A Defense of Romance from an Unlikely Venue
This headline caught my eye as it made the rounds last week: Google Is Feeding Romance Novels To Its Artificial Intelligence Engine To Make Its Products More Conversational. The TL;DR version of the story is that Big G has scanned thousands of romance novels into an artificial intelligence engine in an effort to make it sound more human. And it’s worked, according to researchers heading the project. The AI engine is achieving a more conversational voice, one with “a more varied tone, or style, or register.” Pat yourself on your collective back, romance authors! Google must have noticed how hard you all work to make characters sound like real, live human beings, right?
Not so much.
Why did the project use romance novels? Because all romance books apparently have the same plot, making them easier to digest by the AI. “Girl falls in love with boy, boy falls in love with a different girl. Romance tragedy,” as one researcher put it. In fact, that same researcher went so far as to brag that their AI could one day “theoretically” write its own romance novel, a boast that hits uncomfortably close to home given the latest Amazon Kindle Unlimited shenanigans.
Putting aside this heternormative and entirely inaccurate take on the characters of All Romance Novels Ever, it could be convincingly argued that Romance—note the big R there—is the most rule-bound of fiction genres today. After all, the first and most difficult rule to break in Romance is thou shalt have a happy ending (take that, random Google dude). Moreover, the genre has been dominated in decades past by publishers like Harlequin, who snared generations of devoted fans by propagating books that hewed very closely to a sprawling set of guidelines. Romeo & Juliet, that Shakespearian romantic ideal, would not actually qualify as a Romance in today’s marketplace, thanks to its tragic ending. That’s not a knock to ole Willy, it’s just the power of modern Romance readers voting with their dollars.
Writers outside the genre often malign Romance as formulaic for these reasons, but perhaps such writers just aren't creative enough to work within the “confines” of Romance readers’ expectations. After all, even a cursory glance at such Contemporary Romance successes as The Siren and Wallbanger reveals an astonishing range in content, tone, and plot within a supposedly uniform subgenre. Moreover, every modern fiction genre has its own set of guidelines that evolve over decades and are constantly in flux (the less-maligned Crime Fiction genre, for example). Far from being a burden, these genre conventions are a powerful scaffold on which to build nuanced stories with vivid, original characters and deeply engrossing plots—all rooted in storytelling styles that are time-tested and reader-approved in terms of pacing, readability, and accessibility.
Ah, but there’s the rub: the word “accessibility” is a dirty one in more rarefied circles, one that evokes teeming masses of illiterates scrambling for dross. No, the author is supposed to be a fount of timeless wisdom that reveals precious insight into the human soul. Toiling away in obscurity, the author should reject anything that isn’t shocking, iconoclastic, or deep. The author’s goal should be to dazzle, to argue, to educate. Commercial success without critical praise must indicate a distasteful lack of sophistication, right?
Again, not so much.
Oh sure, there’s always going to be a special place in my heart for that literary amuse-bouche Bartleby, the Scrivener, but there’s nothing wrong with a nice steak grilled to uncomplicated perfection. If your goal is a Nobel Prize in literature, good luck to you. But the goal of most genre fiction authors, when stripped down to its core, is simple: to entertain. And though it be a humble goal, it is nonetheless an important one. Don’t believe me? Just ask Diana Gabaldon how important entertainment can be when real life epically sucks.
It’s hard not to take this latest news from Google as a personal slight to Romance fans and authors everywhere. However unintended, their reported reasons for choosing Romance over other genres—simple plots that endlessly repeat—has the side effect of implying that the readers of these books are simple dolts with narrow tastes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Romance readers are voracious, loyal, and more diverse than you might expect. Moreover, Romance writers aren’t just purveyors of Mommy Porn. They’re at the forefront of a revolution in self-publishing, upending rules about content creation and distribution that have been in place since the invention of the printing press. They’re savvy businesspeople creating their own brands and breaking cultural barriers. They’re also fearless, irreverent, and cutting-edge users of social media.
But I will give Big G a pass on this one because their experiment worked—Romance novels made their AI more human. I just challenge their interpretation of the data. Romance novelists are badasses at sounding human, at creating effortlessly plausible fictional worlds, and at crafting words that are an accurate, timely representation of a language that moves so fast even Google can’t keep up.