Last night, Lucy and I watched The Apartment as the tenth movie in the Popcorn Dialogues historical survey of romantic comedy, and we were . . . bemused. We stumbled through the podcast and then called it a night, and I went straight to bed because I was exhausted, which could also have had an effect on my bemusement, but when I woke up this morning, my head was full of “What happened?” My brain was trying to synthesize the viewing last night with our earlier middle-of-the-night lovefest for Down With Love, and with the Dowd op-ed discussion, and with some things Rox and I were talking about in the comments. What I’ve finally managed to boil it all down to is that when we established our definition of rom com for the purposes of PopD, we only answered one of the questions we needed to which was “What is a romantic comedy?” The second question, and possibly the more important one, is “What does a romantic comedy do?”
My early training in writing was not in fiction, it was in business and tech writing, and I’ve always thought that was a good thing. Fiction writing is so intuitive, there are so many ways to get a good story down on paper, that starting with creative writing would, I think, have left me floundering. With business and tech, there is no floundering. You ask yourself two questions:
What is this piece of writing supposed to accomplish?
Does it accomplish that?
If the piece doesn’t accomplish its goal, you rewrite it until it does.
This approach is, of course, too left-brained and analytical for creating fiction which is why the first draft of any piece of creative writing should be all right-brain, off the top of your frontal lobe, completely free. But at some point, especially if you want to make your story public, you have to consider what your audience needs from the piece you’re writing and, based on that, what their expectation will be.
I run into this over and over again because I try not to write the same book over and over again. This makes me creative but not popular. People who read Bet Me often want my next book to be Bet Me Again. People who like my solo romances are not happy with my collaborative romantic adventure novels. People who like reading about contemporary romance are not happy when magic, ghosts and demons show up. This unhappiness is not caused by narrow-mindedness, it’s caused by need and expectation. If I’m hungry for chocolate ice cream, and I ask for chocolate ice cream, and somebody said, “Sure, I’ll give you some chocolate ice cream,” and then hands me strawberry, even if it’s really good strawberry, even if I like strawberry, I am not going to be happy. Expectation has a huge impact on the experience of the story.
As Lucy pointed out last night, a lot of this is marketing: Put the wrong cover on a book, a cover that promises a different book, and you’re going to have unhappy readers. But a lot of it is also the subjectivity of that expectation; that is, your definition of a Jenny Crusie novel may not be my definition of a Jenny Crusie novel, and while you might think that my definition would be the one that matters since I’m Jenny Crusie, it’s not. It’s the reader’s or viewer’s definition of what the story is that colors how good the story turns out to be for that reader. So it’s not enough to ask, “What’s a Jenny Crusie novel?” you also have to ask “What does a Jenny Crusie novel do for the reader?” What experience does the reader expect to have?
So in the case of The Apartment, after Lucy and I fumbled around in the podcast (which I believe she is editing savagely), we both said, “This isn’t a romantic comedy.” There was a real Emperor’s New Clothes feel to the experience; I went to the AFI site and The Apartment is on all kinds of best lists including “Laughs” and “Passion.” It won an Oscar for best picture and a whole lot of other things. I kept thinking, What’s wrong with me that I don’t find this either romantic or funny? And why do I feel so sad after this?
It was the last one that bugged me. I can see that The Apartment is a good movie on many levels. I can even see why some people think it’s a comedy although I find it unutterably sad. But mostly, I was just disappointed. We’ve seen some really uneven films here, but none of them left me depressed, and it’s not as if The Apartment is a tragedy; it has a happy ending. But it failed for me completely when it didn’t deliver what I need from a romcom: that feeling that the world is a good, even sunny place, and that love is not only possible but exhilarating.
Which is where Down with Love comes in. Is it a picture in a class with The Apartment? No. It’s not savage commentary on the way men use women, it’s not dark and edgy, it doesn’t have a moral carried in by the nice doctor next door. It’s just a romp, a light-hearted farce about the power of love to inspire bestsellers and make a playboy not care about sex anymore. I was expecting it to be terrible, and in many ways it wasn’t good, but it delivered what I need romantic comedy to deliver: the delighted laughter, the lift of spirits, the sense that there is emotional justice in the world. It made me feel good about being human.
And I think that’s what romantic comedy is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you laugh and feel good about love in particular and life in general. If it doesn’t do those things–even if there’s an arced romance at the center of a well-constructed story that makes you laugh a lot (our definition)–then it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. A story can fit our definition of a romantic comedy and still fail as a romantic comedy because it doesn’t complete the purpose of the romcom story: It doesn’t lift and delight.
So does that mean all romcoms have to be sunny? I don’t think so. I think you can have dark, edgy rom com as long as it leaves you in that good place at the end, with not just a happily-ever-after for the lovers but a happy-right-now for the viewer/reader. In fact, I think that happy-right-now is the important part, subjective though it is, which is why for me, Down with Love is a far better romantic comedy than The Apartment no matter what the AFI says.
Of course, the problem with that as criteria is not only that it’s subjective depending on the viewer or reader, it’s also subjective depending on how the viewer or reader feels when she or he sits down to watch or read. But I would argue that a good romantic comedy overcomes both of those variables because it’s a good romantic comedy, that part of the definition of what makes a good romantic comedy is its ability to charm the hell out of anybody, no matter what her or his disposition or current mood. A truly good romantic comedy wins everybody over.
I’m still thinking this one through, but I think it definitely belongs in our evaluations from now on. What do you think?