By Gina Fendley
Popular romance novels and fanfiction have much in common. Romance novels focus on the relationship between two lovers; much of fanfiction does the same. Both genres are produced and enjoyed largely by women, and for this reason it is often that neither genre is taken seriously, being subject to ridicule. Why then won’t the majority of fanfiction readers pick up a romance novel? (Morrissey 78). Why then does fanfiction make Twilight author Stephenie Meyer “frustrated”? Acknowledging the passion and hard work that goes into writing fanfiction but unable to understand its appeal, Meyer said, “I’m like, go write your own story” (Hayman). How can we explain the discrepancy between the audiences of romantic fanfiction and romance novels?
The answer is in the difference between fanfiction and romance novels. Fanfiction takes place in a familiar universe while romance novels feature original characters and settings. This does not mean that fanfiction is repetitive or lacks creativity. Because fanfiction is usually posted to the internet rather than published, fanfiction authors enjoy freedom of creativity. Romance novelists do not because of the publishing industry serving as a “dominant gatekeeper” (Morrissey 76). Romance novelists have conventions to work with that fanfiction writers do not. This paper examines three conventions of romance novels: the importance of the relationship process, uplifting women, and the protagonists’ commitment to each other. I argue that the nature of the fanfiction genre is more suitable to fulfill these conventions than the romance novel.
Process Over Outcome
Romance novels emphasize the journey on which the lovers embark. A happy ending by itself would not make for a satisfying novel. Pamela Regis (2003) identifies eight essential elements of romance novels. One element is the barrier to the happy ending. According to Regis, the barrier “drives the romance novel” (32). Because Romance Writers of America requires a happy ending for a novel to be classified as romance, the journey and barriers to happiness define each story. The outcome of the relationship is already known. How the characters come together and learn to love one another despite challenges is of greater interest to the reader.
Like romance novels, many fanfictions focus on the process of the relationship. Fanfiction, however, can go deeper into this process than can the romance novel because there is no maximum or minimum length. According to Morrissey, “[commercial romance novels] are much more restricted by page limits and printing costs” (80). They need to be long enough to tell a story from scratch, but they also need to fit a printed book. Fanfiction, meanwhile, can be anywhere from hundreds of words to millions of words. The freedom that fanfiction writers have to create a work that is very short or very long means that they can portray the process of the relationship in more diverse and elaborate ways than the romance novel.
Fanfiction that is short can elaborate on the romantic process. Fans want to see the “in-filling,” or “the process of fleshing out the backstory behind characters, situations, and events” (Thomas 13). Since fanfiction is based on another text, a fanfiction author does not need to use extra words to establish characters and plot elements; they can attend straight to the romance. Conversely, romance novels can rarely be short because the author needs to introduce the plot, the characters, and the setting. Because the fanfiction universe is pre-established, the piece can be short and still explore the romantic process.
Fanfiction can also be longer than romance novels. The extra length allows writers to indulge in trivial scenes and secondary characters that would perhaps not make the cut in the final version of a published novel. All the Young Dudes by user MsKingBean89 is a 526,926 word Harry Potter fanfiction that focuses on the era of the Marauders (Harry’s parents and their friends) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The main romantic relationship in the story is between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, a non-canon romance. MsKingBean89 imagines the events of their childhood deemed unimportant to canon as well as the events leading up to the canonical Wizarding War and rise of Lord Voldemort. The length of All the Young Dudes as well as its spotlight on secondary characters and the trivial routine of Remus’s and Sirius’s days at Hogwarts is a testament to the versatility of fanfiction in detailing a journey.
After by imaginator1D is another enormous fanfiction of over a million words that highlights the relationship process. After features One Direction singer Harry Styles as a non-famous college student with original character Tessa Young. Thomas (2011) notes that “while fans might urge each other on to bring a story to its climax, it is undoubtedly the case that continuity is preferred over closure” (10). After certainly demonstrates continuity. Imaginator1D posted each chapter online as she finished it, serializing the story, and made it up as she went. Fans were not aware of how long the finished product would be nor when it would end; they enjoyed following Harry’s and Tessa’s (dubbed “Hessa” by fans) entertainingly tumultuous relationship. While romance novels typically consist of at least one “point of ritual death” at which the success of the relationship seems impossible (Regis 35), the number of ritual deaths endured by “Hessa” far exceeds the required number. A published romance novel does not have the capacity for an on-and-off relationship. To summarize, fanfiction can be longer or shorter than a published romance novel. Fanfiction writers have more flexibility to elaborate on the romantic process.
Leveling the Playing Field
The romance genre is often criticized for being formulaic. Morrissey describes this formula as an “aggressive” and “powerful” hero in need of “taming” (86). The heroine is conveniently present to do the taming and is therefore deserving of the hero’s love. Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale is one romance novel that follows this formula. Christian, the Duke of Jervaulx, is the hero. He has suffered a stroke and is frustrated by the aftermath. The heroine, Maddy, is a caretaker at the psychiatric hospital where Christian is sent. She receives a self-proclaimed mission from God to help him. Maddy’s and Christian’s relationship is wrought with outbursts from Christian and fear and loneliness on Maddy’s part, but the novel has nonetheless received praise. “One of the greatest love stories of all time” from the Washington Post Book World is broadcast on the first page of the book. The popularity of the heroine-saves-hero storyline is further evident in the themes of the Harry Styles fanfiction After, which has been published by Simon & Schuster; a movie release is scheduled for April 2019.
Although popular, the aggressive hero and domestic heroine model does not have to be followed. Many novels portray the heroine as more than the hero’s emotional savior. Catherine Roach states that “romance levels the playing field for women” because “unlike in real life and much of literary fiction, women always gain power in [popular romance fiction]” (26). Particularly in contemporary romance fiction, authors create strong, feminist heroines. Into the Night by Suzanne Brockmann features heroine Joan Da Costa. Joan is a public relations specialist in the White House. She is so entranced by her career that she has doubts about entering a relationship with hero Mike Muldoon. Despite Brockmann’s feminism, Joan is sexually insecure and her self-worth is only realized by Mike’s willingness to have meaningful sex with her. So regardless of Joan’s security as a career woman, she still lacks confidence without the reassurance of a conventionally attractive white male.
When Dimple Met Rishi, a young adult novel by Sandhya Menon, similarly attempts to place Indian-American heroine Dimple on a feminist pedestal. Like Joan, Dimple is confident about college and her future career but struggles with interpersonal confidence. Unlike Joan, Dimple is not as much a feminist as a girl-hater. Menon gives Dimple strength by endowing her with traditionally “masculine” traits rather than empowering her traditionally “feminine” ones. Dimple “always chose computers while all the other more popular girls seemed to cluster together in art or reading” (Menon 81). Here Menon suggests that there is something inferior about girls who enjoy art and reading. Menon also mentions frequently that Dimple does not wear makeup. This implies superiority to girls who wear makeup. Further disparaging women, Menon has Dimple make a joke about a popular girl having an eating disorder (237). According to Menon, the only way for a woman to be powerful is to be more like a man. Menon attempts to mitigate this effect by making hero Rishi passionate about art and settling down with a family, interests that are stereotypically feminine. This attempt comes off weak because Rishi suggests that art is impractical. To even further diminish Menon’s attempt at feminism, Dimple’s “strength” comes across as abusive and manipulative; she frequently punches Rishi and causes him physical pain, and she seems to think it is romantic that Rishi offers to withdraw from the camp they are both attending so she does not have to deal with him (Menon 64). Overall, the “feminism” in When Dimple Met Rishi backfires to belittle women instead of lift them up.
Swapping the traditional roles of hero and heroine does not empower women. Instead, it makes a statement that masculine stereotypes are ideal and feminine stereotypes are disposable. Uplifting women is not an easy feat to accomplish in romance novels because of the industry’s “gatekeeping.” Fanfiction, however, can succeed in diversifying the gender roles of the protagonists and leveling the playing field.
A subcategory of fanfiction called slash eliminates gender and power dynamics by replacing the heroine with another hero. The male-male relationship is less about homosexuality and more about equality. Salmon and Symons propose that slash represents “a female fantasy of hetrosexual sex acted out via ostensibly male bodies” (98), but Morrissey argues that it is not so simple as “one of the men tak[ing] on a female role” (97), as Menon characterized Rishi in When Dimple Met Rishi. The male-male relationship broadens the stereotypical hero “to incorporate perspectives and feelings which are traditionally restricted to women” (Morrissey 96) but maintains “traditionally male camaraderie, adventure, and risk taking” (Salmon & Symons 99). Assigning both sets of stereotypes to two male characters is a way that slash fanfiction can avoid the sexism of demeaning feminine men and celebrating women only when they are masculine. When lovers are not limited to gender stereotypes, they are not warrior and “Mrs. Warrior” but “cowarriors” (Salmon & Symons 99). In All the Young Dudes, Sirius and Remus fight in the First Wizarding War and address their personal tragedies and feelings for one another. One is not the other’s caretaker. Rather, they are “slaying each other’s dragons” (Salmon & Symons 99).
Yours is the Earth (Hold On, Hold On) by user chickenlivesinpumpkin is another Harry Potter fanfiction with romance and action. It differs from All the Young Dudes in that the writer domesticates both male lovers, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. The story takes place after the original series; both Harry and Draco are adults with homes and careers. Draco suffers from severe anxiety, insecurity, and panic attacks from the war featured in the canon series. He is plagued by a mysterious magical parasite that has taken control of his body, similar to Christian’s ailment in Flowers from the Storm. But Maddy and Christian differ from Harry and Draco because Maddy is wholly “feminine” and Christian is wholly “masculine.” Maddy is burdened with taking care of Christian and taking responsibility for his wrongdoings. Draco is responsible for himself. His and Harry’s relationship demonstrates both feminine and masculine stereotypes. Because Draco faces emotional challenges as well as an external challenge, he is playing the role of both the traditional hero and heroine. He is “feminized” in his anxiety and insecurity, how he requires Harry’s reassurance, and his smaller physical stature. He remains “masculine” in his external magical battle and prestigious career. Harry complements Draco by playing a traditionally “masculine” role without the associated power dynamics. By assigning “feminine” traits to male characters without eliminating such traits in female characters, fanfiction celebrates these traits instead of putting them down. The flexibility of gender roles in fanfiction means that problematic power dynamics imposed by the limits of published romance novels can be mitigated. Women win.
Genuine and True Love
Another convention of romance novels, described by Regis, is the protagonists’ commitment to be together (37-38). A story that does not center around the power of love is, by definition, not a romance novel. Ironically, romantic fanfiction holds an advantage over published romance novels in portraying love. If lovers in fanfiction are already familiar with one another from the original text, fanfiction can proceed under the assumption that the lovers’ relationship is maintained by something that transcends lust. Salmon and Symons contend that previously acquainted characters are “united by a bond that is plausibly more durable and secure than sexual or romantic passions” (99). For romance novels the attraction needs to occur hastily because the lovers usually start off as strangers. The attraction is subject to greater scrutiny and more likely to appear “inexplicably and magically” (Morrissey 90).
Romance authors use plot to compensate for rushed attraction. Flowers from the Storm and When Dimple Met Rishi include gaps in the timeline before the resolution. Brockmann has a different approach, having Joan and Mike from Into the Night admit their anxieties about their relationship status. Despite these attempts, the heros and heroines begin as strangers and enter hasty relationships in all three novels. In Into the Night, Joan and Mike are engaged within weeks of meeting one another. In When Dimple Met Rishi, teenagers Dimple and Rishi become boyfriend and girlfriend and have sex within weeks of meeting one another. Flowers from the Storm is more elaborate but still features early feelings of lust.
Fanfiction eliminates the problem of main characters as strangers. Even when the characters did not develop a friendly bond—Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy were bitter rivals in the original series—they still knew each other well after seven years at Hogwarts. The power of love in Yours is the Earth (Hold On, Hold On) is so strong that it can turn enemies into lovers. After is different; there is no original text because the story is based on band members rather than a novel. But the massive length of After allows Harry and Tessa to get to know one another much better than they might have had they been lovers in a traditionally shorter, stand-alone novel. Unlimited length and a pre-established acquaintance in fanfiction allow a deeper relationship between lovers than in romance novels.
This paper has covered three conventions of the romance genre: the romantic process, uplifting women, and the lovers’ commitment to each other. By definition romance novels include these conventions, but that does not mean they do so in an ideal way. Because fanfiction does not need to go through the publishing process and is based on a pre-existing universe, fanfiction writers enjoy freedoms that romance novelists do not. Fanfiction is also more accessible. It reflects a greater diversity of human experiences. The community of romance novelists is more homogenous. Fanfiction allows readers to re-enter a familiar universe in a way that reflects the fandom’s culture. According to Thomas, fanfiction is a genre that “poses a challenge to the models of narrative that insist on defining the story text as a stable and finite thing” (20). Romance novels are static. They are for readers who want something new and who can part with the novel’s universe upon completion. Readers of romance novels must accept what is given. It is difficult to condense a tale of love to fit a novel, but many romance novelists have done so. But perhaps they would have been even more successful had they been privileged with the flexible format of fanfiction.
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