Nicholas Sparks is an asshole. Yes, I said it. If you’re one of those people who swoons at the thought of Rachel McAdams and a disheveled Ryan Gosling running toward each other and embracing in the rain, I respect your opinion. Still, you should probably get out of here if you weren’t already put off by that opening remark, because I’m going to shit over something that you probably hold dear to your heart, and that’s never fun.
Now, I normally try to refrain from judging books, movies, TV shows, etc. that I haven’t personally read or watched, and perhaps it is unclassy to essentially devote a blog post toward dissing a guy I’ve never met, but fuck it, this guy’s just begging for me to make an exception.
Also, I’ve seen The Notebook.
It’s a truly special kind of movie that makes me want to punch Ryan Gosling in the face.
In case you’re wondering where this vitriol’s coming from, let’s note that last weekend, Hollywood decided to bombard the public with yet another blockbuster based on one of Sparks’ novels, this one starring Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling as the two blandly attractive leads. The Lucky One bowed in second place, above juggernaut The Hunger Games but below the surprise hit Think Like a Man, to decent though not spectacular numbers, suggesting that it will follow in the long string of Sparks-based movies since The Notebook to leave almost no lasting impact on greater pop culture.
And no, I’m not here to bitch about that movie, as tempting as it is. Judging by the handful of critical reviews I read, like this one (apparently, I like torturing and enraging myself) should I ever end up seeing The Lucky Ones, I’ll probably be yelling at the screen the entire time.
Anyway, as I was absentmindedly surfing the ‘net, I stumbled upon this old article from USA Today on Mr. Nicholas Sparks. Written from back when Sparks was promoting The Last Song (a.k.a. the one with Miley Cyrus), this article stood out to me for a number of reasons, not least because it was one of the funniest and most infuriating things I’d read of late, and it didn't even have anything to do with that circus we call the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Among other things, Sparks compares himself to Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway), trashes pretty much universally-acknowledged modern literary great Cormac McCarthy and, when asked for his favorite tale of youth/coming of age story, cites his own book. Yet of all of Sparks’ generally asshole-ish comments, the one that particularly stuck out for me was this: “I don’t write romance novels.”
Wait, what? No, apparently Nicholas Sparks writes “love stories”. When asked to explain the difference, he says:
“There's a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It's a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it's very rare that it works. That's why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power.”
Now, aside from the fact that he just implied that he dominates the romance – er, love story – genre because apparently, he’s the only writer in that genre who tries to generate authentic emotional power, he does have a bit of a point, in that there’s a distinction, however fine, between drama and melodrama. Essentially, drama refers to any event or situation that involves conflict, either between characters or through narrative tension, whereas melodrama, in the words of dictionary.com, “does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.”
And this doesn’t count as melodrama…how?
In other words, in melodramas, characters simply act as props pulled along by the strings of the plot, and moreover, the plot itself is merely a series of events designed to trigger a specific emotional response.
So, here’s what we’ve learned from Sparks: love stories = drama (i.e. genuine), romances = melodrama (i.e. artificial).
Overlooking Nicholas Sparks’ insistence that his stories aren’t melodramatic, an assertion I think we can all agree is complete bullshit, and the fact that he seems to contradict his own definition of a romance elsewhere in the interview, what bothers me most about this whole thing is his promotion of what some call genre ghettoization, that is, the idea that genre stories have only a limited appeal and, therefore, are somehow lesser than general fiction.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that, on some level, this is all semantics, and the boundaries of genres can be relatively flexible. The simplest definition of genre fiction is that the work appropriates or conforms to certain characteristics and tropes of a specific category of literature. So, science fiction involves imaginary but theoretically plausible concepts, such as futuristic technology, aliens, space travel, paranormal phenomena, parallel universes, etc. Fantasy uses magic, often employing make-believe worlds or fantastical creatures, and so on.
A romance is simply a novel (or film) that focuses primarily on the romantic love and relationship shared by two people. No one is going to deny that Titanic is a romance, or Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which Sparks cites as one of his favorite books? Romance. Another thing that no one, or at the very least, only a few people, would deny is that all of those works, plus many, many more, are classics as worthy of serious thought and praise as non-genre classics like Citizen Kane or Ulysses.
So, why is Sparks so adamant that he writes love stories, not romance, when in reality, the two are basically two different labels for the same thing? He’s not the only person who stigmatizes genre works. It’s not so long ago when science fiction was largely consigned to pulp magazines and B-movies, despite the contributions of such celebrated authors as H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, among others. Fantasy used to belong to Dungeons & Dragons geeks, and even The Lord of the Rings was considered niche and dorky. The term “fanboy” still usually carries a negative, even derisive connotation.
As for romance novels, most people think of those Harlequin paperbacks with their risqué, vaguely trashy covers, referring to them as “smut”, essentially women’s pornography or erotica. Given this not-so-tasteful reputation, perhaps Nicholas Sparks might be forgiven for trying to disassociate his work from the romance label, but it might surprise you that, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, romance novels are the most popular genre in modern literature. The only way to erase the stigmas around the romance genre, as well as other genres, from fantasy and sci-fi to thrillers and horror, is for those who work within those genres and for those who enjoy reading them to fully embrace their status as genre fiction writers/fans and to remind people that these labels merely signify what category they belong to and have no bearing whatsoever on the quality or merits of the actual work.
Basically what I’m saying is, Nicholas Sparks, you write romance novels, whether you like it or not. And it’s okay to admit it.
You know what isn’t okay? Using Alzheimer’s disease as a fucking plot device in your silly, cornball romance.