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Courting Respectability


Will Romance ever come to terms with its marginalization by the mainstream literary establishment?

Yeah, I know many readers claim they just don’t care, or think literary fiction is overrated pretentious crap, or scoff at popular fiction authors who talk about the need to promote female authors, while still seeming to ignore the largest segment of them who are writing romantic fiction. But for all that bravado (and I do believe that there are readers and authors who really and truly don’t care), I also think there’s a deep vein of defensiveness in the genre community that comes from years and years (centuries, really) of denigrating, dismissive attitudes toward fiction penned by women and focused on romantic love and sex.

And who can blame us for that? It’s frustrating to have people with absolutely no experience actually reading Romance believing they have the cultural authority to pronounce it unworthy (while quite possibly, in the meantime, gobbling up rom com films like M&M’s). I know that some of my friends find my appreciation of the genre deeply curious. And while I used to think that if they only read some of the best books the genre has to offer, they’d get it, I also realize that becoming a Romance reader requires undertaking a paradigm shift to the devices, language, and tropes that are typical of the genre, and that takes time and investment. So now I mostly don’t bother.

We even see it from within. For example, Megan Mulry is one of the latest authors to struggle with the implications of reading and writing romantic fiction:

I’m pretty sure I used to sit at the Smart Table. I was a magazine editor. I knew the difference between my Woolf and my Wolfe (and the other Wolfe). As my dad would have said, I had the advantages. Poor Dad. All that time and effort spent on my education and I go and write a bunch of twaddle about relationships and sex and why the contemporary woman is in a perpetual state of feeling like one of those Chinese plate-spinners.

Mulry palpably struggles with her own appreciation for Romance:

Around that time, a kind friend gave me a couple of romance novels. The little bag sat accusingly on my front hall bench for a couple of weeks, and I finally realized I was a terrible literary snob. The least I could do was skim one or two of the books. Insert LOL here. More like one or two…thousand. I was hooked. I used all sorts of internal-rationalizations to allow myself this new addiction: Julia Quinn went to Harvard! Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor! But eventually I just copped to it: I love romance novels.

And even when she seems to come to terms with her own love of the genre, there is still a conditional acceptance for the idea that Romance has literary value: “I now realize they are great books in their way” [emphasis mine].

I don’t believe that it’s Mulry’s intent to denigrate Romance or to contribute in any way to its literary marginalization. But her ambivalence about actually being a Romance fan and author still permeates her prose, and I think it reflects the broader conflict that Romance always seems to be caught in: it’s the most financially profitable and powerful genre, but the least respected. Indeed, many of those “I’ll laugh all the way to the bank” comments seem to confirm the idea that it’s always going to be a choice between respect and profit.

In theory, that’s a false dichotomy. In practice, though, there are ways in which the genre is marketed to its readers (covers and titles, for example) that might be said to undermine an earnest bid for literary respectability. What currently makes books recognizable to us as Romance (the clinch cover, the stereotypically sexy or outrageous title), may read as “trashy” to those who have never read Romance. Not to mention the broader questions about whether Romance should be shooting for broader recognition as a valid literary genre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that even genre readers have been conditioned to see romantic fiction as good ‘in its way,’ regarding excellence as an internal measure, not as a scale on which a Romance could compete with a work of literary fiction or another genre book. And it is true that we read different kinds of books for different kinds of experiences. Still, the persistent devaluation of emotion, especially woman-centric emotion, has, I think, infiltrated the Romance community, resulting in those phrases like it’s just entertainment or it’s just a fantasy/escape. As if these elements are not common to all genres and all experiences of reading fiction.

Another issue, though, is the lack of a widely respected award for outstanding romantic fiction, despite the longevity and size of RWA’s RITA competition. Even as a Romance reader I don’t pay much heed to that RITA stamp on a book, because while the competition has certainly recognized many outstanding books and authors, there have been enough misses for me that I don’t trust it to be a consistent measure of excellence in the genre as I would define it.

Still, when RWA recently decided — apparently pursuant to the recommendations of an external consultant – to change the guidelines for both the RITA and the Golden Heart (for unpublished manuscripts), the move provoked larger discussions about the the RITA’s status inside and outside the genre, as well as questions about RWA’s broader goals as the genre’s most recognized professional organization. Two of the most notable changes are the elimination of the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category and a scoring rubric that potentially awards the “romance” element twice as many points as any other category.

Unlike many other genre fiction awards (e.g. the Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar) the RITA does not seem to have much mainstream traction in bringing new readers to the genre. In other words, it does not have a broad prestige factor that characterizes other awards. And in changing the RITA in these ways, RWA seems to be narrowing the award even further to have a pure Romance focus. Some have lauded this move as purposeful branding, while others have criticized it, especially for the exclusion of the NSRE.  As Lauren Willig said:

Those SRE books have the power to be the gateway drug by which readers who claim they don’t and won’t read romance are drawn into the field. It’s a short hop from women’s fiction to contemporary romance, from Karen White to SEP, or from historical mystery to historical romance, from Deanna Raybourn to Meredith Duran. By closing off this category, by telling these authors that what they’re writing doesn’t count as romance, we’re also sending a message to their readers and creating barriers that don’t need to exist.

Deanna Raybourn noted:

For those of us who write cross-genre books, we can gather readers from lots of different places, but fitting into the communities can be challenging. We aren’t just historical novels; we aren’t quite mysteries. We weren’t entirely romances either, but that was the community that never seemed to mind. They welcomed us anyway, with a generosity of spirit that embodied what is best about romance writers. They understood that our books might be shelved with general fiction, they might be mysteries, but they also were deeply tied to the heart of any romance–the connection between two people.

In other words, by focusing more on “romance” than on “writing,” for example, in the RITA scoring, and by eliminating the NSRE, RWA seems to be privileging the concept of romance over both objective craft elements and crossover readership. In conversations on Twitter, I got the impression that RWA was aiming to increase the prestige of the award, but I don’t really understand that goal in light of the changes. If they wanted to make the RITA more prestigious, wouldn’t the focus be on finding ways to recognize excellence in the genre in a fashion that was more easily translatable to readers outside the genre?

A number of years ago, author Barbara Samuel made a case on Romancing the Blog for why Romance readers should be invested in the RITA. As RtB is no longer extant, but at the time I disagreed with Samuel because I never understood some basic elements of the RITA. Is it aimed at authors recognizing other authors, or at readers? How can a contest, in which authors enter their own books (and at that time it was print only), fully measure excellence across the entirety of a genre? On what basis are books scored and on what basis are categories decided and books identified? As a reader, RITA has always seemed like a peer award to me – entered by authors, judged by authors, presented by authors – which is absolutely valid, but not necessarily relevant to me in the same way.

But here’s the thing: I want an award that recognizes excellence in the genre to matter to me, the reader. I want to be able to point to an example of exemplary Romance and tell my non-reading friends, Look, this book was nominated for/won X award; even though you don’t read Romance, try just this one. I want more mainstream recognition for Romance, not because it’s the most profitable genre, but because there are many, many books that are outstanding as books, not just in their way as Romances. The genre deserves respect, and as much as I admire those who just don’t care, I don’t think it’s wrong to want the creative energy of (primarily) women, focused on the fictional project of romantic love, to be valued artistically, emotionally, and socially. As far as I’m concerned, it’s past time.

Because it’s not just about Romance as a genre. It’s also about (primarily) women writing about the inner lives of other women. It’s about validating books that take as their subject matter the emotional journey to love, even and especially when that love comes in a form that challenges the social status quo (e.g. m/m or f/f Romance). It’s about legitimating the domestic elements of fiction and appreciating the reality that for many people in the world, love was and is still a revolutionary concept (e.g.multiracial/multicultural Romance).

I know that many long-ago gave up on the idea of mainstream acceptance, but I still this it’s possible (and would take nothing away from those who just don’t care whether or not anyone else respects their reading choices). And I do think some kind of Romance-focused organization has a key role to play. When I first started reading the genre, I remember RWA advertising itself as the key interface with the public about Romance. Is that still the case, and if not, why not? I rarely see RWA mentioned beyond coverage of the convention. Do they still produce statistical profiles of the genre and its readers? I know that many authors find the organization valuable, especially their local chapters, but if RWA still considers itself the alleged public face of the genre, I can’t discern what’s been done to promote mainstream recognition of the genre. Who is representing the genre beyond the professional aspirations of authors, and what should that look like?

Part of branding is public relations, and part of public relations is placing and identifying your brand. So what is RWA’s brand and how are they placing and publicizing it in the cultural and literary mainstream? Do the RITA and Golden Heart have any role in that branding, and if so, what is it? Some literary prizes –the Booker Prize, for example – start with a diverse selection and advisory committee, so that it’s less a contest and more a judging process that is not dependent on whether the author spends money to submit her own book. As the main professional writer’s organization for the genre, RWA’s resistance to change in a genre that is most dynamically responsive to new opportunities continues to baffle me. Wouldn’t the professional success of authors be supported by having an organization that plays a prominent public role in promoting the genre?

But if RWA no longer wants to be the public face of Romance, that doesn’t mean the genre must be without representation and recognition. That doesn’t mean there can’t be an award of excellence that is ultimately recognized as valuable by retailers and by the reading public. All awards provoke controversy over their winners, but other literary awards are recognized as accepted markers of outstanding craft, inclusive of writing, story, and theme. Romance can and should have that, whether or not we have it in the form of the RITA, which, with the elimination of NSRE and the increased focus on the romance element, seems to be moving away from, rather than closer to, broad-based acceptance of exemplary craftsmanship in romantic fiction.

But certainly publishers can help, too, by supporting the strongest editorial processes for their books, because professional production values do matter, especially in a literary culture that still tends to fetishize the physical book. Authors like Megan Mulry have an important role to play, as well, in utilizing their inbetween position to support more crossover readers and writers without ambivalence or shame. And I also don’t think it helps when we as readers mock or dismiss other genres, while complaining that Romance is still a literary pariah.

Romance has started to receive more positive, respectful press of late, and I think that’s largely attributable to the stronger sense of ownership readers and authors have demonstrated online. But I’d definitely like to see more. I’d like to see the day when a writer for The New Yorker or The New York Times thinks nothing of writing or writing about Romance fiction, embracing the literary and culture power of women’s writing for its own sake, because it’s valuable by any measure.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. Nancy S Goodman
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 05:30:07

    I wrote about this on my blog last week, calling it “Respect and Resoectability.” I believe the industry sabotages itself with the bodice ripper covers. Some if the most beautifully written books I have read are romances from Courtney Milan, Anna Campbell, etc, but they receive short shrift in an industry that plays up the sex element more than the writing craft. I don’t know how they will change it or if they even want to, for as you have noted, it is very successful as is. Yet people are still embarrassed to admit to reading and writing it

  2. Laura Vivanco
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 05:56:07

    One thing that the RWA is doing to increase respect for, or at least respectful consideration of, romance novels, is fund an academic research grant:

    The objectives of the program are:

    To support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
    To encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.

    Re awards for romance/romantic fiction, the Romantic Novelists’ Association could be said to marginalise “romance” (in the form of Mills & Boon romances). They’re judged in a competition “run in line with the other awards, with the same scoring system. The only difference is that the winner will not be included on the shortlist for the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards”.

    The winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award has been reported on by the BBC and was chosen by “a panel of judges, including WH Smith’s Matt Bates and The Bookseller’s Sarah Broadhurst”. Leaflets about the award, featuring the short-list, appeared in my local library so I assume they were quite widely circulated.

  3. Nadia Lee
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 05:56:09

    @Nancy S Goodman: It doesn’t help that the new RITA judging sheet says good writing is only 25% of the total score, while romance is 50%. Now more people are going to point to that and say, “See? Romance (genre) doesn’t value good writing” or worse, “Sex is twice as important as good writing in romance.” :sigh:

  4. KT Grant
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 06:20:20

    I think all authors, regardless of what genre they write for want some type of respectability and recognition by their peers and the public at large. Why does respect and recognition equal winning an award? I would think the income an author makes off their books is more important because an award doesn’t pay the bills. If an author is making a great deal of money, aka the romance author, why would an award like winning a RITA matter? Has there been any proof that once a romance author wins a RITA their sales increase? It seems the same goes for actors who feel validated when they win an Oscar even though they may make millions of dollars for their work on films.

    What’s more important for an artist? Recognition for their talent or the income they take in? I guess it’s all subjective.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 07:21:38

    I know I bang on about this, but still, I strongly believe it. If a historian can pick up a historical romance and read it without sniggering and denigrating it, that might go a long way toward making the genre “respectable.” Back in the day, historians could read and enjoy Georgette Heyer’s meticulously researched historical romances. Did the history make the romance any less enjoyable? Are you kidding? Now, even if the author is highly educated, the history content is often negligible or non existent.

    On another aspect, in September, I was fortunate enough to attend the IASPR conference in York. International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. I had a wonderful time. These people are academics who take romance seriously, and many of them teach it. the lynchpins are Sarah Frantz and Eric Selinger. There are some fascinating studies taking place, and academics are very keen on studying it. More connections between the people who write it and the academics would be great. I was the only full-time writer attending. Next year, the conference is in San Francisco, and several of the members are coming to RT Convention next year to meet the veterans who are coming to help celebrate RT’s 30th convention.

  6. Nicole
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 07:25:18

    I didn’t know the details of how the RITAs are decided, but I have never paid much attention to them as an indicator of books I might like, and it seems that they are on the way to becoming even more useless as a measure of quality.

    I think any romance award that aims to be helpful to current readers as well as attracting publicity and maybe new readers to the genre needs to focus heavily on objective standards of writing – prose, characterisation, plotting, etc. Of course the ability to touch the heart is a quality that the experienced romance reader looks for, but no new reader who has decided to give a romance a try is going to forgive shoddy writing or ridiculous plotlines which bear no resemblance to historical or contemporary reality. To reward poorly written books simply because they are romantic is to bear out the mainstream criticisms that the romance genre has no literary standards.

    And no matter how wonderfully well written many romance novels are, new readers are not going to pick them up (in real or online book stores) whilst they continue to have cartoon covers and silly titles. The cover blurbs of many books have a breathless tone (with childish exclamation points!) and do a terrible job of conveying the nature of the stories inside.

    The 50 Shades phenomenon shows that the mainstream reading audience is willing to read and discuss books about sex and relationships. If the genre can break away from the trappings that scream “trashy romance novels” to the unconverted, well it can’t hurt, can it?

  7. Lynnd
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 08:11:41

    @Nicole I agree with you completely. I also believe that the romance genre gets very little respect is because the mainstream publishers seem to have very little respect for the genre. Too often I find that the quality of romance books put out by the mainstream publishers is shoddy, to say the least. Many are often poorly editted or copy editted, the covers are ridiculous and the blurbs bear no resemblance to the story in the book. I don’t know how we change this, but, in my opinion, the decision by RWA with respect to the criteria for the RITA is not helpful at all – it just reinforces the mistaken notion that romance readers don’t “care” about quality writing. These changes will just serve to make the RITA even more irrelevant to my book-buying decisions. I also agree that taking away the NSRE category is extremely short-sighted.

    Perhaps IASPR and RT could somehow combine their efforts to create a juried award (with the candidates being chosen by an independent panel), which recognizes the best the genre has to offer.

    @KT Grant. From my perspective, as a reader, I believe that to many readers and to the media, awards matter. If a genre has a credible award which recognizes the best in the genre, that award will get attention and hopefully will act like a rising tide and raise the quality and profile of the entire genre. The hope is that the books that win awards would attract new readers to the genre as a whole and that would in turn increase the income for authors.

  8. Ros
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 08:13:53

    I would love to see a big romance writing award, judged by a panel that included readers as well as industry professionals. The kind of thing where it’s an honour to be on the long list, let alone the short list. Something that says ‘these are good books, the best of the genre, that we would recommend to readers’.

    I’d also love to see the romance industry working harder on its public image with respect to things like covers, titles and taglines. I don’t think they help people to take the books seriously. If it’s packaged as trash, people will assume it contains trash.

  9. Avery Flynn
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 08:30:47

    This should be a bright neon sign: “Wouldn’t the professional success of authors be supported by having an organization that plays a prominent public role in promoting the genre?”

    A thought-provoking post. As a reader and lifelong romance reader, I never paid any attention to the RITAs. I didn’t even know they existed until I wrote my first romance. The contest is going through massive changes. Some I agree with. Some I think are nuts. However what has bothered me most about it is the lack of transparency and communication to RWA members about the changes, which go beyond the RITA and into their attempt to define romance, what qualifies as a romance novel and who qualifies as a romance author. I interpret the 50% score on romance in the RITAs to be part of that effort.

  10. Carrie G
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 08:32:15

    Want more respectability? Lose the awful covers, titles, and overwritten blurbs on the back cover. Whether it’s bosoms spilling out of bodices or Navy SEALs who go to war with their shoulder holsters over bare chests, the covers of modern romance novels are embarrassing at the very least. I do not want to care, but I also want to be seen as an intelligent person, and I can’t bring myself to read many romance books in public. I’ll admit to my own vanity here and take all the blame. I’m not ashamed of reading romances, I’m ashamed of the covers and titles of so many of the books. I don’t want to explain, again, to friends and family that “This really is a well-written book. It just has a terrible cover because publishers think we’re all idiots.” So when I head out to drive the carpool, sit in a Dr’s office or enjoy a break at the coffee shop, I think hard about which book I take along. If the print book has an embarrassing cover, I leave it at home and bring my audiobook or my ereader.

  11. Carolyne
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 08:37:22

    Maybe it’s because I didnt grow up reading enough romance to get used to the covers, but I find the typical cover that “currently makes books recognizable to us as Romance”–whether old-style painting or jazzily photographic–a barrier. Even when purchasing online, and especially when flipping through my Kindle list during the commute. Especially all the current headless six packs, floating heads over landscapes (maybe they belong to the headless guys), and even the guys nuzzling someone’s neck, shoulder, abdomen, etc etc.

    But I accepted it as a given that no one would recognise a genre book or be attracted to it without the right trappings. Maybe that was an incorrect assumption, since of course some books have broken away from this to a more Twilight-y look (provoking further copycatting), and science fiction and fantasy books don’t always have a dragon or a spacesuit on them anymore. Or a dragon in a spacesuit. Which, actually, I’d pick up and read. Hmm. A dragon in a spacesuit on a romance title…

    I’d like to see more variety in cover designs, covers that are more about the essence of that story than the essence of the genre. Not as a way to camouflage the topic and fool non-readers into respecting the genre, but to show that the individual stories are every bit as important as the Romance label, that it’s not just genre MadLibs. This is also a hope that a different type of cover will still catch the right readers’ eyes.

  12. mmm
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:00:10

    It’s somewhat off-putting that the author chooses to capitalize romance fiction when Romance is a specific and discrete thing of its own, separate from the genre of romance.

    In terms of respectability, I feel like this can be reduced to the naked profit grab from romance publishing firms. I cringe at romance fiction in the same way that I cringe at paradigmatic fantasy fiction, in that it’s often nakedly checking off a list of profitable elements; from the cover to the title to the elements within, it all seems so calculated and devoid of artfulness. Romance is a ghettoized genre due to the market forces which in turn ghettoize the content.

    “for many people in the world, love was and is still a revolutionary concept”

    This idea is fairly troublesome. Are you implying that people around the world need romance fiction in order to teach them how to love? That there are non-Western societies that do not conform to a Western-conceived style of sex, romance and love? That surely, the Western style is best and we have a moral obligation to teach these many people in the world how to love?

    Feel free to expand on this sentence and hopefully recuperate it from its tinge of white saviour complex.

  13. carmen webster buxton
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:15:38

    As someone who writes a lot of novels with “a strong romantic element” (and a couple that are flat-out romance, but those are published yet) it does seem to me that this smacks of “If you won’t let us play in your yard, then you can’t play in ours.” The purpose of the rule changes are not at all clear to me. Why have a “writing award” that only judges 25% on the writing?

  14. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:33:13

    The RITA is currently only open to authors who agree to judge in the contest. Or rather, with limited entries and priority given to entrants who agree to judge, that’s effectively what happens. (So a lot of authors this year, including myself, were nominated by their publishers but won’t be considered for the award.) It’s up to you to decide whether that makes the award more or less significant, knowing how high a percentage of publisher-nominated books won’t be considered. (At the same time, they were having a hard time coming up with enough judges, so what to do?)

    I’m not convinced the RITA is where it’s at, so much, in terms of respectability, because I’ve never paid attention to it myself as a reader. But I do think self-assertion is. Ownership, as you said. I put my covers on my office door and I strongly advocate for other professors to do the same. I like it when authors write under their own names and own it, although I understand and certainly don’t judge the decision not to. I also like sites like this, or Jackie’s Romance for Feminists which I just discovered this morning, or others where there’s open, frank discussion of what is good/bad/problematic both in the books themselves and in the reaction to them, because I think that open discussion is a major factor in developing this self-assertion and also in forming expectations for quality.

    So thanks for blogging. :)

  15. Lauren Willig
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:40:55

    Laura, I also have issues with the “judge to play” system. It’s an expedient answer to a pressing problem, but raises all sorts of conflict of interest problems. Also, how can we reasonably call any given book the “best of the genre” when so many books are being turned away for space reasons? (My “Mistletoe”, which won the Regency RITA in 2011, nearly wasn’t in the contest– it made it in off the wait list after someone else’s book was disqualified for having the wrong copyright date.)

    In my ideal world, the RITA would be judged, not by authors, but by an independent panel of librarians and booksellers. These are the folks with their finger on the pulse of the genre, they know what people are reading, and they don’t have personal ponies in the race or axes to grind. Perhaps if it were outsiders judging, rather than authors ranking authors, the award would have more resonance for readers.

  16. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:41:18

    @Ros: I know, I agree, but I really think the marketing is a problem. I love my covers–I’m not sure they really match my books, but they do make me happy. But bookstores don’t “know what it is” and want a cover that more clearly says “love story”. Do *readers* want that? It’s harder to tell. There’s such a difference between what people say they want and what they actually pick up. Covers are first and foremost a tool to get someone who has never heard of the author to pick up the book.

  17. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:44:31

    @Lauren Willig: Lauren, absolutely. I would love to see an award that was chosen by a panel of librarians, booksellers, critics. How to accomplish that I don’t know. The RITAs this year were capped at 12,000 entries, and the sheer numbers are why they had to implement the judging rule, from what I understand. If all the publisher-nominated non-judging-author books had been allowed in, there would have been even more. So how to handle the quantity?

  18. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:45:45

    @mmm: I had to respond to this. YES. Since the turn of this century, major publishers have forced the “product” aspect, tried to treat the romance novel the same way as a can of beans. Put in the right elements, slap a hot cover on it, and it would sell. The trouble is, it does, and only now are sales declining, maybe not just because of the advent of the ebook. Who knows?
    It’s the “you never lose money pandering to the lowest common denominator” effect. What gets published at the major houses is more and more ruled by the marketing department, and editors aren’t anywhere near the power they used to be. One of my books was enthusiastically accepted by the editors at a large house, and then rejected by marketing. Too cross genre, apparently. I’m not the only author that’s happening too, either.

  19. Avery Flynn
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:52:25

    @Lauren Willig: Love the idea of an independent panel. Lots of folks (including many best sellers) were turned away from the RITA this year because of space constraints.

  20. Lauren Willig
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 09:57:28

    Laura, the numbers are mind-boggling. I recently judged a contest for another organization that has an “every entry considered” policy. It was grueling. Each judge was reading an absurdity of entries– which creates its own problems vis a vis judge patience and attention (especially when judges are volunteers and have their own deadlines to consider!). There’s no easy answer, but I do wonder if widening the judging pool, particularly to people who might otherwise be reading the same books in the course of their general duties, would help.

  21. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:15:06

    @Lauren Willig: You’re a good person to volunteer to judge, Lauren. :) Hats off to you.

    I don’t think most respected publishing awards are actually considering all entries, are they? I don’t actually know where the nomination process for the big, big awards starts, but it can’t possibly be from an open submission of anyone who wants to send in a book. They have to be nominations from people other than the authors themselves. (Publishing houses nominate their top books? Librarians their favorite reads?) I’m sure it’s all heavily politicized, as most of these are, but still…

    Maybe DA and a few of the other top blogs need to join together to start their own award, compiled from their Recommended Reads/Top Pick equivalents, with voting among the bloggers. Kind of like with RT does with their Seal of Excellence, except with bloggers instead of the editors of the magazine: the bloggers involved nominate their best-loved books and campaign with the other bloggers for them to win, everyone reads, and votes. That could be a LOT of fun, and if the blogs have enough of a reputation to start with, could become quite important.

    Any nibbles? :)

  22. Isobel Carr
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:21:19

    @Laura Florand:

    I would love to see an award that was chosen by a panel of librarians, booksellers, critics. How to accomplish that I don’t know.

    Don’t these awards already exist? Bookseller’s Best, National Reader’s Choice, etc.? I don’t see them get any real recognition or traction either though. And I TOTALLY agree with those who dislike the new RITA judging guidelines. While a satisfying romance is a necessity for the genre, it’s the WRITING quality (which includes world building) that is paramount in a good book of any genre.

  23. Mala Bhattacharjee
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:27:45

    I usually comment here as Suleikha Snyder, my authorial alter ego, but I wanted to weigh in on this particular post as the Features Editor at RT Book Reviews. I know that we, as a staff and an organization are definitely committed to giving a public voice and face to romance.

    We’ve had our editors interviewed by CNN, the NYT and local cable access TV just in our recent efforts to cheerlead romance. We’ve got our crazy, wonderful, annual convention that has something for everyone — whether it’s craft or camaraderie you’re after. And, of course, we’ve got our alternative to the RITAs, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards. (I like to think of them as the Golden Globes to the RITAs’ Emmys). You don’t have to submit your book to be nominated…we have a crew of over 60 reviewers who make the call, based on a year’s worth of book reviews in multiple genres — not all romance-related! Our monthly Seal of Excellence is another way we try to support the authors out there, complete with the editorial staff’s earnest squee about what we liked.

    And lest this sound like a sales pitch, what I really mean to say is that we feel like there’s room for everybody in genre fiction to grow, share and celebrate romance. I, personally, was fighting that uphill battle for years in soaps journalism, trying to stress the importance and talent of this largely female-driven medium, and I have that same passion for the romance industry. I just think if we get enough of us together, we won’t have to “court” someone else’s definition of respectability; we’ll be comfortably cloaked in our own. Just call me Pollyanna…I’ve always got hope for my beloved industries…

  24. Lauren Willig
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:32:22

    “Romance has started to receive more positive, respectful press of late, and I think that’s largely attributable to the stronger sense of ownership readers and authors have demonstrated online. ”

    Janet/Robin, I couldn’t agree more! Critics only have something to mock if readers and authors show shame. This was a lesson I learned back in fifth grade, when I was toting Woodiwiss and Lindsey novels in to school with me. If you’re proud of what you’re reading, there is nothing there for anyone else to pick at. (And it helps if you can point to the pay-off in vocabulary growth!)

    When I signed my first book contract, I made a very deliberate decision to use my real name– despite the fact that I was in two fields, academia and law, that reputedly frown on the romance novel. I felt strongly that if I were proud enough of a book to publish it, I ought to be proud enough to put my name on it. On a larger level, it was important to me to make the point that writing romance is something of which to be proud, not something that needs to be hidden.

    I was warned by more cautious friends that this might have career repercussions. It didn’t. The professors in the history department wanted to know how much I was being paid for the book; colleagues in the law firm at which I was summering would come up to me and hiss, “I saw your book in the partner’s office!” But did anyone give me any flack, personally or professionally, about writing a book in which a bodice bites the dust? No.

    My guess is that if I had attempted to hide my authorship, if I had shuffled my feet, or twisted my hair, or turned red when asked about it, there would have been a lot more ribbing about romance and ripped bodices.

    My advice? Stop apologizing. Stop hiding the covers. We do still have an upward battle when it comes to combating years of accumulated cultural prejudice, but if we, as readers and authors, show that we’re proud of our genre, other people might start to take the cue.

  25. Kelly
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:39:43

    @Laura Florand:

    The RITA is currently only open to authors who agree to judge in the contest.

    THIS is why as a reader I can never bring myself to really care about – or trust – the RITAs or nearly any other industry award. That kind of entry and judging process just strips away any well-deserved honors and turns it into a self-congratulatory promotional clusterf*ck.

    And the only outcome I can see from scoring “writing” as only 25 percent (???) of a supposedly LITERARY award is futher glorification of the “cracktastic” books from authors who don’t even *pretend* to consider writing to be a craft, much less an art.

    If the major industry organization can’t show respect for its own authors and readers, I would never expect it to earn respect from mainstream media and audiences.

  26. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:42:03

    @Mala Bhattacharjee:

    And, of course, we’ve got our alternative to the RITAs, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards. (I like to think of them as the Golden Globes to the RITAs Emmys). You don’t have to submit your book to be nominated…we have a crew of over 60 reviewers who make the call, based on a year’s worth of book reviews in multiple genres — not all romance-related!

    Yes, and this award gets a lot of respect. It’s a very intense process, from my understanding, and authors are *thrilled* to get it. I have no idea how it affects sales themselves, but I do think writers write for different reasons than money, and the response to a story is the main one, which a reward of this type represents. (Not saying people don’t want money, but there are much more efficient ways to earn it, if that’s the primary concern. Knowing your story spoke to someone is a thrill like no other. Except maybe chocolate.)

    I think another reason authors are so thrilled with the RITA itself is that many of them “grew up” in the RWA. They’ve struggled for so many years, surrounded by the peers in their local chapter, and the recognition from those peers means worlds to them. So, in this case, it’s important to them that it be a judgement by peers, essential to the award itself. Does that translate into respectability outside the genre? I think that’s the ongoing struggle. It certainly makes an author who receives it feel very proud!

  27. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:45:31

    @Lauren Willig: Hear, hear! Lauren, you’ve pretty much articulated my attitude and my own decisions. I put my covers on my office door at Duke. :) And it’s fun. People really have to shake up their thinking, sometimes, but it’s good for everyone.

    And I think I’d better get back to writing. You can totally tell when I am not in the mood to write by how many comments I post on this board. :)

  28. Mala Bhattacharjee
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:56:50

    @Laura Florand:

    It’s a very intense process, from my understanding…

    Uh huh. I’m going through our first round since I joined the staff, and I swear my hair’s gotten grayer! But we love being able to pull it together and laud everyone’s favorite books and authors of the year!

  29. Lauren Willig
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 10:57:42

    Laura, I was just thinking the same thing! The relationship between procrastination and number of comments, I mean…. : ) Back to work.

  30. Paula Altenburg
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 11:09:54

    When I signed my first romance contract I was working for an aerospace company. I told them about it because I wanted to be up front with them about my second career, and because I had a security clearance for working on confidential documents. I didn’t want them to worry about defense information ending up in one of my books. My bosses, retired military officers, were far more excited by that contract than I was. They told everyone who’d listen that one of their managers was a published author — clients and co-workers included. They even read the first book. I really think the world is changing and most people realize it’s hard work to get published, no matter what it is that you write.

  31. Kate Pearce
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 12:04:46

    The older I get, the less I care about what other people think about me and the books I choose to write. :) If people don’t want to read romance novels that’s entirely up to them. If I’m asked why I write ‘those’ books when I’m obviously capable of so much more, (and this happens a lot) I give them my little talk about the industry and why it is significant both financially and personally and then I leave it up to them to decide whether they can overcome their instant knee jerk reaction and try it.
    It’s great that romance is gaining new interest, research and respect from academia. I totally embrace that.
    But, I don’t think we should change a thing. We don’t need to be defensive. Our core readership ‘love’ those clinch covers and cheesy blurbs because they ‘love’ romance novels just the way they are. They are the people who buy our books, write those reviews, or send us emails telling us what they loved or hated about our books. Those are the people we write for, and if they continue to buy our books, then as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our job right.

  32. Janet W
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 12:21:05

    Here’s a link to Eloisa James’s column at NPR recommending her top 5 romance choices for 2012: All hail to Lauren Willig for writing and publishing under her own name — altho there is, I suppose, quite a tradition for doing it differently. Even Eloisa James, who just recommended Megan Mulry’s debut novel A Royal Pain, decided to write under a pen name *a rather open secret now* — and Mulry herself writes under her own name.

    And I have to say, Ms. Pearce’s comments disturbed me a bit: She said,

    But, I don’t think we should change a thing. We don’t need to be defensive. Our core readership ‘love’ those clinch covers and cheesy blurbs because they ‘love’ romance novels just the way they are. They are the people who buy our books, write those reviews, or send us emails telling us what they loved or hated about our books. Those are the people we write for, and if they continue to buy our books, then as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our job right.

    I really dislike many titles and covers — here’s a recent example. Mira Lyn Kelly was chosen to be the kick-off author for Harlequin’s KISS line — the book was great and the cover was dreadful lurid green blanket? Cheap, crass, garish — seriously, the author writes about a luxe Vegas weekend followed by time spent in the hero’s delicious, delightfully decorated home and that’s the cover the reader gets? I guess I’m not the core audience — but I buy and read and recommend a lot of romance books. Don’t I get a vote too?

  33. Las
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 12:33:25

    As a long time Romance reader who still won’t touch books with bad titles, I’m not sure if I agree that covers and titles are the problem. I’m more inclined to think that it’s the genre–because pretty much anything which appeals mostly to women is looked down upon–and the covers are just an easy way to identify them. Also, well…there’s a lot of WTF-ery that gets published. I’m a fan of the cracktastic read myself, but there are a lot of over-the-top tropes that even with the best writing you still have to be willing to just shrug and roll with it. For those reasons, I’m not sure there’s much the industry can do to fix the problem. We have a long way to go to fix the former, and while we can always use fresh blood when it comes to tropes and plots, I don’t really want to fix the latter.

    As for RWA and RITA, I’ve always seen them as an extension of the publishers. When I’ve come across titles that have won awards, I’ve been less than impressed. RWA just isn’t useful to me as a reader.

  34. Carrie G
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 14:10:35

    @Janet W:

    I do think stupid titles and embarrassing covers are a problem. I agree that part of the reason romance is looked down on is it’s mostly written for women, but the embarrassing covers and titles perpetuate the myth that the readers are as silly as the books look. Plus, I know a lot of romance books would appeal to male readers if the perception of the genre changed, and covers contribute to that. My husband reads pretty much any book I suggest including romance titles, but he won’t touch one with an embarrassing cover or title.

  35. Erin Satie
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 14:11:40

    I do not like romance covers and titles. As a reader I dislike them. I dislike the fact that if I don’t keep good track of what I’ve read, I’ll likely forget – because every title is a grab-bag draw from the same half-dozen words (lord, lady, scoundrel, rake, earl, duke), that the covers are interchangeable, that the blurbs never help me decide if it’s a book I want to read or not.

    Even with authors I love, if they have a large enough backlist I often forget which TITLES of theirs I’ve read, and which I haven’t.

    I’ve loved reading all the comments in this thread about owning up to your love of romance as a genre – Lauren Willig’s especially. The comment about publishing under her own name struck me. I spent too long hiding my romance novels and feeling ashamed. I still have a hard time around friends and family that feel, and express, contempt for my reading habits.

  36. Gennita Low
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 14:20:48

    I want to add something positive about romance covers with ripped male models, headless or otherwise.

    I have never come across anyone who denigrated romance writers except online and on TV. My roofers want to be the cover models and even pose half-humorously for a “calendar,” exposing big bellies and butts. They weren’t being mean to me, just having a good time. They always tell the owners and other construction friends about my books and are the first to send their wives to go to or stand in line at my local signings.

    My family has been supportive and all my relatives overseas in India, Japan and Malaysia buy my books onto their iPhones and tell everyone about them. Sure, I’m embarrassed at the thought of my older aunts and uncles reading my sex scenes but they never once said anything. I know my brother-in-laws make fun of the scenes by reading them out loud to my sisters but that’s okay because these are the same guys who SENT my books to their military buddies in Afghanistan and other military posts, telling them about their sister-in-law ;).

    I have older retired military personnel emailing to tell me about their attending SEAL and navy gatherings at the museum (Fort Pierce, mostly) and inviting me to their private parties to meet their military friends so I could talk/interview/mingle with them. They enjoy being the heroes in my military romance and a few would often joke about being too old to pose for my covers.

    Many times at parties, the questions are more about the financial aspects of being a published author more so than about my genre. Sure, there are one or two drunken questions about the “research” with that smirk, but hey, it’s sex. How serious can one get about sexy scenes? But with the advent of Kindle and Nook apps, I’ve gotten so many quick sales just from these conversations because I just use their smartphones, show them my book(s) on Amazon and click-click, SOLD, right on the spot. That is one thing for which I’m grateful about the invention of the evil smartphone :).

    I think, with the popularity of books like Twilight and 50 Shades, and with so many people picking up the Sookie series, many people’s opinions about romance books have changed/are changing. They might not respect the genre the way you want them to, but romance books are mostly fulfillment fantasies, not a how-to booklet, so unless I’m in a roomful of professors and literary critics (and Oprah), I don’t expect them to intellectualize about themes and tropes. Most people I meet everyday–mostly roofers, waitresses, homeowners, real estate agents, inspectors, City Hall clerks, insurance adjusters, home decorators–are just excited I have books on the Kindle and Nook and most important of all, they know how to download those books. Three years ago? I’d have had to explain to them what and how, but not today. So yeah, I’m happy to tell everyone I’m a romance author.

    Oh, my newest book, Tempting Trouble, has no headless abs :D. Just two faces and a gun in between them. //shameless, I know, but here, let me show you the webpage with that Buy Now button. It’s really a pretty fabulous cover!

  37. Jill Shultz
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 14:59:18

    Part of the marginalization of the romance genre is symptomatic of sexism. Successful women often have to cope with attempts to “put them in their place.” Women are in the central role in this genre, which features mostly female protagonists in stories written primarily by women. Many of the most powerful editors are women. And this is the most lucrative part of publishing.

    Are romance covers and marketing worse than SF or fantasy or Westerns? That would be an interesting cross-genre analysis. My gut says “no.”

    As a cross-genre writer, I felt quite a pang when I read that RWA was eliminating the NSRE category for the RITAs. I am proud of the love story in my science fiction novel, and would be honored to see it recognized. That’s far more likely to happen within the romance community than among SF readers. But then I was baffled by the new ratings system.

    As a reader, I don’t generally react well to cracktastic stories. The craft problems usually become too annoying. The best romances, IMO, are always well-written books. And with superb stylists like Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas out there, why would you ever need to discount craft? The romances that linger with me are always the stories that excel on every front: characterization, structure, description, dialogue, plot, tone, voice.

    I used to work for a literary organization that gave out awards. It’s tough, but a worthy endeavor that can be quite meaningful for readers and writers. I’d love to see an award of that stature for romance.

  38. Magdalen Braden
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 15:42:20

    Last year I matriculated at Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program offered by the University of Southern Maine. It’s one of only three MFA programs that acknowledge popular fiction of any kind. (Seton Hill, outside Pittsburgh, and Stonecoast are the only two that acknowledge romance fiction as a genre.)

    I’m the only Stonecoast student writing contemporary romance novels. One classmate writes historical romantic suspense, and recent grads write erotica, inspirational, historical romance, and historical paranormal romance. Josh Lanyon has written an m/m mystery set in a thinly-veiled Stonecoast, Come Unto These Yellow Sands.

    At my first residency, two things quickly became apparent. First, romance is heavily invested in character. Critiquing my classmates’ work (most of which is speculative fiction: fantasy, slipstream, science fiction, etc.), I challenged them to pay more attention to their characters’ actions and intentions. (By contrast, my classmates challenge me to get my world-building in order!)

    The other is that romance permeates other popular fiction without necessarily luring readers to straight romance. Virtually all my classmates preface their remarks to me with “I’ve never read a romance novel…” but everyone has some experience with the issues raised by romance novels. I understand why not everyone wants to read straight romance, but a lot of people enjoy a romantic subplot with their mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, and the like.

    With 75 million people buying at least one romance in 2010, we’re definitely the heavy-hitter in the popular fiction game. My sense is that romance readers will read outside their preferred genre if there’s a romantic subplot. At the same time, I’ve seen testimonials by readers who’ll say, “I won’t read a romance, but I love it when my [YA, mystery, science fiction, etc.] story has a romantic subplot.”

    I see that as the distinction between a story that focuses on two characters and their relationship, and a story about something else that happens to have two characters also developing a relationship. Millions of readers want that straight shot of romance, while others like a mixed cocktail. I’ve stopped worrying why more people don’t like their fiction straight up.

  39. Ann Somerville
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 16:58:12

    @Magdalen Braden:

    ” I understand why not everyone wants to read straight romance, but a lot of people enjoy a romantic subplot with their mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, and the like. ”

    Yeah, but the thing that’s lacking in straight Romance (and queer Romance) is that the plot and details are sacrificed for getting the main couple together. Which makes it very unsatisfying for those of us who actually *like* plot and details. If I’m reading a SF romance, the SF part has to make sense and be interesting. Ditto an action story, or even a cowboy romance. I want stuff to happen outside the pairing. I want to revel in the science/details of professions. I want to *learn*. There’s no suspense in whether the couple with end up together – that’s the beauty of Romance. You’re guaranteed a HEA. But if the HEA is accompanied by a stupid or derisorily drawn backdrop or plot, I really won’t care about the characters, however attractive.

    My gold standard is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. She never wrote better, and no one else has either. I want romances which treat me as being at least as intelligent as Dunnett thought I was. I want SF/F romance at least as intelligent and challenging as Ursula K LeGuin writes. Give me an action romance that works like Strange Days did as a film.

    And I want all of the writing to be tight, clever, and well-edited.

    Otherwise, no, I won’t take the genre seriously if all it’s offering is sex and HEAs. That’s like going to a restaurant and being offered nothing but a single dessert.

  40. Ren
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 17:09:44

    There are a number of reasons to use a pseudonym other than “shame,” including but not limited to: your real name already being used by another writer (or several), having already used your real name writing in a genre where crossover isn’t desirable (say, children’s Christian chapter books to M/M/F BDSM), and marketing concerns (such as securing a domain that’s simply rather than or whatevever convoluted combination is necessary to use your real name in a way that isn’t already taken).

    An author’s name is a brand, not a genre-pride flag or a genre-shame shield.

  41. Janine
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 17:37:08

    I’m so glad you wrote this column, Robin. I was pondering writing something similar but I often feel hamstrung by my multiple roles as a writer, book blogger, and in this particular case, CP to a RITA winner. And lest anyone get me wrong, I’m enormously proud of Sherry’s RITA winning books, but that doesn’t make me blind to the problem with the RITAs and respectability.

    But if RWA no longer wants to be the public face of Romance, that doesn’t mean the genre must be without representation and recognition. That doesn’t mean there can’t be an award of excellence that is ultimately recognized as valuable by retailers and by the reading public. All awards provoke controversy over their winners, but other literary awards are recognized as accepted markers of outstanding craft, inclusive of writing, story, and theme. Romance can and should have that, whether or not we have it in the form of the RITA, which, with the elimination of NSRE and the increased focus on the romance element, seems to be moving away from, rather than closer to, broad-based acceptance of exemplary craftsmanship in romantic fiction.


    @Laura Florand:

    Maybe DA and a few of the other top blogs need to join together to start their own award, compiled from their Recommended Reads/Top Pick equivalents, with voting among the bloggers. Kind of like with RT does with their Seal of Excellence, except with bloggers instead of the editors of the magazine: the bloggers involved nominate their best-loved books and campaign with the other bloggers for them to win, everyone reads, and votes. That could be a LOT of fun, and if the blogs have enough of a reputation to start with, could become quite important.

    Any nibbles? :)

    I’m all for this, whether or not I can participate . I’d have to abstain when it came to voting on books by my CPs, but I may be able to contribute other names to the long and short lists. And if others felt it was okay to include me, I would love, love to be on a committee that studied the nomination and awarding processes for some of the respected literary awards and put together a process for awarding a romance community award for romances and for “gateway” romantic books. I think authors, librarians, academics, bloggers, and others who think critically about books in this genre could have a place on such a committee.

    But the thing is, I don’t think this is something DA can do by itself. Or even DA and SBTB (who put together DABWAHA). A significant number of smart book blogs/sites would have to be involved in the process for it to carry enough weight. And personally I’d love to see some of the bloggers from smaller or newer blogs like Romance Novels for Feminists, Gossamer Obsessions, Something More, Radish Reviews, etc., involved along with the bigger blogs.

    I really hope something like this happens. Robin, if you have any interest at all, I nominate you to get it rolling!

  42. Donna Thorland
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 18:22:23

    @Ann Somerville

    “My gold standard is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. She never wrote better, and no one else has either. I want romances which treat me as being at least as intelligent as Dunnett thought I was.”

    The Lymond Chronicles were, as Lauren so aptly puts it, my gateway drug into romance, and they inspired me to become a writer, but they wouldn’t be eligible for the RITA under these new rules. If Dunnett isn’t the epitome of excellence in the genre, I don’t know who is, so how this change would increase the prestige of the RITA puzzles me.

  43. Laura Florand
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 20:59:49


    Romance Novels for Feminists

    I only discovered RNFF this morning, when Jackie emailed me the link to her review of THE CHOCOLATE KISS. Well, obviously that was a delightful review to read, but the more I looked through her older posts, the more excited I got about her blog. I recommend it highly, and particularly in terms of this discussion of respect.

  44. Janet/Robin
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 23:01:42

    @Laura Vivanco:

    I’m glad that RWA is supporting academic research in the genre, and I definitely support that kind of work and think it has an incredibly important role to play as a part of intellectual history. I’m not sure how much that resonates out into the general public, though, in terms of recommending the genre.

    As for the marginalization of the category Romance, I just don’t understand it (that is, I comprehend it, but I find it a function of ignorance of categories). I’ve had a few conversations about whether the RITA should judge categories and single titles against each other, and I think there’s a strong argument to be made in favor of integrating them. I’ve read some single titles that seem so short as to be almost category length, and some longer categories that feel just as or even more substantial than single titles. So unless we’re comparing novella against novel, I feel that separating categories almost suggests that they’re not “real” novels. And that bugs me.


    I think any romance award that aims to be helpful to current readers as well as attracting publicity and maybe new readers to the genre needs to focus heavily on objective standards of writing – prose, characterisation, plotting, etc. Of course the ability to touch the heart is a quality that the experienced romance reader looks for, but no new reader who has decided to give a romance a try is going to forgive shoddy writing or ridiculous plotlines which bear no resemblance to historical or contemporary reality. To reward poorly written books simply because they are romantic is to bear out the mainstream criticisms that the romance genre has no literary standards.

    Yes. Moreover, I understand that for Romance readers, a lot of these devices become shorthand or code, and they can provoke emotional reactions that surpass the actual writing. While that can make a book effective for the reader, I think we need to differentiate that from a book that’s crafted beautifully AND packs a romantic, emotional punch. Because no book ever loses anything for being well-crafted. Which is not the same thing as saying that all well-written books will be wonderful, just that good writing and romance are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think it’s more likely that solid craft will boost the romance signal, which is what I’d like to see acknowledged in an awards of genre excellence.

    @Lynnd: I agree with you re. the potential effect of awards. I’ve picked up Booker prize winning books and Nebula winning books, for example, merely on the basis of the award itself. Because I feel that those books will likely be good, even if they don’t necessarily end up being my taste.

    Part of my point is that love has myriad political implications. In the US alone, we had anti-miscegenation laws until 2000 (Alabama was the final hold out). The majority of states have not legalized gay marriage, even though marriage is considered a fundamental political right under the US Constitution. And then there’s the political and social history of romantic love and its relationship to economic and cultural development, theories of personal identity, marriage laws, individual political freedoms, economic shifts, and cultural hybridization and diversification (the list is even longer than this, but you get the idea).

    In terms of “teaching” anyone how to love, uh, no. We all know that there are issues with Romance’s appropriation of POC. However, that doesn’t take away the fact that the genre has the potential to reflect the great diversity of types and contexts for love. For example, Sunita recently wrote a wonderful op-ed about Indian-authored Harlequins ( that demonstrate the many different experiences of love within a different cultural context. Rather than perpetuate the idea that there is only one cultural or racial context for love, these novels have the potential to do just the opposite — to demonstrate and celebrate so many different iterations of love and marriage (which Romance also often celebrates), something I see as pretty revolutionary.

    And even just on a basic human (i.e. personal) level, I think love can be profoundly revolutionary. It can turn personal expectations upside down, challenge previously held ideas of self, and transform personal identity through the creation of children and extended family structures.

    @Lauren Willig:

    In my ideal world, the RITA would be judged, not by authors, but by an independent panel of librarians and booksellers. These are the folks with their finger on the pulse of the genre, they know what people are reading, and they don’t have personal ponies in the race or axes to grind. Perhaps if it were outsiders judging, rather than authors ranking authors, the award would have more resonance for readers.

    I would also add that categories would not be into the tens, but would be streamlined in a way similar to those awards that differentiate according to length and medium. I think for authors the sub genre distinctions can be very valuable, which is one reason I see the RITA as a peer to peer award (and totally understand why authors value it), more than a general award of genre excellence (although, as I said, some wonderful books and authors have won).

  45. Janet
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 23:18:29

    @Jill Shultz: Part of the marginalization of the romance genre is symptomatic of sexism.

    This is one of the biggest reasons I think women in the genre community need to be so strongly accepting and supportive of the genre. When I read Mulry’s remarks, for example, they felt like a struggle between identifying with the ideology that continues to marginalize the genre v. using one’s voice to promote and validate that which has historically been marginalized.

    It’s also one of the reasons the new rules for the RITA bother me, especially the de-emphasizing of craftsmanship in the books. I’ve never viewed amazing literature as a white patriarchal possession, despite historical attempts to make the canon look that way. To me, acknowledging the literary value of Romance is part of a necessary diversification of the literary canon to reflect the global breadth of artistic expression.

    @Laura Florand: I think one of the problems with the covers is that readers have been conditioned to recognize certain covers as Romance, and thus they continue to sell well because of that. Not that some readers don’t love the clinch cover, for example (and certainly I’ve adored some, as well), but I do think a lot of it is conditioned recognizability and identification of subgenre (historical v. contempt v erotic, for example).

    This is a little off topic, but are you familiar with HASTAC? I ask because one of its co-directors (Cathy Davidson) is at Duke, and it’s a pretty cool organization.

  46. Jessa Slade
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 00:54:46

    Yes, I will fight for appropriate covers. Yes, I will fight for distinctive titles. Yes, I will do my very utmost to write a story I would want to read. But fight for respectability? I’m not sure I see the need.

    Everyone who finds out I write is only more curious when they discover I write romance. Sure, there are the occasional funny/embarrassed comments, but those are easily turned around with a pitch of a romance I just KNOW they would love. The only consistent flack I see is snarky reporters (who are likely frustrated novelists; lit-fic, of course) and a quick Twitter campaign brings out the counter-comments to set them straight. For the most part, our people know where to find us, and there are enough of us to bring the stragglers gently to the light.

    As women take ever more prominent roles in politics and elsewhere, I think it’s inevitable that various “problems” with being a woman — ready access to family planning, equal pay for equal work, acknowledgment of quality entertainment with relationship at its heart — will solve themselves.

  47. Janet
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 01:17:53

    But fight for respectability? I’m not sure I see the need.

    I think I made a mistake in the way I titled this post. I was trying to ride the line between the ways in which Romance is viewed as not respectable and the (IMO) importance of mainstream respect for the genre. But I don’t think I succeeded in that.

    When people talk about ‘accepting Romance for what it is,’ my question is, “What is that?” All genres have their unique characteristics, thus the differentiation that is genre. My problem is that I think sometimes even those within the Romance community articulate a difference for Romance that shifts it away from other genres, rather than as a genre legitimate in its own right, as a unique genre like SFF, Mystery, etc. But I think we sometimes marginalize the genre from the inside, and that frustrates me, because IMO there’s no reason, except prejudiced perception, for Romance to be viewed as lesser than. Like all genres it’s unique, and like all genres it’s a literary form that has sublime and awful books produced within its formal boundaries. Why *shouldn’t* we want it to be valued that way, without any question of its literary legitimacy?

  48. A.M.K.
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 02:28:32

    Janet, recently I’ve been bothered by this inside marginalization far more than by the lack of mainstream respect. I have the feeling that some romance readers, even though they read and enjoy the genre, somehow consider low/-ish quality as part of its definition. If the book is really excellent, it’s not a romance novel. I call this the “too-good-to-be-a-romance syndrome”. And I hate the phrase “It’s more than just a romance novel” (which I’ve heard all too many times, both about romance and non-romance novels), because it implies that romance is not just different, but LESS.

    Why should I assume that oversimplification, shoddy plotting etc are inherent to the genre? And I have been told more than once, when I complained about the quality of one book of another that “Well, it’s a romance novel, what do you expect?”. By romance readers, mind you, not by the romantically uneducated public.

  49. Ros
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 05:23:12

    @Janine: I’d love to see something like this. Maybe including a range of ‘interested parties’, not just bloggers – librarians, booksellers, readers, authors, editors etc. All of whom could be invited to nominate their top ten books. And then any books with say, three, nominations go on to the ‘long list’. Which a panel whittles down to a ‘short list’ and then a winner.

    If the panel is chosen carefully, I think there’s real potential for something like this to be incredibly prestigious, to attract publicity to the genre, and to help readers new to the genre find some of its best books. Personally, I would stick with one award, across all romance categories because I think that makes a stronger public statement. And if it’s done well, even being on the long/short lists would be a mark of excellence that people could recognise.

  50. Ros
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 05:27:29

    @Kate Pearce: That’s fine if you only ever want your books to sell to ‘your core readership’. Clearly I’m not one of them, because I hate those covers.

  51. Las
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 07:07:28

    @A.M.K.: While I don’t go that far, there’s still a part of me that thinks that way. I don’t know about other fiction genres, but there’s a lot of crap that gets published and celebrated in Romance. How many of us view Amazon and Goodread reviews as useless because of all the breathless 5 star reviews for lousy books? I rarely see any self-aware, “Yeah, this book is ridiculous, but I love it anyway,” type reviews. I think a lot of the lack of respectability in Romance is something we readers do to ourselves.

  52. Laura Florand
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 08:31:21

    @Janet: I’m aware of HASTAC, yes, but must be less aware than I thought, because I’m not familiar with any work of theirs that touches on this question. Maybe you can email me more?

  53. Helena Fairfax
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 11:32:06

    This has been an incredibly thought-provoking post. I have so much going round in my head on this subject that I feel I could write a whole essay. I’ll try to put my main thought in a nutshell! I believe many people (myself included) come to romance novels for a “comfort read”. I find reading, and reading romance novels in particular, an outlet for stress. It’s a comfort to know what the outcome will be in a romance. I also want the author to do all the work for me – for example, I don’t want to have to sit and work out a character’s motivation, I want the author to make it fairly clear so I don’t have to think too hard. Romance novels should be relaxing to read, in my opinion. I believe this is why romance novels are not taken seriously by some people – because they are mostly easy to read. But “easy to read” is definitely NOT easy to write. There is an incredible amount of skill involved in spoon-feeding the reader just the right amount so that he/she doesn’t get bored. It’s also incredibly difficult to write a novel that will keep the reader turning the pages, when he/she already knows the ending is going to be a happy one. I do think times are changing, and good romance writers are recognised for their skill. The RNA’s yearly award makes the pages of broadsheets such as The Guardian in the UK. My own romance novel will be published next year, and without exception everyone I know – from factory workers to computer programmers – has been well excited for me and recognises writing a romance novel as an achievement.
    I do agree about the covers, though! I know I said I liked to be spoon-fed a little when reading romantic fiction, but I don’t need yet another picture of a shaved chest to tell me a novel is a romance. I want the cover to reflect the story in a more meaningful way than this.

  54. AQ
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 16:21:34

    If a literary merit award for romantic fiction is something that readers feel is missing then a campaign to fund and create a literary award should be started. Dear Author and SBTB could use their platforms to get authors, librarians, publishers, media on board. Sound the rallying call, see if this is really something that other readers are interested in.

    I, for one, would be very interested in seeing the judging criteria created for the proposed award and how the award would reflect/capture the sheer size and breadth of the US marketed romance genre. I would also like a formal definition of literary merit as the term is too subjective as it stands.

    As far as covers and titles, those are superficialities. If you really want to talk about romance, I think you first need to define what the US marketed romance genre is in today’s marketplace.

    To me: it’s a western-centric hetrosexual monogamous idealized romantic courtship ritual of a very specific portion of the Northern European descendents within the American population whose cultural is based on Christian teachings/mythology which promotes an idealized view of a protestant work ethos / establishment that represents by the “American Dream” cultural belief system.

    The genre itself is much more expansive than that but I suspect most of the literary awards given would tend to fall within the bounds I just stated. Or the books would come from outside of the books marketed in the US as Romance.

    For me: I want to see the label. I want to see the author fully own that she or he was writing a romance to be labeled as romance. Otherwise the book may literary merit, have the great prose, plotting, characterization, women’s emotional issues, all the things that Janet claims are important (hey, I might even agree) but I’ll say it’s a cheat.

    I think the more important aspect that is missing from this discussion, but that Janet touched on briefly, is the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief in order to either buy into:

    1. The presented courtship ritual and view of western civilization;
    2. The over-the-top scenarios/tropes used to force and keep a romantic pairing together long enough to have a happy ending (as well as the short-hand that goes along with this and never makes it to the page because we’ve read it so many times before so we longer have to be shown or even told);
    3. Women’s roles either within an individual the story or the romance genre’s typical world-building requirements;
    4. Etc.

    In the end, I personally don’t care how beautiful the prose, how flawless the plotting or the storytelling ability. If I can’t suspend my disbelief and buy into the courtship ritual or all that goes with its telling within a particular piece, I will never find the literary merit Janet speaks of. Assuming of course that my interpretation of literary merit is the same as what Janet means here.

    And I don’t feel that this is just a matter of taste.

    Now if we’re simply talking about authorial craft… well that’s another kettle of fish, isn’t it?

    An aside: A female romantic lead is not by default a protagonist as it pertains to story roles. Typically most stories have one protagonist even if they have more than one point of view character with concrete goals of their own. But most characters within the story serve the one.

    And please, please, please stop telling me the romance genre is about female empowerment. An individual story within the genre can be but the genre as whole certainly isn’t.

  55. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 16:49:14

    The definition is way out for me. Heterosexual? Yes, I read that primarily, but what about menages? M/m? Christian, really? Christians don’t own romance. For instance Hindus have wonderfully romantic stories as part of their mythology. Is this award to be US only? What about Brit writers who write for US publishers? Or Harlequin writers, who are working for the London or Canada offices?
    I tend to think of romance as the development of a romantic relationship that has a happy ending.
    Awards and contests I tend to think as ego trips, and not much else. Yes, I’ve won some and been really happy when I did, but I’m not sure they have a real place. Because when I won them, I felt bad for the other people who didn’t, and wondered how anyone could decide what was “best.” And since nobody can read all the books out there, no competition is completely without bias.

  56. Janet/Robin
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 17:56:32


    And please, please, please stop telling me the romance genre is about female empowerment. An individual story within the genre can be but the genre as whole certainly isn’t.

    I would first differentiate “female empowerment” from feminism. I would not argue that Romance as a whole is feminist, but rather that it’s a book by book judgment. I definitely think that Romance is largely about power negotiations between the protags (and/or between the pro tags and larger society), though, and that one of the features of the hetero cohort of the genre is a female protagonist gaining power in/through a romantic attachment. Whether or not that becomes “female empowerment” is also a book by book judgment, IMO, and dependent on the kinds of power involved and the way the book portrays them relative to the hero and heroine.

    As for the politics of women’s writing, though, I definitely consider that a feminist issue, and the greater acceptance of female-authored fiction is IMO directly connected to the social, economic, and cultural power of women, regardless of the actual content of the books themselves.

  57. Linda Hilton
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 21:56:19

    My last RWA membership lapsed in 1998, so I have no idea what’s gone on with the RITAs since then, but the issue of respect for romance fiction had been debated both in and out of RWA for a long time before that. And while I think there are points of contact between the two — that is, RWA and the RITAs on one hand, respect for romance on the other — I’m not sure there’s much of a direct overlap.

    Much of RWA’s energy had always been directed toward the aspiring romance writers who made up the vast majority of the membership. Their objective was to get published — there’s sometimes an echo of “at any cost” following that — and respect for the genre was not much a consideration. How much of RWA’s current energy is still directed toward the aspiring? How has that changed with the rise of digital self-publishing? I don’t know. But it was definitely an issue during the entire time I was a member, and I would not be surprised if there’s at the very least a significant legacy from that.

    It seems a bit, well, disrespectful for a reader to say she won’t read a book with a clinch cover or a dopey title and then to say she thinks the genre needs more respect. Those clinch covers and dopey titles are what sell the damn books. That’s an essential part of the visible branding of the genre. Neither traditional publishers nor SPAs would be using them if they didn’t sell the books. To my way of thinking, turning one’s nose up at the covers and titles is also turning one’s nose up at the readers who buy them. Can a book sell well without a six-pack and a frothy but historically inaccurate gown? Sure, but chances are the author already has a substantial following, or it’s a knock-out of a book.

    I totally agree with you, Janet, that the determination of feminist and/or even female empowering needs to be on a book by book — and in some cases, author by author — basis. There is much romance fiction that is definitely not feminist (even within the myriad varieties of feminism). And there can be female empowerment that is anti-feminist.

    To a certain extent, though, I think the concept of “respectability” depends on how you want to define it. In other words, what would have to change for you (generic you, not specific) to say Romance is now treated with respect? Would changing the covers do it, even if that led to lower sales and less recognition? Romance novels now regularly populate the bestseller lists — which used to be considered an unattainable mark of “respect.” So which is it — the external Wizard of Oz-ish trappings of courage, intelligence, and caring, or the values that are embodied in the genre itself?

  58. Helena Fairfax
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 06:50:34

    @Linda Hilton You ask ” what would have to change for you…to say Romance is now treated with respect?”
    I personally believe times are changing, in the UK at least. If a romance writer writes well and is able to put a new slant on a romance trope, then that writer will be treated with respect. I’m just about to read Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, for example. The Independent’s review stated of this romance novel: “a tremendous example of what commercial fiction can do when in the hands of an expert”. A respectful review of a romance novel, in a broadsheet. It can happen.

  59. Carrie G
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 07:10:59

    @Linda Hilton: There are plenty of examples of non-clinch covers that sell well, even from authors who are lesser known. Covers can be sexy and romantic and not be embarrassingly melodramatic or ridiculous. Kristin Higgins’ covers have always been tasteful even when she was an unknown author and yet she sold well. Robyn Carr, Carla Kelly, etc, etc. Dare I say 50 Shades? Twilight? There are many books out there that prove you can sell plenty of books without making the readers cringe at the covers. I bristle at being called disrespectful simply because I prefer tasteful covers.

  60. Helena Fairfax
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 07:34:05

    @ Carrie G: I heartily agree with what you say about covers! And I’m sorry to keep coming back to this, but good romance authors will always find themselves treated with respect. I’ve just been reading The Guardian’s review of Marian Keyes, which states: “If you haven’t read her books, it’d be easy to dismiss them as frothy chick lit: after all, that’s how they’re packaged. Plus they’re extremely funny, and always have a happy ending. But they all deal with difficult issues” Another excellent critical review in a broadsheet. You can find it here:

  61. Sunita
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 09:51:16

    Great post and fascinating comment thread. For me, as a reader, there are two major problems with both the RITAs and the RT awards. First, as others have said, there are far too many categories. The RTs are particularly bad; is there really a need for 13 different awards in the historical romance sub-category alone?

    The even bigger problem, though, is lack of transparency. The RT awards are chosen by their reviewers but we don’t know who writes which review and we don’t know what process and criteria are used (to nominate a book, to choose a shortlist, or to choose a winner). We have slightly more information about RITAs, but not much, and I bet most readers don’t know what the process is.

    By contrast, the Booker, the Hugos, the Anthonys (Bouchercon’s mystery awards) and other relatively well-respected awards have transparent judging processes that are publicly available for readers to see. For example, the Hugos use instant runoff voting to determine the winner, which reduces the likelihood of a consensually preferred book losing to a less well-regarded one.

    Sniping about the Booker process and and outcome is a yearly sport, but it’s possible in part because we know how it works. When we don’t know the process, we wind up complaining about the results but less about the process (except for speculating that it’s bad) because the process is so opaque. This really isn’t fair to the winners, in my opinion, but it’s inevitable because it’s what we’ve got.

    I agree that the RITAs may have more prestige for authors because they’re peer awards (people say the same thing about the craft Oscars, where only people in the same craft category can vote). Any Romance award that wants to be taken seriously needs to have a transparent process of selection and a slate of judges who are seen as legitimate and knowledgeable assessors of quality (using quality in the broadest sense). Otherwise it’s just another People’s Choice or American-Idol type outcome, i.e., a bunch of people who may or may not be good at making decisions about what good romance is.

  62. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 11:44:54

    I’m not sure if these issues have been addressed already, or if they are even raised in the post, but I’ve seen some misconceptions about the RITA judging and entry process floating around.

    1. My understanding is that judges get the opportunity to enter first, not the only opportunity. Haven’t many non-RWA members entered and won? I think you have to be a member to judge, not to enter or win. And some judges don’t enter (like me, this year).

    2. It costs $40 to enter, which is why authors self-nominate. If readers nominated authors, the most popular authors would get nominated. If there was a committee, would its members have to read every romance released that year before deciding who to nominate? And then ask the author if they’d like to pay $40 to participate?

    3. Every year I have more books to judge. I think more authors/books enter every year. Some authors put out 7-8 books and enter them all. My guess is that the new guidelines and categories are an attempt to keep the contest manageable.

    RWA wants to celebrate books with happy endings and a strong central romance. I don’t feel that this is out of step with RWA’s goals, or that a focus on “romance” over other elements is a big surprise for an organization of Romance Writers. Whenever rules change and categories narrow, some will be disappointed. The category I was nominated in (Series Adventure/Suspense) has also been eliminated, but I haven’t heard any complaints on that front.

    Thanks Robin/Janet. Great topic.

  63. Ros
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 13:32:29

    @Jill Sorenson: I think that this year, there seem to be a lot of authors who missed out on entering because all the spots were already taken by people who had volunteered to judge. So technically you don’t have to judge to enter, but in practice it seems like you do.

    If I were running the RITAs, I’d get publishers to nominate and set a limit of books they could nominate (maybe as a percentage of output? maybe as a straight limit). They don’t accept self-pubs anyway, do they? That would limit the total number of entries and if they limited the number of awards, that would also help limit the amount of books anyone needed to read.

  64. Anne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 13:36:00

    I can’t say I respect modern romance, so I would actually agree with those denigrating it. Somewhen between Georgette Heyer and the 1970s (or thereabouts) the genre has imploded on itself, rejected fascinating satellite parts as well as its true origins, and became a simple money-printing machine.

    The problem is that along with shedding its roots it also shed any and all chance to encompass brilliance. “Wuthering Heights” these days would be literary fiction and that’s where all excellent writing dealing with love and relationships these days ends up. Definitely not within mainstream romance with its shoddy, cheap covers, it’s preordained HEAs and the stale taste of tropes mostly so tired they prop themselves up in droves.

    It is quite telling that where other genres, like mysteries and thrillers, criminal fiction or science fiction, have actually expanded and stepped outside their boxes to the point that not just the literary crowd finds them interesting, but also writes them, romance has retracted further and further into itself, marginalising what it used to be.

    By which I want to say that I’m not astonished. If female self-awareness and feminine pride (in literature) extends exactly as far as a soppy, sickly sweet HEA then no one ought to be astonished about the lack of general acceptance. As it now is romance is of absolutely no consequence, except that it earns its authors money.

    That the one award now rejects books spanning genres, something which makes them far more acceptable to readers seeking for what romance used to be formerly, is point precisely in line with what I am saying. It’s not going to get better that way.

    Or in other words, I believe romance is exactly where it wants to be. Why anyone bemoans that I don’t understand. For that I’d need to see a wish for change.

  65. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 14:24:54

    @Ros: That’s an interesting idea, but publisher nominations would likely go to the most popular authors as well. Pubs/editors want to keep their stars happy. I don’t believe they accept self-pub–yet.

  66. Ros
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 15:06:42

    @Jill Sorenson: You don’t think they’d nominate the books they think are most likely to win? Maybe I’m just not cynical enough. ;)

  67. Dabney
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 15:24:27

    @Anne: Wow. Really? I have to wonder what you’re reading that makes you so sure romance is a shitty genre these days. May I say again the words “so sure.” Your confidence in your fairly narrow perspective is impressive.

  68. Anne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 16:26:45


    Oh, I wouldn’t say just these days. Ever since modern romance separated itself from the original genre it used to be there’s that problem. If one reads back it also gets clear pretty fast that the narrowing or implosion I’m talking about is still occurring. Just have a look at any DA discussion about HEA and it’s “absolute necessity”, and the fact that current romance is rather hidebound and one-sided compared to what the genre used to be is out in the open. I remember such a discussion revolving around several of Georgette Heyer’s books for instance. That was quite hilarious. It’s the same here as anywhere, I haven’t met with many readers or authors willing to chance stepping out of their box during the past couple of decades.

    So yes, wow, really. I by the way like love/relationship stories, not necessarily modern romance, though there used to be a significant overlap. That is lessening continuously. But of course I’m quite willing to learn different and look at acknowledged romances without a HEA and without a HFN. Got any to show me? I’d really be intrigued.

  69. Dabney
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 16:46:30

    @Anne: Why on earth should the definition of good literature be one that excludes some sort of happy ending?

  70. Ann Somerville
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 17:17:05


    Don’t be silly, Dabney. How can you tell you’ve experienced great art if you don’t feel suicidal when you’ve finished the book?

  71. Carolyne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 17:40:17

    I think there’s a legitimate question in there. Is the definition of “Romance” the HEA or HFN, as a limiting qualification–just a Mystery should have a mystery, Police Procedural should have a crime, Science Fiction should have some sort of speculation. Just having “a relationship” may not be enough for the Romance label.

    I’m ok with that– but I don’t always want to know in advance that there will be a HEA/HFN, so I like reading books that don’t guarantee it. I don’t feel a passion to label them Romance, though it’s nice to know when a story is about relationship first and foremost. What should that be called? Seriously, I’m not sure.

  72. Dabney
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 17:47:44

    @Ann Somerville: I don’t care what you’re packing, you can’t make me read The Corrections again. Or The Road. Or one of those ponderous Mantel books.

  73. Carrie G
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 18:02:18

    Well I ahve no compunction to say that all genres have limiting definitions. All of them. A mystery won’t be very appealing if there isn’t a…well…a mystery to solve! If there is no justice, or no solving of the mystery at any rate, then it is completely unsatisfying as a mystery. It might be “literature” but it isn’t a mystery. Romances, love stories, etc with no satisfying ending may also be “literature” but they aren’t part of the genre of romance. So I say we just keep imp0loding and let the snobs go read the all the wonderful depressing literature they want.

    And Anne, don’t turn up your nose at the rest of us. You have no idea how many books on the BBC’s 100 must read literature books I’ve read. How many of the classics, or ancient lit, philosophy, etc. If I choose to forgo what people are calling “literature” today, that’s my choice. I don’t look down on other genre readers, even the genre of “literary fiction.”

    It ain’t literature if the dog doesn’t die! ;-)

  74. Carolyne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 18:30:05

    I don’t think it’s fair to label any book without a HEA as depressing. Sometimes bittersweet is sweet enough.

  75. Carolyne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 18:39:43

    I don’t think it’s fair to label any book without a HEA as depressing. Sometimes bittersweet is sweetly beautiful.

    It may not be what one wants to read at a given time. I’m still not sure what to call a “romance without a guaranteed ending,” or how to find it reliably amongst the general “literature.”

  76. Carrie G
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 19:16:25

    @Carolyne: Nor do I. I just don’t think bittersweet endings are “romance.” Plenty of wonderful books have no HEA. My point is that having an HEA doesn’t make a book a piece of crap, either, just like knowing the mystery will be solved doesn’t make the mystery genre crap. And honestly, literary fiction seems to despise a happy ending. It seems half the people have to be miserable for it to be “good enough” to please the critics.

  77. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 19:41:41


    I’m still not sure what to call a “romance without a guaranteed ending,”

    Generally, love story.

  78. Janet/Robin
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 20:16:31

    The thing is, most of the books that have most strongly influenced Romance are NOT technically genre Romance (e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc.). Wuthering Heights is romantic, but in the way of much 18th and 19th C Romanticism, which is very different from what we understand as genre Romance (or even so-called love stories); in fact, I’d argue it’s closer to Classical Tragedy, with more catharsis than happiness and fertility in the end.

    There’s a good case to be made for genre Romance commencing with Edith Hull’s The Sheik, published in 1919 (and used as a veritable blueprint for Violet Winspear’s Blue Jasmine), but in any case, I think that bashing classic literature or literary fiction (besides the pot/kettle problem) shifts the focus away from a very important point: namely that genre Romance is itself derived from classic literature, including, and especially, Classical Comedy. Not funny in the ha ha sense, necessarily, works produced within this genre generally feature a young couple fighting to be together against an antagonist, often an older individual who represented the old social order (as opposed to the younger, ideally more progressive social order promised by the union of the young lovers). Comedies often end in marriage, symbolic of social stability, happiness, and fertility, and while they do not necessarily focus on romantic love in the way genre Romances do, there is a strong generic resemblance. And then there are all the works of classic literature and fiction that have influenced Romance (P&P, Taming of the Shrew, Pygmalion, etc.). Romance has a decent literary pedigree, but I don’t think we stop to really trace it often enough.

    As to the issue of the HEA/HFN, I do think some sort of romantically happy ending is part of the genre, and I don’t think that makes it inferior in any way. I don’t think it makes the genre superior, either, rather that it’s a characteristic and function in the genre, much like the solution to a mystery provides closure and emotional/social justice for Mysteries. How is a relatively optimistic ending any more limiting than the solving of a mystery?

    Sure there are characteristics that some readers insist must be part of Romance (two protagonists rather than polyamorous protags, for example), but I’d argue they’re more about what those readers identify as romantic, not definitive limitations for the genre, even if some readers won’t read books that have certain elements or devices. For example, I think it was Eileen Dreyer who argued that forced seduction/rape was not a valid element of a Romance, but clearly that’s not a defining boundary for the genre. Ditto with stereotyping different genres (e.g. lit fic has a depressing ending) — that’s a judgment that some people have, but it’s not a universal experience for lit fic readers or a defining genre characteristic.

  79. Carolyne
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 21:34:58

    @Moriah Jovan: I can’t quantify why I find the term “love story” cloying, in terms of what I’d expect the book to be like, but the term “romance” perfectly fine. It’s not you, book, it’s me….

    (Sorry about the double posting above. I shouldn’t try to post on a moving train…too many tunnels.)

  80. Helena Fairfax
    Dec 21, 2012 @ 05:05:04

    @Anne “I’m quite willing to learn different and look at acknowledged romances without a HEA and without a HFN. Got any to show me? I’d really be intrigued. ” I’m sad to hear you haven’t discovered any romance novels worth reading in twenty years. I agree there are millions of tons of stale crap out there, but please don’t throw the chocolates out with the wrapping. I’d recommend Jojo Moyes Me Before You, which has had excellent reviews from all quarters, is a romance with a difference and which I strongly suspect doesn’t have a HEA. (Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my holiday reading list and finding out will be exciting.) There are some other romances you might like on my holiday reading list: . Is there any book from any genre you HAVE actually enjoyed in the past 20 years? I am equally intrigued to find out, as you seem pretty dismissive of most things.

  81. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 21, 2012 @ 06:57:53

    And this is why I’m a confirmed end reader.
    I’m a literature graduate, feel no need to repeat that every time I pick up a romance book, and I want my happy ending. The whole point of the genre is the journey towards the happy ending. And I’m talking genre romance, not romance or Romance or any other variety.
    There’s also “women’s fiction” which is a term I don’ t particularly like, or hey, how about just “fiction”?

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