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Friday, March 18, 2016

Your Drug of Trope

I once knew a woman--a long long time ago, a friend of my parents, in a way-- who hated musicals.  Loathed them. I can clearly remember her stomping her foot and yelling, "Where does the fucking music come from? How are we supposed to watch a movie in which music comes up out of nowhere and people sing for no reason and then they dance?  What in the fuck is that all about? How can people even watch that shit!"

I remember this clearly--and it always seemed to be really ironic, because this woman became a drug addict and was killed in a heroin sale gone south on some godforsaken street corner.  True story.

As I grew up, I wondered--I mean seriously wondered--if maybe she didn't need that heroin because she couldn't have--or refused actually--the drug of everyday  fantasy instead. That if she didn't allow herself to indulge in the happy endorphins caused by pretty people singing--or given to us by the brightly macabre colors of animated fantasies, because she loathed those too, or funny books--even fairy tale books for her son--then the only happy she could get was from the chemicals that became her undoing.

I'm sure somewhere out there someone has done a study about happiness and an active fantasy life--I think I remember one, and  yes, the correlation is very apparent--but even without this correlation, I see this idea as a true thing.  Amy has a lovely little world built in brightly colored Lego bricks of supposition and storytelling--I am aware.

But don't we all?

Readers are very much aware that the stories they read are constructed of pretty Lego bricks made of words and tropes and archetypes and all of the bright, hard plastic pieces that have a fluid relationship with space and time and make up the suspension of disbelief and world building that occurs in any novel, even the most mundane of contemporary literary fiction.

Which is why it always sort of stuns and saddens me when readers choose to hate a writer based on a book's trope.

See, here's the thing. If a literary archetype is the skeleton frame of the story itself--the thing that determines height, width, gender, gravitas, build etc. of the story--then the tropes are the flesh, the eye-color, the hair color, the skin tone, attitude, and some of the genetic traits of the story.  The style creates  the clothes, hairstyle, education, background, sense of humor, likes and dislikes, and general personality, if we're going to extend the metaphor--but right now, we're going to concentrate on tropes.

A trope is a well-known element in a story--a plot event, character type, theme, or conflict that is familiar to the reader before the book has even been opened. The Big Misunderstanding is a conflict trope, The Secret Baby is a major plot trope, The Spunky Tomboy and the Smooth Millionaire is a character trope.  The fact is, romance has a single essential plot: two or more people meet, and on the basis of sexual and/or romantic compatibility they reach a long-lasting agreement of emotional satisfaction.  Of the myriad important things that can happen in the course of that one event, many of those things are going to be familiar--these are tropes. They are the molecules that make up the romance reader's air.

Not every reader is going to love every trope. Me? I'm not a fan of the Big Misunderstanding. That's why, in Keeping Promise Rock, Deacon had to wreck the truck. Otherwise, there would be no reason for Crick to have enough time to thoroughly fuck up his life.  That misunderstanding couldn't last for more then ten minutes, because, frankly, as a person, I can't hold a grudge that long with someone I love, and I can't hold back a secret--or a hurt. I am just that much of an open book, really. I couldn't write that moment lasting any longer than necessary, and I'm not a fan of reading them.  This is why The Secret Baby trope will never be my favorite--even though one of my favorite writers has done it exceptionally well.  (Mary, oh, my Mary-- you do all things so very exceptionally well.)

Now some people will look at that explanation and get mad. "But... but... does that mean all romance novels are alike?" No! The skill of the writer to weave the events together, to use words in a fresh way, to get us to look at the oldest conflict in the newest way-- that will continually surprise and astound us.  That's what makes romance amazing-- that a timeless story, told a zillion times, gives us that heartstopping rush again and again and again.

And even the most stale trope can be done exceptionally well.  Mate and I just watched San Andreas, partly fueled by a lazy Sunday, and partly fueled by my adoration of all things Duane Johnson. (He just seems like such a decent guy, yanno? Please, The Rock, don't ever let me down!)  Anyway-- we saw the tropes immediately: estranged workaholic husband, society climbing wife, teenager who was going to be in danger--and then, just as we settled into that comfortable ennui brought about by stale tropes, the movie surprised us.

The husband's job? It was important-- he was a search and rescue guy, and no, not everybody could do what he did. So when he said, "It's work, I'm sorry," his daughter and ex-wife said, "We understand. It's okay."  I was-- well, surprised. I was even more surprised when the source of the estrangement had just a tad more poetic depth than I was expecting. I was surprised when the ex-wife wasn't a shrill harpy--and she wasn't stupid and she didn't screech at her husband. (I was pleasantly surprised when none of these things happened, because I get tired of seeing that character get a happy ending in disaster movies. So tired.) I was more than pleasantly surprised when the teenaged girl made smart decision after smart decision, and her love interest respected that she had a different knowledge base than he had. In short, this movie took tropes I was familiar with--and did a little bit of work to make them fresh, to make the characters not grate on my nerves like garlic in a paper-cut. Bless you, Duane The Rock Johnson, you didn't let me down!

And that's the thing--the writers and the actors took a trope--a thing we're all familiar with--and made it fun to watch.  That's a romance writer's job as well.

So here's the thing. I get it when people don't love a trope--I just admitted I have a few that aren't my favorites. I don't get hating an author--or saying horrible things about an author--for using that trope.

Because when I see a "Big Misunderstanding" trope coming along, I'll usually skip to the end of the book to see how long it lasts. If it doesn't last that long, I'll go back and read through it. And even if that's not my favorite book by that author, I get that for some people, that's their favorite trope, and they'll read that book again and again. It's no more a matter personal to me than an author choosing to write M/M instead of het suspense--it's the story they chose to write.

Now, I know someone is going to read this and go, "But Amy! What about GFY!"  And of course some people are going to look at that and go, "WTF is GFY?" so let's talk about GFY.

GFY is a trope used in gay romance called "Gay For You."  It refers to a book in which one or more characters is not gay at the beginning of the story, but falls so emotionally in love in the course of the story that the romance occurs. People are really hating on GFY at the moment, because they feel that it completely erases the option of a character being bisexual--and thus bisexual people don't have a voice in romance.

So I'm going to say something about this that's going to piss people off. I actually only know one writer who has set out to write an actual GFY romance. Almost every other romance that is labeled "GFY" has been read as GFY, but was written as something else entirely.

Now, I don't often contradict a reader's perception--but I think there is sort of a running misapprehension about how bisexuality works.  That Kinsey scale poster is seen around a lot--I wish I could tell you where I got it--I think I saw it on FB once and yes, I snagged it for my own. Now, the impression I get from a lot of readers who, say, read something like Winter Ball, is that the readers think Skip and Richie are maybe 1's on the Kinsey Scale--but, just because they are such amazingly good friends, they fall into bed and have hot sex and hello, goodbye butt-virgins.

There are a couple of things wrong with this.

The first is that there are copious hints in the book (as there are in Gambling Men which is also called GFY) that suggest that the two protagonists aren't as heterosexual as they first present. Skip and Richie (and Quent) are not particularly self-aware. When they talk about how they're not particularly aroused by women, and how Skip doesn't get hard, and how he made his ex-girlfriend feel bad about herself (completely without meaning to) whenever she tried to get sexual and how Richie was not all that excited about boobs... well, these guys present more like 5's on the scale than 1's. In fact, most of the stories that I've read which have presented as GFY usually give indications that the men are at least a 2 on the scale, if not a 3.  What happens in the course of the story is that the man they become emotionally attached to becomes so meaningful that they shake off the social conditioning that tells them they can't possibly be with a man physically. The attraction was always there--it was the conditioning, the assumption that if they didn't present as gay from the very beginning there was no possible way they could be attracted to and fall in love with a man at all. 

And that's the other thing that's wrong--and again, it's a general perception that's at fault, not an author, not a trope, and not a reader.

Look at that scale. Now, I get the impression--again, judging from reader's comments and the comments of people who are not familiar with either the genre or the LGBTQ community as a whole--that people look at that scale and assume it's proportioned somewhat like a pyramid. They think the straight people make up the big base of the pyramid, and then the less straight people made up sort of the middle and then the gay people made up the teeny-tiny tip.

I don't think that's the case.

Sexuality is biologically determined--we all know that. However, socially sexuality is a heteronormative assumption. So, if a little boy doesn't tell us that he's marrying another little boy at the age of eight, we assume he's marrying a little girl. Now that's changing in some of our culture, and that's great--but it's going to take a lot of generations before that heteronormativity is universally rejected and a more open set of assumptions make up the bulk of American culture. So if a little boy or girl has enough attraction to the opposite sex to fall in love, well, a lot of the time that's what they'll do--they don't even think of another possibility. (Again, this is changing--but perceptions are always fluid, so we're forced into generalities.) So very often, for people in those middle ranges of the scale, sexuality becomes a combination of biology and choice.

Think of any other component of human behavior that's a combination of biology and choice.

Intelligence--that's a combination of the two. Biology can limit intelligence but choice and nurturing can stretch abilities beyond their first assumed capabilities. Example? My oldest son, who, we were told, might read by the time he was out of high school, and who is now about to get an A.A. from junior college.  Part of his abilities were determined by biology and part of them were stretched by his environment and choice.

Physical ability--there's another combination. Yes, genetic determination plays a big part in making an athlete--but so does practice. We've all been inspired by Michale Jordan's drive--he went from being a second string high school basketball player to a legend--and much of that was environment and choice.

So sexuality--biology can can determine part of a person's Happy Ever After, but environment, acceptance, and, yes, choice in the case of people who are happily attracted to both sexes--can play it's own part. (As Joe from Sidecar said, "It's an all you can fuck buffet, Casey-- pretty girls and pretty boys!" )

Physical ability and intelligence are never plotted on a pyramid graph. Ever. They're plotted on a bell curve, with the vast number of humans falling in the middle ranges of either.

Why would we think sexual attraction would be any less fluid?  On one end the severely heterosexual--but only a small percentage--and at the other end the severely homosexual --but, again, a small percentage. And most of the glorious middle full of the bisexual, the lucky many, who are attracted to both sexes, but many of whom are socialized to only try romantically for one.  (For straight men or women who don't believe this could possibly happen, why do we watch and read porn with both sexes in it? Mate once tried to read only girl on girl porn--after a while, he admitted that he needed to see some cock--not with another cock, granted, but there needed to be a guy in his porn. Straight women who watch or read het porn will tell you they need to see a girl in their porn, and that she needs to be a pretty girl. This alone indicates a level of attraction that straight people don't usually think about.)

Most of the writers I know write gay romance from this assumption, whether they've vocalized this or not. The Skips and Richies who are suddenly attracted to another guy aren't actually "suddenly" attracted at all. The attraction was always there, under the surface. There were hints, suggestions, attitudes that may have given an onlooker a suspicion that the person involved was never as straight as they thought.

Now, I know people will sneer, "How could they be twenty-five (or thirty-six or forty-two) and not possibly know they're gay or bi?"

Well, it's like I told my daughter when she asked if she'll know she's going to start her period.  My periods are irregular--and have been since I started. Anywhere from four to sixteen weeks between them--and as was the case between two of my kids, it was more like five years.  So I don't know when they're coming. I may watch a movie and cry, eat all the cookies, snarl at the dog and dream about throat punching my husband who had done nothing wrong before I determine that he doesn't love me anymore and then jump his bones until he begs for mercy. And then, when I wake up in the morning swimming in blood, I'll laugh and go, "Oh... yeah. Okay. That makes sense."  Even when my period is the most likely assumption, very often I'll assume it's anything but. (Last time I thought it was colon cancer. Because Web MD makes hypochondriacs of us all, that's why.) I once read a book about pregnancy in which the woman's husband dragged her for a shrink for mood swings and the shrink asked her if she was pregnant. This happened to her three out of four pregnancies.

When we're not expecting our bodies to do something, we frequently don't know what they're doing when they're doing it.

I've heard from more than one gay man who came out in this twenties or thirties that yes, sometimes they were the last to know.

So, where were we?

Oh yes. GFY. It's more a reader trope than a writer trope--most writers are writing self-realization, or Out-for-you.

But it's okay-- really. Doesn't bother me if someone reads Winter Ball and calls it GFY.  I mean, bisexuality needs to be recognized more--I'm not going to argue that--and it would be great if people reading gay romance could walk away with some empathy and awareness for an important facet of human nature that gets overlooked.

But when it comes down to it, isn't getting the trope right with razor precision--or aligned with science or perfectly politically correct according to the latest version of Salon--much like insisting that there be a reason for music in the movie?

Romance is written to celebrate the idea that an individual's happiness is important.  I've always believed that. It's one of the reasons gay romance has s such a wide appeal--an individual's happiness is more important than hatred and intolerance and a blind society, why do you ask?

In the case of an author writing a story for other people to enjoy, that celebration of tolerance and individual happiness needs to extend to reader understanding and appreciation as well.

If a reader can look at a book about two guys who didn't know they were bi and find it wildly romantic that they discover love in each other's arms, then they have celebrated individual happiness triumphing over societal expectations.

Does it matter if the guys were labeled (and remember how much we all hate labels!) gay or bi or pansexual or omnisexual or sexuality to be determined later?

The trope, whatever it may be called, allowed people to have that rush of endorphins, that happy that comes from a familiar friend of literature. It greeted people like an old friend, and it gave a thrill of satisfaction as it hosted the party of emotions interacting with words.  That right there is a job well done.

And if a reader doesn't like that particular trope-- well, there are a thousand others out there that mightn't offend the sensibilities. There is always a Big Misunderstanding or a Virgin Billionaire Rancher or a Secret Baby around the corner--and while each trope might have it's detractors and it's staunch proponents, the fact is that whatever the trope represents, it gives a certain segment of readers an emotional satisfaction they can't get with any other combination of plot events.  Now, maybe that will go away as society changes--but now, right now, it feels emotionally necessary and that is why it persists.

Let's not be too quick to shit on people's magic, folks. That woman I knew--if she could have, just once, swallowed the fantasy and not criticized the fact that IT COULDN'T EXIST, maybe she would have found a way to make herself happy without the thing that ultimately killed her. We need the happy, people. We NEED THE FUCKIN' HAPPY.

The more happy we try to take away in the name of making shit absolutely razor-line perfection, the less chance for emotional fulfillment we can find. I've heard readers say often enough that books are their drugs--and they're my drugs too.  Yes, I'm wary of my subtext, and yes, I get angry when I feel someone abuses subtext--but I'm not going to wage a campaign of hatred and bitterness to remove an unwanted subtext from all of the world.

The surest way to make a population miserable and vulnerable to all sorts of evil is to take away the fantasy of the happy. You think I'm kidding? How much romance do you think the average Trump Supporter reads--and they follow that yoyo because they think he's "real".

Don't shit on other people's happy. Don't shit on other people--readers, writers, advocates--period.  And please, if someone is reading a book to up their endorphins, don't piss on their high.

If the alternative to loving musicals or romance books or animated features is getting shot on a street corner looking for your next fix--or following a maniac because his mass-hysteria cult meetings give you a rush--for sweet fuck's sake, take the musical or the book or the cartoon--and don't shit on anyone else for doing the same thing.

We can't make the world better by using ducks to peck our art to death. We often can't make better art that way--and we're not doing the ducks any favors either.


LE Franks said...

Thank you.

MsLarvik said...

Well put! I like lots of different novels and love some of your work and others not so much. It is much more important to me that you keep writing than you always just write novels I like. Thanks Amy

rodeoroughstock said...

Wow, did you nail it!

Dani(ela) said...


Anne Cox said...

Hey Amy, really nice description of the continuum of human sexuality. I also have given some thought to the GFY trope, and the books so labeled that I have found believable are just as you describe, they have clues, signs, some basis upon which the falling in love and realizing something up to then undiscovered happens. I work with kids, and since the 90's LBGTQ kids and their issues have been a professional focus. What you describe fits in with my real world experience. I have seen a lot of coming out, exploration etc. I haven't seen a real life Gay Only For You and totally happily healthy het except for you. Not saying that story isn't out there, but just that I haven't seen it yet IRL.

Thanks for writing waht you do, your work makes my life more fun!