Coincidence and the Sentimental Novel

I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books published this year. In order to avoid spoiling it for anyone, I’ll omit the title, but one of the plot lines hinges on a rather large coincidence: two characters who weren’t previously acquainted meet and form a connection in a town where neither is supposed to be, thus setting the rest of the plot in motion.

There’s a time when this would have annoyed me. When I was in high school and first read Dickens, I turned into a rant-y, whiny beast as only a fifteen-year-old can. “What,” I seethed, “are the odds that Darnay and Carton would be doppelgängers! Not to mention that Lucie’s father unknowingly condemned the family of her intended! What are the flipping odds!”

Obviously, A Tale of Two Cities was the source of my initial ire with Dickens. We won’t even acknowledge the time I read Oliver Twist, though certainly the people I complained to loudly and longly have not forgotten it.

It took until graduate school for me to understand that Dickens wasn’t just commenting on the presence of coincidence in real life (the Sacagawea meeting her brother coincidence still astonishes me; talk about long odds) or indulging in some sloppy plotting. No, in placing coincidence at the center of his books, Dickens was using the sentimental to comment on the interrelated state of humanity.

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Margaret Mitchell’s Long Shadow

I didn’t mean to write an American Civil War romance. Indeed, I didn’t mean to write a historical romance at all. My first book was a contemporary and so was my third. If I had sat down and decided to write something historical, surely I would have chosen another period, a more commercially-viable one, than I did. A nice Regency involving a brooding duke perhaps. (And for the record, I love a good Regency with a brooding duke as much as the next girl. In fact, probably more than the next girl.)

But writing Brave in Heart (which will be out in 2.5 weeks, if I hadn’t mentioned it lately) just sort of happened. I wanted to write a novella to experiment with different plotting, but the subject unfurled without consulting me. The first 20,000 words appeared very quickly — honestly, I could really use that sort of inspiration with the two creative writing projects sitting on my harddrive now, not to mention my still-unfinished dissertation — though the second half was more of a march. It was only when I had finished that I realize what I had done, which was to enter a very specific subgenre and one that has an almost inescapable Ur-text.

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Politics and the Romance Novel

Go ahead and get a cup of tea, this might go on for a while.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the literary marketplace as a fiction writer and literary scholar, pondering questions like, does the buying and selling of art for money detract from aesthetics? What pressures does the marketplace put on writers? What types of fiction (in terms of form and content) will perform well on the market? Are literary gatekeepers (e.g., editors, publishers, marketing people, critics, agents, etc.) correct in their assessments about marketability? And so on.

One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. (ETA: it’s two years since I wrote this, but this post at AAR is an excellent example of someone complaining about authors “adding” politics to romance novels.) Many believe readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.

This idea may be related to the stagnation in historical romantic fiction that’s been widely explored in the past month (see for example this recent post at Dear Author). A novel about upper-class white people in the Regency period tends to be seen as apolitical and thus preferable to a novel about upper-class white people in Africa in the early 20th century (which reeks of colonialism), for example.

I’d like to offer a response to the truism arguing for a different, more expansive, notion of the political. I’m invested in this question because the books I’ve written outside the mainstream vis-a-vis the political, but also because I think it’s pertinent to how we see the genre.

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What Happened to the Rom-Com?

When I look at about my Fine Romance Friday posts, a pattern emerges: most of what I’ve recommended so far are  older films, foreign films, or indies. What the heck has happened to the genre? Can Hollywood make a good romantic comedy anymore?

Jezebel had a nifty chart yesterday showing the decline of receipts for rom-coms compared to the meteoric rise in box office for super-hero movies. It’s sort of a random and not terribly enlightening comparison; critically, super-hero movies are experiencing a bit of a renaissance and rom-coms are in a rut, but that doesn’t mean the two are related.

But as someone who reads (and writes!) romance, it’s clear that there’s been stagnation in contemporary romance on film and I find that depressing. I think it’s related to a few trends: the focus on impossibly beautiful people, the forced quirkiness, the humiliation of the female protagonist, and the overall predictability.

Within, say, the best contemporary romance novels being written today, the characters are often more likable and more relatable than in the last five rom-coms I saw. Even keeping in mind that there will be a happily ever after, contemporary romance novels surprise me. I am rarely surprised by the mainstream romantic comedies of the past decade.

So, am I wrong? What am I missing? Or should I stick with the older films and those produced outside of the Hollywood machine?

Defining New Adult

I don’t write New Adult, though I have read some of it, and for what it’s worth, I wanted to weight in on the debates about the definition of the genre and its legitimacy.

Jane, founder and contributor to the influential romance review and discussion site Dear Author, defined New Adult back in December as “not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life” and “a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others.” In other words, for Dear Author, New Adult is about an outlook on life containing a specific narrative structure.

In some ways, this definition overlaps with that of woman’s fiction. Literary critic Nina Baym, in a discussion of nineteenth-century American women’s novels in her book Woman’s Fiction, describes this trajectory thusly, “The thrust of this fiction has to do … with how the heroine perceives herself. … By the novel’s end she has developed a strong conviction of her own worth” (19). So both woman’s fiction and New Adult seem to be buildings romans or self-actualization narratives.

There was an interesting debate on Twitter yesterday about whether New Adult has an upper age limit. Is, for example, Allison Parr’s Rush Me — which I read and liked with reservations — a New Adult book because the hero is 26? I think Rush Me is a bit of a liminal example, not because of the hero’s age but because I didn’t see growth from the characters. It ended with a commitment to change but didn’t show the change on the page.

Regardless, I think the hostility toward New Adult is interesting. It seems to be motivated by the sense that New Adult is a marketing trick, that many of the founding texts are just smutty young adult, and that many of the most popular writers in the genre aren’t very good.

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Why Write Genre Fiction, Part 1

A piece for the Huffington Post by Anne Brown Walker about smart women reading (and writing) romance has been getting some play on the interwebs. I’ve been reading romance for 18 months and writing it for half that time. I’m also a “smart” woman: a PhD student, a former professional, etc., so I thought I’d add my thoughts.

In the poem “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” William Wordsworth describes how nuns find happiness, freedom even, within the confines of the convent. Yes, their lives are routine but within the rules and regulations, the nuns are able to be creative and find their bliss.

Now, a former poetry professor of mine used to say that at some level every poem is about the act of its own creation. In other words, if you aren’t sure what a poem is about, pretend that it’s about the process of the poet writing it. You’d be amazed at what smart stuff you come up with.

I don’t even know that you need that sort of interpretive jijitsu with “Nuns Fret Not,” because Wordsworth gets a little meta in the middle:

In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Some writers might complain that the sonnet form is a prison with too little to offer writers but Wordsworth finds the binds of the form sufficient ground for his work as a writer.
The poem concludes,
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Look, I have a lot more to say about the romance genre and why I like it. But for the moment, I want to start with this: when I’m teaching writing, I often use an exercise where I give students a list of words and instruct them to write a poem using only those words. The poetry they write is much better than if I instructed them to write a poem but gave no constraints. When you’re focusing on the rules, some part of you gets freed up. That’s why I read and write romance.