This is Part III of a series I named Getting My Hackles Up. Why such a singularly retarded name? No freakin’ clue. “In Defense Of Romance” was already taken, OK? Part I tackles the accusation that all romance novels are crap because they’re so unrealistic, and Part II examines the claim that romance novels are nothing but girl-porn. (Oh, and I just noticed that I use Arabic numerals in the titles and Roman numerals in the text. Huh. I’m not about to go change this in the archives, so I guess I’m stuck with this convention.)
So yeah, predictability is yet another accusation leveled somewhat smugly by people who have never read romance novels to point out how incredibly awful the whole genre must be. “Aren’t you tired of reading the same ‘boy meets girl’ story over and over again?” is one of the most common questions friends of mine ask when they find out I like romance novelsâ€”oddly enough, right after they ask me how I can stand to read such unrealistic fiction, and why I bother reading glorified pornography.
First of all, the vast majority of fiction is pretty predictable. When I pick up an SF or fantasy adventure novel, I know for a fact that the Evil Empire will be defeated by the end of the book or the trilogy, or in the case of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, by the end of about 873 books in which the most prominent feature is Rand Al’Thor pondering his navel and whining about his fate with ever-increasing tiresomeness. If I decide to read a mystery novel or a thriller, I know the murderer, terrorist or other flavor of Very Bad Person will be caught. The monster/ghost/alien with a penchant for eviscerating humans and feasting on their steaming remains/evilly animated inanimate object/rabid doggie will be vanquished at the end of a horror novel, unless the author leaves a couple of ends loose in preparation for a sequel or spin-off, or unless you’re Richard Matheson, in which case your absolutely wonderful, groundbreaking novella about vampires will be turned into a dizzyingly campy yet oddly enjoyable 70s cheese-fest starring Charlton Heston.
But that’s genre fiction! some people may cry. Literary fiction is another thing entirely!
And this is where I get to sound kind of like a Mary Bly/Eloisa James interview, only with words like “ass” thrown in: It really doesn’t get a whole lot more literary than Shakespeare, right? I mean, the dude’s single-handedly responsible for preserving a whole host of English words we would’ve otherwise forgotten, and year after year parents of high school kids around the world are subjected to yet another painful interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream. How’s this for predictability: almost every comedy features misunderstandings galore between two different sets of couples, and if it’s a particularly sassy comedy, there’s some cross-dressing for added hilarity, but every comedy will end happily and the right couples will be paired up at the end. Every Shakespearean tragedy ends with loads of people dying, usually after some kind of bitter irony or revelation: “You dope, I wasn’t REALLY dead! Curse the lack of UPS Red in 16th-century Verona! Ah crap, might as well stab myself and join loverboy” or “Mwaaaahahahaha, you like that pie? That was actually ASS PIE, made from YOUR DEAD SONS’ ASSES!”
Other “literary” authors who wrote predictable (and dare I say, even formulaic) fiction include such esteemed Dead White Men and Women like Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickensâ€”and these are just a few names off the top of my head. I mean, honestly, did you really expect Tess of the D’Urbervilles to end in any way other than it did? Pfff. And Flannery O’Connorâ€”I love her work and wrote my senior thesis on her short stories, but once you spot the trick, the payoff to her tales, you can see ‘em coming a mile away. That doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of her off-kilter, grotesque narratives; actually, I enjoy trying to guess HOW exactly the payoff is going to happen. This is pretty much the same anticipation I feel in seeing how the hero and heroine in a romance novel achieve their HEA, or even in guessing how much more Jude’s life is going to suck before Hardy puts the poor schmuck out of his misery already.
I do grant that literary fiction has much fewer qualms about killing off likeable protagonists and occasionally allowing the Evil Empire to win. But even these types of fiction often follow a sort of well-worn pattern. In fact, reading some modern works, you can almost sense the authors gleefully rubbing their hands at the thought of the bittersweet irony they’ll interject into the books, ignoring with equal glee that just about every goddamn work of modern literary fiction in the past 30-40 years has been about bittersweet irony. And there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Hey, I adored The Corrections despite the mind-numbingly stupid hype that surrounded it.
There are a million different ways to work and re-work a theme, even something as timeworn as the story of two people finding love and happiness with each other. Depending on the author, the theme can be made fresh and new and beautiful, or it can become hackneyed, trite and boring. If love stories don’t rock your world, then just say so. Don’t try to claim that they all suck because they’re so predictable, because if you’re holding a John Grisham book while you make that claim, I will point at you and laugh. LOUDLY.