Genre Self-Reference

by | December 17, 2014 |

In Genre Etiquette I critique the practice of using the romance novel as an index of the kind of thing stupid people read. The practice serves to distance the writer from the romance, presumably thereby to validate and valorize the writer’s own work. It’s a hackneyed move at this point– not to mention rude to romance writers.

Ekphrasis is a venerable rhetorical device in which one work of art refers to another considered worthy of time and attention. The classic example is the description in the Iliad of the magnificent shield Achilles uses in his fight with Hector. Although the term ekphrasis is usually applied to cases where an artist references a work of art from a different medium, I am using it here to consider cases where writers refer to work in their own genre and do so positively. In other words, not all references to romance novels in other novels are negative. I am going to refer to the positive practice by the term genre self-reference, which is slightly less lofty than the Greek one.

I’ve noted at least three forms of genre self-reference in romance novels.

Hero-Heroine Bonding. This first one is rather rare. It might crop up in some kind of discussion of what books the hero and heroine like. I recall one dialogue that turned on the heroine’s surprise to discover that her favorite romance novelist, Nora Roberts, was also a favorite of the hero’s. I had to pause to consider the plausibility of that coincidence, and I came to acknowledge that, yes, Nora Robert must have male readers among her fans. So it is entirely possible that a hero and heroine could bond over this particular shared taste. I’ve noticed that shared-taste bonding more typically occurs when a hero and heroine like a genre other than the one they are characters in, often something like horror movies, Animal Planet, or the like.

Character Development. The second form might be used for character development. In Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, the heroine, Kitty, is attracted to romantic heroes full of derring-do. Kitty has coerced Freddy, a young man with a great sense of the social niceties, into posing as her fiancé in order to make the true object of her affection, Jack, jealous. Early on in the story, Kitty recounts to Freddy the way a brave gallant rescues a fair lady from the clutches of a dastardly villain in a popular romance of the day. Freddy comments disapprovingly, “Sounds to me like a dashed loose-screw.”

At this point, Freddy suffers by negative comparison to the more raffish Jack. However, by the end of the story, Kitty has come to realize that “Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix.” Freddy has been elevated to the status of hero by virtue of the fact that in Heyer’s rom-com the trait Kitty has come to value most is social address. Freddy’s character thus comes into high relief with respect to that of a hero from a different kind of romance novel.

Conventional Reference. This third and most typical form occurs when the heroine verbalizes either to herself or to someone else the difference between her top-flight fantasy life, namely the one she experiences when reading a romance novel, and her humdrum real life. This verbalization usually occurs around the first plot points that will bring about the development of the love relationship. The verbalization assures the reader that the heroine knows the difference between fantasy and reality. It also signals to the reader that the heroine’s life is about to become less humdrum. This form of genre self-reference occurs often enough that it might be considered one of the narrative conventions of the genre.

Genre self-reference is not unique to the romance novel. In detective novels, reference is often made to someone reading a detective novel or to a particular detective novelist. In neither case does the reader confuse fiction with reality. Romance readers know that in real life not all relationships get the Happily Ever After, just as detective readers know that in real life not all crimes get solved.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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