Saturday, August 19, 2006

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In high school I thought about writing my English independent study project on Harlequin romances. I intended to argue that there were only six plots, all of which took their origin in a Jane Austen novel:

  • The Instant Antagonism Plot (Pride and Prejudice): Demure young nun meets stern ex-naval captain and their immediate mutual antipathy is a sure indication that they are in fact highly compatible soul mates.
  • The Previous Engagement Plot (Sense and Sensibility): (Paris, 1940) Handsome young man meets lovely young lady but a previous commitment gets in the way.

  • The Wallflower Plot (Mansfield Park): Nice young man gets distracted by dashing, clever, beautiful woman while painfully shy heroine suffers in silence (or, occasionally, attracts the notice of dashing, clever, but ruthless cad).
  • The Foolish Misunderstanding Plot (Northanger Abbey): Na├»ve and heedless lovers are nearly parted by their shared inability to communicate clearly or divulge important information in a timely manner.
  • The Just-a-Friend Plot (Emma): Highly compatible couple is unable to recognize their love because they are under the impression that they are just friends.
  • The Blast from the Past Plot (Persuasion): Old flame returns to town, rekindles old passion.

The Persuasion plot was always a favourite of mine, back in my Harlequin-reading days. One problem with the Harlequin formula is that it requires every interaction between hero and heroine to be a relationship-advancing event. There’s nothing worse than reading about a romantic date between two people who like each other and spend their time learning about one another through conversation about their hobbies and past relationships. In a romance novel, couples learn about one another through accidental discoveries, and their conversations take the form of sparring matches, each interaction heightening the sexual tension and raising the stakes. Unfortunately, there’s a finite number of relationship-advancing events that can occur in any given relationship: (1) first impression (positive); (2) creation of antipathy; (3) initial expression of romantic interest; (4) misunderstanding; (5) resolution of misunderstanding (sex); (6) uncertainty about level of commitment; (7) resolution of uncertainty about level of commitment (The End). Hence the two-week time period covered by most Harlequins – it’s simply impossible to keep fictional characters from getting engaged for any longer than seven interactions. And as skilled as I am in the suspension of disbelief, as a romance reader I always felt a bit troubled by this rush into matrimony. I found it much more reassuring when characters had a long, buried history that they could unravel and resolve in that two-week period.

Inexplicably, my English teacher discouraged me from my Harlequin/Austen project, directing me instead toward a rather dry analysis of war novels written from the home front perspective. But I was reminded of my list last night after watching The Devil Wears Prada, a film that employs a newly ubiquitous chick-lit plot not covered by my supposedly exhaustive list. The happy ending of a good old-fashioned romantic comedy is the union of hero and heroine, but in these novels (and their film adaptations) the happy ending is the heroine’s break-up with her significant other: her job. From The Undomestic Goddess to I Don’t Know How She Does It to Something Borrowed and Something Blue, novels employing this plot depict women in the grip of an abusive workplace from which they must escape by (a) moving away from the city, (b) wearing comfortable clothes, and (c) having a baby/learning to cook/writing a novel.

And here’s the cue for my startlingly incisive analysis of the corporate culture that has produced this trend and the post-feminist backlash these novels perpetuate – except that I don’t really know why this plot gets written again and again, or even why I find it so strangely compelling. Do I like these stories because they affirm my own career decisions (to live in a small city, to slide onto the mommy track)? Plausible, but somehow I don’t think so. The Devil Wears Prada is full of eye-candy – it’s a tantalizing glimpse into a lifestyle enjoyed by very few, a lifestyle of catching yellow cabs in the big city, wearing stilettos and hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. And yet envy is always kept firmly at bay in these stories by the comforting moral that the life of an ambitious, successful lawyer/financier/journalist is ultimately soul-crushing and empty, that the price is paid at home in the divorces and custody battles. What could be more tantalizing fare for four moms out for a rare night at the movies than a wish-fulfillment fantasy that ultimately tells us we already have it all?


Mary-LUE said...

You had this analysis ready to go in high school? I'm very impressed. My senior year I only finished one of the required books and faked my way through the rest.

I was raised on Harlequin Romances and recognized all of the plots you describe. It takes me back.

And your conclusion? Excellent. Another great post, B&P.

sunshine scribe said...

I love that you wanted to write this paper in high school! Love it. Makes me think back to the propositions I had in high school English.

Devil Wears Prada ... I saw it recently and had similar thoughts. Only I related to the plot in a personal way ... abandoned a "glam", demanding career for other pursuits. Only life was never as fabulously full of eye-candy as that film.

metro mama said...

That's a shame you weren't encouraged to write that paper.

Great post.

virtualsprite said...

I just had to laugh at your analysis of the romance novels. When I was in college struggling through my English major, I read romance novels for my "brain breaks." I never once thought gave the plotlines any thought, but now I sure will!

Mrs. Chicky said...

Great post! I got a little tired of the Chick Lit genre, but I enjoyed Prada quite a bit. Maybe for the reason you described. It's fun to be a bit smug, isn't it? :)

btw, when's that book hiding under your bed going to be published (hint, hint)? I might actually read a Harlequin Romance book if I knew the writer (hint, hint, hinty, hint).

nonlineargirl said...

I was thinking of you and your post last night while watching "Bride and Prejudice" (American made Bollywood style movie based on P&P).

bubandpie said...

Nonlinear Girl - I'm suck a sucker for any kind of Austen sequel or remake, even though most of them are terrible. Just last night I bought a retelling of P&P from the point of view of Mr. Darcy. The writing style feels fairly authentic, but already (two chapters in), the plot seems unbearably stilted and chronological.

VirtualSprite - Me too! My golden age of Harlequin-reading was when I was in school, especially at exam time. The perfect brain candy!

ASM, SS - I was looking over my high-school "work diary" for English class, and I came to the conclusion that I haven't actually grown or developed at all in the last sixteen years. I have learned to hide my terrible egotism a bit better, though. I don't know if that's a consolation or not.

Terri B. said...

I loved this post! If I had been your English teacher I would have encouraged you to write this. I've had to read some pretty awful papers from college freshmen and would just LOVE it if someone had such an interesting idea.

Blog Antagonist said...

Hi there, first time commenter. As a self-confessed literary snob, this post made me laugh. I agree with the others who said you should have been encouraged to write that paper. Perhaps the teacher was afraid that your insights would eclipse her own. It's gotta suck to be teaching kids who can think circles around you.

Also a P&P fan and Austen purist until recenlty when I read "Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife" which was unadulterated tripe, but which for some reason, I loved. It probably followed one of your plot outlines to a T.

Emily said...

From a Popular Culture Studies perspective, this is right on. One of the "rules" of popular culture is that each text (I hesitate to use this annoying postmodern catch-all term, but...) has the *appearance* of being radical, wacky, sexy and new, but in the end, has the effect of reinforcing conservative social values.
Can't believe your HS teacher didn't go for that fantastic thesis! His suggestion was totally thesis-less.
Fantastic new pic on sidebar!!!!!!

Pieces said...

Fantastic post. When I was teaching secondary English (for all of two seconds--before I realized high school kids are annoying and painful to teach) I would have encouraged you to write the paper.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Prada movie now with that perspective in mind.