Hollywood is cranking out yet another Nicholas Sparks movie (The Best of Me, for those keeping track). And I would like to take this opportunity to get something off my chest: Oh my God, I cannot stand the Nicholas Sparks Hollywood perpetual motion entertainment machine.
Let's get something out of the way right here and now. I'm no high-culture elitist, turning up my nose at whatever flies off the WalMart shelves. In fact, one of the things about Sparks that most sticks in my craw is his attitude about the tendency to label his writing "romance." He doesn't write that bitch shit, y'all: "If you look for me, I'm in the fiction section. Romance has its own section," he huffed to USA Today in 2010, adding that he writes "Love stories — it's a very different genre." He continued in this vein:
"A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms."
That's one of his favorites, and he points it out as he walks the aisles of the bookstore.
"Hemingway. See, they're recommending The Garden of Eden, and I read that. It was published after he was dead. It's a weird story about this honeymoon couple, and a third woman gets involved. Uh, it's not my cup of tea." Sparks pulls the one beside it off the shelf. "A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That's what I write," he says, putting it back. "That's what I write."
That's what he writes. He writes sensitive manly books about sensitive manly men having sensitive manly feelings. Not romance. He literally has a section of his website FAQs devoted to the difference between "love stories" and "romance novels."
Though both have romantic elements, the sub-genres have different requirements. Love stories must use universal characters and settings. Romance novels are not bound by this requirement and characters can be rich, famous, or people who lived centuries ago, and the settings can be exotic. Love stories can differ in theme, romance novels have a general theme—"the taming of a man." And finally, romance novels usually have happy endings while love stories are not bound by this requirement. Love stories usually end tragically or, at best, on a bittersweet note.
The actual difference, as far as I'm concerned: The romance genre is actually peddling a vastly more appealing vision of enduring love. (Hear me out.) Notwithstanding the secret babies and the MEGA ANGST and the billionaire doms and the wacky meets cute, romance novels are all basically about finding someone with whom it is practical to share your life and establishing a bond built to last. (Hence there's generally some major internal obstacle the couple has to work through.) Not about finding someone who teaches you a lesson about ~life~and~meaning~and~the~stars~ and then croaks of cancer so the relationship requires no further maintenance.
Call me boring, but I think real love isn't tear-stained kisses under the Spanish moss—it's about switching to turkey bacon because of your husband's cholesterol and cleaning the litter box for a cat you despise because your wife's pregnant and she loves that furry little asshole.
Also, romances haven't been about strictly the comically wealthy since the mid 1990s.
If it were just about the books, fine. Go with God. I'm blissfully able to avoid the novels of Nicholas Sparks and continue wallowing in my addiction to the novels of Sarah MacLean. (Guys, Chase's book is gonna be SO GOOD!) Unfortunately, it would require retreating to a cabin in the remotest Arctic wilderness to escape the blockbuster movies based on his books and Icannot deal. They just keep coming, they are relentlessly marketed and they are all the same movie! Jesus Christ! They barely bother to produce a new poster every time!
Don't take my word for it; listen to Cracked. Also, did you know that there are literally zero black people in the American South? Or at least that's what you'd think if you were an alien assigned to produce an ethnography of the region who said "screw it" and just watched every movie Nicholas Sparks has ever been involved with instead. (The Southern accents are bad, too.) If you're hunting a women's picture that'll make you sob, just watch All That Heaven Allows and call it a day. You have other options! You don't have to do this!
Watch the trailer for The Best of Me (which hits theaters October 17) and tell me it's not specifically the exact same movie as The Notebook:
Same glorification of relationships formed in high school, same rich-girls-don't-marry-poor-boys-Jay-Gatsby conflict, same hazy nostalgic Southern coastal setting. They even recycled the Spanish moss. Hell, they recycled James Marsden! He deserves better than Ryan Gosling's leftovers, as does Michelle Monaghan. Oh, but, my bad, this time the male lead goes to jail for no doubt very unfair reasons, and Noah from The Notebook went off to fight in World War II. Totally different. (Not different. The same.)
I mean, come on, that voiceover: "Everything that happens, happens for a reason," which apparently means that God's cosmic plan revolves around getting two people who dated in high school but were tragically separated by class and circumstance back together, using an explosion on an oil derrick if that's what it takes. Truly the Lord does work in mysterious ways.
Also: "'There's nothing more enduring than first love' - anonymous." I see you, Nicholas. I see your ears peeking out either side of the word "anonymous." Please come out from back there and issue an apology to all the college-aged girls who will spend at least six months too long with dirtbag boyfriends because your books convinced them that love is supposed to be a heart-wrenching bittersweet experience and there's a sensitive guy buried in there somewhere.
Do you want to know the worst part? Every time I watch one of these movies, I cry. I bawled my fucking eyes out the first time I saw The Notebook because James Garner just loved Gena Rowlands so much! Such devotion! But even as the tears were streaming down my face I was pissed because I'd just been emotionally manipulated into crying over something that doesn't make any damn sense. I don't want my husband to lay down and die whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil. I want him to stick around as long as possible, vetting our grandchildren's dates and telling stories about our lives together all wrong because I'm not there to correct him.
"Love stories," my foot.
Lede image with the help of Jim Cooke.