I'm a bit perturbed by the series categories of romance by Harlequin and Silhouette. Every category is neatly defined so that the reader will know exactly what to expect from the book they read. It's like they're not about the story or characters anymore, but about the expectation. A lot of women seem to read about adventure and taking emotional risks, when what they really want is safety, comfort and security.I think she raises an interesting point about category/series romances in particular. These are books which are published in ‘lines’ and each line has a particular set of guidelines for authors, such as Harlequin’s ‘writing guidelines’. Although there aren’t the chilli peppers suggested by Jennifer, the names of the lines, ‘Tender’ or ‘Blaze’, for example, can give a clue as to the level of sexuality. There are also the backcover descriptions and on the Mills & Boon website each line is accompanied by a brief description. The page for the Blaze books, for example, states that they are ‘Hot and sexy. Couples in contemporary romantic relationships embark on sexual adventures and fantasy journeys. There is a promise of intimate experiences and total satisfaction.’
That being said (I like surprises, some people don't), perhaps in the future romances should carry some code that tells the reader how much sexuality to expect from the novel. 4 chili peppers: muy calienté!
The way the books are packaged reflects their group identity: the covers in each line are colour-coded (in the UK, for example, all Mills and Boon Historicals currently have a purple spine and back-cover, and the purple sweeps over part of the front cover too, sometimes accompanied by a small picture which indicates the period in which the novel is set). For example here’s a recent M&B Historical cover, Louise Allen's The Viscount's Betrothal. It comes clearly labelled: there’s a gold oval with the word ‘Regency’ written within it (the oval also appears on the spine) and the row of Regency town houses printed on the purple background also gives an indication of the historical setting (unlike the heroine’s clothing, but inaccuracies in front cover illustrations are a different issue). While the position of the colour on the cover and spine is retained for use in other lines, in the Tender Romances it’s orange (see, for example, the cover of Marion Lennox’s Princess of Convenience, which recently won a Rita). Both feature the Mills & Boon name and rose trademark in the top right-hand corner.
So, branding is strong, and once a reader knows which line(s) she/he prefers, it is extremely easy to pick out other examples of the same line(s) from the shelves of the bookshop or library. The branding facilitates the reader’s search for the types of books he/she wants, but it is not a process which is unique to romances. Harlequin/Mills & Boon are simply assisting the reader in doing something which most experienced readers would do anyway. The results reported in Sheldrick Ross & Chelton’s 2001 study of how readers select books involved a wide range of readers
Between 1985 and 2000, Catherine Ross and students in her MLIS course on "Genres of Fiction and Reading" at the University of Western Ontario interviewed 194 committed readers to find out how they chose books for pleasure reading and what elements they sought. Interviewers were instructed to pick the most readerly person they knew, so most interviewees fall within the ten percent of the North American population who are "heavy readers"- people who read upward of a book a week. The demographic profile was consistent with other surveys: 65 percent female, 35 percent male. The age range was 16-80. (2001: 52)Clearly these were not all romance readers, though presumably some may have been. Nonetheless, their strategy for choosing books involves the use the same techniques as are facilitated by the branding of category romances:
Most interviewees said their choices for pleasure reading involved many interrelated considerations. They often started with their own mood at the time and went on to describe how they find new authors or what clues they seek on the book itself. These systems usually depended upon considerable previous experience and knowledge of authors, publishers, cover art, and conventions for promoting books and sometimes on a social network of family or friends who recommended and loaned books. (2001: 52, my emphasis)In other words, heavy readers, regardless of their genre of preference, like to know a considerable amount about a book before they commit the time and emotional energy to reading it in its entirety. They use clues from the packaging or shelving to select the genre, and then narrow their search further using other knowledge they’ve gained through experience of reading books in that genre. Readers can thus use their knowledge to select a comforting book or a book which they think will horrify, shock or titillate them.
It’s true that romance does tend to provide a certain comfort, because of the ‘Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending -- Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice’. But just because a particular book or activity can be depended on to create a particular effect doesn’t automatically mean it’s comforting: people may choose to participate in multiple bungee-jumps or other dangerous sports, and the repetition doesn’t make the experience ‘comfortable’. Feeling ‘good’ and ‘satisfied’ is not always synonymous with ‘comfortable’. A well-written romantic suspense or erotic romance, for example, will presumably get the reader’s blood pounding (for different reasons, depending on which sub-genre is being read).
This brings us on to another issue raised by Jennifer: ‘Every category is neatly defined so that the reader will know exactly what to expect from the book they read’. I think it’s true that readers will know what to expect, but I don’t think they’ll know ‘exactly’ what to expect. Football fans go to a game knowing their team and the rules of the game, and they know there are a limited number of final outcomes, but within those constraints, there are many possibilities which will determine whether they consider it a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ game. Similarly, all genres have their conventions and it is these conventions and rules which distinguish one genre from another. Genres can then be subdivided into sub-genres, which again have their own rules/conventions. To someone who doesn’t read within the genre, these subtleties may be easy to miss, just as I would find it impossible to distinguish between a rugby league and a rugby union game, or between different types of red wine. The connoisseur, however, is very aware of the differences, not just between different wine-growing regions (romance sub-genres), but between vintages (authors) and individual good or bad years for that vintage (individual novels by a particular author). As Bettinoti, Jeannesson and Truel observe:
Tout le monde sait ou croit savoir que les romans connus sous l'appellation générale de romans d'amour sont essentiellement répétitifs et proposent inlassablement le même schéma narratif [...but] La répétition n'est surtout pas monotone, car elle se produit à l'intérieur d'un corpus spécialisé fait pour des spécialistes, qui repèrent des changements là où l'oeil non exercé ne voit que la même chose.A rough translation would be:
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, that the romances of the type known as love stories are essentially repetitive and tirelessly repeat the same narrative scheme [...but] The repetition is anything but monotonous, because it occurs within a specialised body of work, written for connoisseurs, who pinpoint novelties where the untrained eye can see only homogeneity.---
Bettinotti, Julia, Jeannesson, Gaëlle, and Marie-Françoise Truel, 2002.
"Séries, suites et redites en culture médiatique." Belphégor: Littérature Populaire et Culture Médiatique 1.2.
Sheldrick Ross, Catherine & Mary K. Chelton, 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.