Trope-icalia (with apologies to Anne Stuart)

I’m listening to this while writing my post. It is fabulous. Hence my title.

And I’m apologizing to romance writer Anne Stuart because she recently wrote a blogpost in which she complains about the use of the word “trope” in discussions of romance:

I am so fucking sick of the word “trope” that I’m ready to vomit. It got pulled out of the stinking reservoir of academe-speech, and everyone who wants to sound intelligent talking about romance novels uses it, and if I read it one more time I will scream.

This comment caught my eye because several people I follow tweeted the link with positive comments, and because I’d recently had a Twitter exchange about “trope” begun when someone else (Carolyn Jewel, I think) complained about people misuing the term. I’m going to (mis)use it, though, because I’m a stinking academic, and because it’s handy.

I first encountered the word “trope” in that most haute (or stinking) “reservoir of academe-speech,” an essay by Jacques Derrida called “White Mythology” (in Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass). Derrida uses “trope” in the traditional rhetorical sense: a trope is “a figure of speech which consists in the use of a word . . . in a sense other than that which is proper to it” (OED). It comes from a Greek word meaning “turn.” In the final section of of the essay, “Flowers of Rhetoric: The Heliotrope,” Derrida meditates on the nature of “proper” meaning and on the centrality of the sun in philosophical metaphors (heliotropic flowers turn towards the sun).

You’ll be relieved (or disappointed) to know I’m not going to discourse at length on Derrida’s essay. I haven’t read it in at least 20 years, so I’d be sure to make an ass of myself if I did. But because to me trope meant “figure of speech,” I was confused to find it used quite differently in on-line discussions of romance fiction.

Romancelandia uses “trope” more or less the way TV Tropes does (warning: you could waste spend hours at that site):

In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.

Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.

In our Twitter discussion, Eric Selinger pointed out that when people use “trope” this way they are referring to what Classical rhetoric calls “topos”: “a traditional motif or theme (in a literary composition); a rhetorical commonplace; a literary convention or formula” (OED). That’s where we get the word “topic.” It made sense to me that meaning would migrate between two similar-sounding terms in this way so that popular usage doesn’t match up with academic usage.

So much for academe-speech. How about popular-speech? You’ll notice that there’s a lot of wiggle-room in the TV Tropes definition; it’s not surprising, really, that Anne Stuart and others get frustrated by the frequent deployment of such an imprecise term. But I find the very imprecision rather useful.

First, it covers a lot of different genre conventions (plot, theme, language, character types) that readers may experience in a similar way: we recognize them as familiar (comforting and/or irritating); we compare use of them in the book we’re reading to others we’ve read; we consider how effectively this particular book uses them.

Second–and here, after a lot of waffling about Derrida, I think I’ve finally found the point of my post–it highlights the fact that the difference between a convention and a cliché is often as much in the mind of the reader rather than the pen of the writer: “when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the [reader] rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.” Partly that “intrusiveness” is down to the writer’s skill, but it may also have a lot to do with a reader’s familiarity with and fondness for various tropes.

For  example, I recently listened to Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right, an urban fantasy debut. It is trope-tastic: smart-mouthed heroine with special powers (plus she must be hot because every guy wants her), mysterious/powerful alpha-lust object, hot guy who never quite becomes third point of love triangle . . . I thought it was just a shiny collection of clichés and wanted a book whose heroine is a Grim Reaper (she can see ghosts and functions as a portal to the other side) and whose scary-lust-object is [highlight to view spoiler] the son of Satan to have something to say about, I don’t know, mortality or Good vs. Evil to make those clichés fresh and meaningful. For me, this book didn’t do that. But other readers liked it much better, including readers whose taste I respect.

I’ve had the same response to other beloved paranormal romance and urban fantasy books *cough*Thea Harrison, J.R. Ward*cough*. I don’t really like their conventions much (particularly the ultra-alpha heroes), so I don’t read enough in those subgenres to be a great judge of whether writers are using those conventions in fresh ways or not.

On the other hand, I’ve recently enjoyed a number of Traditional Regency romances and those things are conventional as all get-out: you see the same plot devices and character types all over the place. I hope I’m not a totally undiscriminating reader of “trads,” but I often enjoy even those I find more clichéd because I like the tropes they use: marriage of convenience and friends to lovers plots, reformed rakes, witty sparring matches between hero and heroine. To me, those tropes are not intrusive but familiar and comforting.

As Derrida says (well, not exactly), “tropes: they’re not perfect, but you can’t have a story without them.”

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15 Responses to Trope-icalia (with apologies to Anne Stuart)

  1. Rohan says:

    Interesting: I wouldn’t have used “trope” in quite that Romance way either–it seems as if “convention” does the job as well, and like you I thought of “trope” as meaning more like ‘figure of speech’. Whatever the terminology, the idea that there’s a point (but perhaps a subjective one) past which tropes / conventions become cliches does match my experience, and I think that like you, I am more tolerant of tropes I like. I don’t find Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series cliched, though the books are highly conventional to the point of formulaic, for instance–because I like the formula!

    Once when I was a struggling graduate student, one of my more alienating professors exclaimed in excitement during seminar, “We’ve troped into a system of erotics!” I had (and have) no idea what she meant but I’ve never forgotten what she said. I think she may have put me off the whole notion of tropes forever…

  2. Magdalen says:

    If I understand the “proper” meaning of trope, and the improper but culturally prevalent sense that people intend when they substitute “trope” for motif, then the trope-as-motif is a trope-in-its-proper-definition, i.e., a figure of speech where a word is used in other than its proper meaning.

    How delightfully meta. Unless I just got it wrong.

  3. Rohan says:

    On a completely irrelevant side note, I find that Anne Stuart is the author of a whole SERIES about “the wicked House of Rohan.” Aha–the truth gets out!

  4. Sarah Frantz says:

    I do not understand why people have a problem with the use of the word “trope” as a synonym for convention. That is a perfectly accurate use of the word for that definition. That’s one of the meanings of the word trope NOW, no matter its more specific origins.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. Interesting.

  5. Robin says:

    I love this post, and for everyone’s benefit will refrain from my standard ‘tired of the anti-academic/anti-intellectual’ whining.

    I still feel uncomfortable using trope the way most people do when talking about Romance, and I’m not quite sure why — some deep-seated and massively warped grad school guilt, no doubt. I do use it sometimes, but always with a little internal resistance. Instead I tend toward motif, device, convention, or, if it fits, cliche. Although thinking about the way you’ve laid this out may help erode that resistance, a bit.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I couldn’t quite figure out what Anne Stuart was objecting to. It does seem to be partly the use of an academic term, but is that because she objects to academic-type discussions of romance, or because she thinks people are doing it just to sound smart/important rather than to say interesting/smart things? We all have days when we write rants whose point isn’t totally clear, though.

      I tend to use a variety of terms too, but “trope” is convenient & short, and as Sarah points out, “convention” is now an accepted definition (it’s in many dictionaries) so it isn’t really “wrong.”

      • Robin says:

        Oh, I think “stinking reservoir of academe-speech” represents a swipe at academics, but there also seems to be a critique of ‘thinking above one’s station’ or something ridiculous like that. So pardon me while I relish the way you handily demolished the main misapprehension on which her opinion was founded.

        Also, I find it amusingly ironic that it’s perfectly okay to have academic speech incite one to vomiting but not a work of romantic fiction. Always good to know the rules!

      • Robin says:

        Oh, I also want to note that I’m not blaming Stuart for that last irony, since the other example I’m thinking of was not related to her or her books. It’s just one of those moments when I think about how both authors and readers have, shall we say, viscerally unsophisticated responses to the written word, even though it’s apparently not always acceptable to say so.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I know what you mean about this irony. Stuart’s comments aside, it’s not uncommon to see academic/analytical approaches get these visceral responses, but if a reader makes a similar comment about a book, she’s often taken to task for it.

  6. Anne Stuart says:

    Ha! My English professor cousins will be astounded that I turn up in the same discussion as Derrida. . I was just in a grumpy mood, and what annoys me is that the word trope is over-used. Academic discussion of romance novels is fabulous, so are intelligent conversations/investigations/reviews. Everyone has words that annoy them. Enthuse makes me insane, but I like disrespect as a verb. Go figure.
    Trope just pushes my buttons.

    • lizmc2 says:

      We all have those buttons, and I mentioned your post because it struck a chord with several people I know and resonated with other converstaions. Thanks for taking my comments in the tongue-in-cheek spirit they were meant in.

  7. Well, I learned something today! Funnily enough, when I recently used this word (in a blog post? tweet? can’t recall) I felt a moment of anxiety and thought to myself I really must look that up. And look, you have saved me the bother.

  8. willaful says:

    Was just wondering (before I saw Stuart’s post here) if people using the word trope had become an annoying trope for her. 😉

    Good points on when a trope becomes a cliche. It’s interesting how certain conventions work for me the first time (loved Ward at first) but then become tired, while others I could read til the cows come home.

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