Romance Matters

by | October 6, 2015 |

Cover Photo Credit: Gerry Lauzon. Authorized for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

On Labor Day I went with a friend to see Straight Outta Compton. The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A., perhaps best known for their track F*** tha Police. Out of this five-man group Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have gone on to have successful solo careers. Ice Cube has, furthermore, developed a film career that began with his role in Boyz n the Hood (1991).

Straight Outta Compton takes place between 1986 and 1995. A strong theme in the movie is the routine harassment and humiliation of young black men by the LAPD. One of the historical events referred to the movie is the 1992 beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers. Despite the fact the event was caught on tape, the officers were exonerated. Rioting in black communities ensued.

During the movie it was impossible for me not to think of Ferguson and all the police violence that has occurred against young black men in the past year. It was also impossible for me not to think of the Watts riots of 1965 in LA that resulted when a young black man was stopped for drunk driving, and this minor roadside incident erupted into violence.

You’ve heard of the Black Lives Matter movement. It began in 2013 when a white man in Florida was acquitted in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, whom the shooter thought was acting suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie.

Recently some politicians have asserted that All Lives Matter. Yes, they do. No one thinks otherwise. However, not all lives are equally at risk. The irony of the cartoon makes the point.

All Lives Matter

Since I can hardly think two thoughts in a row without one of them being about how romances are routinely dismissed, ridiculed, or scorned, I am now going to make a transition to that subject. Please note: what I am going to say about romance novels is in no way parallel in magnitude or importance to the problem of police brutality and the black community.

Before going to the movie on Labor Day I went with my friend for coffee. Our conversation turned to one of my current favorite subjects, Northrup Frye. My friend happened to be the very person who suggested I read it in the first place. (See my recent series on the Anatomy of Criticism)

I waxed poetic about Frye’s definition of the romance mode and how it applies to works that would scorn to be called such. My friend challenged me with Moby Dick.

Perfect example. According to Frye’ definition, Moby Dick (1851) would count as a romance: Melville’s Ahab is on a magnificent quest, his characters are writ large and die noble deaths, and the whole is infused with a quasi-religious feel.

My friend countered with Melville’s Pierre (1852), which is a satire of the romances of his day and written to spoof “that damned mob of scribbling women,” a phrase Nathanial Hawthorne coined to throw shade on the women novelists of his day.

I immediately objected to the writers who satirize romances.

Do I lack a sense of humor? Can’t I take a joke? I get that many professions are made fun of: lawyers, real estate agents, used car salesmen, distracted professors, and so on. However, I can’t think of another literary form that comes in for such negative treatment from so many angles, including from fellow writers. (See my blog Genre Etiquette.)

It’s the pattern that’s the problem. It’s not the existence of Pierre or Melville’s intention that bothers me. It’s rather that he is but one among so many other writers who feel similarly compelled to trash the romance.

It’s the pattern of police brutality in the black community that’s the problem. Yes, every individual instance of violence from a police officer or toward a police officer, black or white, is also a problem and needs to be addressed. But it’s the pattern of discrimination that the Black Lives Matter movement correctly underscores.

Here’s to breaking patterns.

Final note: I do not condone any kind of violence, verbal or otherwise, aimed at police officers. Nor do I admire what I saw in the movie of N.W.A.’s treatment of women. I do, however, respect their first amendment rights as well as their rights as artists to give expression to their experience.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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