Criticism and Romantic Novels


I am a bit perturbed (I’m good at being perturbed, aren’t I?) at a New Age view which has infiltrated popular thinking.

A recent blog post by Mari Biella on free speech

Free Speech, Fake News and the Internet

inspired me to write this one.

This ‘New Age’  view that has to some extent infiltrated popular thinking is the  ‘No Negativity’ mindset that equates ‘criticism’ with something bad and unfair – in effect, with ‘negative criticism’.

This seems to me a worrying trend.  Criticism is surely equal to having an intelligent awareness of ones surroundings – towards having an active sense of discrimination. Without that we will have, surely, no intellectual life and also, no moral awareness.

Certainly, criticism can sometimes be harsh and unfair. Nobody exactly enjoys being on the receiving end of a scathing attack, however amusing it may be for others to read.

For instance, literary critics can be savage.

Then, with the rise of the internet, anyone can set buy a book and leave a review, even if it is of the ‘Boring – didn’t get past the third paragraph’ one star variety, up there on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and so on.

For my own part, I avoid giving one star reviews unless the topic is really offensive – ie, a rapist or otherwise really abusive hero, say, and I avoid giving up on any book until I’ve read the first three chapters, while I never review a book unless I’ve read it through.

But that’s just me; a lot of readers take a different approach: that is their right .

And surely, the alternative of a non critical attitude, is far worse all round.

Unfortunately, this ‘New Age’ ‘All criticism is bad and unfair’ is an attitude prevalent amongst the ‘Romance Community’, and that does bother me.

What that amounts to, is to adopt the attitude of the cults – disseminating received information, the value and veracity of which it is an outrage to challenge – so that any critical response is attributed to supposed personal malice and psychological shortcomings, if not downright inspiration from evil spirits (glances uneasily about in search of said evil spirits).

There is a  sort of ‘keeping ranks’ attitude amongst writers and readers of romance – who often seem to know each other through blogs, etc – which adheres to unspoken rules, one of which seems to be that being under attack from outside means that they must not express any discontent between themselves. Any outspoken, hard hitting criticism is seen as being infra dig (Sarah Wendell has been to some extent an exception).  I recently came across a series of fulsome comments agreeing with a blogger who had objected to critical dismissal of the blogger’s idol’s literary ability. The blogger later described that series of agreements  as ‘a stimulating discussion’.  I didn’t quite see where the ‘discussion’ part came in? What was her view of a non-stimulating discussion?

Seriously, I truly did encounter this on a cosy little blog, the purpose of which seemed to be to give glowing reviews to historical romances,’intimate’ and sentimental biographies of monarchs, etc.

I can see how this approach has come about. Romantic novels have been traditionally derided as being unworthy of serious consideration as literature. While genre fiction generally is seen in this light, it is particularly true of romance, which has been especially targeted as absurd. Certainly, there is an element of sexism in this.

A lot of romance writers and readers point out, and with some justification, that male adventure stories and fantasy are just as far fetched;  it is merely that the unrealistic elements in those are different to those in romantic novels.

However, to take the attitude that it is permissible to write what is supposed to be literary criticism, in which a writer or student proffers no objective analysis of general weaknesses among examples the genre, and of particular weaknesses amongst the authors discussed, is surely not  literary criticism worthy of the name. Unfortunately, there are examples of so-called ‘literary criticism’ of romance as a genre which reflect this attitude.

I am sorry to say that this is true of a renowned book of literary criticism of the romance novel written by a Professor of English at McDaniel College in the US – often solemnly quoted as a brilliant defence of the genre in various articles about the web – ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’  by Pamela Regis.

This struck me as containing no criticism either of the genre, or of the authors’ work the author purports to analyse. Rather it was a glowing series of expositions of various novels.

At no point during the whole of the book does Regis admit that any of the novels she ‘discusses’ have weaknesses. It reads more like a panegyric on the various authors. She sets out a structure she has devised to which the ‘pure’ romantic novel is meant to a adhere, comprising eight points. She then goes on to define various classic novels as having these points and therefore, by definition, belonging to the category of romantic novels, ie, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (whether or not these last two are in fact romantic novels is, of course, highly debated; anyway, Regis is confident that according to her approach, they are).

When I came to the chapter ‘The Limits of Romance’ , I thought, ‘Ah; now we shall have some objective analyses worthy of the name’ but no such thing. The phrase merely means that certain novels which are, generally, regarded as belonging to the romance genre are excluded – ie, ‘Gone With the Wind’, which is excluded by not having the necessary HEA.

Where there is any criticism, even of highly contentious subjects – for instance, of Samuel Richardson’s making a happy ending between the heroine and the ridiculous but supposedly romantic would-be rapist hero Mr B in ‘Pamela’ – then rather than engage herself, the author quotes opinions by other critics, never stating her own opinions except in defence of the genre.

Discussion of varying points of view should indeed be used to extend the scope of an argument; but when it is used as a substitute for any real investigation of structural and stylistic weaknesses by the author herself, when she is supposedly an expert on literary criticism – that strikes me as extraordinary.

My own review of this book can be found here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/182152.A_Natural_History_of_the_Romance_Novel?ac=1&from_search=true#other_reviews

I found some of the comments on the book made by a journalist called Noah Berlatsky in this blog highly apposite:

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/12/romance-and-the-defensive-crouch

‘Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. ‘

…An impossible position to maintain, but somehow the author does it. But then she makes a truly astounding claim about the ‘first romantic novel’  ‘Pamela’, of which, it seems, for all its glaring faults, she as a defender of romantic novels is determined to admire as having a hidden feminist message.  She maintains that:  ‘The story can be called oppressive, I think, only if one believes that marriage is an institution so flawed that it cannot be good for a woman.’

I wrote an answer answer to that bizarre attempt at defence of the distasteful and sentimental outcome (as critics say, the obscenity of ‘Pamela’ lies in its sentimentality)  in my Goodreads review of her book. This would take us too far off topic here for me to quote…

So, to move back to the general…

I remarked in my own review of Regis’ work:

‘The author, in fact, puts herself in an impossible position; in arguing that there have been some romances written which are great literature, pointing to the ‘canonical’ texts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, she never admits that comparison means just that. If there have been excellent romances written, then by definition there have to have been some far from excellent ones churned out. But as a defender of romance, who seems to make it a point of honour to eschew all criticism, this is an admission that she cannot make. All that she can do, is to maintain a deafening silence on the topic.

This ‘closing ranks’ out of defensiveness and equating all criticism with negative criticism is an attitude of the romance community which contradicts the desire of its members for their genre to be taken seriously. Criticism by definition cannot all be positive.’

If romance readers and writers want their favourite genre taken seriously as literature, then surely one of the first steps must be for romance writers to accept criticism without automatically maintaining the ‘defensive crouch’ that Noah Berlatsky analyses in his blog.

To move forward, surely the ‘romance community’ must also  be prepared to extend hard hitting analysis worthy of the  name about ‘classic romantic novels’ and others  – particularly in works of supposed literary criticism.  Free speech should operate here as elsewhere; for romance writers and critics to adopt the attitude that it is somehow unfair and not nice  makes them seem weak in a stereotypically ‘feminine’ way, and reinforce those sexist interpretations they so rightly resent.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Criticism and Romantic Novels

  1. Good post, Lucinda – and thanks for the mention. I’ve often found something similar – that people characterise even fair and measured criticism as being mindlessly negative, rather than being essential for any kind of growth, improvement or understanding – which I believe it is. As writers, I think we should always be open to criticism, however much it may sting (and it does!), if only because it is very often the thing that spurs us to improve. And besides, once something is published and out in the public sphere, anyone can say anything they want about it. It might not be comfortable, but that’s the way it is…

  2. Thank you, Mari. Strong criticism stings indeed,but it is the price we must pay for free speech. I do think that this all criticism is to be eschewed view is an attitude that has somehow crept in through the back door over the past couple of decades. I was interested that my own daughter took an AS level in ‘Critical Thinking’, which seems to be a comparatively new topic.
    It seems to me that this is a skill that should be offered generally – one of the reasons being the very serious one that young people can avoid in that way attempts at brainwashing by cults, who offer received information they expect to go unchallenged.

  3. Hey Lucinda. This is an interesting piece. I wouldn’t frame the question around free speech, if it were me. Free speech refers to government censorship, usually, which isn’t what’s happening here.

    I think criticism is an art form in itself, and as such it can have a lot of different incentives; moral, aesthetic, truth, beauty. You might want to talk about the flaws in Pamela because normalizing representations and narratives of abuse can be dangerous for victims and for policy; you might want to talk about the flaws in a book because it has flaws, and you have a commitment as a reviewer (or artist) to being honest in your assessment. Also, If people care about romance being taken seriously (as Regis does) serious criticism is a prerequisite for that.

    I had another question for you…could you email me? I’m at myname @gmail

    1. Thank you for commenting, Noah. Of course, you are right in that attacks on free speech usually involves government censorship, but there can be various sub sectors of society which deny free speech amongst themselves. What interests me here, is that I believe that the anti critical thinking attitude of the New Age ‘Hay House’ type approach,which has spread out to popular thinking, is a threat to free speech without coming from the government and has been adopted, either consciously or unconsciously, but the so-called ‘Romance Community’. After all, various bodies, which were not necessarily synonymous with central government, have often attempted to curtail free speech. I would say that free speech is under threat from that, but many would disagree.
      I will certainly be in touch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s