American novelist Nicholas Sparks ranks among the #1 best sellers of today with 14 novels in 13 years; four of them adapted in film and put his authorship in a bigger mainstream. With Kevin Costner as Garrett Blake in Message in a Bottle (1999), Mandy Moore as Jamie Sullivan in A Walk to Remember (2002), and Richard Gere as Dr. Paul Flanner in Nights to Rodanthe (2008), it became far easier for the name to leave a commercial mark and drop some familiarity among young and old alike. But can commercial success lift a writer’s distinction in the literary world? What exactly makes a canon?
To put it simply, is Nicholas Sparks a canon writer? The word canon itself becomes trite these days with the plethora of websites from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter that treat just any bit of hype to be a canon. Both created history in bestseller and box office but none of the two is “universally” considered as a literary canon although LotR is considered to father the modern fantasy stories. According to Stevens, literary canons are not just worthy of serious academic attention; they have also become “celebrated names” holding some measure of universal acclaim.
They are too many in history, Shakespeare and his magnum opera would be the most obvious to mention. Of course, who does not know the Dickensonian Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or even Fagin? In the romantic genre, Jane Austen could captivate you body and soul with Pride and Prejudice and Emma. So where exactly does Nicholas Sparks fall? Before anything else, it is important to note that there is no written policy on the establishment of a literary canon.
A work is canonized only when it is included in the literary works that are studied and respected by literary or academic critics. Since literature is evolving and is perceived differently at the context of time and the critic’s subjective experience, the canonization then is generally subjective in nature and thus transcends time. For example, Jane Austen who is much celebrated for her comedy of manners and intellectual repartees remained close to anonymous until given a posthumous academic recognition in the 20th century.
It might be a blunder to compare Sparks to Austen but a comparison is necessary to establish the argument – does Sparks belong to the canon poll? Since there is not a precise appraisal to making the canon mark, let us then examine his works at the context of its impact on literature and culture, while studying its literary style and end. Nicholas Sparks writes love stories, most often contain tragic endings and set the tragedy-in-fate archetype he is infamous for. He considers it a completely different genre and forbids to be labelled a romance writer.
“I don’t write romance novels, any more than Tom Clancy writes legal thrillers”, he said in an interview covered by bookreporter. com. The Romance Writers of America explains it this way: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. ” (Simpson) Given this description, Sparks could either be doing one of the two; benchmarking a love story genre or falling into the romance novel trap half foot.
Unlike the majority of writers who fashion their characters first and create the conflict that suit the characters just second, Sparks admit to be doing the otherwise. Though his characters are inspired by real people (Jamie Sullivan was inspired by the death of her sister Danielle), he made them more compelling by making their conflicts larger than life. The flop in such a technique is apparent to any sophisticated reader or writer wannabe – instead of the characters giving the plot the edge and leading it to a compelling climax, the characters become mere pawns to the writer’s intent.
There will be little to no relevant character development. The reader will struggle to identify a character to remember, the plot will overshadow it all, especially when it is so tragic, it leaves you wishing for a different twist. This is contradictory to most tragic love stories, classical in literature. In Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily (short story), though the end is foretold in the beginning, what draws you is the narrative that so ardently expressed the issues, both internal and external, in vivid detail.
In the end, the reader will come to understand that the death of one character does not necessarily define the tragedy in the story – but how the character evolved so as to reach that cheerless conclusion. Message in a Bottle (1998), A Walk to Remember (1999) and Nights at Rodanthe (2002) all exemplify this flat disaster. The Notebook (1996) has some good moments particularly with its compelling narrative in the beginning, but still, the characterization failed to maintain the force given the very predictable outcome.
For always, Sparks brings us to a TIME when people were not troubled by major social conflicts or to a simple, smaller PLACE where his characters live detached from conflicts and distractions of modern day. Sparks however, stands on his novels being realistic. It can be observed that most of his women – Allie Nelson (The Notebook), Theresa Osborne (Message in a Bottle), Denise Holton (The Rescue) and Elizabeth Green (The Lucky One) to name a few, were divorcees or single mothers trying to have a hold on life and finding their self in love once again.
The situation per se is indeed realistic especially in this time. What made them stranger than fiction though is how they confronted these realistic struggles in a way, only a pen could smudge. For instance in The Notebook, Allie’s love for Noah was rekindled with not much plot support. The mother confessed of her ploy to separate them and the key to the reunion was easily established. In Message in a Bottle, Theresa embarked on a detective search for Garrett out of mere curiosity.
Given that Theresa is a journalist, has a child and just finds herself caught in an unexpected divorce, it would be very uncharacteristic for her to feel real sappy and romantic over somebody she clearly did not know, and who matter-of-fact declared his love for someone else. Clearly, all these characters and sub-plots turned out not because they evolved like how humans are supposed to, but because that is how exactly the writer intended it to be. Taking into the iceberg principle of 10/90, 10% was real while the submerged 90% was a loosely based romance archetype.
In fact, the plots of the 13 novels were prototyped from The Notebook, his first. That is why, only hardcore romance suckers would get whatever thrill there is while the more sophisticated readers who are looking for more sense and substance find the subsequent readings redundant and predictable. Although The Notebook and A Walk to Remember books were set in 1932 and 1958 respectively, it did not contain any historical account or social issues relevant to the setting specified.
Unlike with Gabriel Marquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose diversity of structure and literary plot showed the postmodernism for which he belongs, Sparks seems lost in principle and time. He is not a realist, not an impressionist, not a neo-classicist and does not claim to be a romantic. His works lack social and historical relevance and thus have no place in a serious academic discussion. For one, there is no need for a brow-knitting analytical criticism. In fact, your brows would knit effortlessly for lack of needed smarts than for over thinking.
To get the sparks going, a reader only needs to have his / her tear glands all set, with the tissue or hanky at hand and the ride is on. Things can get pretty predictable so in order to avoid any failed expectation; do not expect anything at all. With Nicholas Sparks, the best thing you could get out of your seven bucks is a good cry and a great kiss. So what made Nicholas Sparks one of the most bankable writers at the moment? Personally, I see his first three works to be the primary determinant. The Notebook was a good spank for an undying love.
Message in a Bottle was a curious case after the first hit. A Walk to Remember captivated a whole new, much younger audience. But all the rest that followed bored us to tears or to death. With each novel written and published just mere months after the other, it is clear that more than creating works of literary art, Nicholas Sparks is better hauled for the money. I am not saying it is a bad choice but it is not a direction for creating literary mark like Hemingway or Faulkner long achieved. Or maybe, we can blame Hollywood for taking a toll on the evolution or decline of American literature.
With most of the writers choosing the more marketable screenplay career and with people going visual, it is indeed easier to go with the current and deliver the visual imagery the audience is looking for. Or maybe, just like the many writers that their time rejected, the future might hold a place for Nicholas Sparks and prove this personal deduction to be false. Only time could tell. For now, much credit is given to the stars that made Sparks’ masterpieces more compelling than the lines they convey and continue to burn Nicholas’ name in Amazon, or in the bookshops near you.
References Simpson, Donna Lea. “What Defines the Romance Novel”. suite101. com. 12 November 2007. http://romancefiction. suite101. com/article. cfm/what_defines_a_romance_novel, accessed 25 April 2009 Stevens, Charlotte. “The Literary Canon”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 10 January 2007. [http://www. litencyc. com/php/stopics. php? rec=true&UID=158, accessed 25 April 2009. ] Bookreporter. com. “Nicholas Sparks”. 1996-2009. http://www. bookreporter. com/authors/au-sparks-nicholas. asp, accessed 25 April 2009.