Monday, August 21, 2006

Defining the Genre

Jennifer asked
will you decide on the definition of a "romance novel" proper? Will they be only the books found on the Romance section bookshelf? Can any love story make the cut? [...] How much mystery or fantasy can a novel contain before it passes from romance to something else?
I think the definition given by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), that 'Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending' is pretty much perfect as a short definition of the genre. For a definition of the structural components (e.g. 'barrier', 'moment of ritual death') of each romance, Pamela Regis' A Natural History of the Romance Novel is excellent.

One factor which complicates the definition of 'romance' is the historical usage of the term. Yesterday I went to a talk given by Eileen Ramsay, Honorary Secretary of the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association (RNA), and she said that when she thinks of the term 'romantic fiction' it brings to mind stories about knights. In an online article she's said that:
My dictionaries state that Romance is an idealized, poetic or unworldly atmospheric work of literature concerning romantic love or stirring action, medieval tales of chivalry. Romantic means concerned more with emotion than with form; characterized by or suggestive of romance.
She quoted from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay, 'A Gossip on Romance', in which he disparages stories about the 'clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate' and instead praises romances, by which he means adventure stories.

One observation of Stevenson's which might, however, be applicable to the modern romance novel is that: 'This [...] is the triumph of romantic story-telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene'. Though the novels described by Stevenson are not modern romance novels, one thing romances have in common with them is that they are books which stir the emotions and whose readers are often caught up by the story to the extent that they identify with the characters.

The modern 'romantic novel', according to Eileen Ramsay, is a novel with a love-story at its centre. She didn't at any point touch on the issue of whether the ending should be a happy or optimistic one, and this, I think, is a key difference between her tentative description (which, as far as I know, reflects the position of the RNA, though they do not have an official definition) and the RWA's official definition of what constitutes a romance novel. The RNA, as its name suggests, include writers of works which might not be strictly defined as 'romance' according to the RWA definition. The RNA is an association of 'romantic novelists', not just 'romance novelists'.

My feeling is that the RWA's definition focusses on what's at the core of romance. Of course, it's hard to define exactly when a love-story ceases to be 'central' and becomes more of a subsidiary element of the story, but I think most of us, most of the time, are able to recognise when the love-story is central and when it isn't, just as we can say which endings leave us feeling 'optimistic' and which don't. The RWA's short definition is interesting in that it doesn't actually specify the species, gender or even number of the participants in the 'love-story', and I'm glad about that, because I think it gives authors writing in this genre room to explore what is meant by a 'love-story'. They may fail to convince all readers that what they're portraying is a love-story (rather than, say, a lust-story, an orgy-story or a dull-and-comfortable-relationship-story), but they have the freedom to try. The RWA's definition is also relatively open regarding the ending of the novel, specifying only that there must be 'an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending'. Again, the authors may fail to convince readers that their ending is either emotionally satisfying or optimistic, but they're at liberty to explore the various options. In any case, readers are unlikely to agree on which endings leave them feeling 'emotionally satisfied' because, to take a couple of examples of possible elements present at the ends of romances, while some readers find babies romantic, others think them the antithesis of romance; some readers can think of nothing more satisfying than a marriage, others may feel this would restrict the characters.

I think having a definition of the genre is very useful because, as Pacatrue observed, this enables us to think about each romance on two levels:
What I have in mind is that when an author writes a romance novel, they are simultaneously creating a stand-alone work, which can be judged on its own merits, and creating the genre itself. The originality then might come not only from the nuances within the structure, but in creating the structure as well.
Although each work will stand or fail on its own merits, it will also be seen in the context of its place in the literary canon and/or within the conventions of its genre (e.g. romance, the gothic, the mystery) or the literary movement to which it belongs (e.g 'magic realism', 'the Romantics'). Readers conversant with the genre/literary movement will be able to perceive how the novel either reinforces the existing conventions, or pushes at their boundaries.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the idea of defining the genre, and it can lead to dissent and division, as was obvious in 2005 when problems arose within the RWA. As Laurie Gold asked during her discussion of the controversies related to genre definitions 'How far can you push the envelope before it tears? Do you create a larger envelope - or do you suggest that perhaps a second envelope is needed?'. What was challenging the genre definitions that year appears to have been both the erotic romance subgenre and romances featuring homosexual couples. Another issue is whether a writers' organisation should be involved in defining the genre. Personally, I don't see why the authors shouldn't create definitions of the genre - they are, after all, the ones who create the novels. But I can understand why some members might wish to avoid definition, as it can be both a distraction and a source of contention which dilutes the organisation's focus on helping to nurture writing talent. As Anne Gracie says of the Romance Writers of Australia, which is a much smaller organisation than the Romance Writers of America:
The organization is there to help people get published and to help published authors network and learn to further their career. We're not interested in splitting hairs over what romance is or isn't -- we support our members, no matter what they write or where they are in the long journey to getting published.
The UK's Romantic Novelists' Association also offers no official definition of the genre.

Romance is a genre which is often disparaged, and its readers are not infrequently mocked or belittled. For example, Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian about Mills & Boon romances said that:
Everybody could tell you broadly what they do, but nobody ever reads them; it's not so much literature as a kind of seepage. [...] I understand the urge for a comfort read entirely, but my feeling about the Mills & Boon reader has always been that she's very, very idle. There is so little variance within the template that, really, you should be able to make stuff like this up for yourself.
Eileen Ramsay's talk was originally going to be titled 'The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name', though it ended up being called 'The Writing Business', and she suggested that one way to remove the stigma that's attached to romance and to romantic novels would be to drop the genre labels. Why, she asked, could her books not just be marketed as 'good books'? A librarian at the back of the room pointed out that readers would find it very hard to find the books they wanted if books weren't divided up into genres, which takes us back to some issues I raised in previous posts about reader preferences and how they select books which suit their mood. The issue of marketing was also raised by Kimber:
It seems to me that because romance novels are a commercial industry [...] one needs to take into account the commercial definition of romance [...]. Lots of books that aren't commercial romances, like "The Time Traveller's Wife," are romantic in theme. And I've read plenty of novels that are billed as general fiction, that were really straight-up romances (Ken Follett's "A Place Called Freedom" is a prime example).

So much of the analysis of romance novels seems to hinge on the social or political aspects of their marketing, audience, and low literary status, that you almost can't separate the publisher's definition from the actual definition (whatever that may be). From that point of view, it might be worth looking instead at the question, "why do some kinds of books get labeled 'romance' by publishers, and others not?"
I'm not sure there is a 'commercial definition of romance', or if there is, I've never seen it. It seems to me that publishers label books in whichever way they think will sell the most copies. Romance might be labelled 'romance', or it might be called 'chick lit' or 'women's fiction'. It could also be 'historical fiction' or 'mystery' if the book is in a particular sub-genre of romance. The process doesn't just work in one direction, though. Yes, romance may have a 'low literary status', but if it sells, then publishers are willing to put covers on works of literature which might suggest that the contents are chick lit or romance. Recent examples are the new editions of Jane Austen's works: Headline Review's May 2006 Pride and Prejudice, for example, and the same book as published by Bloomsbury, with an introduction by Meg Cabot, have covers which seem to indicate that the contents are 'romance' or 'chick lit'. I'd agree with Pamela Regis that Austen's works are romance, but that's not how they've usually been marketed or shelved, which is something that makes these new editions an interesting development.

Romance, then, as defined by Regis, may, or may not, be literature, and romantic elements are present in a very large proportion of literary works. As Eileen Ramsey demonstrated by reading excerpts from a variety of novels, including passages from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Austen's Emma and a passage from a novel written by Sophie Weston (who writes for Mills & Boon, and, as Jenny Haddon, is the Chairman of the RNA), 'purple prose' may be found in works of literature and, conversely, there are some passages in romantic novels which are just as good as those to be found in works which would be classed as 'literature'. Ramsey concluded that each romance or romantic novel should therefore be assessed individually, not pre-judged by reference to the worst examples of the genre.

While I agree wholeheartedly that romance and romantic novels can be well-written, I wouldn't want to jettison the genre definitions in order for them to gain acceptance, and while I can understand why defining the genre may create problems for a writers' organisation, I continue to believe that basic definitions of the genre are very useful, both to readers looking for love-stories with happy endings, and to academics.


  1. What do you think, Laura (or everyone else), of the impulse to bring older novels into the tent of "romance fiction," as Pam does with "Pamela," with Austen's novels, and so forth? I was particularly pleased with her staking a claim to "A Room with a View," not least because this rings true with my memory of how that novel was read (and adored) by many women I knew when the Merchant Ivory movie came out. (OK, I'll admit it: I was also pleased to see another male author in the mix.)

    If memory serves, this sort of retrospective re-dubbing of texts was one of the moves that academic critics of both mystery and science fiction made in the 1980s, and perhaps much earlier. What are the costs and benefits of our writing about older texts, or even recent ones like "The Time-Traveller's Wife" or "Possession: A Romance," in the context of popular romance fiction?

  2. Thanks for a terrific topic, a fave of mine.

    In my work, I concentrate solely on featuring novels with strong or strongly-implied HEAs. My viewers/readers have told me they consider those "Romance."

    They use that term idiomatically to define not "literary" romance fiction, fiction that's romantic in the swashbuckling sense, or medieval romances. They mean simply the boy meets grl, loses grl, etc., construct.

    They want to read strong or strongly- implied HEA romance novels and have become confused by the marketing of women's fiction, chick-lit as what look like romance.

    They also "sense" immediately when a novel has only "romantic elements," and are none too pleased to have spent money on it.

    I dig the "romance central/HEA" definition, and make a distinction between modern romance fiction and earlier romance literature which influenced this marvelous genre we create, read, and write about.

    Michelle Buonfiglio
    Romance: B(u)y the Book

  3. The biggest problem I see in attempting to provide a definitive 'definition' of romance is that like the rest of society, it isn't static. Reading tastes change, new authors come on the scene, and trends provide new directions. And right now there has been an explosion of cross-genre fiction and technological innovation that can still be seen to meet the broader criteria.

    Better, I think, to keep it broad and loose and allow for this constant tide of change -- otherwise the rigidity of the definition will colour writer's concepts of what they should/should not be aiming for.

    Jenny Brassel
    (outgoing President, Romance Writers of Australia)

  4. Eric, re 'the impulse to bring older novels into the tent of "romance fiction"', I think this is a valid procedure, particularly when they share the same structure as the modern romance novels. Pam Regis wasn't trying to push comedies (such as Shakespeare's) or love-poetry into the tent. Those genres are recognisably different, though they may at times deal with similar themes.

    Bringing older works into the tent occupied by modern romance fiction demonstrates that

    (a) this is not a new genre

    (b) it's not just about Mills & Boon. Although I love many Mill & Boon novels, it would be very misleading to think that all romances are published by M&B/Harlequin, but that's a preconception which exists, although it's probably more prevalent in the UK (and Australia and New Zealand?) because unlike in the US, there aren't any other large publishers who focus on romance and

    (c) that it's a genre which can produce work of 'classic' status.

    This challenges many of the stereotypes about romance by suggesting that the genre is not one which is 'formulaic' and therefore automatically bland, unimaginative etc. 'Great literature' is generally only recognised as such after it's "stood the test of time", and the "test of time" also dims the memory of all the other writers whose works were not considered so good. This means that when people discuss 'the novel' they think of 'great works' by authors such as Dickens, Tolstoy, James Joyce, Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot etc, but they don't tend to think of all the novelists who were contemporaries of these writers but who weren't considered as good. This creates the impression that all 'literature' is good.

    Looking back at the history of the romance and claiming some of the 'classics' for the romance genre is saying that

    (a) one cannot judge all examples of a genre by the worst examples - there will be many bad books, plenty of mediocre books, and a few outstanding books in every genre (and critical opinion can differ about which books fall into each category)

    (b) it often takes time for the outstanding books to be recognised and praised, and modern romances haven't yet been through the sifting process that occurs over time.

    Those are the benefits, the costs of this procedure are that some people may rush out to buy or borrow a romance, thinking they're going to find the next Jane Austen or the next Room With a View, and if they don't, they may well be disappointed and decide that modern romances aren't as good as the classic texts that have been claimed for the genre.

    Turning to the point made by Jenny,

    The biggest problem I see in attempting to provide a definitive 'definition' of romance is that like the rest of society, it isn't static. [...] Better, I think, to keep it broad and loose and allow for this constant tide of change -- otherwise the rigidity of the definition will colour writer's concepts of what they should/should not be aiming for.

    Thanks for bringing this up Jenny, because it surprised me a little, and made me realise I hadn't thought about this at all. I'm used to writing about the works of dead authors. For example, when academics debate the generic features of the Spanish sentimental romance (a genre which came into being in the 15th century and died out fairly early in the 16th), there's absolutely no chance they can affect the authors in any way.

    Although those of us who are trying to study modern romances in an academic way are looking at modern texts with authors who are still alive and productive, we (the academics) are still looking backwards. We can't analyse romances yet to be written, we just look at texts which are already published, unlike editors and agents, who predict future trends and select and shape the texts which will be published. Because of this, I hope we (academics studying the genre) won't have a negative effect on authors' creativity. Also, the genre definition created by the Romance Writers of America doesn't seem to have stifled their authors' creativity, and it doesn't stop people from 'pushing the envelope', so I think it is 'broad and loose'. In fact, it's maybe already too 'broad and loose' for some of their members who'd like to make it more restrictive. But I may well be wrong. Does the definition of a central love-story and an optimistic ending feel too restrictive for some people? There's nothing to stop people writing 'romantic novels' which aren't romance. I have the sense, though, that it's the love-stories with a Happy Ever After which are the most denigrated, and as they're also my favourites (because I like happy endings) I personally would prefer to concentrate on them.

    Are there any other worries that people have about ways in which the academic study of romance could affect the authors (or the genre as a whole) in a negative way?

  5. Interesting discussion! Personally, for me, a romance needs to have a HEA ending in a book, yet not in a film. I love BRIEF ENCOUNTER as a film [1945 Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard version] even though there is no HEA ending, yet, I don't know if I would have appreciated the story in book form without having a satisfying ending.

    When is a romance not a romance? When it's not between one man and one woman? If that's the case then we can rule out gay romance, paranormal werewolves and ghosts, etc.

    Surely, romance is romance, whether it's between woman/man man/man woman/woman werewolf/human, ghost/human etc?


  6. "Surely, romance is romance, whether it's between woman/man man/man woman/woman werewolf/human, ghost/human etc?"

    I tend to agree, Lynette--which is probably to say that I think of romance as a matter of structure, primarily: it's about the HOW of love rather than the WHO of it, if that makes sense.

    If you spend a lot of time reading love poetry and the philosophy of love, you quickly find just how transplantable the structures of love can be. Sappho's songs of longing for women and Plato's accounts of male homoerotic affection (including some across age lines that would leave me queasy in practice) make sense, and have long made sense, to readers interested in m/f relationships.

    Although I take this question up with my students in a peripheral way when we talk about human / upyr romance in Emma Holly's "Midnight" series, I'd love to add a gay or lesbian romance to my teaching repertoire, in order to address it more directly. Any suggestions for a text?

  7. Better, I think, to keep it broad and loose and allow for this constant tide of change -- otherwise the rigidity of the definition will colour writer's concepts of what they should/should not be aiming for.

    Still, for an academic study of the genre you need a definition and one that's not too loose. My favourite definition of romance, btw, is that by John Cawelti: he defined romance as the "feminine equivalent of the adventure story . . . . The crucial defining characteristic of romance is not that it stars a female but that its organizing action is the development of a love relationship, usually between a man and a woman . . . . Romances often contain elements of adventure, but the dangers function as a means of challenging and then cementing the love relationship." Since he wrote that in the 1970s, he lists gothic romance as the most popular subgenre -- which shows that, naturally, some points of his findings are dated. Yet, imo, his definition allows enough room for variations that it still fits the genre today.

    Are there any other worries that people have about ways in which the academic study of romance could affect the authors (or the genre as a whole) in a negative way?

    Frankly, I don't see how any academic work on romance could influence writers in either a negative or positive way. I mean, in the worst case we'll think "Gosh, another idotic study done by somebody who's got absolutely no clue about the genre!"; in the best case "Gosh, finally a study done by somebody who understands the genre!" :)

    More problematic, however, are definitions put forward by RWA (because those definitions influence what counts as romance in the GH and RITA contests) and, more importantly, by agents and editors. If they determine that France as a setting for romance or first person POV is a no-no in romance, they won't buy it. And if they tell this to the people who come to publishers spotlights at conferences, these people probably won't write romances with a French setting or with a first person narrator.

  8. "feminine equivalent of the adventure story . . . . The crucial defining characteristic of romance is not that it stars a female but that its organizing action is the development of a love relationship, usually between a man and a woman . . . ."

    I'm not exactly sure how he's defining 'feminine' here, and he makes it clear that 'feminine' doesn't mean 'female', but even so I'm a bit uneasy by the idea that adventure= masculine and love=feminine. Although this gendering of the genres doesn't automatically imply anything about the readership and authorship of these genres, it could be understood that way.