Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Do we have Gods Among Men in the UK?

The metaphor Eric posted, about football, got me thinking about national differences. I'm from the UK, so when I see the word 'football', I think about the non-contact sport Americans call 'soccer'. American readers, however, will no doubt have had a somewhat different game in mind. And this got me thinking about other national differences, and how they might affect romance writing and romance readership.

The UK association for writers of romance is the Romantic Novelists' Association whereas the US has the huge Romance Writers of America. The RNA is relatively small, a fact which no doubt has something to do with the fact that romance is much less popular in the UK than it is in the US, with 'adult readers [...] turning away from romance to crime and thrillers'. Included among the 'romance' novels are the works of Catherine Cookson which may be better described as family sagas (with romantic elements). The RNA, as its name suggests, is for novelists whose works are 'romantic': there is no requirement for them to write the happy endings which are essential in 'romance novels' as defined by the RWA. We also don't see many books in the UK with the 'clinch' covers which are so often reviled by readers of romance in the US.

So national differences affect the packaging, genre definitions and reception of romance. But do they also affect the tone of even those books which are romances according to the RWA's definition? Juliet Flesch, author of From Australia With Love, certainly believes that 'Australian women's romance is culturally distinctive; in her chapter "The Beetroot in the Burger" she argues that there is an "egalitarianism, independence of spirit, a sense of fair play and a sense of humour" (p. 251) which can be attributed to a uniquely Australian sensibility'.

Getting back to the football, American football players look particularly 'masculine', with their padding exaggerating the size of their shoulders. This is a contact sport where the players literally clash and run into each other. Soccer players, on the other hand, wear clothing which reveals their bodies but does nothing to enhance them, and while players such as David Beckham may be considered extremely attractive to the opposite sex, he's also appeared in a sarong:

Did the different clothes, hairstyles, jewellery, make him less "masculine"? (99.9% of British men live in fear of being less masculine.)

No, it merely meant that the fashion pack began to join forces with the football followers - and worship him. [BBC article]

So what about American v British romance heroes? I tend to read mostly Mills & Boon historical romances, but I venture outside that sub-genre from time to time, and I've noticed a few trends, though I'll not be completely surprised if some more knowledgeable person comes along and disagrees with me in the comments trail. And before I begin, I'll make it clear that, as with all generalisations, I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions.

In the US romances, American heroes are popular, and they're often military or otherwise able to 'protect' a heroine physically/with a weapon. This applies in contemporaries as much or more so than in historicals where the English Regency period still dominates.

In the UK, Mills & Boon sell nothing which is the equivalent of Harlequin's American Romance line. And I'm open to correction, but in the contemporary romances I've read from M&B the tall, dark, powerful hero tends to be Greek, Italian or Spanish. I haven't found one Mills & Boon contemporary where the hero was a UK policeman or soldier, though I have come across one paramedic working with the Fire Service. The most common British hero I've come across is the doctor, usually found in the Mills & Boon Medical Romance. Interestingly, that's a line which is edited in the UK, although Harlequin in the US does sell some of them. It's maybe relevant that the guidelines for the series state that:
Heroes and heroines are equally matched and equally respected professionals. [...] These romances usually involve both hero and heroine working together in a medical environment. The focus should be a developing, emotionally driven romantic relationship pushed forward by the hero and heroine's involvement with patients and their medical treatment, and their medical colleagues.
Although this type of hero's special, he doesn't, I think, attain the status of being 'superior in degree to other men and to his environment, [...] whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being', of the type discussed by Northrop Frye (see Eric's post below). The heroine is usually just as good a doctor as he is. So maybe UK romances tend more towards the 'realistic' end of the spectrum of romance. I certainly haven't noticed an outbreak of vampire/paranormal heroes here, and those are surely heading off the top of the scale when it comes to being 'superior in degree to other men and to his environment'. If UK romance readers want to read a romance, written by a UK author and published in the UK, with a hero who is 'superior in degree to other men', who is a Hero (with a capital H) or what might be termed a 'God among Men' (though not literally a god), then they seem to have to turn to historicals or foreign heroes, and I notice that the heroes of historical romances written by UK authors are very often affected by the more realistic trend too.

Now it could just be that American men are, indeed, Gods among Men, but I find that a little difficult to believe, just as I'm unprepared to believe that of the men of other nationalities. I've yet to meet any sheiks, but the Greek, Spanish and Italian men I've met are certainly not the arrogant, somewhat chauvinist males presented in the Mills & Boon's I've read . I am prepared to accept, though, that the way masculinity is constructed in US society differs from that in the UK. It's not that long since you had a Wild West, and you can still legally own guns (in the UK gun ownership is now extremely restricted). In terms of literary/popular culture influences, in the US there's the cowboy of the Westerns, and maybe patriotic feeling in the US contributes to the popularity of heroes who are in the military, the police and the fire services. Maybe the greater acceptance of capitalism in the US leads to more respect for entrepreneurs, and so there are more American heroes who are business tycoons.

8 comments:

  1. This was a really interesting post. I'll put a link to it on the RNA's elist and you'll probably get a lot of comments!

    Are you a member of the RNA? You can join as an associate member, if you're interested:

    http://www.rna-uk.org

    I think the idea of UK historical romances being more realistic is probably fairly accurate, although of course a lot depends on individual books, individual authors and the publisher. Mills and Boon Regencies / historicals sell well in the US, so presumably appeal to US tastes.

    Robert Hale also publish a lot of historical romances in the UK, and they can often tend to be more realistic, some of them being almost straight historicals, or crossovers with Gothics etc.

    You'll find 11 UK historical romance authors blogging at http://historicalromanceuk.blogspot.com

    As for romance losing ground, the link referred to library borrowings, and this is dependent on all sorts of other factors. For example, if the libraries bought more crime novels than romances last year, then crime novels would go out more often.

    It also made much of the fact that Catherine Cookson is no longer at the top of the list, but CC is now dead, and so, of course, she is no longer writing new books. This inevitably impacts on the number of her books loaned.

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  2. Your points about CC and the library list are very valid. I don't think there's been a survey done recently in the UK comparable to one carried out by the RWA to determine what percentage of the population reads romance, and the average number of romances they read. If there has, I'd be grateful if someone could post details.

    I have the impression that there are far more romances published in the US than in the UK. Even a quick comparison between Harlequin Mills & Boon and Harlequin in the US shows that many, many more lines are available in the US. But of course the UK has a much smaller population, so one would imagine the market would be smaller anyway.

    Re 'Mills and Boon Regencies / historicals sell well in the US, so presumably appeal to US tastes', I'm not sure what proportion of UK M&B historicals authors are also published in the US. And when they are published, some are only available through the Harlequin website, but are not to be found in shops or Amazon.com. Of course, there are also some US authors who have been published first by M&B.

    As I was suggesting, though, historical romance possibly isn't the area where the differences will be most apparent, because the ton are, almost de facto, 'superior in degree to other' people. They'd certainly have thought so, anyway, even if not in the sense that Frye was meaning.

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  3. Hi

    Many of the books that appear on the shelves in the USA are actually edited in the UK - then appear in lines that have different titles there

    So Mills & Boon Modern Romance appear as Harlequin Presents
    Mills & Boon Tender Romance are Harlequin Romance
    Mills & Boon Medical Romance keep the title
    Mills & Boon Historical Romance become Harlequin Historicals

    There are plenty of UK heroes in Tender Romance/Harlequin Romance - though not many of them are policemen or soldiers. UK Authors like LIz Fielding write wonderful UK heroes who are businessmen, architects etc. Tnere are also plenty of Australian heroes written by the authors from 'down under'

    And as a UK author for the Modern Romance/Presents line I've written plenty of UK heroes too - though at the moment the major trends that are the Mediterranean hero is very popular as you say - Spaniards, Greeks, Italians - and I've written plenty of them too

    The historical line is braodening out a lot and accepting diferent eras as the setting for the romance - a recent one was set in Roman times, for example

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  4. I'm another author commenting because I saw a link to your blog on the RNA e-list. It's very interesting to hear a more erudite discussion of romance. I do get so tired of academics sneering at what I write - sagas in the Catherine Cookson style and modern romantic novels. Usually they sneer without ever having read one.

    I think, however, you've missed one point in your comments. RNA stands for Romantic Novelists' Association and it covers a wider remit than 'pure' Romance. In a sense that organisation covers women's fiction which includes a romance - whether it may be HM&B romances of longer mainstream novels. That is, I think, significant in looking at UK tastes.

    I live in Australia and find that a combination of UK and American romantic novels goes down well here, though unless you live in a capital city, you can have trouble accessing the whole range of romance/romantic publications. Distance does impact on what women buy. You can buy books on line, but that doesn't allow for chance purchases when you see something while out shopping.

    Don't forget that Severn House in the UK also publishes romances and women's fiction - and their books go into US libraries. Until recently they have been in hardback only, but are now starting to be released in trade paperback form.

    So perhaps there is more diversity and 'romantic' fiction from overseas in the US than you're allowing for?

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  5. Another thought on possible differences between romance in the US and the UK. In the new film of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, the film makers had one ending for the US, involving Lizzy and Darcy in a state of deshabille in front of Pemberley, with him asking her what he should call her. It was something like, 'wonderful pearl when you're happy, goddess when you're very happy and Mrs Darcy when you're deliriously happy.' So he kisses her and says 'Mrs Darcy', then kisses her again and says 'Mrs Darcy', again and again.

    This ending was thought to be too cheesy for UK viewers, and the film ended with Mr Bennet saying, 'If there are any more suitors for my other daughters, send them in.'

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  6. Thanks for all the comments.

    I was hoping for clarifications to make this more nuanced, so I'm very glad I'm getting them.

    Of course it's true that the Americans read romances by British authors and vice versa. My main aim was to see if there were, very, very broadly speaking, any perceptible differences in the types of romances written by UK and American authors (and, from that, to look at differences in taste in the two countries).

    Re Pride and Prejudice, yes:

    The US release of Pride and Prejudice is eight minutes longer than the UK version because British test audiences hated the extended romantic ending.

    Matthew MacFayden, who plays Mr Darcy, told USA Today UK audiences disliked the more "sugary" ending so it was cut.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/4436062.stm

    Of course, there was then an outcry in the UK from fans who didn't want to miss out on the extra minutes, and there were also complaints from some people in the US who had tastes which were, presumably, closer to the 'norm' in the UK:

    Sutherland added that US audiences preferred the version with "Darcy and Lizzy together".

    But some members of the Jane Austen Society of North American were less than impressed with the US version.

    "It has nothing at all of Jane Austen in it, is inconsistent with the first two-thirds of the film, insults the audience with its banality," said former society president Elsa Solender.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/4454510.stm

    To me this suggests that there are national differences in taste, but also that not everyone in a particular country will have tastes which fit with those of the majority.

    I also suspect that when it comes to reading, the same person may like reading different types of romance at different times.

    I don't know whether many authors write in different styles. I've heard romance fans saying that authors, even when writing in different subgenres, still have a recognisable 'voice'. But I'm sure some of you can and do write differently in different genres/sub-genres, for example when writing chick-lit, or women's fiction or romance. I have heard it said that British chick-lit' is recognisably different from American chick-lit, though, which would take us back to the idea that there are some broad national differences.

    On the topic of the RNA, which, as clarified by Anna Jacobs:

    covers a wider remit than 'pure' Romance. In a sense that organisation covers women's fiction which includes a romance - whether it may be HM&B romances of longer mainstream novels. That is, I think, significant in looking at UK tastes.

    I wonder, could any of you clarify how this is 'significant in looking at UK tastes'? Is it that this range reflects British reading preferences, or does the RNA shapes British tastes? Has the RNA's remit has been shaped by British tastes? Or does membership of the RNA in any way shape the style in which its members write?

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  7. The UK association for writers of romance is the Romantic Novelists' Association whereas the US has the huge Romance Writers of America. The RNA is relatively small, a fact which no doubt has something to do with the fact that romance is much less popular in the UK than it is in the US

    Well, that and a five-times population difference :) It can be easy to forget the differences in scale, but I think they're important.

    First, publishing itself--I was staggered by the numbers in an Economist article a few years ago. American publishing output is massive.

    Second, diversity of opinion is surely influenced by a slew of factors, including mass media penetration and population density. In both those respects, the English-speaking nations vary widely. E.g.

    People per km²
    246   England
      31   United States
      14.9 New Zealand
        3.2 Canada
        2.6 Australia

    To me this suggests that there are national differences in taste, but also that not everyone in a particular country will have tastes which fit with those of the majority.

    While there may be national differences in taste, I don't think one can conclude much about them from that article. The "Americans want a sweet ending" idea was apparently summarizing a decision made by the studio. I imagine the studio considered the season, the other films coming out, etc, and decided they would prefer to market their P&P as a sweeter film. Which they did.

    Combining that surmise with the influence of the RWA in designating only ultra-happy endings as "romance".... All in all, I think it's difficult to tell the extent to which it's the media industries (which love stories of extremes), versus the public, whose tastes are being expressed. It's a great topic.

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  8. The RNA is relatively small, a fact which no doubt has something to do with the fact that romance is much less popular in the UK than it is in the US

    Well, that and a five-times population difference :)


    Yes, I didn't phrase that at all well, did I? ;-) I think what I was meaning back then was that I was taking a guess that even taking into account the difference in the size of population there are still differences in size. But I'm guessing about what I might have been guessing. I really was either being unclear or just wrong.

    What is the case is that sagas like Catherine Cookson's have done well, and then more recently chick lit, but romance single titles are much less easy to come by. Of course, again this is me speaking out of extreme ignorance, because I've very little knowledge of either of those sub-genres.

    American publishing output is massive.

    I have the impression that books are cheaper in the US than they are in either the UK or Australia. Probably a combination of economies of scale and differences in the tax systems, exchange rates etc. Again, I could be wrong because I'm only going by making comparisons between the prices on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and then doing a currency conversion, which almost certainly isn't the most accurate way of determining the real price relative to average earnings.

    All in all, I think it's difficult to tell the extent to which it's the media industries (which love stories of extremes), versus the public, whose tastes are being expressed.

    Yes, I can see that this particular instance might have been played up by the media to reinforce particular stereotypes. There's also the question of how much consumers influence what's published and how much consumers have their tastes shaped by what the publishers choose to print.

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