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?