The novel has been around for a long, long time. I suspect that’s because it responds at length to our deepest human need for storytelling.
It’s not surprising, then, that it’s my go-to genre when I need a fictive fix. Ever since I opened the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins at the age of eight, the novel has been my escape, my passion, my solace.
Of course, there are several subcategories within the genre. The form is not unlike the family tree that branches off into related lines. Not too long ago, I turned to the romance subgenre for a change, and read a couple of books that fell into two subcategories, namely, erotic and historical romance.
I resisted for as long as I could, but ultimately had to see what all the fuss around Fifty Shades of Grey was about. The story is told from the viewpoint of Anastasia Steele, a soon-to-graduate journalism student who happens to be a virgin…at least for a little while. She speaks in the repetitive extremes of an adolescent, referring time and time again to her inner goddess. Her response to anything surprisingly sexy or appealing is Oh my!
Ana, as she is familiarly called by all but the new man in her life, falls under the spell of a tortured, self-made, gorgeous billionaire still in his twenties, and she consents to engage in BDSM—that’s bondage/dominance, sadism/masochism (oh my!)—the terms of which are drawn up by contract. His name is Christian Grey (very good/somewhat bad, get it?). When they come together (many, many times) they indulge in sexual deviance with gusto (Mr. Grey follows a fitness regimen).
Taken with the proper grain of salt (as I can only hope it was written), the book is amusing, though the characters and plot are incredible. E. L. James certainly knows how to attract readers (one hundred million copies of the Shades of Grey trilogy have been sold), and I’m sure she’s laughing at her critics as she lugs her moneybags all the way to the bank.
The next romance on my list was historical. I had enjoyed the first year of the Outlander TV series, and I decided to try the book when Amazon offered it at a nominal price. The novel opens in post-World War II Scotland, but the setting quickly moves backward in time via an assemblage of magical stones. A mash-up of the historical romance and time-travel genres, the book offers a lot more than steamy couplings, although it has a goodly share of those.
Diana Gabaldon wields impressive descriptive skills, rendering the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlands with historical authenticity and in vivid detail, her descriptions encompassing food and drink, landscape, vegetation, garments, interiors, and customs.
The author wisely uses her heroine’s voice to narrate the story. Claire, Gabaldon’s protagonist, is sharp-tongued, strong and funny, definitely not the submissive female of traditional romances. Teasing the tradition, the lovable hero, Jamie, a sweet man unconventionally younger than the heroine, demonstrates the requisite courage of ten bare-chested warriors.
There are plot twists aplenty to keep the reader turning pages. The popularity of Outlander has spawned a series that will require all the novelist’s considerable skills to match the engaging characterization and exciting action of the initial book.
Admittedly, the romance is not my favorite genre. Nevertheless, before I pass judgment on a book, I call to mind Henry James’s words of wisdom in The Art of Fiction: “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donee: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”