On Getting Away with Cliché

After a small hiatus from the genre, I started reading romance novels again in December, and I have some new thoughts.

The reason for my burnout: the constraints of the genre had palled. Instead of soothing through familiarity, they scraped across my nerves because of their sameness. I found myself skimming over scenes of first meetings, scenes of realization, scenes of sexual intimacy–skimming in novels by authors whose work I love, whose prose is skilled and creative. Everything began to seem clichéd.

I was overcome by ennui. I went through my To Be Read boxes and culled a couple of dozen romance novels I’d acquired but not yet read. Then I drew out some recent novels by favorite authors and moved them to the top of the pile, in the hope of reigniting my interest; I also pulled out some classics I hadn’t yet read. (One exception was the new Marjorie Liu novel, which I read almost immediately after purchase. I think, in my mind, her romances skew more towards science fiction/fantasy; for me they weren’t subject to my burnout.)

From the Oxford English Dictionary definition of cliché:
a. fig. A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc.
b. Used as adj. Stereotyped, hackneyed.

I revived my interest in Romance with older novels by Patricia Gaffney (Crooked Hearts) and Anne Stuart (Devil’s Waltz). What I found engaging about the two novels is how strongly the authors’ voices were present in both the way the stories were written and in the progress of the stories themselves. While remaining firmly within genre boundaries, both authors used humor and specificity of detail, in their own particular ways, to enliven their stories. Both novels were rich in unforced banter arising from characterization that did not feel pasted on. Both novels took unexpected turns, which is tricky when you have to follow an overall romantic arc.

Also, both novels had a sort of meta-commentary on Romance as a concept, whether directly or indirectly. Whether in internal monologue or dialogue, the protagonists of the Gaffney and Stuart novels reacted against societal expectations of what romance ought to be. For example, in Crooked Hearts: “Unhand me, I said.” Hazily, she wondered why she was talking like a heroine out of Sir Walter Scott. In addition, both hero and heroine are atypical; they are criminals. In Devil’s Waltz, the hero is an atypical representative of the Rake stereotype because he maintains his self-centered behavior throughout almost the entire novel, instead of instantly shedding his Rake behavior as soon as he meets the heroine. Stuart invites the reader to be in on her joke.

I think that’s a way to make it work, the way to explore overwhelmingly common ideas without losing the reader’s interest: imbue the hackneyed with unique individual detail that comes from your own personality, not mechanically, but organically. It works for description, it works for characterization, and it works on a larger scale.

Another thought I had is that these were both older books, so their genre constraints were a little different from books that are coming out now. Totally aside from these being books written by skilled authors, these books felt different because they were different. I had enough distance from their conventions that they felt new to me.

For that reason, I’m finally reading Laura London’s The Windflower for the first time, widely acknowledged to be a classic. More on that later.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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7 Responses to On Getting Away with Cliché

  1. Merrian says:

    I often think that there is a similarity in author voice as more authors write/are encouraged to write in mimicry of the latest hottest thing. Also there is so much to read these days that a single book/author is swamped by the others out there not just in the many to choose from but in the tone and content – it is hard to stand out.

    Looking at your shelfari I have read the Colonialism in SF book (if that interests you I think Davide Carradines ‘Orientalism’ is a useful read as well) and love Martha Wells – Cloud Road is in my TBR. ‘The Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning’ book reminds me of Tanja Luckins’ ‘The Gates of Memory’ Australian people’s experiences and memories of Loss and the Great War. We too have a culture of memorialisation that has left not just a legacy from WW1 but affects our understanding of how collective tragedy is responded to, in this day.

  2. I often think that there is a similarity in author voice as more authors write/are encouraged to write in mimicry of the latest hottest thing.

    Yes, I definitely think that’s a part of it. I think I needed a break, for sure.

    Martha Wells rocks! I am saving the two new ones for when I can read them in one go.

    Thanks for the rec of the Luckins book – I hadn’t heard of that one before, and will add it to my wishlist! The one I’m reading does have some material on Australia, but it’s fairly sparse.

  3. Ooh, I definitely know how you feel. The language of romance novels has become so limited. Most of the phrases common in older romances from the 70s and 80s have become regurgitated to the point of becoming meaningless–how can I be roused to admiration or interest after the umpteenth hero is described as 6+ feet, broad shouldered, slim-hipped, and tanned skin? Add the various characterization short-cuts popular today (i.e. substituting mental lusting for sexual chemistry/tension), and throwing the characters into bed ASAP, and I usually struggle to finish even well-written romance novels.

    Speaking of Gaffney and Stuart, I’ve long gotten the sense that many of the best romance writers wrote with awareness of the genre’s expectations, limitations, and language, and their narratives sort of held them up to readers to think about or challenge. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is frequently cited as The Best Romance Evar, but I’ve always found it to be a gentle, biting satire of Regency romances. Many of Betina Krahn’s earlier novels also possessed this witty, but affectionate, nod to genre conventions. However, it seems too many take the genre at face value, and do their grim best to reflect what they perceive to be “rules” written in stone–hence, the cliche.

  4. I really, really agree, E. I have never tried Krahn – maybe I should?

  5. Kate Elliott says:

    This happened to me last year, too. I just burned out, even though I was reading things by skilled authors who knew what they were doing. I felt a break was in order.

  6. I’m glad I like a lot of genres…and sometimes, nothing will do but nonfiction.

  7. Kate Elliott says:

    Evangeline: Those are the exact short cuts that don’t work for me. In fact, I don’t like the whole trend to short cuts much at all. I like to see a developing relationship.

    Which Betina Krahn should I start with? I’ve not read her.

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