Saturday, March 14, 2015

An unlikely analogy: romance and seventeenth-century French theater

Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks. I started it as a rebuttal to the notion that romances are formulaic due to generic constraints. (I had in mind the HEA imperative across romance, as well as textual elements strongly associated with various subgenres.) And I do believe that there are three fundamental approaches to generic constraints that can be applied to romance as well as other genres. But I found my argument breaking down as I seemed to be asserting that the genre is at once highly rigid and quite fluid. By the time I was done writing, I was pretty skeptical of my own argument and the way I had framed it.

One of my beta readers, who knows both French literature and popular romance, is likewise not completely on board with the thrust of this post but found it thought-provoking and urged me not to scrap it. So I’m putting it out here very much as a trial balloon, to help me pin down just how codified the genre is. Are there a lot of generic constraints (as opposed to conventions)? And if so, who or what is upholding or enforcing them? With the explosion of subgenres and formats over the past decade, how much of romance is still dictated by textual codes? Please feel free to chime in and help me work through this.  

Romance fiction is often dismissed on the grounds that it is formulaic and predictable. With so many aspects of the text determined by the genre’s codes, there is little room for originality, or so the argument goes.

Enthusiasts of the genre are quick to point out that other literary and artistic domains heavily marked by conventions do not suffer from the same stigma. I have seen romance likened to fixed-form poetry such as the sonnet, and individual narrative tropes and elements compared to the steps in a ballet or chords in a song. These analogies are intended to convey that while the genre provides structure, there is plenty of room in a given text for originality and variation even when many of the elements are dictated.

French playwright
Jean-Baptiste Racine
I’d like to make a related point: Just because the rulebook exists does not mean that all authors ascribe to it. To illustrate, I’m going to evoke an entirely different corner of the literary world: seventeenth-century French theater

Why seventeenth-century French theater? Because its conventions are as rigidly codified as any corpus I can think of. The literary lights of that period were particularly obsessed by the rules governing the genre, which went far beyond the familiar five-act structure and dictates pertaining to comedy versus tragedy. Applying Aristotle’s precepts on theater with maniacal rigidity, they enforced a series of three “unities,” principles governing the structure and content of a play. These were:
  1. Unity of time: the plot of the play should unfold over no more than twenty-four hours (often from noon until the following noon);
  2. Unity of place: the setting should be limited to one space represented on stage, such as a public square or meeting room, where all character interaction could plausibly take place; and
  3. Unity of action: the play should develop only one storyline with no (or few) subplots.

In addition to these conventions, there was a fourth rule, that of la bienséance. This rule forbade showing on stage anything that might upset the sensibilities of the viewers, to wit, acts of violence and bloodshed. Duels, suicides, and battles had to take place off-stage and could only be recounted indirectly.

Versification, too, was typically prescribed: playwrights wrote in the twelve-syllable meter of alexandrin, typically in rhymed couplets. This was the French analogue to iambic pentameter.

Within this rigidly enforced framework, three of the seventeenth century’s most celebrated playwrights—Racine, Corneille, and Molière—offer three different models for how writers can engage with a highly codified genre.