I thought I’d share a talk I gave on “The Substance of Romance” for the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum almost fifteen years ago (October 17th 2002)! I am indebted to Anne Maxwell/Elizabeth Lowell for her ideas included in a talk she gave at a Novelists Inc. conference many years ago. I don’t have the dates, but do know I have internalized her insights on literature/popular fiction and incorporate them here. Hope you enjoy! Isabel Swift
I love reading romances. I love reading what might be termed “literary” romances. I love reading romances that are part of what would be defined as “popular fiction.”
Today I will be taking you through: a definition of terms; a brief historical framework of the genre; the wide ranging, broad and successful aspect of romances; criticisms the genre faces. But I plan mostly to focus on the remarkable timeless appeal of the romance genre, how it crosses boundaries of time & culture, how it has changed and continues to change as it continues to grow and thrive
So what is a romance? It is a work of fiction where the focus of the story is on the developing relationship between two people. The story’s climax resolves it and delivers a sense of emotional “justice” and satisfaction.
As with any genre, there must be essential narrative elements, or it’s not a romance: The center of the story is a love story with an emotionally satisfying ending. Archetypic narrative elements broadly include 5 things: Meeting; Attraction; Barrier; Destruction of barrier; Declaration.
In a tale well told, the destruction of that barrier frees the characters from their constraints. It empowers them to choose; it enables them to act, and the reader rejoices.
The genre is a diverse one, with many sub-genres, from contemporary to historical romances: Sexy, Sweet, Suspense, Paranormal, Humorous, Fantasy, Inspirational, Western, Regency…the possibilities are endless and endless possibilities have been explored. Romances have a universal and timeless appeal.
There is no unanimously agreed upon “first” romance, though romantic texts have been cited as early as the 4th Century B.C. The crusades, Arabian fables & chivalry all incorporate elements of romance. But in 1740 Samuel Richardson’s PAMELA delivered a clear romance novel and a best-selling one at that (interestingly beloved of both men & women at the time). In Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance (1785) she notes that: Novels were seen as “pictures of real life and manners, and of the times in which they were written.” Whereas romances used “lofty and elevated language, describing what has never happened, nor is likely to.”
Some of what we see now as “overblown” prose clearly springs from this historical vision of romance. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) an 18th Century kind of guy who wrote a take-off on PAMELA— SHAMELA scorned romances. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) a 19th Century type of guy and a “romantic” scorned a novelist like Jane Austen (1775-1817). But both Scott and Austen wrote romances —one wrote larger than life stories, drawn on a sweeping canvas; one more intimate tales, realistic and of the times.
Romances, in general, represent over half adult popular mass market fiction, depending on your definition of “romance.” It was a 1.5 billion dollar industry last year (2001), with more than 2,000 titles released. 50 million women in North America read romances. Clearly romances are a vital element of our lives and in our literature. The stories cross cultures. They cross centuries. They continue to have phenomenal appeal.
While I want to focus on exploring that appeal, I did want to respond to some of my favorite criticisms of the genre: I must note that almost all criticisms are voiced by people who declare, without shame, I might add, that they’ve never actually read any romances. Interestingly, they do not see this fact as a disqualification for an opinion!
There’s the “pornography” one, which I can’t imagine anyone who has ever read a romance lending any credence to. The essence of a romance is about the unique rightness of uniting these particular two people and the challenges they face in creating a good partnership. The stories are about both the emotional and physical connection, body and soul. Some romances are certainly sexy, but the physical is always in the context of a connection between two unique people.
Romances are sometimes faulted for having romantic conventions and being part of a genre. Like Homer (and I feel that one could convincing argue that the Odyssey is a quintessential romance) and the Homeric epithet, these familiar elements are ways the teller of the tale communicates to her reader that she is in a genre, a world both familiar and new. While humans can enjoy change and uncertainty, many also enjoy elements in their life that can be depended on and are relaxing. The issue of “sameness” is the point, not the problem. If we turned some of these principals to, say, sports, I think we’d find some interesting commonalties and insights.
162 baseball games every year—year after year. Football, basketball, hockey, all are much the same. Same number of players, same positions. Now isn’t that boring? Don’t guys get tired of it? Don’t they wish everyone just switched places every inning or so? Or we added a few players? Or took some away? Just think of what the response would be to that. Outrageous! Absurd! It wouldn’t be baseball! (or football, or whatever). By the same token, a romance without the essential elements would not be a romance, it would not deliver the key elements that inspired the reader to select that genre and that story to begin with.
People decide to watch a basketball game because they want to watch a certain number of players of a particular sex play in a specific setting under a clear set of rules. And even within basketball, viewers are highly specific, many preferring to watch only professional or college or women’s basketball (or whatever). The rules are different; it’s a more exciting game, or less political (or whatever). Now that seems to me to be a fairly rigidly codified entertainment viewing experience, doesn’t it? Yet those same viewers express surprise at hearing similar types of preferences voiced with reading romances. Go figure.
With the sports viewing experience one could argue it is the suspense of finding out who wins that makes each game interesting. But the fact is that some people enjoy suspense, I really don’t.
Romance readers enjoy reading about relationships; they are interested in how the relationship puzzle is worked out. We read because we are optimistic, and we enjoy the genre’s assurance that sometimes things work out for the best. We believe in the positive power of love and in its ability to overcome obstacles. It gives us strength and hope as we face our own lives and the world we live in. In the stories the heroine, and she is a heroine, not a “protagonist” has a right to find happiness. She must discover what that means for her, which is often a process of self discovery and self acceptance. She must also have the courage to go after it. And happiness may not be what is expected.
Romances are usually by, for and about women. The heroine is the center, it is her story. They are stories of empowerment, stories where women succeed, her values are confirmed, her beliefs are validated. Ultimately, love is seen as a vitally important ingredient to life by both sexes. And all are worthy of love. But before hero or heroine can surmount the “barrier” they each must become a more complete and whole person. Strong enough to partner with another, to love and be loved.
And who does not want to be loved, valued and appreciated for who we are? Most also want to grow, succeed and be challenged to be more. Romances celebrate the commonalties and the differences, and each story strives to find that resonant middle ground. Romances explore the compromises we must make to live with others. To understand what are reasonable accommodations, and what are not. They remind us of the challenges of building a relationship, but also the triumphs.
It is hard to live with others and to share! But these are skills we need to work on as humans, we only have to look at the news to understand why.
Ideally the process of the romance story is the alignment of the yin/yang and the expression of the reverse circle in each, black within white, white within black, Jung’s animus and anima. The partnership allows a balance between hero and heroine, freeing the woman to be more independent, sexual, confident; freeing the man to be more vulnerable, emotional, capable of compromise. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and forms the basis for a partnership, a family.
One could divide literature through the ages into tragedy or comedy: Tragedy: usually political, focused on power, often pessimistic, and ends in death. Comedy: focuses on social issues; optimistic, often ends in marriage, a celebration of life.
Romances have a positive, life affirming resolution, a HEA (Happily Ever After). Love stories, or stories with romantic elements don’t necessarily.
If we look at Shakespeare’s tragedies & comedies: Romeo and Juliet, though an intensely romantic love story is, of course, one of his tragedies because they all die. His romances, the Tempest being the best known, ends in marriage & his comedies do too.
Tragedies force us to face our mortality, a difficult, but necessary lesson. Works that address this are often deemed literature. The comic genre has a much harder time catching that “literary” brass ring, but they serve to remind us why it is we are happy to be alive, and why we’d rather not die, though we know we must.
Romances are stories that are meant to be entertaining. They aren’t how-to manuals for life, but they express a belief in life’s possibilities and the potential for chang, even if it is only change within. Romances make you feel good.
Romances authors usually start out or become readers. Their goals are to give back to their readers the pleasure they got from reading. They work to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible. I don’t think anyone asks how many calories you’ve burned or weight you’ve lost going to the movies, you go to the gym for that! Romance writer’s desire is to entertain, not exercise. Everyone should feel empowered to take some time for pure enjoyment, to relax, refresh and center themselves, whatever that means to them.
Romances remind us of the world’s possibilities and the belief that partnerships, though difficult to establish and maintain, are possible, and can deliver remarkable benefits.
The romance genre springs from universal myths, tales and legends: the moral lessons, quests and the struggle between Good and Evil. Romances celebrate the ability of hero and heroine to have courage and compassion, to challenge themselves, to perservere and transcend obstacles, both real and metaphorical, through the power of love.
And I think we should continue to nurture and cherish those beliefs, now more than ever.
Did you hear the eerie music when you read the title?
Two of my favorite TZ episodes dealt with time travel.
Cliff Robertson in “A Hundred Years Over the Rim” (a father time travels to the future to save his ill son with modern medicine) and Kevin McCarthy in “Long Live Walter Jameson.” (check out an interesting filming note on this one). A professor knows history better than he should because “he was there.”
When I set out to write my Civil War romance, LOVE ME FOREVER, these two TZ episodes crept into my story line in a fun and interesting way: my time traveling heroine is a part time EMT and history teacher; she helps the Union Army physician hero in his fight against “germs” and how to combat disease back in 1862.
And yes, she knows exactly when the battles take place and does her best to save lives. But can she change history? If she does, will she lose the man she loves?
Do shows we loved as kids have an even more powerful effect on our writing?
I think so.
What TV shows have affected your writing?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Till next time…
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
The quote above is generally attributed to Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, published serially 1837-39, per Bartleby though Dickens may have copied it from a 17th century play, Revenge for Honour by George Chapman. (See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-law-is-an-ass.html) Whatever the origin of the phrase, it makes a fair point. (The word ass, of course, refers to a donkey.)
Nineteenth-century women were likely to agree with Mr. Bumble, when one considers the treatment of women under the laws of the period. I covered a bit of this during my recent talk on Herstory at Orange County RWA in August, though women weren’t the only people treated badly by the law. The nineteenth century saw a number of reform movements, from abolitionism to the fight for women’s suffrage. The latter was kicked off in July 19-20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The first two resolutions passed at the convention concern legal matters:
Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and of no validity; for this is “superior in obligation to any other.
Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.
It wasn’t just that women weren’t allowed to vote, though that was a primary focus for reform. For several centuries, a legal practice called coverture was in place in England and the U.S. whereby a woman gave up all rights when she married. Her husband controlled any money or property she brought to the union. Single women, including widows, could own property and enter into contracts without male approval. Thanks to suffragist activism, laws were passed abolishing this practice in the late 19th century.
Current law is confusing enough, but when you’re writing historical romance, the law can be a veritable minefield of potential blunders. Research your time period and location if legal matters play a part in your plot. What kind of legal system was in place at the time? English common law, the Napoleonic Code, church canonical law? In the U.S., laws vary from state to state, but that isn’t always the case in other countries.
British laws were enforced throughout England and Wales, but didn’t necessarily apply to Scotland. For instance, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the age of consent for marriage was substantially lower in Scotland than the one-and-twenty years required in England, encouraging couples without parental approval to elope across the border. The Gretna Green marriage is common plot device in Regency romances. The 1753 Marriage Act was also the first law to require a formal ceremony. It also required weddings to take place in the morning, hence the wedding breakfast to follow.
Getting out of a marriage was even more difficult. Prior to the mid-19th century when judicial divorce was authorized, it was extremely difficult if not impossible to get a divorce in Britain. In Regency times, one had to petition Parliament for a divorce. Can you imagine having to ask Congress to agree to let someone divorce? Yikes! Even then it was more like a legal separation than a true divorce. Annulments weren’t necessarily easy to obtain either. A law permitting judicial divorce, the Matrimonial Causes Act, finally passed in 1857.
More information on marriage and divorce laws can be found at these sites:
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” As we soon learned, Juliet’s name was extremely important. She was just any Juliet; she was a Capulet, mortal enemies of Romeo’s Montagu family.
|copyright 2004 Art Explosion|
As any writer knows, finding the right name for your character is important, esp. the first name. Personal names come with expectations, even the historically improbable ones. Can you imagine Amber St. Claire of Forever Amber as Mary or Nancy? I didn’t think so. I read that Poppy was one of the names Margaret Mitchell considered for her southern belle before she came up with Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Somehow Poppy O’Hara just doesn’t have the same ring to it! Poppy sounds more like a servant girl.
Names have ethnic, class and sometimes religious connotations. Algernon and Reginald, for instance. Not exactly common working men names.
What do Sean, Ian and Ivan all have in common? They are all variants of John, but you wouldn’t name a character Ivan unless he’s from a Slavic country or background. In historical times, the same was true for Sean and Ian. Sean was Irish; Ian Scottish, and historical romances notwithstanding, no upstanding English aristocrat of the past would have allowed his son to be christened Sean or Ian. The priest wouldn’t have allowed it. The parish register would have shown the name as John.
In past centuries, the personal name stock was much smaller than it is now, though not necessarily the same. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, saint names were common. The stricter Protestants rejected many saint names in favor of Biblical names, like Hester and Ezekiel, and even more obscure names. They also invented the so-called virtue names: Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, etc.
When choosing names for a historical novel, I look in a book like The New American Dictionary of Baby Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling that gives some historical context for the names. Plus I love the authors’ surnames. I keep thinking it should be Duckling and Gosling, though.
Surnames came into general use in the Middle Ages, and usually come from one of four sources: place of residence, occupation, nickname or patronymics, such as Johnson, Anderson, Davison. In Scotland, Mac at the beginning of a name means son of. In Ireland it’s Mc or O. Patronymics are common to many European countries. The Scandinavian countries also used matronymics, ending in dottir.
When writing an aristocratic character, I look for a less common place name, as the nobility and gentry were usually landed and were likely to take their surname from (or have given it to) the name of their estate. However, the older aristocratic were most likely descended from the Norman invaders and you can find a list of Anglo-Norman names at Wikipedia. Interestingly, Montaigu is one of the names listed. You can also find lists of British titles at Wikipedia, among other online sources. Burke’s Peerage is one of two definitive guides to the aristocracy, but it’s extremely expensive (over $800). You might be able to find an older copy at a local library. The other definitive source on the nobility is DeBrett’s Peerage.
Occupational surnames usually indicate humbler origins. Nearly every village had its baker, blacksmith, cooper, carter, miller and tailer. A few noted exceptions are Stewart, Spencer and Chamberlain, occupational titles of highly placed employees in the royal courts. The royal Stewart ancestors held the title High Steward of Scotland from the 12th century until Robert II became king in the 14th century.
Names based on nicknames, originally called bynames, were used to distinguish two people in a village with the same first name. Bynames include handles like Short and Littlejohn. These were not originally intended as long-term family names but evolved into that.
In the late nineteenth century, Henry Brougham Guppy made a study of farm family surnames as he considered them the most stay-at-home group in the county. In 1890 he published Homes of Family Names in Great Britain in which he categorized names by how common or unusual they were. He found that certain names were “peculiar” to primarily one county. Those are referred to as Guppy’s peculiar names. His book is now available from Project Gutenburg and Google Books.
American surnames come from all around the world and provide a great deal more variety for the novelist than other countries. I became fascinated with names when I was researching my family history. Hunting down my German ancestors was a challenge because the surnames were rarely spelled the same way twice. One of my ancestors started life as Conrad Buchle in Wurttemberg, Germany. A few generations later, his descendents last name was Beighley.
When I started writing around 1988, I collected every name book I could find that had any value for writing historical romance, and boy am I glad I did. Most of them are now out of print, but may be available as used books or in your local public or university library. You’ll find a brief list. I’ll hunt for more. I’m going to be speaking at OCCRWA on writing historical romance in August.
American Surnames by Elsdon C. Smith, Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009. http://amzn.com/0806311509
Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, Burke’s Peerage, 107th Edition 2003 http://www.amazon.com/Burkes-Peerage-Baronetage-Knightage-107th/dp/0971196621/
A Dictionary of First Names, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, 2nd ed., Oxford Paperback Reference, Oxford University Press, 2006. Out of print.
The New American Dictionary of Baby Names, Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, Signet, 1985, 1991. Better than the average baby name book because it gives some historical context for names. Out of print now.
New Dictionary Of American Family Names by Elsdon C. Smith, Gramercy Publishing, 1988, out of print.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by E. G. Withycombe, Oxford University Press; First American edition edition 1947, paperback 1986. Out of print.
The Writerâ€™s Digest Character Naming Source Book, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Writerâ€™s Digest Books, 1994. Available at Amazon.com
A few weeks ago, a blog I was reading mentioned something to the effect of “when e-books were new back in 2007-2009” which left me both amused and nostalgic.
News flash: e-books have been around since at least 1971 when Project Gutenberg started digitizing public domain works. The US Declaration of Independence was the first document chosen. Check the Wikipedia page for more early e-book history.
I started reading e-books in 1999 on my laptop. I’d gone to the Romance Writers of America conference in Chicago and signed up to moderate a panel. By sheer serendipity, I was assigned to moderate the e-book panel presented by Janet Lane Walters and the late great Jane Toombs, two true e-book pioneers. I came away with an interest in e-books and a couple of samples on 3 1/2 inch diskettes. (Remember those?)
Back home, I read the books on my laptop using either Adobe Acrobat or an Internet browser, depending on whether the format was PDF or HTML. I’m a voracious reader and book buyer, and the house was already full of print books. The idea of being able to store book on my computer seemed like a godsend to me. A way to buy and hoard, I mean, store books without cluttering my already cluttered house. I was hooked!
Commercial e-books were in their infancy, but dozens of small publishers sprang up, most of them no longer in business. Ellora’s Cave is the best known of the early small e-book houses. My publisher, Amber Quill Press, started in 2002. Romance readers got hooked early, and small presses deserve credit for reviving the paranormal romance genre, which NY had lost interest in, for feeding the erotic romance craze and for pioneering gay erotic romance.
While e-book readers were a tiny minority at first, the growth was explosive, often 50% in a year. The numbers didn’t start to hit critical mass until Amazon got into the game with the Kindle 1 in late 2006, though Sony gets the credit for having the first available e-ink reader. There were commercial e-readers available before the Sony Reader and the Kindle: the original Rocket e-book reader, its successor the RCA Gemstar 1100, using my stylus to make selections. (You had to press a lot harder than on a tablet.) Also, books could be read on the little PDAs, like the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC. I read a lot on my Sony Clie and on my RCA Gemstar until it quit on me. By then, Amazon was about to release the Kindle, so I ordered one and never looked back.
In 2006, Janet Cornelow and I took pictures of each other reading on our e-book devices for a contest at Fullerton Public Library. We thought it would be cool if tow of the photos showed people reading electronically. Needless to say, I did not win. The picture above shows Janet reading on her RCA eBookwise.
Sony produced the first e-ink reader, beating the Kindle, but Amazon’s real innovation, the one that made it the leader in the industry, was the one-click purchase followed by wireless delivery directly to your device. No more having to buy from the publisher’s site–with different accounts at each site, were we dedicated ebook readers or what?–download the books to your computer and then side load your e-books using the USB cable. This step took e-book reading beyond the limits of the technologically proficient among us. The ability to download a sample before buying was (and still is) another popular feature. I was an early adopter of the Kindle 1 and still have my device, though it’s no longer in use. I’ve moved on to a Kindle Keyboard and the iPad.
Do you read e-books? If so, when did you start and what device(s) do you use?
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