“What makes a romantic comedy non-condescending and ragingly feminist?” This is a question posed by a character in a self-aware exchange in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy. Multiple answers are supplied. The female characters shouldn’t be too cutesy, with flour on their noses, nor should they be too much of a mess, unemployed and hungover. They shouldn’t be flawless, nor should they be ridiculous or incompetent. The characters should be well-developed and convincingly attracted to each other. But the most important answer is the most obvious. It’s about the quality of the writing.
The ink was scarcely dry on the pages of the earliest romance novels before they were provoking theatrical eyerolls from literary-minded readers. As the genre originated and flourished in the mid-18th century, “the reveries of the stupid novelists” were condemned with withering scorn by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 as “sentimental jargon”. These novels, she wrote, offered little more than “the gross gratification of appetites”, and produced in their readers that dreaded “feminine weakness of character… a romantic twist of the mind”!
Half a century later, in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, George Eliot eviscerated “the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature” for its clichés and patronisingly over-virtuous female leads. As Eliot saw it, “the average intellect of women is unfairly represented” by such “frothy” fiction, which – alarmingly – serves to “confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of women”. In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer condemned the books of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland for their domineering, sneering male leads as the fantasies of women “cherishing the chains of their bondage”.
Though the moral, political and intellectual risks of reading romance fiction now seem greatly exaggerated, it is still often described in the same terms: as frothy and trashy gratification. It occupies a unique position as perhaps the most popular and maligned of genres – producing novels that are declared New York Times or Sunday Times best-sellers but far less frequently reviewed in the same publications.
As the genre moved from page to screen, the romantic comedy became a cinematic cornerstone, both beloved and dismissed. The screenwriter Mindy Kaling suggested in the New Yorker as recently as 2011 that “the genre has been so degraded in the past 20 years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity”. Yet even if this was true in 2011 (and, perhaps, the New Yorker inviting Kaling to reflect on the genre suggests that it wasn’t) it is surely not true now. In the 21st century, the romcoms of Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis have been canonised as classics, and fans no longer have to cloak their appreciation in irony.
The contemporary romance novel (and the contemporary romcom) is burdened by this tradition – self-consciously grappling with the tropes of the genre, full of meta asides. Shelves are full of winking titles such as Beach Read, Meet Cute and Book Lovers.
Enter Curtis Sittenfeld, and Romantic Comedy.Sittenfeld, a genre-straddling novelist with an astute literary sensibility, has produced coming-of-age fiction (her masterful debut, Prep), political fiction (American Wife and Rodham, experiments in fictionalising the lives of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton respectively) and, yes, romantic comedies (including Eligible, her oddly compelling rewrite of Pride and Prejudice). It would be reductive to label her a leading chronicler of wish fulfilment – but her plots often have a longed-for “what if” at their heart. What if the most popular guy in school was secretly sleeping with the social outcast? What if Mr Darcy was alive and well in modern-day Cincinnati, fresh off the set of a reality show? What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill Clinton?
A title such as Romantic Comedy signals the author’s intention to knowingly deal in tropes of the genre, critique the pop-cultural landscape, or elevate the genre through the quality of the prose – Sittenfeld attempts all three. Her stock plot of choice is “beautiful celebrity shocks ordinary civilian by falling in love with them”, as seen in Notting Hill and countless works of fan fiction; her setting is a late-night comedy sketch show called The Night Owls that resembles Saturday Night Live. Her leading lady, Sally Milz, is a cynical, professionally confident, personally insecure 36-year-old sketch writer. Her leading man, Noah Brewster, is a 36-year-old former teenage heart-throb of surfer-esque beauty who now releases “folky, poppy” records.
They meet at the offices of TNO, where Noah is both musical guest and host. Sally has cast him in a sketch called “The Danny Horst Rule”, riffing on the fact that schlubby Hollywood men “date above their station” – pop starlets, stunning actresses – but women do not. The most desired man alive would never look twice at a mousy, misanthropic screenwriter. Unless…? The question raises itself like the flirtatiously arched eyebrow of a former teen heart-throb. What if… he did…?
Sittenfeld has expertly captured a particular pop culture-literate, sceptical tone in her dialogue. The writers’ room setting is effortlessly convincing, when its zeitgeisty nature could easily induce a third-degree cringe. On the sentence level, her prose is attentive and controlled. She is at her best when describing the minutiae of Noah and Sally’s tentative interactions. She precisely tracks the subtle shifts from professional to companiable to awkward, the moment when a sexual undercurrent enters an exchange of friendly teasing.
In Sittenfeld’s hands, scenes of unexpected or forced intimacy have an emotional realism that prevents them from feeling too contrived. When Noah shows Sally his back tattoo, asking her if it should be covered before filming, he insists: “I don’t want to be the guy who finds pretextual reasons to start taking off his clothes.”
“By this point,” Sally thinks, “there was even less than a foot between us, and the skin on Noah’s back was also painfully, gloriously golden, and also there was something oddly domestic about the moment, as if we were boyfriend and girlfriend, standing in the bathroom in the apartment we shared, and he’d asked me to look at a red mark on his back because he wondered if it was a tick bite, and also I wondered for the first time if this was pretextual.” Deeming this “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, she touches the tattoo. She swallows, and says not to cover it. “Although I do like the word pretextual.” Shrewdly, Sittenfeld includes a section of convincing early-courtship, pandemic-era emails that let the reader analyse these self-consciously casual (“Can you tell I’m borrowing your ellipses right now? To… convey… my… laidback… chill… personality…”) but freighted exchanges, just as the recipients might.
[See also: Romantic comedy can survive]
If this is a romcom for grown-ups, then what is the grown-up fantasy of the romantic hero? He’s in his mid-30s, a “cheesily handsome” celebrity conscious of his own status as cheesy. He is “muscular, but not too muscular”, aware his relationship with exercise is “compulsive”. He finds your insinuation that he’d only date models offensive. He has been sober since his early twenties, but doesn’t mind if you drink in the house. He asks questions like “What makes a romantic comedy non-condescending and ragingly feminist?” with total sincerity, and listens to your answer. He listens to everything you say, actually, often making quips that refer back to comments you’ve made, or your liberal use of the word “actually”. He listens to feminist folk-rock songs, and sings them to you. He has been to a Black Lives Matter protest – although not in a performative way. He is appropriately therapised, but sometimes fears he sounds like he’s had too much therapy. During sex he says things like “Is this OK? Do you need anything?” Afterwards, he says things like, “You’re so terrifyingly, awesomely perceptive.” Best of all, he cures you of your smartphone addiction.
If this all sounds a little too much like elder millennial wish fulfilment, it feels it on the page as well. Noah is a celebrity, so it’s right that he is untouchable at first. But despite the novel’s assertion that romcom characters shouldn’t be flawless, Noah’s perfectly culturally calibrated appeal leaves him feeling unreal even once we get to know him. Sally writes about the embarrassing bodily functions of ordinary women, but Noah is as smooth as a boyband figurine – as worshipped, and as sexless. By the novel’s end, I was longing for Sittenfeld to give him a flaw – any flaw, even a cutesy one that Sally would deem condescending. Their only obstacle is Sally’s insecurity and insecurity-driven obnoxiousness, as she is so deeply unable to believe that he is attracted to her – which Noah, of course, handles with grace.
Sally remains incredulous. “Wasn’t this more than I’d ever imagined I could wish for, that a kind, thoughtful, smoking-hot man would think I was terrifyingly, awesomely perceptive?… Hadn’t it all seemed so unlikely that I’d genuinely made peace with never finding someone like Noah except perhaps on the pages of a screenplay I wrote?”
This fantasy should be vicariously thrilling for the reader, and for the first two thirds of the novel, it is. But Romantic Comedy is ultimately too much of a fantasy to be satisfying. Real-world relationships and romantic comedies alike need a little more tension – an intellectual, interpersonal tension as well as the sexual kind – to stay interesting. “I can’t believe you exist,” Sally says to Noah. The reader might be inclined to agree.
Transworld, 400pp, £16.99
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[See also: Don’t give up on romantic comedies]
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats