Romantic reading for the rest of us

Happy Valentine’s Day Eve, Madison.

I’d like to get right to it and talk about romance.

Our culture seems to love it—we find it in the highest of our literature and the lowest of it, but we can’t seem to decide its worth. It’s a modern problem, and it’s got a modern solution, too. But, specifically, I want to talk about genre romance.

What’s the difference between romance as a literary genre and romance as a literary function? Well, whereas a function fits into a work, and works with other functions—like a battery or a cog or a whirring chain—a genre is the end product, the whole, the assemblage of those functions. Usually, a genre—like romance or science fiction or horror— makes one of its functions (plot, characterization, structure, setting, etc.) its point or its raison d’être. In the effort to make more sense of this comparison, your car is a genre and its engine is a function.

A genre romance novel is about the romance in question—courtship, attraction, marriage, tragic separations, so on and so forth. That’s the idea anyway. It’s an interesting interplay, since as far as romance as a function goes in novels (as with engines in cars) it’s pretty static. Cars, meanwhile, can vary dramatically. You wouldn’t call a Subaru a Volvo, even if they both have internal combustion engines and take the same type of gasoline.

It’s a trite comparison, but it’s one of the few ways I can make headway on such a diffuse discussion.

Of course, there are plenty of books that are about love, about romance, that aren’t genre romances. But these books aren’t necessarily happy romance books, which is what the romance genre implies, the crux being that live in a genre romance love works out in the end. The barriers fall by the wayside, the guy gets the girl and vice versa, or the guy/girl realizes that their true love had been by their side the whole time, masquerading as a platonic friend. A happily ever after.

That happy ending sentiment is a point of criticism of genre romance, that it’s overly idealized, or that it treats love and its cadre of associates as shallow and superficial. But can you have a genre romance that ends tragically? It’s a bit of a muddle.

“Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, is a horrible genre romance. Two capricious kids from feuding families make goo-goo eyes at each other at a party, secretly get married and then they kill themselves in a crypt, having taken half the main cast and their parents’ happiness with them. It comes off as a little silly, and nothing works out for anyone.

But “Romeo and Juliet” is still a romantic play. Shakespeare’s lines are ardent and fruitful, and would be a knockout in any other romance. Yet, “Romeo and Juliet” is less a tragedy of love than it is a tragedy of relations. The Capulets and Montagues feud for forgotten reasons, and it is Romeo and Juliet’s ignorance of the hate at hand that spurs the moribund rigmarole of their fall. Those kids may have felt irrepressibly attracted to one another, but it’d be a stretch to call them fated lovers.

And a book like “A Farewell to Arms” is a romance between a WWI soldier and his nurse, but it’s also a war story and a character study and rumination on the human condition and an interesting travelogue. And it does not end well at all. But the story of Harry and Catherine does not feel like a mere formality or a void in the story. It doesn’t make a fetish of romance.

But is genre romance just a fetish piece? It’s hard to say. Love and romance will remain a distinctly complicated and tremulous experience, either until we get over all our hang-up or perfect telepathy is invented.

But since those two events are unlikely at the moment, I leave you with this: Love is a perennial obsession, and of course, “love loves to love love,” as James Joyce wrote in “Ulysses.” And how apt he was. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Got any romantic anecdotes to share with Sean? Or maybe even a Valentine to shoot his way? Send him an email at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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