Here’s the text of a piece I published in The Australian recently, on the subject of literary love stories. Is there such a thing? And why do I feel such status anxiety whenever I see my most recent novel “The Voyagers” described as a romance?

Here’s the article.

LIKE many readers, I belong to a book group. A while ago, one of the members asked us to suggest a book that was a satisfying literary novel and a satisfying love story and it had to be contemporary.

It’s the sort of request that sounds easy, but my group struggled to come up with many titles. The love stories weren’t literary, the literary books shunned love.

This raises the question: have contemporary literary novelists turned away from love stories, and if so why?

Nineteenth-century novelists weren’t afraid of a love story and it wasn’t just Jane Austen and the Brontes: writers as different as Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy created grand, panoramic, ambitious novels with love stories at their centre.

Novels are ideally suited to love stories because they, more than any other art form, allow us to see into the minds of others, to eavesdrop on someone thinking and experiencing and feeling. A love story is the perfect narrative vehicle for demonstrating the thinking, feeling self in action.

Perhaps it was the modernists who did for the love story: while very interested in exploring the textures of individual consciousness, they were suspicious of the satisfactions of the well-ordered plot, whether it offered the consolation of happy ever after or the catharsis of a tragic ending.

This suspicion continues among literary authors today. To understand why, you have only to look at the romance genre, with its stock characters and situations, formulaic plots and settings chosen for glamour or exoticism. Of all the forms of genre fiction, romance probably has the lowest status. Crime, science fiction and fantasy all have their highbrow admirers, as well as practitioners who are trying to do exciting and innovative things with the form and are sometimes rewarded with mainstream success. (Stieg Larsson is the stand-out example.) It’s hard to think of romance authors who’ve done the same unless it’s because mainstream success makes their romance origins invisible.

The rise of feminism, too, has made romance suspect. There is an inherent conservatism in the romance novel’s focus on relationships as the overriding source of women’s happiness. Today’s heroines may have more high-flying jobs than the nurses and governesses of yore and the men may no longer be quite so sociopathically masterful, but a romance plot demands nothing matters as much as landing Mr Right.

And then, of course, there is the problem of endings. Love stories need solid, unambiguous endings: they get together or they don’t. Love flourishes or dies. You live happily ever after, or one or both parties dies. Either way, ambiguity ends. This, of course, is not particularly realistic: life goes on, relationships alter, people change. The literary novel has evolved to such a place that it rarely offers the kind of ending where the good end happily and the bad unhappily. It prefers endings that resemble the messiness of life: open-ended, disappointing, incomplete; in other words, unsatisfying.

So to return to my fellow reader’s request, what would a novel that satisfied as literature and as a love story look like?

Literature offers well-chosen language: it doesn’t have to be high-flown or fancy but it does need to be a considered choice; characters with depth and dimension; a world view that is complex; and a subject of inquiry. Literature aims to do more than just tell a story; it wants to understand something about the world.

A satisfying love story explores the meeting of two people, the things that draw them together and the things that drive them apart. It puts enough obstacles, both external and internal, in the way to make this process chancy and risky and interesting. The characters must be sufficiently engaging that you care about what happens to them, recognisable enough that you can connect with them, but different enough to give you a sense of discovery. Love stories show you how other people fumble towards something like happiness, and to be satisfying they need to offer some sort of resolution.

So a love story doesn’t have to be a narrow narrative form that shuts out everything except the emotions of the heroine. It can be the frame through which we glimpse society in all its richness and complexity. It is especially good at showing the situation of women in society (think Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, or, for an anti-love story, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary).

It is also good on the distorting effects of money and class (Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby), or the chaos of war (Dr Zhivago, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong).

In recent years, we’ve seen prize-winning examples of the literary love story. A. S. Byatt’s Booker winner Possession combines dual love stories with a literary detective story (and, yes, pages and pages of scarcely readable Victorian poetry). Charles Frazier won the National Book Award for Cold Mountain, his re-imagining of The Odyssey as a Civil War tale. Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, combines love and war, as does Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, another Booker Prize winner.

All of these novels are concerned with larger issues than love — politics, history, nationalism, literature, the moral responsibility of the individual during wartime — but there is a strong argument to be made that it is the love story at the heart of each that makes them so appealing, because they engage the mind and the heart.

Turning to one of the hottest books of the past year: is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a love story? It is a novel with many targets, from bird protection, mountain top removal, and the corruption of the Iraq war to the bitter politics of suburban neighbourhoods and shifting fashions in indie music.

One of the dominant elements is an intriguing and original portrait of the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, which is complicated by the presence of Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, who throws the sexual and emotional energy of the marriage into a constant state of flux. Franzen shows us love in all its complexity: riddled with ambiguity and doubt, contradictory feelings and shifting allegiances.

So does this make Freedom a love story? I think the answer must be no. Freedom is episodic and disparate and rambling. Like Dickens, Franzen is interested in exploring the effects of society on his characters; romantic partnership is one element of his exploration, but by no means the only one, nor, one suspects, is it where his heart lies.

In a true love story, whatever else the book is about, it’s the emotional energy of the love story that drives everything else. And that’s the secret to a satisfying literary love story.

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