Rembrandt, “Satire on Art Criticism.” Image credit: Public Domain / Metropolitan Museum of Art
In contemporary criticism, melodrama can refer to either plot or style, and sometimes both. Melodramatic style suggests a profusion of superfluous details, often to do with feelings, which have no inner core. The melodramatic plot depends on shocking but fatuous events to grab the reader’s attention. The accusation of melodrama is serious: it suggests that the showy exterior or expansiveness of a book disguises a lack of real meaning and purpose. The “melodrama” charge is a charge against artistic integrity.
The threat of melodrama hangs over authors who depart from the transparent, minimalist prose that remains the gold standard for American literary writing. An art and design movement that developed in mid-twentieth-century America, minimalism prioritizes core function and austerity. In a 1986 New York Times essay, John Barth explains that the minimalists believe “artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means,” and goes so far as to identify minimalism as the “most impressive phenomenon on the current (North American, especially the United States) literary scene (the gringo equivalent to El Boom in the Latin American novel).”
If there was any doubt about the racial consciousness guiding the valorization of minimalism, Barth’s phrasing—“gringo equivalent”—dispenses with it. When cultural critics praise minimalism as the unanimously agreed-upon height of literary style, they uphold and entrench a legacy of elevating the white male writers—like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, both mentioned in Barth’s essay—who are strongly associated with the minimalist school.
What author Matthew Salesses says of craft books and writing workshops extends to book reviews: “the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience (white, middle-class, straight, able, etc.) is essentially literary imperialism.” The way we talk about art in workshops, craft books, and reviews shapes the art around us. That political and cultural context guides how critics respond to style should go without saying—but leaving it unsaid clears the way for value judgments like “melodrama” to masquerade as norms and for preference to develop into prejudice.
In the middle of a highly favorable review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing in the New York Times, critic Parul Sehgal writes, “Any writer trafficking in such lofty Faulknerian themes (‘love and honor and pity and pride’) risks melodrama, and Ward can get positively melismatic when she strains for poetic effect.” The comment that Ward’s novel narrowly escapes melodrama is guided by an attitude toward melodrama as not a particular literary genre, but as a class of bad art.
In a much less enthusiastic review of Toni Morrison’s works in Salon, Charles Taylor remarks, “Her faux-Faulknerian interior prose is just the most obvious of her borrowings. In Beloved she also adds stilted attempts at magical realism, soggy folklorish interludes replete with soggy folklorish wisdom […], a horror story and periodic outbursts of gruesome melodrama used as illustrations in Morrison’s hectoring lecture on the bloodiest sin on America’s racist soul.”
Joan Acocella, reviewing Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night for The New Yorker, notes that the novel consists of “scenes of high melodrama.” She notes with disapproval that Chee’s novel “wallows in Second Empire glut” and “is too packed with sensational events.” Then comes the charge of writing contrived prose: “Even as bosoms heave, you are aware of an icy intelligence making them do so.” The effect, Acocella writes, “inevitably distances the reader.”
Are there similarities between these three books? Sing, Unburied, Sing and Beloved are both concerned with racist violence and the legacy of slavery in America. There are ghosts. The specter of Faulkner hovers: both Sehgal and Taylor caution against attempting and failing to emulate his work. The Queen of the Night follows a soprano in the Paris Opera. No echo of Faulkner here, although Acocella does suggest that Chee wants to “have it both ways” in drawing on not only opera but also the nineteenth-century bildungsroman à la Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Stylistic overlaps among the books are not easy to pin down, except that Chee, Ward, and Morrison are all testing the boundaries of realism.
One might argue that any similarity is as much between the reviews as it is between the books. Sehgal’s critical eye, though trained on the Anglo-American canon, is attentive to the specific formal properties and cultural contexts shaping a literary work. Taylor, on the other hand, is the kind of film and culture critic who relishes the idea of being polemical—even scathing. Acocella develops a schematic account of plot and style in reviewing Chee’s novel. “Every grand action,” she writes, “is followed by a great, empurpled outpouring of words.” Despite the critics’ differences in approach, their reviews express distaste for what they perceive as “melodrama” in the novels in question, all of which are written by BIPOC and queer authors.
Reviews can be instructive for writers, offering insights into how readers experience an author’s choices and arrive at an opinion. Notwithstanding the pervasive belief in the relativity of taste, certain outlets—like the Times or The New Yorker—occupy normative positions in cultural conversations and confer legitimacy to aesthetic judgments. When Joan Acocella remarks on those “scenes of high melodrama,” she influences the reading public not only in what we think about Chee’s text but how we understand the concept of melodrama itself.
The term melodrama is a value judgment—and as such, it can be careless. In a review for NPR, Maureen Corrigan accuses Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, of being melodramatic. Reviewing Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, four years later, Corrigan corrects herself: “Now, I’m recognizing that’s how Bennett rolls as a novelist: embracing melodrama as a beguiling way to delve into difficult topics.” In The New Yorker, Hilton Als made a similar correction vis-à-vis his approach to Morrison’s fiction. “In a book about real and fictional black women, I wrote that the obsessive ‘man love’ of Hannah, Sula’s mother, was a stereotype. (At the time, I didn’t see that Morrison’s decision to burn her to death was a moral condemnation, not a melodrama.)”
While I don’t think we should fault critics for modestly recalibrating their assessments, I suggest we attend to the structure of their (mis)judgments. How is it that BIPOC and queer writers regularly confront the dangerous possibility of melodrama? What is it that they risk?
Melodrama has its origins in a kind of nineteenth-century French theater that combined drama with music. But as the literary scholar Peter Brooks notes, the adjective “melodramatic” no longer denotes a particular genre of performing art, but conjures an imaginative mode that derives its affective power from “the very origins of theatricality . . . in the infantile dream world” and has “as its true stakes the recognition and triumph of the sign of virtue.” The melodramatic imagination intends to “express all”—it is maximalist and lavish. Brooks detects the melodramatic imagination in the works of Henry James, Balzac, Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, and so on. These writers are said to combine exaggerated moral conflicts with portraits of ordinary existence. Here melodrama, with its ethical preoccupations, is not considered a failing, but an achievement.
It is in Balzac’s and Dickens’s thick descriptive prose that the author Bharati Mukherjee, who was born in India and immigrated to North America, found models for her writing. In an essay published prior to her 1989 novel Jasmine, Mukherjee observes, “[M]inimalism disguises a dangerous social agenda. Minimalism is nativist, it speaks in whispers to the initiated. As a newcomer, I can feel its chill, as though it were designed to keep out anyone with too much story to tell.” She argues for immigrants to embrace the duality of their condition and the fluidity of their social identities to compose richer stories. Mukherjee makes a case for maximalism in writing—for messiness in fiction, more drama.
That Mukherjee must contend with the charges of writing melodramas is, then, predictable. In the Washington Post, Francine Prose—novelist, critic, and author of the well-known craft book Reading Like a Writer—writes that Mukherjee’s Jasmine is “too often mined with contrivance, jolted by mini-explosions of coincidence and melodrama.” Of Desirable Daughters, Lee Siegel (also writing for the Post) says, “ at the heart of the novel is a melodrama.”
The melodramatic plot is distinguished from its realist counterpart for its reliance on chance and stock characters. Nineteenth-century melodramas would inch toward tragedy, but then, offer audiences happy endings—that is, they peddled improbable resolutions. Mukherjee’s appropriation of the popular cultural form to tell a new kind of story is not considered a triumph by her critics, even though a closer look at her writings across genres would suggest, at the very least, she knew what she was doing.
She isn’t the only one to signal her conscious intent in engaging with melodrama. In The Queen of the Night, Chee deliberately draws upon opera and embraces a mode of plotting reliant on revelations and accidents. Perhaps anticipating the allegations of melodrama in response to her use of a chance meeting as plot device in The Vanishing Half, Bennett includes an incisive paragraph explaining that “improbability is an illusion based on our preconceptions.” It is a clever defense against readerly expectations honed on the conventions of “realist” novels. Realist plots err on the side of high probability.
While self-awareness can’t spare one kind of writer (BIPOC, queer) from charges of melodrama, it is lauded in another group (white, straight) and even used to exculpate their expansive, maximalist efforts. David Sexton, writing for the British publication Evening Standard, notes that Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is “deeply Dickensian,” full of “melodrama” but, he adds, “no matter: it makes the most compelling reading.” Purity’s obvious reference to Dickens through a character named—Pip—baits the “melodrama” charges, but like Sexton, Elaine Blair in Harper’s points out “the melodramatic swoops of the plot are well orchestrated and thrilling.” When Tom LeClair in The Nation observes that David Foster Wallace tends to write “melodramatic action,” the critic also feels compelled to offer Wallace’s own essay asking writers to “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama” as raison d’être and defense.
I have come to understand melodrama by way of my education in India, where melodrama is a commonplace mode of storytelling. I, too, have used “melodramatic” as a pejorative term to describe Indian films and vernacular theatre that did not manifest the realist approach to storytelling I associated with “good” British and American art. Much later, I understood that popular Indian films and dramas are not necessarily second-rate reproductions of Hollywood musicals, but represent a melding of myriad global and regional art forms, including Indian classical dances and Parsi theatre. Melodrama fulfills a powerful need to confront and express the traumas inflicted on the local population by centuries of colonization. Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Clapped Star), a melodrama reckoning with the violence of Partition, is an enduring example of this phenomenon.
The ubiquitous presence of melodrama in South Asian popular culture inflects the region’s Anglophone literature. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, through its many references to Indian cinema, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, through its references to operatic Kathakali performances, self-reflexively conjure the melodramatic mode. Rushdie’s books “crammed full of melodrama” lead Christian Lorentzen to declare that “Rushdie is a sentimental novelist, his books perpetual-motion machines of melodrama.” This was perhaps Rushdie’s goal all along. In an essay in which he identifies Shakespeare and Cervantes as the modern novel’s originators, Rushdie says that to his mind, “the most valuable shared idea is the belief that a work of literature doesn’t have to be simply comic, or tragic, or romantic, or political/historical: that, if properly conceived, it can be many things at the same time.” This totalizing impulse is one of melodrama.
Widespread readership bolsters the literary legacies of writers like Morrison, Ward, Rushdie, Mukherjee, Chee, and Bennett, and their styles are distinct from one another: But what effect does the attitude of the critical establishment have on the larger population of creative writers, especially emerging and upcoming writers, from historically marginalized communities struggling to enter the predominantly white literary publishing world?
From employees in major U.S. publishing houses to published authors, the racial makeup of the American literary establishment is far from diverse. At Penguin Random House, for instance, 76 percent of the books published between 2019 and 2021 were by white contributors. Latinx authors were the most underrepresented in Penguin Random House’s lists. This may be because, as Christopher González aptly observes in Permissible Narratives, “audiences and publishers in the United States have a myopic understanding of the potential and possibilities of Latino/a narrative.” He recounts how magical realism—a “cultural export” from Latin America—has come to haunt Latino/a authors as an expectation in the U.S. market, restricting their ability to publish work in other styles. Of course, Latino/a authors must also face the “melodrama” charges. In a New York Times review, A.O. Scott makes equivocal remarks about the “unruly multitude of styles and genres,” including the blend of “tropical magic realism” and “young-adult melodrama” in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
What magical realism is to Latino/a authors, “Lahirism” is to South Asian writers. Writing for The Drift, novelist Sanjena Sathian observes that “Lahirism,” extrapolated from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “patient, pretty prose” and “psychologically realist narratives” containing digestible “cultural instruction,” haunts South Asian writers in America. The American literary culture these authors experience is a stifling and parochial ecosystem that judges negatively what it cannot immediately categorize or understand.
When reviewers call the heightened depiction of emotions in fiction melodramatic, they are tacitly identifying a certain intensity of suffering or joy to be improbable. Pushing back against the racist and heteronormative vision that constrains such judgments, critic Garth Greenwell uses melodrama as a laudatory term, locating it as a mode of queer thought, writing, and belonging. He argues that recent queer literature is exciting because it intends to “recuperate some of the stigmatized aspects of queer art—things like melodrama, camp, hyper-emotionality—and turn them into a source of beauty.”
With Greenwell’s reclamation, two argumentative blocs come into focus. For its defenders and practitioners, the melodramatic imagination is the unconscious of the modern novel, a repressed structure in need of recovery. For the naysayers, melodrama is always out there—exteriorized, extravagant, swaggering bad art. Following the debate on the subject is like spectating a Manichean world, the sort depicted in nineteenth-century melodramas.
Given my own exposure to melodrama as an essential form of local expression in South Asia, I am drawn to the possibilities of the melodramatic imagination—its uninhibited embrace of affect, its desire to say it all. Yet, I am not suggesting that the melodramatic plot or style is an aesthetic achievement in and of itself. At the same time, the dismissal of BIPOC and queer writing that refuses stylistic and emotional restraint as “melodramatic”—meaning contrived and vacuous—is not a critical triumph either. Mainstream American literary criticism’s unerring prioritization of stylistic restraint, regardless of how the author’s choice of style serves the story they want to tell, is an arbitrary, neocolonial imposition. It is true that many books slighted by their initial critics eventually come to be cherished by readers, and vice-versa. Besides, newer platforms like Twitter, Goodreads, and Substack are expanding and altering the reviewing ecosystem. But new platforms do not automatically result in the new vocabularies required to appreciate an array of aesthetics. To find new critical language, it is crucial that we continually evaluate who we consider capable of evoking beauty and pleasure, who we desire, and who influences our taste.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). She is an assistant professor of English at California State University.