A glossary of the paperback romance?
Some people read romance novels while soaking in a hot bubble bath. Some read them at the beach; some while waiting for their pedicures to dry. I prefer to read them while wearing sweatpants, drinking white wine, and crying. But the writer Sally Alatalo has a way of reading them that is equally good as any of these: dividing the novel into its component words, grouping the total instances of every word together, and arranging them in alphabetical order.
Legendary, lexical, loquacious love
This method lies behind the intriguing art book Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love, which Alatalo published with Sara Ranchouse Publishing in 1996. Three hundred and forty-three pages long, bound in a paperback cover featuring a dark-haired man and a swooning woman, the book started out as an actual supermarket romance before Alatalo purchased it, rearranged the words, and published the newly edited text as a critical work in its own right. A blurb on the cover reads, in lacy writing, ‘An Adult Romance for the Post-Structuralist Woman’.
Here is what I learned while reading the book from front to back. The original narrative may have taken place on a boat; at least, that is what I guess from the fact that the word aboard appears sixteen times. (The majority of words seem to appear just once or a few times, as Zipf’s Law would suggest.) England appears, as does Australia. The word murder, and variations on it, take up three quarters of a page. The word please occurs as often as variations on the word possessed.
The word Anastasia takes up almost five pages. (She must be the heroine.) Lucas has a little more than one page. (He must be the hero.) Charlotte has almost one page. (She must be the rival.) Less often, the names Peter, Germaine, Vanessa, and Veronica appear. Darcourt, which is presumably a surname, takes up almost a page. Possibly relatedly, demon appears a surprising amount, including in capitalized versions. (I imagine a Byronic hero: the demon Darcourt.)
The reader finds half a page of eyes; almost half a page each for face, voice, and hair; and a quarter of a page for breasts. Seven and a quarter pages go to the word her, one and a quarter pages to him, and (to me this seems objectifying) two and a half pages for his.
More information: no has half a page; never half a page; not two pages; and yes just a quarter of a page. You has two pages; me three-quarters of a page.
Suggestive facts: the word against has almost a full page. Do occurs one and a half times more often than don’t. God and good appear for about a sixth of a page each, one imagines not entirely as a trace of moral discourse (especially since bad has only five instances). Me occurs more often than I.
What I learned about love
What I learned about love: love is experienced as a form of temporality, and often entails loss: frequently recurring words are after, been, could, did, was, and felt. Love is experienced in the moment, be it transcendent or fleeting—or at least, the word moment occurs more often than one might guess, taking up almost a quarter of a page. Love consumes: the word with has two pages, without a quarter of a page; the words all, ever, every, and everything get a lot of play. Nonetheless, we seek real connection: knew, known, and know each have more instances than kiss or kissing.
I assume that one of the implicit points of Alatalo’s edited work—let’s call it a glossary of the paperback romance—is that every reader will discover a different story. Still, we are all consuming the same lexicon. For my part, I found the lush writing that is presumably the point of reading cheap romances: ‘flung flung flung flung flung flung flung flung flurry flush flush. flush. flushed flushed flushed flushed flushed flushed flushed flushed, flushed, flushing flushing fluster. flustered flutter fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttered fluttering fly flying flying flying flying flying flying foam, foam-crested, foam’. But I also found threads of a darker story, one that seems to give voice to (or mock?) the skeptical reader who holds herself back a little from the plot’s seductions: ‘cushions cushions, cushions, cushions, cushions, custom customers, cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut. cuts cuts cuts cuts, cuts, cutthroats cutting cutting cutting cynical cynical cynical’.