Language matters. It should and does and ought to matter to romance.
One element that sometimes gets left out of the conversation about what makes a romance work is the relative thickness of language. Though readers of the genre often talk about the strength of characters, plot, chemistry, &c., I think we tend to talk a bit less about prose style unless it's so egregious as to be unreadable. I realize that many will see this as a rather silly complaint. What matters style so long as the story can be understood? And yet this too marks an implicit preference--transparency--prose that doesn't call attention to itself--is a stylistic choice, even as lush, dense figurative language is. That is, there seem to me two general tendencies in romance writing--one that trends towards a smooth, unobtrusive efficiency, rather like classical Hollywood cinema editing--and one that is marked by a conspicuous texture wherein the language becomes another sensual element of the story.
Neither register is better than the other--it's really a question of materials and predilection. Some work in glass, others in marble. Those of the Glass School tend to espouse values like clarity, utility, restraint, and speed. These are the writers who are primarily interested in function, how to advance the story in the most economical and unostentatious manner. They make us windows to peer out of and doors to walk through. Those of the Marble School seem to value, on the other hand, density, novelty, tactility, lyricism, and ornament. They make us sculptures of rare color and contrast, polished here or roughened there, designed to invite our touch. It's possible to do either style well or badly. Low Glass School writing shades into flat, simplistic caricature--it may be evidence of a writer not fully in command of her technique. High Marble School writing is, of course, purple prose--the love-pummeling-dew-shaft-glitter-petal stuff about which readers and writers of romance have had to cultivate a sense of humor, purely in self-defense! Few writers, of course, are entirely of one school or the other but most tend to pull towards one end of the long continuum between Glass and Marble. (At a guess, I would say Historical romance brings out the best in the Marble School while Contemporaries of all kinds seem to showcase those with Glass talents.)
At its best, a genre romance is an extremely subtle and effective case of mutual seduction--not merely between the protagonists--but between author and reader. The mind of the one should always be in love with the mind of the other. As a reader, I want to be seduced--deftly, attentively, irrevocably. I want to be seduced by words. I want this book right here to spoil me for all other books--at least until the next one. It is not so difficult for a book to make it into bed with me but for it to stay there (in easy reach on the nightstand--what did you think I meant?) the language in it must be an intoxicant of the highest order. I want rich, glimmering opiates laced with dreamstuff. I want it to feel like drowning, like kissing, like gasping for air. I want it to feel like waking up after having been asleep for a hundred years. I have a lot of unreasonable expectations.
I have a weakness for marble. I confess it. I have been known, after reading some books, to gnash my teeth with indignation and exclaim things like "Betrayal! Travesty! Woe! Not a single decent simile in the whole thing!" (One implication of this preference is that I tend to enjoy Historicals, as much because they seem to offer a good canvas for this kind of writing as for appeal of the setting.) But the books that are most likely to enjoy a long-term arrangement with me are what I think of as Marble books with a Glass heart. That is, the language demands that you notice it but does so with such persuasion, such witty, dangerous virtuosity that it practically becomes a character in itself--a phantom lover. These books will be luscious with metaphor and detail--language lousy with sound, weight, and motion--but, at the same time, all that bountiful verbiage will enhance rather than detract from elements like character, conflict, and structure (the clarity of these features being a traditional Glass School value). The overall effect will be a kind of lucid complexity, a brocaded (even a fantastical!) Marble surface articulated over the clean, economical structure of Glass bones, the steady beating of a Glass heart.
This balance is a rare, fragile thing and all the more astonishing for that. There's almost a kind of physical shock when you recognize it--an actual frisson that shivers through the reading body (Organic form emerging from the rock, Galatea stepping into Pygmalion's arms, that kind of thing.). Those more established writers of romance who have, I think, come near to achieving this fine equilibrium are Patricia Gaffney, Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas, Laura Kinsale, and Connie Brockway. Among more recent arrivals, I've been consistently swooned out over authors like Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas. Future posts will look at some (or all?) of these authors in more detail, surveying their books from a stylistic perspective with particular attention to the way registers of language work. Why do these books sound the way they sound? Why do they do the things they do? What is the source of our pleasure in those things? Is there life on Mars?