You guys, don’t hate me. Today’s random thoughts, like my last couple of posts, are Fifty Shades of Grey-inspired. Some of you are sick of hearing about That Book. Some of you think I shouldn’t talk about it since I haven’t read it (I tried the sample; it’s just not for me). But discussions of the phenomenon are everywhere, and many aspects of that phenomenon are interesting to me.
Fanfic as Iconography
In an interesting interview on the 50 Shades movie deal, agent Valerie Hoskins describes Christian and Ana as “these iconic characters” James created. I admit the phrase made me roll my eyes (I’m not touching the question of to what extent James “created” these characters, and to what extent Stephenie Meyer did; I haven’t read either). There is an awful lot of hyperbolic comment about these books, and I think it’s a bit early to call the characters “iconic.” This is the kind of thing that makes me write “don’t overclaim!” in the margins of student papers.
But then I started thinking of icon-painting as a metaphor for fan work. Icons can be very beautiful, and they’re often displayed as works of art. But if you’re making them in a traditional way, it isn’t like making secular art–it’s a spiritual practice, just as icons are meant to be used as aids to prayer. Icons depicting a particular saint or moment (e.g. the Annunciation) all follow the same design or structure; they contain the same symbolic elements. And yet, each one is unique.
In saying that fanfic could be seen as iconographic, I don’t mean that fans worship the canon material, but their work is done out of love (or other responses) of it. And every fanfic, while “patterned” in some way on its source, is also distinct from it. Fan communities also seem to grow up mainly around genre works–sci fic, fantasy, romance–that are themselves “traced over” older patterns; a successful genre work both conforms to the conventions/outlines of the genre and offers something original and new.
A metaphor, like an icon, isn’t just for decoration. It should get us somewhere. Where does this one get me? It’s another way of questioning the nature and value of “originality,” and challenging my gut-level aversion to the idea of publishing fan fiction for profit. (I might note here that icon painters don’t sign their works. In a way, that’s analogous to the fan tradition of not profiting. It’s clear, though, that that value isn’t universal in fan communities, or that things are changing, or both).
My Alpha Hero Revelation
I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional romance-style alpha: bigger, stronger, richer, bossier than everyone else. I don’t especially like how the alpha–and his conventional (though hardly universal) pairing with a younger, more innocent/inexperienced, submissive, etc. heroine–reinforces and naturalizes traditional gender roles. So this point from Jessica’s review of FSoG has stayed with me:
In contrast to a lot of alpha heroes in romance, especially of the Presents variety, Christian is often surprised, saddened, and amused by Ana. He is sometimes scared, vulnerable, needy. And he can be genuinely funny. Reading Fifty Shades made me realize how limited an emotional repertoire many romance heroes — especially alphas – are allowed to have.
Yes! I am not a reader who has to fall in love with the hero (I just need to believe the heroine/other hero/whoever would). But. I tend to be depressed. One of the things I love most about my husband is that he can almost always make me laugh and forget about myself for a while. So when I think of those alphas who can only be angry/horny/obsessive/sulky, I think, “who would ever want to live with that guy?” Men I know in real life who lack a sense of humour are . . . pretty much assholes. Or really, really boring. So I guess that does make it hard for me to believe in an HEA with a humourless alpha.
What Is Romance Learning from the FSoG Phenomenon? What Should It?
Thinking about how this giant hit might offer a different model for alpha heroes, I wondered what else romance writers, agents and publishers might learn from it (and here I’m speculated based on what reader-friends have liked).
What Romancelandia does seem to be saying: “Hey suburban mommies! We haz all ur erotic romances. We has them with the BDSMz in them, and with the wounded obsessive alpha domz! WE CANZ MAKE MOARZ of them!” Also–and unwisely, if you want to promote yourself to James fans–“EL James UR DOIN IT WRONG! We haz the better ones!” (sorry for the lolcats language, but the responses are often pretty simplistic.) To some extent all this is true. There’s a lot in FSoG that reminds romance readers of books in their genre. We’ve got lots of good books that have some of the elements James’ trilogy does, and it would be great if readers wanting more went on to enjoy them. A lot of people did posts with recommendations.
But. There are also differences. Maybe 50 Shades‘s success opens the way for some new and different offerings from romance.
1. Alphas who are more fully rounded characters. Who can laugh.
2. Longer, slower-paced books. This is an iffy one. Some readers described James’ books as too meandering, needing tightening, a slog at times. But I think the number of fans proves that if readers love a book’s characters and world, they are perfectly happy to meander along (hello? didn’t J.K. Rowling already prove this? I thought some Harry Potter books were self-indulgent and needed more editing, but I still enjoyed them. What about J.R.R. Tolkein? There are a lot of endless walking scenes in Lord of the Rings. And do you have to have initials in your pen-name to make this work?).
The publication of James’s trilogy–first serially online, then in three volumes–reminds me forcibly of the “loose, baggy monsters” of the nineteenth-century novel, which followed the same pattern. Dickens was popular, even though many people now find his novels a slog. Romance-readers, too, have enjoyed long, episodic sagas in the books of the 70s and 80s. These days, there’s such an emphasis on shorter books that throw you right into the action and almost never slow down. How about more narrative variety?
3. Realism and open discussion about birth control use (paging Harlequin!). What century is this again? Wait, don’t answer. How about romance offering a counter-punch to the political discussion of these issues that so directly impact women’s–and men’s–intimate lives?
4. A different kind of courtship narrative and conflict. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a romance where the couple get together, break up and make up over the course of the book. Have you? How about one where a major obstacle to the HEA is a couple’s differing sexual preferences, which they must resolve? Where the sex isn’t 100% awesome for everyone from the get-go (I can think of a few scenes, but not many. This is a major annoyance for me, since Romanceland likes to brag about its good, frank, sex writing–which is true, as long as it’s a good, frank fantasy. I’d like more variety there, too. Work for the good sex, learn to please each other. Not that I mind the fantasy. We can have some of that too, and clearly that’s part of what FSoG offers many readers).
What would you like to see romance learn from this success? What do you fear it will learn?