Romance Isn’t for Everyone and It Doesn’t Have to Be
There was a recent post at “Fangs, Fur & Fantasy”, a blog for urban fantasy writers, from a self labeled romance cynic, author Maggie Stiefvater. Ms. Stiefvater is, by her own definition, a urban fantasy writer whose first book is due out in Fall 2008. She attempts to open a dialogue about romances by sharing that her astrological sign may be the reason she doesn’t like predictable formulaic books known as romances. “I’m afraid I’ll pick it up and the Greater Plot will be subverted to the Amazing Love Conflict which will be built on formulaic, predictable lines.” Ironically, one of Stiefvater’s favorite authors is JK Rowling.
Ms. Stiefvater, in the comments, goes on to admit she liked Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight but doesn’t really get the romance genre. Diana Peterfreund correctly noted that to like Meyer’s Twilight and to not appreciate romance is nearly an oxymoron. Twilight, for all its glory, fits squarely within the romance trope, i.e., loner girl, not the best looking gets the hottest guy around who happens to be a vampire. Caught between humanity and eternal life. What to do. Oh, what to do (yeah, like that’s so innovative). But despite liking Twilight, she finds that “the ones called romance seem not to hold my interest.” Because there was no predicting what was going to happen in Twilight was there? Of course it was predictable but how Bella and Edward got together and ultimately how Bella gets turned is the journey which fans want to read. We know the end of the journey, we just don’t know how they get there.
I’ve thought about this subject for four days now and feel sufficiently reasonable to respond. My first reaction was very knee jerk and involved some not so pretty name calling. But we romance fans, beleaugered and marginalized as we are, are quick to the trigger. I’m often leading that hot headed brigade.
It’s absolutely true that romance is formulaic. That’s the definition of genre fiction, that it follows some type of formula. Mysteries are about mysteries and solving crimes. Fantasy is about fantastical worlds and triumphing over bad guys. Science fiction – well, I’ve only read a couple. Romance is about characters falling in love and living – debatebly, happily ever after (or happy for now). Romance is also predictable. Yes, I’ll agree to that as well. Romance will have a story featuring a couple (or sometimes threesome) who meet, overcome internal and external conflict, and then end up together. I actually count on that predictability.
Joseph Campbell penned The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the book, Campbell opines that every myth is essentially the same. It features the same hero, the same myth cycle and the same ending. Only the execution differs. So yes, romance is asking the same universal question over and over again. How do two people fall in love despite internal or external conflicts? Dr. Frantz of Teach Me Tonight refers to this as “repetition with a difference.”
But the use of “formulaic” and “predictable” is really derogatory because for Maggie Stiefvater and SOME (not all) of the commenters at Fangs, Fur & Fantasy, “formualic and predictable” means that romances very existence on the bookshelves should be questioned. What else can be derived from the “romance cynics” call for genre justification. Prove to me, she essentially says, that romance is a genre of worth. Stiefvater tries to cushion her barbs by saying that it’s her not the romance books.
I kind of skim the first couple pages and start laughing and abandon them. It’s probably a character fault.
I didn’t make any recommendations because frankly, I don’t think it would have been worth my time. The comment thread featured the oft used general complaints that we’ve heard time and again. Does the SFWA put out a “bash the romance genre” handbook?
Janni said that her problems with genre romance include
include the emphasis on stereotypical sorts of guys (they seem to mostly be alpha or at least dominant and, well, just not like the guys I know in real life–strange, since the women are more nuanced); the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different (I know lots of folks disagree on this one, but again, my experiences with guys-as-friends especially don’t mirror this); and that business of the required Happily Ever After
She liked Bet ME but it wasn’t enough to convert her to the genre. That’s fine. The romance genre is not for everyone. No one book is universally accepted and not everyone is going to appreciate the romance genre. However, simply because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that you have to insult the genre nor make inaccurate conclusions.
Satryblade really dislikes the “happy ending” thing because in Defy the Eagle, the ending “was a forced, dishonest ending that spoiled an otherwise entertaining book – and all because the genre demands a happy ending.” I hope Satryblade never read the Eddings books because “everyone who mattered in the book survived the battle.” Seriously, does Eddings ever kill off anyone? The failure of “Defy the Eagle” for the reader isn’t the genre limitation, it’s the author who failed to make the ending honest and believable. The truth is that for every complaint about a romance book that a science fiction or fantasy reader can throw out, we can lob one back at them. There are contrived manufactured endings in every genre, including the literary fiction genre.
BlackHolly states that her romance aversion developed from a stack of Silouettes and Harlequins that her father found in the trash. They “suck”ed. She acknowledges that maybe the reason that they were found in the trash were because of the quality or lack thereof of the prose. I generally don’t throw away my keeper books.
Brimfire makes the comment that, if published, s/he would “cry”!!! (my exclamations) to be put on the romance shelf. Brimfire, if you aren’t writing a romance and you are shelved there, that would make me cry too. But Brimfire doesn’t want to be there because s/he “shuns any book that has a half naked man on the cover.” BUT “At the same time, I really feel cheated if I read a book that doesn’t have a romance in it. Weird, I know. And, so far at least, everything I’ve written has a romance in it.” Listen Brimfire, do you know what the difference between the romance writer’s print run and the fantasy writer’s print run is? How about the size of the romance readership? Would you rather be in front of 10 readers or 90?
everflame says “I don’t think you need to worry about being convinced the genre is amazing. Romance (as a genre) fullfills a need for some people. It’s all about fantasizing (because really, isn’t that what we’re participating in any time we read any book?). Some people are drawn to some fantasies, other people are drawn to others. There’s some very interesting research about romance novels and their appeal that I could probably dig up (specifically regarding middle-class white women) if you’re interested on a social level.”
Because there is something wrong with us romance readers, even us non white romance readers. SOMETHING TERRIBLY WRONG. Okay, sorry, the hyperbole is infectious.
amy34 stated that she was frustrated with the genre because the ones that she has read has ” insufficient plot and not-very-believable characters.” No examples were provided but you can’t say an entire GENRE of books contains no plot and unbelievable characters. That generalization is just ignorant of the body of work that comprises the romance genre. I don’t like books, romance or otherwise, with insufficient plots and unbelievable characters.
Diana Peterfeund, Keri Arthur, Jill Myles, Jordan Summers, Patrice Michelle, Vernieda and a couple others stood up for the genre and as a genre reader, I really, really appreciate that. It makes me want to hustle out and buy some of their books because if they are going to support me, as a reader of the genre, I should support their writing endeavors, no?
There is no question that romance needs its critics. I believe that healthy discourse and criticism within the genre will make it healthier and more vibrant. However, the criticism of an entire genre, the requirement of justification of the genre’s worth is demeaning to the authors of the genre (some of whom are actually members of the FFF community) and demeaning to its’ readers. The women who read romances are smart and vibrant. Some are married. Some are divorced. Some are single. We are so widely varied in age, occupation, economics, and even race that to make any assumption about us is fraught with danger. There is no one identifying characteristic of this readership other than we love books and we buy them.
I think Maggie Stiefvater’s biggest problem is that her book in the Fall of 2008 has got to rock. It has to be non formulaic. Totally unpredictable. It has got to be better than every romance book ever written, doesn’t it? I’ll certainly be reading it to find out.