Friday, November 10, 2006

A truth universally acknowledged?

Yesterday one of Sarah Weinman's posts at Galleycat ended with this tidbit:

...a 2005 poll by the RNA revealed that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, first published in 1813, still stands as the most romantic novel of all time.

I'm always curious about such things, so I checked out The Romantic Novelists Association's Valentine's Day poll, a survey of their membership which found its top ten "most romantic books of all time" to be:

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
4. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
6. Katherine by Anya Seton
7. Persuasion by Jane Austen
8. Tess of the D’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
9. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
10. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Clearly, RNA members believe that the only good romance novelist is a dead romance novelist. That strikes me as hilarious because RNA is an organization (perhaps I should say "organisation," since they're British) of about 700 professional and aspiring romance novelists. I can't help wondering if they're all eager to publish and perish so they can get famous.

Let's take another look at that list. Virtually all of the books on it are assigned reading in high-school or college-level English classes on this side of the pond, and I'm guessing it's the same for the Brits. That means the "winning" books had not just one, but two advantages over books by contemporary novelists like, let's say, Nora Roberts. I'm not a Nora fan, so I don't know which book is widely considered to be her magnum opus. But whatever that book is, did it have a fighting chance to make the top ten of this list?

No, it didn't, and here's why: First, more people have read Pride and Prejudice than have read Nora's best book. P&P has been around longer, for one thing, but the main reason more people have read it is simply that it's considered a classic novel while "genre fiction" like Nora's best book is usually dismissed by the literati and educators as trash. My high-school English teacher told me Jane Austen was a great novelist, but she never said a word about Nora Roberts (and if you haven't picked up on this yet, I'm using Nora to represent whomever you feel is the best contemporary romance novelist). So if we ask the average reader to name the best romantic novel of all time, she's going to say Pride and Prejudice because that's what she's been trained to think. And she's going to stick to that answer even if she hasn't read Pride and Prejudice since high school but she's read the best Nora Roberts book ten times in the last ten years because it always makes her feel so good.

What do you think? Is Pride and Prejudice the best romance novel ever written? Before you answer in the affirmative, are you absolutely certain there's not a single contemporary romance (or novel with romantic elements) that you think more highly of?

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Neal said...

(Slightly off-topic comment)

I'm sure you're right, but I have no real opinion, not being much of a romance-reader.

That said, I'm just coming to the end of Jane Eyre, which I've never read before. I'd probably never have thought of reading it either, except for (a) knowing how you rate it (b) having read that Jasper Fforde novel I mentioned not long ago and (c) having recently seen a very good BBC adaptation of it (if you haven't seen it already, I bet it comes to BBC America soon).

Anyway, as a Non-Romance Reader (but also one who hates the Bonds Of Being Labelled Genre Fiction), I have found Jane Eyre to be wonderful, insightful, and rich. But the point that stays with me is: how on earth did Charlotte Bronte have such an insight into men? Seriously, in the characters of Rochester and St John, I think she's summed up 95% of what it is to be male. Incredible. And a little frightening. In particular, Rochester's arguments that Jane should stay with him, and St John's arguments for marrying Jane are just so ... male.

So, to kind of bring this round to the point of the discussion: does Nora Roberts have that kind of insight? I have no idea -- maybe she does (and of course, insert your own chosen romantic novelist here). And while I agree with your general principle that many of those novels are on the list because we've been trained to think they should be on the list, I can't help but think that there must be at least some reasons that these things are regarded as classics, apart from the mortal status of the author. For me, at least, Jane Eyre should be on the list simply because I've never read anything quite like it before.

Laura Vivanco said...

OK, there are a couple of points to make here. First of all, re 'RNA members believe that the only good romance novelist is a dead romance novelist', the poll was open to anyone who clicked on their website, so the final decision might not be an accurate reflection of the opinions of RNA members.

Secondly, when polls are done on sites such as AAR e.g. their Top 100 Romances Poll for 2004 you'll find Heyer and Austen quite far up the rankings. In the UK most of the American authors listed there are simply not readily available. Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Laura Kinsale, Loretta Chase etc are not big names in the UK, in fact, there are no Kinsale or Chase novels at all in my local library and you can have a hard time finding romances (other than category romances) in bookshops. Given that category romances are only in the shops for a month, it's not very likely that any one category romance will build up the following of Pride and Prejudice which has been around a long time, as you say. The RNA poll is also affected by the fact that they're polling for 'romantic' novels, not just romance as defined by the stricter RWA definition.

I think what the RNA is trying to do is build the profile of romantic novels as a whole, and one way of doing that is to suggest that romances written by modern authors and often stigmatised as 'trashy', 'silly' etc are, in fact, in the same genre as novels that people take seriously. By 'claiming' Austen as a romance author, readers and writers of romance are saying that their genre deserves respect. Only a few days ago my colleague at the Teach Me Tonight blog, Sarah Frantz, wrote about 'reclaiming Jane Austen' because she feels that:

Jane Austen wrote mass market romances, which does not imply that she wrote simple books, but rather implies that modern popular mass market romance novels are as layered and textured as Austen's six novels and as deserving of consideration.

Brenda Coulter said...

Neal, my friends say Nora Roberts does have that uncanny insight into the male psyche. I don't care for her books because the way she uses point of view prevents me from falling into her stories, but that's just me. Most romance readers say she's brilliant at characterization.

I can't help but think that there must be at least some reasons that these things are regarded as classics, apart from the mortal status of the author. For me, at least, Jane Eyre should be on the list simply because I've never read anything quite like it before.

Well, certainly. Both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre would top my own list of all-time best novels with romantic elements (although I must say I never cared for the overwrought Wuthering Heights). I'm just wondering how many people know in their bones that those are the best books ever and how many are merely parroting what they've been taught. I think my main concern--and I don't know why I didn't mention this in the post--is that differences in day-to-day language might be skewing our perception of "greatness" in novels. Simply put, today's books contain less formal language than the classics. Modern, everyday English is more relaxed than that spoken and written in Austen's time. So I can't help wondering if those language differences might lead us to make unfair comparisons between the classic novels and modern books.

I'm not trying to drag Pride and Prejudice down. It is a great book. I'm just suggesting that we might be giving an unfair advantage to the old books simply because they contain "loftier" language than what we speak and write today. For example, the line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife," is a blast to read. But I get fully as big a kick out of the first sentence of Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation:

Sophie Dempsey didn't like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her '86 Civic, broke her sister's sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.

Note that I'm not comparing the two books, merely the two opening lines. Both sentences employ a subtle humor that I love. But is one better writing than the other?

I don't think so.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, Laura, I'm so glad you stopped by. I was thinking about you as I composed my response to Neal--and hoping you'd give us your perspective on the "language" issue I brought up.

Yes, I am aware of the differences between RNA and RWA, and I'm usually careful to make a distinction between the terms "romance novel" and "romantic novel" (RWA calls the latter "a novel with romantic elements"). And my comment about the dead romance novelists was written with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

I had seen Sarah's excellent post on Jane Austen's "mass market" books just this week, but had forgotten it already. (I'm blaming my ADD for that.) Thanks for sharing the link.

Laura Vivanco said...

Interesting that you compare Crusie and Austen. I expect you know this already, but Eric Selinger and I will be editing a collection of essays about Crusie's novels, precisely because we think her work does stand up to academic scrutiny, is multi-layered etc. We've given our reasons at length here.

I don't think the language issue is the biggest problem, or even necessarily a problem at all, since it clearly doesn't affect the way literary fiction is assessed: modern literary fiction doesn't use the same style of language as Austen does. In fact, it's when romance has tried to sound literary that it's often been accused of being 'purple prose'.

I think the biggest problems are that romance is seen as being gushy, emotional and mass-produced. Emotions were popular among the Romantics and Victorians often enjoyed real tear-jerkers (e.g. Dickens' has the death of Little Nell). They didn't confine themselves to unhappy endings - Anthony Trollope has plenty of happy endings. But emotionalism has gone out of fashion.

In the UK romance novels are associated with Mills & Boon novels, and people who've maybe read one (or perhaps have only read part of one) think that means that they can comment on all romance novels (not realising that the quality varies). The perception is that romance novels are all the same, because they're produced by the same publisher, are short and have similar titles.

In the US, where there are publishers other than Harlequin, you've got the problem of romance being associated with bodice-ripping covers (we don't have those in the UK).

There are probably other reasons for the prejudice against the genre, but I can't think of them at the moment.

Brenda Coulter said...

Yes, Laura, I was aware that you were editing such a book. I'm sure it will be brilliant, and I'm hoping it will get plenty of attention.

I don't think the language issue is the biggest problem, or even necessarily a problem at all, since it clearly doesn't affect the way literary fiction is assessed: modern literary fiction doesn't use the same style of language as Austen does. In fact, it's when romance has tried to sound literary that it's often been accused of being 'purple prose'.

Granted. But I wasn't talking about comparisons between modern literary fiction and the classic romantic novels. Surely the readers and writers who responded to the RNA survey were more likely than not to be fans of genre (romance) fiction; and that is, in general, a crowd that doesn't read a lot of contemporary literary fiction (in my country, at least). So I still believe the "graceful" language of the old novels gives those books an advantage in any contest between them and modern-day romance/romantic novels. And I've just thought of a parallel in the Christian world: most Bible-readers, when asked which version is the most beautiful, will still answer "the King James," even though that version continues to lose readers each year to the modern translations, which are easier for most people to understand.

As for the wildly talented Jennifer Crusie, she's a favorite of many American romance readers (including this one). Yet I suspect even some of her most ardent fans would say that while she's a darn fine writer, she's no Jane Austen. Here's hoping you and Eric Selinger can change some minds about that.

Kristi said...

I love P&P - but I wouldn't say it's The Best Book Ever or even The Best Romance Novel Ever...I'm actually not sure what I'd put in that spot, though, if I couldn't list P&P.

Language, I think, does weight some of the polls. A lit prof I had in college compared the first chapters of a Spenser (Robert B. Parker) novel and a Sherlock Holmes -- and it seemed to me at the time that his entire argument as to why Holmes was better than Spenser was the language of the book.

Anonymous said...

I love P&P and would rate it number one. But my other two contemporary favorites are by Lori Wick. "The Hawk and Jewel" and "Every Storm" are two of my most favorite books of all time. Brittanie

Anonymous said...

I love P&P and I would say that it is one of the best romance stories ever, although whether that's because Colin Firth played such a wonderful Darcey in the A&E movie version, I couln't say. :-)

As for contemporary novels, I think Francine Rivers is a brilliant author and her Mark of the Lion series - fantastic. Although that might be classified as more of a romantic novel (with romantic elements) than a romance. Also, her Redeeming Love is another fabulous read and a wonderful love story.

So I guess "the best" would really depend on the reader. Do you want a story that's poignant and deep and makes you catch your breath and cry? Or do you want a story that makes you laugh, sigh and close the book with a smile on your face and a light feeling in your heart? (Read Finding Hope)

I have all these books on my shelf and I've read them all multiple times. I tend to reach for whatever suits my mood! Does that make me weird? Probably!

Signing this anywayS, LOL!

Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Very interesting posts and comments, as always.

I read Austen and other literary works, but truthfully? I don't enjoy them to the same degree as contemporary novelists. :-o!

I haven't read Nora in a while, but I've loved everything I have read of hers in the past.

Because I'm currently living, eating, breathing Harlequin Mills & Boon (I am writing it after all), I've discovered my favourite authors of the moment are those who provide me with an emotional read: Liz Fielding, Trish Wylie, Nicola Marsh and Natasha Oakley.

When it comes to polls and surveys I believe people often choose authors who they think make them look/sound more intelligent. There is still a lot of snobbery in the literary world.

And, I agree with Laura - 'literary' works are widely available to everybody in the UK, whereas Category fiction etc. isn't.

Sue :-)
a proud reader and aspiring writer of category romance who apologises for rambling

Brenda Coulter said...

Kristi, Brittanie, Shauna, and Sue, thanks for taking the time to comment. (Shauna babe, I appreciate your kind words about my first book.) This has been a fun discussion.