Monday, January 26, 2015

In defense of anachronism

A frequent charge leveled against historical romance is its tendency toward anachronism. Period-inappropriate technologies, dialogue, and allusions are pet peeves for even enthusiasts of the subgenre.[1]

Some authors bungle aristocratic titles and forms of address among the peerage. Others might put words such as “okay” in the mouths of eighteenth-century protagonists.[2] Still others might incorporate characters who base their actions on then-undiscovered scientific principles, discoveries, or practices (psychoanalysis, germ theory, etc.). Characters might eat the wrong food, wear the wrong clothing, or make the wrong joke. One of the most common complaints against the subgenre is that the mindset of the hero or heroine is incompatible with his or her setting. Often, objections are aimed at the text’s representation of the options available to women in a given period.

While I appreciate rigorous attention to detail in the subgenre, and while certain careless errors do annoy me, I would submit that a little unintentional anachronism isn’t the end of the world.

To demonstrate, I’d like to turn to another type of romance altogether: the Arthurian kind.

The literary tradition of Arthurian romance was largely developed from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries by a loose network of mostly anonymous authors writing in the major vernacular languages of the period (primarily French, English, and German, but also Italian, Spanish, and various Celtic and Scandinavian tongues). Derived in part from Latin chronicles, it began chiefly in verse but was quickly adapted into prose. Among the authors of Arthurian romance we do know, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Sir Thomas Malory have all achieved canonical status in medieval literary studies.

All of them practiced flagrant anachronism.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thorny terminology: the problem of heroes and heroines

In the course of writing these initial posts, I have often stumbled over two very basic terms: hero and heroine. More specifically, I have paused after typing them together, as a unit, when discussing romance protagonists in the abstract. The hero and heroine must conquer adversity. The hero and heroine reveal their love. The banal but problematic assumption underlying these kinds of sentences is that the text does, in fact, contain both a hero and a heroine.

But that’s not always the case.

While romance novels usually center on the development of a heterosexual romance, gay and lesbian romance is a small but growing subgenre within this literary landscape, and an increasing number of books in the “mainstream” market feature a same-sex romance, whether as the primary plot or perhaps a secondary one. In the subgenre of erotic romance, which traces the development of a romantic relationship through sex, we may not even be limited to two partners. In order to alert readers to the featured gender/partner permutations, many novels are marketed with designations such as MM (male-male), MMF (male-male-female), and so on. Thirty years ago these kinds of works were all but non-existent in mainstream markets. Today, self-publishing, publishers that solicit LGBT and ménage romance, and e-readers are making them accessible to an ever-broader audience.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A reading strategy for romance

A couple years ago, I lent a friend Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke (2011) to introduce him to historical romance. This friend is a doctoral candidate in literature, and part of my aim was to demonstrate that popular romance can feature excellent writing.

A few chapters in, he was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of writing and storytelling but reported difficulty getting hooked. I eventually ascertained that he was reading a chapter or two each night before bed. To which I replied with immediate dismay, “No, no, you’re reading it all wrong! You’ve got to plunge in and keep reading!” It was only in saying that that I realized that popular romance lends itself to being read in a way that may be completely unintuitive to readers who have a background in literary studies.

Those who study literature are used to proceeding slowly, pausing frequently to reflect or reread passages, perhaps even taking detailed notes as they go. I do this as well when I’m considering a romance for its literary qualities, but seldom on a first read. When a favorite author releases a new novel, I attempt to clear my schedule to enable me to read the book in a single day or weekend. Here’s why. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why study romance as literature?

In this post, I would like to speak in broad terms about why romance is worthwhile as a subject of literary study, and why now is the perfect time to be reading and discussing it.

As a genre, romance is actually very tricky to do well.

The rigidity of the genre’s conventions and its formulaic structures make romance difficult to execute. Everything has been done, and the happy ending is a foregone conclusion, so the challenge for a romance novelist is to find some way to make the same well-worn types and tropes ring fresh. But as it turns out, this can be done dazzlingly well.

It’s a fantastic time to be a reader of romance, as authors push the limits of the genre, incorporating casts and settings that were excluded (either deliberately or through oversight) even a decade ago.

The past five years in particular have given rise to a new crop of novelists whose work hinges upon moral and ethical impediments that defy easy solutions. Unlike in romances predicated upon a misunderstanding (e.g., he wrongly suspects her of infidelity, she thinks he only married her for her money), where once all is revealed all is well, these texts place a dilemma at the heart of the story. They put the couple’s interests or the beloved’s interests in opposition to another person, group, or cause that is very near to the protagonist’s heart. These novels demand sacrifice or creativity of their heroes and heroines in order to arrive at the HEA. Excellent novelists currently writing in this vein include Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, and Cecilia Grant.

Meanwhile, the series model of romance has become increasingly prevalent and complex.  The series format constitutes the genre’s solution to a sales/marketing problem: the presence of a HEA generally precludes a sequel. Instead, books are written and published in constellations revolving around the same (often fictional) space, family, or band of friends. This paradigm has existed in romance for decades, but the relationships between installments are increasingly rich and intricate. Indeed, the elaborate structuring and sequencing of certain texts calls to mind such now-canonical projects as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and Zola’s Rougon-Macquart family.[1]

Romance is also intersecting with other genres in unprecedented ways, creating hybrids and new literary niches, each with its own governing systems.