In response to Tim Lott's lament in The Guardian that heterosexual love stories are no longer considered a properly literary and sufficiently substantial subject for a novel, even though they power much (most?) of the great fiction of the past, Susan Hill argues that our ordinary love lives are too prosaic, that these days writing about great love can't be done in a world with easy and blame-free divorce, and that it has to include writing about sex, which is impossible to do well. As a result, she says, we cannot write the sweeping narratives, the high drama and heartbreak that great love stories demand. (I did post a comment on her blog, but it seems to have got lost in the ether).
I do agree that the lack of impediments to our modern western sex lives can make writing a 'big' modern love story very difficult. Where are the tensions, the conflicts, that storytelling can't do without? How do you construct David Isaak's crucible? (Part Two is here, and together they show why David's blog is one of my absolute favourites.) A major theme of The Mathematics of Love is transgressive love, but I had to go a long way in the modern strand to find a relationship as transgressive for us as the 1820 relationship of a middle-class unmarried man and woman, both of age and in their right minds, was for their contemporaries. So I think Susan's right that that the great love stories of today are likely to be found in milieux where impediments are still built in: non-Western countries and social groups, gay and lesbian relationships in a straight world, and I would add historical worlds. You can even build in your own impediments if you build your own world, though sci-fi writers, too, have problems convincing the literati that what they do has literary value.
There is also the pernicious but common attitude, which always seems rather adolescent to me, that the grim and ghastly is cooler, more profound, more literary, than the beautiful or the transcendently joyful. (Except beautiful women, who populate literary fiction written by men with unlikely frequency). Tim Lott quotes Richard Curtis, and though I do actually find some of Curtis's work more sentimental than I care for, he has a very good point:
If you write a story about a soldier going awol and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. If you write about people falling in love, which happens a million times a day ... you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.
And I treasure The Times review of The Mathematics of Love so much because Sarah Vine understood what I was trying to do:
there is suffering, violent and disturbing portraits of war and of personal loss; but equally extreme moments of joy and human understanding. At its core are the emotions that most shape us — love and loss... Everyone is, at the core, vulnerable, their happiness bittersweet and fleeting but nevertheless priceless.
So I would never say that you can't write a great love story for present-day western characters: in fact I'd say I agree that we should reclaim the territory. And if writing love must involve writing sex, why is that a problem? The same writerly solutions are available to us for sex as they are for anything else, though the pitfalls are larger and the path between them narrower. For one thing, who says that the apparently prosaic can't be made heroic, romantic, tragic? Fundamentally, if our modern lives, to us, look most of the time like a modern city in broad daylight - all neon signs, ersatz coffee and chewing-gum stuck to the pavement - who says we need to write them like that? Have most of us not not known joy and sorrow and terrible grief, not looked up in awe at the gleam and shadow of a great cathedral or soaring skyscraper at night, not stood on a hill-top and wept or laughed or simply felt our own bodily boundaries thin almost to nothing in this universe?