Romance is often criticized for being formulaic, but in a way that suggests that the genre is synonymous with formula, and that formula is bad.
Romance, as a form, has come to be known by three main elements: a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers. But within that form are many formulae. For example, take one broody rake, mix with an impoverished but noble housemaid, add in a dash of villainy from a long-lost mother, and shake until true love prevails.
When people call Romance formulaic, it’s generally in a denigrating way, as if to imply predictability, triteness, and staleness. However, both form and formula are important to generic integrity, because while form ensures coherence and definitional consistency, formula provides familiar elements that a reader may like and want to see in particular combinations. Category novels, for example, often rely on formulae, and in the case of lines like Harlequin Presents, the formula is practically announced in the book title: The Incorrigible Playboy; The Greek’s Blackmailed Wife; Spanish Magnate, Red-Hot Revenge. The common mistake people make in denigrating genre as formula and formula per se, is the assumption that structural and narrative limits are bad, and that they contravene artistic freedom and creativity.
But here’s the thing: genre itself is about formal limits. Genre is definition, delineation, recognizability, consistency, reliability. Genre is as much about what doesn’t belong as what does, and as with most delineating structures, its boundaries are most easily seen when they’re being tested. Formula is the same way, only on a narrower scale. Formula is like form within form, a further delimitation of narrative within genre. In the same way that all genre is form, all genres contain formulae.
Think about sonnets as a form. Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines with different rhyming patterns and numbers of syllables, depending on whether you’ve got a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, an English sonnet, a Spencerian sonnet, or a free verse sonnet (among others). At first glance, what could be more limiting than 14 lines of iambic pentameter? And yet, poets have worked with the form both in subject matter (extending it beyond its original focus on love) and structure. There is even an “inverted sonnet,” which Elizabeth Bishop wrote as what is believed to be her last poem before her death. Its subject matter is that of being freed from physical existence, which seems fitting for an inverted poetic structure. And the poem is even titled “Sonnet,” drawing even more attention to the way in which it adheres to the definition of a sonnet while simultaneously turning it upside down.
That’s the thing about form: it can be manipulated in myriad ways that keep it within certain boundaries but still allow it to challenge and run free within those boundaries. What makes a book or a poem fresh is not a change in form, necessarily – it’s the voice and the vision of the writer who understands that formal boundaries do not necessitate staleness and triteness. The same is true for formula. I have seen some people argue that books adhering to certain formulae gain popularity because of the formula. However, for every book that has a so-called winning formula, how many other formulaic books are there going absolutely nowhere?
One of the things that got me thinking about these differences is an exchange I had with author Ruthie Knox on her Wonkomance post regarding escapism in historical Romance. I had indicated in a comment that Judith Ivory’s Black Silk is probably my favorite genre Romance, to which Knox responded that she wasn’t sure the book fit in the genre: “It’s right on the line, in my opinion. But it’s definitely romantic to me.” Why would it not be genre Romance?
Because the beginning is so slow and so lit fic. It’s like this long, placid character study, even before they’re introduced to each other, and then after, it takes them hundreds of pages of studying each other to figure out what it is they even want. It’s as though the romance happens to them without their knowledge – not without the reader’s, because the reader knows it’s a romance, but almost.
Knox’s response reminded me of an old review for Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief, in which the reviewer gave the book a very low grade because the book was not romantic to her. That line of argumentation is similar to the one used when some members of RWA wanted to change the definition of Romance to specify a male and a female protagonist. Although not always made explicit, the logic of that argument rides along the lines of ‘what isn’t romantic to me isn’t Romance.’
While I would agree with the point Knox makes that everything romantic is not necessarily genre Romance, I would reject the opposite position that genre Romance must be romantic for every reader. Not only is this a factual impossibility, but it also places the burden for defining the genre on subjective elements of the text, and the reader’s response to them. And it’s also why I would disagree with Ruthie Knox about Black Silk being anywhere near the boundary of the Romance genre. It has the necessary elements of the genre, even if it doesn’t read as formulaic.
At the level of the book, these discussions are interesting, but they don’t feel consequential. After all, if a book doesn’t resonate as romantic to a reader, there are plenty of others out there that might. Where I think we get into trouble, though, is at the categorical level, when we begin to make judgments about whether books are or are not genre Romance, and what that means for readers and authors, let alone the genre itself. For example, Eileen Dreyer has argued that books containing rape should not belong to the genre, even though the forced seduction device is a true staple of the genre. In fact, if you count forward from Edith Hull’s 1919 novel, The Sheikh, which has had a profound effect on the genre (read it next to Violet Winspear’s Blue Jasmine to see how much), it would be next to impossible to extricate sexual force from the genre’s direct lineage. In terms of a book like Black Silk, one of my very favorite things about the novel is its lit fic-ishness, because for me it calls back to so many novels of the 19th century that are not properly Romance, but that have made a substantial contribution to the genre. Moreover, the sheer quality of the prose and the sophistication of the story and its seemingly natural progression toward a happy romantic culmination speak to what I wish we’d see more of in the genre, namely more organically developed relationships that have a luxurious amount of time and page space to grow and blossom.
For me, all these circumstantial discussions about specific books and about what supposedly sells and what is supposedly popular and why, ultimately circle back to the question of what constitutes genre. Without question, readers have strong preferences, although I’ve yet to read one convincing argument about the “rules” of Romance that go beyond the very basic elements of the genre. Inevitably, these conversations about rules and about sales rely first on subjective elements of the genre and perceived reader reactions to them, and then on the belief that what sells must be what readers want (what I see as first cousin to the ‘every pirated book is a lost sale’ assertion). While I understand the concerns authors have about writing books that will be welcomed as genre, I think we need to be mindful of the ways we all – readers, authors, publishers, editors, agents – are shaping the genre with the limits we perceive or ascribe to the genre.
Ideally, a genre about so powerful a force as human love is vast with potential. Not only can it accommodate myriad elements, but it can concoct and contemplate many, many formulae. To some degree, there is a human impulse to locate boundaries and solidify them, either to make sure we stay inside or intentionally defy them. And readers often cannot articulate what did not work for them in a book beyond subjective responses that may not even correctly articulate the issue. There is a particular vocabulary of literary criticism, and if you have not been trained to know and use it, you may not be able to properly diagnose the issues you have with a book. That kind of finessing often takes the kind of conversation readers and authors may not be used to having.
But think about it: how many times have you read two books that contain virtually the same elements, and yet one seems just so much stronger and more satisfying to you? The relationship between books and readers is alchemical and sometimes seemingly random. More often than not, readers don’t even know what they want until they get something new, and then the industry moves to give them more of that same thing, rather than something unexpectedly and wonderfully new again.
Most important, though, is the way in which our reactions to books and the way those become abstracted to principles (e.g. “readers do not like X”) can have a ripple effect on the genre as a big, blunt instrument of change we’re not always conscious of wielding.
One of the reasons I’m raising this issue now is that there has been some discontent of late among readers who are not feeling fully connected to what the genre has to offer right now. I know I am just coming out of a somewhat extended reading slump, and some of my online peers have begun to switch up genres, hoping to find that hit of whatever it is they’re not getting in Romance right now. And yes, I know we don’t represent every reader. But neither do those letters complaining about too much/too little sex or wanting more baby epilogues, and the like. Which is kind of my point: even though readers can converge in their general opinions on a book, we have yet to see convincing evidence of a collective majority of reader opinion on any particular issue. Moreover, those general pronouncements tend to narrow the possibilities and become more and more exclusionary, in part because the perceived majority is so speculative. Even if you took inventory of my bookshelves, for example, you could never get a clear picture of my tastes, because I have bought literally hundreds of books I’ve not liked, often because I didn’t know I disliked them until I actually bought and read them.
Still, let’s say that readers want what sells. Let’s accept that as truth for a moment. What does that really mean? Does it mean they won’t like something new? Does it mean they won’t like something different? Does it mean they all like those books for the same reason and dislike other books for the same reason? No, it doesn’t. In fact, I think we know far less about what it means than we know that it means something – or more likely, a bunch of different things that may or may not be relevant as part of an author’s decisions about what to write.
What really concerns me is the way in which these perceptions and projections are actively shaping the ways in which the genre is evolving, and, when the discussions turn to what readers do and don’t want, the effect seems to be one of narrowing rather than expanding. And one of the most substantial problems with that is the way in which a form that is theoretically broad enough to encompass an almost endless variation of stories and voices, becomes narrowed in practice to accommodate fewer and fewer. And eventually we must confront the substantial difficulties inherent in attempting to pry open something that has forcefully swung shut under the pressure of previous assumptions. In a way, we are all custodians of the genre. We’re all helping to shape and define the genre, and every time we talk about what “can’t” be written and accepted as Romance, we narrow the field, often artificially.
Without question, it’s important for each of us to respect each other’s tastes, and to accept that subjective responses to books will always help to define reading preferences. At the same time, though, I think we need to pay attention to the ways in which we can so quickly generalize our personal preferences (or our perceptions of other’s personal preferences) to “rules,” that they limit what we believe can or should be produced as genre. The boundaries of genre already set limits, and those limits need to be generous to promote fresh voices, different perspectives, and new combinations of familiar archetypes. The more we seek to limit, the more likely the genre is to become formulaic in a stale, trite way, and the less room we leave for the genre to diversify and flourish.