I can’t believe January went by so quickly, or how much I blogged this month.
For the last little while I’ve had “Hero” by Family of the Year stuck in my head (could be worse). I keep imagining a sad alpha hero singing the opening lines: “Let me go / I don’t want to be your hero / I don’t want to be a big man / I just want to fight with everyone else.” Poor romance heroes; we expect them to be outsized in every way (as Jane’s post at Dear Author on “The Art of Exaggeration” makes clear). Would it be any wonder if they rose up one day in melancholy, melodic rebellion against the constraints of alpha masculinity?
There’s been a lot of discussion around Romancelandia lately about formulae, conventions, rules, and limits, and how far one can stretch the rules before they break, before what we have really isn’t genre romance any more. Romance heroes and heroines, as Jayne Ann Krentz says, are built on “ancient heroic archetypes.”
[T]he hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues [like] . . . courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love.
On a continuum from the archetypal to the realistic, how far are romance readers and authors willing to let characters move towards the real? Where’s the line the hero can’t cross?
I just started reading The Dark Winter, a mystery by David Mark, whose police detective hero is described this way by a waitress: “This big, barrel-chested man . . . [with a] broad, weather-beaten face. He must be an easy six-foot-five, but there’s a gentleness about his movements, his gestures, that suggest he is afraid of his own size.” A female colleague thinks: “He had the personality of an unassuming, bespectacled accountant, but it was rattling around inside a colossal frame.” When readers first meet McAvoy, he’s out with his young son, feeding the kid chocolate cake and thinking about “the delicious scent of his son’s shampooed hair.” McAvoy is, in short, acting in stereotypically maternal ways. I’m curious about how far Mark will continue to subvert the archetypal big tough policeman hero.
Lots of Color, But Keep It Inside the Lines?
I really enjoyed Ruthie Knox’s interview at Wonkomance with Meg Maguire, Molly O’Keefe, and Maisey Yates, three authors who write both category and single-title romances, focused on the constraints and freedoms of the two formats. Yates commented on the way the boundary lines category draws in some areas can actually free a writer up in other ways:
What we have are ‘promises’ of the line, or what I consider to be anchors. The basic elements our readers count on to make a book that’s recognizable as being part of its particular line. Beyond that, we have the freedom to push so many boundaries, because those other boundaries are still in place. This gives us tons of freedom within the parameters set before us.
I don’t disagree with this view. I’ve read things in category romance–heroines who are breast cancer survivors, couples dealing with sexual dysfunction or infidelity–that I’ve never seen in single-title romances (those of you who are better read can provide titles in the comments).
But somewhat paradoxically, the idea that the strict conventions of category romance allow boundaries to be stretched has itself become a conventional statement about the form. I’ve heard other writers say similar things–as O’Keefe does in this interview. I wonder how much can really be considered boundary pushing if it is “licensed” within the form. Maybe category romance is an example of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the carnivalesque, a space for testing limits and beliefs. It’s worth remembering, though, that the medieval carnival was only a temporary holiday from the hierarchy and rules that governed everyday life. The testing isn’t much good if we keep it safely contained within the lines. (Uh, I haven’t really worked this out. I’m not sure if I believe anything I just said or even know quite what I meant).
I have a cryptic note to myself in a list of possible blog ideas: “formula and freshness.” I think my idea was that familiar elements in a novel allow a reader to move into new territory and enjoy things she might not otherwise. Romance readers notoriously hate cliffhangers and want a novel to end with an HEA, for instance, but at the moment many are happily reading New Adult or erotic romance trilogies and serial publications that break those rules, but have familiar romance elements (like alpha heroes and focus on a primary couple’s relationship) that promise the adventure will reward them. I think the popularity of someone like Kristen Ashley can be partly explained by this same balance of formula/familiar and freshness. The things that feel new appeal to someone who has read a lot of romance, to whom its conventions may seem tired, but the familiar elements mean it still satisfies the expectations of a genre reader. I’m not reading these books myself, but if you are, what do you think?