Genre Exploitation or Unreasonable Reader Expectations?
Last week I linked to an essay by Remittance Girl for the DA news, in which she argued extensively against the Clean Reader application, which replaces so-called “dirty” words with “clean” versions. Remittance Girl’s post covers a great deal of terrain, from the moral rights of authors to her frustration with what she sees as the crass commercialization of fiction, which has prompted her to pull her books from the commercial market. Among her concerns is her belief that Romance readers are penalizing erotic fiction for not providing “a formulaic recipe that can be repeated over and over again with minor changes.” She goes on to essentially equate that formula with “buying a manufactured product” akin to fast food:
Before we lay all the blame at the door of publishers and retailers, consider that some genres of writing, like Regency Romance or Post-Apocalyptic Zombie novels abound with such precise conventions and tropes that, for many writers, they are essentially a formulaic recipe that can be repeated over and over again, with minor changes. Readers of this sort of work not only like this, they expect it, they demand it. They are the customer and have been taught to believe the customer is always right. More recently, with the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, sold as erotica, readers consistently punish erotica writers with scathing comments and one star reviews when they do not provide a central romantic plot and a happy ending, because those readers believe they are buying a manufactured product that will offer them the predictable experience they might assume from a Big Mac or a Skinny, Venti, Caramel Latte from Starbucks.
While I respect Remittance Girl’s decision to refuse participation in a market she finds detrimental to her creative agency, I find her equation of genre formulae with crass commercialism and fast food to be deeply and offensively unfair. Generic formula do not amount to a lack of quality or creativity; in fact, anyone who writes or appreciates reading sonnets understands the extent to which formal limitations provide a challenge that can yield some daring and ingenious expressions of creativity.
Her post does raise the question of how genre expectations shape reader response, though, and how reader response, in turn, can shape genre expressions. Romance, in particular, is subject to these questions, in part because it is so profitable that many authors want access to its very loyal and enthusiastic reader base. We saw this not too long ago, when an author unfamiliar with the genre was touting his book as revolutionary, even though a cursory examination of the genre undermined the claim.
But we’ve also seen the case where an author who has historically drawn her fans from Romance writes a book that violates a fundamental aspect of the genre’s definition. While I do not want to offer spoilers, you can read more about the book, J.R. Ward’s The Shadows, at this Goodreads discussion featuring Ward’s comments about how she writes her books by listening to her characters:
So, I know I’ve said it before, but I have no control over the stories. They are what they are, they do what they’re going to do, and if I try to change anything, the pictures in my head shut and I got nothing.
So where Remittance Girl is interested in complete creative agency over her work, Ward claims she has no control over what she writes, except as a scribe of sorts. Stil both authors conceptualize readers as an economic force. In Ward’s case, she notes that “when it comes to the BDBs, there’s usually something in the book that is controversial, and I always worry about the market response.” Not the reader response, but the market response. Does that mean sales? Is that the worry? Or is it reader expectation? Or both?
Ward’s case is complicated by the question of how The Shadows is tagged. While the book appears to be structured around two romantic relationships, I cannot tell if it is actually tagged as Romance. And while Ward has clearly relied on Romance and on Romance readers to build the popularity of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, I don’t know whether the book has been actively marketed as Romance.
Still, there is a perception among readers that The Shadows is exploiting the loyalty and purchasing power of Romance and its readers on a book that not only defies the genre’s basic elements, but does so in a way that makes many readers feel tricked and betrayed. And then disclaiming creative responsibility for the book’s outcome.
I had to admit that I lost trust in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series quite a few books ago, so I was not particularly surprised at this particular turn of events. In fact, my cynicism made me wonder why there was so much surprise at The Shadows. However, I have heard more reader complaints lately that authors not writing actual Romance are tagging their books as Romance, which is interesting to consider in light of Remittance Girl’s perception that readers are often confused about genre expectations.
Part of the problem, I think, is that there are some areas in which reader expectations do not necessarily reflect genre requirements. Like with the HEA v. the HFN, for example. I have yet to see any codified rule that says a Romance must end with an HEA. In fact, the RWA definition is careful to avoid this language, and as a reader who doesn’t always find an HEA convincing, I appreciate that. I think it’s important to have formal boundaries that are firm enough to promote some formalistic consistency but that are still flexible enough to allow for some stretching.
Formal boundaries allow readers to have a general sense of the kind of story they will get. Why this is denigrated when it comes to Romance but not, say, horror, SFF, or mystery, is a persistent frustration, but the different standards ironically support the argument against viewing genre fiction as inferior in form and quality.
At the same time, genre tropes are often self-referential in terms of their significance and legitimacy. Jodi McAlister recorded a very interesting discussion among a number of Romance authors and readers about the status of the HEA.
Part of her argument is that the popularity of serials and the rise of the HFN have altered the conditions under which an HEA can and perhaps even should be expected. Boundaries flexible enough to stretch without breaking. However, I think this aspect of her argument is less straightforward:
Point the First: History. I am a historian, and so when books and genres are treated ahistorically, it bugs the hell out of me. If we look at what has been called the “romance” over its history, happy endings have not been mandatory. This is because the way we culturally perceive romantic love has changed substantially.
Here’s the thing: can anyone name a Historical Romance that isn’t ahistorical in at least one significant aspect? Precisely because genre Romance is built on the post-Enlightenment Western European concept of romantic love, myriad historical eras and locations are subsumed under that concept to be considered genre Romance, as opposed to, say, historical fiction. Which is not to say that the genre cannot and should not expand to incorporate more diverse experiences of love. But maybe we need to take a long, hard look at how we’re defining historical accuracy and authenticity in a genre that stubbornly continues to subject history to an interpretive lens that is both modern and Anglo-centric.
I absolutely agree that Historical Romance does not require this derangement, but how much Historical Romance truly challenges it, let alone subverts it, and to what degree have reader expectations been elided with generic elements, such that many things are accepted as “true” simply because readers have been conditioned to accept them as such? For example, Heyer is often seen as the historical gold standard, and yet she “invented” much of the world her books depicted. Can this myth ever be unmade, or are authors and readers simply too invested in its alleged veracity?
Which brings me back to the question I used to frame this post: where is the line between exploiting a genre’s definition to participate in its success and challenging reader expectations from inside the genre? The genre seems to be facing a dilemma brought on, in part, by its immense popularity, both for readers and authors trying to enter the genre and the market. So are we seeing a weakening of the genre through books that don’t fit the definition but are still being marketed as Romance, or are we just witnessing reader resistance to the genre’s evolution? Or maybe it’s a little bit of both?