Thursday, October 29, 2009

Well-Deserved Criticsm

Popular, trashy romance novels have hackneyed characters, doggedly predictable plots, and no sentences more difficult than what a primary schooler could handle. They are painful to read.

Slightly more literate romance novels have slightly less hackneyed characters, perhaps an interesting plot twist or two, and sentences for middle schoolers. They are sometimes well-written, but are still painful to read.

Most romance novels are, purportedly, written by women. Regardless of the gender of writer and reader, they are still painful to read.

Emily Gould believes that "women are often the cruellest critics of other female writers." In her article "What Are Women Fighting About?" in More Intelligent Life (October 29/09), she discusses the particular venom she feels is levelled by women at women who offer traditional, vapid female characters - characters who are dependent, materialistic, and want someone to sweep them off their feet and take care of them by providing as much cash as possible.

Gould generously lists the aspects of good writing she finds in one particular novel, but says that she hates the novel, the "retrogressive plot," and the female characters and worries that readers will find the character portrayals representative of real women like her:

This worry elicits the cruel female response:
So I become, once more, the kind of person I can't bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn't project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are "off-message" because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types.
Female critics are right to give these novels a pass and to review them with a highly critical eye, but not because they don't fit with an agenda, and not because there is limited publishing space. As Gould's one example of a cruel critic says (and it's all she says as example!), "The novel is just terrible."

Female (and male) critics are right about these novels because they offer characters who are stereotypes, acting in stereotypical ways, in stereotypical situations. Even though the descriptions, locales, and outfits may be finely drawn and the sentence structure admirable, romance novels are painful to read.

Men and women who support the ongoing fight for women's equal place are right to criticize vehemently. The continued portrayal of women as dependent, sexualized children has real consequences in the world; it is more than an agenda issue. It is sad, disheartening, and frustrating, no matter who promotes the stereotypes.

To say that these novels and their authors are" giving women what they want" is to try and give them a legitimacy they don't deserve. Romance novels, like so many other aspects of pop culture, play to the lowest common denominator; they carry the messages of advertisers promoting stereotypes of those most likely to buy their products; they require no mental effort; they are easy and comfortable; they are often based on the worst aspects of humanity. They are thoroughly and readily criticized for many reasons.

Gould's critique of female critics pits women against each other much more insidiously than any outraged and open female criticism of romance novels. She takes what is healthy anger at the continued promotion of damaging stereotypes on one hand, and legitimate criticism of bad novels on the other and reduces them to that demeaning question Freud asked - "What do women want?"

Gould's title "What Are Women Fighting About?" invokes Freud and diminishes the well-deserved criticism of romance novels to the level of a bitchy catfight.

(photo credit)
(photo credit)



Ciss B said...

I totally agree! These books (I cannot bring myself to call them novels!)are B-O-R-I-N-G! With all the problems they do nothing to develop any kind of character or storyline.

Matt said...

The book she's talking about, A Fortunate Age, is the farthest thing from a romance novel. It's a tragic, satirical look at a generation of scholars and artists who, despite their ambitions, are beaten down by reality and more or less become bourgeois like their parents. It's a smart novel--Victorian in scope. Gould didn't get the book either.

ChrisJ said...

Matt, I take your point. I didn't name the book because I hadn't read it and stand corrected that it is not a romance novel.

My point in the post, though, is mainly to criticize Gould's take on female critics as yet another instance of women just being bitchy to one another.

Pearl said...

what an interesting subject.
I'll go read the more intelligent life story.

let me get this straight. you also do poetry, are interested in gender issues, and food photography.

y'know mirror, love and all, I'll have to stop by here regularly.

ChrisJ said...

Hi Pearl,

Yes, mirroring - and Canadian to boot!