Friday, June 22, 2007

Come and Come and Come Again

"They're all rubbish really, aren't they? Read one and you've read them all...."

...Cheryl prattled on. "I mean, they're not really romances....They're just debased versions of the sentimental novel of courtship and marriage that started with Richardson's Pamela. A realistic setting, an ordinary heroine that the reader can identify with, a simple plot about finding a husband....Titillating but moral."
It's with some ambivalence that I confide to you that Cheryl's derisory take on what is referred to a "Bills and Moon type of romance" comes straight out of one of my all-time favorite comic novels. Small World, by David Lodge, is a wildly literate, wonderfully funny and humane book that I recommend with no ambivalence and no reservations (well, one caveat: don't read it if you're too p.c. re our genre to get past the Bills and Moon putdown -- which I will address, don't worry).

I almost called it "one of my favorite comic (non-romance) novels." But then I realized how weird it would be to do that, because the subtitle of Small World is "An Academic Romance." Its plot comprises perhaps half a dozen love stories. And most of them are "academic romances," because most of the characters (though not Cheryl whom I quoted) are academics who talk pretty much non-stop about literature and often about what Cheryl (and Lodge) call "real romance" -- of, you know, the Arthurian/Faerie Queen variety. The characters fall in and out of love and bed; losing and finding, chasing and following each other all over the world, on their way to and from a series of academic literature conferences.

Cheryl, who works in an airport, has only recently traded Bills and Moon in for The Faerie Queen and Orlando Furioso. But for most of the novel she functions as a "helper figure." (Lit crit is big on helper figures: all fairy tales have 'em, and I'd hazard that so do romances of all varieties; the ones I write certainly do). Anyway, not only does Cheryl help Small World's feckless lovers chase each another around the globe, but she helps us, its feckless readers, to make our way through the world of Lodge's novel -- by speaking his view of the early Western European romance tradition that Small World joins, comments upon, and generally has fun with:
"Real romance is a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It's full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels, and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other, or for the Grail, or something like that. Of course, they're often in love too..."
And of course she's in love as well -- unrequitedly, until... but that would be a spoiler.

And though I hope you do read Small World, the real yes-I-do-have-one point of this post goes back to that original putdown of Bills and Moon romance (or what we on this blog would normally just call romance).

Because it's all very well to call Richardson's Pamela a "sentimental novel of courtship and marriage," as long as one remembers that it's usually also called the first novel. And although origins are always debatable, what's not debatable is that one of the great things that novels do is "valorize the ordinary" in "a realistic setting," -- as in Jane Austen's famous advice that "Three of four families in a country village are the very thing to work on." I'd argue that if romance as we know it is in that tradition, I don't think anyone need sneer about where it's coming from.

But I'd also argue that romance as we know it has a great deal to do with the other tradition, of the Arthurian legends and the grail and everything else. Because I'd argue that very few true-life love stories don't come equipped with their own adventures, coincidences, surprises, and marvels -- even if you didn't, as I did, fall in love with your spouse-to-be during the acid-saturated, tie-dyed sixties. I'd argue that there's something so dizzying and challenging about finding one's life partner and coming up against the secrets of one's own nature at the same time that marvels like twins (Eloisa James, anyone?) or spells (amnesia, anyone?) make a certain sense in telling this kind of story.

I'd argue for both sides. As Austen did in Sense and Sensibility.

And I'd argue that the romance as we know it draws upon both the quotidian and the marvelous, the reasonable need for companionship and comfort and the big crazy hungers for wild sexy excess. And that romance ought to do both. More. Bigger. Yes.

Hell, I've just only begun to argue, because my argument hasn't gotten around to sex, which it ought to, given what blog we're on. So here's another quote from Small World, this time from a character named Angelica (because, as you can see, women do a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting in this book). Anyhow, Angelica says, by way of an academic conference presentation:
Romance... has not one climax but many; the pleasure of this text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner is one crisis in the fortunes of the hero averted than a new one present itself; no sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised; no sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins. The narrative questions open and close, open and close, like the contractions of the vaginal muscles in intercourse, and this process is in principle endless.... Romance is a multiple orgasm.
And by the way, if you're a romance writer and you're coming to the RWA National Conference in Dallas next month, do check out the workshop Jane Lockwood and I will be giving, called "Writing the Hot Historical." I'm not promising multiple orgasms, but I think it'll be pretty good. It's scheduled for Friday morning at 9:45.

Any questions?


janegeorge said...

Wouldn't miss it! I'll be there with my fan and glass of cold water, just in case...

Thanks for the heads up on Lodge's Small World. I could use a really fun book right now.

I'd like to hear more on your argument about Sense & Sensibility and both sides. It's one of, if not *the*, favorite Austen for me. It gets put down for its "sit-com" aspects, but that's exactly what I love about it. And isn't falling in love a war between our inner Marianne's and Elinor's?

Pam Rosenthal said...

isn't falling in love a war between our inner Marianne's and Elinor's?

Yup. I don't think I have a lot to add to that. I do think that novels are really good at that conflict and that Jane Austen had a lot to do with jumpstarting it.

Lenora Bell said...

Hell, I've just only begun to argue...

I have a question--when are you going to teach a course based on your arguments, and how can I sign up?

Every time I read one of your posts, I vow to write better. Bigger. Yes.

Jane Lockwood said...

I'm going to have to re-read "Small World," tho my favorite David Lodge (yet another author I want to be when I grow up) is "Nice Work," his take on the industrial novel.

I've a nasty feeling tho that I may have absorbed Cheryl's comparison with Richardson and now pass it off as my own; the few series romances I've read all seemed to me to be extolling the "good marriage," something I thought had gone out of fashion a century or two ago. Paradoxically, though, people do tend to choose mates similar to themselves in background and upbringing, and generally men do make more money than women. So maybe they're right and the world is crawling with hunky men who pulled out of the dotcom biz at the right time and I'm a few decades too late to notice them.

I also really like the orgasm comparison although I'd define the literary structure of the romance as a slow build toward orgasm, with a lot of teasing and fooling around--the journey not the actual arrival.

I also recommend "Nice Work" by David Lodge, which is his take on the industrial novel. Has anyone read his academic stuff on Austen?

Pam Rosenthal said...

when are you going to teach a course based on your arguments, and how can I sign up?

That's a lovely question, Lenora. The short answer is at RWA National. The long answer, about this whole theory thing, is that I'm trying to compile notes for it, on this blog, at History Hoydens, and on my own occasional, almost-blog, especially the "Nerd City" posts. But that unlike David Lodge (whom I also want to be -- too late for when I grow up; I'm hoping for just a moment of it before I die), I'm really really slow, both with the writing and theorizing.

Jane L, I also adored Nice Work; it used to be my favorite in more engagee times, but Small World, obviously, has more to say to me now. I haven't read Lodge on Austen (would love to check it out), but once upon a time when I wrote a SF Chronicle review of a Muriel Spark book, a Lodge essay (he's also a Catholic) saved my butt on Spark's loopy metaphysical take on things.

As for buying Cheryl's argument or not, well, I posted it as a starting point. We can thrash it out more during langueurs at RWA National.

Celia May Hart said...

I'll have to check out the comic.

What *I* find interesting, that in part of my research for my talk at the Beau Monde conference (which just precedes National and is on Wednesday, 2:30pm, I think) is that Richardson's "first" novel is an illustration of the changing view of sexuality at the time. Woman changes from being seducer at the beginning of the 18th Century, and in control of her sexuality -- inasmuch as patriarchy will allow), to become sexual victim by the Victorian era -- but Richardson was the one who wrote about it. "Clarissa" is the classic example of woman as sexual victim.

So I guess if you look at the Arthurian Romances (which bear no resemblance at all to what possibly might have happened in the dark ages but are confections of the medieval era), you see woman as predator, a bunch of fallen Eves. Even Gwen doesn't get to play the virginal role for long.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Re Richardson, Celia -- my husband's recently been reading around in the early 18th century novel, and something one critic pointed out was that in Pamela, the wouldbe seducer Mr. B. becomes the sexual victim, our heroine reducing him to a whining, cringing, horny wreck.

Re Clarissa, a while back I was fascinated to learn that the Marquis de Sade was a huge fan -- giving the longsuffering virtuous heroine his own spin in Justine. Angela Carter wrote brilliantly about this in The Sadean Woman and I cribbed her argument in Safe Word.

Celia May Hart said...

Yeah, I haven't read Pamela -- so it's interesting he wrote about both women in both way!

lacey kaye said...

I'm not promising multiple orgasms, but I think it'll be pretty good.

You had me at orgasm!

Jane Lockwood said...

An odd fact about Richardson, and make of what you will: he suffered from claustrophobia, and I've been told there's a lot of pressing into corners and invasion of personal space in the novel.

And of course Mr. B is the victim. She gets what she wants: marriage. Not what he wants, but it's the only way he can get her!

Kate Pearce said...

I'll be there! I'm the very important moderator who has to patrol the rows of romance writers with the birch cane Jane is supplying and make sure everyone pays attention. Isn't that right?

Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh gosh, that is right. I knew I was nervous about it, but I didn't realize it was making me forgetful. Yes, Kate will be our dominamoderator. It's a dirty job but somebody's gotta do it.

Pam Rosenthal said...

try again -- how about moderatrix?

Sharon Page said...

I want to make a t-shirt that says Romance is a multiple orgasm. I'll be at the Beau Monde workshops on the Wed before Nationals and will make your and Jane's workshop. Sounds great!

Jude said...

Have fun at National! I look forward to your posts. :) I have added your blog to the blogroll for Blogging National.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Jude -- for adding us and for reading us.

And everybody, do check out Blogging National. Looks like a great, fun addition to the conference.