A New Approach to Studying Romance?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 11 January, 2020

In "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series," Evie Kendal writes that

The purpose of this article is to examine J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series purely from a narratological perspective, exploring how Ward’s narrative technique serves to satisfy the conventions of the romance formula while also yielding an original and engaging story. The primary area of interest in this article is Ward’s use of narrative voice, particularly her extensive use of free indirect discourse [which is later referred to as FID], and the impact this has on the formula romance plot. (20)

According to narratologist Michael Toolan, FID (also known as narrated monologue) denotes the point where “the narration is no longer detached and external: it adopts the character’s viewpoint.” (22)

and

Julie Choi describes FID as “the effect created by the translation of what ‘sounds’ like first-person or direct discourse, in the present of ‘speech’ or ‘thought’, into the third-person past of the narrative.” Unlike external narration, such as “The man waited at the bus stop,” in which the perspective provided comes from outside, FID is described by Schuelke as a “slipping” into the character’s own words, for the purpose of providing an insight into that character’s personal perspective or consciousness. However, while FID may present the illusion of direct communication between the character and the reader, the narrator is still mediating the exchange. (25)

Thus,

According to Robert Miles, characters “constructed” through FID possess the illusion of being independent agents—an illusion Ward actively promotes for the Brothers through her website and online message-boards. (32)

FID

also has the additional benefit in romance literature of allowing the reader to experience the misunderstandings between the love interests as they occur. FID allows the reader to occupy a privileged space in which they know more than the characters, especially when the characters’ misapprehensions colour their perception of narrated events. (32)

At other times, however,

FID can shift between providing dramatic irony in a romance, and actually involving the reader in the misunderstandings of the plot through unreliable narration. (33)

Furthermore,

the level of characterisation achieved through the use of FID removes any potential ambiguity, lending authority to the genuineness of the transformations of her major love interests. The reader can therefore successfully interpret the signs of change in each character, based on a thorough knowledge of that character’s inner thoughts and feelings, in addition to making intuitive leaps based on accumulated knowledge of the romance form and the rules that govern the fictional world in which it is created. (36)

What I find problematic about this essay is not the main argument but the way it's framed. Kendal argues that "romance criticism need not be limited, as it has been in the past, to gender and reception studies, but can also engage with the narrative techniques involved in the production of the romance novel as text" (39). The problem with this is that romance criticism has not been "limited to gender and reception studies." Kendal seems to believe she is doing "pioneering work" (40) by pointing romance scholarship in an entirely new direction:

there is a definite gap in the scholarship concerning the precise nature of romance novels as text. Radway herself accounts for this gap by claiming there is a “common assumption that because romances are formulaic and therefore essentially identical, analysis of a randomly chosen sample will reveal the meaning unfailingly communicated by every example of the genre.” (21)

Admittedly Kendal's work is new: I'm pretty sure no-one's looked at FID in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series before. But quite a lot of work has been done since Janice Radway wrote the article quoted here (it's from 1983). Given that Kendal quotes from New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (2012), I'm not sure why she couldn't have quoted from its introduction, which gives a more recent overview of the field and of different types of approaches to it. It's also noticeable that Kendal does not cite Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2007) despite giving a list of elements common to all romances. And, given that Kendal wishes to "demonstrate [...] that formulaic literature can generate narrative complexity, and that romance novels do warrant literary analysis as individual texts" (21), it seems a pity that she did not refer to the 2011 article in which Regis states that "We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly."

Since Kendal ends with some suggestions for further research, I'll offer one too, jumping off from Kendal's statement that

Ward’s series [...] has the potential to expand current knowledge of the nature of formulaic literature, and the nuanced narrative techniques that can be involved in creating a work of popular romance. (39)

This made my mind turn to guides to writing romance. I know Dirk de Geest and An Goris did some work on them, and it might be interesting to find out whether such guides make similar points to Kendal's about FID; I'm pretty sure they have quite a bit to say about characterization and writing dialogues, monologues and narration.

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Kendal, Evie. "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood Series." Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique 38 (2019): 20–43. https://doi.org/10.26180/5df1974e1cb20

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