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Isn’t It Romantic?

Sunita has a nice post up at her personal blog detailing some of her thoughts about a conversation she and I had the other day about the difference between a Romance (objective genre classification) and a book one finds romantic (emotional identification on the part of the reader). I want to piggy back on her post and push the issue a little further here, because lately I’ve been feeling like there’s a conflation of these two terms when discussing books, especially those that tend to be more envelope pushing in any given direction (R. Lee Smith’s The Last Hour of Gann, for example).

Moreover, I think that “romantic” is starting to become a marker of genre Romance for any number of readers, not just in what they find readable, but beyond that, what they would classify as books belonging to the genre. In other words, “romantic” is starting to feel somewhat prescriptive (and proscriptive) to me, in a way I worry may be setting arbitrary limits on a genre that – if you take it back to Hull’s 1919 book, The Sheik, has always held the petal to the metal when it comes to topics such as sex, violence, sexual violence, torture, and extreme power dynamics between romantic protagonists.

When this first became an issue for me was back when there was a lot of resistance within and from RWA to the idea that you didn’t have to have a hero and heroine as the two “official” romantic leads – that you could have same sex couples or even polyamorous relationships, as long as the story conformed to the basic genre tenets of a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. The same argument was being made about same sex or polyamorous Romance that I now see being made about books that some readers feel promote rape or have too controlling heroes, or the like: it isn’t romantic; therefore, it should not be classified as Romance.

Let me say up front that I think the “romantic” element of genre Romance is key – it’s often what invests readers in a story and in the development of the characters toward their happy ending. It is, in fact, a crucial element of what makes the genre work for so many readers.

However, it is also an element that differs from reader to reader, and, in fact, can make a book an absolute top of the genre, comfort re-read for one reader, and a wallbanger/dog toy/never to see the light of day again failure for another reader. Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful falls into the first category for me, but Catherine Coulter’s Rosehaven hits the second with a wallbanging skid. Anne Stuart’s Ritual Sins is a book so crazy I can’t help but find it crackstastically appealing, but if I never have to read Into the Fire again I’ll be a happy woman. I know that many Romance readers adore Sandra Brown, but Hawk O’Toole’s Hostage made me scared to read anything else by her. I used to love Shannon McKenna’s Romantic Suspense books, but at some point I felt that the violence tipped back toward the heroine in ways I could no longer stomach. Still, I know other readers who love her books but can’t stand Kristen Ashley’s, for similar reasons. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time wondering why The Last Hour of Gann has been so under the microscope, when Captive Prince seems to have escaped the same level of scrutiny.

Whatever complex level of analysis we could apply to each of these books, defending and explaining why one works for us while another doesn’t, at some level it seems to come down to what each of us find romantic. Or, to quote Sunita’s masterful phrasing: We all have boundaries about what we’re willing to be lied to about (for want of a better term) and what is beyond that boundary.

At a fundamental level, reading is about trust, and about being able to trust a book to take us where we want to go. Some readers are firm about what they want that experience to be; other readers are willing to be led into unknown areas under certain circumstances. There is nothing wrong with either way of reading. Expectations can, however, make or break trust between a reader and a book, and in that break there can be hard feelings. After all, Romance is about feelings, and about generating a level of sympathy in the reader that allows her/him to move with the protagonists to the end of their journey in collusion with their happiness. When something happens that the reader does not consent to, or that thwarts the reader’s expectations of how things should be, it can create a harsh, severe break between reader and book.

And beyond the personal reactions we all have, there are elements of the genre that are routinely under scrutiny. We at Dear Author have a long history of singling out different themes, tropes, motifs, and devices and taking them apart to question their ongoing use in the genre. This is a thoughtful and important element in genre discussion and critique.

Where I think things get dicey for me is when we move from looking at specific elements and parsing those through a close reading, to questioning a book’s categorical identity as genre Romance because of those elements. In some cases, that might be a warranted discussion – when, for example, one or more of the protagonists dies at the end of a novel. Can a book fulfill the generic requirements of a Romance if one of the romantic partners is dead? I don’t know, but I’d say this is an open question, one to which the answer will vary from reader to reader. Just like some readers prefer a HEA to a HFN, because if they cannot imagine the couple happy in the long run, the book is not successful as a Romance to them.

However, there is a difference between a book being a failed Romance and a book not being a Romance at all. In the first case, the book fails because the reader cannot find sufficient reason to trust the romantic promise of the book; in the second case, the book fails to meet the very basic and general criteria established to identify genre. I know that there are cases where those criteria seem subjective (if the reader doesn’t find the ending emotionally satisfying and optimistic, will they call the book a Romance?). In fact, Pam Rosenthal has written a very interesting essay in which she argues that Jo Baker’s Longbourn fits the definition of a genre Romance. But I think it’s very often the case that the reader can tell that the book intends for its ending to read as those things, even if the reader doesn’t buy it. If the romantic protagonists proclaim their love and some sense of commitment to each other’s happiness, wouldn’t that qualify as a emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending? The absence of those things might knock a book from being classified as genre Romance, but if they are present and simply unconvincing to a reader, I would argue that’s a failure of the romantic project of the Romance.

Here’s the thing: not everyone reads for the same reasons. For some readers, extreme power dynamics can be emotionally cathartic or symbolic of other issues in their lives or society. For some readers, non-human protagonists can play out social dramas in a way readers may relate to in a new or previously uninvestigated way. Just like the age-old rape fantasy can allow some readers to indulge in a sexual fantasy without guilt or the fear and loss of control real life rape entails.

Perhaps there is the opportunity to work through a sexual trauma or to think about how people do or do not negotiate a breach in trust within a relationship. Perhaps there is a desire to experience a certain kind of domination or submission within a safe, completely fictionalized space. Perhaps there is a sense of emotional justice that is fulfilled when certain types of violence are perpetrated on a heroine or hero. Perhaps there is simply curiosity about how things would be within a context completely unknown or unknowable in real life. Perhaps a reader would like to explore certain aspects of a different lifestyle — polyamory, for example — in a space where there is no judgment from friends or family? Who among us really knows why each of us reads unless we feel safe in sharing those secrets with other readers?

Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post: because the more comfortable we, as readers and authors, are with calling books that fail for us romantically not Romance, the more we’re narrowing the definition of the genre and limiting the stories authors feel safe telling. Even when we have the best of intentions – trying to minimize misogyny or racism, for example – the structure and functions of fiction are so complex and multi-layered that I think we risk unintended – and wanted – consequences. Think about all the Romances that would not exist if you threw all the books that contain protagonist-to-protagonist rape – how many books would be eliminated? How many of those books would you miss and what would the genre look like without them?

What is the one element in the genre you find most (i.e. deal-breakingly) unromantic? What book(s) – if any — proved to be the exception to that rule, and why did they work for you?

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!

65 Comments

  1. Jennifer Lohmann
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 05:35:21

    Whenever I talk about the romance genre to librarians, I always stress the simple RWA rules for a book: 1) central love story and 2) emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. One of the great strengths of the genre is that satisfying those criteria leaves a lot of room for differing tastes.

    As for me, I find it unromantic when a hero calls the heroine “little bit.” Not only do I find it patronizing, it’s the kind of generic nickname I think the hero calls all his ladies and, if he has to come up with a nickname for the heroine, it should be unique to her. Also, I’m creeped out when the hero breaks into the heroine’s house to watch her sleep. I bought it in Twilight because I was caught up in the feeling of being sixteen and obsessively in love, but where the characters are adults–very stalker. There are books in the romance canon that have both these elements and the genre would be a far poorer, less interesting place without them.

    I would say that the hero beating the heroine would be a deal-breaker for me, but I loved Outlander. I completely bought why Jamie beat Claire and also why he would never do it again (which was important for enjoying the rest of that story).

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  2. Nika
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 06:44:11

    For me a romance novel needs to have more than a HFN, it needs to have a developing relationship that is (reasonably) safe, sane and consensual. Otherwise I shelf it under “relationship erotica”, which examines relationship fantasies instead of sex fantasies. Thinking of it that way helps me deal with plotlines that would have me screaming with rage at their toxitity otherwise. No exploitation of huge power differentials (where the woman is at the lower rung), sexual harrassment, rape, slut shaming, … for me, please!

    My test is whether I would advise my mother/sister/daughter/friend to avoid a particular relationship, if they were in a similar position as the heroine. If so, it’s not a romance in my eyes, but a relationship fantasy/erotica.

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  3. Sirius
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:12:37

    Oh definitely – I always try to remind myself that when something is not romantic for me, it may still be a romance and belong to the genre. I usually do not find rape between protagonists romantic but of course I have couple of exceptions ( the book for me was romantic overall – I still do not like reading rape and violence and skip when reread). ” Bloodraven” by PL Nunn – very very VERY violent by my standards but also incredibly romantic.

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  4. Jess
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:23:36

    There’s this really fantastic bookstore in my town and it has a gigantic and varied romance selection. I almost always find the book I’m looking for and only a few of the staff members get snippy at me for wanting romance. But, they shelve V.C. Andrews books in the romance section. As a librarian and a genre reader, I have strong feelings about genres and their boundaries so I asked once why they gave Andrews (a horror writer) a whole shelf in the Romance section. I was told that Andrews’ books have sex in them and, therefore, should go in Romance. At the time I was baffled by that response but it’s a common enough assumption. All romance novels have sex and all novels with lots of sex are romantic. But in light of the sex scenes in Flowers in the Attic (I’ll admit that’s the only Andrews book I’ve read so I could be completely wrong about her), I must dig my heels in and say that the sex in that book is far from romantic.

    I agree that readers need to be careful about throwing out too much so that we might avoid putting too many constrictions on the genre. The genre of Romance is a wonderful place where almost anything can happen. But I do have certain elements that I avoid such as one of the protagonists dying (I’m looking at you, Sparks!) and cheating. I have a difficult time believing the HEA when those elements come into play.

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  5. DB Cooper
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:25:20

    I think you nailed it for me when you pulled out Sunita’s quote . Also, when you highlighted that there’s a difference between a failed romance, and a book not being a romance at all. It reminded me of a point someone made in my youth (paraphrasing here), that a misuse is still a use, you just disagree with the way its used.

    I for one find the definitions useful, in part because it helps us qualify whether something is “in” or “out” of something, and then allows us to discuss whether this definition is just, and whether its boundaries should be pushed or in what direction. To me, it is a matter of discrimination (without the words positive or negative connotations) because after a certain point, it’s human nature not to accept all possible things as having the same nature or definition, one feels inclined to draw a line in the sand…and after that, inclined to hold up a shining example of that definition.

    “In” or “out” of that definition, we often find the extreme cases to be excellent rallying points to support, and put our weight behind in order to promote the things that agree with us and defend our positions (these become our “heroines and heroes” really…but now I’m getting abstract and philosophical). These often become our best agents of change, as well as community.

    And because I’m always of two minds about anything (at least), this is one of the things I find wonderful about selfpublishing, ebooks, indies, and yes: internet discussion. By empowering more and more groups, we are allowing ourselves to redefine these terms, these thoughts and these categories we have. Of course, I appreciate irony too, and I think that the more we push in a million directions, the more important it is for us to have solid (mostly solid) definitions. Certainly as you point out, we all seek some sort of familiarity, trust, and assurance that when we pick up X, it resembles X.

    Suffice it to say, for me anyways, I think those definitions (and by extension constrictions) ARE important for us to have, and that they should exist even as we redefine or move the bar one direction or another, or make our own personal exceptions.

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  6. Sirius
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:25:41

    If I pick up a book which I think is a Romance, protagonist dying would annoy me too, but this would exclude the book from Romance by definition would it not? We can’t get optimistic/ hopeful ending for the couple when one of them is dead?

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  7. DB Cooper
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:42:31

    Also, because I like to ramble, Janet, I’d like to throw a tangential wrench into all this (and ask for your direct opinion if I could). But speaking of definitions…

    I hear Romance (with a capital “R”) and “the genre Romance” and I can’t help but think of another definition I’ve been taught, that of “Classical” or “Heroic Romance”, stories like Gawain and the Green Knight, or Le Morte de Arthur.

    As I was taught (and, boy did I rail against this when it was first put upon me) it’s the sort of (massive super-) genre that things like Fantasy belong to instead, as opposed to Fiction. I suppose–instead of remember–that “romance” (as in the B&N bookshelf genre) falls into this category too, in some ways tracing a line to stories of Courtly Romance, and in others containing fantastical elements we are supposed to accept as par for the course (under thirty billionaires who may or may not own half the city)

    As both a scholar and a fixture in this community, how do you see that definition of R/romance. Is it outmoded? Is it a patriarchal leftover? Or is it perhaps something that you switch on and off, depending on where you’re discussing, who you’re talking to, or what you’re analyzing?

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  8. DB Cooper
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:49:42

    @Sirius:

    I’m not sure I’d agree, aside from also possibly being annoyed. I mean, I have plenty of old flames I have wonderful memories of, and that have in some ways influenced or educated my life, but are no longer a part of it.

    In a cruel way, if any of them were dead, it would not diminish or change what they’ve done for me. It may in fact–hollywood style complete with cheesy, sweeping, orchestral soundtrack–solidify the little fire I keep going for them, along with whatever optimism and life view they have imparted on to me. forever, and ever (lots of hearts here, etc).

    In such a view, I might consider that a romance. Though I suppose, it does raise an interesting counter question to the original. At what point do we call something “This is romantic, but not Romance”?

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  9. Sirius
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 07:56:00

    DB Cooper – of course there are plenty romantic and beautiful stories with tragic endings. I thought though that Janet argued that to be considered genre Romance it needs to at least loosely have optimistic or hopeful ending and for me personally death of the protagonist envokes sadness – not happiness . IMO of course . Let’s take the most obvious example – is “Romeo and Juliette” a Romance?

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  10. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 08:49:29

    If you take the romantic story out and there’s nothing left, then it’s a romance. And of course, as all the commentators above know, we’re talking genre romance, not dictionary definition (I hate it when people quote the definition to support their idea of their story being a romance).
    Romance is far and away the biggest selling of the genres, so people are always trying to muscle in on it. Do you remember the vampire trilogy a few years ago where the vampire hero was longing for death? Then he dies in the end and the heroine goes off with a secondary character. There was an absolute furore. Anyone remember that one? The publishers marketed it as a romance. If they’d called it a love story, that would have worked much better. I don’t think the author ever wrote anything else, under that name, anyway.
    I hate when the hero treats the heroine like shit. When he doesn’t trust her, and even when he gets to know her better, he takes the word of an old girlfriend or someone else over hers or uses very flimsy evidence to hate on her. When he forces her to become his mistress. How is that not rape?
    So a death of one of the protagonists at the end – no way. And no cheating, as in “we’ll meet one day in Heaven.”
    The ending has to have the people involved in the romance, whether it’s two or three or more, happy together at the end. One exception is the menage story, where I don’t mind two of the three or more pairing off, as long as that’s been set up early in the story. But no deaths.
    That’s why Nicholas Sparks doesn’t write genre romance. There are plenty of other names for it – love story, story with romantic elements, women’s fiction, so call it one of those.
    That’s why I’m a confirmed end-reader.

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  11. Isobel Carr
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 09:34:33

    I’m just not onboard for abusive heroes. If I would rather see the hero dead than happily in love, the book’s just not gonna work for me (but I would still call these books romances if they are written to have a central love story, even though they utterly fail the second part of the definition for me). One thing I do notice a lot in “our community” is people wanting to fold into romance books from outside the genre that conform (for them) to the second part of the genre definition. The Last Hour of Gann seems to be a prime example of this. The writer didn’t write it as a romance, didn’t intend for it to be read as a romance, and I might have been able to read it as a horror or SF, but I can NOT approach it as a romance. It isn’t a failed romance though, because it was never meant to be part of the genre in the first place and I think it’s unfair to attempt to make it conform to genre boundaries (unlike so many of the “motorcycle club” books I keep seeing that have “heroes” I think belong in prison).

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  12. Jane
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 09:47:06

    @Isobel Carr: So the author defines what genre the book is and not the reader or the story?

    I’m the one who labeled The Last Hour of Gann as a romance. How far outside the community would you say I stood? And Meoraq isn’t abusive in the book but maybe, by your definition, we should exclude Linda Howard, Jane Feather, Anne Stuart, to name a few from writing romance. Those outsiders are really trying to pull a fast one, right?

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  13. Sunita
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 10:00:34

    @Isobel Carr: I agree that it’s unfair to blame Smith for the things a romance reader doesn’t like about it when she didn’t write it as a romance. BUT … it is still genre-conforming because it has both elements of the definition. As far as I can tell from the descriptions by people who have read the book, it focuses on a central romantic relationship and it ends on an optimistic note for the couple. Granted, it’s a long-ass book and there are plenty of things going on, but it sounds to me as if there would be a gaping hole in the book if you took out the love story, and there is clearly a relationship arc (according to the reviews and discussion).

    It’s the same process by which people have folded other books not written specifically within the genre into the genre, starting with P&P. I don’t consider P&P to be a romance, and I think you probably don’t either, but if the definition is THAT broad, lots of books (including P&P) are genre-conforming.

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  14. Isobel Carr
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 10:50:46

    @Jane: I would say all the way out, and yes, I think authors get a say in what genre their books are. If Gann conforms in your opinion, then you can read it as a romance all damn day. That doesn’t mean everyone else has to approach it that way, or that everyone else can approach it that way, or that the author or anyone else has to agree with you. I have never read any of the authors you mention, but if they’re writing it as romance, and it’s being published as romance, then it’s fair for readers to judge it as romance.

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  15. Isobel Carr
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 10:56:38

    @Sunita: You are correct, I don’t think P&P is a genre romance. I think it can be read that way, and I see people happily reading it that way, but I don’t read it that way. And yes, it’s the same process. And I think the PROCESS is problematic.

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  16. Robin/Janet
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:11:17

    @Isobel Carr: I disagree with the premise that authors decide genre. I think that’s a more objective decision that’s made at the level of the text, and I agree with Jane that Gann fits the accepted RWA definition. It would be interesting to apply Regis’s categories to it, as well, as Pam Rosenthal did to Longbourn. I haven’t even thought to undertake that project but may in the future.

    (note: much of what follows is me building off your comment to more general points, so even though I’m technically addressing you, I’m not directing everything I say at your comments)

    However, if we’re going to say that authors can have a role in determining if their books are genre Romance, then don’t we have to extend that same right to anyone else, including readers or those who want to take advantage of the label for their own marketing? This is one reason I’m wary of letting the definition be so subjectively determined, although if I have to choose between more inclusion or more exclusion, I’ll go for inclusion every time. As I said, the issue that brought this romantic v. Romance issue to my attention was the question of whether m/m or f/f Romance could really be genre Romance. I know that sounds preposterous to many of us, but my argument is that even when that same exclusionary thinking comes from what — for lack of a better description — I’d term the more progressively liberal side, it’s equally problematic.

    I tend to see the problem of publishers (or authors acting as publishers) taking advantage of the romance label a related but different issue. For me, that’s about capitalizing on the label for sales. What I don’t want to see happen is that readers and authors become defensively narrowing in response, which IMO does a different and far more dangerous kind of violence to the genre in discouraging the kind of innovation that comes from experimentation and hybridity.

    Whatever people may think of books like 50 Shades or Motorcycle Man or Gann, these are books that I think gain popularity because they manage to build on genre staples in a way that feels fresh to readers. I think there are all sorts of reasons for that, and I definitely don’t think a book has to look like any of those to break out that way (and readers who like one of those books may not like the others — I am certainly not the target audience for all of them, for example), but I think there is a balls to the walls fuck the rulez kind of energy around them that makes them stand out for some readers. IMO there is room for so many different kinds of books that do just that, and, moreover, that it’s easier to get more innovation once even one of those doors gets kicked open, even if it’s not the one any particular author or reader wants to go through themselves.

    @DB Cooper: That original definition of Romance is alive and well, which is one of the reasons I try to use “genre Romance” as often as possible. However, when I’m talking to other genre Romance readers within a genre community context, I will also use “Romance,” because I think it’s mutually understood that we’re talking about genre. If, however, I was working within an academic context, I would differentiate the terms right off the bat, so that there would be no confusion. Also, there is a literary connection between the two types of Romances, such that genre Romance is a very distant literary ancestor; however, I think it’s also important to go through the family tree, so to speak, to get a sense of some of the different branches and how they all relate.

    It’s sort of like the P&P question. Does P&P conform to the genre Romance definition? Yes. However, because genre Romance did not exist when the book was written (and by did not exist I mean that some of the basic social and literary constructs that grew into genre Romance were fully present and developed), I would not classify it as a Romance. I know that many readers disagree with me, and that’s okay, because I think it’s more an academic distinction than a practical one, and in the end, I’d rather be more than less inclusive. Still, I think genre Romance as we mean it is really a modern phenomenon (and by that I mean turn of the 20th C, and especially the social and literary consciousness that emerged in the wake of WWI).

    @Sirius: I seem to remember that Lynn Kurland has a book where one of the protagonists is a ghost – is that correct? Also, didn’t one of the major genre Romance authors write a book in which one or both of the main characters becomes a ghost at the end? I seem to remember some controversy around that issue, but I can’t for the life of me remember the book or the author.

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  17. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:14:39

    @Isobel Carr:

    I would say all the way out, and yes, I think authors get a say in what genre their books are.

    An author can say it all day long. Doesn’t mean readers are going to agree one little bit. Ask me how I know.

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  18. Evangeline Holland
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:25:50

    This topic has always bemused me. I came to the genre through books that are no longer considered Romance–sprawling British sagas, gothics/woman-in-jeopardy, Edna Ferber/Faith Baldwin-type stuff, and so on. As a result, my view about romance has been heroine-centric: how has the hero and the romantic plot influenced her growth? Has it been for the good (for the character)? Yadda yadda yadda.

    Overall, it seems that the conflict over what is and what isn’t romantic, ergo what is and what isn’t a romance novel, is rooted in the hero. It’s the Tacks, Christian Greys, Meoraqs, Travises, etc that have uprooted and unsettled Romancelandia, not the actual romance (the plot). Part of me is concerned with this because the tenor can come across as subtly reinforcing the belief that women are too susceptible to poor judgement and poor decision-making (over romantic partners) via the books they read…but I could be reaching.

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  19. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:30:09

    @Evangeline Holland:

    This topic has always bemused me. I came to the genre through books that are no longer considered Romance–sprawling British sagas, gothics/woman-in-jeopardy, Edna Ferber/Faith Baldwin-type stuff, and so on. As a result, my view about romance has been heroine-centric: how has the hero and the romantic plot influenced her growth? Has it been for the good (for the character)? Yadda yadda yadda.

    Yes, that.

    My view of romance is so much broader than it seems to be right now that sometimes I’m breathless at how squeezed I feel.

    No, this isn’t a romance because X.

    No, this isn’t a romance because Y.

    No, this isn’t a romance because A through V.

    W and Z ARE, however, romance.

    There is very little left.

    Thank you, Robin, for saying this.

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  20. Janet
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:36:17

    @Evangeline Holland: I’m glad you brought this issue of the hero up, because I’ve been similarly concerned (or what I think is similarly concerned): namely, that there is a judgment made about a hero without consideration of the hero-heroine dynamic in the book. I don’t know whether that’s because different readers read for different emphasis (I am heroine-centric in my reading, for example), or for some other reason.

    But when, for example, I see Tack being lambasted for being a controlling a-hole, with no analysis of how Tyra functions in the relationship, I want to respond with all of the ways in which Tyra stands up to him, gives it right back to him, actually enjoys the battle, incites change in him, etc. And in a weird way, I feel like not looking at all that does a disservice to her as a heroine – to her strengths, to her desires, to her freely chosen preferences.

    Is theirs a relationship *I* would want? HELL NO!!! A guy like Tack would freaking exhaust me. But I’m also not a reader who needs to find a relationship personally romantic to enjoy a genre Romance. Other readers do, so I know I need to be sensitive to that. Still, I’ve also seen more than a few assertions that a book like Motorcycle Man should not be considered Romance, etc., and that frustrates me more, for all the reasons I’ve articulated.

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  21. Tamara
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:38:12

    @Lynne Connolly
    “If you take the romantic story out and there’s nothing left, then it’s a romance.”

    What if you take the romantic story out and there’s still a story left? If it has a plot that still works, outside of the romance in the story–that isn’t romance?

    The most unromantic element, far and away, is the hero who forces himself on the heroine (or the other hero.) Rape isn’t romantic and the hero who rapes is a loser I can never respect or feel any empathy for. No exceptions.

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  22. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:45:24

    Tamara, I’d say in that case it was something else. Like a thriller with romantic elements, or a whodunnit with a love story.
    Just seems a fairly simple way of working it out. The main thing that the story is, is what it is. (huh?) Anyway, it’s not down to me. I write the story, send it to my editor and she says, “Oh, this is a paranormal romance, we’ll sell it like that.” Fine by me. But I write for me first, then edit with a market in mind, send it in as that, and then let the professionals decide.
    While I actively avoid motorcycle club romances that’s my choice, and why the hell aren’t they romances? I avoid “I hate you, I love you” romances too, but that doesn’t stop it being a romance. That’s personal choice.
    For me, a romance is a story which is primarily about a developing romantic relationship with two or more people that ends in a happy-for-now or a happy-ever-after. When I pick up a romance, that’s what I’m looking for.

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  23. Janet
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:49:14

    @Lynne Connolly and @Tamara: I think it depends on what you mean by “nothing left.” Because there are clearly genre Romances that are written as epic stories, and if you pulled out the romantic thread, there would be plenty of “stuff” left. Perhaps it’s more that the central love story, being central and all, provides a foundation for the story such that its absence would seriously wound or virtually impoverish what’s left.

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  24. Jennifer Lohmann
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:50:24

    @Isobel Carr:

    I also disagree with the idea that authors get to decide what genre their books fall into. As Robin/Janet said, the genre should be based on the text, not the author’s opinion. If the reader must take the author’s opinion about genre into account, then why doesn’t the author also get to decide other text-based interpretation, like whether or not the reader buys into the relationship between the hero and heroine?

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  25. Rei Hab
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:52:12

    @Janet:

    I really think your Motorcycle Man example is very much a YMMV situation. I’ve thought about this long and hard, and I guess I never felt that the times Tyra stands up to Tack were anything more than token struggles to show that she’s a strong person really – I didn’t get the sense that he ever really *gave* on any particular point, more that he was just amused at her spunkiness and so sometimes went “well, I guess I’ll let you have this one”. That was how it read to me – a lot of people seem to disagree, which is very interesting and a totally valid reading, but for me no amount of “but what about when Tyra does this?” is going to change my opinion.

    Interesting posts from both Robin and Sunita here. Will need to come back and comment more at length when I’m not on my phone.

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  26. Janet
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 11:59:14

    @Rei Hab: My problem is that I so rarely see that argument spelled out. In the end I know it’s going to be a personal determination for each reader, but I think it’s easier to have those debates when you actually walk through each person’s thought process to see how they arrive at their conclusions. Then, even when you disagree, you can see the logic that someone else is utilizing.

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  27. Tamara
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 12:01:41

    @Janet and @Lynne Connolly:

    I think I’m not as old school in my definition of romance, maybe because I came to romance later in life than a lot of readers. I know editors and agents have their strict definitions (definitions which often conflict, if my experience is anything to go by) but I’ve read (and written) stories in which you could have the hero and heroine simply be friends throughout and the story still works–and I’d consider the book, with hero and heroine as romantic couple, still a romance, as long as the couple has their happily ever after.

    A romance can be very front and center in a story with a thick plot. If the romance is merely incidental, then yes, I can see “whatever with romantic elements,” but I think it’s possible to have a full, complex, and entirely extractable plot in a book you can still unreservedly call a romance.

    It’s a better story with the romance enhancing the plot and the plot enhancing the romance, of course. The point is the plot works even without the romance.

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  28. Angela
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 12:09:09

    I’m really enjoying this discussion. I think it’s a great thing for us, as a community, to talk about and dissect our thought process on from time to time at least. For me, genre Romance begins and ends on the 2 main tenants that have been listed before: central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending [for the couple/group].

    Someone dying at the end is a deal breaker for me. But I think it might be the only deal breaker.

    @Robin/Janet:

    I seem to remember that Lynn Kurland has a book where one of the protagonists is a ghost – is that correct?

    She did have a couple of books where the protagonists were ghosts, however … without getting into spoilers too much, there’s a paranormal fix in the resolution of them.

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  29. Evangeline
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 12:29:49

    @Moriah Jovan:

    Precisely.

    @Janet: namely, that there is a judgment made about a hero without consideration of the hero-heroine dynamic in the book….And in a weird way, I feel like not looking at all that does a disservice to her as a heroine – to her strengths, to her desires, to her freely chosen preferences.

    Yes! This facet of many, many, many romance novels gets lost in conversations. Throw in the rise of the “book boyfriend” meme, and it further distorts discussion of the actual story and the characters. It actually seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy: criticize these types of “heroes” while assuming why and how women consume them, thus sparking fans to defend them in reaction (which ends up dominating any talk about the book), and thus further assuming the heroines paired with these men are mere placekeepers because they are rarely discussed.

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  30. Kate Pearce
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 12:59:01

    I also came into Romance via a different culture (the UK) and was slightly surprised when American readers occasionally told me my books weren’t romances. I do think there is more of a genre ‘expectation’ in the U.S. than any where else. But I also think that the definition of what is within that genre is a constantly moving and sometimes blurred line. Books I wrote in 2007/8 which introduced bisexual heroes or m/m subplots are common now, but back then there was a lot of debate as to whether they, or any erotic romance for that matter, qualified as Romance.
    I’m never happy when someone tells me that X isn’t romantic or politically correct. I read romance in all its incarnations to safely explore my fantasies and I write it for the same reason. I don’t think we need to define it and, as a reader I don’t tend to do that.
    My own definition of Romance-if I had to make one- is that neither the hero(es) or heroine (s) dies at the end. That’s about it. Otherwise, for me, it comes down to a love story and, that as we know, is a many splendored thing. :)

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  31. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 13:00:05

    Thank you for a fascinating post! This topic is of personal interest to me because some readers have suggested that my books are better categorized as women’s fiction than romance.

    Here’s my dilemma. As a writer, romance is genuinely what I most want to explore. I’m interested in what prevents people from being able and willing to love and be loved. I want to understand how love makes us naked and vulnerable, why we fear it, why we fight it, and how powerful it can be when we allow ourselves to embrace it. To work through all that, I have to bring in extensive supporting detail – the heroine’s family history, for example, or her friendships, or her experience with trauma or loss. I’m not just tossing these details in willy-nilly to provide an illusion of depth; I’m really looking at how they influence this character and how they impact her relationship with the hero. (I strive to do the same for him as well, so that he too is a deeply drawn person.) To me, that’s just being a diligent writer. It adds to the romance relationship rather than detracting from it.

    At the same time, I don’t want readers to feel like they’ve been blindsided by my books – as in, they showed up for a light romance and ended up getting socked in the jaw with things like rape recovery, depression and class conflict. So I’ve been very careful to market my 2013 books with as much directness and honesty about the content as possible. You will always get a happy ending (because part of what I’m interested in is how people recover and get better), but it’s going to be an intense process.

    Is this women’s fiction? Does women’s fiction even exist anymore as a separate category? I feel strongly that I’m writing romance, but in the context of this broader discussion about genre boundaries, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

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  32. hapax
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 13:50:50

    Very interesting discussion — especially since as a Fiction Librarian, one of my major responsibilities is assigning genre designations to books. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “This isn’t a romance!” (or “a mystery!” or “science fiction!” or whatever), and I usually politely listen and nod and then put the book back on the shelf.

    (One of the few times I’ve changed the genre label was when a patron told me “This isn’t a western!” … and handed me MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Thank heavens it was purchased *before* I started at this position!)

    My general approach is that “genre” is a marketing label used to manage reader expectations before they read a book. Slap “mystery” on the spine (or use other genre markers such as cover, title font, blurb, etc.) and readers will read looking for clues; “fantasy” and they’ll be looking for magic; “romance” and they’ll read looking for a developing love relationship (or perhaps sexytimes — depends on your audience) and so forth.

    My rule of thumb is to read the last few pages (exluding any epilogue) on the argument that the most important narrative arc will be the last to resolve. To be extremely simplistic, if the last page has a detective saying, “The murderer is…” it’s a mystery; if it’s a nameless abomination eating the narrator, it’s horror; and if it’s two (or more) characters saying “I love you forever, darling”, it’s a romance.

    Of course, lots of times it isn’t that easy, as many people have noted. But since I’m required to call it something, out of a very limited list (for example, I haven’t yet got my library to accept “New Adult” as a genre designation), there have to be rules, although there’s always going to be something that the rules don’t seem to cover.

    I’ve been very interested in this comment thread to see the blurring between “inclusive” and “exclusive” rules, though. The former are criteria — no matter how subjective — that any stories classified “romance” MUST include: a central romantic relationship, a happy ending, emotional engagement, likable characters, etc. The latter are criteria — no matter how subjective — that any stories classified “romance” MUST NOT include: a narrative that works well without the romantic relationship, sexual violence or abusive behavior within the romantic relationship, cheating or criminal acts by one of the protagonists, etc.

    Could this be the key to distinguishing between books that are “genre romance” and those which feel “romantic”?

    /whoosh, that was garrulous. I’ll shut up and listen for a while!

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  33. cleo
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 13:52:33

    I’m enjoying this conversation. I’m still pondering if there are any exceptions to my personal non-romantic deal breakers. My biggest deal breaker is abusive behavior between the main couple – from rape to emotional abuse to red flag behaviors like extreme possessiveness and jealousy. Like Nika, if I’d be staging an intervention if I knew the couple irl, it’s not a romance for me.

    Do I have any exceptions to that? I can’t think of any exceptions for rape or seriously abusive behavior. I can think of a few romances that I really like, except for one or two displays of jealousy by the hero, and in those cases I kind of let it slide because the rest of the relationship works for me. Julie James’ first FBI book is one example – there’s one scene where the hero grips a knife while someone tells a funny college story about the heroine kissing her gay male BFF. It raised my red flags, but he realized that he was out of line and the heroine was definitely portrayed as his equal. A to Z by Marie Sexton is another. It’s mm and one of the heroes has a temper and gets jealous. It didn’t bother me at all reading it, and later I realized that it would have bothered me more if Zack were female. Still not sure how I feel about discovering this double standard in myself.

    In general, I think that if one of the h/h dies, it’s not a genre romance, but I do have one exception to that – *spoiler* – One More Soldier, a novella by Marie Sexton. Yes, one the heroes dies at the end, but it ends on such an optimistic note that I consider it a romance, although I’m cautious when I recommend it to romance readers.

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  34. Liz Mc2
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 14:47:04

    @Robin/Janet: Thanks to you and Sunita both for your posts. It’s always good to be reminded that “romantic to me” isn’t the same as “Romance.” I’m wondering about this comment, though:

    it’s easier to get more innovation once even one of those doors gets kicked open, even if it’s not the one any particular author or reader wants to go through themselves.

    I wish this were true, but what I see is that (given the trend-driven nature of genre publishing and the desire of readers for more like what they love, neither of which I am criticizing) the success of Kristen Ashley kicks the door open for more motorcycle club settings, while Jeannie Lin’s latest single-title isn’t getting print distribution. I know there’s not a direct line between those two events, of course, but I see certain kinds of envelope-pushing getting tons of attention and love, other kinds, not so much. (And I don’t mean at this site, I mean broadly across Romanceland).

    And you’ve made me wonder if that’s because these books aren’t really envelope-pushing at all, in terms of the genre. As you say, “topics such as sex, violence, sexual violence, torture, and extreme power dynamics between romantic protagonists” have always been part of the genre. So we see them coming up in different ways (bodice-rippers, PNR, MC romance, BDSM erotic romance) but they are always there. Yes, there is also always controversy about them, and they are done in ways that feel fresh or lead to discovery by new readers, but I’m not sure how much genre-stretching is actually going on, which may be why it doesn’t really lead to other kinds of rule-breaking/envelope-pushing.

    On the other hand, while “balls to the wall” crazy energy and “cracktastic” are not what I look for in reading, I think a lot of the envelope-pushing I am looking for (like more characters of color or with disabilities, or who are working-class, or different historical periods and geographical settings), authors/publishers are trying to “sneak” into books that otherwise *don’t* push genre envelopes (of course there are exceptions). Sometimes the result is a perceived lack of energy, especially in the romance, and maybe that is part of the problem with these books getting traction. I’ve also found that trying to fit new characters/stories into familiar tropes has sometimes worked poorly for me. Maybe more crazy rule-breaking energy is what these stories need.

    Finally, you and Evangeline make an important point about the focus on the hero. But he’s also usually the more “envelope-pushing” character. I don’t see heroines who are assassins, pimps, running motorcycle clubs, etc. They tend to be more conventional/outsiders to the hero’s world. And while I read a lot of reviews of GANN that talked about what a great character Amber is, the way that book got described the most, by fans and critics alike, was “the lizardman book.” So I think there are a lot of reasons for the hero focus besides moral panic about female readers, though that plays a role.

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  35. Jamie Beck
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 15:14:35

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher:

    Yours are exactly the kinds of books I’d like to read, because to me romance (big and little r) is all about credible relationships, evolution, and the bigger picture. I think that is why I often walk away from many popular contemporaries feeling unsatisfied (there isn’t enough “real” life going on in many). However, it seems like the industry still makes a big distinction between straight-up romance and women’s fiction with strong romantic elements. I’ve not read your work (but I’m going to check it out after I finish this post), but it sounds like you straddle the genres.

    As a reader, I don’t really care much what “shelf” the book is on as long as the love story is good. If someone dies (like in Me Before You), that’s okay as long as I believe in every part of the book and the love seems real. But that’s just my personal feeling. While genre lines don’t mean much to me, to those who NEED an HEA and don’t want the bigger family sage along as well, the genre lines save them from ending up unsatisfied in the end.

    Whether big r or little r, I don’t like domineering heroes, or overly cocky ones, etc. Even when the heroine “battles” him toe to toe, I’m wondering “why bother?” The dynamic seems juvenile and unhealthy, not romantic. I’m really sick of the “you are mine” hero mentality in popular romantic fiction. Give me an “I’m yours” guy…please!

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  36. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 15:33:30

    @Liz Mc2:

    You make so many great points here. It’s interesting, for example, that a book in which the heroine is raped (even by the hero) falls within the boundaries of romance, while a book that explores how a heroine recovers from rape in the context of her relationship with the hero falls outside those boundaries and into “women’s fiction.”

    I haven’t read Kristen Ashley’s books, and I know her heroines are strong women who push back against their aggressive heroes, but in reading the reviews of these stories I’ve wondered why in the world a woman would WANT to have to incessantly defend her independence against a man like that. It would take a lot of energy, I imagine – energy that she could be using to, I don’t know, cure cancer or learn polka or build a statue in honor of Harriet Tubman or something. This sort of “boundary-pushing” is actually doing a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that a woman’s job is to tame the behavior of an unruly man. By way of contrast, I’m not seeing a lot of heroine-focused romance novels about working class black women, and why is that? Would a story set in the projects of East New York, Brooklyn be considered a romance if it truly contained deep detail about life there? That’s a story that would push some boundaries I’d like to see pushed.

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  37. Lexxi
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 15:55:58

    Actual cheating and/or actual adultry (even if they time travel) is a deal breaker for me.

    And I want an HEA between main protagnists. Doesn’t matter what gender or if it’s a menage, poly, whatever combination as long as they get an HEA and none of them dies, cause that’s a tragedy.

    I thought The Last Hour of Gann was a beautiful romance, but she could have made the romance a platonic friendship and that book would still be compelling. It’s just a great book.

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  38. Jean Jones
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 16:09:26

    @Lynne Connolly: (post #10)

    Regarding the trilogy where the hero dies at the end – they were written by Cameron Dean in 2006 and there were a lot people angry at how the trilogy ended. In fact Dear Author even had an article about them. (Jan 9, 2007)

    http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/why-mislabeling-will-hurt-new-authors-or-the-one-where-jane-broke-her-ipaq-hurling-a-book-against-the-wal/

    For me the only thing that would be a dealbreaker would be if either the hero or heroine dies at the end of the book. I can handle pretty much anything else and still be able to consider it a genre romance novel even though for me it may be a total wallbanger.

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  39. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 18:32:59

    @Jean Jones: Yes, that was the one! Gosh, was it that long ago?

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  40. Kaetrin
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 20:20:11

    For me, a book is a (genre) romance if the central storyline is about a romantic relationship between two (or more) people and it has a HEA/HFN.

    Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.
    Gone with the Wind is historical fiction with romantic elements but it is not a romance.

    I have other stuff which make certain romance not to my taste but if it has those two elements (central romantic storyline and HEA/HFN), it’s still a (genre) romance in my book.

    (The other ghost book was JR Ward’s Lover Unbound with ghost-Jane. Because it’s paranormal, she and Vishous do have a HEA – I didn’t love the ending and it put me off the whole series (which then morphed into more Urban Fantasy), but I still think it fits the genre requirements.)

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  41. Janine
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 20:46:57

    @Rei Hab: Yes!!! That was how I saw Tack and Tyra’s relationship dynamic in Motorcycle Man as well. Not as abusive, but not as healthy or desirable either. Tack was amused by Tyra and therefore willing to humor her here and there, between spelling out to her how things were going to be.

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  42. Janine
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 20:56:52

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: It sounds to me like you write romance, and exactly the kind of romance I want to read more of. Genre trends come and go, what readers expect from a romance changes from decade to decade, so you’re not necessarily going to get the same answer from each reader. It’s possible that for every reader who tells you that what you write is women’s fiction there’s another who doesn’t say anything because they are glad to find your work in the romance genre. But I don’t know that for a fact and can’t say that it’s true for sure. I can only tell you that your description sounds like romance to me.

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  43. Megaera
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 01:04:16

    The only deal-breaker I’ve run across so far was one novel (which shall remain nameless, but is by a major name in the genre) where the “hero” was the heroine’s “formerly” abusive ex-husband and he and the heroine were back together by the end of the book, with all supposedly well and happy.

    Speaking as someone who went through some rather mild emotional abuse via my first husband, I kept seeing some woman in a situation similar to mine (or worse) picking that book up to get away from her life for a bit, and running full tilt into a plot like that. I’m not saying we all don’t know how to draw the line between fiction and reality. I’m saying it was a slap in my face, and I was already long out of the relationship when I picked that book up. I can just imagine how I would have felt if I’d run up against it when I was still stuck in the abusive relationship.

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  44. Diana
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 07:45:59

    @Kaetrin: I completely agree with your post. In my opinion, genre is bigger than individual “dealbreakers” and likes/dislikes. There have been plenty of books that I have hated passionately (I dislike alphaholes and extreme power dynamics), but still conformed to romance genre rules: the central romantic plot and the happily ever after/happy for now ending.

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  45. Rina
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 07:54:52

    I don’t have any problem reading about dysfunctional, effed up people and their relationships. Not even abusive heroes. But presentation matters. If the dysfunction or abusive heroes are presented as Romance and it’s supposed to be romantic to the reader, then I’ll hate it. It’s like some absurd parody of real romance.

    But effed up relationships where it’s presented as that (even if the heroes think that they are romantic) is alright as a story, but a twisted and dark story, not a romance.

    Does that make sense?

    I think many books I read would have worked for me more presented as ‘This relationship is horrible but let’s examine the ways people are scum and victims of bad luck’ than ‘Look at this book that is supposed to be romance’

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  46. Rina
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 08:20:44

    I guess if Romance is a central love story plus happy ending, I could write the most twisted, horrible relationship I can think of and sell it as Romance then? What would be the difference if it is presented as wrong, and if it’s presented as acceptable?

    This is something interesting to think about. For me, I come into Romance hoping that the writer will make me believe in the relationship and that it will end in something healthy in a way that won’t make me try to get either the hero or heroine away and into therapy. Now, if I read the same abusive relationship from above as a horror or drama or dark literary fiction…. I won’t leave the same review by far.

    So for me, a Romance absolutely HAS to end in a relationship good for both characters. If it’s not good, it’s not Romance. But if someone wants to expand the genre to include those bad relationships, then they must not be presented as good to the reader by the author.

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  47. Rei Hab
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 08:43:13

    @Janet:

    Can I ask what you mean by “spelling out the argument”? I think we’ve actually started this discussion before in the comments to a different post, and it seemed like you wanted me to go back through the book and quote examples, which, er, I meant to do but then work got kind of crazy and I kept forgetting to go back to it. I’m happy to do that if that’s what you’re after – I need to reread my KA books anyway at some point for a post on a different blog – but I’m just not clear on what exactly you’d like me to provide.

    I just seem to hear a lot about Tyra standing up to Tack that I never really got a sense of when I was reading the book. Sure, she argues him into letting her keep her job, but even that ends with her going “you’re being an ass and you don’t sleep with your employees, so I won’t sleep with you again” and him going “um, no, actually you definitely will” until she’s left feeling weird and unsettled in a way that did not read as particularly “sexy fantasy feeling things I shouldn’t feel” to me. (Slightly offtopic: the other thing that others have said is particularly romantic in the book – the justification for why he grabs her around the throat – didn’t read as romantic to me at all, because the fact that he explained after the fact that he was just feeling for her pulse means exactly nothing to me in the face of the fact that he grabbed her around the throat, raged at her for putting herself in danger and then completely failed to understand why she might be put off by that.)

    I’m not saying she’s not necessarily a strong character or that her decisions aren’t valid, but as a reader I just couldn’t identify with those decisions in the context that they were presented to me – that of him being this great love of her life. I didn’t get it, it made me uncomfortable and as a result I didn’t really buy into their stability at the end.

    @Janine – I’d class it as somewhat abusive, to be honest – Tack seems a little too ready to use physical intimidation to get Tyra to go along with or even just listen to him. I think what ultimately put me off him as a hero (and I’ve found this in a lot of other KA books, too) is the sheer number of times I saw Tyra describing herself as uncomfortable, nervous or just plain scared because of Tack.

    @Ria – I think this is pretty dead on. I can read and even be invested in abusive and dysfunctional dynamics (I still have a soft spot for the anime Gravitation even though the main relationship in *that* is totally messed up) as long as they’re presented to me…honestly, I guess? I suppose I just feel like it’s one thing to say to me “these people have a majorly warped relationship but their feelings for one another are too strong for them to get by without” and another to say to me “these people are abusing one another, isn’t that *great*?”. It’s not. It might be interesting and absorbing, but it’s not *objectively a good thing*, and I sort of resent being asked to assume that it is because of the genre.

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  48. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 08:57:30

    My definition of romance has already been mentioned–central love story and HEA or HFN. I’ve read a few romances in which one of the main characters dies at the end, Three Wishes and PS I Love You. They both read like romance to me, not women’s fiction, but those exceptions don’t change my basic definition. I also think that character behavior plays a role. If the two MCs are serial killers, sociopaths, or just horrible people, I probably won’t consider it a romance. In Susan Johnson’s Seized by Love, the hero promises not to be faithful, right up to the end, and makes good on it. Another example is The Way of the Heart by Cheryl Holt. The hero tries to sell his 12 yo daughter to a pedophile and does many other awful things. It’s a compelling story with a strong heroine, and I think the hero ended up killing the pedophile, but that starting point was so unromantic. Neither book had a “happy, satisfying ending” for me.

    As far as who decides. I think authors do have a say in it. If an author says she writes lesbian fiction, but I consider it f/f (which is not the same in my eyes), we can disagree but I’m not going to tell her what to call her work. Nicholas Sparks claims he doesn’t write romance, but some of his love stories have HEAs. Does general consensus matter? I don’t know. Majority opinion, author opinion, individual reader opinions, all valid but none are final authority.

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  49. Kaetrin
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:36:23

    @Rei Hab: @Rina: I’d argue that those books are examples of romance that didn’t work for you. You are entirely entitled to your own likes and dislikes of course. But I do have a general objection to the idea that because someone doesn’t like it, a book therefore isn’t romance or that a particular book ought not to be labelled as romance because there are some people who dislike (many times with good reason) the way the hero treats the heroine.

    There are plenty of books where the ending didn’t satisfy me but that is subjective. I think the HEA/HFN is a more objective measure.

    By all means call out problematic things but to exclude a book from the genre completely because of them, I think, brings in too much subjectivity. In other words, I agree with Robin about a more inclusive definition.

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  50. Rina
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:44:25

    I certainly think that if genre Romance includes shitty relationships ending in shitty ways, it should somehow be told to the rest of us so that we know when we start reading those books. If the genre definition is expanded to include relationships that are abusive and would land people in jail in real life, then so be it. But then those relationships should be presented honestly as abusive, not romanticized. If I read a book about a sexually abused fifteen year old in a relationship with his abuser, should that be a Romance, or should it find home in a different genre? Because marketing it as a Romance implies that it is, and ends, as an acceptable relationship.

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  51. Kaetrin
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:50:45

    @Rina: Personally, I wouldn’t enjoy a book about a sexually abused fifteen year old in a relationship with his abuser. But I also wouldn’t (personally) categorise Tack and Tyra’s relationship the same way. While there are some “shitty relationships” many, even most would agree on, there are also plenty where intelligent opinions reasonably differ.

    I think the sort of thing you are talking about is what reviews are for, not genre labelling. Because people are going to have different boundaries, hot buttons and triggers and different definitions of what constitutes “shitty”.

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  52. Rina
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:57:49

    Well, sorry, I just always thought a Romance had to have a, shall we say, normal relationship, or at least one that ends in a hopeful, happy way in which the majority of readers can be happy for the couple. No one should be happy for the abusive relationship ending in a HEA. And I review accordingly. I thought and worked it in as my genre constriction. I guess Romance is about any kind of relationship with a HEA, which is confusing because of my connotations when it comes to the word romance. We just have different views on definitions.

    These days I’ll be reviewing books with abusive heroes* in this way: Boy, this book sure is creepy, felt so horrible they ended up together, but such a compelling look on the Human Condition.

    *most often heroes

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  53. Michelle
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:59:16

    @Evangeline Holland
    Could you recommend what books you meant as “sprawling British sagas”. Thanks.

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  54. Kaetrin
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:03:42

    @Rina: You should absolutely review books however you like.

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  55. Rei Hab
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:21:54

    @Kaetrin: Kaetrin, I absolutely agree that just because a romance doesn’t work for me doesn’t make it not a romance. I wouldn’t say that a fantasy or sci-fi novel that doesn’t work for me because, say, I find the worldbuilding shoddy or the science unbelievable isn’t a fantasy or sci-fi novel. But while I’m not arguing that the works of, say, Kristen Ashley or even E.L. James can be classed as romance, I do get sort of frustrated at the authorial voice that asks me to find it romantic even though I actually think it’s kind of warped. Can warped be sexy? Sure. Can warped be romantic, even? Yes, absolutely. But for me you don’t make it romantic by telling me how romantic it is; the dynamic has to speak for itself, or no amount of “they’re so in love!” is going to convince me. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t have an issue with these books being called romance novels, and I’m all for an inclusive definition, but I don’t really see a contradiction between that and me being able to say “I know it’s a romance novel, but I didn’t find it all that romantic”.

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  56. Liz Mc2
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:25:41

    The more I think about this, the more I want to blame the RWA for arguments about what is/is not romance. Because in their definition of the genre, they don’t actually say “an HEA,” they say this:

    An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

    The first part of that is not objective, is it? The elaboration is somewhat more so, although I think our ideas of “emotional justice” will differ. If this definition means that the *protagonists* are emotionally satisfied and optimistic at the end, OK. But I’ve always taken it to mean that that’s how the *reader* feels at the end. And that would seem to imply that if it’s not romantic to me (I’m not emotionally satisfied), it’s not a Romance.

    I don’t actually think that. But though I’ve cited it many times, I think the RWA’s definition is imperfect. Or maybe I’m just reading it wrong.

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  57. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:30:28

    @Michelle: I’m not Evangeline, but I am British! It was the sprawling British saga, sometimes called “clogs and shawls” that drove me to the American market! They’re just not to my taste, in the main part, but if you love them, then there are masses of the things. They’re not all “trouble in t’mill” books, but many are Northern-based sagas of struggle and victory.
    Freda Lightfoot, Anna Jacobs, Catherine Cookson, Josephine Cox, Emma Blair (who was actually a male actor, and sadly died recently), Jessica Stirling (another man, this time a lovely Scot), Helen Forrester, there are any number of them. If you love them, then go at it. One of my best writer friends, Jean Fullerton, is currently writing stories of nurses in the war and after, but she wrote some great sagas before she switched.
    They’re often called romances over here, but really they’re women’s stories, with a romance thrown in, but the romance can sometimes be as little as 20% of the book. Sometimes more.
    If you want older, then you can’t go wrong with The Forsyth Saga.

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  58. Kaetrin
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 19:01:47

    @Rei Hab: I think we agree with one another :)

    I’m curious as to your comment regarding:

    …authorial voice that asks me to find it romantic even though I actually think it’s kind of warped. Can warped be sexy? Sure. Can warped be romantic, even? Yes, absolutely. But for me you don’t make it romantic by telling me how romantic it is; the dynamic has to speak for itself, or no amount of “they’re so in love!” is going to convince me.

    Are you saying that you felt that way about Motorcycle Man? Because I didn’t feel that way at all. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean though. I have a feeling I’m not quite grasping it.

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  59. Kaetrin
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 19:02:43

    @Liz Mc2: That does sound like an unnecessarily overblown definition doesn’t it? I think HEA/HFN works better myself :)

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  60. Rei Hab
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 19:42:17

    @Kaetrin: It’s possible I was being a bit unclear, I kind of wrote that comment while trying to focus on two things at once! But, hmm, did I feel that way about Motorcycle Man? I suppose a little bit. I definitely didn’t get that impression as strongly as I have with some other books, but I did come away from it feeling like the story that it was trying to tell me was a different one to the one I’d read. I felt like I was supposed to have read it as a particularly high-intensity love story, when what it actually felt like to me was the Relationship Adventures of Two Quite Messed-Up People With Boundary Issues.

    That wasn’t what I was trying to put across in my last, though; the bit about the authorial voice was meant to be a more general comment on what makes the romance bit of a romance work or not work for me. Sorry for the confusion! (Er, I hope I managed to explain myself okay.)

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  61. Michelle
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 20:12:59

    @ Lynne Connolly
    Oh thank you. I have been on a BBC kick recently so when I saw that phrase it piqued my interest.

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  62. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 13:00:49

    @Jamie Beck and @Janine:

    Thank you for your kind comments. Romance encompasses so many diverse tastes. I agree that it’s best just to write the stories that matter to you, and let the chips fall where they may.

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  63. Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal)
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 17:47:18

    Well, this was pretty fascinating, Janet. Posting late and briefly, since so much has already been said: my concern (small compared to the “what’s redeemable in a hero” questions) was surprise that it’s at issue whether or not Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. To me it pretty much invented the genre, but evidently not to many or at least several others. Go figure.

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