Friday, July 21, 2006

Reading the Emotion

Several days ago I was searching the internet for items to add to the Romance Scholarship pages when I came across this statement on Shirley Jump’s website:
Good fiction and non-fiction does two things [that] makes you keep turning long into the night and triggers your emotions. It's the books that make us laugh and makes us cry that we remember, which is why writing with emotion is so important.
Mills and Boon evidently agree, since their romances currently have the slogan ‘Live the emotion’ printed on them. But which emotion is it that the reader is supposed to ‘live’, and does the reader want to do this?

A study of ‘heavy readers’, i.e. ‘people who read upward of a book a week’ (Sheldrick Ross & Chelton 2001: 52) found that:
The bedrock issue is the reader's mood [...]. Mood, of course, varies. When readers are busy or under stress, they often want safety, reassurance, and confirmation. They will reread old favorites or read new books by trusted authors. When life is less stressful, they can afford to take more risks. They may want to be amazed by something unpredictable and might pick books on sheer impulse, even through random selection of an author's name. (2001: 52)
The study also found that:
The interviewed readers were emphatic about what they don't like and used cues on the book itself-e.g., foul language or mass market fiction. Typically readers ruled out books with particular content (too much sex/violence/horror/profane language); books with an undesired emotional effect ("makes me depressed"); books with unappealing characters (drippy heroines, violent heroes, and alpha males); and books written in an unappealing style.
When readers reject a book as "poorly written", they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (2001: 53)
Thus while there are many readers who are happy to get caught up in the drama of a developing romantic relationship, this isn’t what all readers want to feel. If they don’t, they may reject even a well-written or relatively well-written romance as ‘bad’, because it doesn’t fulfill their emotional needs and expectations. In addition, if feeling the emotion is dependent on the author having built up a sense of emotional connection between the reader and the characters, this may explain why some passages (e.g. love scenes) which work well in context sound strange when they’re separated from that context and read aloud in a sarcastic tone of voice. I have the suspicion that it’s harder to ruin the mood of love poetry in this way, because poems are often written to be read aloud: and their construction (e.g. the use of iambic pentameter and line breaks) shapes the way they are read. Also, with the exception of very long narrative poems such as epics, poems are usually already fragments of thought or emotion, carefully pre-prepared excerpts from the poet’s emotions or thinking processes.

But if books can be rejected because they create a mood or emotions that the reader doesn’t want to feel, they can also be embraced precisely for this reason. I’m sure most of us have read a romance that somehow touched a chord, and despite the fact that this particular book may not have been the best-written romance ever, we love and cherish it, perhaps returning to it and using it as a ‘comfort read’. If the emotion is right for us, we may be willing to overlook technical problems such as the fact that an author ‘headhops’ or often ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’ what’s happening. On the other hand, some techniques which tug on a reader’s heart-strings may work in the short-term but then leave the reader feeling manipulated if the emotions didn’t resonate deep within the story. As Shirley Jump says: 'I knew family, children and sacrifice worked as emotional triggers for me, so I used those elements in my novels'.
But, and this is a very important point, one which makes clear the distinction between the merely emotionally manipulative and the book in which the emotion resonates, she adds that:
It isn't enough to just throw in a baby or a sick dog and hope everyone gets tears in their eyes. You have to make those things matter to the character for deep, fundamental reasons we all can relate to. Find out WHY your character cares and what would happen if he lost what means most to him and you have an emotional trigger.
It’s also important to note that not all romances produce the same emotions, despite the fact that all of them contain a ‘central love story’ and should ‘end in a way that makes the reader feel good’.

Different sub-genres, for example, specialise in eliciting particular emotions. For example, romantic suspense should create tension related to the suspense, and an erotic romance is probably failing if it doesn’t leave the reader feeling at least a little hot under the collar. Some romances deal with particular issues, such as being overweight, dealing with addiction or coping with divorce. These scenarios can create different emotions in different readers, depending on their life-experience.

I wonder how the emotions in romance affect the atmosphere in the classroom where they're being taught. Maybe Eric will have time to come and comment on that, though he's rather busy teaching at the moment. I'd guess that the students are less likely to end up feeling miserable or cynical than if they'd been studying works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But that's assuming, of course, that they began the course feeling in the mood for reading romance.
Catherine Sheldrick Ross & Mary K. Chelton, 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.


  1. I do think the best romances are the ones that affect me emotionally. I mean, that's what I read them for. If at all possible, I want to be weeping by the end. Alas, that is all too rare as Laura Kinsale doesn't churn them out like Nora Roberts.

    I find the qualities that most attract me to a romance are a sense of place and of mood and atmosphere. Was it a dark and stormy novel or a golden afternoon in autumn with a juicy bite of tart apple?

    Lust is great, but not the most important emotional trigger. Self-sacrifice, loyalty, repressed emotions, lovers kept apart are my big buttons to push, among others.

    When I find myself not enjoying a novel, it usually is because of the writing. Lust at first site and long passages of sensual body parts are generally a turn off. Excessive description can also annoy me. I expected to like Adele Ashworth's "Duke of Scandal," but she writes every scene as if she were making a movie -- every move is excessively plotted. It's helpful in imagining the scene, but it slows the action to a crawl.

    Another hazard of the romance novel is too much sex. I tried reading a novel by Stephanie Laurens who is well-regarded, I suppose. Scene after scene of orally inspired orgasms. It was actually tedious, and I thought I'd never get to the end of it. One great sex scene and two minor sex scenes should be industry standard. (joking!) But the story is the most important element, and excessive sex can really slow it down.

    I don't mind a story told from several viewpoints, if done well, and I actually enjoy a romance told mostly from the male perspective. It makes a nice change. Loretta Chase and Judith Ivory are very good at this.

  2. Another hazard of the romance novel is too much sex. I tried reading a novel by Stephanie Laurens who is well-regarded, I suppose. Scene after scene of orally inspired orgasms. It was actually tedious, and I thought I'd never get to the end of it.

    I agree with you on Laurens. I've read quite a few of her books for Mills & Boon, and the frequent demonstrations of sexual acrobatics, while possibly impressive, didn't pull me in emotionally. Re the best sex scenes, Rosina Lippi/Sara Donati said it much better than I could:

    My criteria (and this is, of course, totally subjective) are pretty basic: I judge such scenes as effective if they are evocative, fluid, true to character, and contribute to the development of the story

    I avoid romances that I think are likely to make me weep. I'm just not that keen on catharsis, because I find it too emotionally draining. I prefer to finish the book with a sigh of contentment. Like I said, though, emotions are very subjective.

  3. Perhaps it is because I am so unemotional (repressed) in my real life, that I enjoy a book or film that can make me feel like a human being again. I also enjoy a book that can make me laugh out loud, but I like feeling so happy for a couple or so moved by the emotional revelations of the characters that tears come to my eyes and I sniffle. If it seems silly, ah well.

  4. What you're describing doesn't sound silly to me. I think your theory could work for me too, in reverse. Maybe it's an 'opposites attracts' sort of thing. I come from a rather emotional family. So maybe that's why I prefer calmer reads. One of the main reasons I read romance is that I'm guaranteed a happy ending, and that means I don't have to worry about attaching emotionally to characters who will end up dead or miserable.