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 Principle. It’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.