Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Romance Reader as Connoisseur

Jennifer commented that:
I'm a bit perturbed by the series categories of romance by Harlequin and Silhouette. Every category is neatly defined so that the reader will know exactly what to expect from the book they read. It's like they're not about the story or characters anymore, but about the expectation. A lot of women seem to read about adventure and taking emotional risks, when what they really want is safety, comfort and security.

That being said (I like surprises, some people don't), perhaps in the future romances should carry some code that tells the reader how much sexuality to expect from the novel. 4 chili peppers: muy calienté!
I think she raises an interesting point about category/series romances in particular. These are books which are published in ‘lines’ and each line has a particular set of guidelines for authors, such as Harlequin’s ‘writing guidelines’. Although there aren’t the chilli peppers suggested by Jennifer, the names of the lines, ‘Tender’ or ‘Blaze’, for example, can give a clue as to the level of sexuality. There are also the backcover descriptions and on the Mills & Boon website each line is accompanied by a brief description. The page for the Blaze books, for example, states that they are ‘Hot and sexy. Couples in contemporary romantic relationships embark on sexual adventures and fantasy journeys. There is a promise of intimate experiences and total satisfaction.’

The way the books are packaged reflects their group identity: the covers in each line are colour-coded (in the UK, for example, all Mills and Boon Historicals currently have a purple spine and back-cover, and the purple sweeps over part of the front cover too, sometimes accompanied by a small picture which indicates the period in which the novel is set). For example here’s a recent M&B Historical cover, Louise Allen's The Viscount's Betrothal. It comes clearly labelled: there’s a gold oval with the word ‘Regency’ written within it (the oval also appears on the spine) and the row of Regency town houses printed on the purple background also gives an indication of the historical setting (unlike the heroine’s clothing, but inaccuracies in front cover illustrations are a different issue). While the position of the colour on the cover and spine is retained for use in other lines, in the Tender Romances it’s orange (see, for example, the cover of Marion Lennox’s Princess of Convenience, which recently won a Rita). Both feature the Mills & Boon name and rose trademark in the top right-hand corner.

So, branding is strong, and once a reader knows which line(s) she/he prefers, it is extremely easy to pick out other examples of the same line(s) from the shelves of the bookshop or library. The branding facilitates the reader’s search for the types of books he/she wants, but it is not a process which is unique to romances. Harlequin/Mills & Boon are simply assisting the reader in doing something which most experienced readers would do anyway. The results reported in Sheldrick Ross & Chelton’s 2001 study of how readers select books involved a wide range of readers
Between 1985 and 2000, Catherine Ross and students in her MLIS course on "Genres of Fiction and Reading" at the University of Western Ontario interviewed 194 committed readers to find out how they chose books for pleasure reading and what elements they sought. Interviewers were instructed to pick the most readerly person they knew, so most interviewees fall within the ten percent of the North American population who are "heavy readers"- people who read upward of a book a week. The demographic profile was consistent with other surveys: 65 percent female, 35 percent male. The age range was 16-80. (2001: 52)
Clearly these were not all romance readers, though presumably some may have been. Nonetheless, their strategy for choosing books involves the use the same techniques as are facilitated by the branding of category romances:
Most interviewees said their choices for pleasure reading involved many interrelated considerations. They often started with their own mood at the time and went on to describe how they find new authors or what clues they seek on the book itself. These systems usually depended upon considerable previous experience and knowledge of authors, publishers, cover art, and conventions for promoting books and sometimes on a social network of family or friends who recommended and loaned books. (2001: 52, my emphasis)
In other words, heavy readers, regardless of their genre of preference, like to know a considerable amount about a book before they commit the time and emotional energy to reading it in its entirety. They use clues from the packaging or shelving to select the genre, and then narrow their search further using other knowledge they’ve gained through experience of reading books in that genre. Readers can thus use their knowledge to select a comforting book or a book which they think will horrify, shock or titillate them.

It’s true that romance does tend to provide a certain comfort, because of the ‘Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending -- Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice’. But just because a particular book or activity can be depended on to create a particular effect doesn’t automatically mean it’s comforting: people may choose to participate in multiple bungee-jumps or other dangerous sports, and the repetition doesn’t make the experience ‘comfortable’. Feeling ‘good’ and ‘satisfied’ is not always synonymous with ‘comfortable’. A well-written romantic suspense or erotic romance, for example, will presumably get the reader’s blood pounding (for different reasons, depending on which sub-genre is being read).

This brings us on to another issue raised by Jennifer: ‘Every category is neatly defined so that the reader will know exactly what to expect from the book they read’. I think it’s true that readers will know what to expect, but I don’t think they’ll know ‘exactly’ what to expect. Football fans go to a game knowing their team and the rules of the game, and they know there are a limited number of final outcomes, but within those constraints, there are many possibilities which will determine whether they consider it a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ game. Similarly, all genres have their conventions and it is these conventions and rules which distinguish one genre from another. Genres can then be subdivided into sub-genres, which again have their own rules/conventions. To someone who doesn’t read within the genre, these subtleties may be easy to miss, just as I would find it impossible to distinguish between a rugby league and a rugby union game, or between different types of red wine. The connoisseur, however, is very aware of the differences, not just between different wine-growing regions (romance sub-genres), but between vintages (authors) and individual good or bad years for that vintage (individual novels by a particular author). As Bettinoti, Jeannesson and Truel observe:
Tout le monde sait ou croit savoir que les romans connus sous l'appellation générale de romans d'amour sont essentiellement répétitifs et proposent inlassablement le même schéma narratif [...but] La répétition n'est surtout pas monotone, car elle se produit à l'intérieur d'un corpus spécialisé fait pour des spécialistes, qui repèrent des changements là où l'oeil non exercé ne voit que la même chose.
A rough translation would be:
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, that the romances of the type known as love stories are essentially repetitive and tirelessly repeat the same narrative scheme [...but] The repetition is anything but monotonous, because it occurs within a specialised body of work, written for connoisseurs, who pinpoint novelties where the untrained eye can see only homogeneity.
Bettinotti, Julia, Jeannesson, Gaëlle, and Marie-Françoise Truel, 2002.
"Séries, suites et redites en culture médiatique." Belphégor: Littérature Populaire et Culture Médiatique 1.2.

Sheldrick Ross, Catherine & Mary K. Chelton, 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.


  1. Laura, you are right and I don't know what I was thinking to have been complaining about the conventionality of these novels and their appeal to our need for safety and security, because I am just as complicit, myself. Many's the time I have been reading the trials and tribulations of a couple's journey to happiness and thinking, "Oh, this is bad. Very bad!" but in the back of my mind, I know the conflict will resolve itself and everything will be fine. Because while I'm not a Romantic's romantic, I am a sentimentalist, and certainly don't want to be crying my eyes out for every love affair that goes tragically wrong.

    I liked what you said about connoisseurs of romance, but really we can all only be connoisseurs of our own tastes. For instance, I can say that Julia Quinn can be a very good writer ("When He Was Wicked") but her work is spotty and her early work is... (What is a word I can use for "terrible" even while acknowledging that writing must be very hard work and it must have seemed like a good plot at the time, if only it hadn't become ridiculous?) The word doesn't matter anyway, because a reviewer of one of these particular titles ("How to Marry a Marquis") gave it an A-. So, what do any of us know except what we like?

    I try to always read something good by sticking to authors I like and reading recommendations from other romance readers. It doesn't always work, and sometimes I reprimand myself for being too stubborn to try new authors, like Jennifer Crusie.

    Much as I would like romance novels to be more "serious" and to be taken seriously, I can't speak for everyone and I am sure they would not thank me for doing so.

  2. Oh dear. There's no need for you to recant - you made some good points, I just felt that a bit of nuancing/comparison might be helpful. Maybe you feel you were being a bit inconsistent, criticising others for things you do yourself, but most of us are inconsistent, from time to time. It's usually easier to see the mote in someone else's eye than the beam in one's own. Point is, there still is that mote in the other person's eye. I find your comments useful, because they help me clarify my own thinking.

    I am a sentimentalist, and certainly don't want to be crying my eyes out for every love affair that goes tragically wrong.

    When I think about it, I think some people get some comfort out of reading about other people's tragedy. It's the old idea of catharsis:

    John Milton interpreted catharsis in this way in his preface to Samson Agonistes (1671). Tragedy has the power, according to Milton, “by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated.”
    (from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas)

    Then there are perhaps cynical people who find some comfort in reading books by equally cynical people, because they can feel that they're not alone in their cynicism.

    And so on - different people find 'comfort' in different things. And sometimes the comfort is accompanied by other emotions, such as fear, pity etc.

    we can all only be connoisseurs of our own tastes

    I don't agree. I think, if people want to, they can read books they don't much like. We all have to do at least a little of that at school. And in doing so, we can come to appreciate the expertise of the writer, even if it's not a style/type of story that we personally enjoy. Similarly an art historian, for example, might not particularly like baroque art, but they'd nonetheless probably have studied it, be able to appreciate the skill in the artists' techniques, know the major artists who worked in that period, and be aware of their influence on later artists.

    Whether we all want to subject ourselves to authors we don't enjoy, as part of our leisure reading, is a different matter.

  3. Well, I felt a little guilty for sneering a bit at the Mills & Boon line before forcing myself to realize that there are people out there that enjoy reading "The Richest, Most Handsome Bachelor in the World and the Nanny." Who am I to judge? It's like hearing about all the poor women of the Amazon who spend a relative fortune on cosmetics from MaryKay. One might roll one's eyes in dismay, but as one compañera said to my socialist boss in Chile before the coup: "Don't take away our dreams, Señor."

    As Rose says in Titanic, "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets." Many of us live in our dreams, for our dreams or perhaps just around our dreams. Women have dreamed of being swept away by princes and tycoons since the Industrial Age gave them time to read. Why should Feminism stop them now? : )

    Re: Catharsis
    I don't mind a good cry every now and then, but I also enjoy a witty, humorous story. Like Milton, I enjoy seeing passions well imitated and feeling them myself.

    I think, if people want to, they can read books they don't much like. We all have to do at least a little of that at school.

    I suppose that's why I didn't go to grad school, though I love the university. But I meant that I don't think I could set myself up as a Connoisseur of Romances (though I could dream of myself as the Romance Book Critic of the New York Times) because, unlike a regular fiction critic, I could see myself getting hundreds of angry letters from fans of a book I hated. Romance fiction, I think, is so personal to the reader that gravitas and advanced degrees just won't cut it. But I could slog through a slew of horrid romances in the pursuit of Romance Scholarship, if called upon. Even reading The Worst Romance Ever Written could not be as bad as, say, spending two hours in Iraq.

  4. Many of us live in our dreams, for our dreams or perhaps just around our dreams. Women have dreamed of being swept away by princes and tycoons since the Industrial Age gave them time to read. Why should Feminism stop them now? : )

    And yet romance is not reality, and usually is not taken as reality by the readers (well, there are always a few exceptions...). Thus, romance usually does not reflect readers' or writers' real-life ideals of masculinity. Why, if this were true this would mean that everybody who reads fantasy is a royalist at heart.

  5. When talking about the branding done by Harlequin/M&B, it's important to note that despite all the branding, today there's a much bigger emphasis on the author than a few decades ago (just think of the recent "Queens of Romance" anthologies!) This clearly shows that readers of category romance, too, choose their books by author.

    Moreover, there have been a number of novels which break the pattern of the line, e.g. Lucy Gordon's THE PREGNANCY BOND, in which the hero is very insecure and suffers from depression -- definitely not the typical alpha man!