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Monday, November 17, 2008


Fantasies of escape

I saw an interesting documentary the other week, called How to Write a Mills and Boon, in which the novelist Stella Duffy applied herself with commendable sincerity to the difficult task of selling a book to Mills and Boon, the world's leading romance company that sells three books a second. Her early efforts faltered - and, as she pointed out, this was not unusual; many successful writers try their hand at Mills and Boon and fail. Mills and Boon is one of those publishers that a lot of people think should be easy to sell to - after all, they produce empty-headed books, right? - only to find that it's actually very hard to impress them and that the people who generally do get published by Mills and Boon aren't ironic sophisticates cynically manipulating a gullible market, but genuine romantics who actually like the Mills and Boon stuff. This isn't so surprising, because it's hard to produce a successful work of art if you have a patronising attitude towards it, but a lot of people seem to disregard the multiply-attributed maxim that easy reading is damn hard writing when it comes to Mills and Boon. To her great credit, Duffy gave it her best shot, talked to the editor, talked to some big-time Mills and Boon fans, went to a class run by a successful Mills and Boon author, wrote and rewrote, and eventually did produce three chapters and a synopsis that the editor said she'd be happy to accept. (Whether Duffy went on to write the rest of it, I'm not sure.) Interestingly, the solution to her plot problem came from one of the fans, and it was a brilliant suggestion, one that solved the central difficulty at a stroke. If nothing else, that should stand as a refutation to anyone who thinks Mills and Boon readers are stupid - the fan came up with an idea that helped out a highly successful novelist. Frankly, there are days when I'd like to borrow that fan myself.

I've never tried to write a Mills and Boon, but I've read a few - as has pretty much everybody, which says something about the publishing house. My fiance reckons that they're porn, particularly considering how direct they are in their titles and packaging: while not all their titles are quite this bluntly descriptive, a quick glance at their website shows me titles like The Ruthless Italian's Inexperienced Wife and The Greek Tycoon's Disobedient Bride, which rather reminds me of Ali Davis (of the Porn Clerk diaries) remarking that most porn titles 'follow a pattern: (A) B N, where A is the race of the participants (optional), B is the sex act or kink - sometimes this gets astonishingly specific - and N is the number of the series. Thus you get "Blow Bang 25" or "Asian All-Anal Action 15".' Mills and Boon is unusually straightforward when it comes to race or nationality: Arab Sheiks and Italian or Mediterranean men are seen as an asset, the dark good looks and traditional masculinity being popular with readers. As I have no animus against porn as long as it's produced under safe and consensual working conditions, I don't say this to attack Mills and Boon: it's all about fantasy, and there's nothing wrong with that. Readers, after all, aren't looking for their variation in the storyline. They know how the story will end; that's part of the appeal. The difference between one book and another is going to reside in such things as the nationality, profession and relationships of the characters, so being clear about them from the outset is simply a way of helping readers make their choice.

But is 'porn' the right definition? Mills and Boon have chaste and erotic imprints to suit various tastes - which again seems not unlike porn in its fragmentation to cover a variety of niche markets - but the main fantasy of a Mills and Boon is an emotional one. My fiance points out that for-men porn is an emotional fantasy of sorts too: the fantasy of an easily-aroused woman with whom you can have no-strings sex, which is a fairly traditional male wish-fulfilment. The Mills and Boon dream is of an alpha male, a dynamic man who brings passion and adoration in equal measures, while also being totally competent, able to solve your problems and incidentally wealthy enough to end your money worries. That's a more complicated set of demands than a quick shag; the fulfilment the fantasy man offers has to stretch over a longer period of time than a porn character's does.

Thinking about it, something occurred to me. Fantasies speak to different emotional places, different needs and longings ... and it seems to me that the Mills and Boon fantasy appeals to the part of you that's tired. Adult life is heavy going sometimes. Money worries don't get solved at a stroke, partners can't solve all your problems, happily-ever-after requires maintenance work. Women have to do a lot: work for a living, sustain a home, keep a social life, pull together with spouses but also compromise with them ... And some days, it can seem a bit much, and the fantasy of a perfect partner who sweeps in and solves everything, whose heart you can heal merely by being yourself and who, in return, contributes everything else, sounds an awful lot easier. Less probable, of course, and very possibly not as much fun as it sounds if you actually had to live with the masterful blighter round the clock, but temptingly easy, a way of letting go.

Younger readers don't have to maintain a job and a household in the same way, perhaps, but the fantasy of ease is still appealing: girls wear themselves out worrying if they're attractive enough, if they can work out how to get along with boys, if they'll ever find a boy who can offer them what they want - and of course, if you want a steady relationship and are dating boys your own age, the younger you are, the less likely it is, given that girls mature ahead of boys. Late girlhood can be a wilderness era of waiting for male romanticism to catch up with you; the fantasy of a man who comes in and scoops you up without you having to wait and strategise and pretend you don't want to ask for commitment is again a compelling one.

So that's a female fantasy. What I'm wondering is, are there equivalents in other demographics? There is, for instance, the high fantasy epic plot, which, if less wildly profitable than Mills and Boon, is also an extremely durable story. Boy who would be king is plucked from obscurity and intitated into a community he has to lead into saving the world. Now, the main demographic for that story is teenage boys - and there's an emotional reason for that. Teenage boys, according to my fiance, spend a lot of their time feeling surplus to requirements. Nubile young women are a sexual prize, older women are the constant earth on which society stands, older men are powerful and own things and their requirements are the ones that count - but what place is there for a boy? Even a sympathetic person will concede that if you had to share an empty bus with one other person, a teenage boy would be right at the bottom of your preference list. Most teenage boys are harmless and well-meaning - probably noisily high-spirited and a bit insensitive, which makes them obtrusive company, but basically nice people - but the violent minority give the majority a bad name. Teenage boys are out of society, too young to contribute but full of energy, and as a result, can spend a lot of their time feeling not tired but unwelcome. The epic fantasy plot taps right into that yearning: you're not some useless nobody but incredibly important, central to the world's wellbeing. There's a place for you, and people want you there. You're valuable, indispensable. In real life, the world spends a lot of time telling you to get lost or pipe down, but in the epic fantasy story, the world needs you.

There's the Man of Vengeful Peace plot as well, otherwise known as 'He was just an ordinary man ... until they came for his family!' This isn't exactly a genre, more a trope that crops up in a lot of action plots, but it seems to speak to another kind of fatigue. It's difficult to be a husband and father. Gender politics have raced, loped and staggered forward wildly over the last few decades, and the old patriarchal roles are faltering. Jobs for life are pretty much a thing of the past, so being a provider no longer looks safe and certain. Women can be confused, conflicted or contradictory about what they want in a man, and children are never quite who you expect them to be. Fulfilling masculine role is a tricky proposition. But in a culture that prizes violence as an inherently masculine quality, the Man of Vengeful Peace can reclaim his manhood. Suddenly it's easy to be a good husband and father, if not physically then psychologically. You don't have to intuit what your three-year-old is thinking or measure up to your wife's expectations: all you have to do is get angry - an easy emotion, and one that requires no introspection or thought - and go get somebody. I doubt any man would seriously think to himself, 'You know, I wish somebody would just come along and kidnap my family so I could prove what a good husband and father I really am' ... but just as much as romance, it's a form of being swept off your feet. You're swept away by circumstance rather than by another character, but it's the same basic phenomenon: rather than you having to change yourself, outside forces change everything in your life, and in so doing, reveal the perfect true self that was always inside you. You don't have to work on yourself, you have to go with the flow - energetically, but still, unlike in messy real life, the plot provides you with a definite task you can accomplish and a clear and desirable reward for accomplishing it.

Those are a few I can think of. Can you think of any specific plots that appeal to the fantasies of a particular kind of life-weariness or frustration?

Well, I could make a reasonably cogent argument that the appeal of the entire Mystery genre -- the emotional appeal, at least -- comes from the simple desire to see justice done...

Likely it becomes more appealing the more you watch people lying, cheating, stealing -- "getting away with murder," as it were -- with any apparent consequences.
The other appeal of the detective story is that you get to find out what really happened. That's appealing for those moments in real life when you feel like you don't have a clue. In a mystery, the loose ends get tied up, even when they're not directly connected to the crime: you know why he said that, why she did that. In real life, figuring that stuff out is tiring. In a mystery story, figuring it out is a game, and if you can't complete the puzzle yourself, the detective will do it for you.

I'd also nominate the kind of Christmas story where the troubled family gathers at the old home place, problems are solved or estrangements are healed around Mom's holiday table, and all is comfort and joy. Definitely appealing in contrast to those real-life holidays where the family is still the people they are the rest of the year, only more so after too much food, too much drink and too much spending. As the Maeve Binchy title has it, "Next Year Will Be Different" -- but it so rarely is.

Tonight's work is "kaverive," a potent liqueur served after the gnomes' Yuletide feast. After which the gnomes are not seen again until spring.
I think the Person of Vengeful Peace plot, or any revenge plot, could also be a way to channel those urges that you get when you really wish you could completely kick That Person's ass - That Person being someone who really pisses you off. You get what you want - peace, revenge, whatever - in a very cathartic, dramatic way. None of this "sitting down and talking things out" crap: just bust in there with an MK-47 and start shooting shit up. Or whipping out your kung-fu moves, whichever works.

My word is "braira", which is the name of a well-known heroine in a Celtic-influenced fantasy setting.
I might also nominate the noir/hardboiled detective. It has the aspects that michael mock and amaryllis mention, with the additional frisson that you're in an inherently hostile and corrupt world, but you're the one who Sees Through It, and sometimes even manages to change it, or at least assert your jaundiced opinion loudly and frequently. It's very appealing, when you're feeling generally powerless and confused and marginal, to redefine that position as the power position.

And that's the connecting factor, here, I think. These are literatures of consolation. They take you where you are, or where you wish you were, and say, "There, there, it's all good, really. See?" And while that's not how great literature approaches the job, well, hey, we can all use a bit of consolation, some days.
lurker here -

I love those fantasy with a woman who is powerful - either as a warrior or a magician, and overcomes all, whilst being beautiful, witty, and often hard. Oh, and usually gets a pretty boy. This is because she is invulnerable, and never gets raped, or if she does she kills everyone afterwards... so its a power fantasy but for me a power fantasy from threat, not over people. hence she rarely becomes queen, but rides off into the distance to fight another day... and if she does become queen, there are no more books...

Sort of off-topic, but I've been reading a book (on and off for the past three years) about plots which posits that there are only seven types of plot: tragedy, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, rags to riches, comedy, the quest, and rebirth.

Some novels combine more than one of these (Lord of the Rings probably contains all of them), but all novels fall within them. And within each type of plot, there are different tropes such as the Man of Vengeful Peace, or the teenage boy seeking his place in society, etc.

Based on the few I've read, most Mills and Boons seem to work along the rags-to-riches, Cinderella lines, so I wonder if that is an essential female plot, whereas voyage and return might be more male? I'm thinking of classic examples like the Odessey and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad - tales where Man strikes out to explore and conquer, then comes home laden with spoils to his faithful wife.

Um, I'm not really sure where I'm going with this anymore, but... That's my thought.
The Anarchic Underworld is an example I've seen a fair bit - the hero (or, often, Antihero) leads a dull, humdrum, unsatisfying existence until one day, they sucked into a secret underground society, where the most important rule is always "anything goes". By doing all the things that they would be forbidden from normally, they save the world, get the girl/guy and become fundamentally awesome in a way that they could never have acheived had they stayed in the "real" world.

The purest examples are cases such as Fight Club (the film even more so than the book), where the protagonist quite literally finds an anarchic underground organization, but fantasy works often include at least an element of this - compare Harry Potter's dull life with his straitlaced aunt and uncle to the freespirited, anarchic Hogwarts, for example.

The wish fulfillment in this case is fairly obvious, usually tied with a macho fantasy of being the guy who bucks all the rules, but gets rewarded rather than penalised for it.
Because of my various paying gigs, I think a LOT about genre fiction, what it means, how it is "assigned", and so forth. I'd say at least half of everything I've ever managed to publish has been musings on the meaning of genre.

For the most part, I'd agree that "genre" -- as it currently works in the publishing world -- is first and last a marketing term, dealing with reader expectations about the whole experience of interacting with the text.

But I would not say that is a bad thing, or even a limiting thing. Marketing -- if done well -- places an experience in context, and by doing can significantly enrich the experience.

Take the example of the Mills & Boon romance -- in the USA, these are properly called "category romances", and popularly "Harlequins", after a prominent imprint. Picking up the book, without even reading it, sets up a whole series of expectations for the reader. The book is slim, always paperback, with a title that is designed to place a series of expectations on the reader (Ethnic Group + Relationship, etc., all with their own associations and evocations for the reader.) The cover is meant to set a mood -- cozy, sexy, suspenseful -- which is further solidified by the readers's past experiences with the particular line of that imprint (E.g., Harlequin Inspirationals vs Harlequin Intrigue).

Just as experiencing a certain food item on beautiful china in a quiet dim restaurant with linen napkins is entirely different (not necessarily BETTER, just different) from tasting the chemically indistinguishable food in a crowded diner with loud pop music or on paper plates and napkins at a family picnic table with children playing about), so a particular text will simply read differently whether presented as a romance or a historical or a paranormal or a thriller.

And that "added value" is in many cases of more importance TO THE READER than the actual intrinsic text (as discomfitting as this is to me as a writer!)

More thoughts on this later, when I come back from the public service desk.

-- hapax

(Word verification: "robom", a small cheerful red-breasted explosive that goes boom- boom- booming along)
Amaryllis: Good point. Maybe it's more the "Western" (at least here in the States) where the emotional payoff is in seeing justice done... or maybe that's a common element of both genres.

I don't read a lot of Westerns, but the classic pattern that sticks in my mind looks like this:
1. Stranger arrives in town.
2. Stranger discovers that Something Is Wrong.
3. Stranger fixes the problem (usually with violence).
4. Stranger rides off into the sunset.

That suggests to me that maybe the reward here is in seeing an individual actually improve the world around him; though I think there's usually an Underdog-overcomes-great-odds element there, too. The Man of Vengeful Peace trope fits in neatly because it allows the hero to be both moral and violent: "I didn't wanna do this to ya, mister, but ya shot my dog..."

Laura: Your post raises an interesting point about power fantasies (nothing terribly new, but I hadn't thought about it in a long time): proper heroes can't want power for its own sake. So, if you have a powerful hero, she has to be either blessed with loads of natural talent (e.g. Buffy, Harry Potter), or interested in gaining power only to protect herself (e.g. The Karate Kid), or thrust into a position of unwanted power or authority (e.g. Aragorn). A character who wants power for its own sake is usually a Bad Guy, or at best an anti-hero.

There are probably exceptions to this pattern, but I can't think of many.

This was particular interesting to me because I'm currenty writing about a character who's perfectly willing to gain power at the cost of his humanity. This isn't the main conflict in the story, but it may create an interesting subplot. (I'm not far enough along to be sure, yet.) Anyway, thanks for bringing that up.

Today's word is "dosia", which is a kind of dance native to the Alps; it cannot be performed on level ground.
I think that a lot of the things you (Kit, that is) said about the high fantasy plot also hold true for superhero comics. In superhero comics, after all, awkward teenage outsiders have superpowers and save the city—maybe the world—on a regular basis. You also have the point that Michael just made about strength. Batman is the only major superhero who gets his powers from fanatic training and preparation, and he's got a Man of Vengeful Peace excuse. Most other supers stumble into it; they get irradiated or come from a planet where their superpowers are normal.

I've been trying to figure out how secret identities play into the fantasy, though. They're such a strong genre trope, even when they don't entirely make sense; there has to be some significant emotional pay-off to them. The only thing that I can think of is that they help to keep that sense of identification alive for the long haul. I mean, by the end of your classic Farmboy Saves World story, the Farmboy has become someone important. Even if he doesn't get a title or a kingdom, most of the people in his world are going to know that he killed the Dark Lord or won the war or blew up the local equivalent of the Death Star. Which is part of the wish fulfillment, sure, but I think it might eliminate some of the things that made teenagers identify with the guy in the first place. They're still stuck in high school.

Spider-man, however . . . well, he's saved the world on a few occasions, but Peter Parker is no-one special. He's Everynerd, right down to a snarky internal monologue that turns into his trademark battle chatter. (Which he has occasionally used to enrage less-than-brilliant enemies, like the Rhino, into knocking themselves out. Literally. That's nerd-porn, in my nerdly opinion, and not just for teenage guys.) I think a secret identity is a way of building an extremely powerful character who still feels like a put-upon teenager, someone who can't fight the school bully directly because that would blow his cover.

My word is "lorings." I think these are probably small rodents that recite prophecy and epic poems before they leap off cliffs, but I welcome additional suggestions.

Jules Feiffer has some great things to say about superhero tropes filling the psychological needs of nerdy teenaged outcasts in his book THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES. Also just a fun read in so many ways, not least his masterful rant on how much he hated Robin, the Boy Wonder.

To go back to romances -- of a sort -- one that has always interested me is the rape fantasy. You still see it around, although not in quite the overt fashion of its heyday of the seventies bodice-rippers. It now presents much as it did in Baroness Orczy's SCARLET PIMPERNEL (this isn't quite an exact quote, but pretty close) -- the heroine thrilling to the sight of "a strong man, rendered helpless and out of control by the very madness of his love."

I think that has an enormous appeal as a subversive power fantasy for a misogynistic society. When women are told that they should have real power (either from the limited sucesses of feminism, or older tropes such as "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world") but in fact are well aware that they have no actual power of men who are physically, financially, legally, and culturally in power over them -- well, it is hard not to turn to the traditional yet subversive power of sexuality, the femme fatale.

But the "good girl" whom we wish to identify with can't be Morgan Le Fay -- so the solution is the rape fantasy, real or disguised. The all-powerful alpha male is driven mad, out of control, helpless in the face of the heroine's beauty, goodness, magical love bond, whatever it is.

I think that there's a reason this trope is especially powerful in romances aimed at adolescent females -- witness the recent spate of paranormal romances. These are the females who have been taught to believe in the equity of power, and yet are discovering in their burgeoning sexual relationships that it just 'taint necessarily so.

I think it is older women -- especiallly relatively successful, professional women - who are more attracted to the trope that Kit refers to. You have to have a certain level of self-security to be able to safely "let go" and let yourself be taken care of.

(Word verification: "nessestn", which refers to a small spiky remora-type creature that attaches exclusively to prehistoric monsters in Scottish lochs)
In many of the romances I've read, whether the hero wants to rape the heroine or cover her with diamonds, or both, the point is that he's thinking about her. A lot. Almost all the time. The romantic climax, so to speak, is not so much "they go to bed" or even "they get married." It's the scene where he goes on for pages explaining everything he's said or done in the light of his overwhelming obsession with her. I can see the appeal in this to a girl, or even a grown woman, who wonders whether her guy thinks about her at all when she's not around.

The Heroine thinks about the Hero a lot, too, of course; everything else in their lives is just background. People used to quote Byron that
Man's love of is of man's life a thing apart,
'Tis woman's whole existence.

In these romances, love becomes the "whole existence" for both, which somehow allows everything else to work out for the best.

And another thing, now that I think of it: the Right Man in a romance is the one who gets along with your family. There are no in-law frictions or stepchild problems that aren't worked out by the end of the novel, and not just the romantic leads but the whole family will all live Happily Ever After.

Word is "indoging", which is indulging in owning too many dogs. Or as the cat says when you bring home a puppy, "even one dog is too much indoging!"
And to add more one perhaps obvious point: in my dim and distant youth, romance heroines were all young virgins. These days, they all seem to have children from previous relationships, at least judging by titles like The Billionaire's Pregnant Bride or Dad By Desire or Baby Knows Best (I made those up, but they all seem to sound like that). Probably that's mainly a reflection of the changes in society that make divorce and unmarried parenthood more common than they used to be, but I think there's also an element of escapist fantasy related to the "being taken care of" and "he loves your family" tropes. That is, young women are taught to believe that modern men will share childcare and child concerns, 50-50, even-steven. Then they have children, and find that in spite of everyone's best intentions, that's another thing that ain't necessarily so. So they like to read about men who are as much in love with the heroine's children as with the heroine herself, and want to take care of them too.

Next word is "gneddlab," a small dog used in the Welsh mountains to retrieve lost sheep.
oops, that was me; somehow Blogger lost my name in Preview.
I think it was Janice Radway who noted that in many cases the "hero takes care of heroine" plot was often played out using the language and tropes of mothering: one nursing the other through a serious illness, taking care of the other, supporting the other in his/her job, seeing how good s/he is when others don't, etc.
hapax wrote:

Jules Feiffer has some great things to say about superhero tropes filling the psychological needs of nerdy teenaged outcasts in his book THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES. Also just a fun read in so many ways, not least his masterful rant on how much he hated Robin, the Boy Wonder.

I'll see his Robin and raise him Jimmy Olsen. Seriously. What. The heck.

As for "forced seduction," which seems to be the romantic euphemism for rape fantasy—I think you're right, I think it has a lot to do with women's place in society. I mean, like you said, traditional culture doesn't give women a whole lot of power, but it does give us a bunch of responsibility. On one of the feminist blogs I go to, the author has pointed out several times that women are supposed to be sort of sexual gatekeepers, guardians of propriety, the people responsible for saying, "Not without a diamond on my finger, what kind of girl do you think I am?" Good girls (for an old fashioned and, IMO messed-up value of good girls) do not seek sex. And this coexists rather uneasily with being an actual human being who gets horny now and then.

So it makes sense, sort of, to fantasize about a guy who completely ignores the procedure you're supposed to enforce—courting with flowers, engagement, marriage in a poofy white dress—and just has sex. In a way, it has as much to do with tiredness as the Mills and Boone template, only this time, it's tiredness at playing the social game.

A bit of evidence for this, I think: forced seduction seems to be a trope on its way out. As "good girl" gets defined more broadly, as premarital sex becomes less shocking, the setup becomes unnecessary.

Good thing, too, IMO. Of course, in paranormals, it seems to have been replaced with the whole "fated mates" cliche, where the main characters are mystically attracted and connected to each other. I think this has a similar purpose in terms of cutting through the uncertainty and dancing about, but it also may help assure the readers that no, these characters will not be bored with each other in two hundred years, they're lifemates.

For those of us who haven't read him, what does Jules F say?

Feel like I should put up another post, but I'm loathe to interrupt this interesting discussion...
Jules Feiffer says a LOT -- it's quite an interesting essay on many things -- American society in the thirties, the art and business of making comics, a bit of personal biography, panel by panel analysis of what makes narrative art work, and so forth.

But he goes into some depth into each of the original iconic American superheroes -- Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and so forth (including his personal favorite, The Spirit, who wore a business suit without socks and "they never said, but we all knew he was Jewish") -- and discusses them as archetypes, and the psychological appeal of the character to the audience. For example, he did quite a bit of compare-and-contrast between Batman (who was an ordinary man Bruce Wayne, who had to train and study and rely on gadgets to *become* Batman) and Superman (who "just had to wake up in the morning" to be Superman, and for whom "Clark Kent" was the false disguise).

I read it obsessively as a kid, and never realized how much he was teaching me about character construction, narrative pacing, the artistic purpose of violence, and so forth.

His comments on Robin should have been listened to by every foolish writer and producer who sticks in a "teen sidekick" character "for the kids to identify with." He points out that "the kids" NEVER identify with Robin or Wesley Crusher or whoever, they HATE HIS GUTS. After all, there is still time for a geeky comic book writer to grow up and become Batman -- but one look at Robin, and it's clear that he gets better grades, better dates, better clothes, and never fights with his parents.

If anyone decides to get the book, buy a used copy from the sixties. The modern reprinting leaves out all the full color reproductions of the original comics, and quite eviscerates the heart.

(word verification: "fiests", a liturgical proclamation that the giants are on their way, sniffing for human blood...)
To follow up on what Amaryllis said--I read a fascinating scholarly analysis of romances a while back that argued, among other things, that their (surprising to some people) appeal to women already in established and reportedly satisfying relationships (ie women not fantasising about Mr Right sweeping them off their feet) was the almost indispensible trope of the hero acting indifferent or hostile to the heroine until the final revelation--women used these stories to reframe and reimagine their own real-life relationships, in which they may feel as if partners are sometimes negligent or hostile, as something much more positive and affirming.
the almost indispensible trope of the hero acting indifferent or hostile to the heroine until the final revelation--

Huh. This must have been QUITE a while back -- like, say, the fifties.

I'm not saying that the Mr. Darcy / Rochester types don't pop up every now and then, but it is hardly common any more, let alone "indispensible." It would be very difficult to write such a hero nowadays without making the heroine seem like an idiot or a masochist -- and very few readers would consciously identify with either.

OTOH, I've often argued that the appeal of m/m slash for women is less the hot pretty sex (tho' that can be well done) but the prospect of forcing two guys to actually *talk about their feelings*...

(word verification: "dysestov", which is the opposite of a "utopestov", of course)
Here it is--1991:


She interviews various people (writers, publishers, and readers) and reads romance review journals to see if she can find out what makes a 'good' romance, and her conclusion is that what separates the 'good' ones from the only ok ones is that particular trope.

Looked at the title and some reviews. Particularly examining the romances Radway cites as examplars ... well, perhaps "fifties" was too harsh. I'll give her the seventies.

I shouldn't criticize too much the thesis of an author I haven't read, but it looks to me like Radway read way too much into one particular trope ephemerally fashionable in one particular, very small community of romance readers.

One of the big problems with genre is that it tends to be defined by people who don't actually read it. (This was one of the things that Feiffer commented on with superhero comics, that led to so many massive marketing blunders). They tend to zero on a particular trendy characteristic of setting or plot -- oh, "Epic Fantasy" are those books with elves and swords! "Cozy Mystery" is all about lady detectives with cats and recipes! -- and miss the more subtle appeal factors of mood, theme, style, pacing and so forth which are in fact much more important to most readers.

(One basic basic example -- when I'm asked for a book recommendation, no matter what the genre, I will almost ask questions to determine whether the reader prefers books that are plot -, setting -, idea - , or character - driven. Most readers are much more receptive to reading across genres within these basic categories than they are to sticking to their preferred genre yet outside of the desired style.)

On that note, verification word is "anquific", I kid you not, a style of fiction that features ancestral mermaids -- Kit, are you jiggering this thing?
Anquific! Brilliant! I think I might adapt it to 'anquatic' and call it a genre.

Mine is 'recursin', which is what seems to be happening with these words.
While I like Feiffer's book and second Hapax's recommendations, some people did like kid sidekicks: Sen. patrick Leahy has an introduction in one of DC's archive editions where he discusses how totally cool he considered Robin ("A kid my age and his 'dad' actually let him drive!").
hapax: "One of the big problems with genre is that it tends to be defined by people who don't actually read it."

Can you explain this a bit further? Who are these inept genre-definers? (Pfeiffer seems to be talking about marketers, of course, but your comment somehow conjured up images of librarian-classifiers at the Library of Congress happily tossing romances onto various piles based on cover color before going home to relax with a well-thumbed copy of Lyrics of the Medieval Ballad.)
" Who are these inept genre-definers? "

Oh, gazooms... Really, the whole constellation of gatekeepers that stand between the general reading public and the huge tsunami of printed material that's out there. Marketers, publishers, reviewers, librarians -- obviously, there are terrifically talented ones out there, many more conscientious and competent ones, but yes, there are far too many who equate "romance" with "bored housewives lusting after Fabio" and think that THE SWORD OF TRUTH series is the same "sort of thing" as JONATHAN STRANGE and seem to title every article about graphic novels with a variant on the old "Biff! Pow!" graphics of the Batman TV show... I swear, if I had to read one more booklist promoting HIS DARK MATERIALS as a "readalike" for the Harry Potter books, I was going claw off my monitor screen with my bloody fingernails.

Actually, you *can* tell a lot about a romance (or any other genre title) from the cover, if the marketer did a halfway competent job on it. The entire genre reading experience, as I mentioned above, is in some ways an expectations and presentations game. But if you set up "false" or ill-informed expectations, you are not going to create a sense of delighted surprise or playful dissonance; you are only going to provoke a sense of disgust, rage, and betrayal.

(Word verification: "hairerie", or the art of chopping, seasoning, and smoking tresses to create delightful follicle sausages)
One basic basic example -- when I'm asked for a book recommendation, no matter what the genre, I will almost ask questions to determine whether the reader prefers books that are plot -, setting -, idea - , or character - driven.

What's the distinction between setting-driven and idea-driven?
"What's the distinction between setting-driven and idea-driven?"

Well, a setting-driven novel would be dominated by exploration of a particular world, real or imagined. An idea-driven novel would be dominated by the ramifications and unfolding of a particular concept.

It's hard to think of "pure" examples of any of these, at least that I would consider good fiction. Frex I overwhelmingly gravitate towards character-driven fiction, but if it's any good, the formation and reactions of the characters are going to be heavily dependent upon their surroundings (setting), events (plot), and the overarching theme of the novel (idea).

But a lot of historical fiction is setting-setting based (e.g., "what was it like to be a soldier during the Roman Empire?")-- you especially see this in the more didactic fiction for young people. DINOTOPIA and similar fantasy travelogues are pretty much pure setting-based.

Idea-based novels are increasingly out of fashion, but the Left Behind novels are probably pretty pure examples -- plot, character, even details of setting (distance from Chicago to New York, anyone?) are entirely subservient to hammering home The Message. I'd call SISTER CARRIE idea-based fiction; THE SCARLET LETTER; to a certain extent DUNE.

Does that make any sense?

(word verification: "undes" -- what we wear over our fannes)
Huh. That's interesting, as that's not what I was thinking you meant at all. I was thinking "idea-driven" meaning more like "premise-driven", or, uh, "what-if-driven", that so much SF seems to fall into. Which is why I lumped it with "setting-driven", because very often the setting is the premise... though I guess not always, the premise can just be something like "What if a guy built a time-travel device that works as follows but only uses it himself", but I wasn't thinking of that.
That's an interesting distinction, hapax. What I find is that there's an element of mixture: when I conceive of a book, I need an interplay between two things - a setting and a character. Those can come separately.

So, for instance, I can come up with an interesting setting, but for it to become an actual novel, I also have to think of a character who occupies an interesting situation within that setting: the story comes out of interplay between a character's personal situation and the world surrounding them. So the way I write, at least, books tend to be both character and setting driven; there's a sperm-and-egg quality to them in that I can't create a plot without both.

Word: 'mingshfo'. An obscure martial art practised in the peasant villages of Northern medieval Japan.
If I'm understanding the distinctions correctly, Marcel Ayme (sorry--can't figure out how to do the acute accent on the "e") does almost pure idea-driven short stories: a woman is able to multiply herself as many times as she wants, a man can go through walls, there exist actual seven-league boots.

Verification word: "curolo," the very last post at the end of a thread, which no one else reads because the blogger has just posted a new thread which promises to be very interesting.
Dash : except for those who come infrequently and resurrect zombie threads when they do.

Not really a plot, but I've been thinking recently (after watching Wanted, in fact) that action movies seem to involve a disproportionate amount of destroying modern buildings and vehicles. I wonder if there's fear of modernity going on there - I know walking, but I've got far lesser control over my car... and I've got no control whatsoever over the train. What would happen if it derailed ? If the driver gets drunk ? If a helicopter crashes into it over a precipice full of sharks ?

Similarly, most houses are human-sized but what about high-rises and huge malls ? What if the elevators stop working ? What if a helicopter crashes through the roof ?

I feel a kind of catharsis when I see improbable things blowing up in improbable ways in action movies, I'm certain that must be a big reason why.

I guess this could be all what disaster movies are about, but I don't watch those much so I can't say.

Verification word : Omistsil, an anti-ageing drug by Prescott Pharmaceuticals. Side effects : drowsiness, violinist's nostril, anatidaephobia and death.
I'd say that a lot of the time, big explosions are basically part of the power fantasy, but that depends on the genre.

Consider the following scenario: a massive building is on fire, smoke rising to the sky, flames everywhere. A lone figure strides out, unscathed. (We're probably looking at a superhero story, some sort of Fantasy, or the who-needs-realistic-physics fringe of the Action genre.) The fantasy here is of someone who's tough enough to ignore the flames - and not just any flames, but a fire of fairly epic proportions.

The counterpart in the Action/Spy/Thriller genre, is the hero who can navigate a car through roadblocks and explosions, often while exchanging gunfire with Bad Guys. In this case, the fantasy has a slightly different flavor - the hero is dextrous, capable, or simply stubborn enough to escape a situation that would be certain death for anyone else.

The power fantasy doesn't have to be avoiding that sort of destruction, either. As a teen, I remember reading Zelazny's _Creatures of Light and Darkness_ and being thrilled by the epic battle between two gods; the conflict toppled mountains and flung seas into the sky. You see this sort of thing in comic books fairly frequently, too: the heroes cause an awful lot of property damage because it shows just how powerful they are without forcing you to watch them actually hurt anyone.

That said, human beings do seem to take a certain pleasure in destruction for its own sake. It seems to be wired in. (As an example, I offer the behaviour of my two-year old, when confronted with a lego structure that I've just completed.) So I do take a certain pleasure in, say, watching the White House explode in the movie Independence Day. Ooh, look, there's something big and important, and now it's gone.

Or, to admit another guilty pleasure, consider the very end of Escape from L.A. (Note: spoiler in the next sentence!) It's not a great movie, but watching Kurt Russell's character press the button that will wipe out every bit of electronics on Earth... Well, it always prompts a sort of satisfied -- and slightly evil -- chuckle. Something about the idea of looking at civilization and saying, "Sorry, not good enough. Try again." ...Zap!

Today's word is "zingi", which is actually the name of a Japanese superhero with electrical powers.
I have to say, that same epic fantasy plot of actually being really important and powerful appealed to me a lot when I was younger, too. I adored Mercedes Lackey - you are special, you can do something not only amazing but with uniquely useful applications, you have a role, you have power, and here's a magic horse.

I was oddly drawn to a certain type of fantasy of practical violence. Like Brian Jacques' Redwall books. I loved the comfort of the idea of beating up a big army of bad guys. A contributing factor may be that in so much of childhood you are a burden, and, above all, powerless. The concept of going out and having adventure and saving the world all on your own is a very appealing one.

Gender does have something to do with it - is there anything more powerless than a little girl, especially one who isn't pretty or outgoing and is unlikely to develop into either? Unrealistic as it is, Hey, if the world were a little different, I could pick up a sword and kick ass too is a compelling thought.
Dahne: "Unrealistic as it is, Hey, if the world were a little different, I could pick up a sword and kick ass too is a compelling thought." Not to contradict your point about gender, but it's an appealing thought for boys, too.

For me, that's much of the appeal of the zombie films - especially the older ones, with the slow, shambling zombies. You're talking about a scenario where civilization has suddenly been overrun, and everyone has to survive on their wits and reflexes. The enemies are something essentially unintelligent, so A) it's okay to "kill" them, and B) it's easy to think that you'd be clever enough to avoid/escape/survive them. They're difficult to kill, yes; but they're also slow. It's easy to picture yourself taking down one or two of them, even with low-tech weapons.

Contrast this with, say, a plague of vampires (of the Stoker variety), or the creature from Alien. In both cases, even individual enemies are too formidable for an ordinary person to defeat, and even someone with weapons and training runs a significant risk in facing them directly. ("I say we take off, nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.")

Or, alternatively, contrast this with something more impersonal, like a plague or a tsunami, where wits and reflexes may have no effect whatsoever on your chance of survival.

Also, unlike (for example) an invasion of Russian paratroopers, zombies don't shoot back at you.

So, to cycle back to Dahne's point: I still fantasize about zombie invasions because, well, then I could pick up a sword* and kick ass.

* This is doubly appealing to me because I own enough swords to outfit a pretty decent-sized group. Still, there are plenty of alternatives for non-collectors: bats, shovels, etc.
No contradiction, because that's pretty much my point :) Suddenly having power and being able to live by our own independent strength has universal appeal.

Interesting point about zombies. I think that's really true. Watching a movie about something like that, you can't help but wonder how you would deal with it yourself.
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