Friday, April 7, 2017

TITLES AND TROPES, TAKE TWO


Titles and tropes. Romance and science fiction. Commerce and art. The same, but different. And a cover that sells. Sometimes it seems trying to balance all these things in a single manuscript is just impossible. It’s enough to send a writer off screaming into the wilderness.

I was fascinated by the same questions Greta encountered in the SciFi Romance Group Facebook discussion and those raised earlier in Sharon’s post this week. As it happens, I’d just come up against the age-old prejudice against the romance genre in an article I was reading in a national magazine about a curmudgeonly used-bookstore owner. Seems he just loved books. Everything except romance novels, which he called “trash.”

Right. So this half-naked guy is not acceptable.
I saw red. J.R. Ward does not write trash. Eloisa James does not write trash. Neither does Linda Howard, Nalini Singh, Linnea Sinclair or Susan Grant, to name just a few of the keepers on my shelves. These women write eloquent, complex, entertaining novels. And I haven’t even mentioned the mega-sellers like Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts, who do all that and sell millions of copies, too.

Part of this bias is due to the fact that women write and read romance. Period. Nothing to be done about that except call it out for what it is. Sorry, boys, we girls wanna play, too. And we are perfectly capable of kicking your butts.

But snobs like that bookstore owner will complain that romance writes to a “formula.” We all know that. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. Within that formula are well-known tropes, like the ones mentioned in the Facebook discussion—secret babies, poor little rich girl/boy, poor boy/girl makes good, friends-to-lovers, enemies-to-lovers, and so on.

But, hey, guess what? Every genre has a formula and its well-worn tropes. Thrillers have the aging spy brought back for one last mission and/or the race against the clock to stop whatever world-ending disaster. Mysteries have the world-weary detective and the classy blonde or the sprightly older nosy neighbor. Westerns have the square-jawed cowboy. Even the beloved dysfunctional family of the serious “literary” novel is itself a trope.

But this one is. Nice undies, dude.
We lovers of science fiction have a shipload of tropes ourselves, many of them dating from the Golden Age of SF: lone wolf space traders, maverick starship captains, pirates with a heart of gold, sexy aliens, lonely cyborgs, bad-guy slavers, tormented captive gladiators, evil alien races, teenagers with newly-awakened “powers.”

The problem is not the tropes themselves so much—because, really, who doesn’t love a maverick starship captain?—but how they’re used in a story, and whether you can put a twist on that trope to make it fresh. This challenge is what separates a mundane story from an exceptional one. Turning that trope on its head, and fleshing it out with real characters that draw your reader in, make for an unforgettable book.

Once you have story gold, why would you plaster it over with a trashy title? Search “science fiction romance” on Amazon nowadays and you get a disheartening mix of both worlds that sounds like one of those games where you discover what your title will be by taking one trope from the Romance column and one from the SF column and put “My” in front of it: MY ALIEN, MY LOVER or MY SECRET ALIEN BABY: SUPERMAN RETOLD, by Martha Kent.

From looking at the titles, it’s difficult to know how many of these books represent actual  trashy reads and how many are hoping to cash in on the familiar tropes their titles represent. The argument is made that some readers will jump on anything with sexy, cyborg, alien, slave, mate, or any combination of such titillating words in the title, especially if the book is illustrated with a naked male torso on the cover.

It’s hard to make yourself heard above all the circus sideshow clamor of this kind of marketing, particularly if your brand of SFR is, um, less given to excess. (Notice I didn’t say less sexy or less romantic. My books, for example, have plenty of explicit sex and a clear romantic arc, but I’ve gone another way with my titles and my covers. By choice.) 

But this is nothing new. Back in the early days of SFR, when sales were largely through digital publishing websites, it was almost impossible to find the plot-based SFR among the stacks of pure SF erotica (what I called “alien sandwich” stories, since so many of them were about two alien males abducting a human female mate).

I still think it’s a matter of visibility, of matching readers with authors. Science fiction romance, in fact, is a victim of its own success, attracting more and more authors and more readers who are still learning what the subgenre is all about. Many of those readers may be “coming over” from the romance side, rather than from the more “serious” SF side. That means they’re more familiar with the romance tropes that are reflected in those titles that make some of us cringe.

But if we’re lucky they’ll rapidly become more familiar with the SF side of things and begin to widen their search patterns. They’ll be looking for new twists on the tropes they know, bigger and better stories, deeper, broader characters. And that can only be good for SFR in the long run.

Cheers, Donna



4 comments:

  1. I have to agree with you, Donna. I would not be likely to read a novel in that title category unless a friend recommended it to me. That type of title makes me think "cookie cutter," and I can't help making assumptions about the story accordingly. Same for the type of cover art that generally goes with those titles.

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  2. Since I'm equally interested in the science/tech/civilization factors in SFR, I'm looking more for the "true" SFR that blends both sci-fi and romance into a great story. Not just a romance that happens to be set in a space/other world/advance civilization though the setting is clearly in the background. (Which, unfortunately is exactly the kind of SFR that RWA is championing with it's "romance-centered" definition.)

    I think you hit the nail on the head here: "Science fiction romance, in fact, is a victim of its own success, attracting more and more authors and more readers who are still learning what the subgenre is all about." As more popular authors cross over from the Paranormal and other romance realms, I'm seeing a definite division in the idea of just what SFR should be.

    And I'm with you both. I don't do "cookie cutter." It's not what I read and my packaging and titles are definitely apart from the norm. The sex and romance is always important and integral to the plot, but it's not the ONLY THING the story is about. Hence, I don't slap bare-chested males and couples in the traditional romance "clinch"--with a starry background. (Okay, granted I did have one exception to that but it was one of the covers of a serialized novel, so I experimented a bit.)

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  3. Well said, Donna! I guess we're stuck with the status quo and gender stereotypes being part of the equation, but from what I've read in the SFR genre, there has been commendably little compromise by female authors who have boldly taken on the challenge of previously male-domimated science fiction. Just so long as they're not doing it to prove their writing is as good as the men's. It should never be a competition between the genders. Perhaps it's just a case of finding a comfortable balance between writing (and genre) integrity and popularity/sales.

    As a reader, I'm ALWAYS looking for a great grown-up SF story first, which includes romance and/or sexy times essential to the plot, where a committed relationship develops between the main characters as a result of their journey to an HEA/HFN. Sexual tension with no consummation in between lots of action is highly enjoyable to read too, I hasten to add. But: NO insta-love/sex for this gal, please! Likewise for huge dollops of romance set in space, no thanks. I've read a couple of stories where, despite dire circumstances, the H/h still can't keep their hands off of each other. Yeah, a pleasant distraction, but not particularly relatable.

    I've never read, nor will I read contemporary romance, but I would hesitate to label any writing "trashy" or "rubbish" because we humans like different things and the sales figures prove it. My main focus for raising the issue of SFR titles was on the large number of similar/identical titles and whether this was too much of a compromise for the genre to bear and simultaneously maintain credibility. The fact that SFR and RSF tend to be lumped together blurs the view somewhat, too.

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  4. Yes, OzMerry, the credibility question is at the heart of all of this, isn't it? For some SF readers, ANY romance in the story (never mind the title or the cover) "spoils" the purity of their beloved genre. And we're back at the issue of whether romance writing is a legitimate endeavor. The argument is circular. Readers like what they like. If we hope to sell anything, we have to figure that out. Then we make the compromises we're willing to make with our own sense of "art."

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