Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Constrained Writing

I'm very pleased to be able to announce that An Goris has co-written the following article, which has recently been published in Poetics Today: International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication:

Dirk de Geest and An Goris. "Constrained Writing, Creative Writing: The Case of Handbooks for Writing Romances." Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 81-106.

As the journal's subtitle states, this is a journal with a strong focus on literary theory. de Geest and Goris's essay deals with theory concerning "constrained writing": "constrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints" (82). Wikipedia provides some examples:
* Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed.
* Bilingual homophonous poetry (where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus constituting two simultaneous homophonous poems)
* Limitations in punctuation (such as Peter Carey's book True History of the Kelly Gang, which features no commas)
In this context, de Geest and Goris's suggestion that the romance genre should be considered for inclusion in the category of "constrained writing" is a bold one, for as they acknowledge,
in the field of literary studies, the scope of the term has until now been rather limited. In fact, it is commonly (if not exclusively) used in reference to a very specific corpus of literary texts and/or a particular conception of writing literature. (82)
However, some of the theory about "constrained writing" leaves open the possibility that the corpus of "constrained writing" might be a little less constrained. Bernardo Schiavetta, for example, in an essay in which he attempts to define what constitutes "writing under constraint," has written that
Constraints in writing can be more or less restrictive, but in general one chooses to make use of them in a playful, even aesthetic spirit. Restrictions are a characteristic of all choices and all obligations: the very making of choices always signifies a restriction of possibilities, and for this reason a logical definition of constraint cannot be based on the notion of restriction. In a literary context, constraint always designates a "freely chosen constraint."
de Geest and Goris focus on handbooks for writing romances, rather than on romance novels themselves, because handbooks describe the constraints which the romance writer chooses to accept. According to de Geest and Goris, the handbooks articulate "generic norms in such a manner that they are also perceivable as useful, easy-to-observe, and creatively stimulating constraints (without, however, losing their normative force)" (88) and do this via
a number of strategies. In our corpus of handbooks, three overall trends can be distinguished [...]: (1) the continuous appeal to the aspiring author’s own experience of romance reading, (2) the conception of writing as a craft and a profession, and (3) the infrequent but strategic recourse to overtly normative language. (88-89)
Regarding the first strategy, de Geest and Goris suggest that
The most important consequence of constantly appealing to the reader’s genre knowledge is the impression of self-evidence, of a “natural” competence, as it were, which the handbook strategically expresses. This important (though unspoken) discursive strategy allows the handbooks to formulate the constraints in a seemingly “neutral” and “descriptive” manner instead of a normative language. (92)
This implies a certain similarity between the handbooks and much writing about "literary" texts since de Geest and Goris had earlier stated that
Generally speaking, literary texts are constructed (but also read and evaluated) by recourse to sets of norms that guarantee, at least to a certain extent, that the texts under consideration will be recognized, interpreted, and evaluated as genuine instances of literature. [...] The fact that most utterances about literature actually present themselves in a neutral, seemingly “descriptive” way does not alter their normative impact. (82-83, emphasis added)
de Geest and Goris do mention at least one possible difference between genre and literary fiction:
Whereas traditional constraints are mainly intended to function as creative stimuli, the constraints pertaining to popular literature always (implicitly or explicitly) operate under the understanding that publication and commercial success are (part of) their ultimate goal. (86)
but they also suggest that "Whether this economically functional legitimation is characteristic of the entire genre of handbooks for creative writing or specific to its subgenres that specialize in popular literature is an interesting question for future comparative research" (86).1

Although de Geest and Goris's focus is on handbooks, rather than on romances themselves, they do attempt to provide a very brief introduction to the genre. First they point out that despite the "culturally prevalent image of the romance genre as formulaic, repetitive, and unchanging" (86), "it is crucial that the aspirant author should understand both the genre’s specific narrative conventions and its current institutional organization; the more so because neither set of characteristics is static" (86), a point made by the handbooks, which "apparently feel the need to stress innovative elements and tendencies" (97).

The brief introduction to the genre includes a summary of the distinction between category and single title romances:
While a category romance is emphatically presented as an instance of an already-existing line—at the expense of the visibility and importance of the individual author—the single-title romance novel is presented and promoted more as the unique creative product of an individual. Single-title novels are substantially longer, have more complex plots, and very often incorporate elements from other genres in their subplots—a romance tale is often combined with a detective story or with a historical narrative, for example. While both categories and single titles use the basic narrative conventions of the romance genre, the single-title romance thus allows for considerably greater variation. (87)
While I might quibble with some of this (category romances can also include "a detective story or [...] a historical narrative"), in the context of an article about "constrained writing" the suggestion that single title romances allow for "considerably greater variation" should not be understood as a criticism of category romances. Category romances are more constrained, primarily by their shorter word lengths, but also by the constraints specific to each "line." Nora Roberts has related that
One of my writer pals once described it like this:

Writing a single title is like producing Swan Lake–the big stage, all the lights, the choreography, the cast, the costumes, the music. Category is producing Swan Lake in a phone booth. It takes a lot of skill to pull it off.

De Geest and Goris continue by stating that
While lines nearly obliterate the individual author, who becomes in effect virtually invisible and anonymous, those single titles are fundamentally different in this regard. These books are written by writers in the established sense of the notion: authors who have an oeuvre, a career, a public persona, and last but not least, their own characteristic “tone.” (87-88)
Again, it seems that one has to take into account the theoretical context in which the essay is published. In an email to me, An clarified that
The remark re "lines nearly obliterate the author" regards the system in which the novels are published - not so much how authors themselves feel or how particular readers regard authors. As a system or a concept, however, I believe lines indeed nearly obliterate the author, certainly the author in the Foucauldian sense of the word.
The article concludes by suggesting avenues for further research:
it is necessary to confront the handbooks’ discourse on romance writing with the actual romance practice. Such research will reveal to what extent the norms and constraints outlined in handbooks accord with the creative romance writing itself. (103)
it would be equally interesting to compare the tradition of handbooks for romance writing with other guidebooks for creative writing. Such a transgeneric approach would lay bare certain convergences and general assumptions about writing and the constraints involved in that practice. At the same time, this approach would reveal the substantial differences that separate various literary genres. (103)
They also suggest that the internet may affect the ways in which aspiring authors learn the norms of the genre and hone their writing skills, so "a more historical investigation is needed as well" (103) to take such changes into account.

I hope de Geest and Goris's "plea for further research into the complexity of our contemporary popular literary culture" (104) does encourage others to investigate the romance genre more closely. Certainly the emphasis on literary theory which is evident in this article is likely to be found in the papers presented at IASPR's forthcoming Second Annual International Conference on Popular Romance: Popular Romance Studies: Theory, Text and Practice.

1 Certainly some creative writing programmes acknowledge that writers of literary fiction may also "operate under the understanding that publication" is an "ultimate goal." Memorial University, for example, is currently offering a course on "Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction with Dr. Jessica Grant. This course is conducted as a seminar for students who wish to write publishable literary fiction" and at the University of East Anglia the list of Frequently Asked Questions includes the following:
Will the Creative Writing MA help me find an agent and publisher?
Our commitment is primarily to your writing, and we cannot promise outcomes in terms of publishing deals. The principal aim of the Prose Fiction MA is to help you develop a deeper understanding of the craft and context of producing literary fiction, and by the end of the course we would expect you to have become more adept and more self-aware in your own practice. We do however have excellent links with agents and publishers, many of whom visit the campus to talk to students in the Spring semester. Our annual anthology of student writing is distributed widely. David Higham Associates sponsors a generous bursary, and the Curtis Brown agency awards an annual prize to the best student. Following graduation we pair each of our students with a literary agent for a six month mentoring period, which includes feedback on writing and guidance on future directions.
  • Schiavetta, Bernardo. "Toward a General Theory of the Constraint." Electronic Book Review (2000).
  • Dirk de Geest and An Goris. "Constrained Writing, Creative Writing: The Case of Handbooks for Writing Romances." Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 81-106.


  1. I'm not certain that the "lines" of categories serve to make authors more or less anonymous as the authors of this study suggest. With multi-author series, for example, I may read only one of the series, choosing that one because I know that author and think that author's ability is greater. Other readers have mentioned doing the same thing.

    But I certainly agree that romance fiction readily falls into the class "constrained writings." I think, in fact, that there is far less room for innovation when writing in the genre than the authors of books on writing for it appear to suggest; that not only is the formula very tight, but that there is also a jargon of terms, figures of speech, and situations which appear regularly, some of those "normative" elements the authors of this essay write of. I sometimes wish I had kept count of the number of times I have read, in romances, that a hero is like, moves like, or seeks prey like some feline--tiger, lion, panther. (Which is odd, because I always think of felines as feminine.) And heroine's rarely fail "getting weak in the knees" or "melting" with the hero's first kiss.

    The greatest constraint, in my opinion, in the romance formula is the necessity of the HEA, which wasn't mentioned.


  2. I'm not certain that the "lines" of categories serve to make authors more or less anonymous as the authors of this study suggest. With multi-author series, for example, I may read only one of the series, choosing that one because I know that author and think that author's ability is greater.

    Oh, I certainly distinguish between category romance authors, and I know many other readers of categories do too. But An and her co-author were writing about this in a very theoretical context, so what they said about authors has to be understood as being about "the author in the Foucauldian sense of the word." I admit, I don't know exactly what that is, but I did link to a short summary of some of what Foucault wrote about the "author function."

    "there is also a jargon of terms, figures of speech, and situations which appear regularly"

    Yes, there is, but I don't think all romance authors use it to the same extent, and some may hardly use it at all. Though perhaps you'd not classify some of the novels which use few or none of those terms, situations etc as "romances." [I'm thinking back to our discussion about "peanut butter bon bons" and how you "think that romance should be limited to "peanut-butter bon bons," whereas I thought there could be various different flavours.]

  3. Interesting. Over my 30 or so year career, I've seen the constraints regarding romance novels evolve. I find myself with two primary thoughts:

    1) Constraints are about reader expectations. Once those primary expectations are fulfilled the writer has a great deal of freedom in exploring the boundaries/possibilities in the romance novel.

    2) Romance novels are primarily for and by women and thus reflect and explore women's concerns, challenges and values. Part of the evolution of romance novels has been the way they have mirrored and sometimes anticipated the evolution of our society. I would even suggest that because women tend to be social creatures, that shared exploration of concerns, challenges and values through romance novels is important as a part of that process of evolution of society. This need not even be conscious on the part of the author--it will happen automatically even when the setting of the novel is in a different time or place or culture than our own (historical, paranormal, etc.).

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

  4. @L. Vivanco:

    I read the summary of Foucault and decided, as the author of it suggested, he just liked to quarrel.
    But, in thinking about it, I agree with Dorothy Sayers (Mind of the Maker) that we never read something written--even advertisements--without thinking, consciously or unconsciously, that it must have an author, just as we cannot look upon nature without wondering about its authorship. And probably authorship becomes even more important if what is written affects us in some way, as with an advertisement which demonstrates unusual wit, or a T-shirt slogan that makes us laugh.
    In practice, romance authors themselves play upon that, one offering promotion to another by cover quotations such as "I will buy anything with [author's name] on it"--a favorite of J.A. Krentz'.


  5. @April:

    I'm not certain how to distinguish between readers' expectations and the constraints of the formula. I think, if asked what their expectations are when they pick up a romance, readers would respond that, primarily, they expect a happy ever after ending which accords with the story which brought them to that point. I'm equally uncertain that the "concerns" which the book considers influence their reaction to it as much as whether the story told allows the happy ending to be believable.


  6. Sure, readers want a believable HEA and there are certain "deal breakers," so to speak that would interfere with that belief and so they become constraints for the writer.

    If the writer manages to give readers the believable HEA, then the writer is free to explore things such as: In a changing society, how does one choose which values/beliefs to keep and which to let go of or alter? Or: How can men and women come together with new ways to define the relationship that empower both and diminish neither? Or, to be very concrete: How can one balance relationships and success in one's career? Or: What IS one's place in the world?

    Women, for example, were leaders in the world of romance novels--CEOs, surgeons, engineers, etc.--before they were in the "real" world. Romance novels provided models, if you will, of how things could be. Other romance novels have explored what it means to have a handicapped child or how to deal with the loss of a loved one or getting breast cancer.

    In "real" life, women often explore ways to deal with a situation or challenge verbally, by talking with others--processing out loud. It makes sense, therefore, that women would find it useful to process possibilities through romance novels they read and/or write.

    Note: Readers cannot always articulate why they love or hate a book--only that it resonates deeply with them emotionally. Sometimes that resonance is with the HEA ending but often it is just as much the other challenges or concerns that come up in the story that matter to the reader(s).

    As for why HEA is so important, well, one of the most primal fears human beings have is that of being abandoned. Romance novels, in effect, promise that you can be who you are, true to what matters most to you and maybe still find someone who will love you and cheer you on to achieve what matters to you most. That's a very powerful emotional cue.

  7. Romance novels, in effect, promise that you can be who you are, true to what matters most to you and maybe still find someone who will love you and cheer you on to achieve what matters to you most. That's a very powerful emotional cue.

    I'd really like to believe that this is true but I'm not absolutely sure it is. I've been wondering about whether in practice the genre has tended to suggest that women need to do/be something in order to deserve love. Even the shortish RWA definition suggests that one has to do something in order to get an HEA: 'In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.' It makes me wonder if there's a group of lovers who don't risk and struggle for each other, and who therefore don't deserve an HEA and who therefore don't appear as romance heroes and heroines.

    In addition, looked at historically, the genre's tended to suggest that the women who get HEAs are young, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle or upper class. And I still don't think one sees many heroines with mental health problems. I was going to try to ponder this for a bit longer, because before you posted your comment I was already working on a post which touches on some of this. Then I accidentally made that post go live, and once something's posted on Blogger, Google knows all about it, so there wasn't a way to get it back.

    So, here's the direct link to my latest post. I hope it makes some sense, despite the fact that I didn't take as long as I usually to do polish it prior to publication.

    And Dick, I think it also indirectly offers a response to your statement that

    'I'm equally uncertain that the "concerns" which the book considers influence their reaction to it as much as whether the story told allows the happy ending to be believable.'

  8. Laura,

    Very thought provoking post. I answered there but I also want to post some of my response here. I don't claim to like all romance novels. My answers are shaped by my esperiences--i.e. encountering far too often the assumption or perception that all romance novels are trash or worthless or damaging. It is a premise I have not found to be true.

    No one is likely to like all romance novels any more than an SF fan will like all SF novels or a mystery fan will like all mystery novels. That said...

    I've read romance novels that portrayed handicapped individuals in a very positive way. There are African-American romance imprints--though bookstores choose to shelve those books with African-American literature rather than in the romance section. I've seen romance novels with characters of all races, gender orientation and identification. I've seen heroines (and heroes) who were in their 40s, 50s and even older--and in varying degrees of health. Issues such as looking at PTSD are common--and yes, those characters find love, too.

    I will agree that in romance novels characters usually must change and grow in some way--otherwise there would be no reason they couldn't be together at the beginning of the book. That's the nature of a narrative story. That's what creates the tension that keeps readers reading--what will happen next and how will the hero/heroine figure things out? I will say that usually finding that love is part of what helps the hero/heroine grow or find a solution to the challenge. When I hear readers talk about the books they loved most, it IS usually a book in which someone was in some way perceived as impaired by others and who--through love--finds a way to realize their own value.

    I do see from your post that some readers may come away with entirely different perceptions from some of the books. As I said, no one is likely to like all romance novels any more than they are likely to like all of any other category of writing. We all have our "hot buttons."

  9. If you consider romance constrained writing, then you have to apply this term to the overwhelming majority of literary production. Literature (indeed, all forms of cultural production) has always made use of certain set of rules or conventions, and writing a modern romance is certainly no more constrained than writing an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Furthermore, the Elizabethan revenge tragedy is a nice example for a literary genre in which one of the main goals of adhering to the conventions and specific clichés ... uh ... plot elements (ghost, avenger, murders most dreadful and plentiful) was commercial success.

    How authors learn the norms of a genre is a tricky question not only because each author is different, but also because in the case of romance fiction there are so many ways to learn about the conventions:

    - reading romances (obviously!) (though that came as a really big surprise to Janice Radway)

    - various types of handbooks, from those used for de Geest and Goris's study to general handbooks on novel writing (like How to Write a Damn GOod Novel) to even more general handbooks like Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey to handbooks like Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, Conflict that can be bought at writers' conferences

    - articles in writers' magazines

    - workshops at writers' conferences such as RWA National

    - critique partners

    - your agent and editor,

    - discussions on readers' blogs

    - discussions on authors' e-mail loops.

    The next question then is if and how authors apply what they've learnt from these sources to their own writing. When I started to get serious about publication, I certainly bought an awful lot of handbooks. Some of them I even read. Well, at least the first chapter. But I've never used a handbook when it came to the actual plotting and writing of a novel.

    At my very first RWA conference I went to a workshop held by well-known agent who stated that novels with settings such as France or Germany did not sell and that you should never ever attempt to write such a thing. Did I care? Uhm. No.

    I'm sure that people kept telling Sherrilyn Kenyon she shouldn't write romance novels with vampires or any other such paranormal creatures, because, hey, they don't sell and thus are a big no-no. Better write a nice, proper historical. Obviously, the novels with the much disdained vampires eventually did sell. The rules and conventions of romance constantly change exactly because authors bend these rules and because some adventurous editors took a chance on their novels.

  10. Dick wrote
    but that there is also a jargon of terms, figures of speech, and situations which appear regularly,

    To some extent you find these in each and every literary genre. Indeed, there are clichés that can be found in a variety of different genres; just look at the abundance of dying and dead women in 19th-century culture.