Data Mining Harlequin Presents

Jack Elliott uses technology to analyse novels. His methods are therefore extremely different from mine and I find it very interesting to see how new, computer-based methods of analysing novels in bulk can complement more traditional kinds of literary criticism.

Elliott's methods allowed him to study "every Harlequin Presents novel published from 1999 to 2013—all 1,400 digitally available novels" ("Whole" 2) and he found that

authorship is the elemental organizing principle of the genre. This is surprising given the centrifugal forces exerted on authorship, but these—heavy editorial intervention, mini-series that share settings between authors and sub-genres—fail to find traction in the face of this powerful tendency. ("Whole" 2-3)

In other words, even the Presents line, which is perhaps one of the most stylized of all category lines and "constrain[s] authors in terms of setting, genre, and length [...] allows a huge variation in authorial ‘voice’ " ("Whole" 5):

Authorship overwhelms distinctions of editorial control, mini-series, and sub-genre, pulling novels into authorial groups. This validates the behavior of readers who seek out writing by their favourite authors, and the publishing decisions of Harlequin itself; the publisher reissues omnibus works by particular authors. ("Whole" 6)

He was also able to track certain changes chronologically across the line. For example,

Vivanco’s study of Harlequin Presents from 2000 to 2007 identifies two sorts of hero—the ‘primitive’ (Vivanco, 2013, p. 1068), who has to be tamed by the heroine, and another in which the hero ‘is not sexist, a fact which may astonish a heroine who is prepared for him to think and act like the heroes in the first group’ (Vivanco, 2013, pp. 1073–4). Intriguingly, the primitive hero who must be tamed is more likely to be associated with rage, contempt or cynicism—all flagged by modules that decline in importance from 2004 onwards. It seems that Vivanco’s primitives have reached their zenith and contemporary Harlequin Presents novels are more likely to be of the second category. ("Whole" 9)

He suggests that changes such as this reflect Harlequin's response when

a financial shock impacts Harlequin’s bottom line. At that point, the publisher alters the content of the novels by retasking some authors and redeploying others. ("Whole" 10).

Presumably with regards to hero types, in 2004 when there was such a "financial shock", "which caused Harlequin’s management team to ‘reinvigorate our series romances’" ("Whole" 3), Harlequin identified "changes in taste" ("Whole" 10) (or, perhaps, was seeking new readers from a different demographic?) and implemented changes in "the content of the novels":

Harlequin’s control is realized through its authors. This control exerts itself even within authorial clusters: most writers demonstrate a division in their pre and post 2004 work. Changes within the genre are not directly driven by external cultural events; the proximate cause of these shifts is poor financial results at Harlequin. ("Whole" 13)

While Elliott's techniques are extremely good at identifying trends, the discussion about Harlequin's responses to financial shocks indicates that technology alone cannot identify the causes of those trends.

In another recently published article, Elliott suggests more than one possible explanation for his finding that

As a typical Harlequin Presents novel progresses, the working vocabulary contracts. This phenomenon, a sort of ‘vocabulary decay’, is driven by either the rapid speed of composition or the popular nature of the genre. Tight economic conditions imposed by Harlequin place a premium on the rapid completion of a novel. In this model, writers make their language less and less unique as they hurry through their novel, jettisoning vocabulary variation as they go. Vocabulary decay may also be a deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace. Words that obscure understanding, or are potentially difficult are metered down by the author as they seek to keep their readership engaged. ("Vocabulary" 2)

My feeling is that "vocabulary decay" sounds rather pejorative and suggests that authors' attention to detail and word-choice declines as they rush through their writing to reach their deadline.

I'd favour the interpretation of the findings which gives more credit to authors' artistry. What I'd suggest is that it has something to do with a factor Elliott himself mentions: a tendency to set the scene at the beginning of the novels. Once the characters and their setting are firmly fixed in the readers' minds, however, I suspect that the novel focuses ever more closely on the protagonists' emotions as part of a "deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace" and keep a reader turning the pages all the way to the end. These are, after all, short novels and, as Presents author Kate Walker has written, it is essential that each of them "grabs the reader and holds them with that vital PTQ  - Page Turning Quality" (1); "Pace is vital to reader interest and to the PTQ that you are trying to create" (134).

My impression is that PTQ created by a narrowing of the focus onto the romance's emotional core is particularly common in the Presents line. That's not to say that other lines don't have PTQ or that they don't focus on emotions, but I think it may be created in different ways and to different extents in other lines. For example, in a medical romance, some of the suspense may be created by patients' medical issues, in romantic suspense it'll be provided in large part by a mystery which needs to be solved. Some lines, such as the longer Superromances and Historicals often proceed at a more leisurely pace. I'd be intrigued to know if they, too, experience "vocabulary decay" and, if so, whether they do so to a lesser extent than the Presents.

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Elliott, Jack. “Vocabulary Decay in Category Romance”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published December 8, 2014.

Elliott, Jack. “Whole Genre Sequencing”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published September 3, 2015.

Walker, Kate. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008.