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Monday, January 22, 2007


The mistletoe effect

Here's something interesting: a discussion on a site called dearauthor.com about the labelling or mis-labelling of paranormal romance. The author of the article complains about the attitude of Juno Books to deviate from the romance formula:

Back to Juno Books, the submission guidelines are as follows:

Some might call our books "paranormal romance", but don't let either word frighten you off. "Paranormal" really means "beyond the ordinary" and "romance" is defined as "an exciting and/or mysterious quality as of a heroic time or adventure" as well as "a story dealing with love".

Doesn't sound like a romance to me.

Actually 'romance' originally meant 'story' (in French the word 'roman' still means 'novel'), and if you give the word a capital R all it really calls to mind is dramatic landscapes and introspection, so Paula Guran, whose remark that was, is on reasonable semantic grounds there. Jane, the author of the post, however, is displeased, because this looser definition means that Juno Books allow romances to break with the implicit promise of the word: that the book will end with the hero and heroine romantically paired. It's an understandable confusion - the pleasure of reading a romance is heavily dependent on knowing there's a happy ending coming. You want to see how they're going to manage a happy conclusion out of the tangle of reversals and setbacks that the plot creates. If the term is being used more loosely, you can hear the sound of an impending collision of expectations a mile away.

Genre labels, as I keep arguing, are an awkward thing, and this is an example of it: one person's definition clashing with another's, the result being the reader declaring (I quote) 'That sucks big time.' - with an air of genuine betrayal, as if she had been lied to, promised something that wasn't delivered. Romance, as understood by the needs-a-happy-ending definition, is one of the strictest of genres, so possibly Ms Guran was picking up a snake by using the word, and would have been better off calling it something else: if you're going to use a genre definition, then you're all the more likely to get reefed on the expectations of your more conservative readers.

However, I think I know why she did it. For one thing, these were submission guidelines, so she was simply casting her net as wide as possible to minimise the chances of losing a good and original author with an overly restrictive-sounding set of rules. But from a readership point of view, the tone suggests Ms Guran is reaching out for an audience that normally wouldn't read something called 'paranormal romance', but might actually enjoy it once they got past the label; readers who think of books that follow the formula as stereotypical and hackneyed. Jane isn't one of them: the label is what attracted her to it, and so to her, deviating from the formula while using the label is false advertising. But I think Ms Guran was really using the word 'romance' as a hint: this is paranormal fantasy that you might enjoy if you're a woman. Which she couldn't say, because lots of feminist women would drop the book like a hot potato, muttering bitterly about gender assumptions. It's a tricky business all round.

I should state here and now that I'm taking no sides with either gender when it comes to genre preferences. Men and women are equally capable of being imaginative, talented, intelligent and nice. But they do tend to read different things. And it's usually women who read romance. Men like to be loved, they like to fall in love, but for reasons I'm simply not debating because it's tantamount to picking a fight with the entire world, they don't seem to like to read about it as much as women do. They read about other stuff; romance, in most books for men, is a subplot.

Women, on the other hand, do like to read about romance. (Me included, if it's good; I like a nice happy ending as much as the next girl.) And sometimes, with some writers, an interesting thing can happen.

Women read. They read a lot. They write a lot. And sometimes, when they're writing in supposedly other genres, romance starts to creep in. My boyfriend once went into Murder One and came across an enormous set of shelves, as big as an average-sized wall, all labelled 'Vampire Romance'. There were that many books on what you you'll have to acknowledge is a pretty specialised taste.

You see, romance can function as a parasite genre. I'm not using the word 'parasite' perjoratively: let's instead consider it like mistletoe. Capable of attaching itself to a great variety of hosts, technically parasitical, but rather pretty, with an ancient tradition and culture, and liable to lead to kissing.

You can have a romantic story in any setting. The detective can take some time out to fall in love with one of the suspects. The hero saves the city and also the damsel. The cowboy rides off into the sunset with his gal. The historical character can court his lady fair. The clown can have some knockabout lovin'. Any story you like can have a romantic subplot without straining credibility one bit, because falling in love is one of those things that people do all the time, no matter what else is going on.

And a subplot can grow. Particularly, I suspect, since feminism made it harder to get away with the romantic interest being merely a swooning arm ornament who gets chained to rocks and doesn't have much to say for herself. To treat the girl like a human being, you have to give her a personality. Give her a personality, and she takes up more of the story, not only because personality takes page space to create, but because hey, suddenly she's useful. She's capable of doing stuff, taking part in the events surrounding her, so you have to have her take part otherwise it's implausible, and having done that, you find you've got a major character on your hands. And let a woman write the story, and now she's bigger than the hero: she's the lead. And unless you decide to shrink the hero down (which many female writers do, which is fair enough as long as they don't turn him into a swooning arm ornament), suddenly the romance is just as important as the mystery or the farce or the need to catch the bad guys. You've got two genres in one story. Or possibly a new genre altogether. Romantic suspense. Romantic comedy. Paranormal romance. Look at the growth of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers's work if you don't believe me.

This is one of the many reasons why I personally would like to see genre labels burned: the interplay between them is much too complicated, and they can cross and re-cross until you either have to invent a new genre every two months or just give up the process altogether and admit that there's no reason on earth why you can't tell stories about any variety or combination of things you like, as long as you make it convincing. In the meantime, let's consider a brief definition:

The mistletoe effect
The tendency of the romance story to take root in other genres and flourish.

And possibly even a verb: 'to be mistletoed'.

The Mistletoe Effect
The tendency of romance stories to kill you if consumed in large enough quantities...
That's only if you don't cook them properly first.
There's worse ways to go than being loved to death.
Hi! I've been looking for an RSS feed for your blog but I can't seem to find one. Toss me a link, please? :D
Hi Ellen,

Um... I'm not very clever technically. I don't know what an RSS feed is; I've looked it up on wikipedia, but I'm still not clear what the link you want would be. Sorry about this. If you could explain in really-inept-layman's terms what you need, I'll be glad to oblige. Or if anyone else reading this is better at this stuff than me, feel free to step in... :-)
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