Sorry, but love just isn't what it was

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The Independent Online

Over the weekend the news seeped out that publishers believe their more discerning readers are growing tired of what is apparently known as the "knickerbook". The knickerbook is that genre of novel, started by Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones and perhaps laid to rest by Amy Jenkins' new novel Honeymoon, in which the heroine, a metropolitan thirtysomething with a circle of drunken, funny friends, is rather exercised about whether she will ever find love.

In the end she always finds it - of course - but apparently that doesn't make this genre romantic enough. Perhaps that's because, despite its constant chatter about weddings, weddings, weddings, and love, love, love, the genre really lays its emphasis on narcissism rather than relationships, and cynical backchat rather than whole-hearted emotion.

Publishers have now decided that their readers want less of this peevish chatter, and more of "grown-up love story". But what exactly is a grown-up love story? Nothing too grown-up, actually, nothing too modern, nothing too edgy, no, a grown-up love story is, we are told by one agent, a "big, sweeping saga" in which lovers are held apart by great obstacles such as prior marriage, faith, geography, illness and war.

It's not surprising if those books are now hard to come by. The publishers are looking for something which can probably only be done now through pastiche. They are looking for a 19th century sensibility in a 21st century package. Because, although it may sometimes seem as if people are talking about nothing else, this is not an age which takes obstacles to love seriously. Think about it. On Tuesday, a new adaptation of Anna Karenina begins on Channel 4. It's a pretty trashy adaptation, which bleeds the novel of all its political force and confines it to a well-known mould of the romantic saga of impatient adultery, with the lovers held apart only briefly by the heroine's marriage.

Even in this lightweight rendering, something of Tolstoy's tragic vision gets through. In the first episode Stephen Dillane says Karenin's doomed lines: "Our lives have been joined by God. Only a crime can break that bond, and a crime like that doesn't go unpunished." In the TV adaptation, these words don't have the same weight as when they are knitted into the author's fierce certainties, but it is interesting that they have been left in. They are trying to remind the audience why it is that Anna's love is more than a regrettable dalliance, why her adultery might lead to misery.

All that sense of crime and guilt and betrayal has to be spoonfed to modern audiences, because otherwise the tale of poor Anna will look too ordinary for words. Now that we live in a country where nearly half of all marriages are broken and no punishment ensues, the world of the tragic, romantic novel has to be built up again from scratch. We live in a world ill suited to the grand narratives of love and betrayal. The conditions for the "big, sweeping" love story have begun to fade away.

Look, for instance, at the royal story that swept through so much of the press this week. Apparently Fergie and Prince Andrew, who divorced in 1996, are still living together very happily in their marital home and even thinking about getting married again. Their broken marriage vows, their respective adultery, seem to matter little to them - after all, why should they let such a chequered past get in the way of what looks like a perfectly happy family life? They don't rule out remarriage, but according to Andrew, they "are determined not to make a nonsense of it again".

Andrew and Fergie may not exactly be the norm, but their guilt-free life together, centred around their children, looks pretty functional, especially taken in the context of the family to which they belong. And they are not as exceptional as you might think.

Sure, not many divorced couples actually live together, but most divorced couples with children now manage to build up civilised ways of seeing one another without holding each other eternally accountable for a crime against holy matrimony.

In this guilt-free age, it's hard to see where the big narratives of thwarted love would come from. Indeed few serious writers are prepared to take on what might be seen as a classic romantic tale any more. Romantic fiction, a term that might once have encompassed most literature, is now confined strictly to junkier books with pink and gold covers. And even though they don't have an investment in being strictly plausible, these novels often have problems setting up sufficient obstacles to their lovers' consummation to keep the pages turning.

You can see Amy Jenkins struggling, in her novel Honeymoon, for ways to keep the plot moving until the heroine finally makes up her mind which of the two great-looking guys who adore her she will choose. In place of social stigma, God and guilt, she has only her own twittering indecision to contend with. It doesn't necessarily make for very memorable fiction.

Does this sense that romantic fiction has lost its way mean we are actually losing faith in love? It was once seen as a plausible aim for feminism that women should cease to be blinkered by romantic myths of the perfect man and unending matrimony.

Jill Tweedie's funny and trenchant polemic book, In the Name of Love, first printed in 1979, has just been republished. In it she makes all those irreproachable arguments for why women should learn not to hold on to the idea that love is always just around the corner. Her vision of the future has pretty much come to pass: "As the material benefits of the fight for equality make themselves felt, giving women financial independence, better education, more chance to fulfil career ambitions and more control over reproduction, women are rejecting the false role romantic love demands of them." Yes, most women have rejected the old false role, in which a woman was expected to invest her entire life in a single attempt at great love, whatever it cost her. Instead, both men and women are altogether more clear-sighted.

Even Bridget Jones and her ilk, for all that they are scorned for being old-fashioned and moony, are in fact thoroughly modern. They would no more think of giving up their families and friends and jobs and lives for a man than they would contemplate giving up shopping. In our sceptical world it has become much more embarrassing to say that you still believe in one great love and fidelity unto death.

Yes, all these cool heads and clear eyes and thick skins make classic romantic fiction a lot harder to come by. But that doesn't mean that good writers never deal with love now - some do, but they do it in their own peculiar and fragile ways, which won't fit into the traditional moulds.

And it certainly doesn't mean that we should assume people live their lives any less passionately than before, with any less investment in their own kinds of romance. After all, art is not life, and just as what makes for the most moving art doesn't necessarily make for the happiest lives, so what makes for the best lives doesn't necessarily make it into great art.