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Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance

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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.

 

 

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!

98 Comments

  1. Amber Belldene
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 07:33:54

    Janet, I adore this post and I find it inspiring–it’s going to make my day. Too often, when I talk to other romance writers about what I want to write, or how my stories breaks some conventions, I grow nervous I’ll never sell another book. But somewhere deeper than that anxiety, I believe precisely what you said here: “More often than not, readers don’t even know what they want until they get something new.” I respect this open-mindedness in readers, and it makes me hopeful. Thanks!

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  2. SAO
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 07:57:49

    This is so true. If readers could define what they like in terms that everyone understood, no one would have to waste time or money on a wallbanger or humdrum read. I can’t define what it is that I like, so I find authors through used book stores and Kindle freebies and hope I hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, some of the authors I like are too prolific and write clunkers to keep their volume up. That shoves them off the auto-buy list onto the library-only list.

    What I find endlessly interesting is that Harlequin has attempted to quantify what readers want and deliver it. Yet, relatively few readers (as far as I know) are satisfied by knowing a book is a Harlequin, rather than knowing the author.

    I’ve long thought publishers will go out of business when someone (agent, editor, reader blog)
    figures out how to create reliable brands. The fundamental problem is what Harlequin and many authors face — they sacrifice quality for volume.

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  3. Violetta Vane
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:06:20

    I agree and would even go farther: the quest for any absolutely internally consistent definition of genre is totally hopeless. Genre isn’t just about what’s in the story. In fact, that might be the least important aspect! It’s also about who sells the story, where they sell the story, how they market it, the cover image, the blurb, down to how people who haven’t read it talk about it to other people who haven’t read it. And it’s true for science fiction, romance, lit fic, whatever. It’s all historically contingent and shaped by commerce and market forces, and more about what’s outside the text than within it.

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  4. Angelia Sparrow
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:16:50

    Me? I write as the muses move me. I write romance. I write SF. I write horror. Sometimes all in the same book. Some characters bring their beloved flowers. Some bring them severed body parts. Some bring their husband another husband. It’s all good. And my readers expect this of me.

    Hitchcock famously said that if he filmed Cinderella, the audience would expect a body to fall out of the coach. My readers have said that if I wrote it, the footman would be blowing the driver while Cinderella watched with amusement. Possibly while devouring the mutilated body of her stepmother.

    I don’t know what readers want. I sometimes don’t even know what MY readers want. But as long as everyone lives through the book (more or less, I am developing a bad habit of temporarily killing my heroes about half-way in) and is still together, I’m calling it a romance.

    And the heteronormative monogamous crowd can go whistle.

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  5. Tina
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:35:22

    I’ve yet to read one convincing argument about the “rules” of Romance that go beyond the very basic elements of the genre.

    This in a nutshell. I have a book group and we read romances and there are a couple of members of the group who are hard-liners when it comes the ‘what constitutes a romance.’ I actually had one person tell me that she loved to read about billionaires and Dukes because it isn’t romantic if the couple has to think about money. My response was to suggest she read Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer. But yeah, it is surprising how many arbitrary rules individual readers have about what makes a romance a “real” romance.

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  6. DB Cooper
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:35:33

    Bravo, and well done!

    Here I am, after months of lurking, making my first post because I feel a need to comment: What a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-articulated article you’ve shared with us here.

    And now, since I don’t really know how to say more about it without descending into obscene flattery, let me take another angle if I can. I at first thought this might be another piece defending against criticism from “outside” the genre–Indeed, I’ll admit I hold a certain reactive and un-nuanced view of the “romance genre” myself. It was to my delight that I found this piece turning that upon itself to examine not just opinion from “within”, but also the problems, possibilities and powers of self-definition.

    In fact, as I was examining my own views again, I ended up thinking about the exchange of opinion you’ve had and this:

    When people call Romance formulaic, it’s generally in a denigrating way, as if to imply predictability, triteness, and staleness.

    I think when many people rush to defend against this, it’s as much a defense of the form as it is a defense of themselves. As consumers, investors and lovers of the form, they take very personally what they feel is being said about them. It seems a little ironic to me then, that authors, readers, and online comments are sometimes eager to call a work “un-romantic” because it fails to fit into their comfortable, predictable little categories.

    But that is one of the other points, isn’t it? Opposite, but not quite opposing. At some sane level, boundaries give us definition, and definition makes it easier for us to work within, without, or around. With my respects to Ms. Knox and others, I find my instinct is to disagree, but I also do not wish to alter their opinions. They are a definition of who they are, and a definition that helps them create in their own world.

    And now, my long and rambling post is headed towards both the philosophical and the political, and I’m not ready to go there. But you were. So again, my hat off to you for being able to take a stand, to express your opinions, and phrase them in such a way that (I feel) will not offend those who disagree.

    P.S. You mentioned sonnets earlier as an example of form and formula. My favorite sonnet, at least intellectually, is On the Sonnet by John Keats. It’s often quoted, I’m sure, but it still speaks to me from my highschool days, and I think its somewhat illustrative of your arguments. I wonder if you feel the same.

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  7. carmen webster buxton
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:36:34

    This is an excellent essay! I think in book publishing today, genre is mostly a marketing concept– where do we put the book so that people who would like it can find it? But even within a genre, tastes are going to vary. My husband and I both enjoy ice cream. His favorite flavor is vanilla; no matter how many options there are, that is what he will order. I, on the other hand, consider the only reason for the existence of vanilla ice cream is as a platform for hot fudge, whipped cream, and chopped walnuts.

    I would also add that regardless of plot, I think what makes any story work (in the sense of engaging the reader) is the characters. I don’t think a set of characters can work for every single reader, although of course, there are some who work for a high percentage.

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  8. Lindsay
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 08:52:30

    Great post. I like to think I write some remotely unconventional romance, and I definitely LOVE reading unconventional romance.

    I am that reader who finds the strange romantic. The most romantic movie in the world to me is TRUE ROMANCE (which, if you’ve seen it, isn’t your typical love story). I have a hard time reading many genre romances because I’m looking for something grittier, something that most writers are too afraid to write.

    So don’t be afraid, lovers of the strange! There are those of us out there that love romance that is edgy, that is different, that is gritty. Keep it coming!

    Thanks for this :)

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  9. Donna Thorland
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 09:47:41

    When my debut book was out on submission I talked to several editors at big publishing houses who said: I love this, but it’s not a romance.

    They each had a DIFFERENT list of items that kicked my book out of the romance genre.

    I could have rewritten the book to sell it to one of those editors. I didn’t. The book sold to Penguin NAL and it comes out in March.

    Will romance readers embrace it? I certainly hope so. Ultimately, I don’t know, but in my day job I work as a screenwriter, and I’ve consistently found the words of William Goldman to be true: Nobody knows anything.

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  10. Dabney
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 09:50:19

    Lovely essay.

    I tend to think of genres in terms of generalized reader expectations. In mystery, the crime is expected to be solved. In romance, the couple is expected to end up together. In fantasy, good is expected to, in some way, trump evil. Books that hold fast to these expectations are easier to classify even though the criteria is so broad.

    I do see a trend I like in genre fiction which is to not completely meet these generalized reader expectations. In Tana French’s fabulous mysteries, there are often two mysteries one of which is left unsolved. In Patrick Rothfuss’s series–The Name of the Wind–is the first–evil thus far has the edge. It’s rarer to find romances where the couple doesn’t end up together, but I am reading more romances where other reader expectations aren’t met (the couple isn’t monogamous, the hero is a very nontraditional male, the HEA is pretty iffy).

    I hate the idea anyone has to defend their reading–I see freedom of speech including freedom to read.

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  11. Diane Dooley
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:11:26

    This is a very timely essay for me. My husband and I were discussing the same topic the other night and he was advising me to stop trying to write romance, that romance readers would never “get” what I was trying to do. Namely, inverting tropes, sticking a dagger in those tropes at times, endlessly playing around in the great, big space in between the absolute requirements of a love story with a hopeful ending. But I love doing it, I answered him. There’s so much room to play!

    And so I was sitting here trying to decide whether to abandon romance and just stick with scifi and horror or explore some other genre, and then I read this essay. I guess I’ll sit him down to read it later. And we’ll discuss the topic again.

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  12. Ros
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:17:52

    I thought it was interesting that in the various reviews and discussions of Back to the Good Fortune Diner one of the themes that came up was how dissatisfying the book was as a romance. It was a good book in many respects with excellent writing and interesting characters. But it didn’t work as a romance because the romantic relationship wasn’t central enough or strong enough to carry the rest of the book. So I do think those basic elements of the genre are pretty non-negotiable.

    But the rest? Everyone finds different tropes, different characters and different situations romantic. I like traditional romance tropes with a subversive element. But to be honest, if I care enough about the characters, I’ll read almost anything. I think most of the ‘rules’ can be bent, broken, twisted and played with to good effect.

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  13. Ridley
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:18:30

    @Dabney:

    It’s rarer to find romances where the couple doesn’t end up together

    Well, it should be rare. If the couple isn’t together at the end, it’s not a romance. That’s really not debatable, and shouldn’t be. It’s the defining feature of romance.

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  14. Jill Sorenson
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:24:58

    I enjoy many of the “rules” and conventions of romance. I like to be able to expect a happy ending along with characters who are (or become) good people. But I can also think of books I’ve enjoyed without those elements that I still consider romances. Three Wishes by Barbara Delinsky and Alison Richardson’s Countess Trilogy come to mind.

    I’m sure I’ve said “readers don’t like x” before. I think I said they didn’t like cheating heroes last week.

    The idea of readers leaving the genre out of disappointment upsets me, but I don’t know if this is a shared reaction to publishing trends or if it simply reflects a change in each individual reader’s interests. I worry about the popularity of super alphas and sub-par editing. I’ve never been that interested in billionaire doms. But there are so many other books out there. The choices are endless.

    One thing I’ve noticed, having been around the romance block a few times, is that newer readers seem to think romance has always been a certain way, and that the current trends define the genre. I recall a reader being surprised by a scene in which the heroine masturbates. Far more unusual, in my opinion, is Ana from 50 Shade’s claim to have never done so.

    I think the books we want to read are out there, if we look for them. I’ve complained about the lack of good lesbian romances, but the truth is that I just haven’t found many. There is a whole world of different & unusual stories at our fingertips. We don’t have to abandon the genre because of its rules or perceived limitations.

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  15. Ridley
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:34:16

    More often than not, readers don’t even know what they want until they get something new

    To offer an example to buffer this point, I didn’t realize I was at all interested in exploring gender expression in romance until I read a blog post by Anna Cowan. She questions the ways romance tends to define masculinity and femininity and wonders how readers would react if those roles were challenged. She links to her WIP, which I think has an androgynous or effeminate hero, and I gobbled it up, it was so good. She laments that no publisher would touch such a thing, and the fact that she’s probably right gives me a sad. I didn’t know I wanted this before, but now I’m enchanted with the idea.

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  16. Bronte
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:35:53

    Its interesting that there several people have made comments to the effect that readers shouldn’t have to defend their reading choices while other commenters have made denigrating remarks about those who read/enjoy harlequin or heteromonogomous romance. I grew up reading Harlequin romance and while it is disappointing to me that the Harlequin presents of the last 10 years have become so formulaic I don’t feel that I should have to apologise for reading one when I only have 45 minutes reading time in a week. People do have wide and varied tastes. What I wish to read one day, I might not enjoy the next. Sometimes I want puppies and kittens, with rainbows and babies, while the next week I might want to read something dark and angsty. I like the fact that the romance genre is so widely varied. I feel a bit unhappy when people sneer at some of the more “traditional” romance fare. Just because it exists doesn’t mean there isn’t room for non-traditional romance. However I do agree with Ridley – to me romance is defined by a couple being together. They don’t need to be married, they don’t need to be heterosexual, but they have to be at least happy for now.

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  17. Ros
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:42:34

    @Ridley: I wonder about a secondary couple. Could it work that the central romance has the HEA/HFN but that a secondary romance doesn’t work out? I don’t remember reading a book like that but I think it could be interesting.

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  18. Ros
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:43:55

    @Bronte: I agree. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying conventional romance. The HP category on my Kindle has more books than any other in it, and I don’t care who knows it.

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  19. Elyssa Patrick
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:44:32

    @Ridley: Why not self-publish it then?

    Great essay, Robin. I think there are certain elements that are expected in Romance, mainly that I want at the end of any romance novel for there to be a HEA. I can deal with a HFN with certain subgenres of romance but they’re never as satisfying, especially if it’s only one book. (I get it being a HFN if it’s an ongoing series.)

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  20. Dabney
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:49:00

    @Ros: In the latest holiday novella by Jill Shalvis, the couple that ends up together is not the one most readers thought would when they picked up the book. In Julie Anne Long’s latest, Olivia–long long Lyon’s love–is seen, for the first time, allowing herself to be courted by another.

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  21. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:55:37

    @Ridley:

    she laments that no publisher would touch such a thing, and the fact that she’s probably right gives me a sad.

    According to Anna Cowan’s website, My Lady Untamed will be published this year, by Destiny Romance (which is part of Penguin).

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  22. MrsJoseph
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:55:54

    I read a short not too long ago that had no HEA or HFN. The couple have sex but then the woman states that she won’t give the H (her ex) another chance. It…left me feeling sad at the end of the book instead of the happy feeling I usually get watching a couple hook up. I will always despise the lack of an HEA but I will accept (under duress) an HFN. But neither? Not a romance and I will end up ranting.

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  23. MrsJoseph
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 10:58:40

    @Ridley: There’s a new book that has just been released – Painted Faces. I haven’t read it and it’s a NTM author but the Hero is a heterosexual Drag Queen. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16158740-painted-faces

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  24. Selena Laurence
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:01:04

    Thank you SO much for this very thoughtful analysis. I agree that there must be some very basic boundary to a genre (HEA is ours in Romance), but the so-called “rules” these days have become stifling both for readers and writers. I’ve seen “advice” ranging from “Hero AND Heroine MUST be on every single page of the book” to “Hero and Heroine’s GMC must be apparent in first two pages and Goals can only be tangible items” and “There cannot be any adultery, Hero can’t ever break a law, there can’t be any pets…” the list goes on, and on, and on.
    The unfortunate reality is that the only way we have to judge a book’s “success” is by the sales figures. This means that yes, if it sells, that must be what people want. However, I am heartened by the fact that in the last two weeks I’ve seen two new digital imprints that specifically call for the “unusual, convention-breaking, mixed genre” Romance submissions. While certain publishers have found extraordinary success with very formulaic works, I think we will start to see others find enough success with the opposite. The thing about formulas is that you can’t stick with one for too long or everyone gets bored, so even the formulas must change with the times, and the idea of no formulas may be the next formula for success.

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  25. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:09:17

    @SAO:

    What I find endlessly interesting is that Harlequin has attempted to quantify what readers want and deliver it. Yet, relatively few readers (as far as I know) are satisfied by knowing a book is a Harlequin, rather than knowing the author.

    I’ve long thought publishers will go out of business when someone (agent, editor, reader blog)
    figures out how to create reliable brands.

    With Harlequin, though, you’re not just getting the Harlequin (or Mills & Boon) brand. You’re also getting an idea of the tone/topic via the branding for the different lines/series. It’s helpful because it means that someone who’s looking for a historical can find that quickly, instead of ending up with a paranormal; someone looking for glamour and billionaires won’t head for the Super Romance line and so on.

    I would agree that regular Harlequin/Mills & Boon readers are probably going to prefer some authors to others; I know I do. However, the fact that some people have subscriptions to particular Harlequin lines (i.e. they’ll be sent a fixed number of books in their preferred line(s) each month) means that they, at least, must be happy enough to select books on the basis of the branding for that line (and, of course, their experience of reading works by existing authors in that line).

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  26. JL
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:14:30

    @Ros:

    Jill Sorenson’s books frequently do this! They rip my heart out, but in a good way. Usually it’s a much younger ‘couple’ who clearly need to find themselves or move to a better place in life before they are actually ready for a real relationship, which is why it works for me. Love, love, lover her books! They are gritty and raw romantic suspense novels, and never predictable, in my opinion.

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  27. mari
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:18:04

    What an interesting topic! I can only add that blogs like this one have become integral to widening my tastes. Its very true that there is more than a little of “well if its not romance for me its not romance” in the romance community. There is also a lot of “if you don’t like gay, transgender, m/m romance, your a narrow minded homophobe.” In Japan, “romance” , always ends tragically. And anyone who has studied romance in Lit knows how much romance has changed through the ages. But it is very troubling to me the silencing effect comments about readers’ perceived tastes can have on what is written, and how it is read. I wish we could agree that our reading tasted are our own, not judge
    them and for heaven’s sake, stop assuming that because this is what I like, therefore its what everyone should like, and you are wrong and stupid because you don’t like/dislike whatI like. Also, what I like will sell and what you like won’t. There are enough “different” romance authors on this thread, to make ANY sweeping generalization about what sells and what doesn’t absolute bunk. Wish Jane would review some of them…

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  28. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:25:52

    @Ros:

    Could it work that the central romance has the HEA/HFN but that a secondary romance doesn’t work out? I don’t remember reading a book like that but I think it could be interesting.

    There’s more than one secondary romance in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me and one or more of them don’t work out.

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  29. Lucy Woodhull
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:25:55

    I think the limits imposed on romance tend to come from the publishers, who look to what has sold in the past, and who can blame them?

    But whenever I write something that I know is a bit unusual for the genre, a bit funnier or zanier than the normal, instead of limiting myself because I think it might not sell, I hold fast to my faith in the reader. Readers are smart, readers will go there if you make it sensible and artful, and the default should always be to rely on the brains of the reader, rather than dumbing it down or making it more conventional just for convention’s sake.

    I wish we’d all give more credit to the flexibility of the reader, yes, the romance reader, because I think the more our genre flexes and grows and embraces a bit of newness here and there, the stronger and more well-respected it will be. To stay still is to die.

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  30. Angie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:28:46

    I think there’s some truth in the “what readers buy is what they want” statement, but only partially. More accurate would be to say “what readers buy is what they want out of what they’re offered.” Readers can’t buy what isn’t offered, so we can’t know exactly what readers (or anyone) would prefer if they were offered all possible variations of a product.

    It’s like when Mrs. Fields first developed her cookie recipe, she tried to sell it to all the big cookie manufacturers. Every one of them turned her down, saying “Americans like crisp cookies.” Well, at that time, except for Fig Newtons, all Americans were offered were crisp cookies, so of course that was what they bought. When Mrs. Fields opened her own cookie stores selling soft cookies, people lined up down the block or across the mall to buy them. Gee, guess it wasn’t only crisp cookies Americans liked after all.

    It’s the same with everything, including romance. You can’t say that the readers wouldn’t like something they haven’t had a chance to buy, and “having a chance” includes both having a kind of book published, and having it available widely enough to have a decent audience. Who knows what readers will like tomorrow or next week or five years from now? It depends what’s available to them.

    Angie

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  31. Jane
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:57:31

    @Elyssa Patrick: Agreed. Readers have been responding positively to Cosway’s Painted Faces that features a crossdressing hero who stars in a Burlesque show.

    @MrsJoseph: Oh, I see you beat me to it. We reviewed it positively here on Dear Author. http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/b-reviews/review-painted-faces-by-lh-cosway/

    @Dabney: Why would you want to include books in the genre where there is not HEA/HFN? A book can still be labeled romantic without having to be defined as part of the genre.

    @Robin – when I was in private practice and we conducted focus groups, the biggest thing we learned was the people had a difficult time articulating why they responded negatively or positively to anything. Our focus group facilitor (we used several but my favorite was a forensic anthropologist) always used the phrase “let’s unpack that” and then we would engage with that person or a group of people for hours, unpacking the feelings behind the sentiment expressed.

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  32. Kate Pearce
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 11:58:19

    Coming into the U.S. romance market as a writer originally from the U.K. I was struck by the huge differences in the perception of what a romance novel is between the two countries. In the U.K. romance pretty much ‘is’ Mills and Boon/Harlequin. Here in the U.S. it covers a far wider field. I love that a romance novel can mean so many different things to so many different readers and that there is something for everyone.
    I’ve never really liked to conform to the rules so I always ended up writing romances with harder grittier centers, with heroes whose sexuality wasn’t set in stone, or at the conventional Alpha Male level. I wrote them for myself, and found an audience of readers who liked them too.
    Self-publishing has also allowed authors the freedom to go beyond where the current traditional publishing trends are and find new audiences there.
    I think it’s a fascinating time to be a romance writer.

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  33. hapax
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:34:23

    While this essay had me standing up and cheering (literally, it was a little embarrassing to have my co-workers stare at me) and the discussion in the comments has been interesting and inspiring…

    … I wonder, do we really mean what we say?

    I’m just thinking of the criticisms so often offered (including by me!) on the First Page Saturdays:

    “Where is the hero on this page?”
    “Why is it taking so long to get us into the action?”
    “Ughh. This guy sounds like a jerk, not a hero.”
    “Not for me. The heroine sounds too stupid.”
    “This is all scene setting and description.”
    and especially
    “Is this really a romance? It reads like science fiction / fantasy / mystery / horror / lit fic / whatever to me.”

    I’m not saying that these aren’t valid critiques. As I say, I’ve made some of them myself. But when we, as supposedly discerning romance readers, have such very formulaic expectations for the VERY FIRST PAGE, why should we expect to receive much that’s different?

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  34. A. J. Larrieu
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:42:39

    Thank you for this post, especially this:
    “…we are all custodians of the genre.”
    I think of authors in general as custodians of language, with a responsibility to both respect it and help it to evolve. I had never thought of the same paradigm being true for genre and all its participants, but you are, of course, perfectly right. Wonderful post.

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  35. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:54:46

    I have a lot to say, but @hapax got the underlying point of Da Rulez that were beginning to be laid down in the early 90s, which would have manifested in publisher-time in the 2000s. She laid a few of them out very specifically and tidily.

    Genre romance “formula” != Da Rulez, and readers are reacting to Da Rulez, not the formula.

    … I wonder, do we really mean what we say?

    I would argue that readers don’t exactly know what’s wrong, but they know something IS wrong, and because they don’t know, their reactions are contradictory.

    But when we, as supposedly discerning romance readers, have such very formulaic expectations for the VERY FIRST PAGE, why should we expect to receive much that’s different?

    Indeed.

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  36. A. J. Larrieu
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:55:29

    @Donna Thorland: Donna, this certainly makes me want to read your book. Congratulations on finding a publisher AND for sticking to your vision.

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  37. farmwifetwo
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:57:27

    There is a place and time for formula. If a publisher – like HQN – has a certain style of story under a certain publication heading. There are no surprises for the reader and the reader should expect to get a particular writing style within the pages of that book. I have no issues with that at all. Another place is within a particular series set up by an author. Readers except to get a certain formula within that series, and by writing the series the reader should expect the author do deliver within that formula.

    Now, in general…. I am so tired of authors that follow trends. All of a sudden it’s either 50 Shades or everyone is a chef books…. write about something else PLEASE.

    For me, formula creates a lack of emotion. The characters meet, they get together, they spend more time in their heads than together, they fight, break up, and get back together… and it’s BORING. I like books where characters interact. Where even at their most annoying they make me laugh, cry or even contemplate throwing the book against the wall. Not b/c the book is dull and boring but because they’re frustrating me and I wish they’d do something…..

    I have come to the conclusion that the very reason so many of us like Kristen Ashley is that she does exactly what I’ve mentioned above… her characters interact with each other. Good, bad, annoying, overbearing, whiny etc etc etc…. the books are full of colour and emotion and readers are starved for those very things.

    Yes, at the core they are “formula”…. but formula doesn’t matter if the book makes me wish it would never end.

    Oh, and after reading the comments one of my fav “romances that isn’t really and I wish there was a sequel” is Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher.

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  38. Molly O'Keefe
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 13:28:43

    I feel like romance as a genre has entered into an exciting new level of criticism, where the book and the genre are put into context. The conversation evolves from “I liked this” to discussion of things like form and function and boundaries. It’s the type of criticism that literary fiction has gotten all along and some of the other genres have enjoyed for a while now. This is so freaking exciting to me. Being able to conceptualize what we like and why we like it and what that MEANS in the canon of romantic fiction…I’m hyperventilating. It’s hard figuring out why you respond to something -especially when in romance our response is almost entirely emotional. Books I appreciate intellectually, can leave me cold. As people involved in this conversation, it’s fun to figure out the why’s and the why not’s.

    If the only form is a happy ending, wherever that happy is on the spectrum, then the boundaries are limitless. All of this in light of the new RWA restrictions on our genre’s big award is disheartening. But the conversation is awesome.

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  39. Ruthie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 13:42:40

    Thanks, Robin, for this thoughtful essay. I’m so impressed at everything you’re able to unpack here.

    I think when I speak of “genre romance,” I’m doing what Dabney says when she comments, “I tend to think of genres in terms of generalized reader expectations.” Partly, this is a consequence of my being so new to writing (I started in Oct. 2010) and so nervous about publishing. (What if I write books that everyone hates? Then I won’t get to do this anymore! *ridiculous, needless mental hyperventilating*)

    Your definition is so much more capacious and generous, I’m going to adopt it. From now on, I will do my best to sever “generalized reader expectations” from my definition of the genre.

    Thanks, particularly, for the dissection of genre, form, and formula. Very deftly done.

    @Ridley – Anna’s book is great! You’re going to love it. The hero cross-dresses for most of it and is — in a far-deeper-than-surface way — rather “effeminate.” The heroine’s far more “masculine.” And she can WRITE.

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  40. Jennifer Lohmann
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 14:02:29

    This was a great post. When I teach library science students about romance, I teach them that romance is this

    a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers.

    and tell them everything else is up for grabs.

    But what really struck me about this post was this

    Although not always made explicit, the logic of that argument rides along the lines of ‘what isn’t romantic to me isn’t Romance.’

    I’d never fully be able to articulate why other attempts to define the genre bothered me, but this hit the nail on the head. None of us wants someone else to define what is or is not romantic.

    Thank you for the post.

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  41. Helena Fairfax
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 15:41:26

    Another great and thought-provoking post. @Molly O’Keefe: You’re right, the new level of criticism is exciting – and the level of debate! As an aside, I recently read a Mills & Boon from the 1930s. What a difference from present day M&B (Harlequin)! I don’t just mean the obvious (social differences, sex, vocabulary), but the whole “formula” was different. The hero didn’t actually appear until half-way through the book (!); there were many, many secondary characters; the book was twice the length of present-day M&B’s. I’m sure this didn’t dull the enjoyment for readers at the time. It was obiously Romance to them. (I gave the book a review here, if it’s of interest http://wp.me/p2MzrQ-df ) I’m excited to see how the whole genre of romance develops from now, and wonder how readers will look on our novels in 80 years’ time. It feels great to be part of the debate

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  42. LauraB
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 16:03:40

    Hi All,

    I prefer “conventions” to “formulae.” The latter implies a mathematical equation or recipe that guarantees predictable results. The former, on the other hand, is more of an agreement between reader and author — an understanding of uncodified mores as opposed to spoken rules.

    Robin’s definition is spot on in my opinion b/c it conveys the general limits or boundaries of the genre and still allows for a ton of flexibility and genre-bending. The best artists know genre rules inside and out; they have internalized these rules so very well that they know exactly how to tweak matters and change them up. This way the audience still has the general grammar of genre for guidance and can likewise experience something new.

    Contempt for the generic isn’t a contempt for the rules followed per se, but for slavish adherence to them. At least that has always been my excuse for why some authors are too generic. ;)

    Finally, self-publishing is both a bane and a boon. It provides a space for some great experiments with the genre (ones traditional publishing may struggle approving, i.e., a D/s relationship at the heart of a more traditional romance) as well as one where a lot of stilted, rules-abiding drek can emerge. What I love is how democratic it’s become even is so many self-published authors need significant proof-reading and editing.
    Great post! Thanks.

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  43. AQ
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 18:12:57

    Janet, last month you spotlighted an author interview where they questioned their own worldview of the romance genre. Around the same time, an author responded to a review here at Dear Author and called their own “romance” series formulaic.

    You challenged us to critically think about what the interviewed author had to say and you weren’t the only one. No one challenged the reviewed author on their “formulaic” comment which they have made many times over many years in different venues.

    Just a simple statement. But I think it’s much worse than the first author’s because we hear it, allow it to slip by our internal watchdogs mostly unnoticed because no challenge the author on it and it’s already part of our cultural messaging.

    As for the rest of the article, many good points to ponder.

    When I think about the “romance genre” now as opposed to what it was like when I was a kid, the stories are very different animals. Sweet Savage Love and Skye O’Malley clearly have romances in them and were marketed as such but if they were written today would they fit the romance genre label? What is we change the original labeling: Does Gone with the Wind fit the current “romance genre” label? Pride and Prejudice? Outlander?

    Without a central authority or set criteria with easily understandable guidelines for defining “romance genre,” can there ever be a definitive answer to what should or shouldn’t be included in the romance genre?

    Does it even matter? If it does, then why does it matter? What are we trying to measure?

    I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with how each individual conceptualizes respect and I use the word respect here because it’s what I receive as the underlying theme to Janet’s argument in this post.

    Whenever these discussion come up, I’m left wondering if it isn’t the ones whose minds we will never change no matter what evidence we can bring to the table aren’t the ones that we seeking “respect” from. But then I’m reminded of someone like DocTurtle. In one of his chapter breakdowns he pondered the religious nature of the Virgin Scribe and the Omega’s in J.R. Ward’s worldbuilding?

    What a fabulous intellectual exercise to be had and it’s from a romance novel!!!!.

    And how many romance readers wanted to / cared about exploring that avenue of inquiry?

    If one wants to get past formula, then reviews and online discussion need to go beyond whether or not the “romance” piece of the story was personally satisfying to an individual reader. There are certainly reviews which do more analysis but rarely do you see someone tug a thread like the religious nature of the Virgin Scribe and the Omega and develop an entire post about it which is discussed in-depth by the online romance community.

    Take the bond-mate trope or formula. It’s an authorial tool which serves as an inciting incident. The author doesn’t have to work hard to get a reader suspend belief or to build sexual tension/desire because the default tool setting has a built-in “1: the leads cannot turn back or split-up” and “2: their minds are ruled by their bodies/nature/fate” story functionality.

    Just the trope alone offers us a fabulous foundation for philosopher argument. Mind vs. body. Spirit vs. the flesh. Is the body actually a higher being than the conscious mind? Or how about what’s more important the love of an individual or the survival of the community? Now throw in an individual author’s twist in a specific book or look for a pattern within a group of authors and you’ve got hours worth of exploration beyond the trope itself.

    The trope also has the added bonus of allowing the female lead to have sex early and often in the story without the reader calling the female a slut or deeming her unworthy of the hero based on her “awakened” sexuality aka she might not even recognize herself (another fabulous area of exploration).

    Yet many romance reader still call “romance novels” fluff. It is anything but. Romance say an awful lot about everything under the sun. Even the “worst” romance novels are more than popcorn and potato chips. They expose core “naked” pieces which master crafts of the genre can hide with their skill. Cultural messages we are consuming about well everything from government, authority, religion, capitalism, gender double standards, careers, etc., etc., etc.

    A guilty pleasure to be consumed without using our internal watchdogs.

    If you are a reader, do you take the red or the blue pill? Do you wait until academia or commercial elite media catches up and does the work for you to tell you why the romance genre is to be respected? How the formula breaks down?

    Do you really want to work out everything romance novels have to say beyond the romance itself? Or do you simply prefer to lose yourself in the story, let the author take you through different levels of emotional catharsis with the implicit promise that the author will leave you refreshed instead of down in the bottom of the barrel? (assuming of course that he or she does fulfills that promise)

    Is there middle ground?

    Red or blue?

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  44. AQ
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 18:47:08

    One follow-up question on labeling.

    Could the Dark Tower series by Stephen King be labeled as romance genre? Why or why not?

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  45. will
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 18:48:14

    “Eternal love.” As if anything’s eternal, but love? Love? It’s an unstable state, thermodynamic nonsense, two energy sources, two suns, trying to establish orbits around one another, each one striving to give light and heat to the other. How pretty it sounds, how implausible. Naturally the system breaks down under gravitational stress sooner or later, and one pulls the other to pieces, or they spiral into collision, or they go tumbling away from one another. A waste of energy, a futile spilling of the life-force. Love? Abolish it! If only I could.
    -Robert Silverberg, Shadrach in the Furnace

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  46. Emily A.
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 18:52:45

    @Ros
    “Could it work that the central romance has the HEA/HFN but that a secondary romance doesn’t work out? I don’t remember reading a book like that but I think it could be interesting.”

    Much Ado About You by Eloisa James
    The heroine from the secondary romance ends up in a romance and HEA in the third book with a different hero.
    Also I think Francesca Bridgerton also marries her first husband in book three only to end up with his cousin in book six. And in the beginning of book 6 she is in an HEA with her first husband only to end up in different marriage after he dies. I really loved both Much Ado About You and When He Was Wicked.
    I will probably keep thinking of examples but these are the first tow that came to mind.

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  47. Janine
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 19:20:19

    I loved this post. I think there are a lot of unwritten rules which can cause sameness and staleness in some books, rules from “the characters must kiss by p.30″ to “no adultery” to “ancient Greece/contemporary Japan/another solar system is not an acceptable setting.” I want the genre to be more wide-ranging while still playing with tropes we know and love. I want new tropes to be added to the mix. I want there to be romance for every taste. How we get from here to there I’m not exactly sure, but I think discussions like this one have an important role to play, so thanks so much for writing this post.

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  48. Links for a Snow Day | Cora Buhlert
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 21:06:40

    [...] Dear Author has a good post about the romance genre, its supposedly formulaic nature and whether the…. Now personally, I’m not at all happy with the latest trends in the romance genre, which seem to tend towards more erotica, more BDSM, more billionaire Cinderella fantasies and college romances, which have zero connection to any university experience I ever had. If anything it seems that the romance genre is moving backwards to gender dynamics that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, only this time around with more sex and a bit of bondage. But luckily it’s such a big genre that I’m still bound to find books I enjoy, even if there are fewer of them published now. [...]

  49. Fiona McGier
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 22:51:35

    When people complain about the formulaic design of romance novels they forget that all genres have conventions that define them. Do you read a mystery, expecting to see say, a murder, then have someone solve it during the course of the book? Of course you do! Do you read a sci-fi book and know you are going to be transported into a fantasy world where you either do or don’t enjoy the world-building the author is doing around your mind? Of course you do! ALL genres have conventions…that’s why they are genres.

    That being said, what really bothers me is that romance is so denigrated as to make authors and readers feel we have to keep defending ourselves, as if what we are doing is “dirty…unclean”, and we really should know better…or should hide it where no one can see it. Do writers of murders get accused of acting out their murders? No? Then why is romance so different?

    The other thing that bothers me is having read here on Dear Author.com that someone is creating a program to have computers write romances…after all, “How hard can that be?” We romance writers have to put up with a lot, including having big publishers only want to accept “more of the same” whenever some new wrinkle takes off. All of a sudden BDSM with rich violent alpha males and virginal heroines is huge, when the last big thing was menage…before that it was vampires….before that it was cowboys, etc . So anyone who writes what their own muse tells them to is somehow “wrong”? Now we will have to put up with big money advertising books written by a computer program? How much less respect can we expect? Is there no end to the humiliation we have to endure because we are females who like to write and read romance?

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  50. Ainslie Paton
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 01:25:44

    Brilliant – thank you.

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  51. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 02:48:56

    @AQ:

    If you are a reader, do you take the red or the blue pill? Do you wait until academia or commercial elite media catches up and does the work for you to tell you why the romance genre is to be respected? How the formula breaks down?

    [...]

    Is there middle ground?

    Academia’s already caught up. We’ve got a Journal of Popular Romance Studies and I frequently come across new items to add to the bibliography of academic articles and books about romance.

    The middle ground’s already here too, because a lot of us consider ourselves romance readers as well as academics. For example, Janet and lazaraspaste from Dear Author have both written academic articles about romance.

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  52. Evangeline Holland
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 03:42:35

    Brava, Robin/Janet, brava!

    I am adamant that if a book says “romance” on the spine, I am guaranteed a HEA at the end, which then gives the author permission to take me on a thrilling ride with the protagonists. On that note, I feel the notion of rules and do’s and dont’s are a remnant of the romance genre’s foundation in category romance. In fact (and I had to do a Google search to refresh my memory), in Rita C. Estrada’s Writing Romances: A Handbook by the Romance Writers of America, Ms. Estrada calls category romance the heart of the genre and states “they introduce new trends in fiction that are exploding or sneaking in the back door. What you see now in the microism of category romance, you can bet you’ll see in stand-alone books in the near future”.

    If category romance writers–and trad Regency writers–began jumping ship to single title in the 90s, they and possibly their readers, then brought category romance sensibilities with them. And if category is supposed to be the nest for new trends, perhaps that’s why alpha billionaires are so popular these days, lol!

    But perhaps this topic is why the elimination of the Novel with Romantic Elements category of the GH and the RITAs is a massive step back for the genre and all readers: how can it be argued that romance novels aren’t formulaic when novels that straddle genres but have a strong romance underpinning its overall plot–and a HEA–aren’t considered Romance? Look at the marketing merry go-round for Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series! Seems like “romance” can be constructed at the publisher’s discretion.

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  53. SAO
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 04:19:11

    @Hapax:

    I don’t think the expectations First Page critics have are formulaic. The question is, would you read on? Often, for me, the answer is no, I wouldn’t spend a buck on this book or even, I wouldn’t spend the time to download it for free. I try to identify for the author why the page bored me.

    I want to see conflict and/or characterization on the page because too often, when they are missing from the first few pages, they are missing from the rest of the book and I don’t want to waste my time reading a book with weak characters or plot. In theory, I’m okay with a slow start, but in practice, I want assurance that my patience will be rewarded.

    However, cruising through Amazon’s “look inside” for some of the older, slower-starting romances, I’ve noticed that they manage to put grabbers on the first page, even if they start slow. For example, P&P famously starts with the ironic observation that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the views or feelings of such a man . . .” It sets the tone and suggests conflict before we get to the slow start — a discussion between the parents of the heroine about the man who has just moved into the neighborhood (and who isn’t the main hero).

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  54. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 09:20:43

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Academia’s already caught up….

    I disagree. Parts of academia may have caught up but I don’t think that’s filtered out either onto the entire campus (academia professional awa students), let alone to the general public.

    One of the abstract lists the studies as entering it’s fifth decade. How many readers are aware of that? And why after 50 years of study, do I still hear calls for academia respect? Shouldn’t the romance genre already have it? 50 years.

    Which brings me back to the beginning, what exactly will it take to gain “respect” for the romance genre and what exactly does that mean and to whom? A few years ago Jessica over a Read, React, Review had an in-depth discussion on the topic, or perhaps this was a tangent to the original post sorry, can’t remember and I’m too lazy to track back.

    What I was left with from that discussion was that respect was a pie in the sky concept as opposed to a measurable goal because ‘respect’ meant too many different things to too many different people. Some wanted regular reviews in the New York Times. Others wanted librarians and booksellers to not look down their noses at them. Or if you are author to stop getting asked when you are going to write something other than porn. And so on. It was extremely personal and completely valid but how do you measure success when the requirements are so personal and so vast?

    So is general romance reader perception on respect from academia the measure or the reality on the ground? And then who’s reality are we measuring? One department? One campus? One thousand campuses? One reader? One million readers? One author? One thousand authors?

    Which doesn’t really change my initial questions: do romance readers wait for the experts to tell them why the genre and the formulas are to be respected or do they do it themselves? Do general romance readers even care about this topic or is this something that is only important to a specific subsection of romance readers, academics and authors who are seeking respect, validation, acknowledgment, what exactly for the genre, their reading choices, females in general, etc., etc.? I’m often confused about what the focus should be which says more about my own limitations than anything else.

    The middle ground’s already here too, because a lot of us consider ourselves romance readers as well as academics.

    As for middle ground, I do appreciate that you are a romance reader but when we have interacted in the past, my take has been that you carefully weighed words and reactions before saying anything online because you were an academic first. You’ve also been trained to approach a book in a certain fashion when conducting research.

    1. Do you consider yourself a romance reader first or an academic first?
    2. Do you have the ability to turn that training off while reading? If so, can you share your methodology? Please.

    When I look at a book now, and I’m by no means any type of expert, I sometimes see the pieces instead of the whole. I start wondering why the use of this trope. Isn’t there a better way to pull this off without putting the female into such a position of weakness. Why did the author make the male the protagonist and so on. I can’t always lose myself in the magic of the work, and frankly I’m sometimes jealous of the readers who can. Hence, I’ve taken the red pill.

    Finally, I would ask, based on your studies, do you believe that romance readers really know what they are reading? Are getting the whole mind v. body arguments or the pulling out threads like the religious nature of the Virgin Scribe? And, does it matter if they aren’t?

    And what does it mean if it doesn’t matter?

    To me it wouldn’t change whether or not the genre was worthy of respect. It wouldn’t change how I look at the formula, the tropes or character arcs or really anything else that goes into the romance genre mix. What it would do is get me to ask myself again: who’s respect is being sought, by whom and what does “respect” in this context? Because I feel respect is the foundation of this discussion.

    Thanks again for the links.

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  55. Rosario
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 09:56:37

    @Jane:

    @Elyssa Patrick: Agreed. Readers have been responding positively to Cosway’s Painted Faces that features a crossdressing hero who stars in a Burlesque show.

    @MrsJoseph: Oh, I see you beat me to it. We reviewed it positively here on Dear Author. http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/b-reviews/review-painted-faces-by-lh-cosway/

    I’ve just bought Raine’s Blues, by Sharon Cullars, whose previous books I’ve really liked. The hero sings in a jazz band dressed in drag.

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  56. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 10:24:28

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Laura, I’m reading one of the articles from the first link you sent and I find myself laughing because the author of the article is talking about how Nora Roberts bibliography is too huge to really tackle at 200 and counting. All I keep thinking is that if 200 works from one author is too big of a number than how in the world could anyone ever tackle the entire romance genre?

    Just one month’s worth of releases is more than Nora’s 200 and counting. Heck, Harlequin might release that many in the US monthly. If I were to hazard a guess my guess would be that there are at least 600 works which would be classified as romance genre released every month.

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  57. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 10:35:41

    @AQ:

    Parts of academia may have caught up but I don’t think that’s filtered out either onto the entire campus (academia professional awa students), let alone to the general public.

    To start at the end of your list, a huge number of things don’t filter out from campuses to the general public, and often when they do, the general public are scornful of “Mickey Mouse degrees.” There are also a lot of politicians who appear to be quite scornful about arts/humanities degrees in general. For example:

    Anthropologists have been singled out by Florida Governor Rick Scott as not being needed. On the Marc Benier show, Gov. Scott said:

    We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job. (PLOS Neuroanthropology blog)

    I agree that the study of popular romance hasn’t filtered out “onto the entire campus”: as yet there aren’t very many academics working in this area. But IASPR has been taking its conferences round the globe and drawing in academics who work on related subjects (e.g. rom-coms). The editorial board of JPRS is quite varied too.

    One of the abstract lists the studies as entering it’s fifth decade. How many readers are aware of that? And why after 50 years of study, do I still hear calls for academia respect? Shouldn’t the romance genre already have it? 50 years.

    Probably not very many readers are aware of that. But then again, how many readers of romantic fiction in the UK are aware of the existence of the Romantic Novelists’ Association? They’ve been trying to get respect for romantic fiction for over 50 years. When you’re simultaneously engaging in a struggle against prejudices against women’s writing, fears about women readers, concerns about women’s sexuality, and highbrow disdain for commercial fiction, it’s bound to take time to change attitudes.

    Also, academics working in the area haven’t all taken the same position. Some have been much less respectful of romances than others (and, in fact, that’s still true today).

    what exactly will it take to gain “respect” for the romance genre and what exactly does that mean and to whom?

    Speaking personally, I would think romance had got respect if if there was no more talk of well-written romances “transcending the genre” and if everyone approached a romance novel with the assumption that romances, like any other subset of literature, vary greatly in their subject matter and in the quality of their writing.

    my take has been that you carefully weighed words and reactions before saying anything online because you were an academic first

    When I’m online, I’m an academic first because I put the same name on my online comments as on my academic work.

    1. Do you consider yourself a romance reader first or an academic first?
    2. Do you have the ability to turn that training off while reading? If so, can you share your methodology? Please.

    I was introduced to Georgette Heyer while I was still in my early teens, so chronologically speaking I was a romance reader first. If a book’s emotionally engaging, I get carried away by the story in much the same way as anyone else would be. I don’t have a methodology for that; it’s just how I respond to stories. If a novel doesn’t engage me emotionally, I’m more likely to start analysing it on a first reading.

    Finally, I would ask, based on your studies, do you believe that romance readers really know what they are reading? Are getting the whole mind v. body arguments or the pulling out threads like the religious nature of the Virgin Scribe? And, does it matter if they aren’t?

    I only study texts, not readers, so I have no idea what romance readers as a whole are feeling or thinking. As I said, I personally often don’t think about what I’m reading until after I’ve finished reading it, and there are many books I’ve read but never thought about in any depth. I think it can be enriching and enlightening to think more deeply about what we read, but different people find enrichment and enlightenment in different ways. And as Vassiliki Veros recently pointed out, some people can’t read at all, yet

    having low literacy does not mean you are not engaged in culture and politics or that you are unable to feel empathy for others. I have met many literate people in my life who are bigots. These are people who read broadly, yet they make racist and elitist comments, belittling others because they feel superior in their intelligence. Do I think I am smarter than others because I can read and write? Not at all. Do I feel that I possess more empathy for others purely because I read a lot and that the reader of one book a year has less empathy? Once again, no. For we are made up of the whole of our experiences and not only those associated with the words we read.

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  58. Tamara
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 10:54:38

    This is one of the most insightful, beautiful articles I’ve read at DA.

    I’ve given up trying to figure out how to define romance except in the simplest terms of two souls falling in love and hoping for happily-ever-after (whatever else may happen in the story.) Readers (including reviewers, agents, and an editor) have told me I don’t write romance. I’ve always considered that I do. I guess we can conceivably all be correct, since we carry our own definitions of romance in our hearts. In a practical sense, however, if I can’t shelve my work with other romances, I’m left at a disadvantage (as far as sales go.)

    All the same, I’m one of those readers whose intuitive understanding of what constitutes romance has evolved and expanded in the past ten years. I think the resistance to wider horizons is yielding as resistance usually does, slowly but steadily, as we open up to all the possibilities.

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  59. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 11:03:02

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Well done!

    Thank you.

    My only followup questions for you are:
    1. Are there romance genre works which you get intellectually carried away as opposed to emotionally carried away?
    2. Do you use the same or a similar definition to romance genre that Janet used in this post? If it’s different, then how is it different?

    I know I’m slicing and dicing here, but I always come away from our discussions with more than I started with. Many times it’s more questions than answers. But I appreciate that as it gives me more days to spin out the tangents of what you’ve offered.

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  60. Sunita
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 11:14:32

    Great, thought-provoking post, Robin. I’m one of those online peers who isn’t reading the books that seem to be talked about a lot right now: YA, NA, BDSM, and contemporary self-pubbed authors like Ashley. But it’s hardly the first time I’ve been reading stuff that isn’t at the center of a conversation, and I imagine the pendulum will eventually come back around to books that I’m reading. It bothered me for a while, but I decided just to concentrate on the books and sub-genres that looked interesting and ignore the buzz factor. I’ve reviewed half a dozen contemporaries, a couple of historicals, and a paranormal over the last few weeks, and I found a flawed but unusual historical and some really good contemporaries, and I found something worthwhile in all the books I reviewed. That’s a pretty good batting average.

    The romance genre is so big and varied. I think readers are best served by allowing it to flourish as widely as it can, and this is why I am always deeply puzzled when *readers* argue that a particular book isn’t genre romance, or that because they found it unromantic, it must not be a “real” romance. Why limit the field that way? I can certainly understand why publishers do it, and some (but by no means all) authors clearly benefit from narrower categorizations and “if you like X you’ll love Y” approaches, but for readers, the benefits of the sure thing are tempered by the lower chance of finding a new, equally or more wonderful read.

    I also find the notion that genre is shaped by reader expectations to be surprising. Genre fiction is commercial fiction, and the boundaries have been almost entirely driven by marketing decisions. It used to be that commercial fiction was marketed differently than literary fiction and classics, but even that gap has narrowed a great deal. I was just rereading the first chapter of John Sutherland’s book on 1970s bestsellers, and if you swap out the 1970s book and replace them with 50 and other current bestsellers, you’d barely notice the difference. As Angie said way upthread, readers make choices based on what’s available, but they don’t directly determine what’s available.

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  61. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 11:20:11

    All I keep thinking is that if 200 works from one author is too big of a number than how in the world could anyone ever tackle the entire romance genre?

    They can’t. People can still do quantitative work, though, without reading/sampling every single romance. I’ve done a bit of that myself and I’ve seen some interesting work done by training “a computer to spot differences in word-use.”

    As for qualitative work, Pamela Regis has argued that

    identifying and studying the strongest romance novels will benefit the entire critical enterprise and help us avoid making claims about simplicity and other qualities that critics assign to the romance novel based on an unrepresentative set of study texts.

    The choice of study texts is vexed, a minefield, but we must accept the difficulty and chart a path. The romance genre is big, and growing all the time. Between publication of the Four Horsewomen’s study texts in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the publication of the Millennials’ study texts, the number of romances published in North America alone rose from just under 2000 new romances per year in 1998, to the 8090 titles published in 2007 (Romance Writers of America). This means that from 1998 to 2008, more than 39,000 romance titles were published. Think of it this way: a reader reading one romance per day, every day, would take 106 years, 10 months, and 5 days to clear this To Be Read stack. Nonetheless, we should seek out and study the strongest ones.

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  62. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 11:51:23

    @AQ:

    1. Are there romance genre works which you get intellectually carried away as opposed to emotionally carried away?

    Yes. To take a recent example, I was interested by what Meljean Brook was doing in Riveted but I didn’t feel carried away by it. I find Jennifer Crusie’s novels really rewarding to work on, but again, I don’t really connect emotionally with her characters.

    Do you use the same or a similar definition to romance genre that Janet used in this post?

    Yes, when I write/talk about a “popular romance” I’m thinking of “a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers.”

    I always come away from our discussions with more than I started with.

    Thanks for asking all the questions! They got me thinking about aspects of romance/the study of romance which I hadn’t thought of before, or hadn’t thought through in any detail.

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  63. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:02:00

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Very interesting.

    My initial thoughts, with the Regis excerpt are:
    1. What does the “strongest” ones mean?
    2. There is a lot to be learned from those works which show lesser levels of craft.

    I’m currently reading “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular
    Romance Studies” you linked to, not finished yet but this tangent popped into my head.

    A non-romance reader friend of mine read a romantic suspense novel by Nora Roberts. She more or less enjoyed the mystery (she only kept reading to find out if she was right) but felt the courtship ritual portrayed was an entirely false ritual. (I used courtship ritual here to summarize her words.) When she reads these body cues of the mind / body connection, she’s actively rolling her eyes because

    1. That’s not her courtship ritual, she much more direct, perhaps aggressive and to the point. It’s not really a dance, people!
    2. People lie all the time. Their words. Their body language. Predators are especially good at hiding themselves among the sheep.

    Romance readers accept mind / body courtship as one of the defining aspects of the genre. The presumption is that the couple are being honest with each other so the reader can allow themselves to “experience,” umm read, not really sure what word I’m reaching here, without the qualms they’d have in similar situation in real life. Well, at least as far as works released under the romance genre label today are concerned. It wasn’t always this way. I remember quite a few book of my youth where the female protagonist ended up with different male leads.

    I see the change as fairly significant. Reader trust in hero as a default setting. Male protagonists instead of male leads/antagonists (don’t really know percentages vs. perceptions here). No longer a coming of age character for the female protagonist. etc., etc. The timeframe of the story. Years or at least months vs. say 24 hours or a few weeks. Another avenue of exploration because characters can be constantly in a state of emergency with few real options. Anchors the tension aspects as well as the body response. (Oh, darn it, almost had my disquiet from the article by I lost it.)

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  64. Jane
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:18:44

    Form, formula and formulaic. It’s interesting how those terms can take on such different connotations. In my twenty plus years of romance, I’ve read a lot of variations on the theme, both within the traditionally confined genre and without. I think my only hard and fast rule is that the book focus on the romance and end with a HFN/HEA. I was re-reading the Bronze Horseman over the holiday, a favorite romance of mine, and even throughout the war, the entire story is really focused on the connection between Shura and Tatiana and how their love survives. (The ending of The Bronze Horseman is a cliffhanger and you have to read at least the second book to get a full and complete HEA)

    The power in a romance book comes from the emotional connection of the characters so if there is a form and formula to romance, I think it needs to contain a central couple (or more) focused on a strong emotional connection and ending with a HFN/HEA. The success of books rises and falls, in my opinion, on how the reader relates to the emotional connection of the characters. The less that the reader connects, the less romantic it is. The more the reader connects, the more romantic it is.

    I recall Lois McMaster Bujold referring to romances as love fantasies and I liked that because I do see romances driven by stories about love, a very strong emotion.

    Beyond those simple elements, however, there is so much room to maneuver. In some ways, the HEA allows for greater freedom because if you have the trust of the reader, you can do almost anything to your characters and the reader will forgive you for it.

    Robin, you and I have recently talked extensively about Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man and how there is a point toward the end of the book wherein Tack explains something that makes you revise every previous interaction that Tack has with the heroine. In a book I am posting a review of tomorrow, the first read through of the book, I felt like Marie was in serious jeopardy throughout the book and it wasn’t until I had completed the book wherein I was able to go back and read in a safe manner but the first time through was like a thrill ride, sometimes scary but all the time compelling.

    Another friend of mine emailed me about a book wherein she said that the conflict between the characters seemed so impossible that she peaked at the end to ensure the last element was in place – the HEA – otherwise, my guess is that she wouldn’t have been able to finish the book.

    The boundaries of the romance – the characters, the strong emotional connection, and the HFN/HEA ending – makes the canvas actually broader for an author, rather than limiting. The problem is that when there are individuals who critique the genre from the outside, they don’t realize this and focus solely on the superficial issues of form and formula. That our discussions of the books stem from how we interact with them, how we understand and relate to them, don’t decrease the viability of the romance genre as a legitimate literary artifact. To say otherwise would be an insult to the women who have made romance books an integral part of their lives.

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  65. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:23:11

    @Laura Vivanco:

    a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers.

    It’s interesting I think there are so many tacit rules to the romance genre that this definition is too simplistic.

    Even though the Dark Tower series by Stephen King would never be classified as romance genre, the entire series read as a single whole could fit your profile. Stephen King might object. His fans would probably be quite upset and would go to great lengths for why it shouldn’t be included in the genre. The ‘transcends the genre” bullcrap would be the least of our concerns.

    So where’s the truth? Well, it wasn’t written for the romance genre but it does contain a strong romantic love story which does have a happy ending for the couple. The couple in question are primary characters but they are not the protagonist of the story. Their story role is helper to the protagonist, but there love story is more definitely central to their individual character arcs throughout the saga as well as given prominence for multiple plot arcs across multiple books and they also have a direct effect on the protagonist’s character arc and story choices.

    So by your definition would a story like that be labeled as romance genre? If not, where are drawing the line?

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  66. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 15:23:44

    @AQ:

    My initial thoughts, with the Regis excerpt are:
    1. What does the “strongest” ones mean?
    2. There is a lot to be learned from those works which show lesser levels of craft.

    I’m not sure what she means by “strongest.” Since her argument involves a discussion of complexity, she may mean that the “strongest” ones are the ones we can demonstrate are most complex. Maybe, though, she means “best written.” I, though, think that the ways each person determines what’s “best written” can be quite subjective. In any case, as you say, “There is a lot to be learned from those works which show lesser levels of craft.” Precisely because they’re less subtle and less well crafted you might be more likely to notice the themes, tropes, metaphors, etc more clearly. But if the “complex” is valued highly (as Pam Regis argues) and one measure of complexity is how much academics can write about a text, then some “works which show lesser levels of craft” might be deemed more complex (and therefore should presumably be valued highly). It all seems rather confusing. So, in my own work, I don’t bother trying to rank books: I just examine things that strike me as interesting.

    1. That’s not her courtship ritual, she much more direct, perhaps aggressive and to the point. It’s not really a dance, people!

    My experience of courtship doesn’t bear much relationship to what’s depicted in romance novels either.

    I see the change as fairly significant. Reader trust in hero as a default setting. Male protagonists instead of male leads/antagonists (don’t really know percentages vs. perceptions here). No longer a coming of age character for the female protagonist. etc., etc. The timeframe of the story. Years or at least months vs. say 24 hours or a few weeks.

    Yes, and looking back at those older books ought to show people that a lot of the “rules” about romance are mutable: if they’ve changed in the past, they can change again now and in the future.

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  67. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 15:40:19

    @AQ: I wonder if that could possibly fall into the group which the RWA has just recently decided to exclude from the RITA awards, i.e. “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.” I don’t know, though. Maybe even there the strong romantic elements had to involve the protagonist(s)?

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  68. aq
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 16:30:48

    @Laura Vivanco:

    @AQ: I wonder if that could possibly fall into the group which the RWA has just recently decided to exclude from the RITA awards, i.e. “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.” I don’t know, though. Maybe even there the strong romantic elements had to involve the protagonist(s)?

    Ahhh, but that assumes that the RWA definition is the central authority. Personally, I don’t think they are or even should be as they tend to be behind the curve as it pertains to the romance genre industry. From ebook authors to erotic romance to gay & lesbian romance to… Nope, not a central authority as it pertains to the romance genre but I’ll grant they are the central authority for their membership.

    That said I’m taking a segue: to play a riff off of a topic that Janet previously mentioned if RWA is the central authority and we are going to measure romance plot/ subplot from a writing/story perspective as percentage of the entire novel as opposed how satisfying the romance is (impossible to judge IMO), then RWA decision to “weigh” “romance” assuming they have developed strict criteria as well as a training regiment for all judges is completely appropriate. However, without strict criteria and training such an endeavor is completely worthless. Actually less than worthless.

    Linda Howard’s Shadow Woman was recently reviewed by Jane. It contains a romance but based on Jane’s review I’m lead to believe that the romance plot is minor compared to the Dark Tower version.

    So is Shadow Woman a romance genre novel?

    Is Crusie and Mayer’s Agnes and the Hitman a romance genre novel? And again Gone with the Wind?

    I’m not really trying to be a pain here. What I’m after is a clear definition of what we are trying to measure and why a certain book is included or excluded?

    I can go with any definition out there as long as it’s consistent with what we’re attempting to look at, define, explore, whatever. If the genres bleed, that’s also okay with me again as long as we are consistent. Heck, the definition can even change but if it does then I need to know whether or not certain books are being grandfathered in and why.

    Why? Because I’m anal. I admit it. I want someone to tell me what it they want. Not really directed at you, Laura. Someone being the all powerful Oz, who can give “respect” to the romance bookworm, writer, publisher, whoever and whatever they are seeking.

    Would it help romance readers to declare that Stephen King’s Dark Tower opus is a romance novel or a romance genre novel? How about claiming Louis L’Amour Westerns (yes, Laura, I’m stealing from you because it was a fabulous point made elsewhere)? As far as form and function are concerned both of those writers used their own authorial tricks and tools. Just like romance authors do.

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  69. The King is Dead, Long Live the King
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 16:32:39

    [...] was driving into town after reading Red Robin Reader’s post at Dear Author, Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance, and following a conversation on Twitter about whether or not historicals are a dead genre, and I [...]

  70. Robin/Janet
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 19:11:20

    So much to respond to here; let’s see how much I can get done during my lunch hour.

    Re formula, I just want to reiterate that I’m not criticizing formula — like form, it’s a necessary part of genre, but because it’s narrower and more specific, endless repetition, especially of the same formulae, can create staleness, triteness, and ideological patterns that maybe need to be looked at closely and reassessed.

    In terms of the definition of Romance I use, I didn’t come up with it myself, It’s pretty much RWA’s longtime definition, and I purposely did not designate two protagonists, or their gender, or whether the happy ending is HFN or HEA. I think most of the attempts to narrow these boundaries are ideological in nature (only m/f, only HEA, etc.), while genre is all about form, which is a pretty objective measure. I can tell you that literary scholars will look at trends and conventions and formula and ideological patterns, but those will constitute a different analysis than one of mere form.

    Which reminds me: a couple of people brought up the term convention (and thank you for that!), which I would say is distinct from — although related to — form and formula. Conventions, IMO, are the elements of formula, the tropes, devices, motifs, archetypes, etc., that help characterize the genre and how books fit and work within its formal boundaries.

    @SAO: It’s interesting, because while I’ve read some real wallbangers from Harlequin, I’ve also read some amazingly subversive books, especially within the Presents line. So I will sometimes intentionally choose a Harlequin pubbed book in the hope that I’m going to get something interesting.

    @DB Cooper: Thank you for mentioning Keat’s “On the Sonnet” (1848). I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and it’s a nice meditation on precisely these issues (especially his verdict in the last two lines):

    If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
    And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
    Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
    Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
    Sandals more interwoven and complete
    To fit the naked foot of poesy;
    Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
    Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
    By ear industrious, and attention meet:
    Misers of sound and syllable, no less
    Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
    Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
    So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
    She will be bound with garlands of her own.

    @Dabney: One of the (IMO many) problems with conceptualizing genre by reader expectations is that it makes genre both supremely arbitrary and potentially incoherent. Certainly we can and should have discussions about reader expectations, but how would we ever quantify them in a meaningful way? Are we safe to assume that authors and publishers have any clue about reader expectations? What happens when a book meets the form but surpasses the expectations of many readers? Who gets to make those calls re. what is and isn’t genre? Publishers, especially, love the “Romance” label, because they know it sells well, and I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want publishers to be the ones to tell me what does and doesn’t constitute genre, any more than I want readers who only like baby epilogues, virgin heroines, and Regency Historicals to be in charge of genre labeling.

    @Jane: One of the reasons I write these posts is to try to figure out my own thoughts on different issues. Once I start writing, and then read people’s responses, I ultimately come away with much more clarity about my own views.

    @Moriah Jovan:
    Genre romance “formula” != Da Rulez, and readers are reacting to Da Rulez, not the formula.

    THIS.

    @Ruthie: I responded to Dabney’s comment re. reader expectations, although I understand why authors think about reader expectations and how that thinking can feel defining in terms of what is ultimately written. I’m just hoping there can be more distinction between generic boundaries and reader expectations, because what is genre and how readers respond to particular books in the genre are IMO very different conversations, with different assumptions and implications.

    In fact, your second post on escapism in historical Romance had me thinking a lot about these differences, and how the reader expectation issue is itself so complex and varied. For example, you talked about why Courtney Milan’s books feel so much more historically recognizable to you than Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series. While I haven’t read that Dare series, when I read about it, my first thought was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herland_(novel)), which, while written in serial form during the first years of the 20th C, is IMO a book that really sits on the cusp between the Victorian and Modern eras.

    Herland is a utopian novel about an all women’s society that is infiltrated by three men. There are a lot of issues with the book (race is not treated well; serialization weakened the narration; it’s incredibly conflicted in regard to gender and love/marriage, as Gilman’s work tends to be), but it’s a fascinating study of Gilman’s experience and perceptions of Victorian society and her own feminist principles at the turn of the 20th century.

    Now I have no idea if Dare knows of Herland, or if she’s intentionally riffing off the book, but the connection I made between Dare’s novel and Gilman’s created a strange historical context for me re. Dare’s series. And maybe that’s what your post is commenting on — the ways in which we all relate personally, via our own experience, to particular books, and the ways our own baggage, so to speak, informs our reading relationships. All of which is a very powerful and personal thing. Which is one reason I like the more objective formalism (although I’m not referring to New Criticism here) of genre definition, even though I am not a formalist, either by training or practice (I’m more of a postcolonial deconstructionist, which probably explains a lot about how I approach these issues). And in light of RWA’s recent attempts to redefine how genre is represented and celebrated via the RITA and GH, I’m even more concerned about how far we seem to be drifting from what has been a pretty stable definition of (US) genre Romance for almost a century now.

    Because I haven’t really seen a dissolving of generic boundaries or a dilution of the form, and I’m worried that legitimate diversification within the genre is being viewed as a threat to a particular and particularly narrow set of expectations for the genre that could have a substantial effect on what is offered as genre and in how readers and authors view genre.

    @AQ:

    But then I’m reminded of someone like DocTurtle. In one of his chapter breakdowns he pondered the religious nature of the Virgin Scribe and the Omega’s in J.R. Ward’s worldbuilding?

    What a fabulous intellectual exercise to be had and it’s from a romance novel!!!!.

    And how many romance readers wanted to / cared about exploring that avenue of inquiry?

    Well before Doc Turtle took on the BDB, I participated in many discussion of exactly this type, not only about religious symbolism and dogma in the book/series, but also about the fetishization of femininity and masculinity, racial appropriation, and the extent to which Ward eventually destroyed her own ontological mythology in the series and the impact of that decision on the series and its cohesion/ideology/philosophy, etc. Also, if you go back through some of the early SBTB posts and discussions, you will see that they ran the gamut from snarky to experiential/personal to abstractly intellectual — and just within a single thread. Even though some authors and readers actively protested what they characterized as “mean girl” talk, an authentically critical approach to the genre is not new, even though it’s now much more common, both online and off. I just think that more Romance readers who are into that kind of thing have found each other, and I’m guessing the rise and diversification of the online Romance community has had a positive effect on that process.

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  71. AQ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:58:11

    @Robin/Janet:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to imply that DocTurtle was the only one. I used him because he was someone who repeated some of the cultural whispers about the romance genre but proved himself to be open and immediately treated his challenge as worthy of intellectually inquiry.

    In contrast, I recently had a heated discussion with a female friend who has a completely closed and vehement worldview on the romance genre. There is nothing that I could ever bring to the table which could get her to budge from her worldview. In my head, I was trying to pull together the two sides of the coin open vs. closed as well as showing how someone who had no real experience with the romance genre and yet he’s talking about threads that I don’t hear certain romance readers ever talking about. Doesn’t mean they don’t think it about it. Mostly it means that I don’t get to see them talk about it and I track online reviews. Unfortunately I’m way, way behind because I stopped for a few years and I’m not investigating the online conversations the way I used to. I know the conversations exist but in the past, they were the exception and the comments to reviews were few and far between. I’ll make a more concerted effort to bring myself up to speed on what I’ve been missing.

    Laura sent me an article link on What is Genre and this is my one sentence take-away:

    I really don’t care how anyone defines romance genre, or even romance, I just want to know that we are discussing/measuring the same thing, not just using the same words to mean very different things.

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  72. Angie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:07:52

    @aq: For what it’s worth, I don’t think Gone with the Wind is a romance. It’s not primarily about Scarlett and Rhett’s developing relationship, but rather it’s more about Scarlett growing up (sorta) and learning to deal with the world once the spun-sugar palace of which she was the ruling princess vanished. The lack of HEA sort of gives it away, too.

    For that matter, a lot of people consider Romeo and Juliet to be a romance, which it is not — not even in the more literary sense of a romance as a pastoral comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s certainly not a romance by modern genre definition; again, the lack of HEA gives it away. Both these books are romantIC, but they’re not romances.

    My definition of a romance, as a data point, is more from a writer’s nuts-and-b0lts perspective. Romance is defined by its plot, which is: Two or more people overcoming obstacles in order to form a stable romantic relationship. There you go. If that’s the main plotline of a story/book, then it’s a genre romance.

    Angie

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  73. Dabney
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:17:09

    I was thinking of reader expectations in this way: genre authors typically adhere to the conventions of a form of writing. Readers encounter those “cues” and are receptive to them.

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  74. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 07:35:32

    Laura sent me an article link on What is Genre

    Yes, if anyone else is interested in reading it, it’s Chapter 5 of The Drama Handbook: A Guide to Reading Plays, written by John Lennard, my editor at Humanities Ebooks, and it’s available as part of a pdf which can be downloaded free from here.

    I’m anal. I admit it. I want someone to tell me what it they want. Not really directed at you, Laura. Someone being the all powerful Oz, who can give “respect” to the romance bookworm, writer, publisher, whoever and whatever they are seeking.

    That would probably make things much easier. Instead, though, we have a range of different readers, publishers and authors all looking for different things and defining things differently. There does seem to be a very substantial proportion of people in those groups in the US who would agree with Janet’s definition, though.

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  75. Robin/Janet
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 12:58:36

    @AQ: It’s been a long time since I’ve read that Doc Turtle diary on Dark Lover, but one thing I remember is him making fun of some of the conventions that Romance readers take for granted, which I think may have a lot to do with the way Romance readers recognize a certain paradigm within the genre (shorthand, certain devices, tropes, and conventions, etc) that signals Romance to them (I also think there’s a certain “penis effect” that often affords men who court the Romance community more latitude in certain ways, but that’s a whole different topic). I know that when I started reading the genre in earnest, about ten years ago, it took me a few books to make that paradigm shift. Still, though, because reader preferences vary so much, what seems core genre convention to one reader can be profoundly undesirable to another (e.g. those who see books with sexual force as not just unromantic, but as not even part of genre Romance). So I don’t find them a reliable basis for discussion about what is and isn’t genre.

    I don’t think these conventions are unimportant to consider in a discussion about generic definition, but IMO the Romance community is becoming too narrowly focused on conventions and formulae and tropes, to the point where the genre definition is starting to seem more arbitrary than it is. It’s like we’re going to a place where certain books will/are getting a message like, ‘oh, well sure your book fits the definition, but it doesn’t feel like a Romance to me for X and Y reasons, so you’re out of the club.’

    At the same time, not every book with a love story fits the definition of a Romance, which I’m guessing is why for so long the RWA had the “novel with strong romantic elements” category (which I’d argue is where a book like Agnes and the Hitman would go, although it’s been a while since I read it — I don’t think it was marketed as Romance, tho). While the genre can and has accommodated a great deal of variety, making the emotional journey of lovers toward a happy resolution the center of a book is no automatic or insignificant thing, else anyone really *could* do it, which, as we know, is not the case at all, despite what some people think.

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  76. Maggie Jaimeson
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:39:25

    “…when the discussions turn to what readers do and don’t want, the effect seems to be one of narrowing rather than expanding.”

    For me the above quote from the initial post is the crux of the problem. It all relates to marketing, or the perception of what the market wants. I agree with others who have said that readers choose from what is available. They don’t make the market. Fortunately, there are many outlets now for readers, ranging from traditional NY to large and small presses, digital first presses, and self-publishing. The difficulty is finding the gems among the 8,000+ books released in romance alone.

    I see the definition of romance similar to that of fashion. Over the past decades, the centers for defining the latest fashion have transferred from Paris to Milan to New York to London. Like the definitions of literature and genre, the overlap of “high” fashion and “street” fashion is intertwined. In addition, throughout history, political power has defined fashion, where the major political powers of the world, such as Alexandria, Athens, and Rome were leaders in their respective eras and parts of the world, when it came to clothing. In many ways, the “political” power of NY and London publishing has defined literature and genre.

    Just as fashion definition and production has devolved from centralized power to many boutiques and the rise of individualized “street” fashion becoming popular enough to be accepted/taken by the large houses and fashion capitals, it seems the publishing industry is undergoing similar changes that allows individualized cross-genre stories to find a niche and as they grow in popularity to be accepted/taken by the large publishing houses.

    Businesses have a cycle of growth from spunky startup to behemoth that is difficult to change. It is in this environment that new startups have opportunities to have larger impacts. Some businesses are able to create small startups that exist both within the behemoth and outside of its strictures. Others simply fail to change or purchase startups to bring in new blood.

    I believe that we are in the throes if this change now in publishing and in romance. The definition of the romance genre is no longer dictated by RWA or Harlequin or Avon or Penguin or any other large entity. Instead, like the stories themselves, the definition is in constant evolution. Some houses provide more stricture (Harlequin category lines) while others provide little stricture outside of a love story and HEA (many digital first lines).

    It wasn’t that long ago that a romance containing SF or Fantasy elements would not have been called a Romance. It was not that long ago that a “kick-ass” heroine would never have been published as a Romance, or for that matter a non-virgin heroine. It was not that long ago that “erotica” or “romantica” writer’s demanded to be recognized as Romance by RWA and created a brief falling out by many members. As my husband, the historian, would say: “This too shall pass and be reborn.”

    With my rose-colored glasses on, I would love to see a publisher who had the money and guts to market all their fiction simply as “a novel” instead of distinguishing genres. Then the readers would truly have a chance at deciding if the story met their needs or not, instead of approaching their read with a preconception of what it should be. The blurb and reviews would help those who had a bent to only read stories with an HEA or only read stories with paranormal elements.

    Am I crazy to think it would work?

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  77. MaryK
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:57:53

    @Maggie Jaimeson:

    I would love to see a publisher who had the money and guts to market all their fiction simply as “a novel” instead of distinguishing genres. Then the readers would truly have a chance at deciding if the story met their needs or not, instead of approaching their read with a preconception of what it should be.

    An HEA is the defining feature of a Romance novel, and it doesn’t happen until the end. Readers would have to read the entire novel to confirm that it was really a Romance. They’d be rifling through the bookstores peeking at all the endings looking for HEAs, and you can’t do that with an ebook unless you’ve already bought it. Blurbs are frequently misleading and you can read through a 100 reviews without finding somebody willing to “spoil” the ending of a book.

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  78. Evangeline Holland
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 16:30:54

    @Maggie Jaimeson: “Fortunately, there are many outlets now for readers, ranging from traditional NY to large and small presses, digital first presses, and self-publishing. The difficulty is finding the gems among the 8,000+ books released in romance alone.”

    There’s never been any difficulty in finding gems, especially now that blogs, social media, Amazon, and Goodreads have made word of mouth buzz quicker and easier to pass along. The difficulty is, IMO, getting word of mouth for books that might fall a little outside the lines, for the kind of books romance readers might be wary of picking up because it doesn’t “look” like a romance (the very issue Robin/Janet is touching upon, I believe). As a result, it seems that the buzz for so many of last year’s mega-selling self-pub romance successes originated outside of the romance genre because the books weren’t sold in familiar romance genre packaging.

    Who would have thought one-couple trilogies, first person narratives, over-40 heroines, bicycle gangs, or college students would go over so well with romance and non-romance readers alike?

    Granted, there have been many traditional romance successes as well, but overall, “Da Rulez” (tm Moriah Jovan) that have long allowed us to distinguish romance novels from other novels have ossified to the point where retreating to their “safety” in the wake of so many out-of-the-box novels entering the market, can and may end up strangling the life from the elements we love best about the genre (which is a shame considering the variety of storytelling we see in books published during the romance genre’s beginnings).

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  79. aq
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 16:38:44

    @Robin/Janet:

    Sorry, I didn’t finish my Agnes vs. the others thought but I can’t edit or see the text until it comes out of moderation. So here’s my wrap.

    I could either say all of these stories are romance genre because they contain a central love story plot which is crucial to the story being told, they all have emotional catharsis as it pertains to the romance and a positive ending, or none of the stories are romance genre because the romance plot is not the primary plot, the character transformation is more important than the romance. Both these determinations are subjective because there’s no guidance for how and what to test. No guidelines for how to determine what the primary plot. No element list. No percentage breakdown. No publisher labeling requirement.

    For a writers’ organization, which wanted to ensure personal bias wasn’t affecting awards (e.g., that’s not a romance, it’s porn or the romance plot takes a backseat to the suspense plot or young adult novels are romances, or …), or an writers’ organization which wanted to ensure it was advancing “romance genre” as defined by its membership, then structure and criteria are necessary to test whether or not they are meeting the needs of said membership.

    For the average reader, I don’t see story dissection as being particularly helpful. Too much time which could be spent reading.

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  80. Robin/Janet
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 19:52:41

    @aq: I’ve yet to see the basics of that three element definition challenged in any serious way, and I think that’s because it’s easy to identify a Romance based on those three basic elements, no percentages necessary at that basic level of identification. That is, the problem isn’t coming up with a definition, because one already exists in common. The problem is confusing that definition and/or substituting it for lots of other stuff that fall into the realm of preference, not primary form.

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  81. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 20:01:24

    The problem is confusing that definition and/or substituting it for lots of other stuff that fall into the realm of preference, not primary form.

    That.

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  82. AQ
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 00:24:56

    @Robin/Janet:

    Sorry, other post I did didn’t make it through. I’ll try to rephrase in a brief fashion.

    I’ve yet to see the basics of that three element definition challenged in any serious way

    The main plot for Dark Lover, Lord of Scoundrels and Agnes & the Hitman’s is the protagonist’s character transformation of the protagonist (Wrait, Dain and Agnes) not the romance plot. Therefore since the romance plot is not the main plot, they are not romance genre novels even though they contain romantic love stories which are central to the main plot.

    But wait, Dark Lover and Lord of Scoundrels are RWA Rita award winners. They must be romance. I must be interpreting main plot incorrectly.

    Well, okay so they all have central love stories with couple struggling to make their relationship work. They struggle and sacrifice and are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. So they are all romance genre.

    Except…

    The publisher says Agnes is fiction, not romance genre and many online readers seem to agree. Umm… Novel with strong romantic elements…

    WTF?!?! Arggh.

    It have something to do with percentages or how the plots come together. Or something. Either that or these readers and the publisher aren’t using the label the way RWA intended. What does RWA say? Umm they don’t. No criteria. No guidance. No standard use document.

    So is this a definition in which everyone in RWA just “knows” the nuances of definition and “knows” how to evaluate whether or not a work can be labeled as “romance genre?”

    Where does that leave me? I’m not a member. I have no tacit understanding of their intent. I’m not seeing how or why one book is or isn’t romance genre based on this definition and so I’m left to guess RWA’s intent.

    Maybe if I broke down these three stories down into their base components, I’d see what the difference is. Or maybe I’d just be calling bullshit and that the distinction is arbitrary and I can only understand if I’m in the “know.” But if I was complete romance novice, I’d be completely lost.

    It’s like we’re going to a place where certain books will/are getting a message like, ‘oh, well sure your book fits the definition, but it doesn’t feel like a Romance to me for X and Y reasons, so you’re out of the club.’

    And they might not be wrong, especially if they don’t consider RWA’s definition to be the only definition or if they have no tacit understanding of RWA’s intent.

    The problem is confusing that definition and/or substituting it for lots of other stuff that fall into the realm of preference, not primary form.

    No, the problem is that there’s no way to test. ***edited to add*** If I can’t test, then I can’t know whether or not we are talking about the same thing. ****edited to add*** The way you choose to interpret and use RWA’s definition is not the only way.

    The label is subjective. The definition has no criteria. And although you would have us use the most inclusive interpretation possible, RWA’s Rita judges don’t use that same interpretation. If they did gay & lesbian romance wouldn’t be restricted. Erotic romances from ebook authors would not have received “not a romance” as a valid score.

    What you call preference, I see as lack of structure.

    The definition is the roof, but it has no foundation.

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  83. Linkspam, 1/18/13 Edition — Radish Reviews
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 05:32:46

    [...]  Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance Really interesting opinion piece on the role of formula in romance. [...]

  84. aq
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 06:16:38

    I didn’t sleep much last night. I tossed and turned and kept thinking I’m missing
    something big and talking/thinking past it. I’m close but I’m also missing it by a mile.

    Everyone still reading this comment thread, and Janet/Robin, I ask your indulgence once more.

    Janet/Robin, I believe you are trying to measure two different things using a single definition and using words like romance and romance genre interchangeably when you really mean them to have distinct meanings. ***eta***Or I’m just receiving them that way.***

    I’m going to try this example using m/f hetronormative romance and hope I get it right for where you wanted my mind to travel.

    Bond-Mate trope. The ugly side of this trope goes beyond a question of free-will, it goes straight to the heart of rape, rape drugs, rape culture, patriarchy, female agency, etc.

    1. An individual reader reads a novel marketed as romance genre.
    2. This novel uses the bond-mate trope.
    3. An individual reader looks at the story and concludes that the male lead is a rapist and that the story is not about love, but rather power and control of a female victim using sexual violence or coercion.
    4. Since the story isn’t about love, the struggle of the couple to build a relationship and have an ending filled with emotional justice and unconditional love is impossible because the female victim would be forced to be with her rapist forever and the rapist always has conditions to his “love.”
    5. Therefore the reader classifies the book as not “romance genre” according to RWA’s definition, or more generally not as a romance according to her standards for what is a romance.

    Unfortunately, under the same RWA definition the reader who says it’s not a rape. There is a love story plot, emotional justice and unconditional love so it’s classification should be romance genre is also correct. The label is subjective with no criteria or guidance on how to handle disputes of this nature.

    I believe that what Janet/Robin wants to evaluate is beyond RWA’s definition. She doesn’t care how an individual reader classifies a book because the scope of her inquiry is more on the order of books purposefully written to be marketed to romance readers under the romance genre label regardless of time period. There might also be an interest in authorial and/or publisher intent. And her scope might go even further to include books which predate RWA’s existence as well as book marketed under other genre labels which could be evaluated using the RWA’s definition.

    To sum up: I think she might be trying to evaluate something she feels is “beyond the reader.”

    I happen to agree with her on the “beyond the reader” piece, assuming I’ve got a clue this time on where she wanted me to go. ***edited to add***But I need scope, definitions, and criteria because my assumptions/presumptions stink.***edited to add***

    Now I need to try to get go back to sleep for a little while.

    For the record, here’s RWA’s current definition:

    Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.

    A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

    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.

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  85. Robin/Janet
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 00:16:49

    @aq:

    I feel like what you’re struggling with is illustrative of the problem I’m trying to highlight in my post.

    First of all, reading your comments about books and percentages and plot/character arcs makes me feel like I’m trying to watch tv through binoculars. At that proximity, no generic definition is going to stand, because that’s the point at which we’ve lost perspective about what genre is supposed to be/do: it’s basically about designating kind and type. You could ask a lot of those same questions about mystery or SF or lit fic, with the same kind of ensuing confusion, and while I think those kinds of analyses are interesting and enlightening, they’re not, essentially, about genre identification, nor do they serve the basic purpose of genre,which is to generally distinguish by type or kind.

    I get that you’re arguing that this genre definition (which I did not adopt from RWA, but I’ll address that in a minute) is subjective, but in the way you’re analyzing it, everything is subjective — every statement of definition becomes relative at that micro level. And any sense of distinction is simultaneously exaggerated and eliminated, confounding any constructive purpose for even trying to distinguish one genre from another, let alone investigate the ideological significance of any of the issues you raise (I think where more of these questions might become relevant is at the level of subgenre, which seems more about subjective content than general generic boundaries). I mean, no one loves an overcomplicated literary analysis as much as I do, and lord knows I’ve performed enough of them at Dear Author, but this post is about drawing the lens back and making out the general outlines of the genre. Because all of the ways in which we’ve gotten wound up in the content of books, and in the judgments we have about what is and isn’t romantic, socially acceptable, etc., can make us forget that there is a very broad outline into which all of these nuances and variations can be legibly contained.

    Let’s take all the whacked ways in which RWA has tried to manipulate and control what is and isn’t considered Romance, even though the organization has promoted the same definition that scholars have used to define the genre, including Pamela Regis, despite her more complex addition of particular elements that pattern through the genre. Romance Wiki represents the definition in this general pattern, as well. The basics remain pretty well-established (and in the case of Regis’s analysis, the elements she identifies are generally not intentionally built into books, but implicitly emerge as more specific structural patterns within the general form of the Romance), and if you just stand back and ask yourself what the purpose is of those political maneuverings for an organization like RWA (or a publisher, for that matter), is it a disinterested approach to recognizing any book that technically meets the broad definition of genre Romance? I’m hoping we can agree that the answer is no.

    So let me approach this from a slightly different direction: what’s the downside to thinking about genre at the broadest possible definitional level? When you draw the strokes broadly, you can fit all sorts of percentages and combinations of elements within those structural boundaries. You don’t have to measure the minutae of the texts, because lots of different types of books can fit while still holding within the boundary lines and having a relatively simple structural coherence. And maybe some books will legitimately belong to two genres at the same time. What is the downside in this? Who is the immediate beneficiary of limiting the genre artificially (hint: which direction does the money flow?). To what degree are readers conditioned by publishers and authors and editors and agents, all of whom stand to profit from the commercial sale of books? What is it about Romance that makes us have these crazy struggles over what is and isn’t acceptable in the genre? Does mystery, say, lend itself to these kinds of ideological debates disguised as structure?

    Ultimately, I think there is a lot of fear that drives the production and marketing of genre Romance, and fear tends to favor exclusion over inclusion. Editors and authors may not want to risk pissing off readers, so they shape the contents of books to limit what’s offered as genre. Publishers want to sell books and may promote a trend that they think will be profitable, even if many readers are effing sick of it well before it dies out. But none of this is intended to *serve the genre* — it’s intended to serve those to whom the money flows. I understand this, but I want us to think about what serves the genre — its legacy and its possibilities. And to do that, I think we need to pull back from all of minutiae and the value judgments and the percentages and just look at the basics. Because no one really disagrees about the basics, even if we might quibble about whether the couple’s courtship takes up 80% of the book or 95% or whether the hero grovels enough to deserve the heroine or the heroine finds a happy ending with another heroine. That stuff is relative and subjective, and, as you said, it doesn’t do us any good in understanding genre boundaries at the macro level. Because it’s not serving the purpose of genre — it’s serving circumstantial agendas that have more to do with potential profit than disinterested definition.

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  86. AQ
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 14:33:34

    @Robin/Janet:

    First of all, reading your comments about books and percentages and plot/character arcs makes me feel like I’m trying to watch tv through binoculars.

    Fair enough. But there was a method to my madness.

    If you look at Dark Lover and Anges and the Hitman from a high level viewpoint, they are both texts containing romances which drive the narrative to its happy ending. The only difference I can see from this top-down view is publisher marketing designation.

    So if Agnes isn’t included in your data pool, then to me when you use the term “romance genre” what you are referring to is current publisher spine labeling based loosely on RWA’s current definition as it applies to say the last decade or so.

    Could you clarify please because a shift like this very much changes what I thought we were talking about.

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  87. Robin/Janet
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 19:11:10

    @AQ: You know, it’s been a long time since I read Agnes, and what I remember of it is that it was mediocre and that the heroine had a MAJOR anger management problem. I also remember it as a genre hybrid. I’d have to re-read it to make the call at this point, and I didn’t like it or find it interesting enough the first time to read it a second.

    Whether I would class it as Romance v. Mystery would come down to whether the romance or the mystery (or something else, like the heroine’s individual growth) dominates the plot. If it’s the romance, or even if the romance is 50/50 with another element, I’d classify it as Romance, or Romance and Mystery (or whatever) both. If it’s an element other than the romance that serves as the central thread of the text, that would be different. Further, if a novel is dominated by the romance/courtship thread, and it’s not marketed that way, I’m guessing it’s because the publisher is aiming for another audience — in other words, because they think they can score more profit that way. But marketing alone would not be the determining factor for me; it still comes down to those three basic elements.

    I absolutely, however, remember Dark Lover as full-on Romance, with everything in the book circling around the relationship between Wrath and Beth. Absolutely no question about that one for me.

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  88. Sex + Power = ? | Something More
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 20:13:46

    [...] was Robin/Janet’s “Too Many Rules” post on form and formula in genre Romance; the other was this Olivia Waite post reflecting on a [...]

  89. aq
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 21:20:06

    For the purposes of publisher marketing designation, I wouldn’t label Agnes with Romance on the spine either. Then again, my copy of Bet Me didn’t have romance on its spine.

    From a high-level viewpoint using the three elements you identified, I do consider it a story with a central love story ending with emotional justice and unconditional love so I would classify it as “romance.”

    I’d like to point out that the plot breakdown requirement you describe as necessary for you to make a classification doesn’t sound like that dissimilar to what I described as necessary for evaluation of RWA’s definition.

    You called it like watching tv with through binoculars but your genre element breakdown is a personal preference. I choose plot because plot was mentioned in RWA’s definition and also because genre elements change just as frequently as publisher marketing designations.

    Thank you for the clarification and the thought exercises. They were helpful. I will ponder further.

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  90. AQ
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 22:06:53

    @Robin/Janet:

    Sorry, final question.

    Based only on your review, how would you evaluate the novel?

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  91. Robin/Janet
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 23:19:48

    @AQ: Oh, thank you for linking to that review! It helped me mentally differentiate the first Crusie/Mayer collaboration from the second, since I was obviously kind of conflating them in retrospect. Although I suspect I’ve also become a harder grader over the past five years, lol.

    I also think the review actually supports my basic argument here — that the book is unconventional but formally at least in part Romance. If a book is on or near the line, I’d generally rather call it in than out.

    As for your observation about the definition I’m using being similar to that of RWA’s — that’s my point. It’s a ubiquitous definition, not simply my personal preference, and it further problematizes RWA’s (especially more) recent attempts to replace formal definition with genre conventions in evaluating what they consider to be the best of the genre.

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  92. aq
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 04:29:52

    @Robin/Janet:

    Actually, I apologize.

    We are going round and round and I’m only feeling more and more frustrated. I know you think I’m proving your point and heck, on a certain level I know I am. But for me the waters are so muddy that I can no longer figure out my point of disconnect. It would require that we start over from the beginning and that’s unreasonable.

    This is my personal limitation.

    For what it’s worth here’s the basic place I’m at: I feel you are taking a futuristic researcher’s perspective to the here and now without defining scope, definition or testing criteria. I also feel your insistence on the ubiquitousness of the definition is misleading.

    The use of the happy ending wasn’t originally a requirement of “romance.” Many of the books I read as a kid which were “romances” at the time they were released don’t fit the definition now. Ten or twenty years from now, a restriction might be added to the definition which eliminates the rapist male lead.

    Genre is constantly changing.

    As an aside: Did an individual publisher come up with the current happy ever after ending requirement themselves or was that RWA or maybe that was a category romance designation? Does anyone know exactly where and when the “requirement” came from?

    Your review of Agnes reinforced this for me: You can’t rely on memory to evaluate. Definition, criteria, investigation.

    Finally, given the sheer number of releases, how can any single person actually know what it means to be a “romance” novel based on the current RWA definition in the here and now? You can’t.

    I am sorry I couldn’t see what you wanted me to see in it’s entirety. Other readers don’t seem to have the problems I had so I’ll willing to move on and consider it further on my own.

    Thanks again.

    AQ

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  93. aq
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 09:35:59

    @Robin/Janet:

    I did think of something as I got out of bed this morning which might help you better understand what I’m trying to get at.

    1. Do not use any form of the words romance or romance genre anywhere in the definition or testing criteria.
    2. Use only your high-level viewpoint. No plot breakdowns, percentages, nothing to do with characters arc or character roles.

    A starting-point definition example: A non-platonic, non-familiar or non-buddy love story which is central to the narrative and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers.

    A definition on that order would move the conversation to pure form for me, removing all artificial barriers. (although all of the terms would need to be independently defined for testing purposes. Sorry, I am anal.)

    In which case, I would absolutely agree that what happens with RWA, publisher labeling, reader preference is irrelevant. As is any conversation about genre.

    I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this for the next weeks to figure out my communication failure and better understand your concept.

    Thanks again. It was a well-done post, an insightful discussion, and a great roll-back on your Agnes take. Even though I’m frustrated, the conversation has left me with more questions than I started with.

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  94. Ruthie
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 04:30:55

    Thanks for that interesting response. In the days since you posted this, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I find the existence of the post all by itself has a sort of liberating effect on my own mental conversations about what I’m writing vis-à-vis what I’m supposed to be writing and what my editor wants me to be writing and what readers want me to be producing. (And no, this mental conversation never shuts up. It just goes and goes and goes and goes.)

    I particularly liked this part — “Because I haven’t really seen a dissolving of generic boundaries or a dilution of the form, and I’m worried that legitimate diversification within the genre is being viewed as a threat to a particular and particularly narrow set of expectations for the genre that could have a substantial effect on what is offered as genre and in how readers and authors view genre.”

    I do think that when I first started writing romance a couple years ago — and my aim at the time was to write and get published in Harlequin category — I internalized a “particular and particularly narrow set of expectations for the genre.” There is a certain conversation that one encounters again and again, if one is trying to write category romance. “Do this sort of thing. Never do that sort of thing.” In fact, much of the advice offered to new writers is this way. “Never use the second person. Never use the passive voice. Always always always show, never never never tell. Your heroine must be someone the reader will want to hang out with. Your hero must be lovable from page one. No one must ever throw away a condom or puke.” And so forth.

    I think when you’re writing with the hope of selling, your instinct is to gather up that kind of advice and construct a mental framework with it that says “This is what romance is.” And once you’ve done that, even if you go on to mentally reject a lot of the rules and you begin to see the framework as nothing more than a tool for publishing a certain kind of book in a particular kind of way, it’s not so easy to discard the sense that there IS a correct way, or at least a well-trod middle path, and if you veer too far off it, sure, a few people will cheer with excitement, but also NO ONE WILL BUY YOUR BOOKS EVER AGAIN.

    It’s nonsense, of course. But it’s persistent nonsense.

    So, at any rate. Thank you for the reminder that “legitimate diversification within the genre” is a thing, and that as a writer I’m part of it.

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  95. Helena Fairfax
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 06:56:25

    @Ruthie: I just wanted to say how much I identified with your comment. As a newbie writer, initially targetting Harlequin/M&B category, I also tried to write within what I took to be the expectations for the genre. As a new writer, this did have the positive effect of both tightening my writing and really making me look at my writing from a reader’s point of view. It was a great learning exercise. I wrote my first novel following the genre “rules” I had taken for granted, and finished the second pretty much on the same lines. Now writing the third, I feel better able to step outside these perceived rules, even though it makes me feel, as you say, there is a risk then that no-one will buy my book. So be it – I will take the risk. Even though I’m not a brilliant writer, or massively innovative, I just think it’s good for romance writers in general to try something different, otherwise readers will get bored and the whole romance genre (whatever you take it to be) will stagnate.
    On another tack, I noticed a thread running through the comments above regarding whether romance novels are generally respected. I think great and innovative writing will always gain critical respect – even if it takes time – and part of gaining respect is pushing the boundaries. After many years sci-fi is now treated with “respect”, for example, as are graphic novels (previously plain old comic books). Having said that, as a romance reader “all” I look for is a well-written, entertaining and escapist novel and as a new writer this is what I’m trying to provide. Personally I care more for the opinion of the reader slogging to work on the bus or getting her kids ready for school than I do for any Professor. I do think, though, that romance novels which are well-crafted, well researched and innovative will eventually get the critical respect they deserve, even if maybe it isn’t during their time. I also feel it’s up to romance writers, as well, to try and maintain high standards and not allow them to fall just because badly-written books still sell anyway.

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  96. Evangeline Holland
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 20:18:08

    @Helena Fairfax: Add me in as someone who identifies with Ruthie’s comment! As per my comment on Erin Satie’s blog, it takes a while to parse through the dos and donts, the wants of readers, and what’s selling well in your chosen sub-genre, to find your middle ground for balancing market desires and expectations, perceptions about those desires and expectations, and your own personal desires and expectations. And even then, you can be blindsided by something new and/or different coming along and shaking up the market. The only dependable and controllable element in this crazy business is yourself. :)

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