I think writers assume that good writing is enough. Well, it’s not. You have to couple good writing with an original storyline–something that will stand out as fresh and original. A story never told in this way before (even if elements are similar to what is already out on the market). [...] Which is why I tell writers to read as much as you can of what’s already out there-because you don’t have the advantage of seeing the hundreds of partials and fulls like we do.And in a not at all recent At The Back Fence column Laurie Gold speculated about whether 'readers tend to prefer the first book they read by a beloved author', and concluded that very often they did. But is it really fair to judge a book negatively because of what one knows about other books in the same genre? Agents and readers are, of course, not obliged to be fair: agents are looking for what they think will sell in a crowded market-place and readers are looking for a novel which will entertain them. But how about the academics? How should we approach the genre and its clichés?
There are plenty of them, including the virgin widow, the multi-orgasmic virgin and the Duke of Slut. Given that Dukes of Slut are so often paired with virgin heroines, it may well begin to look as though there's a very obvious sexual double-standard operating in the genre. There are also so many Dukes of marriageable age in romance-land's Regency London they had they actually existed they would have made Debrett's more than double in size. But does this mean that anyone attempting to analyse the genre should dismiss out of hand the more recent examples of novels containing a promiscuous aristocratic hero who finds love, sexual passion and monogamy with a virgin of impeccable birth and a feisty nature? My worry is that while analysis of a large number of romance novels, taken in bulk, by quantity, rather than quality, may be useful if one wishes to identify trends, it may mean that we miss out on a book which includes some of the clichéd plot elements, but which reinterprets them, or presents them in unique ways. Uniqueness with regards to plot, however, can be over-valued, and it's worth remembering that the romance genre is not unrelated to the fairy or folk tale, and, as
Folklorist Nils Ingwersen notes [...] in folk tales, you already know from the beginning what is going to happen; it is familiar to you [...] motifs are the building blocks of this literature.(Professor Waller Hastings, Northern State University)
For instance, one common pattern in folk literature has to do with the site of action. One always meets the protagonist at home, then sees him/her transferred into the unknown world; part of the final reward is always either a new home or a return to the original home. [...] A motif [...] is a plot element or object that may recur over and over in various folk tales. [...]
The standard index of motifs, produced by Stith Thompson at Indiana University, contains about 40,000 distinct motifs, carefully categorized for ease of reference: for example, Animals (B), Tabus (C), Ogres (G), Unnatural Cruelty (S), Sex (T). Thompson’s Motif-Index is a 6-volume guide to all the various motifs found in a variety of folk literatures, including myths, legends, tall tales, and other oral narratives, not just folk fairy tales.
I do think it is legitimate to ask what the cumulative effect is on readers of repetitive reading of particular situations (e.g. the Duke of Slut). Does this reinforce sexual double standards in society? Do the frequent portrayals of the hero and heroine with their large brood of offspring emphasise a particular aspect of femininity, or suggest that procreation is the expected outcome of marriage? At the same time, I think that if we want to do literary analysis of individual books we have to examine each book on its own merits. Not every portrayal of a large family, for example, is an attempt to coerce the reader into giving their fertility free reign. A particular virgin widow might just have lost her husband before the marriage could be consummated. Lady Bracknell may state with great authority that 'To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness', but those of us engaged in close reading of literature may wish to look a little closer to discover how an individual author deals with the clichés and motifs. Is the author careless? Or does she bring these motifs to life, explore their possibilities and create a work which, while based on traditional elements, leads the reader to think about the issues anew?