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.

Racine (1639–1699) was a purist. A writer of tragedies inspired by antiquity, such as Andromaque, Phèdre, and Brittanicus, he excelled at working within all of the boundaries dictated by the critics of the day. He consistently respected all three unities and the rule of bienséance. His alexandrin was always perfectly balanced with a pause at the midpoint of each line. He never represented bloodshed on stage. And what’s more, at his best, he made it all seem completely natural, as though the constraints didn’t even exist.

Le Cid's heroine Chimène reacting
to seeing the sword that killed her father;
 illustration by Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune
 for an 1807 edition
Corneille (1606–1684), on the other hand, was a rule-bender. Regarding his 1637 play Le Cid, for instance, he insisted that all of the events depicted could have taken place within twenty-four hours,  including an overnight battle well outside the capital. And his definition of one setting stretched to encompass the whole city rather than a single room or public space. Le Cid requires a bloody sword to be shown on stage—the sword that has just slain the heroine’s father—which at the time was seen as a flagrant violation of  la bienséance. Le Cid was the object of a massive literary quarrel, ranging from accusations of plagiarism to complaints that the behavior of the heroine Chimène was shocking and morally repugnant.

And then there was Molière (1622–1673). The author of Tartuffe, Dom Juan, and Le Misanthrope wasn’t one for toeing the line, instead summarily dispensing with the unities, versification, and bienséance whenever they stood in the way of his vision. Although he was attacked by the Catholic Church for indecency and Dom Juan was banned outright, his work was highly popular at court and with the public. Today, in the same way that English speakers might refer to their tongue as “the language of Shakespeare,” the French reference “la langue de Molière.”

Like seventeenth-century theater-goers, seasoned romance readers know the rulebook by heart. They know the dictates of their preferred subgenre(s) and approach each new book with a heap of expectations about how it will likely unfold.

The question that remains is what each author will do with the rulebook.

Because romance is a relatively new and marginalized corpus lacking a set canon, and because its conventions and boundaries move quickly, it is difficult to provide three perfect analogues to my French playwrights. What was deemed unconventional or unthinkable twenty-five years ago may now be considered standard, even mundane, within certain subgenres. And no single novelist has the same stature within the field of popular romance as Racine, Corneille, or Molière.

Frontispiece and title page of a 1739
bilingual edition of Molière's collected works
When I encounter a new romance author, however, this schema informs my reading: Is she a Racine, working within established parameters? Is she bending the rules like Corneille, perhaps doing something unusual in terms of plotting or a twist on a familiar trope? Or does she execute a textual maneuver that calls into question what I think I know about the genre, à la Molière?

All three of these writing approaches can yield an excellent read. More importantly, the fact that multiple approaches exist undermines the implicit assumption that romance novelists are held hostage by their own generic constraints, helplessly churning out carbon copies because there is no room for innovation. The reality is that romance is continually reinventing itself and that its authors are active participants in upholding, challenging, or subverting its codes.

The modern French literary group OuLiPo is famous for its tenet that formal constraint is a source of freedom and creativity. I suspect many romance novelists would concur.


  1. I'm not sure that the "genre" itself is clearly defined. For example, there's the RWA definition but it's not identical to the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association's definition of "romantic fiction". Even if one accepts the "HEA and central romantic relationship" definition, at what point does something stop "pushing boundaries" within its genre and fall neatly within the boundaries of another, closely related genre (e.g. chick lit, women's fiction)?

    Re "doing something unusual in terms of plotting or a twist on a familiar trope" it seems to me that because

    (a) the genre is very large, with vast numbers of books published each year
    (b) the genre is old; even if one's being fairly conservative about definitions, it dates from at least the early 20th century and I think there's a case for going back considerably further and
    (c) the books have tended to be seen as light, lacking in merit and therefore disposable

    it's really very difficult to be sure what's truly new and pushing boundaries which have never been pushed before. I see quite a lot of comments along the lines of "this is not your mother's romance" but the people making those comments maybe aren't aware of the full range of books published in the past. For example, someone praising urban fantasy romantic novels for using the series format to show the heroine being sexually active with more than one partner would make me wonder if they know of the Angelique series from the 1950s and 60s or Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber.

    Finally, I think Pamela Regis makes some interesting points in her essay "What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance" which, it seems to me, suggests that literary critics are ourselves producing formulaic works, in part precisely because we've tended to scorn the "formulaic."

  2. I agree with your argument that rules or conventions are not necessarily constraints; as with the sonnet, there are rigid and dull sonnet writers and there are practitioners of great talent, as well as everything in between. But I think one problem in using seventeenth century drama or the sonnet as analogies is that the tremendous commercialization of mass publication under late capitalism is unlike anything the world has seen before. Its effect on sheer quantity of texts, and the subsequent pressures on writers, has got to be part of the picture and should be explored without regard to whether or not one is a "fan." Laura Vivanco also makes excellent points about the genre.