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?