Meta-Romance

Appropriately, my first post on this site is about self-consciousness, romances aware of themselves as romances.... There are plenty of clichés about romance novels and the women who write them. Why shouldn’t there be? It’s an industry about clichés and how to manipulate them, about how to fit into a formula and how to adapt one. There’s the cliché about the middle-aged mom who writes erotica when her kids go to school. The one about the frumpy librarian who lives vicariously through stories about glamorous models. And the one about the highly educated academic who writes trash on the side for fun and profit….. Yet romance novelists seem to be finding ways to play with these stereotypes of the industry as creatively as they often play with the stereotypes within the genre. There are more and more intentional meta moments – where life and fiction seem to overlap or blur together.

This trend was most obvious in Maya Rodale’s ambitious pair of Wallflower and Bad Boy Billionaire trilogies (2014), which operate in parallel narrative universes. In the first book of the Billionaire series, The Bad Boy Billionaire's Wicked Arrangement, we meet an attractive but under-appreciated librarian named Jane Sparks who in turn meets a bad boy tech billionaire with the thoroughly ironic name Duke Austen (can you see already, dear reader, how she will end up with the name Jane Austen by the end of the series?). So far so good. Some typical plot devices of the genre ensue: best friend announces Jane’s engagement to Duke as a prank on Facebook, Duke decides he needs a phony fiancée for business reasons, the hoax turns all too real as they flirt and screw and fall in love… The twist comes when Jane decides to write a Regency romance novel herself and draws on her own story: she writes the first of the Wallflower books, The Wicked Wallflower,  about a demure Regency heroine who is accidentally engaged to a paragon of an English duke etc etc. This novel is published in the real world a few months later by Maya Rodale, Jane Sparks’s pen name but also the creator of Jane Sparks herself. The plot thickens.

The parallel narratives continue for two more books in which Jane and Duke’s contemporary romance, set in New York City, continues to inspire Jane’s Regency novels, written as Maya Rodale, about Regency wallflowers who find true love. The heroines are split into three characters for the Regency book but the contemporary novels stay focused on Jane and Duke and their up and down relationship as Duke launches a new tech start up and Jane becomes a bestselling romance writer. The eventual “outing” of her pen name becomes an especially important plot point: Jane’s risqué career writing sexy books has the potential to unnerve the very investors Duke wanted his engagement to mollify. The series goes on to tackle a few surprising real life concerns—such as a major blackout in New York City that evokes Hurricane Sandy and a sexual assault by an ex-boyfriend. Most of all six books employ standard romance conventions: for example, the hero gets to beat up the offending ex-boyfriend even though tech entrepreneurs have not been known for their machismo, Jane is quite the beauty despite being herself a wallflower until she meets Duke…. The cleverness of the meta fiction – that Jane is writing the three Regency novels as Maya Rodale while Maya Rodale writes books about Jane writing them as Maya—isn’t reflected in the novels themselves, which are good but in no other way surprising.

Why then go to all this trouble? The answer probably lies with Jane Austen, the author behind all these authors, who eventually enters these texts herself when Jane and Duke finally marry in the final installment of the series, an anthology called At The Billionaire’s Wedding that invited several other romance novelists to write short stories about couples finding love at the aristocratic stately home where Jane insists on having her fantasy wedding. Rodale wrote the framing first and last stories for the anthology and included characters (including several English aristocrats) descended from characters in her other historical romances. (Are you following all this?) The wedding allows the contemporary and Regency worlds to meet – and in fact one of the plot devices to unify all the separate stories is of an internet failure at the mansion that requires the wedding guests to be device-free for the week of festivities. In effect they get to “play” at living within a Regency romance: with its house parties and hunting, its rakes and debutantes, its architectural and sartorial details. Just as Regency romance readers and writers—from Austen through Georgette Heyer—have done.

The ironies unfold like windows within windows, and irony itself has been a hallmark of the genre since Austen, who set many of these conventions and formulas in motion. What the world outside of romance novels sees as implausible or formulaic, romance readers tend to understand as ironic. The plain young women who blossoms when the hero notices her? The bad boy hero plagued by demons who is redeemed by the love of a good woman? These characters and plots were no more plausible for Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester than for Jane Sparks and Duke Austen. Rodale’s contribution is to make that irony even more self conscious, to heighten the level of artifice so we never forget that these are fictional worlds and characters. Meta-romance solves a problem for a genre that has often been accused of being silly (since George Eliot’s “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” ) or simple (like Fifty Shades of Grey): it boldly claims that we romance readers and writers know what we are doing and we are doing it on purpose. That won’t answers questions about quality—the stories in At the Billionaire's Wedding are  uneven—but it should at least confirm that romance writers and readers, like their heroes and heroines, are much more complicated than they at first appear.