Genre conventions

I read some romance recently--a Crusie novel (reissue) I hadn't previously encountered, and then a set of three novellas by different authors in one volume, the only one of which I liked was the Crusie. I keep meaning to post more about those.

But for now, suffice it to say that in a lot of standard romance, from what I've read of them, there's a male lead and a female lead, and they're introduced to the reader (and usually each other) within the first few pages, and it's obvious to the reader (though usually not to the protagonists) that they're going to end up together. There's never any serious doubt; as far as I can tell, the reader pleasure in romance doesn't come from actual uncertainty about whether the two will get their happy ending. (That Wikipedia article introduces me to the abbreviation "HEA" for "Happily Ever After.")

So the other day I picked up an Elmore Leonard book from among my father's books, and I was surprised to discover that it had some of the trappings of a romance.

The rest of this entry will include spoilers for this aspect of the plot, including the final page of the book, although I'm not going to name the book here.

Took a little while for the male romantic lead to be introduced; took a while for me to figure out that he was the good guy and the other male lead (who'd been previously introduced, pretty sympathetically I thought) was the bad guy; took a while for the male and female romantic leads to meet each other; but when they did, there were sparks, of the same sort that happen in a romance novel. A strong attraction, an immediate hitting-off that made it really sound like they were destined to be together, great sex (although not explicit). This being a crime/thriller book, I thought it was possible that one or the other of them might die tragically, but it seemed clear that they were Meant To Be even if they ended up being star-crossed.

And then as the ending approached, the woman started acting oddly--kind of cold and distant--and we got much less from her PoV than before. (Leonard cares nothing for standard PoV rules--he jumps in and out of characters' heads with wild abandon.) The male romantic lead sets up a complicated plot to try to save the female romantic lead from the bad guy, but things go awry. And then at the end, the bad guy is out of the picture, leaving the male romantic lead and the female romantic lead alone together--and on the last page of the book, the woman tells the man to go away. The man says but what about all the romantic plans we made together, and the woman suggests that they were all in his head, that she really wasn't interested in him or in running away with him, and that their relationship, such as it was, is now over.

I was really taken by surprise, thrown off-balance. It seemed obvious where the romantic plot was heading, and I don't think that was only because most of my recent reading had been romance. Leonard was using romance genre conventions, whether intentionally or not, and then messing with them. And it left me disappointed, because as is well known, I am a big sap.

For that matter, I haven't read enough hard-boiled mystery to be sure of this but I think he was messing with those conventions as well--when I think of romance in Hammett or Chandler, I think of doomed and/or tragic love, but still love. Here, it was more like ending with a shrug.

I'm not sure whether to take the female lead's comments in the Leonard book at face value; it's possible that she's just trying, at the end, to protect herself from getting too emotionally involved with a guy who she's figured out isn't very effectual. Really, the main problem I had with the whole book was that I couldn't make out what we were supposed to think of the characters; the stuff that I read as the author giving clues to their character seemed internally contradictory as well as incompatible with what the characters thought of themselves and of each other. I know Leonard's a smart author, so I suspect all that was intentional, but it bugged me a little.

So of course I picked up another Leonard book (published a year after the one I've been talking about), and almost right away, the male lead and the female lead see each other across a crowded courtroom, and sparks fly, and they spend a while talking with each other about how magical it is, how they've never experienced anything like it, this deep perfect wonderful immediate connection (all of this in understated oblique Leonard dialogue, of course). And I'm thinking, you won't fool me twice! And within twenty or thirty pages, sure enough, there are already signs that everything's not as it seems on the romance front. We'll see.

Of course, in most of the romance I've read the hero and heroine don't acknowledge their attraction to each other immediately; they generally fight it and/or hide it from each other (and/or themselves) for as long as possible. So maybe since Leonard's characters don't try to fight it, he's not really playing so much with romance conventions after all.

Anyway, my real point here is that I continue to find it fascinating how my genre expectations affect my perception of and even enjoyment of works of fiction.

2 Responses to “Genre conventions”

  1. M. C. A. Hogarth

    Gosh, it sounds icky. And premeditated on the author’s part, which is even worse than icky. 😛

  2. Jed

    I wouldn’t say icky, exactly, at least not to me. Disconcerting, but interesting.

    I should also have noted that there are other genre conventions at work here; for example, although I read very little thriller/crime fiction, I get the impression that readers can generally expect that the bad guy(s) will be defeated in the end. The romance thread may not end happily, but the crime thread doesn’t end badly. I’m sure it does sometimes, but I’m guessing not often. Um, but my point here is partly that I’m not familiar enough with the genre conventions of some of these genres to know what to expect, or how to read some aspects of the work.

    And I should also have noted that I’m sometimes not very good at picking up on the character-state-of-mind stuff in a story that’s being shown-not-told; to someone more perceptive about such things, it might have been obvious what the characters were thinking throughout the book.


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