Authenticity in Romance; or, The Land of 10,000 Dukes

What follows is a random collection of jet-lag fueled thoughts meaning it’s even more random than normal. You’ve been warned.

Yesterday, Kaetrin wrote an essay on Dear Author about the problem of accumulation. She explores how the overrepresentation of certain kinds of people in romance shapes the genre by pushing writers toward certain tropes. There are by a factor of a thousand to one more dukes in romance than there were/are in real life, but if you’re writing, discoverability is a real issue–so do you choose to write the millionth duke romance or do you write a romance set in a Shaker community in antebellum America? Probably the duke.

(Aside: I desperately want to read a Shaker romance. Why are we so obsessed with the Amish? I mean, other than the fact that Shakers were celibate. And this leads to me asking for an asexual romance. Has anyone read either?)

It’s not an apolitical question. In the land of 10,000 dukes, lots of people are unrepresented or unrepresentable–and that matters in terms of who is being written out of history and for whose story seems to have subjectivity in the present. As Kate Sherwood pointed out in the comments, there’s a magnifying effect because readers and writers learn through their reading. They learn the tropes, thus making certain ideas de rigueur, but I think they also probably learn the worlds too.

I haven’t read much Georgette Heyer. In fact, I’ve never read an entire Heyer novel. Part of what I can’t seem to crack is the shell of her world: she created her own version of the ton, a slang lexicon, and this entire world really–and for many readers, her world-building is so consistent and smooth that it has become the Regency. When I have tried to read Heyer, I end up getting all huffy and muttering to myself about authenticity.

And that’s what I want to consider for a moment: authenticity and realism in historical romance.

1) All art is representative.

I blogged last summer for Evangeline Holland’s Historical Romance Week about this. For my purposes now, this is the most salient paragraph:

The treachery of representation is that when the process of creation is forgotten or obscured, all the ways it can be manipulated are lost. To forget representation is to forget its limits, to buy the myth of objectivity. In the case of metaphors, it’s to lie about either or both of the things being metaphorized. Difference, texture, and reality itself are causalities of metaphor.

What’s even more evident to me today is that readers are often clear about the fact that romance (or any artistic product) is a representation–and a frequently imperfect one. In the DA thread and on Twitter, many readers insisted that they understand that there weren’t really that many dukes but they don’t read historical romance to learn about the past, they read for the fantasy. No harm, no foul.

I suspect that it’s probably dialectical: that readers move between being swept away by the representation and accepting it as a “real” and being very aware of the representation as representation. And that’s fine. I absolutely do not think all art needs to have a didactic purpose. In fact…

2) I’m skeptical about attempts to represent the past authentically.

I wrote about this in the same essay for Evangeline Holland, but I don’t know that we can ever truly recreate the headspace of or understand the past. It’s hard enough to fight through the cotton of the present, to understand ourselves as independent actors influenced by a host of cultural, economic, political, gendered, and racialized factors. But then to try to do it again? And then make the one comprehensible to the other? Yeesh.

I have spent years of my life reading things written in the United States in the 1850s: novels, poems, periodicals, letters, etc. I have spent almost as much time reading histories of that period. I’ve thought about how those histories are products of their time, which meant thinking about the cultural framework of the 1920s or the 1960s or the 1990s. And for my pains it’s more difficult for me to say something about the 1850s today than it was when I was an undergrad more than a decade ago. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

As LP Hartley began The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To extend the metaphor, we can know about the things which were done differently in the past. We can understand the topography. But we can’t know what it was like to live there–not really. When I’ve written historical romance, I’ve taken my research seriously, but I’ve also understood that I can’t shed my twentieth-first century worldview enough to understand life in antebellum America. So we should try to achieve truthiness, but …

3) We should be wary of fetishizing authenticity.

Every few months, I read a hand-wringing piece about Britney Spears complaining about how she isn’t a “real” musician. The conflict between pop and rock has long one been one about authenticity. Or how New Adult literature is the product of marketing and it’s not an authentic literary genre.

Fights about authenticity are perhaps even more pronounced within the country music world. On Nashville, which is one of my favorite prime-time soap operas, there is a delicious contrast between Connie Britton’s Rayna James–who we are to understand is authentic in that she writes music, plays instruments, came up to stardom through the proper channels, etc.–and Hayden Panettiere’s Juliet Barnes–essentially a Taylor Swift redux whose music is more pop than country and whose focus is on production values. But most authentic of all are the uncle and niece duo of Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) and Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen), who can’t seem to quit music even when it’s killing them. They are most frequently shown playing instruments. Scarlett has “it,” whatever it is, and is both acceptable to the Nashville establishment and is commercially viable. Deacon and Scarlett ooze authenticity out of their pores–even of course as the viewer might come to different conclusions about the relative “goodness” of the music on the show.

A fetish in the theoretical sense is an object on which desire has been displaced. It’s almost like camp because the person is aware of the displacement but takes an almost involuntary pleasure in the object anyway. And importantly, a true fetish object is one that the individual *needs* in order to achieve pleasure.

So the person who accepts authenticity as the standard for judging value will never been able to enjoy the pleasures offered by Britney Spears or Juliet Barnes, for example, because they don’t have “it.” But when we’re talking about commercial art…

4) There is no absolute authenticity.

The “most authentic” art–whether we’re considering the debut album of a singer-songwriter, the magnum opus of a grunge rock band, or a literary fiction novel–has been created in the commercial marketplace. It’s been edited or framed for our consumption; we’ve paid money for it. Mediators like agents, producers, editors, and promotion people have aided in the production. In most cases, the artist has considered his or her public persona (if not outright brand) and the object plays on creating or editing that persona in some way.

In an interesting recent piece on The Daily Beast about Lana del Rey (specifically about whether she glorifies young death and whether Frances Bean Cobain was correct to criticize her for doing so), Amanda Marcotte writes,

When audiences clamor for a fantasy of authenticity, it becomes inevitable that people’s real addictions, mental health problems—and yes, deaths—get packaged and sold. That these problems are real doesn’t mean that people aren’t still buying an image created from those deaths to sell records.

But in celebrating artifice, we in the audience can shield ourselves from needing people to suffer for real in front of us in order to convince ourselves of their authenticity. We can enjoy the construct of death or sadness without demanding that our artists actually be sad—or worse, actually be dead—in order to make it feel more real. After all, it’s not the authenticity of an artist’s work that really matters in the end, but how it makes us feel. And unlike a musician’s image constructed to sell records, those feelings we have are always assured to be 100 percent authentic.

Marcotte seems to be saying that 1) inauthenticity, or at least compromised authenticity, is inevitable in today’s marketplace and 2) desirable because then you don’t have to have to be an alcoholic, you can just play one on TV.

I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but it’s an interesting argument for romance which, like country music, must feel real. I have read romances where I can admire the craft but where I don’t connect with the novel. Unlike in literary fiction, in which this carefully cultivated emotional distance might be a plus, it is a failure in romance.

Genre romance is–totally delightfully–what it is. It isn’t ironic. It doesn’t prevaricate. But we are asking it to make us feel–even as we recognize that it’s a representative, and a probably inaccurate and inauthentic one.

So where does that leave us?

-I absolutely cede Kaetrin’s point about accumulation. To me, the line in the sand, the point at which the dukes do harm, is when there is no room for others to be represented. Anyone who has tried to pitch a non-Regency, non-Victorian, non-titled character romance in today’s market knows that we’ve passed that point.

-All romance writers need to acknowledge the political dimensions of their work. Writing dukes who float through a world of historical fantasy is political. So is writing revolutionaries who debate the dynamic between labor and capital. If we saw and talked about the politics of your standard duke romance, maybe there would be more space for other things, because part of what keeps them marginal is the charged politics of making the margin center. (Or something. My jet lag is a making my mind hazy.)

-While I don’t think that novels need to teach us something and authenticity is a MacGuffin, setting needs to matter. I fully admit that this is my own bias, but if your book could be set anywhere in anytime without anything changing in a serious way, that’s a problem. So if characterization, periodization, and setting were more specific and developed in all of romance, I think we would have more representational potential.

What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “Authenticity in Romance; or, The Land of 10,000 Dukes

  1. Perhaps what we’re circling around in this discussion of authenticity and realism is the issue of world building. Which is very difficult to do well.

    One author takes Heyer as the model for her Regency world, another author takes *her* world as the model for her own and eventually we have 10,000 dukes, all copies of a copy, faded and stale.

    And this complaint could be made about any overused trope in all the romance subgenres, I think.

    It seems like that is what your final line is asking for–honest, detailed world building, which would make for more representative reading, but, as they say, is damn hard writing. :)

    And I think that all the dukes do harm by propagating the notion that the only stories worth telling are those of the rich and powerful.

    • This is an excellent point. I think it’s something like potential for realism in worldbuilding. As we talked about over email, realism has such a specific meaning for me; I can’t not think about William Dean Howells (who’s a really underrated novelist IMHO) when I hear it. And I also think “realism” erases the representational aspect, which for me is key.

      When I read a novel–whether it’s a romance or a fantasy or nonfiction–I want to believe that the world could be real.

      Also, re: the last point, I saw an interview with the people who made Brave (the second set after they’d disposed the first woman). They essentially said, “We tried and tried to make the story work where Merida wasn’t a princess, but we couldn’t figure out how. Nothing was at stake.” (I’m trying to find it but my Google Fu is failing. I’ll update it here if I can find it.)

      I almost threw something at my TV. 99.99% of people who will ever live weren’t royal. Is nothing at stake in our lives? Is nothing worth narrativizing in our lives?

      Argg.

  2. I agree with what you’ve written here: there is no such thing as the apolitical; and, authenticity is elusive.

    Romance narratives ARE political narratives because everything is. I’m not even making an argument here, sorry, other than a circuitous one. I guess I want the genre to own that: the idea that a writer may create a narrative and not have a political agenda is perfectly believable. But that doesn’t mean that an agenda isn’t inherent to the narrative she creates; it is. Take inspirational romance, for example, because it’s so easy to pick on: its political agenda is just so darn transparent that it’s easy to point to. There will be no drinking, there will be no sex, and there will, more often than not, be a condemnation of abortion. That’s political: it may be God-given truth to the writer and reader, but to moi, it’s political. Sour face. So, even in a historical romance where the “duke” in question is a responsible, generous land-owner and expansive with his tenants, he’s still the main player … not the tenant farmer, or his wife for that matter. He’s still got the means of production no matter what he does or how he behaves, even if he’s a paragon. And in cross-class romance, the inevitable HEA involves a crossing-over to the upper class, not the other way around. (And why, when an exception to the rule, like Cecilia Grant’s A GENTLEMAN UNDONE comes along, we rejoice. We want the familiar, but we want to be surprised. You romance writers have both a fickle and loyal readership. ;-) ) I’d like to see romance writers be aware of this, but I’d also like to see readers who are not so utterly passive in their reading either. Just as a writer chooses what and how she’s going to represent the present or the past, readers have to acknowledge that we make choices about what we read and those choices are as politically informed as the writer’s “writerly” choices.

    As for authenticity, it is as that sourpuss St. Paul put it most beautifully, “we see through a glass darkly.” No reality can ever be represented authentically because reality, past and present, as Proust wrote about endlessly, is fleeting and ungraspable as time passing. But I do want the writers I read to take the time to know the world that their characters inhabit, to know it as well as they can, as best they can. Literature stops time, it can’t depict time. But the richness of your romance narrative and its originality and resonance among the trends and the shades and such depends on how well you immerse your reader in that world: not just by ensuring that historical events and personages are accurate, but by working out the sensual details of that world, using all the senses to appeal to your reader and ensure her immersion in your work. But now I’m writing like a schoolmarm.
    Great post, a most enjoyable read!

    • I absolutely agree with this. I call it the “some politics get noticed, others don’t” phenomenon. When a text’s politics are pro-status quo (e.g., favoring producers and capital) it tends to be seen as neutral, whereas anything favoring social change is marked and charged.

      The most insidious iteration, I think, is when academics see political novels as lesser than apolitical ones. There’s a reason Moby-Dick is considered the great Melville novel and not Mardi, but I digress.

      Your example of A Gentleman Undone is perfect. I think the entire Blackshear trilogy is amazing and it deserves mention in pretty much every conversation about impressive romance in terms of its writing and progressive politics.

  3. Brilliant post, Emma, and I completely agree: we all do need to acknowledge the political dimensions of our work, and I really like that you’ve tied this to setting. Personally, I’m fascinated by the ways setting impacts a character and guides her decisions, how growing up, for example, in the South informs what a character does and how she reacts. Even though there may be no mention of politics explicitly, politics are there, shaping her upbringing and the way others view her no matter how apolitical she may be (or believe herself to be.)

    Side note: What you said about realizing how little you know after a decade of study is spot on, I think. The goal of education is to end our double ignorance, right? The more I learn in my own field (biology), the more convinced I am of its ability to hang on to its mystery.

    Side note 2: The Blackshear trilogy cannot be praised too much. In my opinion, it’s the gold standard for smartly written romance.

    • The American South is an interesting setting because it has an incredible amount of place-ness. (Yes, I’m inventing words now.) There can be lazy uses of it; Sweet Home Alabama, for example, is a film that struck me as non-specific, filled with cliches, and somewhat condescending in it’s representation of southerness. But the south is such a fascinating mix of politics, histories, and cultures. You scratch the surface in the south and it just all pours out. (Confession: I was born in Texas and I live in Virginia now. While I don’t think of myself as a southerner, I’m definitely southern adjacent.) I’m uncomfortable with how often in literary fiction set in the south this becomes a sort of nostalgic regionalism, but there’s real revisionist potential as well.

      As I’ve thought about this over the 24 hours since I wrote the post, I really do think it comes down to world building as Gen says above. The best romances do it well and I’d like to see more!

      • I was just thinking about Sweet Home Alabama. I think what bothered me the most about it was the way it had a chance to grapple with some of the complexity of the South–economic inequality, the unique class structure of the region, the way prejudice operates there–but every chance the movie had, it made those conflicts so stylized, they became toothless and absurd. With any region or place (any world, really), I think you have to show the breadth of it for it to feel real, and that includes the fun, fancy parts as well as the dark parts. I’d like to see more of that, too!

  4. To your last question, we should clarify that it’s not just more realistic detail that we want. We’d just end up with the Game of Thrones effect, where we see the trappings of historical reality (“But there’s killing! It’s so realistic!”) but not the substance. We would still have aristocrats unrealistically kind and familiar with their servants in historical romance and a complete obscurity of important women of the time, etc. The only difference is that now people would think these narratives were accurate. Dangerous. So perhaps we should clarify that we expect authors to research, besides the correct type of carriage in use, other populations besides dukes. For example, for those writing Victorian romance, even casual Google searches will yield people of color in photos. So none of this “They just didn’t exist!”

    I also want to engrave this on a plaque and send it to all authors: “Difference, texture, and reality itself are causalities of metaphor.”

    • Thank you! That’s a high compliment.

      And I agree with you absolutely. I do want better world building to be progressive, and to do a better job of representing the complexity and diversity of the past. What always amazes me about primary sources is how much richer they are than any after the fact recreation. I’m a person who is fascinated by history and so this worries me–how can I let that play out responsibly? (Is that even the right word?) But the stakes are real. Historical memory and historical representation matter. But contemporary representation matters too. ; )

  5. AJ: Ah, I am undermined by comment spooling!

    But yes, that’s almost always what gets me about lazy world building: the squandered potential. Whether the subject is the contemporary American south, or Regency England, or colonial India, our words matter. Our representations matter. I don’t know what the responsibility of the artist is. And there is, or ought to be, room for the purely imaginative too. But I guess we can’t break that down unless we’re acknowledging the political dimension and transformative potential in what we write.

    Cheers!

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