Come a Little Closer

(Warning: I was up with a sick child all night. When I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking. And I have to write this idea out. It isn’t fully-formed, but tell me where I’m wrong so I can finish working this out.)

In The Melodramatic Imagination, literary scholar Peter Brooks defines melodrama not as something aesthetic–not in other words as a genre defined by mustache-twirling villains, perfect heroes, and damsels in distress–but as a narrative structure and a moral imperative. He writes of a scene in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin,

The narrative voice is not content to describe or record gestures, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” (1)

Brooks is saying that Balzac pushes closer to his subjects in order “to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality” underneath (2). Brooks argues that in melodrama “nothing is left unsaid” (4), which helps to reveal the “operative spiritual values” (5) that are present but hidden in other works. He applies this schema to Henry James, in whose work he sees this “melodramatic imagination” operating when “things and gestures are necessarily metaphoric because they must refer to something else” (Brooks 10).

As far as I can tell, no one has applied Peter Brooks to genre romance–but we should because romance seems to work in much the same way. Romance is closely cropped onto a few key pieces that carry metaphorical significance and its narrative resolutions (e.g., the creation of a stable couple) are moral ones.

I’ve been trying rather fitfully to write this week. I’ve been reading manuscripts for friends and just finished with my RITA books. In all these pieces, we have the essential elements of romance: the lovers meet, they woo, they separate, and they are reunited. That’s it.

But a single plot element in romance does a lot of work. In the opening chapter of my latest book, Party Lines, Michael and Lydia meet on a plane. They bicker and then flirt, he offers her his number, and she reveals she works for his political opponents. Simple enough, right? But this scene has at least three functions. The first is diegetic, by which I mean it serves the plot of the book. The book is about how Michael and Lydia fall in love–they have to meet somehow. On the surface, the scene is workman like.

But second, the scene has a tropic (e.g., trope-ic) function. In the case from Party Lines, the scene is an example of the meet-cute. I had wanted it to be a sort of anti-meet-cute (what could be more prosaic than meeting someone on a plane?) but in the clash of personality and ideology, it’s very trope-y.

Third and finally, the scene also has a moral function. In my piece on purple prose in romance, I argued that excessive prose in romance ought to be understood as manifestations of romance’s valorization of emotion. Of course the prose is excessive–it’s trying to capture how human connection heals and builds new social units (e.g., couples). So when Michael and Lydia meet, the reader has to be convinced that we want to see these two get a happily ever after (this recent Dear Author column about heroism in romance applies here). I don’t know that I need my heroes or heroines to be heroic per se, but I need to be invested in them. In this case, I wanted to know that while Michael is a political operative, he’s skeptical about the system. He’s burnt out and looking for new meaning in life. When he meets Lydia, he’s found it.

Similarly a love scene is a love scene in the diegesis. But it also exists intertextually with the other love scenes the reader has read; it either replicates those tropes or it subverts them. And finally, it metaphorically represents the consummation of the new couple.

In its spareness, romance becomes excess because the pieces must do more. Romance is zoomed in. It includes only a few elements but they are presented in almost microscopic detail and they require the reader to bring a kaleidoscope in order to decode them.

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3 thoughts on “Come a Little Closer

  1. Emma, if I could think and write this well on so little sleep, I’d try to never sleep again! (Seriously, though, I hope your little one is doing better now.) I think you’re on to something here. I definitely see connections between the 18th-century cult of sensibility (you alluded to this in your purple prose blog post) and melodrama—and romance fiction. All of these genres valorize emotion, and all were (and are) criticized for doing so. I’m interested in the way in which romance has come to be associated almost exclusively with women, whereas sensibility and melodrama (at least at first) were the province of men as well.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this fascinating subject!

    • Charles Dickens and Timothy Shay Arthur were probably the most widely read novelists in antebellum America–and they were both writing melodramatic, sentimental domestic fiction that is absolutely the antecedent of today’s genre romance. Have you read Pamela Regis’s book? She does a wonderful job of tracing the roots of romance from canonical British fiction of the 18th and 19th C. I’d love to see another volume that treats popular American fiction in the same period and its contributions to genre romance (Laura Jean Libbey in particular).

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