A Romance is not a Novel
Sir Walter Scott in his “Essay on Romance,” established a basic difference between romance and novel. While he considered the former a narrative that consisted of marvelous and uncommon incidents, he saw the novel as a work that reflected society; which explains why he wrote so many historical novels.
Nathaniel Hawthorne in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables writes: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.”
By latitude Hawthorne means that the author takes liberties to manage his “atmospherical medium” and also to inject the marvelous. While in a romance, the writer can create an atmosphere of enchantment, of magic, or even an eerie or uncanny ambience that has little resemblance to reality, in novel that is almost impossible–unless the genre permits such liberties. Novels like Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or even J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter novel series are fraught with such implausible events that defy the suspension of disbelief. But this is allowed since the novels belong to the genre of magic realism.
Hawthorne goes on to add: “The latter form of composition [the novel] is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.”
Indeed, readers expect ‘fidelity’ or realism of what we see, feel, and experience in the material world, and this can only be rendered in a novel. When Herman Melville wrote his short story or novelette, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which he set in Wall Street, he knew he was writing a romance. In this work we find both an atmosphere that is eerie, ghostly, and characters that cannot be expected to be real. In particular, one can make the argument that the protagonist Bartleby more resembles an otherworldly being (ghost or spirit), than a real person.
The Canadian critic Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism writes: “The essential difference between novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization. The romance does not attempt to create “real people” so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes (304).”
Besides Bartleby, Melville wrote Billy Budd, another novelette in which the characters are ‘stylized figures’ with which Melville explores the depths of the human psyche.
Formula and Trashy Romances
When we read “formula romances” or trashy romances we know that the characters -in particular the lovers- push credulity as they deal with the insurmountable barriers they encounter before they can discover love. Readers do not mind the speed bumps, obstacles, and other impediments; in fact they welcome them as benign frustrations which in the end will be overcome.
Yet by today’s standards, artistically, the romance is a few notches lower than the novel. Seldom will readers see romances as serious artistic works-or as literature, unless they are the product of genius writers such as Hawthorne and Melville. And unfortunately, contemporary romance writers don’t come close to any kind of literary genius.