Friday, September 06, 2019

A Quick Post about Defining Romance

This topic's cropped up again on Twitter, so I thought I'd add something:

That's an author, Vannetta Chapman, arguing that the definition of romance should not hinge on whether or not the story has a Happy Ever After or Happy For Now ending, due to a preference for Frank Norris's definition. Frank Norris was (as pointed out by Ella Drake) a racist, sexist author who died in 1902; re romance, he wrote

["Now, let us understand at once what is meant by Romance and what by Realism. Romance, I take it, is the kind of fiction that takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life. Realism is the kind of fiction that confines itself to the type of normal life" (215).]

Norris's definition is extremely broad and may end up encompassing a huge swathe of fiction. Indeed, as Gillian Beer has noted,
One problem in discussing the romance is the need to limit the way the term is applied. All fiction has a way of looking like romance and in a sense this is just, since all fiction frees us into an imaginative world. (5)
One way to deal with this is to add more subdivisions, as Northrop Frye did. His classification system is similarly based on a work's relation to reality but with more gradations. In Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Frye divides fiction into five categories (or modes), on the basis of the nature of the protagonist (whom he refers to as "the hero"):
If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale. (33)
His other categories are "myth", the "high mimetic", "low mimetic" and "ironic" modes. [I've included a link to the full description below, and I've written at length in For Love and Money about how Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance novels can fit into almost all of these categories. By the way, if you're in the US, there's an auction starting on 8 September to raise money for RAICES and the Young Center.

One of the items in the auction is a set of Kindle editions of my two books about romance: For Love and Money and Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction.]

Frye's romance mode draws on, but expands on, what is,
In the narrow literary sense, [...] the name given to a particular genre : the narrative poems that emerge in twelfth-century France and quickly make their way around Europe [...] These popular poems were known as romances because they were written in the vernacular, or romance, languages derived from Latin [...], as opposed to Latin itself [...]. These poems are typically concerned with aristocratic characters such as kings and queens, knights and ladies, and their chivalric pursuits. They are often organized around a quest, whether for love or adventure, and involve a variety of marvellous elements. (Fuchs 4)
None of this, however, is particularly relevant when outlining what the modern romance reader expects (and demands) from a novel marketed as a "romance". And given the sheer variety of modern romance novels, and the way in which they can incorporate elements from so many other genres, I think it's unwise to insist that this modern form of romance only "takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life".


Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1970.

Frye, Northrop. "Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes", Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Norris, Frank. "A Plea for Romantic Fiction", The Responsibilities of the Novelist, And Other Literary Essays. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903. 211-220.

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