Owning it – Reshaping authorship in popular romance fiction

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by Niina Mero

Popular romance fiction is often criticised for being formulaic and unoriginal, recycling the same plotlines and stereotypical characters, and lacking any artistic or original input from the author. The exclusion of popular fiction writers from the discussion around authorship echoes a Romantic myth of artistry and an outdated understanding of creativity.

The Romantic Author and the Romance Novelist

What does it mean to be an author? These past months, that is something I have been asking myself a lot. My debut novel “An English Romance” (Gummerus Publishers) comes out in February 2019. Despite calling it my debut novel, I have written category romance fiction under a pseudonym for almost ten years. I have had close to twenty novellas and countless short stories published, yet I haven’t considered myself an author until now. I think that is because of a conflict between two concepts of authorship: the Romantic Author and the Romance Novelist.

The Romantic Author is the epitome of what I thought being a novelist would be like, when first entering the writing life. That image of writing in intensive bursts guided by divine inspiration, channeling the soul of the universe onto paper in candlelight. This is perhaps the image all aspiring writers gravitate towards. There is a mythical shine in the idea of becoming a true artist, a creative genius able to tap the deep waters of the subconscious.

According to Andrew Bennett (2005, 55-64), the modern understanding of what an author is derives from the Romantic era. The Romantic theory of authorship paints the author as a unique individual, avant-garde in the sense that he is both out of his time and outside of society, an autonomous, original and exceptional individual. Art is a mystical process one cannot fully explain or recreate.

In the beginning of my writing career, I totally bought into this. But there was an irreconcilable difference with the other side of my writer identity: my genre.

The Romance Novelist is generally seen in a very different light in comparison to the Romantic genius. While working with the same medium – the novel – using words to express sentiment and creativity, romance writers are seen as mere reproducers of formulaic, predictable and substandard scribbles. Romance novels are viewed as mass-produced consumables, not original creative works of a sovereign author. Romance publishing is seen as the assembly line of literature by its critics.

With authorship comes the notion of authenticity: creating something real and original. The reality of popular romance publishing doesn’t exactly support this ideal. Literary fiction is seen solely as the product of the author’s creative imagination, but popular romance fiction is in close contact with the readers. The writing guidelines aim at a marketable product to a clearly defined target group, and the writer has to express their creativity within that framework. I did well for years, and my creativity thrived within the confines of the genre. But after a while, writing category romance started to feel like being trapped in a box you’ve long grown out of.

I loved the years I wrote category romance. They schooled me from an inspiration-driven, sporadic writer into a professional. But now that I’m out of the box, I’m not sure I could go back in. Here in Finland, pulp fiction is disappearing and close to extinction, and I believe that has to do with an outdated view of the average reader. I call for more creative freedom for genre authors. Challenging the generic limitations, pushing the boundaries and creating something that is neither high or low brow, and both popular and literary, is what could turn out to be a game changer in the battle for people’s free time.

Owning it

There is a sense of shame in writing romance fiction. Somehow worse than pornography, romance writing is seen as sentimental, literally substandard and frankly embarrassing. With “An English Romance”, I made a conscious choice to publish the novel under my legal name. While it is standard procedure to use a pseudonym in the romance genre, I wanted to make a stand. The novel is easily identifiable as a romance, and there are generic elements in it, but inside the box of genre it is at its core a personal, creative work of art. The novel is, in a way, my declaration of authorship as a romance writer.

If we reserve the concept of authorship to describe literary writers alone, we are at the same time forcing limits to what literature, or art, can be. If art is freedom, shouldn’t we embrace different kinds of creativity and a range of authorships rather than a binary of right and wrong ways of writing?

Like Bennett, R. Keith Sawyer sees Romanticism as the origin of the modern conception of creativity, and his western cultural model of creativity is, in essence, the romantic, elitist ideal. He bases the model on ten creativity beliefs, which put together make up the general view of how we see creativity. These beliefs include for example that great ideas come in a flash of insight, that they stem from the unconscious, that creativity rejects convention and comes more likely from an outsider than an expert, that creative ideas are ahead of their time and that to be creative you need to spend time alone, and embrace the possibility of mental illness. However, most of these beliefs have been proven scientifically untrue. (Sawyer 2011, 12-14.)

Science has shown that creativity is mostly hard work, and the moments of deep insight are usually the result of said work. Formal training does not snuff out the creative flame, nor does interaction with other people. (Sawyer 2011, 405-409.) Yet in the minds of the popular fiction critics and the general public, the myth of the Romantic Author and the idea of “ars ex nihilo”, that true art is conjured in a vacuum through divine imagination, still prevails.

Reconciling the differences

I keep finding myself torn between two worlds, juggling identities of the author and the academic, of the romantic and the romance writer, the artist and the pragmatist. In the world of academia, where the discussion around authorship still echoes “The Death of the Author”, I feel like a ghost, unseen and unheard by everyone else in the room, trying to convince them I’m not that dead, really.

As a romance writer, I am a side show to the literary elite. Romance writers have long been made to feel like second rate writers because of their genre, and perhaps also because of their gender. The history of authorship is quintessentially male, while popular romance fiction is written and read almost exclusively by women. I won’t go further into the issue of gender in authorship here, even though it is, much like collaborative writing, central to challenging the myth of the solitary male genius.

As an author, I am drawn towards the romantic myth of the artist, but in reality I execute the rationalist approach of working hard and consciously towards a creative goal.  Yet because of my genre, I am seen as the ad man of literature, producing calculated stories for a predefined market.

As a creative writing teacher I have to believe that writing is a skill that can be taught. It’s a craft, something that you do instead of something that just happens. A certain amount of talent helps, but it gets you nowhere without working, practicing and learning your instrument. From this angle, the Romantic Author is a potentially dangerous model for authorship. By denying the hard work and effort that goes into creating a novel, a poem or a blog entry, it turns writing into a supernatural talent that you either have or you don’t, and something that can mystically appear and disappear at any given time. But there is also the flip side.

For writers, the Romantic ideal can be a source of inspiration, something that kindles the magic of creativity. Not a practical guide on how to be an author, but a tribute to the unknown and the unexpected in writing. In a detached, nihilistic world, perhaps both the Romantic Author and the Romance Novelist have something of value to offer. The unexpected moments of inspiration, spontaneous experiences of the sublime manifesting through art are often those defining moments that separate us as humans from animals or machines. And the moments of emotional intimacy, the immersion and safety in the happily ever after we experience in romance novels serve an equally important task. Unveiling what is most human in us, popular romance fiction dives underneath the masks of rational thinking. The pleasure in reading translates into a celebration of being human.

Works cited

Bennett, A. (2005). The author. London: Routledge.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

About the author

Niina Mero’s debut novel An English Romance is forthcoming from Gummerus Publishers in February 2019 in Finland (foreign rights pending). She has a MA in creative writing from the University of Jyväskylä, and in 2018 she started working on her doctoral thesis focusing on contemporary Finnish popular romance fiction at the University of Tampere, Finland.

1 thought on “Owning it – Reshaping authorship in popular romance fiction”

  1. “romance writers are seen as mere reproducers of formulaic, predictable and substandard scribbles. Romance novels are viewed as mass-produced consumables, not original creative works of a sovereign author. Romance publishing is seen as the assembly line of literature by its critics.”

    As a reader of romance novels, these ideas infuriated me, so I wrote an academic analysis of category romance novels as literature (For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance) and one reviewer tried to argue that it was impossible to write about the topic I’d just written about, which really showed me how deeply ingrained these beliefs about romance are.

    I like Pamela Regis’s article about the topoi of academic criticism of romance, and what can/should be done to contest those approaches: http://jprstudies.org/2011/10/%E2%80%9Cwhat-do-critics-owe-the-romance-keynote-address-at-the-second-annual-conference-of-the-international-association-for-the-study-of-popular-romance%E2%80%9D-by-pamela-regis/

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