For the Love of…Work

I haven’t written a rambling, pretentious blog post in a while, and I have about 850 other things I should be doing, so…yeah.

I’ve been thinking about why I seem to have written so many romances that intimately describe the work of the characters, whether it’s how they negotiate the federal budget in Special Interests, how Anne-Marie made airline reservation in 1962 in Star Dust, or how Lydia prepares her boss for a presidential debate in Party Lines. (And if you like this sort of thing, don’t worry, there’s gobs of work stuff in Earth Bound.)

My initial thought is it might be related to the American notion of identity, which I’ve written about a bit before. For a modern USian, who we are is intimately tied to how we–or our family members–generate income. (I’m just southern enough to have heard young women say to each other at cocktail parties, “What does your daddy do?”)

But it isn’t a “modern” American thing, is it? This one goes back to Jamestown and the “work to eat” rule and the Puritans and their beliefs about idle hands being the Devil’s workshop. The contrasts and rejections we still see some people make between American and European economies are related to stereotypes about hard work and reward–and of course they are stereotypes. I don’t actually think people in the United States work any harder than anyone else, we just tie our mythos to our work in a way others don’t always, leading to great national tragedies such as Death of a Salesman.

I suspect, however, that I keep writing work not only because my culture values it, but because it gives me a way to do character exposition. When we see how someone relates to her coworkers or how someone else overcomes a crisis, it tells us something about the character(s) that we can’t get through internal monologue or dialogue. But it’s not just “show not tell” because it works best when it’s contrasted against internal monologue or dialogue.

And this bit I haven’t fleshed out yet, but I think it’s related to point-of-view, unreliable narration, and verifiable facts in a novel. So if the heroine sees the hero at work and then we see him think about the same scene, then and only then can we be certain what happened. It’s only having those multiple perspectives on the same event or events that allow us to judge the characters’ perceptions against that same reality.

Now this feedback loop isn’t limited to work, of course. It could function in the same way for family/friend relationships, hobbies, or any element of the plot, but something about that potent overlap of money, education, and professional effort lends itself to this process.

And to draw this out a bit more, I don’t think I focus on work stuff only because it contributes to individual identity formation or as a function of point-of-view, but also because it pulls romance out of the realm of the hermetically sealed. Now, there are times when I love romances are closed off in some way: Cabin or ship romances where the characters are stuck together and have to work out their stuff, where the cast of potential characters and complications are limited and somehow become more potent for it. And when the characters who work together, I could imagine that work itself could become a terrarium of sorts, where the characters only interact with each other.

But you’re working to produce something, aren’t you? And you have a client. And you’re ultimately working for money, and money is this metaphor for, this sort of map of, social relationships. So when you bring all of that into it, seeing the work lives of characters is sort of anti-fantastical. It shatters romance–which is probably why some readers aren’t enamored of it.

I don’t know that I have answers here, but I’m curious about how work functions in genre romance: why is it there, or why is it absent? And does it destroy the romance of romance (so to speak) by grounding the text monetarily?

19 thoughts on “For the Love of…Work

  1. Well, I think, at least for me, that I like it when I see the characters at work and working. Because it tells me what kind of people they are. And work is not just monetary. As a matter of fact, in the HP, with its ever-present billionaire hero, one of the things that has to happen for it to be successful is the hero’s notion of work has to CHANGE. It might be that he works less (for the sake of the baby-filled epilogue), or that he works for a different purpose. I think the work that the characters do is part of their necessary redemption, like other aspects of their lives that change/are redeemed by the encounter with the beloved. Did I make any sense? (Cause I typed this real fast.)

    1. yup, this makes total sense to me. and I really appreciate the work life having to change point you’ve made. it’s like pre and post testing, to use an education metaphor: where do the characters start? and where do they end? it’s usually that they work less, but in Private Politics, I did the opposite: Alyse loving Liam was a way for her to embrace her professional ambition. so yeah I think it’s really important.

  2. “I don’t actually think people in the United States work any harder than anyone else”

    You do, though not as hard as some others.

    A look at the average annual hours worked per person in selected countries puts South Korea top with a whopping 2,193 hours, followed by Chile on 2,068.

    British workers clock up 1,647 hours and Germans 1,408 – putting them at the bottom of the table, above only the Netherlands. […]

    the average Briton works 150 fewer hours than an American.

    “The difference is really driven by the fact that the US is the only developed country that has no legal or contractual or collective requirement to provide any minimum amount of annual leave,” he says.

    The UK, in contrast, is subject to the European working time directive, which requires at least four weeks of paid annual leave for every employee.

    When I was doing research for my chapter on work in Pursuing Happiness, I did get the impression that, historically, the perception visiting Europeans had was that Americans did work harder/longer. There was probably variation, though, according to class, location and the precise time-period, and I’m not sure how you’d measure whether work is more important to your identities than it is to people in other cultures.

    1. In my reply, I should have specified that I was comparing the US to Europe, where four-week vacations are the norm. Agree re South Korea as well. The relentless work ethic is part of why it has the highest suicide rate in the OECD.

      I suspect China was not part of the study, but if it were, I would expect it to be close to South Korea in terms of hours worked.

    2. fascinating. Americans certainly think we work longer, but I assumed that was in our heads. ; )

      I know that romance is very popular in parts of East Asia. I’d be curious to see what representations of work are like in South Korean and Japanese romances.

  3. While we Americans may not work harder, we have less time off and probably work longer hours. (More is not better.) We seem apologetic about leisure and too connected to our jobs (checking e-mails, keeping in touch on vacations, etc.) So there’s that.

    I like seeing the characters at work because it tells us more about what they’re really like and what they value. Most people who work outside the home spend more time awake with co-workers than with their loved ones. It doesn’t bother me that it’s what they do for money because that’s how we support ourselves. Otherwise, we’d never read historical romance because the main impetus behind attracting a man and marrying him was economic.

    I also tend to find non-erotic romances that focus solely on the couple claustrophobic and boring. My preference to read a story that has something else going on probably makes me your ideal reader as well as your Twitter valentine. :)

    1. the claustrophobia thing is HUGE for me. I need to feel like the protagonists have substance/texture beyond their twue wov, you know? so if it’s work or family or friends or hobbies, there has to be some there there.

      but what fascinates me is that while most readers might say they don’t want the work stuff, they will definitely read it in some cases, specifically PNR as I said on Twitter. so I need to think more about this and about why the work-heavy romances that find readers do that.

  4. I enjoy it when books show their characters at work, for all the reasons you mention. What work you’ve chosen to do, and how you go about doing it, tells a lot about a character. Of course, many earlier romances were about the need for the male protagonist to work LESS, to focus more on the “feminine” side of life, which includes love and family. But in your books, as in those of many other contemporary romance writers, both members of the couple have their own jobs, and the connections between love and work grow more complex.

    I’ve been wondering how you’ve managing with your 1960’s-set series, where your female characters have fewer choices about the work they are allowed to do than do the women in your contemporary books—has this been constraining for you?

    1. Going back in time from contemporary was tricky. If the 60s series develops like we think it will, it should feature a range of “women’s professions,” from housewife-turned-travel agent, to a Navy wife, to a computer engineer (based a bit on Margaret Hamilton and other real life NASA employees) to…other things. : )

      I hope that it will track a bit with the nascent women’s movement and that our women will get more options and the men will have to learn to be okay with it as the decade progresses. In some ways, the work stuff might be more palatable in historical because you still have the fantasy element in historical, so many that’s the place where writers can push against the genre expectations a bit more.

  5. Oh, this is a really interesting post. Generally, I do like to see work–or at least gain some concrete idea of how a character spends their day. And my alter-ego’s series is about doctors, which maybe puts it in conversation with those chaste Betty Neels-type romances from the 60s/70s where competence is the lubricant. (Although my characters are definitely not perfectly capable at all times in all aspects of their life.) I’m going to have to think more about this…

    1. Oh man, I love the idea that your books are in convo with Neels’. Love. It. I need to ponder this a lot more: what narrative function the work stuff serves, how much of it we have to see to achieve that function, what the balance is between fantasy and reality, etc. I’m sort of stunned that people had anything to say about this skeleton post, but I want to expand on it.

  6. I like novels about work (campus novels, office novels) which maybe is part of why I like work in my romance too.

    Your last point has me wondering if that’s why there are so many “sexy” jobs in romance. I don’t just mean cops and SEALS (and hey, we are getting a fantasy picture of them; I think plenty of being a real life cop is not exciting at all–do any romance cops do paperwork?). But also heroines who run a bakery or a knitting store. In romance we often get work as service or vocation or passion, something that reveals who the character is, not just work to pay the bills. That is less likely to shatter the fantasy. I mean really, there are probably a lot of boring parts to being a tycoon–endless meetings?–which is why we mostly don’t see those billionaires actually doing work or know much about their business besides that it’s Billionaire Enterprises Inc. in “shipping” or “real estate.”

    (personally I’m not a fantasy-focused romance reader, so I am happy to run across everyday depictions of work life in my romance readings)

    1. I was saying to someone on Twitter, one of the things that fascinates me about work in rom is that it’s there a lot: the protagonists jobs are almost always in the blurbs, but it’s not really there. It’s like the shorthand of how the writer does the characterization, but we don’t see the work on the page much. And in some subgenres, such as paranormal romance, we actually do work and politics–two things readers claim not to like–on the page. So I need to think more about why that is. Do we like work in genre romance when it feels like unreal? (Like, I love knitting, I’d like to find a way to monetize my hobby…through owning a yarn store. Or, I have Democrat-Republican politics, but the tensions in this wolf-shifter pack are different.) Or will readers merely TOLERATE work and politics if the underlying romance provides the right emotional notes? I’m not sure.

  7. I love work in romance for the same reasons as others.

    I love to write them because they create plot and conflict. It also–in historical romance at least–can reveal and interrogate gender roles.

    1. And the reality of work in history is so much more complicated than in histrom–I’d love to see more of that complexity on the page. Sigh.

      But your point about conflict is so important. I really don’t know how to generate plot without it. I’m certain it could be done…but I have no idea how to do it. That’s probably the main reason I write so much work. ; )

  8. I love this post. I think the reason that I’m drawn to the presence of work in romance, particularly for heroines, is that work is an identity that women can seize and construct for themselves–but that identity often places heroines in conflict with society. And those conflicts feel very relatable to me, whether they’re contemporary or historical.

    1. Thank you–and absolutely. Since the 18th C, nascent capitalist narratives have cast women as consumers and men as producers; women who work outside the home for wages are in conflict with those narratives. There’s so much inherent drama.

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