Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sending Messages

In the comments on my post about judging each romance on its own merits we got onto the topic of whether romances can and do send messages to the readers. It would take a very long time to analyse lots of individual books, so I thought I’d take a shortcut by having a look at some of the guidelines that publishers provide for authors. Publishers are often quite explicit about what they want to see in the books. Obviously authors do have creative freedom, although they'll have more with some publishers/lines than others, so there will be variation even within a particular line. Nonetheless, if a particular novel doesn't conform to the guidelines, it's much less likely to get published in that line, so if the guidelines are insisting that authors send a particular message, it's likely that all the published works in the line will comply with the guidelines to some extent.

When I use the word 'message' I’m not talking about instances when an author becomes ‘preachy’ and drills home their point with all the subtlety of someone who’s just been given a new power-tool. Clearly Dorchester have had some bad experiences with this sort of thing appearing in their slush pile, because they say very clearly in their guidelines for submissions of time-travel romances that authors should ‘Beware of philosophizing about the meaning of time, and how the past affects the present’.

Messages can, however, be conveyed in subtle ways, and there is also a difference between sending readers messages they don’t want to hear (which, I suspect, will cause a negative reaction in the reader) and reinforcing the fantasies and aspirations that readers are already assumed to have. In the second case readers will barely notice such messages, because they’ve already internalised them. Nonetheless the messages will still be there. At the very core of the genre there’s a message: according to the RWA ‘Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished’.

So who are the ‘good people’? According to Avalon:
HEROINES:
Every AVALON heroine should be an independent young woman with an interesting profession or career. She is equal to the stresses of today’s world and can take care of herself, yet she remains feminine and loyal to traditional values; when he comes along, the man she loves will take priority in her life, just as she will take priority in his.

HEROES:
AVALON heroes should be warm, likable, realistic, sympathetic, understanding men who treat the heroine as an equal, with respect for her intelligence and individuality, and with courtesy. The rude, overbearing, patronizing, egotistical, brooding, macho men and Heathcliff types are not welcome in AVALON romances; they make very poor models for husbands—and men—in today’s world.
I have to agree with Avalon that Heathcliff did not make a very good husband, but their description of what they don’t want seems to imply that they do want their heroes to be ‘models for husbands’. Notice also the reference to ‘traditional values’. While Avalon don’t specify which traditional values these are, presumably because they take it for granted that authors will be thinking of the traditional values of one particular culture, the result of specifying that all heroines must be ‘loyal’ to these values is to affirm their importance and continuing relevance to contemporary society.

In Harlequin’s Romance (Mills & Boon Tender Romance) line, the guidelines regarding the hero and heroine are as follows:
Heroine: She drives the story — the reader lives vicariously through her. [...] The reader wants to be able to identify strongly with her, to like her, to want to be her, or want to be her friend. She must be a strong, convincing woman of the 21st century.

Hero: He's always strong and charismatic, successful in his own way and aspirational — a man you'd want to be with!
  • Tower of Strength: He has a steely core, is not easily manipulated and uncompromising about the things that matter
  • Aspirational: The guy with whom women aspire to spend the rest of their lives with; definitely Mr. Right
  • Code of Honour: He has a strong sense of right and wrong, is reasonable and fair
  • Sense of Humour: He can laugh at himself and life; he's often understated and modest in manner
  • Status: Definitely successful, can be wealthy or just comfortably off; perhaps a specialist in his field
These guidelines suggest that the publishers think they know what characteristics women readers would like to have, and what sort of man ‘women aspire to spend [...] their lives with’. These books will, then, either reinforce the preferences of readers who already have such aspirations, or send a message to other readers that this is what they should aspire to. In Kimani Press’ Arabesque Romance line the authors are instructed that ‘The hero and heroine should be role models — upwardly mobile and educated individuals that our readers can admire.’ ‘Success’ as defined by both the Arabesque Romance and the Harlequin Romance lines would appear to be linked to financial affluence, and the guidelines for the Arabesque Romance line make it extremely clear that authors are supposed to send a message to readers by creating characters who will be ‘role models’.

In addition to sending messages about which sort of people the readers should aspire to resemble, (this type of person is presented as deserving of a happy ending, since romances are about ‘emotional justice’), romances may also describe the kind of relationships that readers are thought to aspire to, as in the guidelines for Mills & Boon’s Modern Xtra Sensual (formerly Harlequin Temptation) line where it’s stated that these stories present ‘the kind of relationships that women between the ages of 18 and 35 aspire to. Young characters in affluent urban settings’. The messages sent out by this line are more than a little different from those present in the Arabesque Inspirational Romance line, where ‘The hero and heroine should delay premarital sex, while secondary characters may show the negative consequences of such actions’. In the Xtra Sensual romances the hero and heroine ‘meet, flirt, share experiences, have great, passionate sex and fall in love’ and it is only some time later that they are to be depicted ‘finally making a commitment that will bind them together, forever’. Premarital sex is clearly acceptable in this particular line of romances.

The messages can extend beyond the characteristics that are deemed to be admirable and/or sexy, and the relationships to which the reader is encouraged to aspire. Some romances send messages about the ideals of a particular society, for example the guidelines for Harlequin’s American Romance line state that ‘Above all, it's important that these stories have a sense of adventure, optimism and a lively spirit — they're all the best of what it means to be American!’

It’s also important to note that what’s left out of books can also send messages. Authors may not intend to send particular messages-by-omission, and the existence of such messages cannot be deduced from reading just a few examples of the genre, but, if members of particular groups cannot find many romances which feature people like them, they may well feel there’s a message being sent to them: they are not the sort of people who are deemed worthy or likely to find a romance and happy ending of their own.

For example, there are relatively few gay and lesbian romances, romances about overweight people and romances with heroes and heroines who are middle-aged or older people. Does this mean that these people are deemed less worthy of romance, and less likely to get a happy ending of their own? I think it’s quite possible that the lack of romances about people like them might lead members of these groups to deduce that they are being sent that message. There are, of course, certain lines dedicated to romances about groups who are less likely to feature as heroes or heroines in the majority of romances. For example, African-American heroes and heroines can be found in books published by Harlequin’s Kimani Press, with books written ‘by [...] African-American authors’ and featuring African-American characters and in Avon’s African-American romances. In Genesis Press’ Indigo line the guidelines state that:
Heroine should be Afro-centric in her physical aesthetic. The presence of a non-black Hero is enough to make the book cross-cultural. No boasting, “I’m part Cherokee” or “I’m a quarter white.” Heroine must be proud and be relatable. Heroine must not have given up on black men. Do not bash black men.
That last sentence made me wonder what sort of ‘bashing’ of black men they’ve received in submissions.

Linden Bay Romance’s guidelines, in which they say they’re interested in receiving romances featuring ‘Non-traditional relationships (male/male, multiple partner, older female/younger male, etc)’, make it rather clear what they would expect to find in ‘traditional’ romances. Older couples feature in Triskelion’s After Hours line, where ‘"Sex doesn't stop at 40!" But how often does one read proclamations that ‘sex doesn’t begin at 40!’? Never - because people under 40 are generally assumed to be sexual (even if not sexually-active). It’s pretty much a given that romance heroes and heroines will be under forty, and it’s still rather unusual for them (particularly for a heroine) to be over that age.

It’s not that one never finds African-American, over-40 or gay/lesbian characters in other romances, but they either don’t, or don’t often, get to star as the hero/heroine. And I do think that regardless of whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally, that sends messages to people in these groups.

As for gender roles, here's what one poster at AAR, Lynda X, had to say:
In spite of some notable exceptions, romance basically portray the man as more knowledgeable, more sexually experienced than the woman whom he loves partly because she doesn’t have those qualities! If I were an alien from outer space and looked at romances, written and bought mostly by women, I'd assume that the basic plot elements of the boy rescuing the girl, the rake or the bad boy tamed by the good girl, and other clichés reflect more than just our society’s values. [...] I'd assume that these sexist conventions are so deeply satisfying because they reflect how we'd like the world to be. [...] I’d also assume, as an alien, that these repetitions of sexist characters and situations reflect our basic wiring, our basic gender differences.
My reading choices must be a little different from Lynda's because I've read quite a lot of romances which aren't like the ones she describes. Nonetheless, these books do exist in large numbers. Lynda concludes that there's a biological basis for gender roles: 'I think this basic plot (the bad boy redeemed by the virgin) is hard-wired into women and probably men, aided by the endless reinforcement in society, but the brain came first'. I may not agree with the conclusions that Lynda reaches about the biological basis of gender roles (gender, and the extent to which biology is responsible for differences between the sexes is still hotly contested), but what's more than clear is that she's getting messages from the romances she reads.

In conclusion, I think that romances, like other forms of literature, send messages: 'Narratives, in addition to whatever aesthetic pleasure they may give us, always interpret life; they tell us about our lives and other possible lives' (A review of Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction). As I think I have demonstrated by quoting from some publishers' guidelines, some messages are very intentionally included in texts. Some messages are more overt than others, and the messages in one book, or by one author or line may vary considerably from those in others. Furthermore, the reader plays a part in identifying messages, and may receive messages which the author did not intend to send. What seems clear is that the romance genre is not message-free.

18 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer24 August, 2006 20:52

    ‘Above all, it's important that these stories have a sense of adventure, optimism and a lively spirit — they're all the best of what it means to be American!’

    So I guess a love story set in the midst of the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy is out, huh?

    I had no idea the Romance industry was controlled by Republicans! : )


    ...if members of particular groups cannot find many romances which feature people like them, they may well feel there’s a message being sent to them: they are not the sort of people who are deemed worthy or likely to find a romance and happy ending of their own.

    That's what I've said all along. In media studies we learn that every product has a particular audience. Advertisers send messages to the group of consumers they most want to appeal to. These books are being sold like products and the consumer they're looking for is working- to middle-class women with dreams of marrying doctors or lawyers or CEOs, or desert sheiks.

    I presume the fantasy is that she would marry a rich man for love (never money, of course, THAT is not a traditional value), and so the way would be smooth to the HEA. They would never have to fight about money, just feed each other bon-bons and foie gras all day. There would be no non-traditional stuff in it to make the relationship messy, just smooth sailing away on his yacht to Greece.

    The heroines are usually poor young things who never dream this sort of thing could happen to them. They send a subtle message to readers that anything is possible -- it could happen to you, too! (If there were enough millionaires in existence.)

    I don't like these books. I think they are just products meant to keep us aspiring to a fairytale. "Be sweet, be modest, be warm and outgoing, be pretty but not sexy, don't eat (these girls NEVER eat when they're emotional), pretend you don't care about money, and you too could meet and marry Mr. Trust Fund."

    Brands are made to move us, to make us feel emotional about our choice of toothpaste or soda pop. But how can I feel moved by something that's calculated to manipulate me? How can I really connect to Paper Doll Heroine and Cardboard Hero? It should be art that moves us, not products. Novel writing is supposed to be an art form, not a matter of cut and paste.

    Sorry for the preaching, here, but I am an idealist. Which is partly why I read romance novels. I'm just glad their are writers out there who don't just fill in the blanks in the tale of Mr. Right and Miss Righteous.

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  2. Laura,

    You're quite right that romance novels send these sorts of "messages," both individually and (perhaps even more so) in groups. The question remains, though, how often the ideological "message" of any particular novel is, well, interesting. Worth talking about, academically speaking.

    I can think of cases when it seems quite interesting. Most of these involve mixed messages, or slightly more complex ones, and can be connected to the shifting mores or ideas of a particular historical moment. (I think of "The Flame and the Flower," which tries to negotiate between the desire to celebrate female sexual pleasure and the desire to celebrate innocence--"virginity" as a moral quality, rather than a physical state. No such negotiation marks "Sweet Savage Love," at least as I see it, even though the latter was published by Avon quite soon after the first, in part to capitalize on the success of the Woodiwiss.)

    On the other hand, the "message" of the novel can sometimes be simply a given, as when the message of a carpe diem poem is, well, "carpe diem." At that point, the message becomes simply the part of the novel that locks it into its category: what it has in common with the other books of its series or subgenre. What, though, sets it apart? The most interesting thing about a romance novel will often be something else, something individuating--maybe what it does WITH the message (some little twist), or maybe what ELSE it does, with character or plot or dialogue or setting, even as the message plays out.

    Re: heroines who eat when emotional, my votes go for Min Dobbs of course (yum!), Bridget Jones (equally of course), and Charity Selborne in Mary Stewart's "Madam, Will You Talk?" Oh, and has anyone out there read Anthony Cappella's "The Food of Love"? I recall some lovely eating in that one, although I can't recall who did it....

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  3. You're quite right that romance novels send these sorts of "messages," both individually and (perhaps even more so) in groups. The question remains, though, how often the ideological "message" of any particular novel is, well, interesting. Worth talking about, academically speaking.

    If I can refer back to the question of academic approaches that I blogged about earlier, I think the answer to your question partly depends on what sort of academic study one's wanting to do. It seems to me that a lot of the academic study of romances has been focussed on working out what 'the message' in romance is, and, therefore, what effect it has on readers. What I think we can see from just that quick look at a few publishers' guidelines, is that there are big differences between lines, never mind between individual books. I think there's a need to remember those nuances and differences when writing about romances as a group.

    If one's doing close reading of one particular book then yes, the romances which are more subtle/complex may well be more interesting from the point of view of providing food for textual analysis.

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  4. Yes, quite true. I speak there as a literary critic rather than from the more sociological (or even feminist) point of view.

    Although, again, I think we need to be very careful when speaking about "the effect it has on readers." The only way to know that would be to study the readers themselves. Otherwise we're really addressing "the effect it might well have on readers": a rather different, still hypothetical thing.

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  5. Yes, I agree. There's a big difference between a hypothesis and a study which offers some evidence.

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  6. I thought your point about people over 40 not featuring in romances was interesting. This was a definite gap in the market, but last year, Transita stepped in to fill it with some very good romances featuring women over 40. Their website is here.

    http://www.transita.co.uk/

    I'd recommend Jan Jones's 'Stage by Stage' and Susie Vereker's 'Pond Lane and Paris'.

    It might be interesting to compare and contrast the way in which 40 + women are presented in books with younger heroines and books with older heroines.

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  7. Thanks, Amanda. I had a quick look at their website and it says:

    Transita books reflect the lives of mature women. Contemporary women with rich and interesting stories to tell, stories that explore the truths and desires that colour their lives.

    Until now there hasn’t been an identifiable body of fiction that mirrors the experiences of today’s 45+ woman – and yet we make up almost 40% of the female population in the UK. Now Transita will be tapping into a whole new world of fiction, publishing transformational stories that mirror the lives of women our age. [...]

    As one author said, ‘My publisher wants me to write about 20 or 30 somethings. I’m 57, I can’t get inside the head of a 27 year old any more’.
    (Transita's 'about us' page)

    I find that last bit particularly interesting. The spread of readers may well not be the same in the UK, but the RWA gives this breakdown of the ages of romance readers in the US:

    1% are 13 or younger
    6% are between the ages of 14-17
    9% are between the ages of 18-24
    19% are between the ages of 25-34
    22% are between the ages of 35-44
    18% are between the ages of 45-54
    11% are between the ages of 55-64
    6% are between the ages of 65-74
    8% are 75 and older
    (RWA statistics)

    Why, if there are so many readers over 40, does the average age of heroines not reflect the range of ages in the readership? Do many of the over-40s like to read about younger heroes and heroines? Is it part of the escapism to read about young people, because they're living a different sort of life? Are young people more 'romantic'? Or is it that that's what's published, so readers don't get much of a choice? Is it that older readers will read about young people, but young people wouldn't want to read about older heroes and heroines, so the books would have a smaller market?

    I suspect there are lots of different reasons, and different readers will have different preferences, but it certainly does raise lots of questions.

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  8. j as in jennifer25 August, 2006 16:53

    Why, if there are so many readers over 40, does the average age of heroines not reflect the range of ages in the readership?

    I suppose one could theorize that older women are more settled in their lives. They have children, solid jobs, a home. They aren't apt to go on wild adventures or act foolishly the way heroines in novels often do. Adventure and danger often go hand in hand with romance novels, and though there might be women over 40 who live adventurous lives, as a group they're not perceived that way. Not a lot of Erica Jong's out there, one would imagine.

    Of course, one glaring exception is Claire of the "Outlander" series. When she came back to Jamie the second time, she was almost 50! It took me aback, at first, but certainly no heat was lost between them. Patricia Gaffney also wrote a lovely book called "Flight Lessons." The heroine was nearly 40, but her aunt, in her sixties, was also an interesting character.

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  9. Jennifer wrote:

    These books are being sold like products and the consumer they're looking for is working- to middle-class women with dreams of marrying doctors or lawyers or CEOs, or desert sheiks.

    According to this reasoning, people who read Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels would dream of owning a white horse which communicates with them via mindspeech. Not likely. It has already been pointed out by the authors of "Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women" one of the big mistakes of many studies of romance is to assume that these novels reflect readers' and authors' ideal genderroles or aspirations for life.

    In addition, I fail to see how you can come up with "facts" about category romance when you don't category romance. If you would, you would know that not all category heroes are rich, nor are all category heroines terribly young. Yes, due to the format, the subplots are usually reduced, but that does not necessarily result in cardboard characters. Why would readers love specific authors so much if this were the case? Would Nora Roberts have become what she is now if she had produced cardboard characters in her Silhouette romances? To imply that category authors just "cut and paste" is not only insulting in the extreme, but also not much better than some of the comments which Flesch dissects in the theory chapter of her study on Australian romances and which probably culminate in the more than ludicrous idea that "[t]here is a thoroughly developed computer program into which a set of plots and situations is fed. It only remains for the author to put in the names of heroes and the place of action" (11).

    It should be art that moves us, not products.

    It's not art publishers sell, but books -- products. And it's not just Harlequin/M&B practising branding, other publishers do it just as well and successfully. Just think of the very distinct covers of the Penguin Classics line.

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  10. I suppose one could theorize that older women are more settled in their lives. They have children, solid jobs, a home. They aren't apt to go on wild adventures or act foolishly the way heroines in novels often do. Adventure and danger often go hand in hand with romance novels, and though there might be women over 40 who live adventurous lives, as a group they're not perceived that way.

    The older heroine could be single, divorced or widowed, with or without children. I'm not convinced that the lack of adventure is a problem, because when younger heroines get involved in an adventure it tends to be linked to the romance i.e. it's not depicted as a normal part of their daily lives (though there are some heroines who are in the police, the army, are private investigators, for whom 'adventure' is, presumably, more common). If the adventure is caused by an external force, there's no reason why it couldn't happen to an older heroine. It seems to me that, as you say, perceptions /preconceptions/ prejudices could have a lot to do with why we don't see older heroines having adventures.

    Re the acting foolishly, why is this OK in any heroine? Given that the term TSTL has often been applied to silly heroines, I'm not sure how many readers really appreciate them.

    one of the big mistakes of many studies of romance is to assume that these novels reflect readers' and authors' ideal gender roles or aspirations for life.

    Yes, but to be fair, Jennifer was commenting on my blog entry, in which I'd given examples of how the publishers explicitly state that they want the characters to be role models, and the relationships to be the ones to which readers aspire. That's the publishers making assumptions about readers. Also, to be fair to the publishers whose guidelines I quoted from, these are only some of their lines. They have others in which they give the authors much more leeway, and none of the guidelines under discussion were for fantasy.

    "It should be art that moves us, not products."

    It's not art publishers sell, but books -- products. And it's not just Harlequin/M&B practising branding, other publishers do it just as well and successfully. Just think of the very distinct covers of the Penguin Classics line.


    I'm a bit puzzled here. Why can't something be both a product and art?

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  11. j as in jennifer26 August, 2006 17:23

    According to this reasoning, people who read Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels would dream of owning a white horse which communicates with them via mindspeech.

    Who wouldn't dream of this? Girls who love horses would love it. I think it would be fantastic to communicate telepathically with my cats. : )

    In addition, I fail to see how you can come up with "facts" about category romance when you don't category romance.

    I used to read category romance when I was younger. I liked the exotic locales and I liked some of the stories about young girls being swept up by fascinating older men, because I was a young girl myself. But I got tired of them. Most of the heroines lacked what I would call a personality and the heroes usually had nothing but money and good looks to recommend them. But if that's what women like, if that's what sells, then I can't really argue with that. I think "American Idol" is awful too. I'll just state that don't like to be manipulated by a conservative corporation that thinks it knows what women want to read.

    Just think of the very distinct covers of the Penguin Classics line.

    Yes, but Penguin didn't tell those authors what to write about. It just put a cover on them. Do they do it to make all the books look good lined up in your bookcase? I don't know.

    It's not art publishers sell, but books -- products.

    Yes, but do they care more about the product than the story? If an author writes about a girl who communicates telepathically with a horse in a Harlequin Marry a Millionaire series, will they say, "Sorry, our readers don't want to read about that kind of thing. Turn the horse into a little sister who needs expensive treatment for leukemia, so the heroine has to marry the rich guy against all her moral and ethical principles. That the stuff that sells!"

    Re the acting foolishly, why is this OK in any heroine? Given that the term TSTL has often been applied to silly heroines, I'm not sure how many readers really appreciate them.

    Many books are written around the premise that if the heroine had acted sensibly, she wouldn't have gotten involved with the hero. And if the hero had any sense, he would have not gone to Almack's to be terribly bored, he would have kept his cozy bachelor lifestyle. "Why do fools fall in love?" "What fools these mortals be." "Love's not time's fool." Foolishness and love go together.

    I'm a bit puzzled here. Why can't something be both a product and art?

    It can, but it's a question of designing something great that everyone wants to buy, and a committee who decides what everyone wants and assigns people to come up with it. Romance writers themselves have expressed dismay at being told to tailor their stories to the current fashion. The result is a lot of readers dissatisfied with what they're being sold.

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  12. Yes, but to be fair, Jennifer was commenting on my blog entry, in which I'd given examples of how the publishers explicitly state that they want the characters to be role models, and the relationships to be the ones to which readers aspire.

    Laura, this was in the guidelines for one imprint (which, judging from the guidelines, is much more conservative than Harlequin's other imprints) and for one line. The examples Jennifer listed (CEO, sheik, doctor), however, are usually to be found in other lines -- CEO and sheik most often in M&B Modern Romance/ Harlequin Presents. And the guidelines for this line explicitly state: "Although grounded in reality and reflective of contemporary, relevant trends, these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies that take the reader on an emotional roller-coater ride" (emphasis mine). And most heroes from that line behave in a way no woman would ever want her real-life partner to behave. These men are not anybody's real-life ideals of masculinity, they're pure fantasy.

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  13. If an author writes about a girl who communicates telepathically with a horse in a Harlequin Marry a Millionaire series, will they say, "Sorry, our readers don't want to read about that kind of thing. Turn the horse into a little sister who needs expensive treatment for leukemia, so the heroine has to marry the rich guy against all her moral and ethical principles. That the stuff that sells!"

    But authors who write for Harlequin know they have to work within a specific framework -- they wouldn't pitch a story about a heroine who uses telepathy with her horse to their editors in the first place. Just like people who write for more conservative publishers know their characters cannot drink alcohol. Even if it's a Regency-set romance and drinking and whoring was what upperclass Regency men did.

    Romance writers themselves have expressed dismay at being told to tailor their stories to the current fashion.

    Yet this happens in the houses which sell single titles.

    and a committee who decides what everyone wants and assigns people to come up with it.

    I think that's more a case of editors looking at what's selling at the moment and urging authors to write something that's selling. Because they have to buy stories which they believe would sell well. If something doesn't sell well, it's not just the authors who will hear about it, the editors might get in trouble over that as well. Because the bottom line is all publishers want to make a profit. That's what I meant when I said publishers don't sell art, they sell products. And an author should be aware that her story becomes a product as soon as she signs that contract.

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  14. Yes, Sandra, the guidelines for the Harlequin Presents line (Mills & Boon Modern Romance) do say that the stories 'are essentially escapist romantic fantasies'. I find it interesting that not only (in other lines) do Harlequin seem to think they know what relationships women aspire to, and who women want to have as role models, they also (in this line) claim to know our fantasies. I should add that they don't actually claim that these fantasies will appeal to everyone, and in their advice to aspiring writers they state that 'We advise keeping in touch with current reader preferences by reading the most recent titles available in the Harlequin Presents line', so clearly they're aware that reader preferences, and readers fantasies, can and do change.

    Is this part of what you're meaning, when you talk about the books as products - that they're tailored to fit the aspirations or fantasies (depending on which line one's talking about) of the readers? I still think there's room in there for them to be art as well, in certain circumstances (e.g. skill of author, time constraints, inspiration striking etc). Working on a commission, with strict guidelines set by the employer is something that most medieval and renaissance artists would have done most of the time. As Eric says, the art is in adding a fresh twist and/or a depth of emotion or touch of humour which is particularly moving.

    Also, authors who want to write for Harlequin clearly do make choices about which line they want to write for, and presumably they'll choose the one(s) which best fit their own world view/ voice/ the stories they want to write. I'm not saying they're completely free to do as they like, but as you said, writers are not free from constraint in 'the houses which sell single titles' either. If I didn't mention the houses that print single titles in my original post, it's only because they tend to accept submissions only via agents, and so they weren't setting out their guidelines online in the same way as Harlequin does.

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  15. Laura, I actually read these guidelines quite differently than you do: e.g., I read ". . .these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies . . ." as "you can create characters and stories that are over the top" -- so as a result you've got these uber-alpha heroes in M&B Modern Romance. In contrast, the heroes in the Tender Romance line are usually much more toned down (most of them would actually be likable in real life! *g*) And "the kind of relationships that women between the ages of 18 and 35 aspire to. Young characters in affluent urban settings" simply gives you the target audience, the setting, and the type of characters and relationship (NOT over the top!) you should create if you want to write for this line.

    Is this part of what you're meaning, when you talk about the books as products - that they're tailored to fit the aspirations or fantasies (depending on which line one's talking about) of the readers?

    What I was talking about referred to the general branding and marketing strategies of Harlequin (and other publishers). Most authors don't think of the reader when they write a book (which reader would you pick??? That way lies certain madness!!!); they create the fantasy for themselves.

    If I didn't mention the houses that print single titles in my original post, it's only because they tend to accept submissions only via agents

    No, they don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, i.e., they don't want you to just send them your ms. But you can query them even if you don't have an agent (queries usually consist of cover letter, synopsis and first chapter or first three chapters). Some of them have guidelines available (e.g. Avon), others don't. But even if they have guidelines, they're extremely general in nature. Which makes sense since they don't have to place the books they buy in very specific lines.

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  16. It depends what you mean by 'over the top', I suppose. The guidelines for the Presents line say that the books should be both 'grounded in reality and reflective of contemporary, relevant trends'. But after that they say the 'stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies'. One thing that is repeated frequently in the guidelines is that the books should be emotionally intense: 'the ultimate in emotional and sensual excitement!', 'take the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride' and 'provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict, emotional intensity'. I'm sure that what some would call 'intense' others would consider 'over the top', so it's a subjective judgement. The term 'over the top' sounds a little pejorative to me.

    Most authors don't think of the reader when they write a book (which reader would you pick??? That way lies certain madness!!!); they create the fantasy for themselves.

    They may not be thinking about the reader constantly, but just to talk about the Presents line, since it's the one we seem to be focussing on here, the guidelines for the Presents line do say that 'We advise keeping in touch with current reader preferences' and in a November 2004 interview, one editor from the Presents line said that:

    at Harlequin we have a wonderful relationship with our readers - they're quite happy to tell us when they love something, hate something or want something completely different.

    Emma Darcy (a 2-person writing partnership) is published in the Presents line, and in a 1990 interview 'she' said that:

    We know some authors who write books so as to express themselves. This brings them a lot of anguish and misery because they can't understand why other people do not relate to what they are writing. As a popular writer I think you have to learn to be unselfish. You have to give readers those parts they want to read and suppress the rest.

    Emma: I ask: "How will this particular story best satisfy the reader?" [...] We are always prepared to change, accommodate, and modify on the basis of readers' advice. That doesn't always apply to editors ... only to readers. [...]
    Darcy: We have assembled a team of readers to comment on our work prior to submission. Our aim with our reader panel is to have as large an age group and range as possible - from 18 to 70 years old. This feedback is very useful to us; it at least helps replicate the situation that is happening in England with our M & B readers. It gives us confidence in what we are doing.


    So Emma Darcy's approach seems to be the complete opposite of yours. I'm not saying her approach is common, but there clearly is quite a bit of attention paid to readers of the Presents line, by editors and at least some authors either directly (in response to comments by readers) or indirectly (in response to reading other books in the line, and in response to comments made by editors who've read the comments made by readers).

    And I'm not making any value judgements about this process. For one thing I don't know enough about the process or the outcomes (I've not read very many Presents). I don't think that responding to readers necessarily makes something less valuable. Dickens famously altered the ending of Great Expectations in response to comments made by someone else and a lot of romance authors seem to talk about having beta-readers and critique groups.

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  17. Laura, there is a distinct difference in having beta-readers, critique groups, taking readers' preferences into consideration and actually writing for the reader, thinking of the reader while you are writing. Getting the story onto paper can be tricky enough as it is. In the snippet you quoted, Darcy talks of giving the finished ms to test readers.

    My comment about the "over the top" quality of most M&B Modern Romances referred to plot lines and heroes, not emotional intensity. I'm a bit puzzled how this could have been taken as pejorative.

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  18. Like I said, I really don't know much about the process, and I'll take your word for it about how the story gets onto paper, because I wouldn't have a clue, not being a writer.

    Re what I was saying about something sounding pejorative, I was just saying that for me the phrase 'over the top' has a pejorative sense, meaning 'excessive'. Maybe you didn't mean it that way, but that's the nuance of meaning it has for me.

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