July 14, 2012 marks the Centenary of Northrop Frye’s birth. Frye remains, without doubt, one of Canada’s most important literary and cultural critics, standing alongside Linda Hutcheon, J. Edward Chamberlin, Marshall McLuhan, and undoubtedly others. The Centre for Comparative Literature and the Department of English at the University of Toronto will host an international conference in honour of the Centenary (Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth). Originally, I had intended to participate in the conference and present a paper called “Is Northrop Frye a Smart Bitch? Northrop Frye and the Development of Popular Romance Criticism.” Unfortunately, things have changed and I am unable to participate. Thus, I provide here some initial thoughts on Frye and popular romance criticism.
Most students of literature will read aspects of Northrop Frye’s theory of literature, likely taken from Anatomy of Criticism, and almost certainly about “archetypes.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, for instance, offers “The Archetypes of Literature.” Frye, of course, wrote about much more than archetypes. His writings on genre, and romance in particular, remain essential reading.
It could be argued that the most concise and enduring definition of romance comes from Northrop Frye. Frye’s theory of romance is convincing, I believe, because of its malleability and its translation across literary traditions, national traditions, and the erroneous concepts of “high” and “low” literature. Frye’s structuralism and archetypes are useful because they so often lend themselves to literary examples beyond the scope of Frye’s own writing. These, however, are just my opinions; what do other critics think?
In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Fredric Jameson writes, “Frye’s theory of romance […] is the fullest account of the genre.” In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis, “the conventions of romance are very stable; the basic story, as Frye notes, has not changed in the centuries that followed its advent in ancient times.” Corinne Saunders, in her introduction to an anthology on romance, writes, “most influential in developing a grammar of romance has been Northrop Frye.” David Fuller, echoing Saunders, refers to Frye as “one of the most influential critics of the mode.” Likewise, Raymond H. Thompson writes that Frye is “the most influential among theoreticians.” Even in disagreement, critics like Doris Sommer have to admit that “Frye’s observations about masculine and feminine ideals are to the point; they point backward to medieval quest-romance where victory meant fertility, the union of male and female heroes.” Finally, Frye’s observations cut across traditions as Lois Parkinson Zamora recognizes “twentieth-century magical realism is a recent flowering of the more venerable romance tradition that Frye describes.” Indeed, though this is just a brief survey of Frye in criticism, it does seem certain that Frye is essential to romance scholarship.
But what can be said of Northrop Frye and popular romance criticism? Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel is, as we likely know, very much engaging with Frygian thought. Regis takes Frygian ideas about romance and applies them to the popular romance novel. Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: The Literary Art of Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance draws heavily on Frye’s early statements on romance.
To provide just one more, and final, example – Northrop Frye and the Smart Bitches. Wendell and Tan have summarized the romance novel as: “boy meets girl. Holy crap, shit happens. Eventually, the boy gets the girl. They live happily ever after.” Though the definition may lack a certain ‘academic prose,’ the definition itself flirts with Frye. Frye writes, “there is a social as well as an individual theme which must be sought in the general atmosphere of reconciliation that makes the final marriage possible.” Wendell and Tan, like Frye, recognize the importance of the concluding moments, the moments when the narrative comes together. Indeed, Pamela Regis notes this as well, “a novel that ends with the hero and heroine not in love, not betrothed, is simply not a romance novel.”
Frye, unfortunately, has fallen out of fashion in the literary academy. Perhaps many have not yet read through Frye’s theory of romance. There is, however, hope. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz remind us in their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction that Northrop Frye was “the great early theorist of ‘Romance’ in the broadest sense.”
From my perspective, the importance of Northrop Frye in popular romance criticism cannot be denied, and perhaps like Fredric Jameson, we must recognize that “any reflection on genre today owes a debt – sometimes an unwilling one – to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism” (and I would add The Secular Scripture).