This is a re-read for me.
Disclosure: I purchased the Kindle edition of this book at full retail price. I have met one of the authors, Christopher Vogler, once, in 1995 when he was a speaker at a conference I chaired in Los Angeles. I do not know David McKenna. I am an author of historical romances, contemporary gothic romances, and miscellaneous non-fiction.
I wasn't going to post a status on this reread, but then decided last night that it might be a good idea.
Memo from the Story Department is a follow-up to Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Although Memo reprises a lot of the information in TWJ, I strongly recommend reading TWJ first.
There is a great deal more information in Memo regarding story and mythic structure, but in fact there's so much more that it becomes almost confusing for someone who's not familiar with Vogler's take on the (somewhat) original Joseph Campbell theories.
The back-and-forth style of Memo - parts are written by McKenna and then Vogler adds commentary, other parts are vice versa - can also be a bit confusing.
Reading this, however, has prompted me to wish I had both Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. Maybe I need a trip to the library.
I could do this as a "currently reading" title with periodic updates, but too much is going on, so I'm just going to leave a few notes here and there. You can follow, or not, as you choose.
Regis bases her analysis of the content of romance novels on the literary theories of mid-20th century critic Northrop Frye. She seems, therefore, to be trying to fit the popular fiction form of the romance novel into the academic model of "literature," as though the two were almost entirely distinct. Any prose narrative that has already been accepted as "literature" by the credentialed academic community -- such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre -- has been granted respect. Regis seems to be attempting to squeeze romance novels into the same mold while at the same time insisting they are so different from literature that they cannot be considered literature, but if they can be seen to share some characteristics, then they might be worthy of some respect.
Yes, it's contorted logic. But Regis never comes out and admits romance novels -- as they are written, published, read, and enjoyed today -- are essentially no different in content or form from "literature." That would be academic sacrilege. A kind of "separate, but sort of equal" compromise that would allow her to sell her book without losing her academic standing.
Jane Austen didn't write "literature." Neither did Charles Dickens. Neither did Wilkie Collins or Victor Hugo. Maybe it's time to look at more than a few samples from "literature," samples which already have the stamp of "romance novel," and look at more than a few samples of real romance novels from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and compare them to a more neutral standard, and perhaps a more universal standard. Then see how both of them stand up.
When I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis about romance novels in 2000, this book was still three years in the future. Though I had an academic publisher interested in a book-length version of Half Heaven, Half Heartache, I never followed up on it and ultimately saw the Regis book as what mine would/might have been. So my "book" sat on the shelf.
A few years ago, however, an odd set of circumstances brought my attention back to A Natural History, and so I bought a copy. The opening pages took me aback.
Rather than "a natural history," the Regis book opened like just another post-modern analysis of a varied genre that the author didn't really know, understand, or care about.The University of Pennsylvania imprint, of course, hinted that the tone would be academic rather than popular, in rather stark contrast to UPenn's 1994 anthology of essays by actual romance novelists, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.
Romance novels don't write themselves; they are written by people -- usually women -- who have read other romance novels and other romantic novels and other novels written by other people. The Happy Ever After (HEA) ending continues to be disparaged even as it's deemed absolutely essential to the genre, and even while readers and writers proclaim novels without HEA are still romances.
It's not enough to subject a few selected novels to a Procrustean post-modern literary analysis and declare that to be the natural history of an entire genre.
I'm not sure how many romance novels I've read. More than a few hundred certainly. I've written (through to the HEA) a dozen or so; the unfinished starts are uncountable. There are great romance novels and there are horrible ones. Some are well-written, some are not. They are short, they are long. They are contemporary, they are historical, they are futuristic. They are sweet, they are sexy, they are erotic.
Romance novels, however, still don't get respect. Pamela Regis's book was supposed to give the genre the respect it deserved. As far as I can see, it fails rather miserably.
I didn't want that to be the case. I wanted A Natural History of the Romance Novel to succeed. I wanted to see my favorite books and authors given pride of place in a serious, detailed analysis of the good points and bad points. That's not what this book is.
So, it all comes back to my little thesis. I guess I have some major reading to do.