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Tropical Paradise

Tropes have historically been an essential unit of narrative storytelling, and more lately, evidence for fandom’s creep into published fiction. Mitch Therieau dissects what the trope reveals about the means of literary production.

In a 2022 interview, the pseudonymous romance author Ali Hazelwood gave a candid account of her writing process:

“I was mostly a fan fiction writer before, so Love on the Brain, in many ways, is the first book that I’ve ever written from scratch. I kind of didn’t even know where to start, and my agent guided me a lot. She was like, I would love to read an academic rivals-to-lovers story, and then she was like, I’d love it if maybe these rivals are communicating but they don’t know that they’re communicating. She gave me a bunch of tropes that she wanted me to build the story around, which was really, really helpful because I am very indecisive and had no idea what I was doing.”

The interview caused outrage among literary types online, not least because of Hazelwood’s honesty about what could be called the derivative nature of her writing. Her first novel, The Love Hypothesis (2021) was an adapted piece of fan fiction; in its original form, it featured the Star Wars characters Rey and Kylo Ren, transposed from a galaxy far, far away to a biology lab at an unnamed university. The final, published version gave the characters new, non-IP names and the university a brand name – Stanford – but kept most everything else about them the same. The representations of the characters on the book’s cover clearly depict Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, who played the respective characters in the Star Wars sequels, and the promotional copy is full of winking references to the movies. To drive it all home, the love interest’s name is – yes – Adam.

This phenomenon of fandom creep is in part a function of an authorial trajectory, increasingly common in Young Adult and genre fiction, from unpaid fan-fiction writer to published author. At least since the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (2011), the paradigmatic fan-fiction-with-the-labels-scrubbed-off literary franchise, agents have trawled fan-fiction websites for talent. Still more surprising to many, though, was Hazelwood’s open admission that her second novel, Love on the Brain (2022) was composed not in an effort to follow some original tendril of inspiration, but rather in close consultation with a literary agent – those figures who, as Laura McGrath has recently argued, read the prevailing winds of the market and help authors shape their books to catch them.

But perhaps most exotic to those who don’t spend much time with romance and other genre fiction, or else lurking in their associated online fan communities, was that what Hazelwood’s agent gave her was not characters, setting or even plot, but tropes: modular and combinable units of meaning. The author’s role in this process is less to conceive and write a story than it is to assemble these readymade units – or, to use different terms, to curate a maximally pleasant reading experience.

This conception of the novel as an assemblage of tropes is in a way the negative image of something older: the modernist idea of the literary work as an accumulation of fragments, the bare wreckage of everyday life piled up without consolation or closure. This modernist vision lives on in an especially diluted (or concentrated) form in hyper-fragmentary novels like Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021) and Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), both of which present their disjointed form in part as an effect of the internet. As they flit between manic gags and barrages of dismaying information, they become something like the literary equivalent of doomscrolling. Still, these literary-fiction authors seem to see themselves not as curators or re-combiners but as channelers of an overwhelming spirit: distillers of the feelings, at turns crushing and numbing, associated with online life.

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In contrast to modernist fragmentation, there is apparently big money in curating and recombining tropes. A glut of recent instructional books with titles like The Trope Thesaurus (2021) and The Tropoholic’s Guide to Backstory Romance Tropes (2024) promise to unlock the storytelling power of tropes for aspiring authors. One book-marketing consultant, a self-styled “Kindlepreneur”, even claims to be able to determine how potentially lucrative a given trope is in the literary marketplace. (His methodology seems dubious – the sample is undefined, and it is unclear how you would compute monthly earnings for traditionally published books, for which the author usually receives an advance, against which sales are counted.) The Kindlepreneur is surely right about one thing, though: tropes play an increasingly important role in the marketing and writing of romance and other genre fiction. As one concerned poster on the r/YAlit subreddit observed two years ago: “So I am starting to notice that some book descriptions on Goodreads/Amazon are starting to list the tropes that are found within a book. There weren’t many, but a few do exist, and I have mixed feelings about them.” Tracing the history and stakes of these developments, as well as trying to disentangle some of these mixed feelings that linger where there are tropes: these are worthy tasks for literary criticism in the present.




From one perspective, tropes belong to a distinctly unhip chapter in the history of literary criticism: the archetypal criticism practiced by the likes of Northrop Frye around the midcentury. The project of this criticism was something like a search for the key to all mythologies, the set of codes that would make the entire body of literature analysable according to a set of “scientific” standards. As in other systematising efforts across disciplines in the postwar years, this new type of criticism tried to isolate the most elementary units in its objects of study. Frye’s term for this basic unit was archetype; in his hands, the term presented an evolutionary view of culture. Archetypes were supposed to be the original cells of stories, which over time entered into relationships with other cells, proliferating into an endless field of variants, all of which are traceable back to their shared ancestors.

While archetypal criticism has largely fallen out of favour in literature departments, it persists on online, where nothing is allowed to die, in spaces dedicated to fandom and other modes of vernacular media criticism. The most prominent torch-bearer of something like the archetypal method today is doubtlessly TV Tropes, a wiki website created in 2004. There, anonymous users collaborate in an effort to isolate and inventory the most basic, indivisible elements of stories across media – an encyclopedic project arguably more ambitious than anything any midcentury literary critic ever attempted. In the words of science fiction author Bruce Sterling, TV Tropes is “like some kind of massive, sustained explosion in the Henry Jenkins Convergence Culture Industry.” In his 2006 book by the same name, Jenkins heralds the coming of a “convergence culture,” or a digital culture reshaped by “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.” This culture, the claim went, would be fundamentally “participatory,” breaking down the previously rigid division between producers and consumers that persisted in mainstream print and broadcast media and leaving a more or less undifferentiated field of “participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands.”

Whatever one thinks about Jenkins’s rosy vision of convergence culture – we will check back in on convergence’s fate later – it is true that the internet offered new possibilities for participation in the domains of literary production and reception. Fan fiction, the subject of an earlier book by Jenkins, took particular advantage of these possibilities. It was here that the sense of trope as “a convention…  a pattern in storytelling,” as TV Tropes defines its fundamental unit, was solidified. (The OED records the first use of the word in this sense in 1975, an almost unbelievably late date, long after the heyday of archetypal criticism in English departments, and well into the historical trajectory of fan fiction.) On digital publishing platforms like Archive of Our Own, tropes inflect the underpinning logic of a metadata tagging system that would come to exert a powerful influence over the reading and writing practices of a vast cohort of fans. Created in 2008, AO3, as the website is popularly known, describes itself as “a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting site for transformative fanworks such as fanfiction” built on “open-source archiving software designed and built by and for fans.” AO3 is part of a vast digital-literary ecosystem dedicated to the cultivation of what Aarthi Vadde has aptly called “amateur creativity” – a site where thousands of unpaid writers post serialised fictions based on existing works. Hazelwood is only one of many published authors who cut their teeth writing on AO3, and who look back on their fan fiction–writing days as an idyllic time when they could write purely for the love of it, unencumbered and uncompelled by the corrupting forces of commerce.

What makes AO3 relatively unique among fan-fiction platforms, however, is its intricate and sprawling metadata tagging system. This system has two basic components. On one end, writers are prompted to add tags to the stories they post, tags that often indicate the tropes a story contains, whether “Hurt/Comfort,” “Enemies to Lovers,” or “Only One Bed”. On the other end, a group of volunteers work as “tag wranglers,” sifting through user-generated tags and manually associating functionally equivalent tags. From the reader’s perspective, this system represents a significant improvement over more primitive search-and-filter functions, as on the venerable The reader can browse stories within a particular fandom, or they can search by a specific tag. Searches can be refined to include or exclude other proximate tags: yes to “Enemies to Lovers,” no to “Mutual Pining.” For seemingly every fine-grained readerly desire or combination of desires, there is a virtually inexhaustible supply of stories. You do not come to AO3 in search of “a romance“ – you come to AO3 in search of a slow-burn romance with cottagecore vibes, light on the smut, heavy on the yearning. Or, as the case may be, a romance where academic rivals fall in love while communicating without realising they are communicating.

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Over the past few years, a promotional genre has emerged in literary spaces across social media platforms where authors list AO3-style tags for their own published or soon-to-be-published books. These tags are promotional instruments, but they also work to ally professional literary work with the amateur ethos of fan fiction. And yet fan fiction also provides the exact language – and visual language – that allows the published work to circulate successfully in the influencer-dense realms of BookTok and Bookstagram. One variant of this genre, especially popular on Bookstagram, surrounds a book’s cover with a swarm of arrows, each pointing outward toward a trope featured in the book. These images present the book as a container for tropes, ranging from the nearly universal (“defying the will of the fates”) to the hyperparticular (“set in Toronto”). The outward arrows seem significant. The tropes emanate out from the book, which serves as a sort of thin pretext or substrate. Tropes are sociable units. True to the spirit of spin and swerve encoded in their etymology – the word’s oldest meanings have to do with musical embellishments, figurative language, even the transit of celestial bodies –  they want to circulate. They are flexible, solicitous, eager to fulfill readers’ desires, no matter how esoteric.

It is worth lingering on the content of these and other commonly cited tropes. As expected, many have to do with romance. But more significantly, much of the time they do not name themes or motifs so much as they name situations. It does not seem coincidental that so many of these stock situations involve scenes of feminised labor, of service work and carework. The “Hurt/Comfort” trope presents a cheerfully eroticised vision of domestic labour: as Joanna Russ wrote back in the 1980s,

“The nurturance in these tales is like Bette Davis’s resolution in Jezebel (1938) to care for Henry Fonda, who has yellow fever, while she looks heavenward (in a very becoming gown) and the sweetness of a thousand violins swells up on the soundtrack. Nowhere do you see, for example, Fonda vomiting blood or Davis ugly with lack of sleep or resentful of her never-ending, gruelling contact with such romantic objects as [a] full bedpan.”

Indeed, one of the most popular alternate-universe tropes in fan fiction is a “coffee shop AU,” where characters – regardless of the media they originally hail from – meet in a coffee shop, our impoverished idea of public space. Naturally, one character is a worker and the other a customer, and naturally they fall in love. This concept has made its way into traditionally published fiction, most notably with Travis Baldree’s Legends & Lattes (2022), a viral BookTok hit as well as a 2023 Nebula nominee. As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes, for fans of the coffee shop AU, “the same words crop up again and again: ‘comforting,’ ‘warm,’ ‘familiar’”. In this way the coffee shop AU is almost a meta-trope, a self-conscious dramatisation of tropism’s dependence on the familiar and the expected – in TV Tropes’s words, tropes’ status as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” Here the trope’s principle of variability reverses into its dialectical opposite: a promise of the same slop, over and over.

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On a subterranean level, these tropes are the site where fan fiction theorises its relationship to its readers. Fan fiction will solicitously, maybe even sexily, nurse you back to health, and it will serve you a warm cup of feelings. It will project a space of community and belonging. These are distinctly bibliotherapeutic conceptions of the function of the literary work, to invoke a term Sarah Brouillette has recently used in an illuminating essay on the rise of YA fiction. Readers bring these conceptions to their encounters with published fiction, too. The r/YAlit poster, who we heard from earlier, continues: “Actually, in general, I have mixed feelings about GoodReads/Amazon, IG, and Booktok, basing the quality of a book on the tropes over the plot […] While a part of me thinks it’s kinda nice, as I am a mood reader, and it’s nice finding a book that fits what I am in the mood for. A bigger part of me is finding an issue with tropes being included in descriptions and many of the reviews found.” Tropes figure literature as an instrument for self-soothing, promising to induce a series of dependable emotional states.

This is a vision of the literary work as agile, solicitous, and responsive to any number of hyper-specific desires. Within the world of fan fiction, imagined by its alumni who have since gone professional as a utopia of amateur creativity, a site of unbounded possibility free from the market imperatives of the publishing industry, this vision frames the act of writing almost as an act of care; the proverbial “fan service.” And yet it is not hard to see how the publishing industry – not just the shady penumbra of Kindlepreneurs skulking around its edges – would prize these exact qualities. In what we might call our current sclerotic phase of convergence culture, digital entertainment platforms have been gradually replacing longstanding genre systems with increasingly refined classificatory principles: vibes, moods, moments. One goal of these classifications is to predict user desires: my current Spotify “daylist,” an algorithmically generated playlist supposedly based on my listening habits, is called “lonely 90s indie late night.” This is the exact kind of bespoke combination of elements, some stylistic and some emotional, that readers trawl AO3 and its equivalents for. The real convergence is not Jenkins’s vision of media euphorically flowing into one another, but that between vernacular taste and algorithmically conditioned taste.

Or, to put a finer point on it, the convergence of discrete media objects with distinct formal qualities into an indiscriminate gush of content. Such a vision raises, in Mark McGurl’s words, “the spectre not of the commodification of literature, a long-standing fact, but of its commoditisation: the reduction of intellectual property to a less and less profitable – because increasingly interchangeable and widely available – class of generic goods.” What does it matter to me what band delivers my lonely nineties indie late-night vibes, or which author, if it is indeed a human author, provides me with my dark-academia-enemies-to-lovers-to-friends-to-enemies experience? Tropes track and mediate exactly this slide into anonymous indistinction.

The Reddit poster’s intuition is surely right, then: to construe a literary work as so much content is on some level to devalue it. Such a process of devaluation has two faces. One face is that of solicitude and care: that of, as Brouillette writes, “the feminisation of work in the [publishing] industry,” the process by which publishers come to depend more on women’s work just as that work becomes less secure, more gig-ified, often unpaid. The other is its dialectical opposite, the machinic face of automated creativity. Tellingly, TV Tropes features a “Story Generator” where users can piece together tropes into a more or less complete story premise. AI writing services like Sudowrite radicalise this process, promising users the ability to generate whole books from minimal inputs. The trope-cloud graphics, finally, scan like efforts to negotiate this double devaluation. They show us professional authors facing pressures to minimise or dissimulate their own labour by presenting it as truly amateur; not work but an emanation of love. The author presents herself as an unpaid caregiver and a harried barista – but also as a Story Generator, a mere combiner and re-combiner of tropes, which serve as the real literary content, leaking out from the book and dispersing into the digital ether. In a real future utopia, one where culture and the means of its production truly belong to us all, an author would be far more – and far less. ◉