The Formula of Romance


The Axis of Awesome: Forty four-chord songs in five and a half minutes

I have always been inspired by Frye’s work, and his Secular Scripture in particular has been instrumental in how I conceive the romance. My studies have focused on a small detail from Frye’s theory of romance. In The Secular Scripture, he writes:

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means, except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (CW 18, 49-50)

Something about this notion never seemed right to me.  I could agree that virginity served only a structural purpose, but I was left wondering how it could be structural when it only referred to female characters.  Why was there not a male virgin in romance?  To this end, I have written a dissertation on the subject.  I have surveyed well over one hundred romance novels that include virgins, and I have developed something of an anatomy of male virgins in romance.

While laying out this dissertation, however, I was reminded of the issue of “formula,” because romances are of course “formulaic.”  That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on.  Indeed, many critics of romance note this.  Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements:

Eight narrative events take a heroine in a romance novel from encumbered to free. In one or more of the scenes, romance novels always depict the following: the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court, the meeting between heroine and hero, the barrier to the union of heroine and hero, the attraction between the heroine and hero, the declaration of love between heroine and hero, the point of ritual death, the recognition by the heroine and hero of the means to overcome the barrier, and the betrothal. These elements are essential. (30)

Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one.  But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements.  So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction?  In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new?

So, with this in mind, I am posting the video above to illustrate the point: just four chords can produce forty different pop songs for the purposes of a single comedy bit.  Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?

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