Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye (1912-1991) remains a preeminent voice in literary criticism and has found – or, is finding – a renewed interest because of the publication of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Eric Selinger has previously posted on Frye here at Teach Me Tonight. In his post, Eric writes: “Here’s the most recent version [of a handful of passages from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism] – I hope it’s useful to someone out there! If anything here strikes a chord, I’d love to hear about it.”
In Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, readers find Frye defining an entire system of literature one that is understood in terms of modes, genres, symbols, and myths. In his later book, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, readers encounter Frye trying to understand one specific genre: romance. Though Frye is concerned with the history of romance from its late classical origins through to its contemporary manifestations, his work continues to provide, to my mind, some of the most potent defences of the romance. He writes:
Popular literature has been the object of a constant bombardment of social anxieties for over two thousand years, and nearly the whole of the established critical tradition has stood out against it. The greater part of the reading and listening public has ignored the critics and censors for exactly the same length of time. This is an issue which we shall have a look into, because the bulk of popular literature consists of what I have been calling sentimental romance. (23, CW XVIII:19)
For Frye, the sentimental romance is “a more extended and literary development of formulas of naïve romance” (3, CW XVIII:5) – the naïve romance being “the kind of story that I found in collections of folk tales and märchen, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales” (3, CW XVIII:5). Thus, for Frye, there is – it would seem – a distinction to be found between the fairy tale and the romance, despite the fact that “romance is the structural core of all fiction” (15, CW XVIII:14).
But throughout the opening chapter of The Secular Scripture, readers find various defences of the romance:
Any serious discussion of romance has to take into account its curiously proletarian status as a form generally disapproved of, in most ages, by the guardians of taste and learning, except when they use it for their own purposes. The close connection of the romantic and the popular runs all through literature. The formulas of New Comedy and Greek romance were demotic and popular formulas, like their counterparts now, treated with condescension by the highbrows, one form of condescension being the writing of such tales themselves, as academic write detective stories. (23, CW XVIII:19-20)
Frye, though talking about romance in general – thus including the detective story, mystery novel, science fiction – offers some remarkable thoughts with regard to the popular romance novel of the amorous tradition:
The central element of romance is a love story, and the exciting adventures are normally foreplay leading up to sexual union. Hence romance appears to be designed mainly to encourage irregular or excessive sexual activity. This may be masturbation, which is the usual model in the minds of those who speak with contempt of ‘escape’ reading, or it may be a form of voyeurism. Most denunciations of popular romance on such grounds, we notice, assume that the pornographic and the erotic are the same thing: this overlooks the important principle that it is the function of pornography to stun and numb the reader, and the function of erotic writing to wake him up. (24, CW XVIII:20)
Clearly there is much to be said about such a paragraph and perhaps readers of Teach Me Tonight can begin to consider Frye’s observations. What is clear is that in 1976, as Frye gave this series of lectures, the same criticisms of popular romance existed that continue to dominate over studies of romance. To these ends, Frye remains an important critic of the popular romance novel, and perhaps, no where is this more clear than in Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel which often engages with Frye’s theories of romance.
Frye’s goal in The Secular Scripture: “I am trying to suggest a literary perspective on [romance] which may help to bring it into the area of literary criticism instead of confining it to linguistics or to the less fashionable suburbs of sociology” (26, CW XVIII:21).
He concludes his first lecture from The Secular Scripture observing that,
Literature is the human compulsion to create in the face of chaos. Romance, I think, is not only central to literature as a whole, but the area where we can see most clearly that the maze without a plan and the maze not without a plan are two aspects of the same thing. (31, CW XVIII:25)Having been introduced to romance through Frye, it seems to me that he remains an influential voice (especially if we hope to develop a greater acceptance of popular romance in the academy).