Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Problem of the Alpha Romantic Hero

Repost from Votaries.

A number of romance novels (from G-rated to R-rated, from Heyer to erotica) utilize the series
approach: five daughters in a family looking for husbands. Or five sons in a family or club looking for wives. Julia Quinn tackles both daughters and sons in her Bridgerton series. And she does a fine job, mostly because she avoids the problem of the alpha, alpha, alpha male.

A number of romance writers who employ this approach end the series by marrying off the  MOST alpha, MOST mysterious, MOST dark and dangerous, MOST masculine, MOST domineering male of the bunch. The idea is that finally the readers will learn about that glowering, monotone guy in the corner.

And truthfully, the writers usually manage to create a kind of suspense about this final male character. Unfortunately, inevitably, the last book suffers.

The problem with the MOST alpha, MOST mysterious, etc. etc. is the same problem that haunts the omniscient bad guy and, for that matter, the same problem that lurks behind the in-your-face-heroine. In order to be so very dark and dangerous and alpha and disturbed, the final male character is the kind of guy that should send up red flags to any reasonably sane woman (as in, "Are you crazy?! You'll be calling Dr. Laura in a year weeping about how you didn't see the problems coming and then she'll call you names on the radio.").

To a degree, the writers seem to know this, so they give Mr. Alpha Squared Plus a bride-to-be who is the MOST beautiful, the MOST fragile, the MOST desperate, the MOST needy, the MOST . . .

You get the picture.

Real Victorian criminals--not nearly as glamorous
as HBO shows suggest.
The problem being, two unhappy needy people do not a strong marriage make. Think Princess Charles and Princess Diana: two people who imagined the other person would satisfy all their longings since childhood. End result: Charles goes back to his mother-mistress; Diana disintegrates mentally in front of the world's cameras. The world breaths a sigh of relief when she dies and Charles gets his mother-figure full-time.
But some of them did have panache.
The one romance/erotica book where I have seen Mr. Alpha Squared work is In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory. The main male character is basically a ruler of the London underground, a kind of 19th century mafia lord who opposes greedy aristocrats and loan-sharks. He is about as alpha, dark, and dangerous as a hero gets (in the opening chapter, he takes out several potential assassins while saving the heroine). The storytelling is clever--less violent, more edgy dialog. And the heroine is ultra clever--she's smart, first of all: she wants the hero's help to keep her family from ruin, so she comes armed to their meeting with a decent business plan (business-wise, she's just as wily as he is). More importantly, however, instead of sweeping into his office full of angst and glamor and "my tragic tragic past that I can't possibly tell you about!" she . . .

. . . brings him cookies (biscuits, that is: this is England).

And he's stymied. Enthralled. But confused. Which is great because she doesn't behave at all like the women in these Mr. Alpha novels are supposed to behave.

In general, it's easier just to make heroes and heroines normal (though not always as much fun).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Problem of the Obnoxious Romance Heroine

This is reposted, with edits, from Votaries.
Excellent illustrations of Devil in Winter from
a blog of romance manga

For most of the 20th century, romance novels used demure, innocent heroines alongside domineering, brusque heroes. Towards the end of the 20th century, this combo pack fell out of fashion. It has thankfully come back--that is, it is currently more than okay to have a feisty, worldly heroine but it is also okay to have a demure, innocent heroine (the best example of the latter type in my opinion is the heroine of Kleypas's Devil in Winter who is demure and innocent while fundamentally tough).

However, for about a decade or so (basically, the 80's), it was considered very bad, dare I say "politically incorrect", to use demure, innocent heroines. Romance writers began presenting readers with pushy, opinionated heroines.

Now, there is nothing wrong with pushy, opinionated heroines (says this opinionated, occasionally pushy blog writer). However, these 80's heroines came fraught with problems.

The two main problems:
1. The heroines were (still) paired with domineering, brusque heroes (who liked having their opinions challenged).
2. Nobody had a sense of humor.
#1 is a problem, not because domineering, brusque heroes never like having their opinions challenged. As Agatha Christie points out in her books, sometimes they do; sometimes they don't--it depends on the guy. #1 is a problem because 80's romance writers would inevitably make the heroines constantly, continually, unendingly challenging.

The exhausting Burton and Taylor excel as Petruchio and
Katherine in Taming of the Shrew because, like the actors 
in real life, they seem to enjoy driving each other nuts.
The hero likes Captain Crunch--she doesn't understand why he doesn't eat something healthier. He reads the Times; oh, he is too, too bourgeoisie. He voted for somebody the heroine doesn't approve of--shock, shock, shock!

A laid-back hero would shrug and go on eating his Captain Crunch. But the domineering, brusque hero who loves a challenge goes to bat for his opinion, and well, exhausted yet? I mean, can this sort of thing really go on day-in-day-out without making all parties want to crawl into a hole and die? Does it seem even vaguely . . . homelike?

Maybe. But whenever I read these types of romances, I finish the book, thinking, "That marriage has maybe a 20% chance of survival."

And I can't count the number of 80's romances I've read where half-way through, I've started yelling at the hero, "Run! Run for your life!"

Just to be clear (and fair), the reason I yell this at the hero, not the heroine, is NOT because men can't be Mr. I've-Got-To-Challenge-Everybody-All-the-Time too. It is because in these particular novels the heroine is the one who always starts the arguments--presumably, to show how tough she is. The end result . . . Run, Run for your life!

So, can this type of relationship work? Sure!

The relationship between Dr. Cox and his wife/girlfriend/ex-wife/wife Jordan on Scrubs is a great example of a no-nonsense, challenging, alpha female married to a fairly high-maintenance alpha male.

The difference is (1) Jordan's no-nonsense attitude means she is more likely to tell Dr. Cox to cut his crap than to challenge him to death and (2) they both have a sense of humor.

Which brings me to Problem #2.

Romance novels throughout the 20th century are surprisingly lacking in humor (I exclude Heyer). I think part of this was the writers, but I think part of it was the industry. Romance readers nowadays pretty much expect humor in their romances from Family Ties cuteness to hilarious Powell and Loy dialog.

And it is far, far easier to take pushiness when everyone throws up their hands and laughs at the end of the day.

I will post later about problems with the more-alpha-than-alpha-male solution that still dogs far too many romance series. (These are series in which there are 4-7 male heroes, sometimes brothers, sometimes friends. There's a book for each male; the last book is always about the toughest, strongest, most domineering male of the group, and it is almost always--with few exceptions--a flop).

Saturday, April 14, 2018

What Makes a Poor Romance: An Answer to One-Star Reviews on Amazon

I recently attempted to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah for book club. I didn't make it very far. So I went to Amazon to read the one-star reviews (at least some people also disliked this book!). And that irritated me too. So I stopped.

The problem: the one-star reviews castigated The Nightingale for its admittedly poor writing; unfortunately, they did so with sentences like this: "It was SO bad, being a romance novel set in WWII" and "I thought I was getting a good novel, but I got a bodice ripper instead."

In other words, the one-star reviewers equated "romance" with "bad writing."

This is entirely unfair. I have read excellent romances, including romances that would be deemed "grocery store paperbacks" or "bodice rippers." In fact, this blog is primarily devoted to good romance novels and films.

However, although I don't equate "romance" with "bad writing" (maintaining that "good" and "bad" exist in all genres), poor romances do exist. And I suppose the time has come to detail what makes a poor romance novel. Here are the criteria:
This is comparatively good writing--at
least it uses parallelism!

Poor romance novels are badly written.

I'm talking about the prose itself. So many times, when reviewers discuss "writing," they mean the plot. But the way the words fit together on the page matters too. Poor romance novels don't just utilize cliches (which are not in and of themselves a problem) or suffer from lousy subject-verb agreement (I've read plenty of translations that do the same thing). Poor romance novels are also laboriously written.

The sentence "several of the rooms were closed up now that the male teachers had been mobilized" is, let's face it, simply bad. It is passive voice for one thing and transverses cause and effect. It is also dead on the page.

"As mobilization sundered male teachers from town, more and more rooms closed up . . ." is slightly better. Active voice, strong first verb (indicating emotion) and correct cause and effect.

Poor romances novels rely on stereotypes.

And (let's not kid ourselves) so do a lot of so-called literary novels. Pathos doesn't automatically excuse or hide stereotyping.

I am not, by the way, referring to "tropes," which I consider entirely respectable. As I indicate in a prior post, tropes provide a foundation that the writer can build on: the aloof man, the headstrong woman could grow and expand.

The stereotype assumes that once the character has been so-designated, no more has to be said. Why did she do that? Because she's headstrong!

Poor romance novels are soap operas. 

Good romance novels are about relationships that grow organically. Bad romance novels rely on a plethora of BAD, STARTLING, AND SHOCKING EVENTS to keep the reader worried about the couple.

BAD, STARTLING, AND SHOCKING EVENTS can be fun in a shaggy-dog kind of way. When they are done as a substitute for complexity (see how bad things were: here's another shocking thing!), they are manipulative.

When in Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter tries to win an argument by saying, "I dated a gay black midget," he breaks down laughing as his wife wags a finger. It's funny because substituting labels for an actual person is meaningless--as Mike knows (Mike is a good libertarian and accepts people as they are so long as they don't borrow his lawnmower).

SHOCKING EVENTS do not equal complexity any more than LABELS denote a person.

A character obsessed with shoes can be witty and classy, like
Mandy. Unfortunately, too many writers substitute
shoe shopping for witty and classy.
There's way too much shoe-shopping in poor romance novels. 

I've avoided using the label "chick-lit" throughout this list. For all I know, there's good chick-lit out there, and the lovers of chick-lit would be as annoyed at me for using it as a derogatory term as I was at Amazon reviewers for using "romance" as a derogatory term.

So . . . maybe there's tons of great chick-lit out there!

Personally, however, I rather dislike romances where women style their hair, fuss about make-up, deliver token speeches about NOT caring what a man thinks, and shop incessantly for shoes.

Maybe that's just me. (And why I generally stick to murder mystery romances, historical romances, and M/M although even with M/M, I get tired of the "clinging t-shirts.")

So maybe this last criteria is completely subjective. Still--it seems like poor romances do get massively off-track with the amount of furniture moving: And then she went to the mall! 

Where's the plot? Where did it go? Please bring it back.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Romance Fiction: Is History Always Better?

A tremendous amount of romance fiction is a collection of tropes. This does not mean the genre is superficial or shallow. A tremendous amount of New York Times bestseller "literary" books are superficial renderings of supposedly "deep" topics. (Use enough expository prose: it's amazing how many people will considered a book insightful!)

Tropes are a handy way of conveying concepts, plot points, and character without too much expository prose. I'm a big fan! However, writers should be careful of depending on  tropes (or rather stereotypes) to do their writing for them.

Every genre attracts people trying to make a living by generating readable material. I have a great deal of sympathy for this avocation, so I generally refrain from castigating poor writers on my blogs. If I provide a name, that author is worth checking out, even if I criticize elements of that author's writing (except Ayn Rand).

So . . . what I have noticed generally is that authors who produce both historical and contemporary novels don't always produce the same quality of work in both genres. One romance aficionado I came across claimed that authors who try to return to a genre (go back to historical romance from contemporary romance, for instance) struggle to get back into the tone/world; their writing is never as good the second time around.

I have a second theory: among the current authors I am reading, the historical novels far excel the contemporary ones (with exceptions). I've wondered if one reason could be that history forces the writer to create a real problem.

With contemporary romances, it appears a tad too easy for the problem to revolve on "I don't have a significant other for Christmas (or Valentine's Day)...I have a tough boss that I secretly crush on...A third party is messing up my romance..."

Image result for spy movie whoopi jumpin jack flash
A spy movie where cleverness makes the tropes sing!
There are exceptions, of course. But the tropes are so easy to fall back on!

With historical fiction, yeah, writers also fall back on tropes (and nobody in the world did them better than Georgette Heyer). But history also forces a writer to find a historical problem around which to arrange the plot. Take, for instance, Sarah Granger's A Minor Inconvenience in which the spy issue revolves on Wellington and Napoleon.

It's not the spying that grounds the novel; I've read contemporary spy romance novels where I never could figure out who the mark was supposed to be. Such novels are rather like watching a James Bond movie where the only focus is Q's cool toys. Fun! But not terribly substantial.

But Wellington and Napoleon and homegrown traitors? Instant substance! And Granger handles them well. Likewise McGraw's YA novel Mara: Daughter of the Nile, rather than revolving around generic ancient Egyptian icons, revolves around Queen Hephaestus. The history may not be entirely accurate but it's far more interesting than a group of tropes without context about a spy and her handler.

Starting with a substantive problem reminds me of Flash, Season 1. I maintain that one reason it is so good is that the writers were forced to focus on a consistent villain (Wells, played magnificently by Cavanagh). Starting with a strong protagonist with an interesting, tough problem by its nature demanded equally strong writing.

Likewise, sorting through a complicated historical problem to find an issue that allows for romance and character development entails the kind of writing that builds on a trope rather than getting buried by one. And, too, I've found that historical problems seem to force a degree of objectivity that modern politics do not. Easier to attach labels in the present than in the past. And it's always good for writers to remember that.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Stereotype versus Trope versus Character

Tropes are a great place to begin character development. In certain cases, a trope is enough. In many cases, a trope can become a character.

A stereotype is a trope gone bad.

The difference is subtle but telling. It's all about direction. The stereotype works backwards, grounding characteristics in nothing but the audience's assumptions. A trope--and a character--more forward.

A stereotype says, "Vampires are sophisticated and aloof; therefore, so-and-so is sophisticated and aloof."

A trope says, "So-and-so is a sophisticated and aloof vampire; therefore . . . "

Secret Moon by Siira Gou is a great example of building off  tropes. A vampire and werewolf couple may be standard fare; where the book takes off is taking the "given" characteristics to natural, organic conclusions. How does a sophisticated, aloof, and lonely vampire handle a lover whose personality changes in moonlight? How does the lover whose personality keeps changing handle who he has become? What does it mean to the two characters' futures?

Stereotypes are lazy writing--the writer forces behavior for the sake of a plot (understandable; plots are difficult), then relies on stereotypes to excuse "huh, what?" behavior. Um, yes, I know I sent the vampire who doesn't want to be discovered to the school dance but that's um, because, because . . . he is a vampire-in-love! 

Less lazy writers may still need to force the plot but they will delve into the trope to piece the characters' behavior together. Skilled writers will find a way to build off the trope, so the characters' behavior (the outcome) appears natural. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Canny Dopes on April's Fool Day

It's April Fool's Day in the West. I don't much care for practical jokes, so instead I'm posting about canny dopes.

I'm a huge fan of canny dopes, the so-called fools of the story who turn out to be insightful, even shrewd. Sometimes they are (supposedly) academically stupid but everyday life smart. Sometimes they are naive and gullible yet with clear foresight. Mandy of Last Man Standing falls into category 1. Kyle of Last Man Standing falls into category 2.

Canny dopes abound in manga.

Iku Kasahara from Library Wars is a canny dope. Everyone is absolutely sure that she doesn't think before she speaks (which is kind of true), that she puts her foot in her mouth (which is kind of true), that she can't master academic subjects however proficient she is at military ones (which is less true but still sort of true).

Yet it is Kasahara who comes up with many of the correct answers--through, we are informed, sheer naive intuition. Still, Kasahara is the one who decides to help Komaki by enlisting Marie. And she's the one who suggests protesting censorship by getting the censored author out of the country. She's the heroine, not only because she falls over the right answer but because she acts on it.

Antoine from Lovers in the Night by Fumi Yoshinaga is a clever dope of Mandy's variety. He absolutely doesn't care about the French Revolution, has no interest in the wants and needs of other people (except, maybe, Claude) and ignores the most basic information that would provide him with answers to questions like, "What do we eat when we have no access to more food?"

That doesn't mean he doesn't know how to size up a person or situation correctly.

These canny dopes are interesting because they often appear to act dumber than they actually are. Without being at all manipulative, they give the impression that they are giving other people exactly what other people expect. It's a form of self-protection.

When Nakai unknowingly tacks up
an expensive piece of art in his bathroom,
because it makes him regular, Tanizaki is
reminded of what he claims to believe:
art is meant to be viewed, not priced.

Nakai of In the Walnut I and II is an optimistic partner, like Finder's Akihito.  Unlike Akihito, however, Nakai operates from a position of utter innocence. Akihito, though comparatively innocent (versus Asami), is far too wild and street savvy to be a canny dope. He thinks too much.

Nakai, on the other hand, stumbles on the correct answers not through overthinking but through intuition and a lack of wrong assumptions. He sees the truth because his perception cannot be bought. Akihito hangs onto his innocence through willpower and Asami's help. Nakai simply has it; he is entirely uncorrupted.

In all cases, the canny dope brings truths to light. They are not passive, no matter how much they avoid "deep thinking," since they will often put their bodies, characters, and relationships on the line in order to back those truths.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Romance Stories Throughout Time: Cinderella

From Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal
Cinderella is the oldest fairy tale, and it appears in nearly all cultures from Egypt to China, from Persia to Europe.

"Why" is such a loaded question--and has resulted in loaded answers (Cinderella is popular due to patriarchal domination, due to women's wish-fulfillment fantasies, due to foot fetishes)--that answering it is to enter a quagmire of literary exegesis.

Me--I think it's the story, the original perfect combination of two factors: (1) what Tolkien (thousands of years after Cinderella was created) called eucatastrophe, the salvation that occurs in the darkest hours; (2) the surprise and fun of disclosure: the princess revealed! Joseph of Egypt's narrative falls into this category, and explains why out of all the Old Testament stories, it was preserved almost entirely intact.

We like the rescue story; the cynics can argue that our desire for rescue is wishful thinking. But I think it comes down to fundamental human wiring. Stories are ultimately about recognition. We recognize that human beings may live most of their lives in what Donna calls blahness. But still, life is never entirely what we expect. We have the capacity to be surprised. We have the capacity to see lights at the ends of tunnels. And sometimes they appear. And sometimes we make them appear. And sometimes, when they don't, we create art and literature that become, surprisingly enough, their own lights at the end of the tunnel.

Recognition and restoration: those are the things we crave. They are the reasons we build stuff and make things and form relationships and live in a state other than nihilistic anarchy.

Cinderella isn't my favorite fairy tale (I'm a bigger fan of Beauty and the Beast tropes), but I do have a few Cinderella favorites from the picture book section:
  • Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleischman, which addresses different versions (see above). Very captivating!
  • James Marshall-illustrated Cinderella--because James Marshall's illustrations make me laugh.  
  • "Catskinella" from Virginia Hamilton's gorgeously illustrated (by Leo and Diane Dillon) Her Stories.
  • CinderEdna (which turns Cinderella on its head)--liberated and funny!

I hate to disappoint the Grimm fans, but I generally avoid versions where people's heels and toes get cut off.

I did recently watch and review Branagh's version.