Saturday, April 7, 2007

Romance as Art

Are romance novels art?

(It's a wild weekend, so I thought I'd see if I could stir up a little controversy!)
I'm reading the book, "From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction," and the author, Robert Olen Butler, is pretty sure romance novels are NOT art. While he goes to some length to point the finger at romance novels, he includes in the "not art" category any novel whose primary aim is "entertainment"--i.e., all genre-fiction. Pretty broad? Yep. Entirely incorrect? I'm not sure.
I can think of a number of reasons any style of genre-fiction could be attacked as non-art, but Butler's complaint is rather interesting. He thinks the key difference between art and non-art is that entertainment fiction is filled with "generalizations, abstractions, summary, analysis and interpretation," which ultimately separates the reader from the work and causes her to fill in her viceral reaction from her own past, her own fantasies, and her own aspirations. True art draws the reader into the psychology of the characters with "moment to moment, fresh, organically connected sense impressions...In the emotional reaction to a work of art we do not fill in from ourselves, we leave ourselves."
Butler says we fail as writers when we allow ourselves to analyze and "think" through our writing, rather than letting it flow from our deeper, unconscious dreamstate where real sense impressions lie.
Though I think Butler has no idea how hard romance writers strive to provide deep POV, to show and not tell, and to engage deeply with our characters, I think he IS correct that some of the power of romance, the strength of the genre perhaps, comes from the engagement of the reader in her own fantasies. I'm not entirely sure, however, why this is a negative thing. Or why this is not art.
When we look at a Renoir, does our emotional reaction stem from our connection of the painting to our own lives? I'm not entirely sure what Butler would consider literary "art," but he mentiones Margaret Atwood, so I thought of the Handmaid's Tale, and the terrifying sense of reality that novel gave me. Would it have been as moving if I could not fill in blanks from my own reality? My own sense memory? Hmmmm.
What do you think? Is romance art? How would you distinguish entertainment from art, or is that impossible? Should we be striking chords and fantasies in our readers that derive from their own life experiences, or should we strive to engage the reader at an entirely different level?


Suzanne Welsh said...

Now see I would have to disagree with the man. (My mama always said I was disagreeable!)

What is art if not entertainment? Do we not go to plays, movie and ballets to be entertained? Do we not stroll through art galleries to be entertained by the artwork on the wall? (By the way there is this fantastic piece in the Dallas Museum of Art titled Romulus and Remus--the robe of the man holding the two babies is the most electrifying blue I've ever seen. I could stare at it for ages.)

A Jackson Pollock is considered art. I do enjoy his pantines, do they make a visceral response in me? Yes, I bet his mama was saying, "What a mess you've made!" I love Monets. The images make me feel at peace like when I was a child. Is this not a response I inerpret from them? You betcha!

Is entertainment different from art? Take a well executed screen play in football. It's entertainment, but I consider it an artful mastery of the game and it's participants, (not to mention the men in tight pants). Baseball, another form of entertainment can be a fabulous piece of art. Watching Omar Visquel, former shortstop for the Indians, catch a ball in a mid-air feat of acrobatics, turn while in the air, flip the ball to the second baseman (there were several) who then steps on the bag and tosses it to the first baseman for a double-play out is absoloute art at it's best, right up there with Barishnakov.

So is Romance writing art? Yep, in my opinion, and art like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I adore books that make me laugh, make me cry, make me shiver. That is art!

Aunty Cindy said...

And I'm with you, Suz, I'm another disagreeable little girl who didn't change her temperment! LOL! "Art" is definitely "entertainment" in my opinion! But can there be any more subjective a subject? Okay, MAYBE religion and politics, but maybe not...

What constitutes "Art" is totally subjective! It's like that old saying, "I don't know much about it, but I know what I like." The man who is easily the most successful living artist in the US (and possible the world) is Thomas Kinkaide. I do NOT consider his paintings "art". I won't dispute his craftsmanship, but I still do NOT put him in a category with Jackson Pollock, or Picasso, or my favorite, Van Gogh.

Also, I LOVE that you picked an Impressionist painting, Inara. When they were first displaying their paintings, the Impressionists rocked the established art world. Their work was NOT considered "art" by the establishment. It was too wild, too different, too unlike anything that had gone before them. Therefore, they were NOT "art"! Oh and SPARE me the people who say their six year old can "...paint as good as Picasso." No, they can't, at least not consistently and certainly not purposefully.

So, is romance writing "art" in the way literary writing is? Yes, it is! Romance writers are purposefully striving to present the reader with a story. One they can identify with. One with universal truths. One that ENTERTAINS them. Some romance writers do happen to be better at the execution than others and these are the books that will endure. In 100 years I do believe people will still be reading and enjoying Margaret Atwood's books. But I also happen to believe they'll still be reading Susan Elizabeth Philips, Jenny Crusie, Nora Roberts and many other GREAT romance writers. Like the Impressionists, their works will withstand the test of time, and that is what real "art" does.

Inara said...

It is an impossible task, huh? Trying to define art?

For what it's worth, I do think some entertainment is art, but not all. I think art strives to do something more than simply entertain, but I'm not sure precisely what...

Maybe, Suz, for you art is that emotional resonance, when the work makes you feel something deeply. And maybe Cindy you find art in the universal truths it exposes?

I don't know the answer, but I love hearing all the different ways we look at it!


Anna Campbell said...

Inara, I LURV your post. And I lurv the picture!

Actually, while I'm sure ROB has some great insight into the creative process, I wonder quite how much romance fiction he's read to be able to make these generalisations. And it always annoys me that genre fiction is entertaining and not good for you whereas literary fiction isn't entertaining and IS good for you. Does anyone else see that as absurd? Is a Shakespeare comedy entertaining? Does that mean it's neither literature nor good for you? Same for Jane Austen or the Brontes or Dickens. Not that I'm a Dickens fan, but that's another blog.

I actually believe romance fiction is the core genre and because it's so powerful, that's why people denigrate it. It's scary, much more so than any monsters in a horror story! How close to the essence of anyone's life are things like family and love and courage and facing your demons and confronting the other (because what else is falling in love?).

And I'd argue that genre fiction is written in cold blood and literary fiction isn't. Believe me, with these big dark books I seem to have cornered myself into writing, everything is dredged up out of the deepest part of me. And I'm definitely a subconscious writer and things emerge which I have no idea about until way afterwards. Which seems to be ROB's definition of literary fiction.

So, Inara, I would say romance novels can certainly be art!