Smut Reporting

Reading Realism in Romance: The Question of Genre

This post has been percolating in my mind for months now, ever since this year’s RITAs were announced, and there was tremendous backlash about the lack of recognition for authors of color (for a good overview about the controversy, see Jessica Pryde’s write up for Book Riot). In response to list of winners (and the fact that many romances by authors of color were docked points for being “unrealistic”), author Courtney Milan tweeted the following:

If you’ve been following The Duke Project, then you’re probably aware that we’re trying to figure out that whole Duke obsession that Romancelandia has. Why ARE there 20,000 dukes in romance novels? But to the broader point of what is “realistic” in fiction, I figured I’d dust off my academic hat and talk about defining “realism” more specifically. What does it actually mean to say that something is realistic?

In order to tease this out, I draw on Kent Brintnall’s discussion of action movies from his book Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-in-Pain as Redemptive Figure (I sometimes refer to this chapter as “Jesus and the Terminator,” and if that doesn’t pique your interest, well…). Brintnall (who probably never thought he would be cited by a romance blog) distinguishes between “cultural verisimilitude” and “generic verisimilitude”; he writes:

“Cultural verisimilitude is the degree to which a film accurately reflects social, historial, and psychological details related to the events it depicts. Evaluation of an action film’s cultural verisimilitude would turn on whether the devices used by characters could accomplish the tasks for which they are used or how closely the urban environments characters inhabit resemble the places they claim to be. Generic verisimilitude is the degree to which a film conforms to the genre conventions it invokes. Evaluation of an action film’s generic verisimilitude would turn on whether its characters’ behavior and dialogue are consistent with that in previous action films.”

In other words, genre books are made not in imitation of life but in imitation of other genre books; this creates own field of reference based on previous interactions with the genre.

If we’re talking romances then, cultural verisimilitude hinges on how close to the social / historical / geographic details a given novel is. Things like: what kind of underwear did people wear in the 19th century? How long does it take to drive from Palo Alto to San Francisco? Basically, the little details that give a book a sense of place and time. The things that, if you’re a nerd, you really really notice when they are wrong (“A landau is pulled by two horses, not one! GAH!”). Generic verisimilitude, for romances, describes what romance readers expect to see because that’s what they’ve seen in other romances – things like a HEA meaning long-term commitment (preferably involving marriage and babies) or a billionaire/aristocrat hero or a feisty heroine.

As all of this stuff about genre and realism was percolating around in my head, I read A Sensible Arrangement by Tracie Peterson. Now, Peterson writes Christian/Inspirational Romance, which is not my normal wheelhouse, but I expected certain components of generic verisimilitude to be universal, regardless of the subgenre. Reading this book was therefore an extremely disconcerting experience, precisely because there were certain things that did not align with my assumptions about what would happen. Specifically, the way the intrigue in the story was handled did not match what I had come to expect from a romance novel.

In A Sensible Arrangement, there’s a secondary character who is the hero’s boss. He owns the bank where the hero works, and is heavily invested in the way the hero lives – like, to an uncomfortable extent. Boss-man wants to have a say in where the hero lives, how he decorates his house, and his marital status. Furthermore, Boss-man acts in a sketchy manner regarding some irregularities at the bank, and downplays the information that a former bank employee was murdered. He does not literally twirl his mustache, but I expected him to at any minute. But then… Boss-man is not actually the arch-villain. In fact, there IS no arch-villain, and the various banking irregularities are all wrapped up with reasonable explanations, and the Boss-man actually just wants the hero to project the right sort of image for the good of the bank in a time of economic uncertainty. In other words, Boss-man is exactly what he says he is, what he appears to be.

The disconnect between what I expected (based on the many many other romances that I had read, where a sketchy character is pretty much guaranteed to be Up To No Good – or maybe Secretly Heroic, but never neutral) and what actually occurred, in this case, diminished my pleasure at reading the book. I knew that what Peterson actually depicted was more “realistic” in terms of how people actually act, but I was reading with certain genre conventions in mind; the adherence to generic verisimilitude had not been followed.

This brings me back to the oft-leveled criticism about a book not being “realistic.” When people talk about the lack of realism in a romance novel, are they really talking about whether or not they feel something matches the world they see around them, or are they really talking about whether or not a book matches other romance novels?

Of course, genre conventions do not just appear out of thin air. Rather, they are built slowly over time as the boundaries of a genre are developed. The fact that generic verisimilitude builds on itself means that what counts as “realistic” is a self-reinforcing project. Because there are so many books about dukes, readers come across a lot of books about dukes, and then come to expect them. Given that, historically, romance authors have been straight, white women, this can have profound (and perhaps also less profound) implications for what counts as “realistic” in the genre. Here’s Alisha Rai, speaking at a panel with Beverly Jenkins at the Strand Bookstore earlier this year, as reported by The Guardian:

“Can I say nipples in here?” Rai continued. The audience giggled. “Many, many years ago, when I first started writing, someone said to me: ‘Oh, this is the first book where the heroine had brown nipples, like on the page,’ and I was like: ‘What? That’s crazy!’ She was a long-time romance reader. I thought about it. I’m pretty sure nipples come in all shades, but they’re always, like, pink on the page, or berries, or some kind of pink fruit.”

By this point, the audience was guffawing and Jenkins was bent over with laughter. “What happens is, it goes into one book, it goes into 10 books, people read those books and write their own books, and suddenly, everybody’s got pink nipples,” Rai said. “And they forget about the fact that that’s not reality.”

(I just finished a book where the hero keeps thinking about the heroine’s nipples and how they’re pink like berries, so… this is an accurate assessment.)

Rai brings up a solid point here: that one way to shape what is accepted as generic verisimilitude is to name it, and to point to the ways in which it does not actually match reality. And there are definitely people doing this all over Romancelandia. To give just one example, Anne Glover over at Regency Reader posted recently about the acceptance of people of color in Regency England, and how it was more widespread (but also, more complicated) than people might think based on reading romances (or even, based on what we learned in European history classes in high school) (I, for one, learned about the Defenestration of Prague and that basically everything interesting that ever happened was because of disgruntled workers).

However, it is important to note that this process is not always conscious or overt. To complicate things even further: it is not entirely possible to separate cultural and generic verisimilitude, because the media we consume (even the media we know to be fantasy) shapes our understanding of how the world works. Here’s Brintnall again:

“Distinguishing cultural and generic verisimilitude with precision is further complicated by the fact that generic worlds influence perception of the ‘real’ world. Genre functions intracinematically to provide viewers cues from which they can predict and interpret narrative trajectories, character behavior, and plot resolutions. It functions extracinematically to make certain configurations of activity, motivation, and desire plausible and intelligible. Genre formulas thus become pervasive and persuasive points of reference for assessing competing representations of cultural and social phenomena. Through cumulative exposure, they establish visions of ethnic subcultures, historical periods, gender norms, and familial configurations; a genre becomes a heuristic through which similar depictions – as well as real-life situations – are interpreted and organized. Generic verisimilitude can overtake and displace cultural verisimilitude to the extent that a genre’s narrative and iconographic features establish criteria for what will count as true and accurate in representations of actual phenomena.”

The key takeaway here, for me is that final sentence: that what we see all the time in a genre can start to count more when we determine what is “real” when we interact with the world. As an example of this phenomenon, Brintnall later talks about hearing gunfire in a news report, and thinking it was fake because it didn’t sound like gunshots did in action movies. Do readers of romance novels actually think that there are 20,000 dukes out there, just waiting to sweep unsuspecting young women off their feet? Probably not, the love story of Meghan Markle notwithstanding.

However, that’s why it is important that we, as smut readers, continue to critically assess what we dismiss as “unrealistic” when reading romantic fiction. Is it “unrealistic” for there to have also been 20,000 anachronistically feisty young women running around in Regency England? Probably, but not continually challenging this depiction meant that feisty young women became more acceptable as part of the status quo (both within the genre and outside of it) – and that the naive, wilting virgins of the 1970s and 1980s have all but disappeared as standards of the genre. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what else we find “unrealistic.”

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