Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow and Unibrow

Who decides if a novel has "Literary Merit?"

Was Dracula considered to be literary?  Can you name one romance novel that is considered to be a literary work embraced by millions?

OK, you Jane Austen fans. I see you. You set aside Mr. Darcy for a moment, I’ll relinquish my hold on Mr Rochester, and we’ll talk contemporary.

And you girls who love the ‘other’  Edward put your hands down too.

Now, allow me to make an observation. Besides my theory that vampires appeal to a youth-fixated population hellbent on not aging, I think it’s clear that Paranormal romance is embraced by the literati because it has crossover roots in Horror and Science Fiction. Borrowing elements from those two genres lends a sense of ‘respectability’ to a romance novel, which,we all know, on its own, is nothing more than pure drivel that chains women to a patriarchal society.  However, when one adds a brooding vampire to the mix, it kicks the dumb ass of a sickly sweet romance somehow releases that patriarchal bondage.

Or it adds another sort of bondage to the story.

A similar unchaining has occurred in Romantic comedies, but I mean movies, not books.

Take director/writer/producer Judd Apatow’s recent romantic comedies: Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up. When the lead character in the romance is a guy, everything changes.  If the hero is an overweight, unemployed dope-smoking less than gorgeous dude, and there’s a big dose of poop humour and dick jokes (I’ll be the first to admit I think poop, fart, and dick jokes are funny), the romance suddenly crosses over into ‘respectability.’  It garners critical acclaim for being clever and sweet and funny, even if it is gross-out or toilet humour. 

A romance novel, one that is straight romance, on its own is still considered to be lowbrow fiction. If the lead in a romantic comedy film is a woman, the movie is deemed a "chick flick." It’s downgraded and loses respect and merit as a comedy or work of fine cinema because it doesn’t have a penis or fangs.

Look. I don’t buy into the 80s feminist argument that romance novels are porn for women or that it is something The Man uses as a leash to keep us ladies in line with masculine power. I simply think publishers, literary critics, and movie reviewers are slow to see where the real power is. 

Romance seldom, if ever, gets reviews in newspapers or magazine, yet it still outsells every genre of fiction out there. It is poo-poohed as drivel. It is denigrated at every possible moment by critics and reviewers and academics teaching "literature" at great universities. A dear friend of mine (Hello Katie-Sue!) had a bi-monthly romance novel column in a major Australian newspaper. Although it was popular and garner awards, Kate’s column was dropped in favour of book excerpts and reviews for genre fiction of all types.

Except romance.

If you don’t believe me, check out last Saturday’s Courier Mail. It reviewed three mysteries, a crime novel, and a work of literary fiction about Alzheimer’s. 

Pulp fiction and dime novels are acceptable to review. Genre fiction is included beneath the literary umbrella, yet romance stand outside and gets rained on. It’s odd, considering how much spending power romance readers have. We’ve got the power yet, we don’t make enough noise to make things change. It is because we’re used to hiding our guilty little pleasures, or forays into escapist stories. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking we have to feel guilty about reading about love.  

And we do it to ourselves.

Anyone out there in Oldbiteyland want to offer a suggestion? Or tell me what they think of romance? Anyone want to get up and make some noise? Because, as it stands now, It seems as if unless it has fangs or smokes pot, I’d say romance is going to continue to be the  Rodney Dangerfield of fiction.

I for one am a little tired of that.

3 thoughts on “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow and Unibrow

  1. I’ve read one or two with 40+ heroines, but not many. I read one with a post-menopausal heroine – the author called it Hag Lit, which was a bit of a marketing fail for me.

    (Nicola O. here – idk why LiveJournal thinks it should be able to look at my contacts)

  2. Hey Favorite Sister,

    I told you I read this. When I think classics love stories or romance.. I always think of a Tale of Two Cities – Selfless scarifice. I haven’t read it, but I heard the Notebook is great. I get a kick out reading your postings. They are hilarious.

  3. Literary or Not : That is the Question!

    I like your thoughts. You’re right. I just didn’t get Knocked Up. But then I wasn’t male. So, most of the humour didn’t stick to me, just went on by.
    I’m not sure if RomFic needs more critical evaluation, I just think the truth needs to be accepted by the mainstream and not constantly being acknowledged as some kind of bizarre “unknown” fact that it outsells everything else.
    Just because it’s plentiful doesn’t mean it’s crappy or bad or underwritten or any of the dismissive things everyday people believe about RomFic. Also, maybe people need to stop attaching highbrow kudos to reading. Appreciate it as an everyday aspect and RomFic might be able to stop competing against her sister genres.
    We don’t need to measure up! Just appreciate it.
    Though I did enjoy the point made over the weekend at ARRC that RomFic doesn’t have the same value because women (primary Rom readers) don’t collect things the same way men do with their stuff.
    Basically, Women are happy to share more than Men. I think this is a gender issue.

    Anyway, running out of thoughts, but I like where you’re coming from Bites. Here! Here!


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