Friday, March 20, 2015

The Fuzzy Set of Romance

In his 1992 book Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery proposes applying the mathematical concept of the "fuzzy set" to the question of what is, and what isn't, a work of fantasy. I've been playing around with the idea of trying this out with romance, but I'd need your help, along with the help of other romance readers.

First, though, a bit of explanation:

In classical set theory (as in many discussions of literary canons), any single element is either in a set, or it is not. Given the set {tall people}, a member is either tall, or not tall:

In terms of fiction, classical set theory might look something like this:

For Fantasy, if {Fantasy = books in which the magic is real}, then
• Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is fantasy
• Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland isn't (because the magic turns out to be only a dream)

In fuzzy set theory, however, a set is not created based on binary boundaries (this is in, this is out), but instead on each member's relationship to a central point. Rather than saying a person is tall, or is not tall, you can talk about degrees of tallness:

In terms of fantasy, Attebery's use of fuzzy set theory looked like this:

Quintessentially fantasy
For fantasy, if Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is our central point, then Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy would be fairly close to the center of the set, while Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might be further. But both Earthsea and Alice are a part of the set "fantasy."

How does one decide what should be the center point of a literary canon fuzzy set? Attebery put together a list of 40 books that he himself thought belonged to the set "fantasy," then polled fellow scholars of fantasy, asking them to rank each book on a 7-point scale:

Fuzzy set fantasy
1 = quintessentially fantasy
2 = basically fantasy
3 = technically fantasy
4 = in some respects fantasy
5 = like fantasy
6 = not really fantasy
7 = by no means fantasy (page 13)

The lower any book's score, Attebery argued, the more central the text. Thus Tolkein, who came in with the lowest score at 1.07, ended up serving as the center of Attebery's fuzzy set for fantasy. Dracula, which scored 1.76, is less of a fantasy than Alice, which scored 1.42; Earthsea, which scored 1.3, is more of a fantasy than either Alice or Dracula.

A cool thing about fuzzy set theory: two members of the same set may have nothing at all in common with one another, as long as they have something in common with the center point of the set. In visual terms, a fuzzy set might look something like this:

I've been wondering about the value of taking a fuzzy set approach to thinking about the romance canon, especially in light of RWA's ever-changing categories of which sub-genres are deserving of awards/recognition, and which aren't. Fuzzy set canon-building appeals to me in particular because it is a reader-based approach, rather than an authority-based one: to discover the center of your genre, you first need to poll actual readers, and get their feedback about what books then regard as central to the romance canon.

In classic set theory (using RWA-defined terms), the rules of canon-building would look something like this:

For romance, if {Romance = central love story with a happy ending}, then
• Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me is romance
• Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind isn't (no happy ending)

• Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened is a romance
• much YA literature is not romance (because YA focuses as much, or more, on individual coming of age than on a central love story)

But in fuzzy set theory (using reader-defined "I know it when I see it" terms), both Gone with the Wind and YA novels with romantic elements could be included in the category "romance." Canon-building might look very different, depending on the group of readers one polled, and the views expressed by that group.

Attebery generated his own list of fantasies that he considered central. I'd like to take a step further back before constructing a romance fuzzy set, and ask readers to help me construct a list of "quintessentially romance" books, a list that I could then use to poll a broader range of romance readers.

This is where you come in, readers. What are the 3-5 books that you would consider "quintessentially romances"? And what are the 3-5 books you'd consider "quintessentially feminist romances"?

I'll compile two lists of responses, then use those lists for further polling.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Illustration credits:
• Tall/short graphs:
• Fuzzy set graph: Information Research


  1. I feel like I'm not really qualified to judge this! But in the Interest of Science and Generation of Data, here goes.

    Quintessential Romances:
    1. Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels
    2. Laura Florand's The Chocolate Kiss
    3. Laura Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm

    (As an aside, I'm slightly disturbed at how similar the first names of authors in that list are.)

    I don't think I can pick out specific books for the top feminist romances so much as specific authors. Victoria Dahl, Julie James, and Courtney Milan consistently write books that are satisfyingly feminist to me; I'm behind on their latest work, but none of what I've read of theirs has failed to satisfy me, and I don't think I could single out something specific as more feminist than the rest. I'll try to think of specific titles by other authors.

  2. Quintessential romance

    1. Beverly Jenkins's Indigo
    2. Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect
    3. Sarah MacLean's One Good Earl Deserves a Lover

    Feminist Romance

    1. Beverly Jenkins' Something Like Love
    2. Courtney Milan's Trade Me

  3. Quintessential romance: anything by Loretta Chase
    Feminist romance: anything by Courtney Milan

    I'm signed in using my Google account; if it doesn't ID me, this is lawless523.

  4. Thanks, you three, for chiming in. Anyone else have thoughts?