Friday Fragments: Drawing Lines

I can’t believe January went by so quickly, or how much I blogged this month.

Big Man

For the last little while I’ve had “Hero” by Family of the Year stuck in my head (could be worse). I keep imagining a sad alpha hero singing the opening lines: “Let me go / I don’t want to be your hero / I don’t want to be a big man / I just want to fight with everyone else.” Poor romance heroes; we expect them to be outsized in every way (as Jane’s post at Dear Author on “The Art of Exaggeration” makes clear). Would it be any wonder if they rose up one day in melancholy, melodic rebellion against the constraints of alpha masculinity?

There’s been a lot of discussion around Romancelandia lately about formulae, conventions, rules, and limits, and how far one can stretch the rules before they break, before what we have really isn’t genre romance any more. Romance heroes and heroines, as Jayne Ann Krentz says, are built on “ancient heroic archetypes.”

[T]he hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues [like] . . . courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love.

On a continuum from the archetypal to the realistic, how far are romance readers and authors willing to let characters move towards the real? Where’s the line the hero can’t cross?

I just started reading The Dark Winter, a mystery by David Mark, whose police detective hero is described this way by a waitress: “This big, barrel-chested man . . . [with a] broad, weather-beaten face. He must be an easy six-foot-five, but there’s a gentleness about his movements, his gestures, that suggest he is afraid of his own size.” A female colleague thinks: “He had the personality of an unassuming, bespectacled accountant, but it was rattling around inside a colossal frame.” When readers first meet McAvoy, he’s out with his young son, feeding the kid chocolate cake and thinking about “the delicious scent of his son’s shampooed hair.” McAvoy is, in short, acting in stereotypically maternal ways. I’m curious about how far Mark will continue to subvert the archetypal big tough policeman hero.

Lots of Color, But Keep It Inside the Lines?

I really enjoyed Ruthie Knox’s interview at Wonkomance with Meg Maguire, Molly O’Keefe, and Maisey Yates, three authors who write both category and single-title romances, focused on the constraints and freedoms of the two formats. Yates commented on the way the boundary lines category draws in some areas can actually free a writer up in other ways:

What we have are ‘promises’ of the line, or what I consider to be anchors. The basic elements our readers count on to make a book that’s recognizable as being part of its particular line. Beyond that, we have the freedom to push so many boundaries, because those other boundaries are still in place. This gives us tons of freedom within the parameters set before us.

I don’t disagree with this view. I’ve read things in category romance–heroines who are breast cancer survivors, couples dealing with sexual dysfunction or infidelity–that I’ve never seen in single-title romances (those of you who are better read can provide titles in the comments).

But somewhat paradoxically, the idea that the strict conventions of category romance allow boundaries to be stretched has itself become a conventional statement about the form. I’ve heard other writers say similar things–as O’Keefe does in this interview. I wonder how much can really be considered boundary pushing if it is “licensed” within the form. Maybe category romance is an example of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the carnivalesque, a space for testing limits and beliefs. It’s worth remembering, though, that the medieval carnival was only a temporary holiday from the hierarchy and rules that governed everyday life. The testing isn’t much good if we keep it safely contained within the lines. (Uh, I haven’t really worked this out. I’m not sure if I believe anything I just said or even know quite what I meant).

I have a cryptic note to myself in a list of possible blog ideas: “formula and freshness.” I think my idea was that familiar elements in a novel allow a reader to move into new territory and enjoy things she might not otherwise. Romance readers notoriously hate cliffhangers and want a novel to end with an HEA, for instance, but at the moment many are happily reading New Adult or erotic romance trilogies and serial publications that break those rules, but have familiar romance elements (like alpha heroes and focus on a primary couple’s relationship) that promise the adventure will reward them. I think the popularity of someone like Kristen Ashley can be partly explained by this same balance of formula/familiar and freshness. The things that feel new appeal to someone who has read a lot of romance, to whom its conventions may seem tired, but the familiar elements mean it still satisfies the expectations of a genre reader. I’m not reading these books myself, but if you are, what do you think?

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8 Responses to Friday Fragments: Drawing Lines

  1. Re: boundaries, I think that is why the 50 Shades books did so well – despite the sexual content being boundary-stretching for many readers, the structure of the romance (very rich, alpha hero, tentative virginal heroine who is the first to tempt him) sounds to me exactly like the plot of a Harlequin Presents.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I definitely think that is true for some. And it pretty much started the serial/trilogy/longer book trend that is appealing to some readers. Again, I think the familiar elements made people willing to go with what was different. It might take 3 volumes but the promise of HEA seemed there in the structure. (When romance-land first discovered it, though, I remember a lot of readers sought assurance that book 3 would have romance ending). I was thinking of it when I wrote this, but it’s such an outlier in some ways I try not to make it an example.

  2. kaetrin says:

    I’m prepared for it to take a few books, but there must be a HEA for me to really enjoy it. If there is no HEA, then I feel robbed and betrayed as a reader. It’s why I like the Mercy Thompson and Kate Daniels books. The characters took 3 books to get together and they are working out their HEA in the subsequent books. I didn’t mind the wait, because I knew they would get there but if Kate and Curran split up (will never happen) or Adam and Mercy (same), I’d be stabby.

  3. VacuousMinx says:

    There are a couple of authors I’ve read in both category and single-title (not the ones in the Wonkomance interview) and I much preferred their category books. I attributed the difference to the editing process, but it’s probably also that the category format imposes constraints that are helpful in shaping the material and imposing a structure. I don’t know enough about Da Rulez (tm Moriah Jovan) at Harlequin or the editing process, but it fits with the overall argument that rules can be freeing when they allow a person to stop thinking about particular issues and concentrate on others. I know that’s a topic in philosophy but I can’t remember where (probably in Aristotle, doesn’t everything flow from him anyway?).

    When people were talking about the things they wanted to see more of in romance a while back, I bit my tongue because so many of those requests are available in category books. I don’t think it’s all “licensed” within the form, but I need to think about that more because I’m not sure the examples that come to mind are the kind of boundary-pushing you’re talking about.

  4. I got stuck imagining Molly, Meg, and Maisey running out into the streets at night, banging pots and pans at the doors of the rich. And then I was trying to figure out who the rich were in this metaphor. And then I wondered if I was even thinking about carnivale, or if it was another thing. It’s been a long time since I studied this stuff!

    And that’s all I’ve got. But I liked the post. :-)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Now someone has to write “Banging the Billionaire’s Pots” or something. No, the metaphor doesn’t really work. My reach exceeds my grasp.

      • Kathryn says:

        I don’t think that your reach exceeds your grasp. As a historian I’m more likely to think of Natalie Zemon Davis as well as Bakhtin. I’ve often thought that modern romance novels are both inherently conservative (since most provide a HEA/HFN ending and like most comedies integrate the lovers back into society rather than changing society to suit lovers) and also inherently radical (since they are produced and consumed by women and validate women’s concern and feelings). Like all carnivalesque activities romance novels are ambiguous and existing on the margins of culture as a result — are they a resource for social/cultural status quo or transformation?

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Thank you, Kathryn! That last sentence was pretty much what I was trying to say but clearer and more eloquent.

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