With the release of Nicholas Sparks’ 17th published masterpiece (and 10th film), The Longest Ride, it seems an appropriate time to pull over and ask ourselves how we keep allowing this to fucking happen. I may not be the leading authority on Mr. Sparks’ catalog; I’ve read two of his 17 books, and I’ve seen five of his 10 movies. And that…that is a lot more than I thought. I still haven’t seen The Godfather, but I’ve seen half of Nicholas Sparks’ films? Nothing seems right at the moment.
If you care anything about Nicholas Sparks (and by the aforementioned numbers, I’m going to need to do some soul searching on this one), you won’t call his works “romances,” and you wouldn’t dare to call them “melodramas.” It’s hard to talk about Nicholas Sparks without citing the now-infamous USA Today interview in which Mr. Sparks seems to have lost his ever-loving mind. In the 2010 interview, accompanied by a “Party in the U.S.A.” era Miley Cyrus to promote the dreadful The Last Song, the novelist clarifies:
“I don’t write romance novels.” [Sparks’] preferred terminology: “Love stories — it’s a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels.”
And that, my friends, is what we call a distinction without a difference. He goes on to explain how he can dominate his “love story” genre:
“There’s a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It’s a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it’s very rare that it works. That’s why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It’s all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power.”
In that same interview, he goes on to compare himself to Hemingway, Shakespeare, and is sure to tell us how much Cormac McCarthy sucks. This is too painful a string of sentences for me to even consider rereading, much less including. I don’t even want to talk about how he compared his 1999 novel A Walk to Remember to To Kill a Mockingbird. Sure, a certain amount of ego swirls around most artists. And to publish in this country, a tough skin is a prerequisite. Though I’ve always found humility to be an attractive quality in most any person I admire (especially authors), I would be willing to forgive his ego–if he wrote well. Herein lies my biggest beef with Nicky Sparks: poor writing. It’s hard to imagine when averaging a novel a year that each wouldn’t be an outright masterpiece. In fact, I’d guarantee Sparks has never imagined such a thing.
So why, when his movies collectively average 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, do these novels continue to be immediately churned into films? 800 million dollars grossing worldwide is our why. It’s no secret that a movie doesn’t have to be good to be popular, and Nicholas Sparks certainly seems to have perfected that formula. However, 2014’s The Best of Me grossed nearly a third of what 2013’s Safe Haven earned. With The Longest Ride garnering particularly scathing reviews and fewer ticket sales than anticipated, it’s possible that the Nicholas Sparks box office boom may actually be in the beginning stages of a steady decline.
Let me be clear. This is not intended to be an assault on the romance genre. (After all, Sparks insists he doesn’t write those.) While the genre has been lackluster as of late, I’m holding out for a powerful resurgence and one that manages not to insult its intended audience. Sure, Sparks comparing himself to some of the greatest authors our world has ever seen is enough to make my skin crawl. But what really drives me to head the Anti-Sparks brigade are his recycled, ever-insulting stories. Perhaps his biggest and most appropriate criticism is that he’s only ever written one novel but profited from it 17 different times. Wrapped up in that critique is the frustration in his poorly written, contrived, manipulative storylines which insult the audience’s intelligence at every predicable turn. Though, how intelligent could his audience be if they keep willingly sign up for the same movie nearly a dozen times? (Or five.)
I may be in the minority when I say I still believe there’s a place for the romance genre — in book and in film. Nicholas Sparks undoubtedly holds the current monopoly. And while I think it’s mostly undeserved — though some of his films are markedly better than others — audiences will continue to contend with what Roger Ebert so lovingly referred to as “soft porn for teenage girls” for as long as we continue to head to the theater each time we see “from the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks…”