Thursday, August 17, 2006

Romance Clichés: Judging Each Book Individually?

In a recent post at Romancing the Blog, literary agent Kristin Nelson said that
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.
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.
(Professor Waller Hastings, Northern State University)

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?

16 comments:

  1. I'm not sure what your point is. Are you saying that academics might be overlooking books that have a familiar or clichéd theme (Duke of Slut) in favor of books with unfamiliar or novel situations? I would think that would be extremely short-sighted.

    I think there's a real gift to taking a familiar story and giving it a new twist. And certainly popular culture is full of reinterpretations of old themes—Star Wars is a perfect example. In the oral tradition, is not a major element how you tell the story, not whether the story is new or unfamiliar? Children like to have their favorite books read to them over and over, and as adults, I think we also appreciate seeing new perspectives on old themes.

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  2. What I'm saying is that a lot of the text-based analysis that's been done of the genre has involved picking romance books at random, noting common themes and then drawing conclusions from their presence about the appeal of romance and the effects it has on readers. So, for example, Kramer and Moore:

    thematically content analyzed 100 romantic fiction novels, recently published by Harlequin Books, with a family therapeutic approach providing theoretical background. The novels fall into 3 major motif types: Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Taming of the Shrew. As hypothesized, we found a blatantly patriarchal value system characteristic of the novels: traditional gender roles, marked inequality in spousal structure, lack of congruent communication patterns, consistent naturalizing of aggressive spousal behaviors.

    What I'm saying is that each Cinderella story is not going to send out exactly the same messages, nor is the characterisation going to be exactly the same. If we ignore the nuances, we might assume, for example, that Crusie's The Cinderella Deal, because it involves a woman who marries a richer man, is saying the same things about wealth and social status as every other romance novel based on the Cinderella story. That wouldn't be true. In Crusie's Cinderella story, the 'prince' has to seek out Cinderella because without a pretend wife he can't get the job he wants. His livelihood is dependent on her keeping up the pretence. So there the relationship, and the power dynamic, is very different from one where the Cinderella has been oppressed by a wicked step-mother and ugly sisters (and when they exist, they're not sending out positive messages about female-female relationships, but some re-writings of the Cinderella story miss out this element, or even reverse it, and they just have Cinderella's problem being that she's poor, not that it's her step-mother's fault).

    As you say, 'there's a real gift to taking a familiar story and giving it a new twist', and that's something that often isn't immediately obvious from a quick skim of the back-cover blurb, or from doing an analysis of the plot motifs which are present in a work. Even Radway, with whose analysis of the genre I often disagree, recognised that there were differences among romances and that some appealed more to readers than others, even if, to start with, they all looked the same to her.

    Now, if readers (and agents) are getting tired of a particular motif and say - 'no more vampires, I'm bored of vampires', they may be missing out on some really interesting vampire books, but there's no obligation on them to read these books. The agents have to think about the market, and the reader is just trying to narrow down the choices available and a particular motif may not appeal at any given time. The difference with academics who make generalisations on the basis of the presence in a story of a traditional/clichéd theme, is that often the academic's aim is to give an accurate overview of the entire genre. I don't think one can really do that if one ignores or overlooks the differences of quality in the genre, and the fact that the same motif can be handled in a multitude of different ways, so that it sends out a slightly new message to the reader.

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  3. j as in jennifer18 August, 2006 16:02

    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)

    The effect on me is the same as the effect that the constant queue of lightskirted ladies leaping into his bed has on the Duke of Slut: I grow bored. I become word-weary and jaded. I resolve to give up romance altogether. Until I find that rather plain, unprepossessing paperback with unsuspected depths, and I fall in love once more.

    Does this reinforce sexual double standards in society?

    Which society? You mean working- and middle-class college-educated white women? That seems to be the entire market for these books, based on the characters in them, the ones we're "supposed" to identify with.

    Lately, it has seemed that the unsubtle message of romance novels has been to break down these double standards between what is permissible for men and women. While subtly reinforcing them at the same time. After all, the heroine can't ACTUALLY be a slut, for all she defends her right to do what she wants with her body. And for all the work we've put into breaking our men from the machismo behaviors that still pervade other cultures, most romances still want men to be Men. Even Jennifer Crusie has a love affair with the dark, dangerous, rough men who have a fear of committment.

    As hypothesized, we found a blatantly patriarchal value system characteristic of the novels: traditional gender roles, marked inequality in spousal structure, lack of congruent communication patterns, consistent naturalizing of aggressive spousal behaviors.

    It makes me hot just thinking about it. Not. But I don't think this situation can really be helped as Harlequin romances seem to be aimed at women who like dominant male archetypes and heroines who want to be taken care of. By the way, Kramer and Moore forgot "Little Red Riding Hood" in their list of motifs.

    I don't think one can really do that if one ignores or overlooks the differences of quality in the genre, and the fact that the same motif can be handled in a multitude of different ways, so that it sends out a slightly new message to the reader.

    You're right about that. Some romances are more nearly like pornography, I think, in that they are meant to quickly stimulate the libido, keeping the sexual tension high. While others are meant to arouse the emotional response of the reader and to involve them in the lives of the characters and the world that has been created for them. But who is to decide which is more worthy of serious study? And are academic accolades a sufficient recompense for reading a lot of horrid romances? :) But let me know if you need a research assistant.

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  4. There are conventions in genres, I wonder if it is entirely fair to define them as cliches.

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  5. "...the same motif can be handled in a multitude of different ways, so that it sends out a slightly new message to the reader."

    I think we need to distinguish between the handling of this or that motif and the question of a novel's "message to the reader." (Oh, great--now that song by The Police will be running through my head for an hour: "Message to the reader, yeah...")

    A romance novel's aesthetic interest, at least to me, often lies in how wittily or inventively or simply freshly a novelist selects among and deploys the givens of the genre. I'm not asking for new ideas, especially, let alone new messages; in fact, as a middle-aged male reader, I'm probably the least perusadable recipient of any author's "message," in any genre!

    I sometimes think of the eight structural elements in romance fiction--the ones that Pam Regis has identified in "A Natural History of the Romance Novel"--as the equivalent of the notes in a particular mode or scale, like the pentatonic scale used in blues improvisation. A good blues musician may limit him or herself almost entirely to that set of notes, but through various forms of invention, the music itself doesn't sound limited, at least to a afficionado. (To the rest of us it may just sound like "the blues song," just as much traditional Irish music sounds to my wife like "the Irish song," to my endless chagrin.)

    That wit or invention might run all the way through the text, but it doesn't need to for the novel to win me over. As in most popular art, it just takes a little flash of something special here or there to make the piece come alive. I think here of one of my favorite bits from Pauline Kael, the queen of movie critics: "The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor's scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense." (That's from her marvellous essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," from 1969).

    Oh, as for "messages," here's Kael again: "Movie audiences will take a lot of garbage, but it's pretty hard to get us to queue up for pedagogy."

    --E

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  6. Eric, I suppose it depends how you define 'message'. I'm not talking about a deliberate attempt to teach or preach but rather that choices made by the author about what to include, or exclude, may lead the readers to draw certain conclusions. For example, if, say, all the heroines that a child reads about in fairy-tales were blondes, what would that say to brown-haired children? I think it might well send them a message about how they're not heroine material.

    If, as Crusie argues

    the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished.

    then each novel presents us with certain characters who are to be considered 'good'. Quite what constitutes 'good' or 'forgiveable' behaviour varies from one book to another. Some readers, for example, won't read about heroes or heroines who've committed adultery. Some will read about Dukes of Slut, but wouldn't like to read about a woman who was equally promiscuous. The types of characters portrayed, the decisions they make, the outcomes there are for them - all of these send 'messages' to the reader. It may well not be intentional, but I do think these messages are there. And at the core of romance is a central message - that love is real.

    Bernita, the main difference between 'cliché' and 'convention' can be down to how the reader feels about it. One set of defintions is as follows: a cliché is 'something that has become overly familiar or commonplace' (Merriam-Webster Online, and 'convention' is 'an established technique, practice, or device (as in literature or the theater)' (Merriam-Webster Online). It seems to me that one person's cliché might be another's convention.

    Jennifer, re

    working- and middle-class college-educated white women? That seems to be the entire market for these books, based on the characters in them, the ones we're "supposed" to identify with

    how do you reach this conclusion? Lots of romance heroines are aristocratic young women living in Regency England, but their background isn't one shared by any modern readers.

    It's interesting, though, that you do see romance as sending messages but you seem to be saying that you think these messages are pretty much identical from one romance to another. I see a lot more variety among romances. For example, I don't think that 'Harlequin romances seem to be aimed at women who like dominant male archetypes and heroines who want to be taken care of'. There are some which feature dominant males, but not all, and there are plenty of heroines who don't want to be taken care of. I also can't agree with you on Crusie: some of her heroes are quite keen on commitment, as in Tell Me Lies, Fast Women, and Sizzle, just to think of three examples. and I'm not sure how you're defining 'rough', but I don't think that's how I'd classify Phin in Welcome to Temptation, for example.

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  7. j as in jennifer18 August, 2006 20:04

    how do you reach this conclusion? Lots of romance heroines are aristocratic young women living in Regency England, but their background isn't one shared by any modern readers.

    I disagree. One common aspect of the bourgeosie or middle-class is a desire for and emulation of the higher status. Frequently in Regency romances the heroine is a governess or a paid companion or a poor relation. Or, as in the case of "Pride and Prejudice," they are impoverished gentry. Elizabeth gets an offer from Mr. Collins, a rector, which could save her family, but she doesn't want him (who would?). No, she marries the more aristocratic Mr. Darcy. Jane marries up, as well. Only the foolish Lydia marries down.

    What's more important than the actual birth of the heroine is her values. If she is upperclass, she is not snobbish, not spoiled, not ambitious, kind to servants and makes herself useful in some way. If, in the past, she has been selfish and spoiled, she learns her lesson. In other words, she appeals to middle-class values. Besides, little girls love to read about princesses and wicked queens. I wanted to be a princess as a little girl (though never a queen). So lords and ladies naturally appeal to our childish fantasies, no matter our birth status.

    I see a lot more variety among romances. For example, I don't think that 'Harlequin romances seem to be aimed at women who like dominant male archetypes and heroines who want to be taken care of'.

    Well, I have to go by the titles I see on the rack so I can't with confidence defend my point, only say that that's how they seem to me. The variety in them is much like the variety in corn chips, I think. Some are nacho cheese, some are cool ranch, some are guacamole flavored, some are spicy jalepeno, some are plain, and some are blue, but they're all just corn chips in the end.

    There is variety in romance but they do tend to be conventional. Those that push the barriers of convention risk not being popular. I admit that "Sleeping Beauty" is the last Judith Ivory novel I read because the heroine was a 37-year old courtesan, older than the hero. If I hadn't trusted her as an author I wouldn't have read it. How could such a thing be romantic? Well, it was and I liked the book very much. I have just been trained by years of romance reading to think I know what I like.

    I also can't agree with you on Crusie: some of her heroes are quite keen on commitment, as in Tell Me Lies, Fast Women, and Sizzle, just to think of three examples. and I'm not sure how you're defining 'rough', but I don't think that's how I'd classify Phin in Welcome to Temptation, for example.

    As I remember, in "Fast Women," Gabe didn't want anything to do with Nell at first, and resisted her attempts to change his life in any way. Haven't read the others yet.

    As for Phin, he was a bit rough around the edges. He broke things the first time they made love and broke the bed on another occasion. I wasn't criticizing Crusie for her male protagonists, just pointing out that, even though they have a bit more personality, her heroes do exhibit what we've been conditioned to see as dominant male traits.

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  8. One common aspect of the bourgeosie or middle-class is a desire for and emulation of the higher status. [...] What's more important than the actual birth of the heroine is her values. If she is upperclass, she is not snobbish, not spoiled, not ambitious, kind to servants and makes herself useful in some way. If, in the past, she has been selfish and spoiled, she learns her lesson. In other words, she appeals to middle-class values.

    I recognise this type of heroine, but the idea that the bourgeoisie aspire to be of a higher class seems to me to ignore the large segment of the middle class which like to pretend they're working class, or who dislike the aristocracy and what they stand for. I wonder if I'm going to have a different perspective on this because I'm in the UK. I'd tend to think of the middle class as including plenty of left-wing, Guardian-reading types (including me).

    Besides, little girls love to read about princesses and wicked queens. I wanted to be a princess as a little girl (though never a queen). So lords and ladies naturally appeal to our childish fantasies, no matter our birth status.

    It's hard for me to remember how I felt when I was a child, but I read a lot of adventure stories for boys, with crusaders, Robin Hood, the Knights of the Round Table. The princesses weren't the most interesting of characters.

    I admit that "Sleeping Beauty" is the last Judith Ivory novel I read because the heroine was a 37-year old courtesan, older than the hero. If I hadn't trusted her as an author I wouldn't have read it. How could such a thing be romantic? Well, it was and I liked the book very much.

    Ah, well I had absolutely no problem with the age of the heroine. What enraged me was (a) the hero and heroine end up with an aristocratic title, which I felt represented a sell-out to Society and (b) the heroine's successful pregnancy, because it seemed to me to represent the triumph of the heroine-has-to-be fertile-motif that's present in many romances, coupled with the idea that she now has to produce an heir to the title.

    As I remember, in "Fast Women," Gabe didn't want anything to do with Nell at first, and resisted her attempts to change his life in any way.

    I felt that was because he was still committed to his ex-wife. It was precisely because he was so good at commitment that he didn't want to get involved with someone new.

    I think your definition of 'rough' must be a little different from mine. I thought the way Phin was breaking objects was wasteful, but for me it was about sexual kink, not about 'roughness'. When I think of 'rough' in this context it makes me think of Lady Chatterley, choosing a 'bit of rough'. That's not the type Phin is at all.

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  9. A romance novel's aesthetic interest, at least to me, often lies in how wittily or inventively or simply freshly a novelist selects among and deploys the givens of the genre.

    Eric, this part of what you said's been intriguing me, because although I think I'd usually be able to detect when a romance was breaking a convention of the genre, I've always steered clear of analysing humour or satire. Humour seems so hard to pin down. Do you have any techniques which academics should bear in mind when studying this aspect of texts?

    I also wonder about the 'freshness' aspect you mention, because again I think that could be subjective, and it's also quite dependent on what you (generic you) have read in the past. That was something I was trying to explore in this post - that readers seem to have a tendency to like the first book by an author best, because it has a certain 'freshness' but other readers, who read a different book by that author first will consider that book 'fresher'. And then there are the agents, who read so much that they're desperate for 'something that will stand out as fresh and original', but probably some of what they reject might seem fresh to a different reader, who's not been exposed to quite so many texts and isn't trying to spot trends, work out the direction the market's going in etc. In the past I've studied old texts, and 'freshness' wasn't something I was looking for. How you go about identifying it and demonstrating to a reader of an academic article that it's present in the text you're discussing?

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  10. j as in jennifer19 August, 2006 01:11

    ...the idea that the bourgeoisie aspire to be of a higher class seems to me to ignore the large segment of the middle class which like to pretend they're working class, or who dislike the aristocracy and what they stand for. I wonder if I'm going to have a different perspective on this because I'm in the UK. I'd tend to think of the middle class as including plenty of left-wing, Guardian-reading types (including me).

    Well, there you have the conflict between resentment toward unearned privilege and the obvious advantages of money and status. We all know how society would like to be and how it really is. Nobody today "likes" the idea of an aristocracy if you ask them, and rich people are often obnoxious jerks, but you can't deny the whole industry built to provide us with breathtaking coverage of everything about celebrities. We thumbed our noses to the monarchy centuries ago but everything Princes William and Harry do or say makes the news here. Even the liberals here buy big houses and drive SUVs if they can afford to. And Harlequin is obsessed with millionaires. Yesterday, I saw a romance called "How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire."

    Besides, I don't know how many left-wing, Guardian reading types actually read romances. Besides you and me, that is. :) Romances are so materialistic. But then, most people are too.

    What enraged me was (a) the hero and heroine end up with an aristocratic title, which I felt represented a sell-out to Society and (b) the heroine's successful pregnancy, because it seemed to me to represent the triumph of the heroine-has-to-be fertile-motif that's present in many romances, coupled with the idea that she now has to produce an heir to the title.

    But Laura, that's what a HEA ending is all about! I'm surprised at you. (tease) How could Coco ever be fully happy knowing she had ruined James' career and caused him to be shunned by society? It's the old Abraham-and-Isaac cliché: The hero loves the heroine enough to sacrifice everything for her, and Fate is satisfied. The rewards come back to him two-fold. How could it be else and be happy ending?

    I think your definition of 'rough' must be a little different from mine.

    Could be. When I spoke of rough, I didn't mean "rough-mannered," but rather "forceful."

    I also wonder about the 'freshness' aspect you mention, because again I think that could be subjective, and it's also quite dependent on what you (generic you) have read in the past.

    I guess "freshness" is merely another word for something new and different. Often it is also the particular voice that a new author has. A voice that seems to take the story she is telling seriously, so we have to take this bit of fluff seriously as well. And there are fresh characters, as well. The aforementioned Judith Ivory often gives her heroes certain eccentricities and foibles that most novelists wouldn't for fear of them not being "manly" enough. Perhaps "freshness" is also writing without fear.

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  11. I've just come across the results of a writing experiment organised by Diana Peterfreund in March of this year, and it seemed relevant to this discussion:

    The prevailing attitude in these posts is that every story has already been written, and it's the characters, the nuances, the voice, whatever, that sets them apart from one another, and that there seems to be a group subconscious where complete strangers simultaneously come up with the same idea.

    So I thought I'd run an experiment -- I'd give a variety of authors the same basic scene structure and let them run with it, and see how many different takes we could get based on the writers' vastly different writing styles
    (Introduction to the experiment)

    I've seen something similar on the Harlequin website, but unfortunately they've taken it down now (they used to have a huge number of short stories in their online 'library', but they recently removed most of them). There's still a link to one of the stories at the Mills & Boon website, but the experiment doesn't work if you can't compare it to the other four stories.

    We gave five authors from five different Harlequin and Silhouette series the same opening paragraph, and asked each of them to write the rest of the story. The result is five very distinctive individual stories that are compelling, engaging and, of course, romantic (here's one of the stories).

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  12. Originality has become one of the primary (sometimes only) virtues in Western art for about 150 years or so. Originality is of course something of value and it should be sought. However, this legitimate desire does seem to keep running into this amazing appeal that people have for repetitions of a certain sort. In the case here, we are talking about the genre of romance where certain motifs and cliches are foundational. People notice this conflict between a love of a certain frame and a desire for novelty, and there seem to be two primary responses:

    1) Originality isn't all that important in fact, so it is OK if genre fiction lacks it. Some other virtues are also important and here they are displayed in Romance. Common other virtues I can think of people mentioning are entertainment, escape, celebration of love, and I assume others.

    2) There is originality within the structure of the genre. Yes, there are repeating motifs, but it is possible to create nuances and something new within the overall frame, the same way that Shakespeare found originality within the structure of the sonnet. Cruisie has an essay arguing for this, and this seems to be what Laura is suggesting here.

    There might be a third possibility, and that is to think of genre fiction as basically different than non-genre fiction. What I have in mind is that when an author writes a romance novel, they are simultaneously creating a stand-alone work, which can be judged on its own merits, and creating the genre itself. The originality then might come not only from the nuances within the structure, but in creating the structure as well. So while participation in genre can be viewed as mere repetition, it can also be viewed as a construction of its own sort - a construction of the very motifs that it is "repeating".

    One can then, of course, find originality in the stretching of the genre, in the way that Cruisie subtly modifies what Romance is or Shakespeare modified the form of the sonnet. But I think building schemas with which we interpret the world is itself something of merit, and authors who don't stretch the genre can still be valued for building it.

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  13. To put it more succinctly, it is not only that romance authors are creating original versions of fairy tales, they are also creating the fairy tale itself.

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  14. There might be a third possibility, and that is to think of genre fiction as basically different than non-genre fiction.

    I initially had some difficulties with this, because I think of some romances as literature, for example, Austen's works. For me, the term 'genre fiction' says more about how the work is marketed than about the quality of the work. But then you said

    What I have in mind is that when an author writes a romance novel, they are simultaneously creating a stand-alone work, which can be judged on its own merits, and creating the genre itself.

    and this is where I think your argument gets really interesting. Sounds like you're saying that genre fiction can be both literature (stand-alone on its own merits) and 'genre fiction' (i.e. bound by certain genre conventions). Yes, I can agree with that.

    The originality then might come not only from the nuances within the structure, but in creating the structure as well. So while participation in genre can be viewed as mere repetition, it can also be viewed as a construction of its own sort - a construction of the very motifs that it is "repeating".

    The metaphor that comes to mind for me here is that of the strengthening or weakening of synaptic connections in the brain. Not sure if that metaphor's very accurate, or if it will help anyone else, but what I mean is that when you think about certain things repeatedly, you learn them and the connections between the synapses that are triggered when you think about those ideas/do those actions get stronger. Now, if a romance is a very traditional one, it'll reinforce the existing connections (conventions), and if it's innovative in some way it might start to forge new connections (conventions). Eventually, if a connection stops being used, it'll get weaker, and the stronger connections will be the ones that will tend to be used first (the conventions that will tend to spring to mind first when one thinks of the genre).

    To apply this to romance, the term 'romance' in the Middle Ages used to mean stories of chivalry, such as those about the Arthurian cycle, and some of those stories included characters who fall in love (e.g. Lancelot/Guinevere, Tristan/Isolde). When there were love-stories in a romance, it didn't always have a happy ending (in fact, it usually didn't). Over time, the happy love stories kept being written, the stories that focussed purely on chivalric deeds didn't get told so much, and now when people think about 'romance' they usually mean 'love stories with happy endings'. But it's worth pointing out that in the UK there's a Romantic Novelists' Association, not a Romance Writers Association, so they don't make such a big distinction between love-stories with happy endings and a strong focus on the central love story, and love stories with what in the RWA would be called 'romantic elements'. And novelists in the RNA may not include a happy ending. It's possibly not a coincidence that there are more publishers or romance in the US, so the idea of romance = HEA and central love story is reinforced in the US, but perhaps this is less the case in the UK, where stories of various sorts (including sagas) exist under the heading 'romantic'.

    Anyway, that got a bit long and convoluted, but I think there's a lot of mileage in the idea that each romance novel reinforces certain conventions, or (and this happens less often) begins new conventions/pushes at the edges of the old, established conventions. I wouldn't go as far as to say that each writer builds the genre anew, but I do think they could be seen as either reinforcing the walls (if they stay within existing conventions), or trying to add on an extension to the buiding (if they push at the edges). And yes, both are valid ways to procede, I think. I wouldn't say that the innovative romances are necessarily of more value than the ones which reinforce the existing conventions.

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  15. I think we are in basic agreement, but I am not completely sure, so an analogy might help me get my idea across.

    Let's take a classic English country village that barely exists anymore where the rooves are all classic thatched rooves. Add in whatever other architectural elements are necessary to make the house a classic example of the thatched house. Now, if one looks at the builder putting up a new house in exactly the same style as every house aroung him/her, one thinks, "what lack of originality, s/he's just repeating what everyone else did." This may be true, but by copying the style, the builder is also helping to create something of an architectural treasure in the whole village. Each house is a repeat, but the village is something that thousands of Americans will take tour buses in to see.

    That's what I had in mind by genre. In the U.S. at least, there are definitely certain genres - adventure, sci-fi, western, romance, etc. They are definable enough that any work of the genre can just be referred to as "a romance" or "a western". And there are thousands of readers, if not millions, who love, not just books that are romantic, but a Romance. They love the genre as an entity. Just a couple days ago on Brenda Coulter's blog, a reader talked about how she always buys each inspirational romance that comes out every month from a certain publishing line, because for her the inspiration romance is a thing that she enjoys reading - the genre as a whole.

    It doesn't seem that every type of book which has a section in the bookstore is a genre in this sense. For instance, my local bookstore will have sections for african-american fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, hispanic fiction, etc. Whether or not they should exist is a matter of great debate of course. The point here is that you can't really say, "I really want to go to the bookstore and pick up a good Hispanic." People can definitely prefer to read fiction with hispanic characters in particular, but it seems they have to buy hispanic literary fiction, hispanic romances, hispanic westerns, and the like.

    So, there is this sort of entity that is called a romance and this entity is desired by readers in the U.S. When an author is being repetitive by employing the genre's motifs, they are also constructing this thing called a romance that people love.

    And actually syntactic reinforcement is something I had in mind as well. I was also thinking of those schemas / metaphors from a couple post back.

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  16. Yes, I think we're in agreement about the construction/reinforcement of the genre.

    There are readers who buy an entire line's output of romance every month here in the UK too - Mills & Boon have a 'reader service', just as Harlequin do, and they'll send you books from a particular line each month. What we don't have so often in the UK is designated areas in bookshops for 'romance' or even 'romantic' fiction. I did read about one big chain which did have a romance section, but I think they'd got the idea from their American headquarters. I could be wrong on that, though. I just know that the large bookshops near me don't have a romance section.

    'The point here is that you can't really say, "I really want to go to the bookstore and pick up a good Hispanic."'

    Well, you could say that, and people might assume this was the latest craze in dating. For a while people were apparently looking for their soulmate in the aisles of supermarkets, because then you could tell if their tastes were similar to yours and if they were shopping for meals for one. So I could imagine a similar phenomenon occurring in bookshops, but that's getting very far off the topic under discussion.

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