Fun with formulas

This blog post arises out of another discussion at work about romance novels, and specifically the idea that romance novels are formulaic.

In a sense, it’s a fair comment. Books that can be classified into a specific genre are, of course, books that fit the pattern associated with that genre. They follow a formula, just as pies follow a formula in that they have pastry and a filling. Within the formula, though, the scope is enormous.

The person making the accusation usually means the term in a negative way, however. They have in mind the idea that the characters are stereotypes and the plots predictable. They may even believe the old myth that the first kiss must occur one third of the way through chapter six. Bless them. They’ve probably been reading romance all their lives and calling it something else.

So I thought I’d talk about a few literary devices, just to show you that, in the final analysis, all literature is formulaic.

The12FacesofHumanKind-TammoDeJonghTropes are recognisable patterns

At Facebook parties, I’ve been offering guests a trope bingo card. In the 25 squares of the card (five by five) are common historical romance tropes, and the goal is to match a book to a row of them. Four is a win. Five is a bigger win.

So what are tropes? They are literary patterns – story elements that a writer can expect readers to recognise. Historical romance has the virgin widow, the arranged marriage, second chance love… there are dozens of patterns a writer can draw on, knowing that readers will feel a sense of familiarity.

It’s the author’s job to take that pattern and either turn it on its head or combine it with other patterns to make an unexpected whole.

Stereotypes are unproven assumptions

Stereotypes are different. Stereotypes are oversimplified classifications of people or things. We stereotype when we look at one or two characteristics and make a huge number of assumptions about the person or thing based on prejudices rather than experience.

Stereotypes can occasionally be useful: the evil drug lord is probably a reasonable character to have. But good authors might also use stereotypes for characters that take a more central role, only to break them in an interesting way.

Archetypes are characters that all human cultures recognise

Some characters are universally recognisable. When we recognise them in a story, we know the role they will play, and we gain a deep satisfaction from seeing them play it. The hero is an archetype. Here’s a description I found of his (or her) characteristics:

Motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Core desire: to prove one’s worth through courageous acts
Goal: expert mastery in a way that improves the world
Greatest fear: weakness, vulnerability, being a “chicken”
Strategy: to be as strong and competent as possible
Weakness: arrogance, always needing another battle to fight
Talent: competence and courage
The Hero is also known as: The warrior, crusader, rescuer, superhero, the soldier, dragon slayer, the winner and the team player.

Different pundits offer different numbers of archetypes, from four to as many as 47. The key is that they are cross-cultural; you find them in all human story-telling in one guise or another.

Plot lines can be classified

Some people suggest that all of literature consists of only seven basic plots. Others find as many as 36. A couple of years ago, I sat down with half a dozen different lists and came up with 13. Interwoven, and with different tropes and archetypes, they create an infinite number of stories, but here they are in their elemental form. I’ve expressed them as situations rather than exploring the whole plot line, because each of the 13 takes a different trajectory, depending on whether it leads to a happy ending or a tragic ending.

  1. The worth of a good character is not recognised.
  2. The overreaching and egotism of the hero or heroine causes disaster.
  3. Actions by the hero or heroine in the past eventually catch up with them, and they must pay their debt.
  4. One character (either hero or heroine) is torn between two love interests, often a spouse and another person they prefer.
  5. The villain tricks or tempts the hero, the heroine or both into detrimental action.
  6. The love between the hero and the heroine is forbidden.
  7. Something precious is taken away, leading to a search.
  8. The hero or heroine is repeatedly foiled, but keeps trying.
  9. A sinner is required to do penance over a long period of time.
  10. A hero or heroine must defeat a monster and restore order to the world.
  11. A hero or heroine travels in search of priceless treasure and fights evil and overpowering odds.
  12. The hero or heroine is thrust into an alien environment and make their way back to normal life.
  13. Evil grows ever stronger, bringing the hero or heroine almost to death, and they are saved only by miraculous intervention.



Are historical romances moral?

Today, I blog about the morality of historical romance over on Mythical Books, answering a question posed by my hosts. I suggest that the triumph of good over evil tends towards morality, and ask whether regency novels are more moral than the times they tell of.

This is a tour stop on the Enchanted Book Promotions blog tour. Thank you, CCAM.

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What’s in a word? Authentic language in historical fiction

One of the challenges facing a writer of historical fiction is that our language keeps changing. In 2015, our vocabulary, our speech patterns, and our tolerance for formal grammar conventions are all very different to what they were 200 years ago, or even 100. We need:

  • to use words that were in use at the time, but that modern readers will understand
  • write dialogue that sounds authentic, but that is also easy to read for modern readers.

Ian Reid, in his blog Reid on Writing, talks about:

…the challenge of creating a language that achieves verisimilitude – the semblance of reality. It’s no easy matter to persuade your readers that your narrative medium is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in your chosen period and place. The writing must seem to embody their characteristic turns of phrase, their conversational habits, the structure of their sentences – not only to avoid anachronism but also to gain an insight into the way they thought and felt, which would sometimes have been different from what we’re used to today. So meticulous attention to language isn’t pedantic in novels of this kind – it’s vital for credibility. But it needs to be done in a manner that avoids weighing down the story and slowing down the reader.

And John Yeoman points out that such language must not sound too modern to modern ears.

If the reader detects a linguistic howler in our work (although the reader may be wrong), the illusion is shattered. When I had a character in my last Elizabethan novel abandon his ‘go cart’ to ‘jet’ about Europe, arrive in England by ‘bus’, take his ‘train’ to Slough, then leave his ‘car’ at Ivinghoe, some critics chided me for my anachronisms.
Nonsense! I was simply being faithful to the everyday language of the 1590s. Those terms, surprisingly, were associated with transport in the period. The truly erudite reader, I felt, would have understood (and chortled). But s/he didn’t. In the reader’s view, I had committed five howlers.
When I was researching for this post, the word I kept coming across was ‘authenticity’. We simply cannot accurately reproduce the language of the past.  What we can do is give the readers a flavour of the past; a sense of authenticity. This becomes more and more acute (as Lynn Shepherd points out in a blog post on authenticity) as we go further back in time:

People in the past didn’t just dress differently from us, they talked differently too, and that difference gets wider the further back you go. And at some point – probably around the year 1500 – authenticity of language becomes literally impossible: if you’re writing about the Trojan war you simply can’t do your dialogue in Ancient Greek, any more than a character like Cadfael can speak in Middle English (or, indeed, medieval Welsh).  So some sort of compromise has to be found.

Do you opt for a style that conveys some notion of the period, or take the view that your characters would have spoken the ‘ordinary English’ of their time, so allow them to use ‘ordinary English’ as spoken now? I’ve seen both approaches – and many variants in between – and each has both pros and pitfalls. The danger with the former is what I call Forsooth Syndrome, in which you end up with characters spouting a queasy mixture of contemporary English liberally sprinkled with cod words and phrases designed to give a period feel. It can sound very phoney – a bit like a newly-built pub decked out with reproduction horse brasses. But going for the full-on modern-English-and-be-damned approach does make the task of creating that elusive ‘atmosphere’ all the harder.

I’ve tried to keep my vocabulary authentic. I’ve used contractions in my general descriptions, but not in the conversation of my upper-class ladies (except in moments of great stress). Otherwise, I think my writing is modern in style. I hope I’ve done enough to give an authentic early 19th century flavour to my writing.

To keep the vocabulary authentic has meant researching all sorts of unusual topics, such as what words were used for intimacy in my time period. And where I’ve failed, I’ve been ably supported by my excellent proofreader, who has highlighted and questioned words that felt modern to her.

Yesterday, she sent me a link to a resource Mary Robinette Kowal created when writing her Regency Magic series. It is a list of all the words Jane Austen used: 14,793 of them. She has generously posted it on her website, as a text file and as a plugin for Open Office. If you’re writing in the late Georgian or Regency era, go take a look. (And if you haven’t read Kowal’s Glamourist histories, do yourself a favour and check them out.)


How historically accurate should historical romance be?

histgirl anac2The question in the title is a perennial favourite for readers and writers alike.

Should our characters, our backgrounds, and our plot details be scrupulously accurate to the period in which they are set?

Why write historicals if they’re not set in history?

I’m the first to put my hand up and admit I’m pedantic. I obsess over things like when and how the news of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death arrived in Bath (a plot point in Candle’s Christmas Chair). I’ve written blog posts about:

anachronism-6957-guy-whiteleyI care. If someone in a regency novel calls an earl Your Grace, or zips up his trousers, or has been christened Beyonce, I’m going to notice.

And other readers care, too. I was called out by one reader when a minor character in Candle’s Christmas Chair said he was okay. Quite right, too. Thanks to the magic of ebooks, I was able to remove a word that belonged decades in the future and on the other side of the Atlantic.

History Hoydens makes the following point:

To me, it seems ridiculous to even bother writing “historical fiction” (be it romance, mystery, whathaveyou) if the “historical” part is optional. I know, I know . . . in Romancelandia a lot of the history has become optional: our characters are abnormally clean, have perfect teeth, and somehow our heroes never have the ridiculous haircuts that were in vogue for their age (has anyone ever written or read a medieval hero with a bowl cut?). Is a man with Fabio-locks in the Middle Ages any less offensive than a red silk nighty in Regency England? I think they’re both problematic, both a betrayal of the entire point of the genre…

Perhaps I’m being ridiculous, but the willfully chosen error just gets under my skin and itches like mad! There’s something demeaning about it, something dismissive. Something about it says: It was too much trouble to find a way to make my vision/story work within the framework of history, and rather than alter my vision/story, I chose to alter history instead.

But we’re not writing history books

anachronismOn the other hand, we’re writing fiction, not history. And we’re writing fiction for today’s readers, for whom real historical accuracy might be a step too far, as this Heroes and Heartbreaker’s post comments:

…in some cases a too-strict reliance on historical detail can be just as off-putting. A classic example of this phenomenon is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which hero Jamie gets fed up with heroine Claire’s bad habit of putting his men into mortal danger through her dangerously unpredictable behavior, so he beats her. He beats her! Gabaldon’s response to the clamor around this scene (paraphrased) was “I scrupulously researched every aspect of this book and Jamie’s actions and attitudes are fully consistent with those of a man in that time and place so obviously it’s all good because REALISM!!!” To which I can only reply…yes, from a historic standpoint, Jamie’s actions are unexceptional, but on the other hand this is a book whose plot kicks into gear when the heroine travels backward through time, so…well, I wouldn’t have missed that scene if it weren’t there, is all I’m saying.

Penetrating Analysis makes a compelling case for anachronism that makes the story better for readers.

…historical romance is more beholden to the constraints of the romance genre than it is to the reality of history. While historical fiction may generally aim to simulate the past for readers through painstaking attention to detail, historical romance’s overriding preoccupation is different. Emotional authenticity in the development of the relationship is far more important to the genre than strict fidelity to a historical or geographic setting.

ipad boyHistorical settings open up a range of concerns and possibilities to authors, some because they are similar to the present day and others because they are different. To cite just one example in the latter category, the consequences for unintended pregnancy were much different for an upper-class unmarried woman of Regency England than they are for most twenty-first-century readers. The elevated risks associated with extramarital sex can be used to raise the stakes for heroes and heroines in a way that would be out of place in a contemporary novel.

At the same time, historical settings provide a way to explore themes and issues that are vital to contemporary concerns. The remote past can serve as a safe space in which authors can tackle more sensitive topics without hitting too close to home for readers.

Heroes and heroines with postmodern sensibilities are a natural consequence of being written by authors of the twenty-first century. Expecting writers to purge their work of any trace of modern perspective is unrealistic in a genre predicated upon the reader’s connection to the novel’s protagonists.

And some anachronisms are not anachronisms at all

cookI’ve also been jarred by something in a novel, gone to check the facts, and found that my idea of historical fact was out of tune with what really happened. Perhaps a book has a hero using dental floss in pre-World War I Great Britain. Anachronism?

in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a minor character, Professor MacHugh, “took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth”. This feels all wrong, and you’d be hard pushed to find any other reference to dental floss – pretty much, in any literature ever – but there it is, in a book produced in 1918-20 and set in 1904. [Guardian article on anachronisms that aren’t]

I’ve recently had this experience with Candle’s Christmas Chair. Many reviewers have commented on Min’s profession. (She designs and makes invalid’s chairs.) To some, she is reflecting the start of feminism. To others, my choice of career for her is ridiculous, and a total anachronism. Working class women, of course, always held down an income-earning job or range of jobs. But women of the tradesman and merchant classes, according to my reviewers, stayed at home and managed the servants.

Both types of review see history through a lens of Victorian middle-class sensibilities. I’m not going to write here about the invisible women who thronged the trades, crafts, and professions from medieval times until the Victorian era. That’s a topic for another blog post. Suffice it to say that we should be cautious about labelling something as an error, either intended or unintended.

Do you care?

Different people are annoyed by different things. I got this neat chart of allergens from a thoughtful digest of posts on Likes Books.

Allergens: Which of the following items are you sensitive or allergic to?
  • Americanisms in UK dialogue
  • Anachronistic inventions or discoveries
  • Anachronistic language
  • Anachronistic modern psychology
  • Anachronistic names
  • Anachronistic technology
  • Astronomical errors
  • Asteroids with breathable atmospheres
  • Big lumps of information
  • Combat errors
  • Confusingly similar character names
  • Contrived character actions
  • Costume errors
  • Culturally inappropriate names
  • Dance errors
  • Ecological errors
  • Etiquette errors
  • Excessive repetition
  • Excessive use of long sentences
  • Excessive use of short sentences
  • Excessive use of slang
  • Facial hair style anachronisms
  • Form of address errors
  • Generation-inappropriate language
  • Genetics errors
  • Geographical errors
  • Geological errors
  • Grammatical errors
  • Hairstyle errors or anachronisms
  • Head-hopping
  • Historical errors
  • Inappropriate regional dialect
  • Inappropriate use of cant
  • Inheritance or entail errors
  • Internal inconsistencies
  • Legal errors
  • Malapropisms
  • Martial Arts errors
  • Medical errors
  • Military errors
  • Misuse of foreign languages
  • Morals and mores errors
  • Punctuation errors
  • Religious doctrine errors
  • Science errors
  • Story elapsed time problems
  • Succession errors
  • Time zone/timekeeping errors
  • Title of nobility errors
  • Translation errors
  • Transportation errors
  • Typos
  • Vehicle description errors
  • Weaponry errors

So what do you think? Do you hate historical inaccuracy in books? Does a book blurb that refers to Richard III as the King of York remove any desire to read the book? Or do you not care as long as the story is good?


The rules of genre – and which ones count

artisbreakingtherulesAs a reader, I have never been very fond of the way that the book industry divides books up. In book shops. In libraries. Real fiction here. Mysteries, Westerns, Romances, and SF off in their own little ghettos over there. Yes, I know they did it (and some still do) to help readers who have a passion for a particular type of story. I get that.

But I objected for two reasons. First, for myself — as an omniverous reader of all types of fiction. Back before the days of online catalogues, library visits had me scurrying all over the building: sf, mystery, general, romance, young adult… Good exercise, but all the moving around ate into precious lunch break time that could have been spent reading.

Second, for the writers. And now that I am one, I’m finding this argument even more compelling. What if you write historical mysteries with a touch of the paranormal, plus a central mystery and a romance between the two protagonists? What if the book is set in a 19th century western scene on an alternative Earth? What if your protagonists walk away from one another at the end, but three books full of thrilling adventure later finally have their happy ever after? How do you categorise your genre?

Okay. That might be an exaggerated example, but I hope it makes the point.

I don’t have a problem with defining my books as romance, using the definition given by Robyn Reader in a post on Dear Author:

Romance, as a form, has come to be known by three main elements: a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers. But within that form are many formulae.

And since they are set in history, they are historical romance.

But let’s not use how they are defined to confine them, okay?

Two years ago, when I settled on a series of stories set in late Georgian England, all with a romance that ended in a happy ever after, I started reading craft books. And I met The Rules.

Genres establish certain rules for how books should be written. For example, a romance novel should start with the female perspective, and the male and female protagonists should meet in the first chapter. Romances are also told with the protagonists’ viewpoints alternating.

Now, some of these genre rules can be broken, but stepping out from the established formula can have its consequences. The reader of a particular genre has been trained to expect the formula. Surprising the reader can be a good thing, but most of the time it’s off-putting. [Rachel Kent, The Rules of Genre, Books & Such Literary Management]

Since starting down this path, I’ve been in a lot of discussion about The Rules. I’ve talked with people who are bthered that they’re breaking The Rules (perhaps by having a rape, or introducing too much historical detail, or telling the story from the point-of-view of another character, or keeping the protagonists from meeting early on). I have myself met The Rules in the form of an agent, who told me that my characters couldn’t marry till the end of the book, because marriage was the happy ending; in the form of a reader who wanted me to delete my secondary romance and another who objected to the delay in that all important first meeting; in the form of book snobs, who say they don’t read romance because it is formulaic.

In the Robin Reader post I referenced above, the writer says:

When people call Romance formulaic, it’s generally in a denigrating way, as if to imply predictability, triteness, and staleness. However, both form and formula are important to generic integrity, because while form ensures coherence and definitional consistency, formula provides familiar elements that a reader may like and want to see in particular combinations… The common mistake people make in denigrating genre as formula and formula per se, is the assumption that structural and narrative limits are bad, and that they contravene artistic freedom and creativity.

But here’s the thing: genre itself is about formal limits. Genre is definition, delineation, recognizability, consistency, reliability. Genre is as much about what doesn’t belong as what does, and as with most delineating structures, its boundaries are most easily seen when they’re being tested. Formula is the same way, only on a narrower scale. Formula is like form within form, a further delimitation of narrative within genre. In the same way that all genre is form, all genres contain formulae.

I’ve published a novella that followed The Rules (mostly), and that was, furthermore, classifiable as ‘sweet’. And it has been a success — on several Amazon best-seller lists in the US and the UK, with more than 26,000 downloads in the first five weeks, 4.4 star ratings on Amazon and nearly 40 reviews, all but two positive. My first novel, however, doesn’t follow the rules, and is more gothic than sweet. Should I be worried?

In the Dear Author post, Robyn Reader goes on to discuss how good books test the boundaries of the formula, and concludes:

For me, all these circumstantial discussions about specific books and about what supposedly sells and what is supposedly popular and why, ultimately circle back to the question of what constitutes genre. Without question, readers have strong preferences, although I’ve yet to read one convincing argument about the “rules” of Romance that go beyond the very basic elements of the genre. Inevitably, these conversations about rules and about sales rely first on subjective elements of the genre and perceived reader reactions to them, and then on the belief that what sells must be what readers want…

Still, let’s say that readers want what sells. Let’s accept that as truth for a moment. What does that really mean? Does it mean they won’t like something new? Does it mean they won’t like something different? Does it mean they all like those books for the same reason and dislike other books for the same reason? No, it doesn’t. In fact, I think we know far less about what it means than we know that it means something – or more likely, a bunch of different things that may or may not be relevant as part of an author’s decisions about what to write.

Here’s the thing. I hope to please you in what I write, Dear Reader. Good reviews thrill me, particularly when a reviewer includes a phrase or a sentence that shows they ‘get’ something I particularly liked about a story when I wrote it, such as the lovely person for whom the highlight of Candle’s story was the way his surprise Christmas present affirmed his respect for Min’s talent and independence.

And selling books, while unlikely to be a lucrative career option, is certainly better than not selling books. (Even if I only sell enough to cover the cost of the cover design and the proofreader; breaking even would be nice.)

But I don’t write to please you. How could I? Which one of you would I please? I write to tell the stories of the characters that are frothing up from my brain. I write the kinds of stories I want to read. And I self-publish, so — while I seek the opinion of beta readers, fellow writers, and others whose opinion I respect — I don’t have to negotiate publishing gatekeepers.

As long as my stories fit those three basic elements (a romantic love story, central to the narrative, resolving in a happy ending), I’ll keep calling them romances. If I write mysteries, I’ll happily follow the five rules of the mystery genre:

  1. The solution of some mystery or puzzle must be necessary in order to resolve the central conflict.
  2. The detective must use only their wits and skills to solve the puzzle, and these wits and skills must believable in the context of the story.
  3. No clue that is important to the solution of the puzzle may be concealed from the reader.
  4. Unusual and improbable circumstances, such as super criminals, obscure poisons, crime rings, secret entrances, coincidences and the like, must be used infrequently and skillfully enough to be believable in the context of the story.
  5. Justice must, in one fashion or another, be brought about by the action of the detective.

And if I write sf, I’ll know the question (the ‘what if’) I’m proposing as context, and I’ll ensure my answer conforms to the rules of whatever physical universe I postulate. If you like sf, you might enjoy this list of 10 rules. All of which have been broken by one or more amazing books.

Do those rules make sense to you? Would you add any? Delete some?

I’m not promising to follow any other rules. In fact, being a second child and therefore rules averse, I’ll be going out of my way to see how many others I can find, so I can break them. Do you want to help? Just put the rule of genre that most annoys you into the comments, and we can talk about how we might make breaking it into an palatable and exciting storyline.



Romance novels as literature

ImageQuilt 2015-05-01 at 11.18.08 AMA tweet from Julie Anne Long pointed me in the direction of an article on Penetrating Analysis, and I’ve now subscribed to the blog. In her description of the blog’s intention, blogger Anne N. Bornschien says:

This space is devoted to mass market romance novels as texts worthy of literary consideration. Approaching them both as an avid reader of the genre and as a scholar of literature, I examine the language, structure, and tropes that mark popular romance. In so doing, I hope to dispel some of the stereotypes that contribute to romance’s marginalization and to share the genre with a broader readership.

The specific article is about why romance as a genre is worthy of study. Along with several other important points, Anne says:

The past five years in particular have given rise to a new crop of novelists whose work hinges upon moral and ethical impediments that defy easy solutions. Unlike in romances predicated upon a misunderstanding (e.g., he wrongly suspects her of infidelity, she thinks he only married her for her money), where once all is revealed all is well, these texts place a dilemma at the heart of the story. They put the couple’s interests or the beloved’s interests in opposition to another person, group, or cause that is very near to the protagonist’s heart. These novels demand sacrifice or creativity of their heroes and heroines in order to arrive at the HEA.


Happy ever after – in praise of marriage

Beachloverspic_3126398cAfter writing about women who never marry, I’m now turning to the topic of people who are still happily married many years after the wedding.

Some people object to romances and their HEA endings because they imply that women can only be happy and complete if they are married (or in some other form of long-term committed romantic relationship). As I’ve said in discussions on the last happy ever after post, I think this is a serious objection and one worth listening to. While the nature of a romance novel requires the main protagonists to end up together, I can see no reason why important secondary characters couldn’t be thoroughly happy in single blessedness.

On the other hand, some people object to the HEA endings because they’re unrealistic. Such people point to the divorce rate, and to historic records of unhappy marriages.

So let’s examine those assumptions. In the West, we currently have a divorce rate of around 30% to 35%. So couples have around two chances in three of being together until one of them dies. We can assume that some unhappy couples will never divorce, but – given the ease of divorce in the West – I’d suggest we’d be erring on the generous side if we said that accounted for another 15% to 20% of couples. Even if we take that unlikely percentage, though, that still means 50% of marriages are happy; 50% of married couples get their happy ever after. I’d buy a raffle ticket with those odds.

Ah, you might say, but historically a lot of marriages were arranged. And arranged marriages are less likely to be happy. Not so, apparently. Happiness seems to be more about the attitude of the couple than the degree of choice over partner.

I’ll admit to a bias. I’ve been married for 43 years, and I love my personal romantic hero more each day. My sister and my brothers, and my husband’s sister and brother are all still with the first person they married. Two of my three married daughters are still married to their first-choice partner, and the third has recently remarried.

My PRH and I once coached engaged couples. One of things we learnt in our training is that couples that stay together often report that they started marriage with an image in their minds of what their old age together would be like. Forty-five years ago, almost to the day, my PRH and I went carol singing around the pensioner flats in the town where we lived. One elderly couple invited us in to sing to them, and we were much struck by how tender they were with one another. As we left, I said to PRH and he to me: that’s what I want – that kind of love when we are old.

I still love to see happy couples celebrating their love for one another in their old age. I still want that for my PRH and me. And I want to write books where the reader believes the protagonists have that kind of future, and where they have older couples they can admire whose marriages are still strong and passionate after decades of loving. I’m taking my theme from the first three lines of Robert Browning’s poem:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

Romance novels are feminist novels

drake-romanceSince I emerged as a writer of historical romances (did I happen to mention I’ve finished my first draft? Brief pause for bouncing.), I’ve had the sideways looks, the claims about trash reading and porn for women, and the ‘but you’re too intelligent for that’ comment.

And so I’ve been alert to articles that put the other side of the story. Maria Bustillos’ Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing was written in early 2012, but I only found it today, so I thought I’d share. She starts by repeating the regularly expressed view:

Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women! Books Just For Her!

Then she spits it out. Not so, she says. Romance novels are feminist novels. Romance novels, unlike most other fiction (and particularly literary fiction), reverse the usual formula, making Woman the subject, and Man the other.

She goes on to talk about the function of romance fiction, and then challenges us to think about the difference between literary and romance fiction:

So what is it, exactly, that makes literature trivial? Is the point of literature to depict something more like “real life”? If the formulaic qualities and perfervid fantasy of romance novels bring them closer to superhero comics than to Dostoevsky, what does this mean, exactly? What is the difference between genre and “serious” fiction, now that Maus and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle have conclusively demonstrated that deeply serious, insightful ideas may indeed come in a deceptively lightweight envelope?

The key difference between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Violet Winspear is—the beard, obviously, but in terms of literary production, the difference is that the latter is thinking more about you, the reader, whereas the former is thinking more about himself, the author. Each approach has an enormous value, potentially. To put this another way, Dostoevsky writes from deep inside himself, about his whole life, every single thing he ever saw or learned; Winspear plies her craft according to what she imagines it would please you to read, imagine or dream about, though it’s nearly impossible for a novelist to avoid revealing some of his own ideas and beliefs about the world, however tangentially.

It doesn’t matter whether you call this “serious” literature or not, really, though it seems to me that when millions and millions of people are involved in the same reading, it is very serious indeed.

Bustillos claims that the romance writer’s ghetto saves her from having to conform to the literary conventions, and frees her to tell stories that literary novels wouldn’t attempt. And she talks about the small number of readers who are men, suggesting:

When we really become equal, maybe “just for women” won’t be seen as less, or weird, or lame, as it appears mascarasnake’s grandfather already understood. Women visit the country of “just for men” all the time, unimpeded; we can read Tom Clancy or Patrick O’Brian and nobody bats an eyelash, because we are allowed to be curious about men’s fantasies of things. We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours, in some sense. The world of letters being the paradise of liberty that it is, it is perfectly fine for anyone to stick to just one kind of book, or just one authorial gender, or one genre, or one color of binding, just as he likes. But if men are curious about our side of things, as I imagine many of them must be, I should think it would be interesting to them to visit, and maybe we should invite them, as I am doing now.

Those are just a few quotes from a long article.

So what do you reckon, my friends? Are romance novels feminist?



Fear of vulnerability

48123-until-loves-vulnerableBrene Brown, a research professor and bestselling author, says that the romance genre is both loved and hated because a key theme is vulnerability. Why is this loved? Why is this hated? Rhyll of the Naughty Ninjas has written an article about Brown’s research, which in part says:

It’s that theme (constant in much of romance writing) that vulnerability is courage. When do the hero and heroine triumph by achieving true connection? When they’re able to put aside their masks and armor and allow others to see their true selves, flaws and all. When they expose their feelings. When they take a risk on love. In other words, when they allow themselves to be vulnerable. While my logical mind can’t accept this, the emotional reader part of my brain craves more.

However, it’s pretty clear that western mainstream culture disdains vulnerability and views it as weakness. Strength, control, perfection and certainty are valued and there’s very little tolerance for uncertainty, failure or risk. Being emotional or imperfect is equated with failure and weaknesses. Instead, people are encouraged (or shamed into) seeking perfection in all areas of life, from flawless looks, to perfect grades and parenting, and ever-upwardly-mobile career paths.

Very good article, and well worth reading. Thanks, Rhyll.

H/T to Amy Rose Bennett, who posted a link to the article on Facebook. Amy is the author of Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal, which I had the pleasure of reading recently.