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.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,
* 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 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:De Geest and Goris continue by stating thatWriting 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.
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)and
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.