The Magic Carpet Ride: Reader Involvement in Romantic Fiction

  1. 1. Lisa Lena Opas

    University of Joensuu

  2. 2. Fiona J. Tweedie

    University of Glasgow

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Boy meets girl, they fall in love, they live happily ever after. This is one of the most successful plots in history and traces its origins back to the beginning of the novel as a literary form. Romantic fiction has developed much since Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the first romance novel, and has now turned into an international multi-million dollar business. Readers of romantic fiction are swept away on a magic carpet into another world and an intense emotional experience. This paper examines some of the linguistic devices that help pull the reader into that world, to involve her in the lives and loves of the heroines that she identifies with.

1. Introduction
Desire, Superromance, Temptation, Women Who Dare, Shadows, Intrigue, Intimate Moments - these are only a few of the category romances that are published by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. In 1994 Harlequin had 700 titles and sold 200 million books annually in over 100 international markets. Romance novels rely heavily on the words 'passion', 'love' and 'desire' in their titles and their covers usually picture a couple in a loving and sexually suggestive embrace. You can find romance novels everywhere: bookstores, supermarket checkout counters, drugstores and airports, i.e. wherever women are likely to part with their money. Many consider them trash and food for junk book junkies but surveys show ([3]) that it's not just bored housewives who read romance fiction. In fact, the population of romance readers mirrors the female population in general: more than half are employed, three-quarters are married and one quarter have college degrees. So what is it about the romantic fantasy that satisfies so many different kinds of women?
Each romance novel has the same basic story, i.e. the hero and heroine meet, their relationship develops in emotional intensity, the obstacles to their permanent relationship are overcome and the happy ending is achieved. The predictability of this story resembles the oral storytelling tradition in that a story already familiar to itsreaders is being retold over and over again ([6], p. 198.). It allows the reader to relax, she is not left in suspense over the ultimate outcome. The reader can just sit back and escape into another world. She becomes involved in someone else's life, someone else's problems, passions, conflicts and emotional turbulences. The question is how the author leads the reader into this other world.
One way of bringing another world to the reader is to set the novel in another time and age. Historical romances do this since they are set in any time period between the middle ages and the 19th century. Portraying 'the bold and the beautiful', i.e. the wealthy or the upper class, also brings another world to the reader. Often one finds the heroine with humble origins joined with a wealthy hero and the reader can be made to feel that she could easily step into the heroine's shoes.
The reader can also be brought to the world of the character by making her identify with the heroine. This paper examines how the reader becomes privy to the emotions and attitudes of the heroine by looking at overt markers of stance in three types of romantic novels. These markers include various syntactic and semantic features that express the speaker's attitudes towards her knowledge, her feelings, her emotions, her moods, etc. The results are compared with Biber and Finegan's [2] analysis of stance across text types, which showed some surprising results with respect to romantic fiction.
2. Methodology
Contemporary literary criticism is often concerned with the representation of consciousness in the text, the point of view within the narrative and the withdrawal of the author's voice. These are ways of involving the reader with the text, making the reader bring some of the meaning into the text. This creates "story-driven reading," i.e. the reader becomes involved in the outcome of events and the lives of the characters. A major way of involving the reader in the heroine's life is for the reader to "take part" in the heroine's emotions. One way of examining this is to look at the expressions of stance in the texts.
Biber and Finegan [2] define stance as the expression of attitude. It consists of two different types of expressions of attitude: evidentiality and affect. Evidentiality means that the reader becomes privy to the speaker's attitudes towards whatever knowledge the speaker has, the reliability of that knowledge and how the speaker came about that knowledge. Affect refers to the personal attitudes of the speaker, i.e. her emotions, feelings, moods, etc. Biber and Finegan investigated 12 differentes of features deemed to mark stance, e.g. certainty adverbs, doubt verbs, positive affect adjectives, negative affect adverbs, hedges, emphatics and possibility modals. Their material included 13 texts in the category "Romance fiction." 38% of their romance fiction showed a "faceless stance" and 46% showed "oral controversial persuasion." We found these results rather surprising.
In this study we have used romance novels published between 1990-1996 from the Harlequin Presents, Mills and Boon and Regency Romance series. We have also analyzed novels that are classified as women's fiction or 'cross-overs', e.g. Danielle Steel's works. The texts comprise a total of approx. 245 000 words and have been marked up in SGML.
Principal components analysis is used to reduce Biber and Finegan's twelve markers of stance to two dimensions which describe 66.5% of the variation in the data.
3. Results
The results show that there are clear differences between the stance presentation in different categories of romance novels. The novels by Danielle Steele are found to cluster in an area associated with high levels of hedges and emphatics (e.g. almost, kind of, maybe, sort of, a lot, really, more, such a), with the exception of one novel, "Vanished" which deals with a court case, and is almost of a different genre.
The Regency Romances, on the other hand, are set in the past and portray a world removed from the reader's own. They are found to be characterised by a high level of predictive and necessity modals (e.g. will, would, shall, ought, should, must).
However, it is evident that these historical romances split into two rough groups, with some of the texts mingling with the Harlequin books.
Rather surprisingly, the Harlequin books are clustered in an area which reflects that few markers of stance are evident. This compares with the results of Biber and Finegan [2] where the romantic fiction texts appeared to have few markers of stance. We consider reasons for this below.
4. Conclusion
Our results show that the sub-genres of popular romantic fiction can be separated on the basis of their markers of stance. This is an interesting finding in view of the results presented by Biber and Finegan [2]. We found that the Regency Romance novels appear rather heterogeneous, while the Danielle Steele texts are much more clustered. The Harlequin texts, more surprisingly show little evidence of markers of style.
To find an explanation for these results, the spotlight must fall upon the measurement tools used to obtain them. The measures of Biber and Finegan [2] are very strictly laid down at the end of their paper. Examination of their definitions points towards possible explanations. Since Biber and Finegan used automatic tagging and counting, they have counted only such markers as can be easily identified in such a manner. This means that some rather surprising omissions seem to have occurred. For example, they count 'I was lucky' (the speaker's expression of feeling) but not 'I was very lucky'. Other examples include 'doubt, doubtful' (counted) and 'doubtfully' (not counted). Secondly, their narrative viewpoint seems rather limited, since they only counted fi n viewpoints, e.g. 'I/we conclude, know, prove' but not 'he/she knows' etc. This is bound to affect the results of a cluster analysis such as this one with respect to romance fiction, since it is very often written in the third person. These issues raise the question whether the results would look different if all such features were taken into account.
1. Biber, D. (1988) Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
2. Biber, D. and E. Finegan (1989) Styles of stance in English: Lexica and grammatical marking of evidentiality and affect, Text, 9(1), pp. 93-124.
3. Harrison, C. (1984) Love at First Sight: Romance Novels and the Romantic Fantasy. Prod. Ken Pagniez. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 16-30 Oct.
4. Modleski, T. (1980) The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5(3), pp. 435-448.
5. Paludan, E. (1984) The Romance Writer's Pink Pages. Rocklin, Ca.: Prima Publishing.
6. Radway, J. A. (1984) Reading the Romance Chapel-Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC