Saturday, December 10, 2011

Art and Craft: Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep (2)

Michelle Douglas is a pseudonym used by Therese Michelle Dryden, who recently completed a Creative Writing Masters at the University of Newcastle (Australia). Her thesis has two parts. The first was Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep; the second
discusses the conventions and constraints of the popular romance genre. It explores the challenges presented to a writer in creating and maintaining emotional intensity in a popular genre romance and the need to provide a satisfying and credible ending to that romance. Five well-known romance novels – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Grand Sophy, and The Republic of Love – are analysed for the manner in which they portray romantic love and for the narrative strategies that may be of use to the writer of category romance. Finally, the exegesis discusses how the conventions of the popular romance genre and the narrative strategies employed have combined to shape the creative work.
It can be downloaded from here. I'm very pleased that Therese has agreed to be interviewed at Teach Me Tonight.

Laura: You already had an undergraduate degree in English. According to the biography included in Bachelor Dad you "enrolled in an English master's program for the sole purpose of indulging [your] reading and writing habits further." I'm sure there would have been simpler ways to get indulge your "reading and writing habits"; why study for a Masters in Creative Writing?

Therese: I didn’t mean for that comment to sound quite so flippant. It certainly glosses over the hard work and angst involved in a Masters, but, that said, my Masters did allow me to indulge my love of reading and writing further, just in a more directed fashion. My undergraduate degree was 14 years prior to my enrolment in the Masters course and, as such, seemed like a whole lifetime ago.

But my reasons were bigger than that too. I had been submitting manuscripts to Mills & Boon on a fairly regular basis and, while said manuscripts were being rejected, I knew that I was getting closer and closer to being accepted for publication. But the process is so long and I started to wonder if I had the right voice and whether I was wasting my time etc. Enrolling in a Masters in Creative Writing seemed a good way to continue doing what I was doing while forcing me to spread my wings a little. Romance wasn’t actually my topic when I first enrolled (I wrote a loose and baggy monster of a novel), but when Mills & Boon bought my first book early in the second semester of my enrolment (February 2007) it seemed wise to focus all my energies on romance instead.

Laura: Re writing romance novels, you say that "The level of emotional intensity that needs to be generated quickly and maintained over the course of the story, and the credibility of the happy ending are two elements I find most difficult and challenging in my own practice" (193). I found that interesting because I recently read the following in a post by Magdalen, whose romance novels have not yet been published:
I don't know yet all the ways to convey emotion in my writing. If I'm managing to evoke emotion in my readers, it's a happy accident. That's why I'm off in January to coastal Maine to start an MFA program.

Yup, I'm committing two years and a lot of money to get a degree I don't need and won't likely use just so that I can write a scene that plays that most beguiling trick: it makes the reader feel.
Did studying for your MA help you perfect "that most beguiling trick"?

Therese: My initial response is to say no, as I still think the best instance of “that most beguiling trick” in my own work is in my first novel, which was written a good twelve months before I enrolled in my Masters. But that is too easy an answer. During my enrolment I was exposed to writers – excellent writers – whom I wouldn’t have studied otherwise and they have no doubt influenced me in untold ways.

More importantly, perhaps, I discovered other writers’ guidelines and maxims about writing that explained some of the techniques I was applying instinctively. A specific example being the idea that if you allow a character to cry in a story then the reader doesn’t have to. I knew that a particular scene in my debut novel worked well, but I’m not sure I could’ve satisfactorily explained why. Knowing the why is valuable because it gives a writer a place to look when an effect they are trying to create isn’t working.

Interestingly, though, I think the biggest benefit I’ve gained from my Masters has been the greater understanding I’ve developed for the romance genre. That has been invaluable.

Laura: Ken Gelder, whom you quote in your thesis, states that "The entwining of entertainment and information is a key feature of much popular fiction. Readers can quite literally learn from it" (62):
Crime fiction is often informational, and technical - although it is by no means the only genre of popular fiction that relies on the provision of often intensely researched details: even romance can do this. (Gelder 62)
In your thesis you focus on love and
the conflict romantic love seems to trigger between intellect and emotion. As Blaise Pascal declares: “the heart has its reasons whereof Reason knows nothing” (qtd. in Lewis, Amini, and Lannon 4). The internal discord this can engender in a heroine and/or hero can generate tension quickly within a story and help amplify the narrative elements of internal and external conflict while heightening the emotional tone of the story. (193)
Do you think readers can glean useful information, whether about relationships or about other topics, from romance novels?

Therese: Yes, I do, but I would also caution that romance novels are not self-help books or encyclopedias. I know the Smithton women in Janice Radway’s Reading The Romance cited facts and instruction as one of the benefits and enjoyments they found in reading romance, and while it’s true that, like them, I’ve learned interesting facts through the pages of a romance novel, it’s not one of the main reasons I read romance. Also, I don’t consider that passing on of information a romance novel’s primary goal, though it can certainly be an entertaining by-product.

I recently read Sarah Wendell’s Everything I know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, which I enjoyed immensely. While I’m not sure I would make all the claims that she does, I do think romance novels generally portray characters who work through their fears and relationship problems and encourage each other to communicate, which I think has a positive import.

Laura: John G. Cawelti has suggested that
In earlier more homogeneous cultures religious ritual performed the important function of articulating and reaffirming the primary cultural values. Today, with cultures composed of a multiplicity of differing religious groups, the synthesis of values and their reaffirmation has become an increasingly important function of the mass media and the popular arts. (388)
Catherine Roach would appear to be in full agreement, at least with regards to the romance genre:
To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. [...]

I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.
In Bachelor Dad you put a bookshop in conflict with a bakery. Jaz's mother, and then Jaz own the bookshop while "Mr Sears owned the '[...] bakery directly across the road" (11):
Mr Sears had never actually refused to serve Jaz and her mother in his 'baked fresh-daily' country bakery, but he'd let them know by his icy politeness, his curled lip, the placing of change on the counter instead of directly into their hands, what he'd thought of them.
Despite Jaz's pleas, her mother had insisted on shopping there. 'Best bread in town,' she'd say cheerfully. (12)
Is it entirely fanciful to think that this choice of shops might serve as a reminder that "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Matthew 4:4)? There's nothing overtly religious about the books Jaz sells, of course, but perhaps there's something of a spiritual nature to be learned from the fact that the conflict is removed because love overcomes hatred?

Therese: Oh, you have no idea how much I want to say that I intentionally did all that! My reasons for choosing a bookshop and a bakery were far more prosaic, I’m afraid. When I visited Leura, which is the inspiration for my fictitious town of Clara Falls, I fell in love with the bookshop there (Megalong Books if anyone is interested). So when I decided that I wanted to write a novel set in the Blue Mountains it only seemed natural that the bookshop would feature prominently. For plot reasons, I needed Mr Sears’ shop to be one that a person would go into on a regular basis. Hence, the bakery. However, the book does feature art and artists – in part to reflect the Blue Mountains which abounds with art galleries – and I wanted Mr Sears to be an artist in his own way as well (though, baking as art may indeed be fanciful). I wanted his art to hint at the fact that he could be redeemed (baking/bread = nurturing). Because a romance is focused so closely on the heroine and hero it wasn’t possible to show Mr Sears’ journey and I didn’t want his redemption coming completely out of left field (though I fear it probably still does).

That all said, though, this is a story that is primarily about forgiveness and redemption, and, of course, ideas of forgiveness and redemption do have significant religious overtones. I wanted echoes of Jaz and Connor’s journeys in the characters of Mr Sears, Mrs Lavendar and Boyd Longbottom too. I think that as a general rule romance novels do portray love as a much more positive emotion (ie, an emotion that can give one happiness) and a smarter choice than holding onto hatred, fear and prejudice. As Pamela Regis points out in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, the society defined at the beginning of a romance novel is flawed in some way. In Bachelor Dad, when the rifts are finally healed, old grudges settled, and Jaz and Connor are free to declare their love for each other, those fractures in the society are mended and that, hopefully, indicates not only a better future for Jaz and Connor, but for Clara Falls as well.

Laura: You write in your thesis that "Genre fictions are created for the purposes of enjoyment and pleasure" (219) while Ken Gelder suggests that
Two key words for understanding popular fiction are industry and entertainment, and they work firmly to distinguish popular fiction from the logics and practices of what I regard as its 'opposite', namely, literary fiction or Literature. Literary fiction is ambivalent at best about its industrial connections and likes to see itself as something more than 'just entertainment', but popular fiction generally speaking has no such reservations. (1)
In presenting Harlequin Mills & Boon romances as novels which are highly constrained by the publisher and emphasising their authors' wish to provide entertainment, do you accept that there is a great divide between Literature and popular fiction? And is this a question you meant to address in Bachelor Dad through the depiction of Jaz and Connor's art?

Therese: I don’t accept that there is such a great divide between Literature (with a capital L) and popular fiction. That seems to me too artificial. I think that Literature and popular fiction do privilege different things, but it doesn’t mean other elements are completely ignored. Literature often privileges truth, or beauty of expression in language, or experimentation with language and/or structure, but on its own head be it if it ignores a reader’s desire for entertainment and pleasure. Popular fiction privileges elements of fantasy, and romance novels idealize romantic love, but if there is no truth or honesty, or if it is poorly written, likewise, it won’t hold a reader’s attention for long. There are numerous works that are compelling, emotionally engaging, truthful and beautifully written in Literature and in popular fiction. I believe there are instances in which category romances are all these things too. Category romances are constrained, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for innovation, and within the form there is a wealth of diversity.

Can you tell that prior to writing Bachelor Dad I had been reading John Carey – specifically What Good Are the Arts, and The Intellectuals and the Masses? I do believe that Jaz’s tattoos and Connor’s wood-turned furniture are valid art forms – as valid as their drawings and paintings. I dislike any kind of art that attempts to deliberately exclude a large segment of the population. I come from a working class background so cultural elitism is an anathema to me. I don’t know if they were issues I deliberately meant to address in Bachelor Dad, but it is inevitable that a writer’s own prejudices and beliefs will make a mark on their fiction.

  • Cawelti, John G. "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature." Journal of Popular Culture 3:3 (1969): 381-90.
  • Douglas, Michelle. Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.
  • Dryden, Therese Michelle. Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep. MA thesis. Faculty of Education and Arts, School of Humanities and Social Science
    University of Newcastle, Australia, March 2011.
  • Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004.
  • Roach, Catherine. "Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).


  1. Laura and Therese,
    Thanks very much for this interview, which I followed with great interest. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on the difference between popular fiction and "Literature". I'd reiterate the point Therese made about popular fiction also dealing with truths. If romance author, for example, doesn't deal with truths, particularly emotional truths, few readers will relate to the characters or bother to try another book by that writer. I think all good fiction deals with truth, no matter how outwardly fantastic the plot, setting or characters.

  2. Thank you Laura for inviting Therese, and thank you Therese, for such insightful and interesting responses. I found this truly fascinating.

    My use of the word 'truly' is no accident. As such, it was interesting to read Annie Wests's comment because I too focussed on 'truths' as I read. For me though, Therese, it was your own truths - your honesty - that made this exchange so meaningful. You have made me stop and re-evaluate what I do; made me analyse, on a much deeper level, what I create in my own works.

    So, thank you again Laura for an inspired interview, and Therese? Thank you again for your responses which were equally informative, entertaining and emotionally engaging. Surely all the elements of any successful written work?

  3. Hi Annie and Kaz,

    I'm so pleased you enjoyed the interview. I was delighted when Laura asked me along.

    It has always seemed strange to me that just because a book is labelled as entertainment (ie, popular fiction) that it is then perceived to have no depth, or that it must be poorly written. Bad writing, in my mind, is not synonymous with popular fiction. Like the two of you, I think emotional truth in fiction is an essential element.

  4. I'm glad you found the interview interesting, Annie and Kaz.

    I particularly enjoyed the discussion on the difference between popular fiction and "Literature".

    I have to admit that that's a particular interest of mine at the moment; Thursday sees the launch of my For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance.

  5. Laura, I'm really looking forward to reading For Love and Money and hearing your (further) thoughts on the differences between popular fiction and "Literature," and the poetics of category fiction.

    Thanks so much for having me here at Teach Me Tonight.

  6. Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed, Michelle!