Beyond the Pleasure Principle? Listening to Laurens, Repeatedly

My library’s limited selection of romance audiobooks has led me to some very mixed experiences with the work of Stephanie Laurens (whose first Cynster novel I read years ago and enjoyed). I listened to the first three books in the Black Cobra Quartet, but I got increasingly annoyed with them, partly because they all seemed more or less the same, even more because the villains were [highlight to view spoilers] a pair of half brothers engaged in an incestuous gay relationship. Really? She had to go there? I only skipped the fourth because my library didn’t get it in audio. (I did like Simon Prebble’s narration.)

I hoped for a better experience with the (sadly Prebble-free) Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue. But alas, it made me want to crush my iPod underfoot (except it’s not the poor iPod’s fault).  If you don’t like mean reviews, skip ahead a few paragraphs to the thoughts on repetition.

OMG the repetition!  It came in several flavors:

Cross-book repetition: like the Cobra books, this is a road romance, and the plot events were quite similar; the book has classic Laurens characters who interact in classic Laurens ways:

The contrast of gracious and elegant manners forming a wafer-thin facade over strong and dominant male emotions such as possessiveness and protectiveness is a constant throughout all the Cynster books. The affinity of such warrior males for strong willed women and the ability of their chosen ladies to exact complete and unswerving commitment to themselves, to marriage, and to family, forms the central tenet of the series.

That’s Laurens’ website describing the Cynsters, but I don’t think any of her books are different. These characters have identical personalities to those in the earlier books I listened to.

Lots of writers revisit certain themes, plots or character types over and over, and I often enjoy that (when reading Heyer, or Josh Lanyon, or Dickens). Here, I didn’t. Maybe because I don’t care for these Laurensian tropes, but also because nothing felt new or different in this iteration. It was like a pale, smudgy, fifth-generation photocopy of Devil’s Bride.

Within-book repetition:  Heather Cynster is kidnapped and Breckenridge follows to save her. She wants to hang with the kidnappers to try to figure out who they are (because her sisters are also threatened). So every night, Heather and Viscount B have a secret meeting to report what they’ve learned. Every damn night, we’re reminded that she appears wrapped in her blanket, cinched at the waist with her shawl. These scenes were so similar I actually thought I’d accidentally set my iPod on “repeat.”

Then there’s the novel’s final third where they keep having the same argument about whether to get married. He won’t say he loves her for some ridiculous reason, even though he knows he does, and she won’t marry him unless he says it. (This is also a familiar feature of Cynster novels). This whole section of the book felt like filler to me.

Repetitive Language: If I’d been reading a print version of Viscount B, I’d have been scribbling student-paper-type comments in the margins: “wordy/repetitive”. The drawback of audio is that I can’t easily give examples, but here are a couple of not-especially-egregious ones from the free sample on-line:

[He] finally let himself look down at her. Let himself look into her face . . .

Fleeting, meaningless, illusory connections. Increasingly they left him feeling cheapened, used. Unfulfilled.

I told myself that literary language is not academic langauge. Concision isn’t necessarily a virtue. But this repetition, the string of adjectives or descriptive phrases which are typical of Laurens’ style, also felt like filler. As in weak student papers, the extra words didn’t add anything. They just took up space. (Plus, if I hear the words “warrior male” again, I will scream).

I’m tempted to say that this book felt like a cynical exercise. But that’s reviewing the author, not the book, and is itself a cynical view. The fact that my pleasure came mostly from eye-rolling (“he slid home. All the way to Paradise. SRSLY, Stephanie? You didn’t just write that! C’mon!”) doesn’t mean no one likes Laurens’ style.

So instead of cynicsm, here are some very preliminary thoughts on repetition in genre fiction:

Genre writers, and particularly romance writers, are expected–by their publishers, their readers, themselves–to produce a lot. Laurens has averaged about two books a year for 20 years. That pace is not uncommon. It seems impossible that someone could write so much in the same genre without repeating herself to some extent.

Readers often seek repetition. In a sense, all reading in a genre is “repetitive,” because all the books conform to certain conventions. How to explain this desire for a repeated experience? I turn first to Freud, because I read a lot of psychoanalytic theory at one stage of my life. For Freud, too, repetition posed a problem: why would patients repeat (in dreams, for instance) traumatic experiences? His attempt to explain this eventually led to his theory of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure PrincipleIt’s a complex, ambiguous text, but the key idea here is that repetition is an attempt to “bind” or control unpleasant emotions.

Applying Freud to repetition in genre fiction doesn’t appear to make much sense. After all, isn’t the repetition there pleasurable? But one could argue (and I think Janice Radway suggests something like this) that the reading experience has to be repeated because it doesn’t “take.” We have to read the happy ending over and over because we aren’t convinced by it. Perhaps readers–and writers too–attempt to “bind” their fear that a happy ending isn’t possible by reading about another and another.

In the end, though, I find positive explanations of repetition more persuasive. I think it was tweets of Angela Toscano’s (@Lazaraspaste’s) paper from the McDaniel romance conference that suggested an analogy with food: when we get hungry for lunch, we don’t think it’s because breakfast wasn’t satisfying enough. In fact, a wonderful meal makes us want to repeat the experience (eventually). Or to take a comparison perhaps closer to romance fiction’s territory, having great sex doesn’t usually make us think “Ahh, I never have to do that again.”

So the desire for repetition can be taken as a mark of a good reading experience. The many online requests for “another book like X” or lists of “if you like Y, try Z” recommendations support the idea that readers seek to repeat a pleasurable experience. And if writers repeat themselves, they may just be giving readers what they want.

But all that doesn’t help me with the fact that my experience of Laurens’ repetition wasn’t pleasurable. Perhaps we need repetition with a certain amount of difference, a blend of the familiar voice, style or tropes we love in a writer with something fresh and new. And just where that balance is struck varies from reader to reader.

This is such a rich and complicated topic, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think it’s important to tackle, because repetition is one of the reasons genre fiction is derided as disposable. Instead of dismissing repetition as lack of originiality, we need to think about what it offers readers and writers.

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9 Responses to Beyond the Pleasure Principle? Listening to Laurens, Repeatedly

  1. mezzak says:

    Loved this because repetition of ideas and symbols (the famous motif/tropes) is not the same thing as repetitive language and characterisation. One is what we read romance from and gives us our hopeful appetite for more. The other diminishes the reader experience, leading to ‘that didn’t take I need something more’.

    Because we read so much, genre readers are often derided as empty, greedy consumers. I like this thinking about repetition as an explanation about what reading romance can mean to us and how not just the story but the process of reading works for readers.

    AKA Merrian 🙂

  2. Kaetrin says:

    I SO know what you mean! I think Lauren’s on audio is just not for me. I wrote a very (too) long review of Viscount Breckenridge for AAR and my poor editor is working up to the job of cutting it down to size. It’s especially hard on audio to avoid the repetition. In print I tend to skim and only see one in three adjectives so that works better for me. I didn’t love the narrator either – he kept pausing at the strangest place in a sentence, which was very off putting. I found this a difficult listen and there were A LOT of OH REALLYs and there was much eye rolling. Which is a bit sad because I love some of her other books (in print at least), especially Devil’s Bride.

    I think Lazaraspaste’s presentation has it right about repetition, but that, for me at least, is about replicating a good experience. Not the same thought expressed three ways one after the other in a text and not the plots quite so closely aligned and characters quite so close in nature.

    I’m glad it wasn’t just me that didn’t enjoy this one on audio! 🙂

    • lizmc2 says:

      I noticed the strange pauses and emphases too. I wondered if that was a tic of the reader, or due to Laurens’ rather interesting sentence structures. He made other unfortunate decisions, too, like giving a Scots accent to a character who was explicitly described in the text as not having one. I typically don’t pay full attention to audiobooks, as I’m doing something else while listening, and that made this one sort of OK. I don’t think I would have finished it if I’d been reading print, because I got bored.

  3. HJ says:

    I feel a strong loyalty to Stephanie Laurens, as her Cynster books were the first romances I read after decades away, and introduced me to modern romance writing. However, I too was frustrated by the repetition in the Black Cobra Quartete and in the first two books of the latest trilogy.

    The over-arching plot dictates too much of each individual book, so that there is a sameness between the first and second books in the trilogy which is unavoidable but annoying. I found myself identifying the ways in which Laurens managed to overcome the constraints which she had created for herself rather than enjoying the story – partly because there was little scope for wondering which way she would take it. The Black Cobra Quartet books were even worse because they overlapped chronologically rather than being in sequence. By the last one, I had lost most of my interest – rather like seeing the final inevitable moves played out in a chess game.

    I like series, but I prefer ones with a looser connection (such as the Bastion Club). Even though I’m a loyal Laurens reader, if she sets up another series with a similar limited (and therefore limiting) link between the individual books then I may well not read it. Given my loyalty to her, that is a serious criticism!

    • lizmc2 says:

      That’s a really good point about the repetitive structure imposed by these connected series. I was thinking I might skip to the end of this one, because I have a good guess about who the hero will be (and perusal of Laurens’ website confirms it) and it looks like it could be different and more interesting.

  4. Ros says:

    I enjoyed the first Laurens book I read. I think I enjoyed the next two or three. But after that the repetition became so pervasive and so laughable that I couldn’t bring myself to read any more. What’s the point when I’ve already read them with different names? For me I think the problem is in the precision of the repetition. Laurens really does lift scenes, characters and tropes (like the man refusing to say that he loves the woman) wholesale. There’s nothing specific to the characters and situations in each book. I don’t mind repeated plots but I do mind if every detail of the plot is transferred. I mind when it feels like I’ve read the book before, even if I haven’t.

  5. Pingback: Links! Nora in The Guardian, Stephanie Laurens is repetitive, FridayReads drama, Transgender Day of Remembrance | Read React Review

  6. Janet W says:

    I have to ask: have you read (or listened to?) Devil’s Bride? It was so good — as were a few of her earlier books. I think every new Laurens I read is an attempt to go back to the ………. ok, not going there, because I know you can never repeat the first time. There ain’t no revirgination with Laurens. But she is a smooth writer and some of her plots are quite absorbing. I sort of want to scream how could you start with those wretched Cobra books but hey, readers start where readers start. I couldn’t read the Breckenridge book: I just knew it would be dismally similar. But the next one I enjoyed, maybe because stories of professorial nerds finding their *sorry* inner warrior always appeal.

  7. Kaetrin says:

    My favourites of Laurens (in print, as I’m not a fan of Simon Prebble’s narration – too overwrought for me I’m afraid) are Devil’s Bride, The Ideal Bride, A Gentleman’s Honour and On a Wicked Dawn. In TIB, the hero was first to say I love you and wanted to get married but it was the heroine (Caro) who was gunshy, so it was a bit different to the norm. Those are four books I go back to from time to time and I think they stand up quite well. I did enjoy most of the Cynster books and Bastion Club books to one degree or another but the Black Cobra series (well the first 2) and VBttR (which were all on audio) just didn’t work for me. I will stick with print if I pick up any more of her books. She definitely has talent; I wish she’d write something different and have her editor delete every second and third adjective. Once I started noticing the repetition, which wasn’t until probably I’d read 10+ of her books, I couldn’t stop noticing and it does impact (adversely) on my enjoyment of her work.

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