Getting My Hackles Up, Part 3: Predictability and Romance Novels

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 novels—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 Dickens—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’Connor—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.


Ranty McRant

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  1. Amy G. says:

    “I will point at you and laugh. LOUDLY.”

    Oh my god, yes. Why isn’t someone out there asking why teenage boys of 15 need to see yet another Not-Another-Scary-Road-Trip-with-Pie movie? All. The. Same. Comics? I’m thinking there’s a whole superhero common thread running through that genre.

    Maybe what pisses everyone off is the happily-ever-after in romance. Maybe those folks should lighten up.

  2. Candy says:

    I think you’re on to something about how the HEA freaks some people out. Goes back to the realism thing, I think. I also think a big part of it’s how we are in many ways brought up to view sex as a more destructive and dangerous force than physical violence. Have you read the recent AAR interview with MaryJanice Davidson? LLB and Davidson will allow their kids to watch R-rated violence, but not R-rated sex. And this is not uncommon—far from it. It’s THE prevalent attitude in America, and frankly, in a lot of societies. Back in Malaysia, they censored any and all kissing scenes, even tastefully done, not-at-all-slobbery scenes from critically-acclaimed movies like A Room with a View. But violent movies like Killer Croc 2 are aired in their blood-splattered, mind-numbing entirety. (They never aired Killer Croc 1 as far as I know, so it must’ve failed the Malaysian Film Board’s stringent specifications for quality cinema, SNERK!)

    So yeah, blah blah blah Calvinist preoccupation of the body as being inherently corrupt and evil leads to celebration of its destruction while reviling the perfectly normal, even beautiful functions for which it’s designed and how this preoccupation informs American attitudes towards the body, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

    And related to this attitude is, I think, the notion that sentimentality and love are NOT COOL, but big guns wielded by big dicks are. Love is so gooshy. Dammit, how can we maintain our hip and ironic facade in the face of something as gag-inducing as TRUE LURVE?

  3. Amy G. says:

    There’s that, too—I think it’s seen as all ice cream and puppy dogs and rainbows and oh-gag-me-now stuff.

    You’re right—big guys with big guns is much “cooler,” even if the outcome their is always the same. World saved, girl laid, and guy’s phallic compensation is smokin’ hot. And, you know, huge.

    Every genre has a trope. Like you said, even the classics aren’t exactly all surprise twist endings.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, though, my hackles are definitely up there, too. Is it just easier to pick on girls? Is there a rule that says any book that, at its core, is just about luuurve (instead of important stuff like dead bodies, superheros, or completely unrealistic spies) is…well, dumb? Or is that we just let it bother us? I’ve made fun of my husband a million times for wanting to watch another big!explosion! movie, but the thing is…he doesn’t care.

    I hate the idea that we’re just being sensitive. Sheesh. Now I want to blow something up.

  4. Candy says:

    It’s probably a combination of both. On one hand, a lot of the subjects that are considered to be in the “feminine” realm like love, family, community, finding happiness and acceptance, etc. are often denigrated or accorded less importance than topics like:

    – the Almighty Struggle Of Good Vs. Evil (conducted with your choice of phallic weaponry like swords, guns, missiles, bows-and-arrows, or Samwise Gamgee if you’re Frodo Baggins)

    – Man’s Search For Meaning in the Wilderness (whether physical or metaphysical)

    – The Importance of Massively Tragic Endings for Relatively Minor Transgressions, which were the bread-and-butter for many of the great novelists in the mid-to-late 19th centuries (ref. Hardy, Thomas and Flaubert, Gustave).

    And on the other hand, we gals also tend to get a bit touchy about certain things. Part of it’s due to societal double-standards. For example, men who are accused of liking t&a for the sake of t&a often get to chuckle and brush it off; women who are accused of enjoying romance novels partly for the sex ARE SCARLET FUCKING WHORES AND PORNMONGERERS. But part of it’s also how we tend to be a bit more sensitive about how we’re portrayed and how we’re just more concerned about feelings, period. Whether it’s upbringing or genetics or a combination of both (my bet’s on the last option) we just tend to care a bit more about this kind of shit.

  5. booksquare says:

    Okay, I am having technology problems today (Captcha and I rarely get along, so here’s a second try!). Probably I should just give up, but nooo, I will not be beat by the machine. Yes, Candy, this is my shamefaced way of saying I accidentally deleted your comment over at my place…new interface for the backend of the blog.

    Just joshin’ on the giving the endings away thing—I got what you meant! There’s nothing wrong with formula (or as I like to call it, structure) in writing. If it works for haiku, it works for other types of writing. All writers fall into a rhythm, O’Connor was no exception. And that woman could write.

    This topic is popping up in various places around the ‘sphere this week. I’m trying to pull all the elements together into a coherent response (or, as we call them at Booksquare, a lengthy rant).

  6. Candy says:

    Oh, hey, could I be more retarded? Because the joke is now totally obvious. Ha! I’m glad you deleted my comment. That way my ignominy is hidden. Oh wait, except for the mention of it in these comments. DOH.

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