Fanfic as Iconography, My Alpha Hero Problem, and What Romance Might Learn from an Outsider Hit

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?

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24 Responses to Fanfic as Iconography, My Alpha Hero Problem, and What Romance Might Learn from an Outsider Hit

  1. mezzak says:

    My note is that I found this on Dear Author. but I don’t know who wrote it

    The Ending of the Hermione Granger series:

    And there we have it: The defining hero of our age is a girl who saves the day with her egalitarianism, love of learning, hard work, and refusal to give way to peer pressure. It’s hard to think of the Hermione Granger series as anything other than flawless. And yet — as fans constantly point out — there is a very big flaw in the series. You know who I’m talking about; it’s He Who Must Not Be Named, but we spell it H-A-R-R-Y.

    The character of Harry Potter is an obnoxious error in the Hermione Granger universe, made more obnoxious by his constant presence. It’s tempting to just write Harry off as a love interest who didn’t quite work out; the popular-yet-brooding jock is hardly an unfamiliar type. And, given that Hermione is constantly having to rescue Harry, he does come across as a sort of male damsel-in-distress.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Oh my gosh, I remember that comment. I really really enjoyed (most of) Harry Potter, but I have some sympathy with that view.

  2. mezzak says:

    I like your post on what 50Shades brings to our genre (rather than just takes).

  3. I’ve definitely come across romances where the couple get together, break up and then get back together. It was not uncommon in 1980s and 1990s historicals. To throw out a title of one I enjoyed — The Suitor by Sandy Hingston (she also wrote as Mallory Burgess).

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think there’s so much I’ve missed by coming late to romance-reading!

    • willaful says:

      I’ve thought of one – Chasing Stanely by Deirdre Martin. However, I remember this romance as not being very convincing and I have a sense that that’s my usual response when couples break up and then get back together in romances. Though no doubt there are counter examples.

  4. Cecilia says:

    I seem to be right where you are on FSoG: I’ve read the reviews, accompanying excerpts, and discussions in the romance blogosphere; I read the free kindle excerpt, and was ultimately not compelled to buy and read the whole book – but I’ve nevertheless spent a lot of time thinking about the phenomenon, and whether/how it reflects on the state of the romance genre.

    One thing you didn’t mention, that I’ve wondered about, is the appeal of the first-person-present-tense voice. Previous to FSoG, I had the impression that this was anathema to readers and publishers. But I can see how it might bring a certain immediacy/urgency/intimacy to a story, at least in theory. So I’d be curious to know whether readers are enjoying FSoG in spite of the first-person-present, or whether that is in fact one of the draws.

    (If the latter, then Conventional Publishing Wisdom is way out of step.)

    • lizmc2 says:

      I’m curious about this too. Personally, I’m not a big fan of present tense narration, though I’ve read books where it worked for me. I think 1st person present is fairly common in YA now–though Twilight is first-person past. Romance readers tend to say that they like to have the hero’s point of view as well as the heroine’s, and that largely precludes first person. I think the immediacy of first-person present is tainted by association with YA in a lot of people’s minds–it’s seen as emo, teenage self-absorption, lack of any distance/reflection on events. But so many adult readers now also read YA (and that’s also an unfair view of a lot of YA) that I wonder whether we’re seeing a shift in tolerance for it.

      In first person voice writing becomes so important. That’s a big part of why I decided FSoG wasn’t for me, but other readers liked Ana’s voice a lot and really identified with her. My guess? That people who like/love the character’s voice won’t even notice it’s present tense, and that others might be really bugged by it.

      Publishing Conventional Wisdom no doubt creates books that sell to lots of people. But really big breakout hits often go against conventional rules. The problem comes when people try to replicate that success assuming they know its cause, and whatever magic/luck/timing/talent/quirk made the hit work for millions isn’t there. We just can’t identify what “THE thing” was that makes a book break out, I think. I’d rather see a success like this lead to more quirky rule-breakers than many bland mass-produced versions of whatever people think made this a hit.

  5. Cecilia says:

    So I had a mini-epiphany about how the first-person narrators I’ve loved best – Huckleberry Finn, butler Stevens (The Remains of the Day), Bertie Wooster – are all clueless in their various ways, and how part of the pleasure of reading them is in the resultant reader distance, and the awareness of how they’re misinterpreting events. But I haven’t yet been able to spin this into an observation actually relevant to your subject.

    (It’s there, somewhere, on an intuitive level. Something to do with how much reader distance is appropriate in romance, maybe. Though I’m still not sure FSoG counts as a romance.)

    Anyway, yes to more quirky rule-breaking books, both in and out of the genre.

    • lizmc2 says:

      It’s hard to imagine a romance with an unreliable/self-deluded narrator that still met the expectations of romance readers. It would certainly be interesting. Like you, I tend to find those kinds of first-person narrators the most interesting: the writer is using narration to do something other than get us into the character’s head.

      A lot of people describe FSoG as a romance (or at least, the trilogy as following a romance arc). But this post–from a reader who found the books engrossing but ultimately didn’t like them–is an interesting counterpoint, I thought. (I actually think her criticisms could apply to a number of genre romance books and plenty of YA with romance elements).

      • willaful says:

        Clueless narrator: Muscling Through by J.L. Merrow. I wouldn’t say it creates a distance though — we don’t laugh at him like we do at Bertie.

        Unreliable narrator: Winter Knights by Harper Fox

        Both m/m romances. I’ve really been feeling that m/m is where most of the interesting, risk-taking writing is being done lately.

        • lizmc2 says:

          Oh, thanks for those examples. M/m is also way more likely to use first-person narration than m/f romance, maybe partly because of ‘the pronoun problem.’ I think its popularity, too, could bring some change to familiar tropes and narrative styles of recent m/f romance.

      • A lot of chick lit used unreliable narrators, as did the old gothic romances. I can also think of some good erotica-bordering-on-romance that uses it, too, like Megan Hart’s Dirty, or Alison Richardson’s Countess Trilogy.

        • lizmc2 says:

          So, unsurprisingly, experimentation with things like narrative is happening on the margins of the genre. It totally makes sense in Gothic, where the reader and heroine must be uncertain about who the hero is/whether he is what he seems.

      • Yes, I saw that post yesterday! Fascinating, and yet more grist for the mill. (“The mill” being my evolving thoughts about a series of books I haven’t read.)

        I also saw yesterday that FSoG is going to be the cover story on this week’s Entertainment Weekly mag (ironically, with a horrible, simple-minded cover image), and I read an excerpt from their interview with James, and all of a sudden I felt oddly protective of her. I know that all of us genre writers are supposed to dream of having that big breakout hit that crosses over into the mainstream, but I can tell you I would not want to be the one who has to field all the smirking questions about Sex in Books. She had a good answer in the part I read, something to the effect of “People have sex; get over it,” and I hope she can keep that up.

    • Agreed! That was actually one of my main problems with Outlander — Claire was not an unreliable enough narrator for my taste. I found when I tried to explain this feeling to other readers, I had a difficult time getting the idea across.

  6. sonomalass says:

    Most of my favorite alpha heroes, given that I tend to prefer the betas, have a sense of humor. I think the brooding male stereotype must be the trademark of authors other than the ones I read. I also really like second-chance stories, because the characters HAVE tried this before. I think the reason it’s rare to have characters get together, break up, and get back together is length — in 50SoG, it takes one fairly long book just to get to the break-up. (The only book of the three that I read; it was enough.) Most romance readers want their happy ending, although there are series in related genres where the main couple takes more than one book to figure things out. I’m not sure this is a genre expectation that should be broken without warning.

    Most contemporary romance I read deals with birth control, almost always condoms. The ones that don’t I find really jarring. Often the ones that don’t involve contraception are baby books, which I guess makes sense, but I still have trouble thinking of the characters as admirable if they don’t have that basic level of sense.

    I thought Holly was pretty spot-on in her analysis of why 50SoG isn’t romance; I will take her word for it on the rest of the trilogy.

    My mother paints icons as a hobby, and your metaphor here is pretty good. I think fan fiction does portray familiar figures, recognizable by certain signs, but with some slight shift or twist. Certainly Master of the Universe did that with the Twilight characters. It’s interesting to see the impact of those characters on readers who don’t know they were previously Bella and Edward, or who haven’t read the Twilight books. Kind of like showing an icon painting to someone who doesn’t know iconography & doesn’t have referents for it; what do they think of it as a painting if they aren’t viewing it in that context?

    • lizmc2 says:

      Since I haven’t read the books, I can’t comment on Holly’s argument, really–I just thought it was interesting to see comments from someone who read the books and found them engrossing (enough to read the whole trilogy in a couple of days) but ended up being critical. Mostly, I’ve seen criticism from people who didn’t find them engaging/didn’t read them. I would say, though, that some of the qualities she points to as “not romance” show up in plenty of books labelled romance. I don’t necessarily like them when they do, but those books have lots of fans.

      I see condoms in most contemporaries too. But they’re just there. The characters don’t usually discuss birth control before having sex, for instance, or discuss if/when to use other methods at some point in their relationship. I get why not–it’s often seen as “not sexy” to interrupt the story for that (and I sure appreciate writers who make clear that they are using condoms) but it’s part of any sexual relationship.

      You’re right about the longer story arc that a trilogy allows. That’s certainly not something accepted in straight-up romance, but I wonder if the popularity of UF/PNR series with longer romance arcs suggests some romance readers might have an appetite for that, IF they knew that’s what they were getting into.

  7. Janet W says:

    Never say never — I just wanted to say thank you for providing a platform for the great array of comments you always seem to get here. Here’s a question I’ve been pondering — in the same sense that fiction written by women is sometimes stuck in the ghetto/not at the front of the critical assessment line … don’t you think some of the push back about “out of control” demands is also related to the sex of James and her agent? Not that I think we need worry about either of them: she has navigated the shark infested waters quite beautifully and since I agree with her assessment that the Fifty trilogy is a Love Story w/Kink, maybe she’s just waiting for her view to prevail. Anything that frees authors up to take chances — in the sense that the public seems more than ready for it — seems like a bonus to me.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think a) being a woman and b) being a woman writing about sex (and romance) does have something to do with it. I wonder if a man publishing something that began as fanfic would get the same response. Maybe. I don’t know enough to say. As for the other issues–like people bashing her writing–that often happens to big best-sellers, I think (Dan Brown, the Bridges of Madison County guy) but I don’t think with the same level of vitriol/personalization at all. I think it’s pretty clear James & her agent is savvy about handling all this (though I agree with Cecilia, I also feel sympathy for her. Who knows what people really think in these situations, but I took the fact that there was initially no sign of her in all the media hoopla to mean not that people didn’t try to get a comment from her, but that she didn’t wish to comment or be a public figure, particularly. I’m not at all sure I’d pay the price of all this publicity in exchange for millions).

    • lizmc2 says:

      Also, discussions in the comments are the best reason to blog. Thanks, everyone!

  8. sonomalass says:

    The “read them all like crack and then afterwards not like it” is exactly the phenomenon I had with the Twilight books when my daughter was reading them and wanted to share — it was only after I finished the third one that I stopped to contemplate what I’d read, separated myself from Bella’s POV, and started being disturbed by what was passing for “romantic” in Edward’s behavior. I found the first volume of this trilogy compulsively readable as well, but in the end I just couldn’t handle the central equation of kink=sick that I was feeling, nor the extremely controlling behavior that Christian exhibits and Ana accepts. (And that was before I knew anything about the manuscript’s origins.) So I see where Holly is coming from. And perhaps it is the confluence of the factors she mentions that keeps some of us from accepting this as a romance, rather than any one factor, since (as you say, Liz) you can find other romances that contain these elements separately.

  9. Kaetrin says:

    One of the first romances I read as a teenager was Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love. Steve and Ginny get together and break up all the time in the book. (He rapes her a lot too. Plus, she gets raped by others too IIRC). Many of the 80’s Old Skool (TM Smart Bitches?) romances have this getting together/breaking up (usually because of the Big Mis – she is a HOOR!!). Personally, I’m happier without it. Exceptions are short term conflicts which are quickly resolved by communication – that seems real to me, but I don’t like romances where the h/h spend a lot of time apart and the kind of break ups which occurred in books like SSL, kept the MC’s apart for long stretches of time. Also, as a teen, I really had no idea how rapetastic those books were. I doubt I could “appreciate” them now. 🙂

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