Friday, June 29, 2007

Narrative Sameness and Reader Expectations

Romances are often derided -- one might even say MOST often derided -- for their "formula." Leaving aside issues of computer-generated novels where you plug in two names and miraculously get a book, for most critics, "formula" comes down to the necessity of the happy ending. If all romances have a happy ending, the argument goes, and the reader knows there will be a happy ending with hero and heroine getting together, what's the point of reading them?

Responses to this usually run along the lines of, well, we all know how mysteries end, but we read them for the process, for the story that gets you to that ending and why should romances be any different. Pamela Regis has brilliantly delineated the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal. The HEA is important there, of course, as the Betrothal, but the other elements are as important to the romance's journey. Especially the Point of Ritual Death -- this is the element that a lot of readers feel is lacking from so-called "True Mate" paranormal romances, in which the characters recognize each other as soul mates right from the start, resulting in very little internal conflict for them to overcome.

We know all this, though. Why am I bringing it up again? Jane wrote over at Dear Author about her sales expectations for Janet Evanovich's latest Stephanie Plum mystery and her (Jane's) utter lack of desire to read the book.

Jane wrote:
I am just glad that I have not even the slightest desire to read this book. It was a struggle initially to kick the Plum/Morelli/Ranger habit but as time has gone on, it’s been easier and I am happy to have left the series behind, particularly after having read that Evanovich plans to write Plum in continual stasis, never learning, never growing, always vascillating.
I responded with a "Me too!" post, but then tried to figure out why.

I devoured the Plum novels when they first came out, especially as I had lived in Trenton, NJ for a year and it felt like coming back home when I was stuck in Michigan (and I found one inaccuracy in the first book: Stephanie couldn't have thrown up into the garbage disposal in her old Trenton apartment, because old Trenton houses aren't allowed garbage disposals because of the pipes). I loved the Ranger/Morelli tension and didn't feel that I was either a babe or a cupcake because they were both so delicious. After the "Nice dress. Take it off" cliffhanger, I felt that I'd be reading the series forever.

In the first few novels, Stephanie was incompetent, ditzy, and disorganized, but SHE made the connections that solved the mystery and saved the day, and SHE saved herself at the end of each story. She was an active participant in her own life and the focus was on her and her personal growth. I don't remember the book numbers, but by the time I stopped reading them, it seemed to me that the books were all about checking boxes: Lulu? Check. Strange grandmother antics? Check. Stephanie bobbles her gun? Check. Requisite Joe/Ranger chest thumping? Check. Stephanie vacillates between the two? Check. The mystery seemed completely inconsequential to the story, but then, so did everything else. I enjoyed the first few because Stephanie learned and changed, but when it seemed that she and her stories were stuck in perpetual cycles without any possibility of change, I gave up. Apparently others have, too, but then, many more haven't, considering Evanovich's sales figures.

And then I thought about the other open-ended series I've given up on: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton, Anne Rice's anything, and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. And I wouldn't say that the characters don't learn and grow in these books. Even Anita, I think, changes and adapts and grows and becomes more from book to book, and I'm certain that Jamie and Claire (and Brianna and Roger) do, and Lestat, et al. But these narratives -- stretched out seemingly unendingly -- don't give me what *I* want and need from a romance (and yes, I know none of these series purport to be romances, but they all have or had strong romantic elements to it and strong cross-over readership from the romance community).

I’ve figured out that I read romances because I like the narrative structure. I like the eight narrative elements of a romance and I'm cranky when I don't get them. I like climax and denouement. I don’t like cliffhanger ending, and I don't like endings that go beyond one book to the next book. Seeing a happy couple in the next couple's book, as happens in romance series like Nora Roberts' or Suzanne Brockmann's or Susan Elizabeth Phillips', is great. I'm assured the characters are thoroughly enjoying their happily ever after but they're not having to deal with too much trauma. But if Jamie and Claire get their HEA in Outlander and then it's disrupted and they DON'T get one in Dragonfly in Amber and then they get it again in Voyager and then it's disrupted again in.....I don't have the emotional energy for this. I know others do and I understand why her books are instant bestsellers. They're just not for me anymore. I want to read the Betrothal element and then be able to trust it. And it's better that I know that than feel guilty for not knowing why I'm not reading all the great series I started.

The image is from the private page of a fan of Beauty and the Beast and is apparently a photo of the HEA kiss at the end of the stage musical of the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What the Reader Brings to a Text

One of the things I've found most fascinating about the many discussions I've read and participated in on romance message-boards and blogs is the extent to which tastes differ, and the glimpses I catch of why that might be the case. I think a lot of it has to do with what readers (and authors) bring to the stories. Some of these things are quite often discussed, for example there are the authors accused of writing a 'Mary Sue' character or the theory of the 'placeholder heroine':
Placeholding and reader identification should not be confused. Placeholding is an objective involvement; the reader rides along with the character, having the same experiences but accepting or rejecting the character's actions, words, and emotions on the basis of her personal yardstick. Reader identification is subjective: the reader becomes the character, feeling what she or he feels. (Kinsale 1992: 32)
Reader-response theory goes a lot further than that (and I'll admit now that my knowledge of that theory is fairly minimal). It can
range from the [...] theories of Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden -- both of whom argue that although the reader fills in the gaps, the author's intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions -- to the relativistic analysis of Stanley Fish, who argues that the interpretive strategy of the reader creates the text, there being no text except that which a reader or an interpretive community of readers creates. (Henderson & Brown 1997)
I suppose my instinct would be to head for the end of the spectrum which holds that 'the reader fills in the gaps, the author's intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions'. What's been interesting me recently is where different readers see gaps and how they fill them. As an example, here's what one blogger, Heather, has to say: she prefers novels in which the heroes behave like 'Mr Darcy and pine for the women no matter how the women respond — and instead of retreating, the men change themselves (that is, their own faults) to win the love of the women'. Pride and Prejudice is a good place to start because clearly, as Sarah observed not so long ago, some people (usually non-romance readers) will deny that Austen's works are very similar to modern romances, but many romance readers can't imagine Mr Darcy as anything other than the ideal romance hero. Both groups, however, agree on certain issues, e.g. that he is called Mr Darcy and he marries Elizabeth.

When I read what Heather had to say about Mr Darcy, I was surprised. I'd never thought of Mr Darcy as someone who changed to win the love of a woman. I'd always thought of his change having come about as a reasonable response to justified criticism which he would have accepted had it come from any other person he respected, rather than an emotional response made in order to win the love of a particular woman. Clearly I come down on the 'sense'/reason rather than the 'sensibility'/passion side of the fence. And this was where I began to see how differing interpretations and emotional responses reflect the reader's own ideology, and by ideology I mean what Kinsale referred to above as the reader's 'personal yardstick' or 'the structure of assumptions which form the imaginative world of groups' (Lye 1997) or 'the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual' (OED). Authors bring their ideologies to the texts they create and readers, in their turn, bring theirs:
Texts include statements, assumptions, attitudes, which are intrinsically ideological, i.e. express attitudes towards and beliefs about certain sets of social and political realities, relations, values and powers. As a text is produced in a certain social and material milieu it cannot not have embedded ideological assumptions. The reader herself will have ideological convictions and understandings as well, often unrecognized. (Lye 1999)
These understandings which often go 'unrecognized' are sometimes challenged when we discuss texts with other readers, who hold different assumptions, or when the ideological assumptions of the author are so explicitly related that it's difficult not to notice them (though, of course, this is more likely to be the case for a reader whose ideology differs from that of the author). A reader with a similar ideology to the author's may simply feel a sense of comfort or belonging, and may feel that the book is one which he or she connects with emotionally. The reader may even feel that such values are universal. For example Dick, a poster at AAR, argued that
most men and women who have a close relationship, whether in romance fiction or otherwise, delight in the idea that the other member of the duo feels a sense of possession. And certainly, protectiveness is a part of the relationship, isn't it? Would anyone want it otherwise? [...] I still haven't read anything which changes my thinking: Heroes of romance fiction differ very little regardless of the setting.
And yet, does Edward Ferrars conform to this ideal? And what of the 'boyish, feminized male figure [which] was definitely eroticized by Mills & Boon authors of the 1920s' (Dixon 1999: 68)?

It seems to me that readers' responses to romances are shaped by the ideas they have about masculinity (and which behaviours and attitudes are considered heroic), femininity, passion, the family, duty, individualism, etc. Jayne Ann Krentz, for example, wrote that 'Men represent to women one of the greatest sources of risk they will ever encounter in their lives' (1992: 112) and that opinion underpins her belief that 'Romance novels are tales of brave women taming dangerous men' (1992: 113) yet even as she dismissed them, she had to acknowledge that the genre also contained 'politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right-thinking heroines' (1992: 113).

I'd like to conclude with a few excerpts in which the author's ideology on a particular issue seems particularly close to the surface. Here's a passage from Connie Brockway's As You Desire which may leave some readers sighing over the hero, Harry. Marta has withheld information from him concerning Desdemona's (the heroine's) safety but Marta:
needn't have worried about Harry's reaction to her duplicity. He'd had none.
Except for the information she'd provided, Harry had taken no notice of her actions at all. All of his being, his every mental faculty, centered on Desdemona. There was simply no room in that concentration for something so inconsequential as outrage over her [Marta's] actions. What would it be like to be the focus of such devotion?
Cal's hand cupped the curve of her shoulder and she covered his big, rough hand with her own. Pray God she'd know. (1997: 350)
And here's Kate Walker's description of why, in Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern romances (and, probably, elsewhere in the romance genre too), the revenge plot is in fact:
an expression of an alpha hero’s male passion and power. I’d like to take this one stage further and say that it’s more – much more – the expression of his passion than anything else. His passion for honour, for justice, and – ultimately – for the heroine.
Or how about this conversation in which two happily-married men are trying to instruct the hero on how to understand his estranged wife, a lesson they present indirectly by recounting anecdotes and making generalisations about women:
When they clam up on you, it's a danger signal. What you've got to do is get them talking, about anything, and worm it out of them. It'll all come flooding out, on a burst of tears likely as not, but at least you get to know what's eating them. You may say what you will about women never being silent, I'd rather have them talking. A silent woman is a dangerous thing. She's sitting there, tallying up points against you. You can see it in her eyes. Thing to do is keep at them till it comes out. They want to tell you. They're dying to throw your faults in your face, and it don't take a whole lot of urging. (Gallant 2004: 90)
  • Brockway, Connie, 1997. As You Desire (New York: Dell).
  • Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, 1992. Edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Dixon, jay, 1999. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (London: UCL Press).
  • Gallant, Jenny, (Joan Smith) 2004. Lady Hathaway's House-Party. Electronically published in 2004 by Belgrave House, but originally published by Fawcett Coventry in January, 1980.
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, pp. 31-44.
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, pp. 107-114.
The image is of Don Quijote, reading. I found it on Emeritus Professor Fred F. Jehle's webpages. The engraving is by Gustav Doré, from an 1888 Italian edition of the novel and contributed by Claudio Paganelli. Links to more of the illustrations of this edition are available on the same page. Don Quijote comes to identify so fully with the ideology present in his chivalric romances that he fails to distinguish between fantasy and reality and sets out on his own quest.

Paintings of readers are analysed in William B. Warner's essay 'Staging Readers Reading' and he observes that
Anyone surveying the Dutch and French genre paintings and prints of the 17th and 18th century [...] will quickly discover the currency of images of readers reading. From old men reading grand folios in solitude to young women absorbed in their novels, the paintings and prints of the period stage reading as inviting, compelling, and sometimes dangerous.
The essay includes images of the paintings, some depicting readers of didactic texts while others show the effects of sampling more erotic novels.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Were-clams and other we(i)r(e)d possibilities

Were-creatures are popular in romance at the moment. Although it's gone now, some months ago Loose Id had a section dedicated to them on their home page:
Fangs, furs, or pretty fish tails. Whether wolves, stags, or octopi, shapeshifters frighten and fascinate with their Jekyll & Hyde, Beauty & Beast, implications. And really, what’s sexier than animalistic mating urges? Hear the grunts, growls, and Alpha wolf howls.
But there's also been some discussion lately about how far the trend for were-creatures in romance can go. Annie Dean commented over at Romancing the Blog that:
I think it helps going forward when you take into account what worked, overwhelmingly, for your audience and what didn’t. This is based on consensus, of course. If everyone who reads the book says, “I really liked it, except the fact that the hero was a were-clam” then why wouldn’t an author make a note of that? What’s the point of writing a whole series about were-clams if NOBODY likes it?
But why wouldn't readers want to read about were-clams? The answer probably seems obvious: were-clams would not be sexy. And why not? Well, I suspect because
(a) on a practical, physical level their equipment isn't the stuff of sexual fantasies. And not just that sort of equipment: unlike the 'Cephalopods (squid and octopi) [which] have large brains and are capable of sophisticated movements and learning', 'Molluscs (slugs, snails, clams, squid and octopi) have ganglia--collections of axons--associated with the mouth, foot, and gut' (from here)

(b) clams aren't creatures that we imagine as having an exciting life (one description of molluscs that I found online speculated 'did ancestral molluscs abandon a more active life style for a sedentary existence (like the clam)'? Hmm. So, not only do these creatures lack a brain, they've also got a sedentary lifestyle. Clearly not hero material.

(c) they just don't look right. How virile does that clam look to you? And that's a giant clam: the smaller ones are, well, often quite a lot smaller.


(d) unlike werewolves and various species of werecats, they're not part of our existing mythologies. At least, not as far as I'm aware.
Smart Bitch Candy has suggested were-ducks and were-slugs. They've got very interesting equipment and some exciting mating practices (click here to see the BBC video of mating leopard slugs, or, if that doesn't work, here's the same video at YouTube- it's really quite beautiful, in a strange sort of way). Nonetheless, ducks and slugs probably aren't considered the most lovely of creatures and they don't project an aura of power or danger.

A rhinoceros is more threatening when angered, but even so I had my doubts about a were-rhino hero and try as he might, the hero of Cassandra Curtis' free online erotic romance Stroke It couldn't convince me of his sexiness.

Mrs Giggles raised the issue of were-dragons. They've been gaining in popularity but
What is it with dragons that can be considered romantic, edgy, or sexy? I don't get it. Dragons in Chinese and Indonesian mythology are long serpentine creatures with sly faces. Dragons in European mythology usually end up dead at the hands of knights or are depicted as savage devourers of innocent maidens. How did we go from there to sexy?
It's true. Dragons may have the equipment and the exciting lifestyle, but they've almost always been the villains in mythology. Maybe that's the draw for some authors. Can you get a darker or more tormented or more in-need-of-redemption hero than a cold-blooded killer with a penchant for virgins? However, Jo Beverley observes that
Dragons seem to be another “monster” that’s been tamed by the modern imagination. I think they were once universally harmful and feared in European culture (anyone know differently?), but now they’re often large, flying horses, or warships, or amiable – even heroic shape shifters. In romance in particular, we’ve domesticated vampires and werewolves, and we’re working on demons now. What is it in our modern age that wants to tame everything? Are there any imaginary monsters left that really scare us?
Of course, quite how far the dragons are 'tamed' does depend on a given author's worldbuilding. Shana Abé's Smoke Thief, featuring a drákon hero and half-drákon heroine, enjoyed great success and received many extremely positive reviews (including this one). One that was less than favourable was written by Lynn Spencer, who disliked the fact that the hero decides:
to force her [the heroine] by using the frankly brutal laws of the dra'kon. It is at this point that the book becomes dark as Kit uses all forms of coercion, deceit, and false bargaining to gain his bride. [...] Those with a higher tolerance for super-Alpha males may enjoy this tale.
So, dragons are in but their earth-bound near relatives may not be. Mary Jo Putney was discussing her latest novella which was appearing in a dragon-themed anthology
and mentioned that Dragon Lovers would be out soon. The habitué was pleased. I mentioned that a dragon was really just a serpent with legs and she said, “EEEUUUWWWW, don’t go there!” It’s amazing what a difference legs make.
It can't just be the lack of legs, though. Mermaids may not have legs but they don't lack sexual allure. Maybe it's that snakes are a frightening and very real creature, unlike dragons. Snakes do appear frequently in mythology. So maybe it's only a matter of time before we get a were-snake in a romance. Maybe one already exists.

Pictures are of the giant clam (Tridacna gigas), from Wikipedia, and a woodcut of a rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer (1515), also from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Call for Papers - Catherine Cookson

Catherine Cookson (d. 11 June 1998) 'reigned supreme as the UK’s most borrowed author for 17 years' (Public Lending Right) and the
region of the north-east in which Catherine Cookson's novels are said to be situated is openly advertised as 'Catherine Cookson Country'. Yet the moral, commercial, historical and future-oriented purpose of identification like this is little considered, necessitating, as it does, close attention to how such a novelist is perceived among her readers, or even perhaps among those who have no immediate familiarity with her pages. (Snell 1998: 41)
In April Sarah gave a summary of the paper Julie Taddeo presented to the 2007 PCA/ACA Conference on the topic of 'Searching for Romantic Heroes in Catherine Cookson Country'. Taddeo has now put out a call for papers for an academic volume of essays about Cookson and she writes that
Romance scholars typically ignore Cookson, who herself resisted the label of romance novelist in favor of social historian, while historians are too eager to discredit the accuracy of her largely Victorian settings and plots. It is time to revisit Cookson Country and assess Cookson’s legacy as a publishing phenomenon. [...] Possible topics include but are not limited to:
  • Cookson as a distinctly “British” novelist
  • Representations of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality, especially homosexuality and lesbianism, in Cookson’s novels and life
  • Cookson Country and the Heritage Industry (includes the museum, trails, on-line websites by and for fans, and TV movie versions of her novels)
  • Re-evaluations of her texts: Feminist? Conservative? Subversive?
  • Historical fiction or romance—do such labels really matter?
  • Re-imagining Victorianism
  • Class and gender politics in the historical/romance novel
The full call for papers can be found here and the closing date for submissions is the 15th of August 2007.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Incoherent Thoughts on Archetypes and Cultural Appropriation

There have been a lot of very interesting discussions about romance this week.

Diana Peterfreund's Archetypes Anonymous meeting (she was drawing on Tami Cowden's list of the eight hero archetypes) underlined the importance of archetypes in the genre:
CHIEF: (almost holding back a sigh) As I said, there has been some concern raised recently that some of us—I won’t name names—haven’t been getting their fair share of work. Have, perhaps, been a little less popular with the audience.

BAD BOY:(rolling his eyes) So it’s my fault some of you are losers? [...]

PROFESSOR:(speaking for the first time) “Loser” is not the appropriate term. Our popularity has always been cyclical
Peterfreund suggests that The Warrior, Lost Soul and Bad Boy archetypes have been reinvented as vampires which, for a time at least, gave them an innovative new look. Some readers are complaining, though, that the vampires and werewolves are getting dull, and Kara Lennox says she's
heard at least one agent say she is suddenly finding it difficult to sell them. Several editors have said they are “becoming more selective” (that’s code for “not buying as many”). I’ve even heard one editor say the erotic-romance trend is starting to plateau.

Of course, everybody wants to know what’s the next big thing.
Will the 'next big thing' be a new twist on the archetypes? Or is the use of archetypes in fact a factor which contributes to the trend Robin identifies, whereby
with page counts shrinking, part of the burden of the novel-writing craft is being shifted more and more to readers—we have to fill in blanks and flesh out characters or worldbuilding and make critical links between plot points. And because so many Romance readers have read so much Romance, I think this process becomes almost unconscious, to the point where readers don’t recognize they’re being asked to do this, don’t have to struggle with it, and therefore don’t have any reason to think that they’re actually taking on a certain element of what I think is the author’s job in delivering a complete and coherent—and hopefully somewhat distinctive—vision.
Some people think that maybe 'the romance genre would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of tragedy' but it already has plenty of that (orphaned heroines and emotionally tortured heroes aren't exactly rare), just not at the end. And if we lost the HEA, the novels might be romantic, but they wouldn't be Romance as we know it and as the RWA defines it.

I was beginning to wonder if romances about normal people, doing relatively normal things and having a happy ending, might actually be somewhat radical. It's not that 'straight contemporaries' have ever gone away, but there don't seem to be that many romances around at the moment which are about normal people living normal lives and whose bodies are not the stuff of fantasy.

As I was pondering what 'normal' actually means, and wondering how many romance readers are looking for a fantasy, I remembered Pulp's Common People. It's about a woman whom I can imagine as the daughter of a billionaire Greek tycoon romance hero, and her idea of a romantic fantasy is to 'live like common people [...] sleep with common people'. The song is about 'slumming',
a practice, fashionable among certain segments of the middle class in many Western countries, whereby one deliberately patronizes areas or establishments which are populated by, or intended for, people well below one's own socio-economic level, motivated by curiosity or a desire for adventure. (Wikipedia)
If 'slumming' is seen as offensive, is it any better to practice it in reverse? And is it similar in any way to the cultural appropriation discussed by Gwyneth/Gwendolyn, and Karen Scott? It's not just an issue for contemporaries, since this was, after all, the week in which AAR's At The Back Fence columnist Robin Uncapher declared that
I believe that Americans not only identify with 19th century English, we understand them better than many of their descendants who live in England today. Those descendants know a lot about their ancestors, but do they know what its like to be the focus of the national foreign policy of virtually every country in the world? Do they know what its like to feel, in some way, responsible for the world’s welfare?
The Smart Bitches have been discussing which changes might be required to propel romances onto the pages of the New York Times Book Review and I'm wondering if fewer archetypes and less cultural appropriation would change the image of the genre. On the other hand, while that might work well for low mimetic romances, I'm not sure high mimetic romances could be written without using at least some archetypes.

I'm still thinking about all the issues raised in this week's discussions, and I hope we can carry on discussing them in the comments, but in the meantime I'll conclude with Goodess Gracious Me's Hindi People, a parody of Pulp's Common People which takes a satirical look at cultural appropriation and stereotypes of British Asians.

Stick figure from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Eric's at Romancing the Blog

Eric's posted on the topic of poetry, poets and the romance genre. And, as he mentioned Byron, I'm taking this as a good excuse to post a picture of Romantic man-titty. Unfortunately Byron is on his death-bed in this portrait, but as Candy says 'It’s a miracle more of these cover models don’t come down with some sort of catarrh from standing around with their shirts unbuttoned in the cold, damp air'.

Painting of Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph-Denis Odevaere, from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Phillipa Ashley - Decent Exposure

Phillipa Ashley recently won the Romantic Novelists' Association 2007 Joan Hessayon Award for Decent Exposure,
her debut novel [...] published by Little Black Dress. The judges said: "This book had really great characters right from the start, especially the fish-out-of-water heroine and the hero who is 'always happiest when he's got something to be angry about'. We believed in this couple and their bumpy path to love. There is a real sense of lives lived, the close-knit team, the local rivalries, the small village, as well as the practical and psychological obstacles in the way of pulling the calendar together. We liked the humour nicely balanced with humanity and a bright, contemporary voice. Oh, and it has a cracker of a first sentence!" (Romantic Novelists' Association)
I haven't been able to find many reviews, but there's an excerpt available here.

Given that the premise of the story involves the making of a nude calendar for a charity fundraising effort, I couldn't help but be reminded of the film Calendar Girls,* but as Rosy Thornton of Birmingham Words explains, Ashley's initial inspiration was the BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:
Phillipa had the original idea of placing a version of Gaskell's novel in the present day [...] A sharply witty romantic comedy, it tells how PR consultant Emma Tremayne seeks to raise money and publicity for a Cumbrian mountain rescue team by means of a nude calendar – falling as she does so for ‘Mr July’ Will Tennant. Like North and South it is the story of a bright southern girl being forced to travel north, and finding a culture shock and unexpected love in the process.
What I'd like to focus on is not the story but what Jenny Crusie's been describing as 'foreshadowing' using 'subconscious clues':
Subconscious clues are the deep structure clues, really more cues than clues, triggers for the reader that she or he many not even notice, often the motifs and metaphors that run underneath the story. [...] Is anybody but an English major ever going to notice this stuff? We certainly hope not; it destroys the enjoyment of the story. Is it crucial to the depth and resonance of the story, to the catharsis of the reader at the end? Absolutely.
In Decent Exposure the subconscious clues worked for me because I didn't notice them until I'd finished the book and started to think more closely about it. The foreshadowing begins in the first few pages (they're in the excerpt). I'm going to try to avoid giving spoilers, so this will be a relatively short post and I hope it doesn't 'destroy the enjoyment of the story' for anyone.

The most obvious theme is that of nakedness:
Excuse me, love,’ said the bearded man in the front row, ever so politely, ‘did you say naked?’
Emma Tremayne clutched her folder of proposals tighter and smiled a smile that went no further than her cherry-scented lipgloss. ‘That’s right, Bob. Naked.’
Bob, bald, ruddy-faced and fifty-something, nodded as if she’d just confirmed the price of a cheese scone in the local café.
‘You mean without any clothes on?’ murmured a whippet-like lad whom Emma recognised as a local builder.
‘That’s the general idea of a nude calendar, Jason, yes.’ (2006:1)
By the end of the chapter (and the excerpt) we have Will, the hero, agreeing to pose nude, 'But only if I absolutely have to' (2006: 18). What he doesn't yet know is that by the end of the novel he'll have been forced, despite his reluctance, to lay bare his emotional life as well as his body. Emma, the heroine, is his mirror image in that she's fairly open about her relationship history. She gives a synopsis of it on page 11 to a female member of the Mountain rescue team: 'My boss was shagging my boyfriend. I threw something at her and she sacked me' (2006: 11), but she's rather more cautious about literal, physical nakedness.

A second theme is that of risk, as embodied in the activities of the Bannerdale Mountain Rescue Team. All walkers and climbers take a degree of risk, and the purpose of the team is to rescue those who get into difficulties. What Emma doesn't expect is that in helping this team who have
saved over fifty lives in the past twelve months alone and were expert at abseiling and belaying and all kinds of skills which weren’t needed among the sushi bars and coffee houses and mirror-window tower blocks of the city life Emma was used to (2006: 2)
she's going to have to literally take a risk and learn a skill which wasn't required in her previous life: abseiling. She's also going to have to take a metaphorical risk, and in both cases she'll have to trust Will. Will too is going to have to take a 'leap of faith' (2006: 267) as he falls in love.

A third theme which is foreshadowed involves spin and PR. Emma may be a 'a seasoned PR person' (2006: 2) but 'she felt she’d tasted enough deception and spin over the past few months to last a lifetime' (2006: 11). Will may not trust PR, but, as we discover, he has deliberately shaped his own public persona and the reasons for this are hinted at in the first chapter when he opposes the calendar plan on the grounds that it would make the team a 'laughing stock' (2006: 4).

Ashley also slips in details which have a deeper symbolism. For example, Emma's duplicitous ex-boss at the appropriately named 'Rogue' PR agency is called Phaedra. In Greek mythology Phaedra first of all got her husband in somewhat ambiguous circumstances (some say Theseus preferred her to her sister, Ariadne, whom he abandoned after she'd helped him escape from the Minotaur). Phaedra later became an unfaithful wife and, in some versions of her story, a mistress of spin who made false rape allegations against Hippolytus. We also learn that at Rogue
If there wasn’t a pot of Blue Mountain bubbling somewhere in the office, there was always some assistant willing to fetch a Starbucks coffee or a smoothie. Emma shivered. That last beverage was now off the menu. In fact, she hoped she’d never see one as long as she lived. (2006: 12-13)
Emma has swapped 'Blue Mountain' for the hills around Bannerdale and 'smoothies' (both the drinks and men 'with a smooth, suave manner' (OED) ) for Will, 'a man who had all the charm of a grizzly bear' (2006: 4) and whose 'designer stubble made him look more like a grizzly than ever' (2006: 7).

Ashley, Phillipa, 2006. Decent Exposure (London: Little Black Dress).

* At the end of the novel mention is made of the fact that 'a production company [...] want to make a documentary' (2006: 274) about the making of the calendar, just as happened with the story of the 'Rylstone WI Calendar: 12 sepia-tinted photographs, showing various members naked - their modesty concealed only by the jam-panned, cider-pressing paraphernalia of traditional WI pursuits' (The Guardian). This became the basis for the film Calendar Girls, though it's hardly a documentary: ' "It's 75% of the true story," he [Director Chris Cole] estimates. That number might be a little generous' (Carrano 2003).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The End

No, not of the world, or even of this blog. I've just been thinking about the HEA (Happy Ever After) again. Recently Bookworm, a poster at AAR, commented that
I see no reason why the romance genre shouldn't aspire to greatness, rather than settling for mere goodness. Some romances have come close, oh so close, but it's the very predictability that underwhelms me. I don't believe other genre fictions (sci-fi for instance) have such strict ending requirements or required formula.
But, hey, I understand many people like the safeness and the predictability of the guaranteed happy ever after. But when I open a book I really don't want to know what's on the last page until I get there.
We've had discussions about the HEA on this blog in the past, but the following quotation from Jenny Crusie is one of the best explanations I've seen so far of why knowing the ending in advance isn't a problem for romance readers, and why it doesn't automatically lead to 'predictability':
Some readers go to the end of the book and read that immediately because they need to know it’s going to end okay. If they’re reassured, they start at the beginning. But if they already know what’s going to happen, why do they bother?

Because while the climax is the pay-off, it’s not the reason people read story. They read story for the journey, to experience what the protagonist experiences, and by doing so, share in her or his triumph or fall at the end.
And as for Bookworm's statement that 'I don't believe other genre fictions (sci-fi for instance) have such strict ending requirements':
If you’re writing a romance novel, the expectation that the hero and heroine will be together at the end had better be fulfilled. If you’re writing a mystery, the detective better find out who did it at the end. If you’re writing horror, the Thing Under the Bed better turn out to be real and lethal, not just somebody’s hallucination. But those are the big genre expectations. Within your story, you can play with expectation as long as you keep the plot moves logical and motivated. (Crusie 2007)
The picture is of a keyboard's end key, from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sarah's at Romancing the Blog today

Sarah's been taking a close look at 'many variations on the definition of popular romance fiction' and she argues that male/male romances offer the reader a situation with 'double the power':
is the feminine power we find in romances as readers (and I assume as writers) diminished because there is no heroine?

I argue that the power is in fact increased. The heroine “wins” in romance precisely because the hero learns to accept the necessity of love as a governing force in his life. The heroine’s triumph is located in teaching the hero to love. So when two men have to learn that, without the help of a woman, that’s double the power. The man and all he represents is vanquished by love – twice!
I'm still puzzling over this. Are heroines not vanquished by love? And is Sarah thinking of the power of love as somehow essentially feminine?

Please come and join in the discussion over at Romancing the Blog!

The picture is Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, from Wikipedia. Venus is, of course, the goddess of love.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Gender and Otherness

You like tomato and I like tomaeto;
Potato, potaeto, tomato, tomaeto!
Let's call the whole thing off!

But oh! If we call the whole thing off,
Then we must part.
And oh! If we ever part,
Then that might break my heart!

(Lyrics from 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off')

In response to my previous post Ingrid asked
Isn't the Toulouse Lautrec painting you chose of two women?
A strange choice, as you would think there would be even less 'otherness' between same-sex lovers.
First of all, I liked the picture because of its ambiguity. We can't tell whether the couple in the bed are in lust, in love, or have found a comfortable, companionate relationship. In fact, I doubt that many people looking at the painting would even be able to guess that both individuals are female, which, I thought, made it even more thought-provoking and open to multiple interpretations.*

Secondly, I'm not convinced that biological differences between the sexes are the only, or even the most important source of 'otherness', even within heterosexual relationships. I've touched on the difference between 'sex' and 'gender' in the past, here and here, but here's a summary of the difference between the two terms:
One's sexual identity is prenatally organized as a function of the genetic-endocrine forces and emerges (is activated) with development. One's gender identity, recognition of how he or she is viewed in society, develops with post-natal experiences. It comes from general observation of society's norms and expectations and from comparing self with peers [...] and asking: "Who am I like and who am I not like?" "With which group, males/boys or females/girls am I similar or different?" (Diamond 2000)
or, to put it another way,
Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs.

Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.

So while your sex as male or female is a biological fact that is the same in any culture, what that sex means in terms of your gender role as a 'man' or a 'woman' in society can be quite different cross culturally.
The expression of gender, then, differs across societies and has also changed over time. Allen and Feluga have noted that it was
Eighteenth-century medical science paved the way for a strictly binary system of gender by "discovering" the incommensurable differences between male and female bodies. [...] Under this new system of sexual dimorphism, women and men were taken to be one another's opposites in most things. Whereas women were increasingly taken to be passive and passionless, for example, men were taken to be aggressive and sexually charged. Many of the truisms about gender behavior that contemporary sexuality studies works to dismantle (e.g. "boys will be boys") date from this period.
Thus, character or personality differences were divided up between the sexes, reinforcing and strengthening the differences derived from biology. Yet many of the differences between the genders, because they derive from socialisation, have to be learned and are culturally specific. For example,
“Naturally” occurring or not, heterosexuality is highly organized by society and by culture. While you may argue that “heterosexuality is natural” or that you were “just born this way,” women didn’t enter this world knowing they wanted to wear a prom dress, practice something called “dating”, buy a white wedding gown, or play with a “My Size Bride Barbie.” Likewise, men did not exit the womb knowing they would one day have to buy a date a corsage or spend two months’ income to buy an engagement ring. (Ingraham 1999: 3-4)
It is also interesting to note that despite the way in which Male and Female have been set up as opposites, ascribed different personality traits as well as physical difference and turned into the 'Other', many other differences persist which challenge gender's predominance as the main source of 'Otherness'. For example, although 'The nineteenth century was dominated by the idea of "natural" gender distinctions and by a conception of normative sexuality that was centered largely on the middle-class family' (Allen & Feluga), this in itself hints at class differences, and as Ingraham points out, by studying the 'norm' or the 'ideal' we can see which groups are thought to be furthest away from the ideal, 'Othered' as different and inferior:
The images bridal magazines present distort reality and unify particular beliefs about heterosexuality, race, class, and gender. In Bridal Gown Guide (1998), Denise and Alan Fields offer an observation about bridal magazines and race:

Only white people get married. Well, the major bridal magazines would never say that, but just take a look at the pictures. Page after page of Caucasian, size 8 models in $2,000 dresses. Just try to find a bride who’s black, Hispanic or Asian. Go ahead, take as long as you need to search. While you’re at it, try to discover an ad that features a bride who’s a size 22.

Three such industry distortions are revealed by this quote: race, class, and body size. (1999: 92-93)
'Otherness' deriving from non-gendered factors can also be used to intensify sexual attraction, for example I've previously discussed the ways in which a certain degree of racial 'Otherness' is used in romance novels to reinforce the existing gender dichotomy, particularly when the tall, dark, hard and virile sheik or Native American hero with chiselled features is contrasted with the shorter, pale, feminine Caucasian heroine with soft curves.

According to Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff,
One of the key questions might be 'can romance be queered?' in the way that other cultural forms (arguably) have been. This would involve not simply replacing heterosexual protagonists with homosexual ones, but, more fundamentally questioning the very binaries on which conventional romance depends (male/female, gay/straight, virgin/whore, etc) (page 12)
Certainly gay and lesbian romances demonstrate that binary oppositions and a sense of 'Otherness' can exist in relationships where such Otherness is not derived from the biological differences between the sex of the hero and heroine. This is something explored in many of Matthew Haldeman-Time's short stories [and I'd better put in an 'explicit gay sex' warning, for those who might be offended by them]. For example, in Ten Weird Things, we begin by learning that the two protagonists
just had nothing in common. After the first two days of conversation, they were out of things to talk about. Eric watched sports and news and MTV2; David watched sitcoms. Eric listened to Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and Nirvana; David listened to Mozart and Sinatra and the Backstreet Boys. Eric liked to go out and get drunk and party; David liked to stay in the room and read. Eric was thinking about rushing a frat; David planned to apply to med school.
Later, Eric thinks about how he
liked that David was different from himself. He even liked that he didn’t know that much about David, because that meant that he could learn more, and he wanted to learn more. He wanted to know David better.
There's the same theme of otherness in Incredible and its sequel Stupid Question, in which one protagonist is a dedicated swimmer, the other is a goth; 'At 6’4”, Trent was at least six inches taller, and when Jason looked up at him, they both froze in place. Jason’s intense, dark eyes were made even more dramatic with eyeliner, and there was something guarded yet aggressive about his expression. Trent wanted him. He was mysterious'. There are also personality differences:
Trent smiled all of the time, Trent made everybody laugh, Trent made a new friend everywhere that he went. [...] Trent was the guy everyone liked, the guy who pulled off everything effortlessly, the guy who was fun and popular and always had a good time.
Jason didn’t know a lot of people like that. He’d never been that way, himself. He didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. He didn’t make friends easily.

* There's a description here of how Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings of lesbians became progressively less intimate, less indicative of passion between the couple. The sexual nature of the relationship between the women is immediately apparent in The Kiss (1892), less so in another painting titled In Bed (1892) and in the picture I used to illustrate my previous post, also titled In Bed (1893), one can see even less of the couple's faces or expressions. For the purposes of illustrating the blog post, this particular painting therefore left more space open to be explored by the viewer's imagination.

The image, of many different varieties of tomato, comes from Wikipedia.