Romance versus Realism – Essay

The following is an essay I wrote back in 2007 as a student at Victoria University. It’s semi-literary, so a little unlike my regular posts, but still something I put thought and effort into.

The reason I have posted this particular essay is to point out that I am not what I define as a ‘stuck-up’ reader. I like certain books for certain reasons, and I refuse to judge others based on what they choose to read.

I personally don’t think something has to be a ‘literary great’ to be considered a ‘real’ book. I believe people read for two main reasons; one, for entertainment – and escapism. And two, for education. These two things can overlap, but essentially each individual reads for their own reasons, and no-one should feel they are in a position to judge this. As a librarian, I see how many people borrow Mills and Boon and Western novels, and it is a lot. Some of these borrowers openly admit they know these stories are repetitive and predictable and some feel the need to justify this choice, by saying the balance them by also reading biographies and other more serious books, and calling them ‘easy’ and ‘fluffy’ reads. I always inform them I need no explanations, it is their choice to read what they want, and it is not up to me to make judgements.

People are entitled to opinions, and to write reviews, and I have no problem with people judging something based on it’s criteria. As long as they don’t expect something to be other than what it presents itself to be. If you don’t like young adult novels about vampires, don’t read Twilight and bag it out. If you do like young adult novels about vampires, and read Twilight and still don’t like it, explain and review it with reasoning. Don’t read Pride and Prejudice and whine that it was too literary and hard, unless you think that is what makes it stand out negatively from other literary greats.

In other words, read what you like, and enjoy!

Best sellers aren’t called ‘popular’ for nothing…

Romance versus Realism – Essay…MB 2007.

Some critics believe that a romantic read can transport a reader away from real life. If it was studied, I believe many forms of writing – not just the romance genre – could be responsible for this reaction. Romantic is the obvious genre. During my research and study to explore this theory I have concluded there is no definite answer. The opinion is open to individual interpretation and I have found – through interviews and observation – that the opinion differs from person to person, or reader to reader. Interpretations can depend on modernism and gender, romance versus realism and the time, place, race and fantasy aspect of each story and reader. Stories can hold different interpretations and belief levels in each individual reader.

The long argued issue of romance versus realism can help prove this. Another main point I believe being that the definition of ‘romantic’ can also be seen as meaning passionate, not necessarily in the typical; sense of ‘man loves woman’. For example Dead Europe is not classified as ‘romantic’ but is a very ‘passionate’ piece of literature. Meaning ‘The First Thing I was even told about the Jews was that every Christmas they would take a Christian toddler, put it screaming in a barrel, run knives between the slats, and drain the child of its blood’ Tsiolkas (2005) The opening sentence glorifies the realistic – if grotesque – if an individual decides to read a particular story that carries them away then that is what will happen. Some people are more entertained by articles, biographical or even instruction manuals. Reading is most often for pleasure – as well as for education and learning purposes – and in that sense, yes, takes the reader away, refocuses their attention on other things. A rather touchy example here is how many people read in the toilet. They may need to be occupied!

Using many different references – mainly focusing on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens Great Expectations – as well as interview material and other researched information, I will explain and highlight how reader’s experience this transportation from real life. I don’t believe anyone literally thinks they have been ‘taken away’ but the feelings of emotion and escapism aspect can help some people deal with life. A personal example of this is how I tend to read Enid Blyton’s children’s stories when I am sick. I grew up reading them, they are easy to read and the escapism takes me back to a happier place. Movies and television hold the same type of escapism and entertainment value, but in a more ‘lazy’ way.

When interviewed Robyn Black had similar views upon romance versus realism.

Robyn Black: “Yes, I agree. Because of the age old desire to have that perfect match, perfect person. And it’s much more interesting and desirable then everyday life, especially if that everyday life is dreary and uneventful. Mills and Boon books are romance. Great Expectations is all about relationships and escapism, people losing and winning. Pride and Prejudice is period romance similar to Mills and Boon stories. Literature defined, cannot do it, cannot say whether Mills and Boon is literature or not. You could call Mills and Boon pop fiction or pop lit as opposed to more refined Pride and Prejudice and Dickens works which are classic literature.  It entirely depends on the reader or intended audience whether a novel is defined as realist or romantic.”

Gender and modernism do have to do with escapism in the way that the same stories are played out over generations but updated to fit into appropriate times. The essence of the story remains same, only with set changes.
Passion can be romanticism or realism. Seeing things the way you want trying to make them what you want.

Websters dictionary (1988) defines
Escape – ‘get free, get off safely; go unpunished; find a way out…
Escapist – One who tries to escape from reality.
I think these definition outline the understanding of escapism related to reading. Again, the reader knows the story is not necessarily real, but pretending it is and concentrating only on that keeps them occupied and away from other aspects of their life.

We studied at the beginning of this semester the narrative choices. It was stated that these are in part controlled by the genre of the work. This induces reader effects, again individual interpretations; parts of this are the characters, narrator, plot, intended audience etc. We also researched the history of the romance. Apparently the romance genre is older than the realism. The first romantic stories came from the forms of myths and fantastical tales, which don’t exactly correspond with the idea of romance being real. It does however keep consistent with the fact that realism is apparently based upon ‘real’ life. Likening romance to fantasy also helps prove the statement of romance being an escape for readers. Many popular fantasy novels have moved on to become Hollywood blockbusters with massive cult followings. Recent examples of this are Lord Of The Rings and the Harry Potter series.

The truth of romance can be very ambiguous as is obvious in the fantasy genre. Many people may believe some things they read to be exactly true, although most scientific facts would prove that these fantastical ideas are scientifically impossible. Again gender is often a factor, most heroes in fantasy novels are male, like Frodo and Harry, while in many novels classified as romantic the protagonist is female for example Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

In study we compared escapisms to realism in the respect of reading pleasure. There is an argument due to value judgement, that realistic writing tells of the truth and is seen moralistically as strong, whereas escapist reading is feeble and decadent. The readers social and literary background – as well as the authors – is an important factor when considering the differences between the romantic and realistic genres. The social background of the author and main character in Great Expectations is pivotal in the readers interpretation.

An example of this type of language is found in Great Expectations (1996) ‘But unless I had taken the life of Trabb’s boy on that occasion, I really do not even now see what I could have done to save endure’. When Great Expectations was published, Dickens was already famous and popular. The stories and subplots within the novel coincided with the social constricts of the time and place. Therefore readers understood and felt with Pip, much more than I possibly could.

The grotesque can also be defined as gothic and uncanny.
The definition grotesque has been defined as a genre also. It has to do with some ideas of classicism as well as opposing to realism in a way. Classicism ties in with gender issues. These issues are prevalent in the world today – in different ways – but I believe the use of gender and classicism issues in novels bring a form of realism to them. Because of the obvious constraints that may well tie in with the form it makes the story real. Even in a fantasy novel, like Harry Potter, classicism exists. An example of this is the opinions about wizards and witches with full or half blood magic. In Pride and Prejudice, classicism is very obvious, in the ways of the Bennet family being looked down on by the female members of the Whickham family. Also vulgar actions, like Lydia’s, can tarnish a families reputation. Lizzie strained against these constrictions by first disliking Mr. Darcy and rejecting his and Mr. Collins’s proposals.

Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations is a wonderful example of the romance and realism debate. I actually see Great Expectations as more of a romantic novel due to the passionate feelings involved by the characters. Using books and the internet I researched Kent in the times of when the novel was set. To actually see the stories in Great Expectations as real I believed the characters as real people. Even though the modernism aspect was different to me I found myself immersed In Pips life and experiences. Because it was told from Pips view, I identified with him and felt his feelings and thoughts. Dickens set a standard and made a form of writing that was not necessarily viewed as romantic or even real at the time.

Throughout Great Expectations it is apparent there are several themes to help keep the readers attention as well as the narrative and meta narrative.
These themes are often binary oppositions as well as some doubles. These comparisons are also the lines of the issues between gender constraints and classicism. Some of these theme oppositions are country versus city, innocence versus experience, identity and the father, individual guilt and society. Society levels of course are one part (a very large part) of classicism.

There are several approaches to romantic studies and one of them – probably the most prevalent – is the feminist approach. These approaches have been divided into four sections to help aid interpretation. These are public versus private life, domestic abuse and female psychology, women’s intellectuality and women’s self perception as objects and subjects. These definitions were used to help define the feministic approach which corresponds with the gender and classicist aspects of interpretations.

It is that Great Expectations uses it’s opening chapter as a hook. It is stated that the striking and gothic techniques draw in the reader and as well as keeping it real with the use of the narrative. Although this states that because of Dickens well know style and storylines, this does not necessarily have the readers attention for the correct reason. A readers feelings about Dickens influence the their interpretation.

There is something said very often in the field of writing. Basically there are only several storylines in the world that keep getting redone and rehashed with slight differences. This may demonstrate that a romantic novel and a realist can be the same story told in a different way. Unconsciously knowing a story as you read it may be an indicator in escaping and enjoying the story as if it were real, and you were in it.
Romance and realism can be defined in several ways.
Webster’s dictionary (1988) defines the following as…
Romance – Tale of chivalry; tale with scenes remote from ordinary life; literature like this; love-affair or event or atmosphere suggesting it; sympathetic imagination; exaggeration, picturesque, falsehood.
Real – existing in fact; happening; actual; of property, consisting of land and houses.
Realism – regarding things as they are; artistic treatment with this outlook.

I find it difficult to define many works as either definitely romantic or realist. It is easy to compare Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations and say Pride and Prejudice is romantic and Great Expectations is realist. This is to an extent how they are defined by society and certainly the main storylines indicate this is case. I actually found Great Expectations to be quite romantic from the passionate feelings inside. All the plots are written more gritty and real than in Pride and Prejudice, therefore it may be concerned as more ‘real’.

I found Pride and Prejudice more realist as the stories were understood better by me, I could relate and experience with the characters and believed the storyline more readily. I would more likely define them as Pride and Prejudice romantic realist and Great Expectations as realist romantic. Modernism and gender certainly come into play within these definitions and whether it helps the stories become a form of escapism. Much of understanding and relating to the stories has to do with modernism and gender. As a female, I found it easier to understand Lizzie’s qualms and worries and feelings. I was angry with her, sad and happy with her. Although the story is old – compared to the times I am living in now – I understood and knew of the social restrictions within the characters lives.

In Great Expectations however I personally found it harder to relate to Pip. In the beginning when he is a scared unsure child I felt his character better but through the story where he grew and changed I found a lot of his feelings and decisions hard to understand. I did not find it easy to ‘escape’ when reading this as a was trying to hard to understand the basics of the characters lives.

The novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a wonderful example of romance versus realism. I think that comparing romantic interpretation to realistic can help define the line of escapism where reading to escape life is concerned. As aforementioned, reading can transport the reader to another type of consciousness, therefore escaping their personal thoughts. Again it would depend upon the readers particular preference for reading choice as to whether they could achieve this escapism. Someone who believes in the romantic aspects of Pride and Prejudice could read it as a passionate love novel, where the trials of love and marriage are observed and felt along with the characters.

History records may agree or disprove the reality of the storylines in Pride and Prejudice. Another form of escapism in Pride and Prejudice is not necessarily the actual storyline. It could be debated whether Jane Austen wrote purposefully in the possibly feministic form, and in ways it may have been before its time. The relationship between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy is both realist and romantic. Many would possible see Lizzie as first realist, because of her lack of romantic feelings towards Darcy, feelings that are typically expected of people in that time and place.

I found Lizzie to be a very passionate character, not afraid to stand up for what she believes in and refusing to change her opinions based upon other peoples. This helped me identify with her as more of a real person than had she been a character defined as ‘silly’ like Lydia or Mrs. Bennet. Because the story was more realistic to me I found it more entertaining, therefore when reading it, a form of escapism. This of course worked from a basis of preconceptions. Pride and Prejudice is defined as a romantic literary novel, so reading it is done with the expectation of romance. The romance genre is not necessarily the only form of writing that can induce escapism. Many people, especially women, could read Pride and Prejudice and relate the characters to themselves or people they know, bringing the story into their own life in the form of thoughts and imaginations, therefore the escapism doesn’t really take teme from their life, but adds imagined wonder to it.

There is not much controversy when Mills and Boon novels are classified as romantic novels. Their official genre is romantic and most readers would not view the storylines or content as particularly realist. Despite this, Mills and Boon are one of the most successful, most sold and read of all the novels in the world. This may be due to the escapism factor. When asked why she read Mills and Boon novels Anonymous Interviewee stated that
“Although the stories are not real, I still get carried away with them. They are easy to read lacking the confusing mature type of writing. I enjoy the storylines and the books are a good way to relax and not use much brain power! I can forget about the dishes and the bills and concentrate on something easy.”

Mills and Boon have many contemporary stories in the market which oppose with the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. This may have something to do with why they are easily read and such an easy escapism, not because of their storylines, but because of the readers relatability to the characters and their lives.

The Sweet Valley High series is another example of contemporary literature for teens. I personally read a lot of these as a teen. Although many of the storylines were extremely repetitive and also predictable, I enjoyed reading them, I would wish I could meet the characters, be in one of their adventures, enjoy the romance of the beautiful California high school girls. Although I knew it wasn’t particularly real, the stories took me to a ‘happy’ place where it was all I had to think about, all I was imagining.

Although I failed to find exactly where, why and which critics say that the fantasy of romance carried people away to escape real life I have used my arguments to support this theory to a point. As stated I have discerned that anything with entertainment value helps with most types of escapism, the most common being boredom. Although I believe people do not actually ‘escape’ real life when reading those from the romantic genre, (and they know this, it is not literal. No one has reported being osmosised through anything, in reality) they can forget about it for a certain amount of time and in a way relax the mind.

Depending upon the person, the form and type of art or literature they are taking pleasure in, things are interpreted differently and diverse forms of escapism are experienced. Using example from different types of text and interpretations, I hope I have highlighted why and how this escapism occurs and why is it particularly believed of in the romance genre.

Tsiolkas, C 2005, ‘Dead Eurpoe’ Random House Australia Milson’s Pt.

Dickens, C 1996, ‘Great Expectations’ Penguin Books London.

Austen, J 1996, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Penguin Books London.

Webster’s Dictionary 1988 Book Essential Publications Larchmont.

INTERVIEWS – Conducted by Melissa Black.

Robyn Black 7th June 2007 12:30pm. Victoria.

Anonymous Interviewee 7th June 2007 12:40pm Victoria.


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