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg
    http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

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  5. Margaret wrote:
    What's wrong with "escaping" from the cynicism and violence that pervade too much of our world ("facing reality," the critics might call that realm of experience) into a world where loving relationships (which are also part of "reality") have the highest priority?

    ---
    Thank you for this excellent foray into the land of question-asking!

    You're right, the question has to be about "who" doesn't want readers to "escape."

    But your final question leads, I think, in a direction where there are no answers to be found.

    The assumption behind your question is that the world of reality IS full of cynicism and violence.

    If you work from that assumption, then you can never "sell" the HEA to the general reader.

    The assumption sets you up to fail.

    My series on FAILURE OF IMAGINATION and previous entries on the HEA problem tackles this pervasive assumption - that "reality" actually is ugly, violent, and hopeless.

    http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/07/failure-of-imagination-part-ii-society.html

    And there are a few more parts to that discussion yet to come after my series on Editing.

    The thing is that SF, Fantasy, Romance and any mixture of the three are NOT "escapist" at all.

    They do not work as fiction or as art unless they reveal a truth our normal consciousness rejects. That's what Art does - reveal truth that isn't apparent but is very real.

    The brutal, disturbing, and inescapable truth is that beauty, peace, and LOVE are the essence of what all reality actually is.

    That is the unthinkable postulate "they" can't allow anyone to consider. "They" experience true panic at that idea. Why that is, we can only approach through conjecture.

    So what kind of a "jail" are "they" trying to keep you in? You don't need to know why in order to walk through their illusionary walls.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg
    http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

    ReplyDelete
  6. oops - accidentally posted that comment twice

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  7. "The assumption behind your question is that the world of reality IS full of cynicism and violence.

    If you work from that assumption, then you can never "sell" the HEA to the general reader.

    The assumption sets you up to fail."

    That is not *my* assumption. I'm saying that's what the critics of "sentimental" fiction assume. I agree with you:

    "The brutal, disturbing, and inescapable truth is that beauty, peace, and LOVE are the essence of what all reality actually is."

    In the Judeo-Christian world-view, love MUST be the ultimate essence of reality.

    In this fallen world, however, cynicism and violence are inescapably part of reality. But they are no MORE "real" -- and ultimately less real -- than love is. C. S. Lewis devotes one of the later chapters of THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS to this issue. The Adversary would like us all to think of ugly, cruel facts as "realistic" and the more uplifting parts of life as "purely subjective."

    ReplyDelete