Hey, Harry Malone is here today, talking about metatextuality and the romance novel.
First, thank you to Brynn for having me here. Hello, readers!
Metatextuality and the Romance Novel – Harry K. Malone
I’ve recently been watching The Comeback on HBO, which follows a has-been television actress who was never all that famous anyway in her desperate attempt to return to fame. Played by Lisa Kudrow, Valerie Cherish is annoying and charming at the same time. She concedes to participating in a reality series that will chronicle her efforts to return to the small screen. In the second season, currently airing, Valerie lands a part on an HBO series that is about a series she previously made, where she plays a character, Mallory, who is a version of herself. So we have Lisa playing Valerie playing Mallory, and while there are differences among the three, they are subtle. The series is layered with metatextuality, the ability of a text to reference to another and at the same time call attention to the fact that both are texts (and not real).
I bring up this series because it reminds of me of several of my favorite romance novels. There are many behind-the-scenes stories about actors, but the best ones seem to parallel what’s happening within the film or television show and within the actor’s life. For instance, in the second of Josh Lanyon’s Dark Horse series, White Knight, actor Sean plays the role of Laurie in a film version of Mary Renault’s acclaimed novel The Charioteer. Like Laurie, Sean becomes injured, and his injury forces him to reconcile how badly he wants to be with the man who stirs his passions. Lanyon’s pen name, by the way, just so happens to be the last name of Laurie’s love interest.
The gay romance arc that begins with Suzanne Brockmann’s Hot Target features an actor, Robin, who falls in love with an FBI agent, Jules. During their initial meeting, Robin is playing the role of a gay soldier during WWII (much like Sean playing Laurie) in a film. When Robin becomes attracted to Jules, he’s convinced it’s just his commitment to his character. In later incarnations of their romance, Robin is cast in television series an actor hiding his homosexuality while on downward spiral into drugs and alcohol – a storyline that mirrors Robin’s own life before coming out and finding Jules.
In my first novel, The Hollywood Version, actor Mark plays the role of the little brother in a wealthy family who is desperate for approval. Mark’s character finds that approval from the character of his real-life best friend Zach, whom Mark himself will do anything for. As the friendship between Mark and Zach grows more complicated, so does the business relationship between their characters within the television series – until both Mark and his character are stabbed in the back. (Don’t worry; it’s a romance novel! That’s not the end!)
Romance novels are supposed to be fantasy. We’re supposed to become immersed in the fictional worlds authors create for us and fall in love with the characters. Yet when romance novels make metatextual references, we lose some of that immersion. We’re thinking about the text as a text and the character as a character (also playing another character). So why do we love metatextual stories so much?
What I like about the examples above is the way they use the story of the character being played to heighten our awareness and understanding of the character we’re reading about. By paralleling the lives of the characters we love with the lives of the characters they play in the show-within-the-show, these books make us see the pain, fear, and passion of our beloved characters in more depth. I can’t get enough of these kinds of stories.
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Mark Lawler has always imagined the world as a movie. With his overactive imagination, he can’t help equating life and art. Currently, he’s living the dream: successful actor, beautiful wife, and he works with his best friend, television heartthrob Zach Pericles. The problem is a certain contingent of fans are convinced Mark and Zach are really in love. When a compromising photo of them leaks to the press, Mark’s life spins out of control. The show’s executive producer plans to kill off Mark’s character, and Mark faces unemployment and life as a single man. He turns to Ross Lockhart, an old acquaintance, to help him pick up the pieces. Ross has to be the most frustrating man Mark’s ever known, but he’s levelheaded and wise for his years, and Mark envies the honest life he leads. Maybe Ross can teach Mark a thing or two about finding his own happily ever after.
The script for the third season finale arrived by messenger on a late Tuesday when Mark had the day off. The messenger had to wait at the gate for him to run down the driveway, since no one actually worked at the gatehouse. It had been enough of a compromise to buy property with a wall and a gate. Mark hated how it isolated them from the rest of the world, but after a few curious fans had gone seeking out their old place and posted the address and pictures online, Alex had insisted. Besides, it wasn’t as if their neighbors didn’t all live behind walls too.
It was a great inconvenience in moments like this, though. Mark could have asked the housekeeper or the gardener to get the package from the messenger, but that wasn’t their job. He jogged down the long stone driveway and greeted the guy from behind the iron bars of the gate.
“Sorry about the wait,” he apologized.
The messenger was half-in, half-out of his car. He gaped. “You’re Mark Lawler.”
“I hope so, or you’re not very good at making deliveries.”
The messenger continued to stare. “Usually these just go to agents or offices.”
Mark was becoming quite accustomed to dealing with starstruck fans. He reached through the bars to pull the script gently out of the guy’s hands. “Yeah, thanks for coming all the way here. Do you need me to sign something?”
Mark grinned. “I meant like a delivery record, but you can have an autograph if you want.”
The guy fumbled around inside his car for a scrap of paper. “Um, can you write it to Katie? That’s my sister. She loves your show.”
“Sure.” He pressed the paper against the stone column lining the gate and scribbled out Hi Katie! Thanks for watching, Mark Lawler in the messy, loopy handwriting he had developed as a result of signing so many autographs. Then he foisted the slip back through the bars. “Thanks again, man.” He waved and jogged back up the drive.
He devoured the script, eager to see how the writers had resolved the narrative arc. This season was the first that his character and Zach’s had worked closely together. It was the result of all the buzz their chemistry had generated. A new plotline reimagined Mark’s character from the loyal son of the patriarch-CEO to a kind of Oedipus who, together with Zach the outsider, schemed to take over the family business. It had been fun playing a good guy gone bad, and it had given him and Zach more time on the set together. But they didn’t know yet if they were going to be successful at taking down Mark’s fictional father.
He got to the final page and couldn’t wait to talk about it. He pulled his cell phone off its charger in the office and called Zach.
“Did you read it?”
“Haven’t had a chance yet. You?”
“I just finished.” Mark was practically bursting. “Hostile takeover, man. We end in the boardroom, telling the staff we’re the new bosses.”
“Oh, that’s gonna be awesome!” Zach agreed. “Wait, what about Julie?”
Julie Rivers played Hannah, Mark’s sister and Zach’s unsuspecting love interest. Zach had once told him that he’d asked the producers if they could abandon that storyline, but apparently the show needed more sexual spice.
Mark hated to deliver the bad news. “You seduce her the night before.”
“Seriously? Those vultures will do anything to get my shirt off!”
“You have a nice chest.” Mark’s chest was actually better, but it was important to stroke Zach’s ego in times of crisis.
“It’s bullshit. I should get extra pay every time I have to do a love scene. I’m going to have David put it in my contract for next season. I fucking hate love scenes.”
“Yeah, I know,” Mark soothed. As much as people liked watching simulated sex on television, it was a bitch to film. Awkward for pretty much everyone involved, with more mechanical choreography than passion. Mark was lucky that his role as the youngest son hadn’t included any love scenes yet, but he had done his share of taking it off for the camera in previous roles—where he’d been cast almost exclusively as a love interest. And before he started landing parts, he’d worked as a model and done things that would have made his mother blush if she’d ever seen the pictures.
“You know what they ought to do?” Zach continued. “If they really want to show Colby using Hannah, they should have them go at it right on the conference table in the boardroom.”
Mark wrinkled his nose. He had a lot of scenes at that table, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of Zach having even fake sex there. “Gross. I still think your character has a gay name.”
“Means something about darkness,” Zach reminded him. They’d had this conversation a number of times. “I still think we’re one love scene away from being a soap opera.”
“If we were a soap opera, we’d have ten times as many episodes a year.”
“Awesome, then I could demand ten times the pay.”
“You already make more than me,” Mark reminded them both. It was a sore point, something he wished he’d never found out. He still hadn’t told Alex.
“Yeah, listen, that one PA with the tats is looking at me.”
“Summoning you back?”
“Guess so. I’ll call you later after I read it?”
After they hung up, Mark felt some of his initial excitement dulled. He felt bad for not realizing that Zach wouldn’t have been as excited about the script. Still, the big scene with the two of them finally taking over the company—that was dream material. No doubt the fourth season premiere would have them being stripped of power, but for the entire summer their fans would be talking about how awesome they were. They’d probably even be the focus of the blurb in the 2010 fall preview issue of TV Guide.
Later, when Alex got home, she asked if he’d gotten the script. He told her about Zach and Julie’s love scene, and she made a face of disgust. “Nobody wants to see that storyline continue,” she insisted. When he told her about Colby and Christian’s big takeover, Alex’s only response was to ask if he’d negotiated a raise in case they were renewed.
About the Author
One of those “indoor kids” (kind of like “indoor cats”), Harry K. Malone spent hours as a child writing stories about unconventional families and relationships. He didn’t know why at the time, though looking back, it’s pretty obvious. Now, thankfully, Harry can channel all that energy into writing male/male romance novels. Harry lives in Chicago and is happily a part of its thriving LGBT community.
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