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?