Thursday, September 25, 2008

Trashy Romances and High Culture, Sisters under the Skin

People who don’t read romances often dismiss them by saying they are all the same. This sameness is given as the main reason that romance should be considered trash fiction. The haters usually go on to insist that there is a formula that authors use to write romances. And that anything written to a formula is to be despised. And in conclusion, that people who like reading the same thing over and over are to be despised as well.

Strong words, but you’ll hear those and stronger from many detractors of romances. I’ve defended various aspects of this argument before. And cleverly, I believe. Others have written wonderful defenses. But I’ve just had a new thought, and it made me laugh so much I had to get out of bed and write it down.

You see, yesterday I attended the Verdi opera, “La Traviata,” and three days ago, I saw Act II of “La Traviata,” sung by different people in a different opera house with a different set and costumes, and possibly, with different cuts. Later this season I’m going to see Shakespeare’s play, “A Winter’s Tale,” put on by the Folger Shakespeare Theater. But I saw it only a few years ago at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre. Different casts, different sets, different productions. But still, the same thing. In fact, pretty much the same words and arias.

Hmm...does this strike a familiar note? I’m seeing the same thing over and over. But it’s never exactly the same, because it is live theater. Because each production has different sets and costumes and makes different cuts. Cuts? Yes, most operas and all of Shakespeare are cut to make their running times shorter for modern audiences, and to remove comedy shtick that simply isn’t funny a couple hundred years later (like jokes about the Irish, which used to be common in British plays). And of course the actors are different each time. The singers are different each time. In fact, although “La Traviata” is the same opera year after year, it is different every time I see or hear it.

Exactly like romances. Each new romance may try to capture the spirit of previous romances, and may even tread very similar ground in terms of plot and characters. But each romance is different. Reading a romance is a singular experience, just as seeing any performance of an opera or play is unique to that night, that production, and those actors.

This concept really blows my mind, because then of course it can be widened to include symphonies, which people go to hear over and over even though the musicians wear pretty much the same formal outfits in each, and their positions on the stage are dictated by custom, and symphonies have a set structure, and the music is supposedly the same. But each conductor makes the music come out differently and every musician plays his or her instrument differently. That’s why people go to hear the same symphonies again and again. And buy multiple copies of the same music, each performed by different orchestras.

Does this hold true with ballet? Sure. With chamber music? Of course. With Edward Albee plays? Yes. How about paintings? If an entire room at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is dedicated to Monet water lily paintings, and the room has natural light, the experience is different from seeing the same paintings one at a time mixed with other artists’ works, in galleries that display them in interior rooms with no natural light. After all, Claude Monet painted them in a series, outside.

And then of course there is what we the audience bring to these experiences. If I am feeling unhappy when I begin reading a romance, I may start sobbing when the heroine experiences a setback. And then feel much better when she reaches her happy ending. If I am tired when I arrive at the opera, I may be impatient if it opens with a standard “We are the Happy Villagers” song. (Presumably, this kind of opening scene exists because aristocrats in prior centuries constantly arrived late to these events. But to me it’s dead air.) Operas have already cut the mind-numbing ballets that used to be standard between acts, but I guess they can’t cut those villagers, because they sing. Romance writers used to give very elaborate descriptions of scenery. Think of Daphne du Maurier’s extended descriptions of the terrain in Jamaica Inn, for instance, or Emily Bronte’s obsessive descriptions of the moors in Wuthering Heights. Now romances spend less space on geography (and on symbolic imagery and hyperbole), and more on emotional scenery. Whether I am impatient with descriptive details or am willing to sit back and soak them up has a lot to do with my enjoyment of a particular romance. And for that matter, if I am in the mood for something traditional, and the artist surprises me with something experimental, I might get turned off.

What about re-reading an old favorite romance? Isn’t the experience slightly different each time? Don’t we find new things to admire in the best writers with each reading? Yes, and that’s why those romances are keepers. It’s also why some operas get performed constantly and others are rarely done. And why some Shakespeare plays are seldom staged, and others, like “Romeo and Juliet,” have such universally relevant themes that they are recreated over and over, and in every medium possible.

It has never bothered me that I have a taste for both highbrow and lowbrow culture. But most people I know like only one, and have misconceptions about the other without any depth of experience of it. This is a shame. Romance is a cornerstone of human interaction, and so any work of art that attempts to describe human behavior is likely to have some romantic element to it. Romance readers who only read romances and don’t open themselves to a wider cultural experience are missing a lot. And of course, we romance readers know that people who don’t read romances are missing a lot, too.
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