Why is romance the poor relation of literature?

Romance writing has always had a second class reputation in the world of literature. It is frequently considered the easy option, both to read and to write. It’s also frequently assumed to be trashy or low grade fiction; the literary alternative to reality television.

Why these opinions are so widely held is something of a mystery when romance outsells every other genre. And what of novels such as Jayne Eyre (above)? Gothic, perhaps, but certainly romantic. One of the most successful authors of the modern world, Nora Roberts, has had novels in the New York Times Bestsellers list on 191 occasions, and yet only twice has that same publication reviewed her work. The chief accusation levelled at romance is that it’s “an easy read.” Personally, I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. We all work hard these days; a bit of escapism, in whatever genre, has to be a good thing.

In the Victorian era romance was considered not only to be of poor quality, but dangerous. There was a very real fear amongst the male population that if women read romantic books they would get unrealistic expectations about what married life had in store for them. This concept of unrealistic expectations is still an accusation levelled at romantic fiction. It is an odd argument. You rarely hear people say “I don’t like science fiction or horror because it is unrealistic.’ Surely that’s the point. Fiction is often based in reality but it is, by definition, made up. It’s escapism. It’s entertainment. Something to draw us away from our day to day lives for a while. If being unrealistic in fiction was an issue then Tolkien would never have written a word.

Another problem laid at romance’s door is that it is formulaic. This is to some extent true. Romances have two people meeting, they get on, they then fall out, they overcome their issues and get on again; there is then another problem which has to be overcome prior to a happy ending. The mistake people make is thinking that writing with a formula makes it an easier task. It doesn’t. The reverse is true. Having rules to write by is very difficult; especially if you want to be original with your work. And finally, the most baffling anti-romance novel argument of all is “they always have a happy ending.” So do most crime, sci-fi, mystery, gothic, thrillers, and horror novels.

The situation is summed up nicely by Amy Paulussen, Chairperson of the Canterbury Branch of the NZ Society of Authors. “You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on my living room shelf and impress the neighbours?”

It’s that time of year again! The colourful lights adorn the streets and shops, the Christmas markets are bustling and I’ve just unpacked my decorations, ready to get into the festive spirit once more.

The television is packed full of feel-good Christmas films and classic musical hits are jollying us all into the spirit of giving and reminding of us of the importance of connecting with those we love. One story in particular that stands out is Charles Dickens’ very special tale of the wonderfully mean Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

Even in our fast-paced, modern era, many of us love to read or watch a production of this Victorian story of greed, mortality and regret, which has something of a timeless resonance with our society. I realised this the most when I read it with my year 11 English Literature class last year. Two years ago it was thrust back into the GCSE English Literature syllabus (England) in an attempt to toughen up exam specifications and push aside those American literary favourites that had become a very comfortable part of our teaching repertoire (I still miss Steinbeck’s George and Lennie!).

Honestly, at first the thought of teaching this text didn’t fill me with much excitement. I love Charles Dickens but after ploughing our way through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet my rather reluctant readers were all tired out and needed a break. Perhaps something they could relate to? A modern novel, even?

With hesitation, we began the hard slog of reading our 19th century text choice – and nobody was more surprised than me at my pupils’ response to this old classic. They loved it. The language was rich, dense and challenging but that didn’t seem to matter. The story grabbed their interest and captivated their attention. Most of them knew the outline of the tale already but that didn’t seem to deter them. They were completely hooked by Scrooge. In 2016’s world of tablets, apps, iPhones and virtual reality, the message of Dickens’ archaic novella was still entertaining and provoking a reaction in a group of ‘too cool for school’ teenagers.

So what is it about this story that is still so relevant and appealing today? Well, take away the historical backdrop and context and what you have is essentially a story about human nature and spirituality; about kindness and compassion in a cruel world. Not only that, but a story that examines the topic of our mortality; one that highlights the importance of family and friendship above money and material gain. It is also of course a fantastical tale of ghosts and spirits. It is the story of a man so jaded by the materialism and greed of the world that he lost his joy and his human compassion along the way.

Life has changed and moved on a great way since the darker industrial days of Dickens’ London. We are apparently more civilised in our lifestyles and choices, but this timeless message from Mr Dickens still rings true. At Christmas in particular we often see people coming together to support others. Whether it is feeding the homeless on Christmas morning, donating a shoe-box to the Salvation Army collection or gathering together toys to give to young children in hospital, the festive season is a time for giving, sharing, remembering and uniting our families and community.

Charles Dickens clearly saw the value in our sense of Christmas charity and through good old Ebenezer Scrooge we are reminded of the need to cherish the most benevolent human traits deep within us all and push back against the temptation and hollow greed of the season’s materialism.

Let’s start by posing a fundamental question: how is one to learn about and marvel in experiences, cultures and ways of life in the past, if not through literature? In my view, there’s only one answer to that. You simply cannot know how you came to be where you are and who you are without literary accounts. You cannot understand your own language, not to mention other languages and their development within a historical context, if you don’t read literature.

Of course, it’s not just a peek into the past that will help get you through the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and other influential authors of the British classics; you can get a deeper understanding of how the English language evolved in terms of word morphology, punctuation, syntax, grammar, and phonology. As Sally Law, the principal teacher of English at Marr College in Scotland, wrote in The Guardian, ‘we’re equipping them [the students] with essential skills for the real world.’ Simply using the English language as we read it in today’s modern version is not enough to understand its complexity.

As I mentioned above, literature also contributes to one’s identity. Grasping the changes from past to present concerning behaviour, norms, ideas, and perspectives allows one to understand what, how, and why things have transformed. It is very well-known that history repeats itself, and through studying about the past, one can understand what to avoid in the present and, hopefully, in the future.

If there are, therefore, a lot of benefits to the study of literature, why is it not further promoted and encouraged in education in the UK? Because contrary to what you might think, it is not. And for that matter, why are other art subjects less and less appealing to students?

Unfortunately, due to policy changes in education, the number of students following a more artistic path has dropped to its lowest in a decade. English literature, which is better studied in its entirety, is mostly introduced to students as a supporting subject to the learning of the English language. As a result, insufficient attention is being paid to the content of literary work. The ultimate goal of this policy is of course to provide students with the best chance of achieving a good GCSE grade. However, a considerable amount of the enjoyment and heritage that these texts provide is at present being lost in the process. Some classic works traditionally taught as standard have now been cast aside, deemed unnecessary. Students study not for the pleasure of it, but rather as an obligation to pass, not really seeing or being present in the moment. It is unfortunate that today it seems like the study of such a subject is there only as a means to the end of passing exams.

 

Is the current education system eliminating imagination and artistic potential from our future society?

In recent years the British government has been accused of trying to marginalise the Arts subjects, in favour of Core subjects such as Science, Languages and Maths. The value placed on Art, Music and Drama appears to have decreased, with even the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) having dropped all Arts subjects, bar English, from its list of requirements.

Commenting on his post The Seven Deadly Sins that Prevent Creative Thinking, Psychology Today blogger Michael Michalko said, “Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that education is a great inhibitor of our natural creativity… To me it seems that in the real world those who know more, create less; and those who know less create more.”

Michalko echoes the opinion that Sir Ken Robinson made in his 2006 TED talk, when he spoke passionately on why we need to create an educational system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity ( https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity ).

It could be said that in a modern world, full of technology and instant request filling opportunities, children don’t need to be as imaginative or creative as they have been in the past. In truth, many would argue that the opposite is the case. While the demands of the technology that runs our world means an understanding of science and maths is more vital than ever, the stresses that accompany such ambitions mean that the ability to escape into our imaginations has become just as important.

Creativity, be it through drama, song, playing of a musical instrument, drawing a picture or telling a story, provides a much needed dimension to our personalities, culture, and well-being; In its most extreme case scenario, the sidelining of the Arts would ultimately mean less books to read, less films to see, less songs to sing, and less artwork to enjoy.

In a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, ‘Too many schools have forgotten that fun is crucially important’, Colin Harris asks if primary schools have become so concerned with meeting the standards of Ofsted and ensuring all government guidelines are met, that there is little time left for children to have fun or learn through creativity.

Mr Harris warns that, “Many of the problems that manifest themselves later at late junior and early secondary phases are due to the insufficient opportunities we have given our children to develop their emotional intelligence through play and creative opportunities when younger… Play and creativity need to permeate all levels of our system. Surely if learning is memorable and inventive then our children will certainly think and behave differently.”

Most teachers would rightly deny that they work hard merely to instil a feeling of dull mediocrity among their pupils. Yet with English teachers having little choice but to teach us what we are supposed to think about the books we read rather than allowing us the freedom to make up our own minds, and decreasing educational budgets meaning that even if a school wanted to stage a play or buy instruments to form an orchestra they can’t afford to, it is easy to see why the lack of creativity argument continues to rage. After all, any school that was seen to put the desire to buy dancing shoes ahead of purchasing new science equipment would lose its reputation fast.

It is fair to say that, on an individual level, the majority of teachers do their best to introduce as much creativity as they can to their daily lessons; but they are up against a system that is, at this current time, discouraging rather than encouraging that angle of education.

We recently ran an article on the Sci-fi sub genre of Steampunk. But perhaps better known is that of Cyberpunk. Except… again, what exactly is it?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Cyberpunk as “a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology”. Resonant with dark overtones, Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that rings thick with intrigue, virtual reality, gritty crime, drugs, vice, and underground heroes. These heroes are usually viewed as felons by the authorities, who rule over the world which they inhabit; a world dominated by powerful corporations and private security forces. Cyberpunk stories, whether they are told in books or film, detail dark political corruption and social upheaval. Unlike Steampunk, which is more easily classified as a sub-genre of science-fiction based in a steam technology driven world of pseudo-Victoriana, Cyberpunk is hard to categorise. Consequently, there is some debate over what can and can’t be included in this subsection of literature and film. However, perhaps looking at the words ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’ in isolation can help.

Cyber is a reference to technology. We are familiar with the Cybermen in Doctor Who, for example, with their cybernetic enhancements to the body; and of course, cyberspace. The phrase cyberspace was first used by the writer William Gibson, popularly known as the father of cyberpunk literature. The term cyberpunk itself, however, can be traced to the short story Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke, published in 1983. Punk, however, is a cultural and attitudinal reference to people who are frequently antiheroes, outcasts, criminals, visionaries, dissenters, and misfits. This makes them the perfect protagonists for cyberpunk, who tend to be similarly subversive in nature. Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), part of his Sprawl Trilogy, is considered one of the first cyberpunk novels and a prime example of the genre, yet there is work like Bethke’s that came before him. And its back catalogue has continued to grow ever since, with such titles as The Diamond Age (1995)by Neal Stephenson and Halting State (2007) by Charles Stross.

Apart from Gibson, the author best associated with Cyberpunk culture is Philip K. Dick. He wrote 44 novels and over 140 short stories, including The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, and The Little Black Box. However, it has been argued that his work translated as cyberpunk via the medium of film far more convincingly than it did as literature. Perhaps most famous example associated with him, and with Cyberpunk culture as a whole, is Blade Runner. This 1982 film was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford. Although the film was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, it was an adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

In Blade Runner’s footsteps came The Matrix trilogy, Tron, Inception and more, including William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. These films, which helped move cyberpunk culture into the mainstream (the latter aside), involved dystopian futures, particularly where humans could store cybernetic information in their own minds.

Cyberpunk can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is dark and brooding with advanced technology, sometimes it’s political and full of antiheroes fighting a political system with the aid of, or against, enhanced technological beings and advancements. However you see cyberpunk, as genre site Neon Dystopia (https://www.neondystopia.com/what-is-cyberpunk/)  says, “There are cyberpunk movies, television programmes, comics, music, and art everywhere. All you have to do is look. Cyberpunk has influenced fashion, architecture, and philosophy. Cyberpunk has become much more than what it was when it began. And it will continue to evolve and become more relevant as we move further from the Cyberpunk Now into the Cyberpunk Future.”

The phenomenon of Steampunk is becoming increasingly popular in both literature and fashion. But just what is steampunk?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in terms of literature as, “a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.” It goes on to define Steampunk fashion as, “a style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction.”

The term “Steampunk”, which combines Victoriana with modern day technology (fuelled by steam rather than electricity or batteries, etc.), originated in the late 1980s. It was first used within the world of literature, when science fiction author K. W. Jeter sent a letter to Locus Magazine trying to find an accurate description of the book he’d written (Morlock Night).
Although it was Jeter who is credited with inventing the word “Steampunk”, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who developed it into being a sub-genre of fiction, rather than a few niche books. They did this via the popularity of the novel The Difference Engine (1992). This book, which provided an alternative, fictional version of the Industrial Revolution, saw Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine as not just a unique object of future potential, but an accepted and well used piece of machinery.

According to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence, “Steampunk is an inspired movement of creativity and imagination. With a backdrop of either Victorian England or America’s Wild West at hand, modern technologies are re-imagined and realized as elaborate works of art, fashion, and mechanics. If Jules Verne or H.G. Wells were writing their science fiction today, it would be considered steampunk.”

It isn’t just literature that embraces steampunk. Over the past decade in particular, it has also become a fashion style. As with the literature, the clothing involved mixes together traditional Victorian garments such as top hats, corsets and frock coats, with cogs, goggles and boots. Steampunk fashion frequently creates something wearable and elegant out of random bits and bobs of metal, leather and wire.

At a time when the modern world faces political instability, it is perhaps not surprising that a culture which lets us escape into the romance of the past, while simultaneously allowing us the use of a certain amount of the technology we have become used to, is rising in popularity.

With more and more novels being turned into feature films, the question of whether the book is better than the film becomes more emotive with every new cinema release.
To answer this question, I interviewed a number of writers to get an author’s perspective. The resounding overall answer was ‘No… but there was this film…’ In other words, the gut reaction from 95% of the 80 writers I asked was that the book was always better than the film- and then they’d promptly come up with an example that contradicted that first reaction.
For instance,“No… but then I loved Cold Mountain the movie, but couldn’t get through the book.”

One author commented, “I think it depends. Sometimes there are really good adaptations of books, but they are never really similar. For instance I love Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are are the same but different. The name of the main character and basic plot are the same, but the rest isn’t. I find that with watching movies I don’t always have to concentrate as much, with reading books I do. Books are not better; they are just different, because we use our imagination in a different way when we watch, rather than we do when we read.”
This is an excellent point. The frame of mind we are in when reading is very different from that when we are watching a film on the television or at the cinema. With a book it is our own imagination that is engaged by the words before us. With a film, the work is being done on our behalf by the visuals and sounds we are presented with. It is often the case that we see the book as better than the film when we have read the book first. If we see the film and then read the book, our perspective is more likely to be the reverse, and we will declare the movie better.

Script editor and film expert, Lucy V. Hay says, “There are loads of films that are better than the book, especially when plotting is an issue in the book, because movies cannot get away with plot issues in the same way. A good example is The Maze Runner. There are so many good things about the character and dialogue in the book, but the plotting is nonsensical in parts and exposition is back-ended towards the resolution. The movie takes all the great bits from the book regarding the concept, characters and dialogue and streamlines the plot.”

Another argument often voiced in the book versus film debate is that bad books make good films. This concept, known as fidelity criticism, has some merit as the film maker takes the idea and strips it into something far superior than the original text. Two examples often cited in this instance are The Godfather and Trainspotting. Though there are plenty who would disagree and give their own choices. Again, all highly debatable.

In the end, however, whether you think the book is better than the film, or vice versa, it must be remembered that they are fundamentally different mediums. In a book you can spend several pages on a character’s internal dialogue or in describing a landscape but these techniques do not usually translate well onto the film screen. Added to which, if a director included every single plot detail in a film then most would probably be a day long…. again not something you want.

When we read the book first, we often feel that the film should mirror every part of that story; but what if the director interprets the book differently? In short, it is very difficult to adapt a book for film, and it would be impossible to please everyone who’d read that book. Perhaps it is best that we view each of them as different concepts, mediums, and creative works in their own right, rather than compare them to each other.

For more information about specific books and that have been turned into films, see Lucy V Hay’s site- http://www.lucyvhayauthor.com/category/Book-Versus-Film/

“With a unique ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, the aptly named author and illustrator Lauren Child is one of the most influential and innovative writers of her generation. Her creations include the popular picture book series Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean as well as the Ruby Redfort books for older readers.” – Waterstones

Last week, Lauren Child was announced as the 10th holder of the Children’s Laureate title. This coveted award was first proposed by Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, who wanted children’s literature to be held in the same esteem as adult literature. According to Waterstones and the Book Trust, who run the scheme as a joint enterprise, the role of Children’s Laureate is intended to “promote and encourage children’s interest in books, reading and writing”. The Laureate is the person who agrees to act as the official champion of children’s books on behalf of the nation’s children.

Just how the post can champion the cause of children’s books is a matter for debate. Lauren Child has already stated her intentions to encourage children to write, draw, and be generally creative, echoing the intentions of primary school teachers everywhere. She has also voiced her concerns over the closure of so many public libraries. Of course, these concerns are not new. It has been widely known and accepted for some years that as libraries close, fewer children have access to books, especially those from families with lower incomes, where books are an expensive luxury. So while the position of Children’s Laureate certainly adds a positive voice to the debate, it can do no more than strengthen the argument in favour of fewer libraries shutting, and the hard fact is that libraries are not closing because people don’t care about our children’s literary future, but because the money simply isn’t there to keep them open.

As part of the role of Children’s Laureate, Child will visit schools and children’s events to promote the idea of reading and writing. Sadly, as the award only runs for two years, any author, however well intentioned, can only attend a limited number of such events before the gauntlet is picked up by the next holder of the prize. This next award winner, who may or may not have the same target audience within the vast children’s arena of the book market, will have their own unique take on how to promote the joy of reading to our children. Nonetheless, the role of Children’s Laureate can only have a positive outcome, albeit one with a less far reaching effect than we’d like. If Lauren Child can persuade just a few boys and girls to discover the joys of reading, writing, and the magic of storytelling, then her role as an ambassador of children’s literature will have been worthwhile.

Lauren Child takes over the mantle of campaigner for better writing and wider reading opportunities for children from Chris Riddell (2015-2017). Before them came Quentin Blake (1999-2001), Anne Fine (2001-2003), Michael Morpurgo (2003-2005), Jacqueline Wilson (2005-2007), Michael Rosen (2007-2009), Anthony Browne (2009-2011), Julia Donaldson (2011-2013), and Malorie Blackman (2013-2015).

Freelance writers create stories, articles, blogs, press releases, adverts and technical manuals. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the majority of writers work on a range of these different products rather than just concentrating on one, and will allocate them a certain amount of time during their day accordingly.

1) Writing

Approximately forty percent of a writer’s day will be spent writing their latest novel or set of stories, as well as working on any articles, manuals or blogs they may have been commissioned to create.

2) Researching

Uncovering background information for stories and any articles or blogs that they have been commissioned to write is very important and this will take up a significant proportion of time as well. Readers will expect an author to have his or her facts right.

3) Marketing

Promoting a catalogue of work is essential, and takes up the biggest part of a modern writer’s day. Very few publishers provide adequate marketing or public relations for their authors. This means that writers need to be familiar with all forms of social media so that they can interact with their readers and generate new markets for their work. The preparation and maintenance of this is vital.

4) Blogging

The majority of authors have their own website upon which to promote their work and to pass on news to their fan base and readership. Regular blogs by the author, and any guests they might like to invite to feature on their site, need writing, setting up, and scheduling.

And sometimes one thing needs every hour and more…

5) Personal Appearances

Literary festivals, research groups, libraries, book clubs and conferences all provide opportunities for writers to talk about their work and sign books for the public. Such visible marketing is an essential part of an author’s promotional schedule.

6) Teaching

Many writers teach creative writing classes to bring in additional income. This will obviously require preparation and organisation in and of itself.

Finally, a writer has to be flexible and open to new ideas, organised, willing to take on the freelance writing about subjects they may not be interested in, and be comfortable with public speaking and willing to take the time to travel to promote their work. Most writers are paid in royalties, which are dependent on how many books and articles they’ve sold. They must also be able to adapt their lives to fit in with being paid either every three months, twice a year, or annually.

In 2015 I wrote an article anticipating the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, written before but set after To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s death, soon after its appearance, raised concerns about whether the novel she hid for 55 years should have been printed in her old age, suggesting that she had been coerced into publication. The book itself did not meet with universal praise, although most criticism was aimed not at the quality of the writing but at the change in the character Atticus Finch.

Now that the dust has settled, I thought it would be worth taking another look. It is, undoubtedly, a ‘good read’, although this time it is not narrated by youthful, naïve ‘Scout’ but by her older self, Jean Louise, who lives away and is only visiting Maycomb. She sees through adult eyes and judges in a way that her younger self did not. Now, being critical of the attitudes of others, she is unaware of her own shortcomings.

The biggest and most difficult aspect to come to terms with is indeed the alteration in Atticus Finch. Scout’s view of him as a learned, wise and compassionate father became ours. Now Atticus is infirm, and even worse, he is attending white supremacy meetings. There is some attempt to contextualise, but Lee does not satisfactorily explain how the man who defended Tom Robinson with such empathy and eloquence could now be his inverse. Similarly, Calpurnia, the reliable housekeeper and important influence on the young Scout, is now hostile towards her. Change came to Maycomb County, as everywhere, but it does not make easy reading.

In some ways, Watchman is the novel where the characters are more rounded and the flaws are out in the open but there was something very special about the view of the world which Lee gave us through the eyes of an inquisitive young girl and I can’t help wishing that she had preserved that.

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