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Thursday, February 14, 2008


Writing about lurve

Well, happy Valentine's Day, all you lovely people. Take a moment to appreciate yourselves.

Writing about love is a very curious thing. On the one hand, you have an entire genre dedicated to it, to wit, romance novels. These, at the extreme end of the market, are a very community-based form, with reader feedback and regular subscriptions. The format is predictable - hero and heroine meet, are kept apart by obstaces, and eventually unite - so, within that structure, there's a considerable challenge to be found keeping things interesting yet playing by the rules.

One result, which I've dubbed the 'Mistletoe Effect', is that a romance structure can be used in other genres, in the same way that a whodunnit structure can. There have to be two protagonists at the beginning and a clinch at the end, and in the middle, you can put in more or less anything you like. Romance readers can, as shown in the article I quote in the Mistletoe post, take grevious exception to a story where other elements oust the required romantic ending - if it's just 'dealing with love', a dedicated romance reader will consider herself the victim of false advertising. I recently read an article that makes an interesting point about why:

Reading a romance, like reading any formulaic literature, resembles the experience of re-reading in that we interpret the words on the page based on what we know is to come. In the mystery novel, descriptions of horrendous crimes are palatable because we know that justice will be served in the end. In romance fiction, we watch lovers mistreating each other knowing that they will end up kind and devoted. Indeed, it is the happy ending characteristic of all romance that enables safe exploration of the painful contradictions and uncertainties of love relationships. If a book marketed as a romance slips through with a sad or ambiguous ending, as Radway found, readers' negative reaction at first seems out of proportion to their unmet expectation: since for them the happy ending defines romance, a book without one does not belong to the genre (Radway 59; 66). When we realize the betrayal involved, however—readers felt safe probing uncomfortable, painful, and highly personal gender issues because they knew everything would come right in the end—their anger is more understandable. Reading genre literature is like re-reading literary fiction. What if you re-read Moby Dick and Ahab lived at the end?

One result of the Mistletoe Effect, then, is that the romance structure can support anything within it, but mess with the structure itself, and everything collapses.

But how to make romances work in and of themselves? Personally, though I enjoy the odd romance, I'm not a romance fan - by which I mean I seldom seek out books based on the fact that they're romances, and don't consider myself particularly part of the enormous romance reading-and-writing community. A couple of friends of mine regularly get together to enjoy a ladies' evening curled up with Mills and Boon books, which sounds like excellent fun to me, but while I've read a few Mills and Boon in my time (and found some of them really quite touching), there's an issue that strikes me. Romance being a predictable structure, when carelessly done, the hero and heroine end up together for structural reasons rather than for personal ones. That is, they end in a clinch because they're the hero and heroine, not because the story has done its work in making it actually work. They're in lurve rather than in love.

Because the thing is, love is a universal emotion, but actual romances are highly specific. How to square the two? Make the characters too individual, and you risk alienating a large segment of your audience; make them too universal, and their relationship is clearly meant to be, but only because nobody else would put up with such a dull, bland partner. And there's another problem as well: set a romance in modern times, and a plot will be difficult to manage. Because the essence of the romance is that two people are kept apart when they should be together; that's where the suspense comes in. In eras where differences of social class and race kept people from marrying, where money was an essential factor, where parental disapproval carried serious weight, where minor damage to a reputation could ruin a woman's life, there are a glorious profusion of obstacles that an author can throw in the path of her courting couple. But nowadays? Men and women generally work to support themselves, can tell their parents to go hang if they wish, live in societies where prejudice is deeply frowned upon, and can pretty much do what they want. You fall in love with someone? Generally, you get together with them.

That, at least, is the expectation. Getting around it requires imagination.

Something I've noticed in movies recently is that good romances or romantic stories are wandering out towards the edges of the taboo. Brokeback Mountain is a tragic romance rather than a Romance (it ends most unhappily), but it's also a big love story - and what separates the lovers is that sturdy staple, social pressure. They live in a place where openly gay men are beaten to death with the approval of all their neighbours; there's no way they can be with each other. If they moved to the city, they might meet more tolerance, but there's no way they can do that, even if they were willing to abandon their families: in everything but their orientation, they're entirely rural men, and, dropped off in San Francisco, would be displaced and utterly miserable. Taboo keeps them apart to the point where their romance is as tragically doomed as anything in Shakespeare - but the story had to move out to an area where social taboos still carry dangerous weight, and take place between two men, for that to happen.

Similarly with Secretary, one of my favourite romance films, taboo keeps the characters apart, brilliantly managing to circumvent the apparent freedom of a modern suburban setting. What brings the characters together is a shared taste for sadomasochism; what separates them is the fact that, while the heroine happily accepts this part of herself, the hero is ashamed of it, and spends the second half of the movie in terrified retreat, unable to believe that any woman could really love someone as disgusting as him. In fact, what separates the characters is tension between their two personalities - the thing that usually does cause romantic problems in the real world - and when they finally reconcile, the ending is all the more romantic because it's not generic. Truly, there is nobody else for either of them: the pairing is perfect because each is the only person that can truly accept and nurture the other.

Possibly if I read more romance novels, I'd be aware of equivalents in fiction, but as it is, I can't think of any. I wonder if it's because, while romance fiction is a fairly steady market, where you can keep the overheads down, movies are very expensive to make. You can have a four-books-a-month subcription to Mills and Boon, but there isn't a current fashion for straightforward romance movies, or at least, not as big as in books. Books can be a recurrent pleasure, but movies are supposed to be more different from one another. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps I don't read enough romance novels.


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