Monday, July 18, 2005

Serious stuff

We are not yet in the silly season -- which is what British newspapers call August, when there is often little in the way of hard news. In fact, in the last week or two we've had some very hard news indeed. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that last week the publishing side of the book business was becoming intolerably silly, and I got a bit sick of it.

So, this week I will try to resist the temptation to write about the business side of the publishing industry (or at any rate the silly bits of it) and will concentrate instead on the serious business of books.

And what, I ask, could be more serious than a PhD thesis? (Thanks to Anne Weale for pointing this one out to me.)

The thesis -- well, it actually calls itself a dissertation -- was written by Eva Hemmungs Wirten, and was submitted for the degree of PhD at Uppsala University, Sweden, in 1998. It has been published by the University and is now available as a free PDF download.

The title of the published version of the dissertation is Global Infatuation, and it is a study of the romantic fiction which is published by the Swedish outpost of the Canadian firm Harlequin. Such fiction seems to be almost entirely translated from novels originally written in English.

Now why on earth should anyone read this thesis (all 276 pages of it)?

Well, for a start, if you are considering the possibility of writing romantic fiction yourself, Eva Hemmungs Wirten's research contains a good deal of useful information. Though you may, admittedly, have to dig for it.

Furthermore, anyone considering writing a novel of any kind might do worse than spend an hour browsing through this text, because it has quite a lot to say about the globalisation of literature and the power of the multinational media conglomerates.

As PhD theses go, this one is pretty readable. It is relatively free of the postmodern deconstructed gobbledygook in which academic discourse, in the field of English Literature, is so often conducted.

The main conclusion drawn is that the process of translating and editing novels which were originally written for the Canadian, American, and English markets has a major impact on how the global book becomes local -- in other words, how it is adapted to a form which will entertain Swedish readers.

This is scarcely an earth-shaking conclusion, but the main virtue of thesis -- from our point of view -- is the information conveyed along the way.

I am not going to try to summarise much of that information here. Suffice it to say that Harlequin are perhaps the brand leader in mass-market romantic fiction. In 1992 they sold 205 million books in 24 languages, on 6 continents, and in 100 separate markets. Which is a substantial volume of business.

Perhaps the most rewarding sections of the thesis are the Introduction and the Conclusion. The Introduction includes a survey of other academic studies of romantic fiction, and makes the point that it is only in the last twenty years or so that romance has been considered worthy of serious attention.

Well, I have said it before and I say it again. It is nonsense to think of fiction as a hierarchy. There are no sound reasons (known to me) for arguing that fiction is, so to speak, a tower block, with the 'best' at the top and the 'trash' at the bottom. (Guess where romance is normally placed in this hierarchical view.)

Au contraire. Fiction is best viewed as a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. Or, to continue the building analogy, as a street with many bookshops, each of which specialises in one particular genre. Each of these shops has an identical real-estate value. There ain't no prime sites.

In any event, the survey of other academic studies provides a good starting point for anyone who wants to think seriously about romantic fiction, whether as a potential author or as a reader.

Another useful chapter is Chapter Six, where the author analyses no less than 56 titles taken from two Harlequin series, published in Sweden between 1980-92. Obviously, tastes will have changed somewhat since those times -- particularly, I suspect, in the frank depiction of sexual matters -- but the analysis will surely help a romance writer to develop a clearer concept of the key elements of the genre.

The concluding section, 'Tying Up Loose Ends', demonstrates a few things which ought to be obvious but which seem to have escaped the notice of some highbrow critics. One such conclusion is that to label romantic novels as 'non-books', as an academic gang called Coser, Kadushin & Powell once did, is unjustified. To those who read widely in this genre, some romantic novels have precisely the same emotional effects as the 'great classics' do (allegedly) on those who consider themselves among the cultural elite.

One of the unanswered questions which is thrown up in this discussion is whether the Harlequin romance permits an author to retain any individuality. 'How does the Harlequin writer construct her identity in a global configuration?'

In fact, now that I come to look at it again, this concluding section of the thesis offers any number of interesting lines of thought. One such is this: perhaps romantic fiction is so despised and feared in some quarters because it opens the door to 'everywoman'; thus illustrating Andreas Huyssen's observation that 'the fear of masses is always a fear of woman.'

I particularly like Eva Hemmungs Wirten's conclusion that the classical category romance never ceases to affirm that relationships with others are possible (her italics). In fact, the romance 'brings about a double resolution: on the one hand, sexual tension dissolves into married bliss, and on the other, family and work life, which clash for most of the plot, are ultimately reconciled.'

There are those who argue that romantic fiction is, at best, on a par with soap opera and Hello magazine: in other words, unworthy of serious attention. But Eva Hemmungs Wirten doesn't think so, and neither do I.


Anonymous said...

Yes indeed. The notion that genre fiction generally is somehow inferior is quite bizarre.

Unfortunately, like many strange prejudices, it has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. My own reading persuades me that many genre novels really are pretty poor. The same, of course, is true of many non-genre novels, but they tend to be poor in a more interesting way. Bad genre novels in general are bad because they are formulaic: the idea seems to have taken root that depth and originality are unnecessary in such books, and perhaps even undesirable.

But look at science fiction: there is nothing wooden in the work of Doris Lessing. Or look at the thriller: John le Carré is clearly a novelist of real power.

Romantic fiction, however, does have a lot to answer for: Harlequin novels really are written to formula. If you want to find a romantic novelist of power and originality, who is there? You could try Emily Bronte, but Wuthering Heights is absolutely bonkers, in both senses . . . and it is also one of the finest novels in the language.

No, we can safely ignore highbrow prejudice against genre fiction. Any bookseller will tell you that it’s easier to shift than general fiction, and the result is that many good novelists positively choose to write in a genre.

And that's all it takes. When the large bottom of reality plants itself on the inflated balloon of pomposity, only one outcome is possible.

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