Kern der Sache

What’s the beating heart of romance? What drives the genre? What propels the books off the shelves?

We could say, banally but accurately, that the answer is as varied as the number of romance readers and leave it there. But let’s not, if only because then this post would be so short. (Yes, this tautology fuels much of my life.)

In the anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a collection of essays about the genre by popular romance writers, we get a number of responses. Penelope Williamson writes that in romance, “The fantasies are uniquely feminine and the story is primarily the heroine’s” (126, emphasis in original). Laura Kinsale disagrees, arguing, “It is the hero who carries the book” (32) and that romance reading “is the experience of ‘what a courtship feels like’” (39). Jayne Ann Krentz says that romance is the un-politically correct fantasies of women readers, including to challenge (and perhaps be dominated by) the alpha hero who is also the villain (107-9).

So the draw of romance is that it puts a woman at the center of the narrative, subverting the Western canon, wherein she must solve (conquer?) the man who is hero and antagonist at once. Got it.

Do readers read for heroines or heroes? Based on all the talk about book boyfriends that I see, I suspect the latter, but things like Heroine Week give me hope. I’m partial to heroines myself. Whatever else the genre is doing, it is corrective (or complimentary) to big-l Literature, which is all too often stories by and about men, even in 2013.

Do we want fantastical and heroic love stories that are notable because they are unusual or are we looking for quiet, unobtrusive ones that find their power in quotidian details and strength because they might happen to us? Yes. Both. Sometimes at once.

As Freud might note in the margins of his romances (because you so totally know that Freud would have loved genre romance), the kern der sache (heart of the matter) is that romance readers want books that work. And if a book works — which is to say, if readers connect with the hero/heroine emotionally, if they care about their journey, and if they find the ending satisfying — they’ll put up with almost anything.

Political overtones, forced seduction, BDSM, critiques of the church, obscure historical settings, difficult subject matter, forbidden love: I can think of widely-read and well-received romances that treat them all. If the reviews are good enough, if the buzz is loud enough, a romance can overcome any seeming impediment.

Take just two examples: The Bronze Horseman and The Siren. The former is a 700-page epic set during the siege of Leningrad. The heroine is 16-years-old, the hero is engaged to her sister, there’s a war on, and oh yes, they’re all Russian and starving. But holy cow does the book pack a wallop. Once I started, I could not stop reading it and based on Goodreads, neither could anyone else.

Whatever rules of the genre The Bronze Horseman doesn’t violate (death, infidelity, optimism, politics, and word count to name but a few), The Siren annihilates. There’s no innocent teenage heroine here, nor heroism, as the erotic writer and professional Dominate Nora Sutherlin revises a novel and chooses between three different suitors, including her ex (who has a very unusual day job), her editor, and her 19-year-old roommate. It’s a subversion of the genre that’s been embraced by it. And for a book that should have caused mucho controversy, it’s been almost universally cheered.

Of course not every book works for every reader — “books that work” is a subjective and vague standard. But the success of The Bronze Horseman, The Siren, and other “problem texts” indicates that readers are adventurous given the right circumstances. If a book is meh, they’re conservative; the devil you know and all that. But if the emotional pay-off is there, romance readers will follow you almost anywhere.

How do you convince them (or convince the gatekeepers) to take the risk and try your book? How do you conjure these all-important reviews and buzz? I haven’t the slightest idea. (None at all really.) But what I find exciting about the genre is that risk-taking and innovation do occur.

I’m not saying that readership follows quality or the cream rises to the top or anything. I am saying that in the last analysis, readers want to feel deeply and to be satisfied when they close the book. If you do those, all roads are open to you.

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5 thoughts on “Kern der Sache

  1. I thoroughly agree with what you’ve written here. I struggle with what criteria I’m using when I judge a romance narrative’s success. It all feels a bit of a hodge-podge (sp?), so uncertain and … well, muddy. I think the reason for this is because we tend to break down the narrative when it dissatisfies us, pointing to this that didn’t “work,” or that that “didn’t” work. We criticize ideas; and then tend to say also, look at how “bad” the writing is.

    But you’re right, any idea, no matter how outlandish and un-PC-ish can, does, and will work. More often than not, the prose is key in coming together with the ideas: as an ideas-person, I struggle to find the right word, the right phrase, to express them (now, I think that leaves Freud in the water and goes back to Plato, maybe?). I like the idea that the ancients had about a Muse: something beyond the writer (our penchant for individualism and the subjective doesn’t always leave much room for this) that drives and inspires her and when the Muse pays her visit, the book, ideas and prose, make for a perfect marriage (for a romance narrative, I think the metaphor works). I’m not sure; what I’m trying to express remains murky. The Muse is definitely not with me today!

    • Yes. I was thinking here about Robin’s post from Dear Author yesterday about why we read, which led me to think about what we read and the nature of taste (that most elemental and least helpful of “hows”). Maybe next’s week blog post will be about the how. Out of the three fundamental questions (why, what, how), the last is the hardest and perhaps the most important, not only to judge a text’s success, but to interrogate ourselves and become better readers.

      I never use Freud to read texts (really, the idea gives me the shivers). The reference was an odd story I picked up somewhere about how he would write “heart of the matter” in the margins when he found what he thought was the text’s central idea. I suspect the central idea in romance is the emotional resonance of the text, which isn’t a theory of criticism or artistic merit but … an aspiration? Or something? I don’t know; the Muse isn’t with me either at the moment.

      And yes, I think form should follow content. A successful text is written in the way it should be, either because the two synthesize to form a coherent and unified whole (e.g. Moby-Dick’s hybridity, poetical-ness, and fractionality — is that a word? how Melvillian of me!) or because the tension between the form and the content is productive (e.g. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” a sonnet about rape).

      ETA: edited because that originally read “Lead and the Swan,” which would be a very different poem.

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