Friday, June 15, 2007

Incoherent Thoughts on Archetypes and Cultural Appropriation

There have been a lot of very interesting discussions about romance this week.

Diana Peterfreund's Archetypes Anonymous meeting (she was drawing on Tami Cowden's list of the eight hero archetypes) underlined the importance of archetypes in the genre:
CHIEF: (almost holding back a sigh) As I said, there has been some concern raised recently that some of us—I won’t name names—haven’t been getting their fair share of work. Have, perhaps, been a little less popular with the audience.

BAD BOY:(rolling his eyes) So it’s my fault some of you are losers? [...]

PROFESSOR:(speaking for the first time) “Loser” is not the appropriate term. Our popularity has always been cyclical
Peterfreund suggests that The Warrior, Lost Soul and Bad Boy archetypes have been reinvented as vampires which, for a time at least, gave them an innovative new look. Some readers are complaining, though, that the vampires and werewolves are getting dull, and Kara Lennox says she's
heard at least one agent say she is suddenly finding it difficult to sell them. Several editors have said they are “becoming more selective” (that’s code for “not buying as many”). I’ve even heard one editor say the erotic-romance trend is starting to plateau.

Of course, everybody wants to know what’s the next big thing.
Will the 'next big thing' be a new twist on the archetypes? Or is the use of archetypes in fact a factor which contributes to the trend Robin identifies, whereby
with page counts shrinking, part of the burden of the novel-writing craft is being shifted more and more to readers—we have to fill in blanks and flesh out characters or worldbuilding and make critical links between plot points. And because so many Romance readers have read so much Romance, I think this process becomes almost unconscious, to the point where readers don’t recognize they’re being asked to do this, don’t have to struggle with it, and therefore don’t have any reason to think that they’re actually taking on a certain element of what I think is the author’s job in delivering a complete and coherent—and hopefully somewhat distinctive—vision.
Some people think that maybe 'the romance genre would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of tragedy' but it already has plenty of that (orphaned heroines and emotionally tortured heroes aren't exactly rare), just not at the end. And if we lost the HEA, the novels might be romantic, but they wouldn't be Romance as we know it and as the RWA defines it.

I was beginning to wonder if romances about normal people, doing relatively normal things and having a happy ending, might actually be somewhat radical. It's not that 'straight contemporaries' have ever gone away, but there don't seem to be that many romances around at the moment which are about normal people living normal lives and whose bodies are not the stuff of fantasy.

As I was pondering what 'normal' actually means, and wondering how many romance readers are looking for a fantasy, I remembered Pulp's Common People. It's about a woman whom I can imagine as the daughter of a billionaire Greek tycoon romance hero, and her idea of a romantic fantasy is to 'live like common people [...] sleep with common people'. The song is about 'slumming',
a practice, fashionable among certain segments of the middle class in many Western countries, whereby one deliberately patronizes areas or establishments which are populated by, or intended for, people well below one's own socio-economic level, motivated by curiosity or a desire for adventure. (Wikipedia)
If 'slumming' is seen as offensive, is it any better to practice it in reverse? And is it similar in any way to the cultural appropriation discussed by Gwyneth/Gwendolyn, and Karen Scott? It's not just an issue for contemporaries, since this was, after all, the week in which AAR's At The Back Fence columnist Robin Uncapher declared that
I believe that Americans not only identify with 19th century English, we understand them better than many of their descendants who live in England today. Those descendants know a lot about their ancestors, but do they know what its like to be the focus of the national foreign policy of virtually every country in the world? Do they know what its like to feel, in some way, responsible for the world’s welfare?
The Smart Bitches have been discussing which changes might be required to propel romances onto the pages of the New York Times Book Review and I'm wondering if fewer archetypes and less cultural appropriation would change the image of the genre. On the other hand, while that might work well for low mimetic romances, I'm not sure high mimetic romances could be written without using at least some archetypes.

I'm still thinking about all the issues raised in this week's discussions, and I hope we can carry on discussing them in the comments, but in the meantime I'll conclude with Goodess Gracious Me's Hindi People, a parody of Pulp's Common People which takes a satirical look at cultural appropriation and stereotypes of British Asians.

Stick figure from Wikipedia.


  1. Laura, permit me to offer some further "incoherent thought" on the topic, as long as we are being tolerant of such an approach. First, I would want to separate "archetypes" from "stereotypes"and make the bold , and irritating, I suspect, claim that most popular romance novels offer "stereotypes" rather than "archetypes" and so become commerical success at the risk of quickly becoming cliches (rather than works that arouse the interest of the NYT Book Review, as you hope). In this sense, the issue is probably not the HEA vs. the tragic, for example, but the issue of the complexity of the language itself--that is, the vexed and paradoxical quality of life itself. As Aristotle seems to have known, "story" gives us a kind of "truth" because it shapes the complexity of lived reality through the complexity of language-- it is a kind of "screening device" that hides as much as it reveals but yet continues to offer an ongoing promise of surprise (to say nothing about catharsis). There is no reason to think that romance fiction cannot do this (obviously it has--Jane Austen being one model), but then we perhaps need to return to some sense of "mythos"and the deep imagination, not commercial formulas or stereotypes always ready to collapse into cliches. There is a difference, I would suggest, between "fancy" and "imagination," in this context, as Coleridge indicated, and there is every reason to believe that great romances can still be written with the power of imagination and the talent that taps deeply into the truth of language itself. Whether such roamcnes will immedaitely become best sellers is of course another question.

  2. Both this post and the book review discussions over on Smart Bitches made me think once again of my idea of Genre as Art Object, which I came up with once before while commenting on here. What precisely is the art object to be reviewed?

    The classic novel as it developed in the 18 and into the 19th century was created as a literary object unto itself. Certainly, cultural background was critical in understanding each work, but generally the work was intended as a stand-alone item. Due to this, critics and reviewers developed a notion that the single novel was the literary item which needed to be explained, appreciated, and analyzed. Literature was worthy or not based upon each novel alone.

    This continued into the modernist literature of the 20th. I'm thinking here of, say, James Joyce. It was impossible to really appreciate what Joyce was doing without the implicit understanding of how he was changing literature, but each item was a work unto itself. Finnegan's Wake stands in opposition to what peple thought literature can be.

    I am not sure that all of this holds for much of genre fiction - romance, sci fi, high fantasy, western, etc. As previously discussed, in genre fic, it is quite common for readers to purchase everything in a certain publishing line. When a reader is doing this, in a sense they don't particularly care who the author is, who the characters are in a single book... Instead, there are expectations of what a book like this will be. Each new book in the line doesn't need to establish (and this is where what Robin said comes in) the characters in full flourishing detail, because the reader expects to already know the rough outlines of the character, as it is in "this line", before reading the title. In a sense, in much genre fiction then, the characters actually span multiple works. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is different from what we have trained ourselves to think.

    I'm not expressing the idea well (probably because it's an incoherent idea), and it goes against much of your work to improve the criticism of individual works of romance fiction, as opposed to the whole genre at once (a la Radway), but there seems to be some element of truth to it. In literary fiction and contemporary fiction (as it is labeled, not as a statement of quality), there are certainly trends and commonalities among works. But not many people would buy every work by a publisher of lit fic if that's even offered, because each work is designed as a stand alone literary object. But in many genres, people expect the works to fit together and create a whole body of work that is quite rich.

    I am going to try to state my idea one more time and then give up. Let's say we have 19th century novels A and B. We are used to reading A and analyzing it, and then we can compare it to B and expect to find many differences. If it is good, A by itself is a rich and moving literary work. Now let's take novels C, D, E, and F in the Love Inspired Line, which many readers buy all of. If we compare C and D here, we will certainly find differences, but I hypothesize that there will be many more commonalities as well in story structure, language, and character. This is actually enforced to varying degrees by the publisher who can set rules on what a hero for this line is like, what the setting is, how explicit any sex will be, etc. If we expect to do analysis like we did with novels A and B, then the new novels C and D look relatively trite or derivative. But C and D are not expected to stand alone, really. If you take C, D, E, and F again, together you start noticing all these different nuances about love and relationships that make the body of work, the genre, just as rich as novel A was. And then you start looking across subgenres and realize how rich and varied the views of love are, and it can be breathtaking. But this view of the richness in romance is only noticed if 1) the critic has read enough to grasp the genre and 2) the critic has read enough individual works with appreciation that that they notice the subtleties.

    I'm done failing to express my idea. By the way, this is not intended to be a hypothesis about romance alone. Sci Fi once clearly operated in this manner, where people bought up all sci fi of a certain subgenre, perhaps even on automatic subscription. Ditto for other genres.

  3. OK, I lied about being done. Re-reading what I wrote, I began to think of film versus a TV series. In film, we typically assess the merits of a single movie. Citizen Kane is the best movie ever because blah blah blah. Citizen Kane is overrated because blah blah blah.

    We don't review TV in this way. I didn't watch the Sopranos ever, but it was highly touted by critics as a great work of TV. But what exactly is the work being analyzed when they talk aboout the Sopranos? Sometimes in a TV review, they will talk about an individual episode and its merits, but usually even that is just given as an example of the quality of the whole show. And yet when people talk about a whole show, they aren't really viewing it as a single work with a beginning, middle, and end. Only a very few shows have maintained coherence like that. Instead, it was the Sopranos as sort of a theme which appears and reappears with each episode, with the characters becoming richer as different things happen to them. It is this fuzzy entity which is the art object for this medium.

    Obviously, my idea is that romance fiction is closer to TV than film. The analogy doesn't hold completely, of course. In most TV shows, such as the Sopranos, you have one setting, one history, and one cast of characters. But there are some commonalities as well. Even many highly touted TV shows have different writers, like genre fic does; they can have different characters.

    I'll throw out the Twilight Zone as a good comparison. I don't know if Rod Serling actually wrote every word of every episode or not. But each episide was a separate story. Some of them were very high quality and many were mediocre. But it is the show as a whole that people remember as each episode would have a similar vibe, exected twist, etc.

    OK, I give up now.

  4. First, I would want to separate "archetypes" from "stereotypes"and make the bold , and irritating, I suspect, claim that most popular romance novels offer "stereotypes" rather than "archetypes" and so become commerical success at the risk of quickly becoming cliches

    I suspect that the difference between a 'stereotype' and an 'archetype' is often in the eye of the reader/beholder. Not that the words are synonymous, but there's a fair amount of overlap possible, depending on the opinions of the reader of a text. And in an attempt to be a little less incoherent, I looked up the short definitions in the online OED, and they weren't particularly helpful in distinguishing between archetypes, stereotypes and clichés:


    • noun 1 a very typical example. 2 an original model. 3 a recurrent motif in literature or art. (OED)


    • noun 1 a hackneyed or overused phrase or opinion. 2 a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person.

    — ORIGIN French, from clicher ‘to stereotype’. (OED)


    • noun 1 a preconceived and over-simplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person or thing. (OED)

    It seems to me that works at the high mimetic end of Frye's spectrum are always going to be closer to archetypes, or stereotypes and/or clichés (depending on one's assessment of the particular examples) than the low mimetic. High mimetic romances can be merely derivative, or they can bring new life to the myths/archetypes/fairytales they draw on. And, as Pacatrue says, for a reader to be able to distinguish between the derivative and the innovative in this sort of romance it's necessary that

    1) the critic has read enough to grasp the genre and 2) the critic has read enough individual works with appreciation that that they notice the subtleties.

    I'd compare these romances to the courtly love poems of 15th-century Castile, for example. For a long time modern critics considered them repetitive and unoriginal. And then Keith Whinnom and other scholars began to discover and appreciate the subtleties of their word-play and the underlying innuendo. One could also compare this type of romance novel to epic poetry like the Cantar de mio Cid where the hero's qualities are repeated and encapsulated in short epithets e.g. for the Cid it's that he 'en buena hora nació' and 'en buen hora ciñó espada' and where there are similar scenes found in many different poems e.g. scenes in which the hero is armed.* We might also think of ballads, where the characters are often sketched in quickly as, perhaps, a lady wearing cloth of gold, who meets a lad wearing green etc. The characterisation is hardly subtle but it depends for its meaning on the listeners' understanding of the coded meanings of colours, fabrics, objects, actions etc. Ballads are usually anonymous, which again makes them comparable to some romances, whose readers 'don't particularly care who the author is, who the characters are in a single book' (though that does depend on the readers - some are very particular about which authors they prefer).

    I don't think this 'goes against much of your work to improve the criticism of individual works of romance fiction, as opposed to the whole genre at once' because each romance is still an individual work, which, just like each epic poem, ballad or love poem, has to be interpreted separately, as a unique example which, while drawing on the traditions of the genre may contain variations and innovations.

    It is perhaps easier to assess the low mimetic romances in terms of individuality and originality because they're less dependent on archetypes/stereotypes and so perhaps more closely resemble modern literary fiction (but not, for example, works of magic realism, which can be closer to the high mimetic).

    * For a short discussion of formula versus innovation/the poet's individual talent, see, for example, Edmund de Chasca's 'Toward a Redefinition of Epic Formula in the Light of the Cantar de Mio Cid' Hispanic Review, 38.3. (Jul., 1970), pp. 251-263.

  5. And today brings another addition to the conversation about whether the genre's getting a bit stale and if we're fed up of the 'tropes', from Lori Devoti, at Romancing the Blog.

  6. not many people would buy every work by a publisher of lit fic if that's even offered, because each work is designed as a stand alone literary object. But in many genres, people expect the works to fit together and create a whole body of work that is quite rich.

    I would say I search for good reading much the same way in romance as in lit fic.

    In romance, I don't indiscriminately buy a whole publishing line. I do identify lines that have certain commonalities (good editing, several authors I enjoy, interesting settings, good research) and prioritize those lines for an in-store skim. So the publisher's line is a good starting point for my purchasing. However, if the line is too similar (plots, relationship tropes), I lose interest. I generally use the line to find works of similar quality, not similar plot elements.

    I occasionally try to use lines to find romances with similar characteristics in the protagonists: bright, assertive women, for instance. Unfortunately, I most often find such patterns in lines (or series within lines) of too-similar plots/settings (e.g. a Navy SEAL series). In these cases, often the setting and external descriptors (Navy SEAL, kindergarten teacher) substitute for developing the protagonist's personality more directly, and the protagonist becomes a type rather than an individual personality that grabs my attention.

    In lit fic, I do much the same. If I enjoy an author, I try her other works. Part of what I value in lit fic is freshness, so if the author's 2nd book is too much like the first, I often lose interest. If I notice I've enjoyed several lit fic authors from the same publisher, I assume the connection is an editor, so I look for other books in that line in the same time period.

    Again, however, I'm wary of sameness not only within an author's works but between authors. I read print and online reviews of lit fic, and I find that many online (especially bookseller) reviews "helpfully" recommend "If you enjoyed X, try Y." I find that these recommendations often indicate a high degree of sameness: I might enjoy both X and Y, but likely not back to back. On the other hand, I make heavy use of analyses that set the book in a stylistic context. E.g. a few years ago I read a print article that compared/contrasted periods and styles of metafiction. From that, I found several authors whose metafiction novels feature well developed characters, not just cerebral story-within-story. However, this type of "sameness" is more of underlying structures than of overt plot and character: Hamlet, The Keep, The Orchid Thief, and The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse are considerably less alike than Navy SEALs 1-4.