Originality in Genre Fiction – An Oxymoron?
Genre fiction rides a thin line between consistent recognizability and appealing freshness. Often referred to as "a narrative archetype," the form of genre fiction is often denigrated as "formulaic" and derivative (Pam Regis, A Natural History of The Romance Novel, 23). In truth, there has to be something fundamental and formalistic that binds a group of stories together into one distinct genre. And in Romance, many books consciously and intentionally echo other books and stories – from Pride and Prejudice to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to Cinderella, Snow White, Romeo and Juliet, the novels of Georgette Heyer, Dracula, etc.
These intertextual references and conversations create a certain formalistic consistency in the genre, a guarantee for the reader who targets that genre that they will recognize the structure of the narrative enough to expect a satisfying read. Jane and I were talking the other day about how some authors tell basically the same story over and over, but they do it in such a way that each book is a desirable read. Then there are authors whose books seem quite similar to books from other authors, but readers don't respond the same way to them.
I've heard people who don't read Romance insist that all the books are the same. In this statement lies an implicit criticism that there is little originality in the genre. And to some degree, the appeal of a genre like Romance (or Mystery, Sci Fi, etc.) is a certain reassuring repetition of central archetypes, elements, themes, or tropes. Further, I think genre books are often "coded" in a certain way for their readers, meaning that when you encounter a big, dark, cop hero, you expect an alpha taming story (i.e. the beauty and the beast retelling). An impoverished, put upon, but sweet heroine who falls for the rich, remote nobleman evokes Cinderella. A red-headed heroine is often code for "feisty" (this is where the coding dovetails with genre shortcuts), and historical settings often translate to virgin heroine. I would argue that this coding is part of the pleasure and satisfaction genre readers derive when they seek out genre books.
In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that there are no more original stories, that everything written today is a sort of riff on previous stories — on poems, plays, myths, ancient histories, etc. — and that even when the riff isn’t conscious that it’s there on a more abstract level of creative osmosis. I remember when I was really new to the genre and I read a Danelle Harmon book, impressed with what read like an incredibly original story to me. I asked the friend who was filling out my Romance education, and she scoffed a bit, assuring me that no, this was not, by any stretch, an original storyline. Now, years later, I get it. It doesn’t reduce the pleasure I get in reading a book that is new to me, but it makes me alert to the way its elements circulate through the creative stratosphere.
So where is the originality in the genre – what is it that gives genre books their appealing freshness?
I'm interested in everyone's opinion on this question, but my money is on the author's voice being the source of a book's originality.
Without question there is a tension in any genre between homogeneity and innovation. Books that push the envelope are often reviled and embraced by different groups of readers, some of whom feel betrayed by what they perceive to be genre-busting, others of whom prefer their books on the edge. Break out books are often those that seem to mesh certain provocative elements with genre familiarity in a way that captures the loyalty of readers in both camps, and then we see the endless parade of books that strive to recreate that same magic.
But that magic is not replicable, because what made that first book work was not just the elements the author used but the way she told the story – her storytelling voice. This is why you can't copyright character types and plot elements, and why plagiarism lies in the actual words used. Can you imagine what would happen to genre fiction is authors could copyright their characters, their plot structure, and even those phrases we see move from book to book, author to author? Every book written would narrow the options for every other book to follow. It would, in short, be precisely the opposite of what gives genre fiction its durable longevity – namely the wonderful conversations happening between books and the ways those conversations continually take off in subtly different directions. Ideally, every author brings something unique to those conversations, introducing a new spin, a new element, a new view, a new insight. Whether slight or substantial, these different voices are, for me, the force of originality in the genre.
When I hear authors fret about how readers or publishers expect certain things and shun others, I think we need to remember that some of the most beloved books in the genre are themselves riffs on classic stories or myths. Authors like Lisa Kleypas, Jo Goodman, Jo Bourne, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Jill Shalvis (a very few examples) have the ability to make a well-worn story feel new because of a very distinct authorial voice. I've been reading some of Michelle Reid's Harlequin books lately, and I am struck with how compelling and fresh they read to me, despite familiar category elements and serviceable (at most) prose. One of my greatest pleasures as a reader, in fact, is reading the book that makes me look at something familiar and see it differently. I often liken genre fiction to a sonnet for that reason. Narrow formal limits do not restrict creativity and originality, although a flat, derivative, uncommitted storytelling voice can kill any book by boring me right out of the story.
So when we talk about originality in genre fiction, I think we need to focus more on voice and develop a better vocabulary for talking about it. I realize that the alchemical quality of the reader's "hearing" that voice as a siren's call is less tangible and more difficult to discuss in crisp specifics, but I suspect that it's voice most readers resonate to, even if they cannot articulate that clearly. The way voice is intertwined with plot, character, and theme creates another level of difficulty in distinguishing it, but I still don't think it's impossible to talk about in a more direct, focused way.
Nothing, for me, makes or breaks a book the way the storytelling voice does. But what about you? How would you define originality in the genre and do you think Romance is becoming too homogenous (or too diverse, for that matter)?
A very articulate essay. I wish I could provide you with an equally brilliant answer but I just like what I like – engaging characters, a plausible story line (historical or contemporary), fun banter, and a HEA.
In high school I read a short story, I think it was called “The Interlopers”, a woodsman is trailed by a pack of wolves survival story. Several years after I graduated I came across another short story in the preeminent Harley magazine that echoed the plot so closely that I was shrieking “plagiarism!” and looking for my pitchfork. But both tellings captured my imagination in a way that I hadn’t expected.
I believe you nailed the source. The authors voice is to me what distinguishes a story regardless of plot, and classifies it as art. Yet again, you’ve educated me before my second cup of coffee. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the mysteries of voice. Thanks.
I only think romance is homogeneous when I’m not the target market for the latest trend.
If I have to dig to find books with general themes I enjoy, I tend to break out my inner reader-brat and stomp my dainty little feet in protest. If what I like is considered hot in the market- then I feel all the world is filled with rainbow factories and puppy sneezes.
I’d like to say I’m not that contrary, but history has shown otherwise!
For me, the author’s voice plays an integral part of what sets books apart. Paired with the sneaky ability our own histories enter our writing- and right there is what sets books apart for me.
I know author A will have a mother who is a tyrant, while author B will have a psychic pet of some sort. There will be overlap of general language and trope- yet each book has a very different feel.
That’s a really great point. I read all of Lisa Kleypas’ contemporaries over the summer and was really struck at how familiar the stories were. And yet they were such a fun read and I think it’s her voice that makes it all fresh again.
I need to check out more of Michelle Reid’s back list, too.
Yes, I believe you got it right. I recall many years ago reading a synopsis of a speech given to wanna-be writers by a successful author. One of the key points that stuck with me was just what you said. The author told them (paraphrasing here) “that all the stories in the world have already been written. What has not been written yet is your perspective of it.” So when we think back to all those similar stories we think we’ve read before, what’s different is this particular author’s rendition (good or bad). So logical.
I agree that it is the author’s voice, but I think it also has something to do with the truth of an individual novel. Some novels have such a strong internal truth (even if the actual events are unlikely or fantastical) that we are sucked in with a strength we’re not for other, perfectly fine stories that draw from the same trope. For me, that truth comes from character development — when the whys are deep or surprising or just feel right, that’s a successful story.
Voice would be more about freshness to me than originality: a good author can tell me Cinderella for the thousandth time and make it fresh.
I would wonder if originality is somewhat time-dependent. My theory is that this is why books that people love are sometimes very average reads. That if you read them at the time, they genuinely stand out from the crowd and are brilliant, but if you come to them later, they aren’t cutting edge any more, and the reader has a different experience of the work.
It’s not just the author’s voice for me, though that’s a big part of it. In the series I love, I keep reading because I don’t want to let the characters go. They are so incredible, or their world is so fascinating, that I just can’t wait to see what happens to them next. What makes it harder for a romance author, then, is to keep both her voice and the characters interesting – J.D. Robb (well, Nora Roberts) seems to manage this consistently, partially by introducing new characters, but also by keeping her voice from grating on you and by bringing some new facet of the character to the surface in a new Eve & Roarke book.
Janet Evanovich hasn’t managed this so well – her characters are starting to get a bit stale, her voice isn’t as entertaining as it used to be, and a lot of don’t care if Stephanie ever ends up with Ranger or Morelli. Sometimes series just need to end, you know?
I realize that this series stuff is a little different from what you’re talking about, but take Lois McMaster Bujold – she takes new characters/settings in many of her books, and manages to do the same stories brilliantly – finding oneself, honor, respect, love, inter-cultural differences – and differently every time.
Dang! I actually have a similar post planned for tomorrow – you beat me to it! The truth is, in both genre fiction and narrative fiction, the soul lies in the author’s voice and their individual version of a story. How many times have you heard a work of literary fiction described as a retelling of ‘King Lear’? You’re right – in the literary world, as in the world of film, there are very few things new under the sun, there is only the ‘newness’ of the author’s individual voice or the filmmaker’s vision.
A lot of what I look for is variations on a theme. I really like identifying storylines or tropes and then seeing how different authors treat them*, whether that’s using them straight, inverting them, pointing them out, exploring their deeper meanings and possible complications, or whatever. I love re-told fairy tales and archetypical characters.
A lot of what I look for is also the details, particularly if a storyline is played straight. Cinderella in 17th century France is going to be different than Cinderella in 18th century England; a marriage-of-convenience tale where the heroine has an embarrassing aunt will vary a great deal from one where the hero has to bring out his little sister.
And character details, too, and voice. Basically, the last thing that I think about is whether a particular plot or archetype has been done before.
*Or even the same author with different novels. Robin McKinley did two very distinctive retellings of “Beauty and the Beast,” for example.
I agree that the author brings the originality to the story. For me, it’s with the characters. Make me care, and it’s a new story.
Author’s voice is important as well. I’ve taken many a writing workshop where everyone is given either a basic plot premise or a picture to write about, and they always come out totally different.
It’s not the story, it’s the telling.
Romance with a Twist–of Mystery
What a great essay, and I have to agree. An author’s voice is what differentiates each book, and a voice that suits me will draw me back time and time again. When I find an author who resonates with me, I’m thrilled and I begin to read everything out there by that particular author.
But I also agree with those who mentioned character. There’s a lot of latitude for variation there. People can be so incredibly different. When I find a character that hits my buttons, YEAH! Even if the authors voice is so-so, I can’t put the book down! But if I am unable to connect with a character, I often don’t even finish the book even when the writing is excellent.
So I guess my point is, thank GOODNESS every author comes at story, characterization, and even the “feel” of the book from a different angle, since everyone has different likes and preferences. I think there is plenty of diversity in romance, and I hope it will continue that way.
I think your essay says it all, Janet–or most of it.
I know I’ve used my favorite quote here before. But it fits, so I’ll use it again.
“We give the audience the experience we’ve promised. But not in the way it expects.”–Robert McKee, STORY.
I think a fine, relateable voice *is* the surest way to make the tried and true fresh again. It’s like seeing a familiar room through different eyes, but eyes that connect with our own private idea of what the room *should* look like and yet still put a fresh spin on it.
The author’s voice plays a huge part in overcoming what might otherwise feel cliche or well-worn. But it’s also the story and character choices an author makes in deciding how to tell a Cinderella story, for example.
Not just word choices and sentence structure, but character choices, the details brought to the page and how all those elements get used to tell the various levels of the story. You could certainly make the case that all those things amount to voice.
When I try to explain the appeal of romance novels to non-romance-reading friends and acquaintances, I often use a quote from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who (supposedly) said that a mystery novel is like a fugue of Bach, which is always based on the same form, but oh, the variations! Many understand the â€œoh, the variationsâ€ concept when it is applied to mysteries, the idea that romances can be as diverse (and as interesting/good/well written) as mysteries seems to be a bit harder to grasp. To my mind the really good, exciting and original books are usually those that respect the genre conventions, adhere to them up to a point and then have a twist, something new and/or different. I think there are certain trends and changes in every genre over time. In her Book â€œThe Romantic Fiction of Mills and Boon, 1909-1995â€ Jay Dixon describes, among other things, the way that category romance mirrors societal changes over the decades. I find this a very interesting concept. Will Wright published â€œSixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Westernâ€ in 1977. Although based on a structuralist approach, modeled on Vladimir Propp's â€œMorphology of the Folk Taleâ€ (1928) as well as Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss interpretation of Propp, Wright is a lot less nitpicky than Propp. Sixguns is not only a structural analysis but also a sociological study about the shift of Western tropes due to changes in society. I'd love to read a book like that about romance. I agree with Janet/Robin that the narrative voice of the author is often that aspect of a book which resonates the strongest with me. Isabel C. mentioned Robin McKinley's two Beauty and Beast Versions. Everything Robin McKinley writes works for me (even if she doesn't do sequels â˜¹). In addition to the storytelling voice of the author, there are certain topics, characteristics of the hero/heroine, settings etc. that just push my buttons and make me enjoy the story even more (or less).
@Carolyn Jewel: I agree, it’s the combination of character and voice. And for me, I’d add the place/setting/context. With some writers, the place is a character in itself.
I’ve never really understood why “formula” is such a dirty word in literary analysis (but then, I’m not a literary scholar). I mean, architects’ works are frequently placed within the equivalent of a genre (e.g., international style, postmodern) but no one assumes they are less interesting or innovative because of it. In fact, the fun is seeing what a particular architect does *within* a particular style. Why should literature be so different, when essentially the same thing is going on?
I'll echo what Janet and others have said, it is author's voice. When I read romance, it's not so much about the destination (HEA), it's about how the characters get there and the detours they take along the way. It's also about how well the characters are developed. The genre shorthand is good up to a point, but sometimes an author has too much of it and then they lose me as a reader.
I always say romance was more diverse back in the late 80s/early 90s. And I do think there was a wider variety of settings, especially in historicals (not every book was set in England). But part of that is because everything about it was new to me then.
Additionally, I think there are some authors a reader just connects with. A reader is far more willing to â€œforgiveâ€ a certain sameness in the books of an author they consider a â€œcomfortâ€ read than a new-to-them author or one has disappointed them in the past.
What works for a reader depends not only on the book itself, but the prior reading and life experience the reader brings with them to that story and the mood they're in at the time. So, yes, it can be argued that every romance tells the same story. And that's true on the most basic level. But the devil is in the details.
Im not sure it’s voice alone that makes a romance resonate with a reader. Even the most adept teller of jokes, for example, cannot make an auditor laugh if there is nothing funny about the joke in the first place. Contrarily, even a poor joke-teller will often earn a laugh, because the joke itself has so much humor it can’t be disguised. Likewise, some of the impact of romance fiction, I think, must come from the oft-repeated tropes and the certainty of the pattern.
Romances end at the same place, but the beginning and the middle–that’s where the author makes her mark.
@library addict: Totally agreed.
Originality isn’t a guarantee of quality. I tend to look for things that seem out of the ordinary, but I’ve read a lot of duds that way. You can start with the most original premise in the world, but if your prose is poor and your characters are flat, it won’t be a good book. I’d rather read something very familiar but well-written and well-developed even though I like reading stuff that pushes the envelope. A lot of things become overdone and overused precisely because they work, and so when they’re done properly, the story will succeed.
This makes me think of the “forms” competition at a martial arts tournament.
The katas all have strict form, like a choreographed dance, yet each contestant brings his or her own skill and creative expression to the form.
Once I saw someone turn his ankle in a backward move just so, infusing the move with a burst of strength and command it never had before.
There’s a real thrill in watching a fresh interpretation done with the power and grace of a master.
It annoys me when people (not this article or anyone in this discussion) confuse a story with a basic plot structure when discussing originality. It used to drive me crazy when people asked how could we find original works when there was no originality left. Eh, excuse me! For as long as there’s life in people, originality still lives. I believe they thought there was no originality because they were looking in the wrong place.
A basic plot structure is a specific arc of acts, plot points, climax, end. The most common is the three-act arc. And there’s no originality left because all possible variations of blueprints have been found including those with double ending, purposely false start, flashback, etc. A basic story plot is a specific type, e.g. man vs. nature, man vs. man, woman vs. self, etc. The list is endless and I think we pretty much have seen it all.
In romance genre’s case, the classic plot structure is girl meets boy, boy falls in love with girl, girl turns down boy, boy chases girl, they sit in a tree kissing, girl falls down, boy saves girl, happy ever after. In this sense, there’s no originality. It has to be unoriginal because it’s what defines the Romance genre and what sets it apart from other genres or types.
A story is an – oral, written or filmed – expression of a specific (and well-used) formula, which contains (IMO) these elements: voice, characterisation, plot devices, premise, setting (time or/and location) or worldbuilding, and genre conventions (tropes and clichÃ©s). It doesn’t matter if an author pushes a boundary or two, whether she’s reinvented a popular plot device, or successfully merged two genres as one. An expression is where originality can be found and sometimes, when.
Two authors could write the same premise with the same plot structure, setting, time period etc, but their voices, word choices and characterisations usually are what make their stories so different. It’s virtually impossible for two authors to produce exactly same stories. That’s unless one of them is a plagiarist. :D
However, when two or more genre authors produce similar stories with similar elements within a specific short span of time, it can become too predictable or stale for readers to enjoy. The question is which element that makes it stale or oh so unoriginal? Voice, setting, premise, plot device or whatnot? I point a finger at a trend wearing out its stay, rather than books themselves.
I’m rambling, sorry; in short, yes, there’s still originality to be found in a genre.
One of my greatest pleasures as a reader, in fact, is reading the book that makes me look at something familiar and see it differently.
@Janet: Right on the money! What you said reminds me of a line from a T.S. Eliot poem:”…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Voice is what I stress when I judge contests for unpubbed. For example, when I read Tessa Dare in a contest, I knew based on her voice that she was going to sell to NY and that she was going to do well. Almost everything else can be learned or perfected, but voice seems like the most innate and personal part of an author, and I’m not sure you can teach or learn it (though you can learn how to tap into and exploit your natural voice).
Freshness in genre fiction is only partly attributable to authorial voice. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are a case in point. The voice has remained the same throughout the series, but not all of the books are fresh. Ditto Jo Beverley. Her voice is distinctive, but some of her books are decided clunkers. If voice alone created fresh genre books, there wouldn’t be so many discount copies of Finger Lickin Fifteen moldering at my local thrift shop.
But I think we talk about voice and freshness in the same breath for a good reason: because so many damned good genre books are elevated by a distinctive voice. Tessa Dare and Joanna Bourne are great recent examples of breakout authors with instantly recognizable voices.
What’s more difficult to tease out is why we all fell for Goddess of the Hunt, but a lot of us didn’t love A Lady of Persuasion. I would argue that fresh genre fiction owes a large part of its appeal to basic storytelling craft. And craft is not the same thing as formula. Craft is what elevates formula.
Yes, in a romance, we need a hero and a heroine. And they should have some qualities we can admire, and some flaws we can empathize with. So much is formula. Craft asks the question: what are these admirable qualities and these flaws? Craft is in pacing. When do we learn the heroine’s backstory? And craft is in the stakes. Are the events that shaped her significant enough to impact her life now?
Unfortunately there isn’t a book I know of that analyzes romance fiction from a storytelling point of view. A lot of authors read McKee’s Story, referenced in an earlier post. For a genre focused analysis of storytelling basics, albeit also in movies, I’d recommend the late Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back.
This is a great question. I agree that an author’s voice is key to whether a book is successful, at least for me, and, it’s different author’s voices that cause me to read and re-read their books–like library addict said, there are some authors a reader just connects with.
Likari (and others here) noted that it is a new or fresh interpretation that offers a thrill. I love being surprised by how an author varies a standard theme. This variation or interpretation can be achieved by through voice, but it can also be achieved with a new setting, creative world-building, or unique characters.
Great post; as always, you’ve got me thinking.
I agree with Sunita that the label “formula” is often meant pejoratively. I think that’s ridiculous, because we use formulas all the time in the study of great works. My grad work was in theatre, so that’s where my mind turns first. Tragedy? A formula. Comedy? A different formula. What makes a particular work great? More often than not, it’s excellent execution of the formula. Or as you say in this post, it’s finding a way to twist an element of the formula, and in that case the effect almost certainly derives its impact from the expectations created by the formula.
Reading this right after the Book Pyramid post made me laugh. http://bibliobuffet.com/writer-in-residence-columns-333
Excellent post Robin. What I find persuasive about your analysis is that you focus on what is the protectable aspect of the work i.e. in copyright terms – it’s in the execution and not in the underlying ideas.
My reaction to your comments on ‘voice’ was similar to a number of the other commentors here i.e. what is voice, or craft, or whatever we want to call it? It’s certainly more that the mere sentences themselves; it’s the whole structure, the pacing, the deftness of the characterisation, the resolution, and more.
And that led me back to your core question about originality. Are we talking about originality then? Or merely about quality? Does originality matter in romance? Or, as Dick suggests, are we fundamentally looking for (high quality) repetition of well-loved elements?
Within genre fiction, originality isn’t absent; it’s just different. But, since even Shakespeare didn’t invent his own stories, I don’t think it’s important. The ‘lack of originality’ complaint is most often heard from people who are unfamiliar with the genre(s) discussed — regardless of what genre it is. Just like all romance is about two people meeting and falling in love, all mystery is about solving a crime, all fantasy is about magic, and all horror is about monsters, human or otherwise. But only someone who doesn’t know genre can see it all as one and the same thing.
In my opinion, authors have to be equally — if not more — original if they’re working within the constraints of an individual genre; since their audience already has certain expectations and (usually) previous knowledge of the genre, the authors have to show their craft in the way they handle their story, voice and characters. Yes, author’s voice comes into play, but also other elements, and — I would say especially — how the ‘obligatory elements’ are handled. Genre tropes, which are familiar to genre readers, can remain tropes when used skilfully — or become cliches when they’re just recycled without any originality. And often outsiders can’t see the difference between the two.
This is something that is often seen with SF, for instance: a mainstream author writes a book, and it gets wide critical acclaim, while the genre audience is confused because those same elements have been used in genre so many times before (often better) but remained limited to the SF-shelves.
All literature is inevitably in conversation with all other literature; in genre, this conversation is sometimes ‘louder’ than in mainstream fic, but that just creates new areas for originality. When a romance author plays with the conventions — for instance, if the heroine in a historical isn’t a virgin, and the hero gets surprised at that — this is not lack of originality; it’s a conversation. Would the scene in Lord of Scoundrels where the heroine says to the hero ‘You’re so sensitive and emotional’ have been nearly as funny if we didn’t read it within the romance context, with the legacy of all the sensitive and emotional heroines and strong, silent heroes?
So I guess I’d say that originality — and quality — are found in the way the tropes are handled, how they are used. It can be in the authorial voice, or in the characters’ development, or in the style, or in focusing on a detail or a twist of a trope that hasn’t been done before.
I think there’s another piece of the “voice” puzzle that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s the author’s ability to write dialogue. She might be a great plotter, she might have a distinctive prose voice, but if the characters can’t talk to each other in a way that rings true to me I am just not going to feel compelled to love her book. I’m reading one right now that offers a fascinating setting, an unusual story and intriguing characters, but I swear sometimes I have no idea what they’re trying to say! I find I can be easily seduced by intelligent, amusing, heartfelt dialogue, to the point where I can actually forgive the writer for egregious factual errors or ridiculous plot elements.
Excellent post!!! I completely agree and if I had to define originality, I would include a unique voice and fresh twists that leave the reader begging for more in that definition.