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