Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is a romance novel?: Part 1 of an examination of the romance genre

What is a romance novel?  I think you could probably ask a dozen people for a definition and nobody would have the exact same parameters.  I’ve seen the genre defined broadly enough that it includes everything from Gone with the Wind to Fifty Shades of Grey.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I’m all about inclusion and pushing boundaries.  But, personally, I don’t see either of those books as “romance novels” in the modern sense.  I would argue that the genre has specific conventions that must be met for a book to qualify.

At their core, romance novels are about relationship.  For example, Gone with the Wind is much more about Scarlett O’Hara’s experiences than it is about her relationship with Rhett.  He’s in there.  He’s important.  But, the heart of story isn’t “them” the couple, it’s “her” the character.  There’s not a criticism of Margret Mitchell, it’s just an example of why GWTW isn’t a “romance novel,” to my mind.
Some of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books are the same way.  Take Hot Shot, which is one of my favorite books ever.  Personally, I classify it as more “women’s fiction” than “romance novel.”  The heroine Susannah’s journey spans the rise of the computer age, as she deals with the men in her life and comes into her own.  There is a romance and the book would suffer if you removed her eventual husband, Mitch.  But, it’s really her relationship with Sam, her first love, and even her father that drives the story.  Editing Mitch out would hurt the story, but you could still have a story, because Susannah’s journey is the central plot.
Contrast this with SEPs, Heaven, Texas or Nobody’s Baby but Mine.  Two more great books, but I’d argue that they’re definitely romance novels.  The heroines (and heroes) also undergo a journey.  They redefine themselves in fundamental ways over the course of the plot.  But, the heart of the story is their relationship.  They grow together and because of each other, and that’s the real meat of the story.  You take Bobby-Tom or Cal out of those books and your story isn’t much of a story anymore.  It’s not about Gracie and Jane.  It’s about Gracie and Jane falling in love with Bobby-Tom and Cal.  There’s a difference there.
A happy ending is another way I would define a romance novel.  I consider this essential for the genre.  Would you want to read a murder-mystery that didn’t solve the murder in the end?  No!  Traditionally, that’s not how the genre works.  Likewise, I expect all romance novels will end with a marriage, proposal, and/or promise of forever.  Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel?  I would argue no, for several reasons, not the least of which is the ending that sees the central couple miserable and dead.  (That’s no slight on Emily Bronte.  She wrote one book and it was Wuthering frigging Heights, for crying out loud.  But it’s not a romance novel.  It’s not meant to be.)
Sometimes, romance writers play with the HEA convention.  (As there are certainly murder mysteries where the killer gets away.)  But, when authors take chances and gives non-traditional endings, they still have to keep it satisfying for the audience.  Take Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor .  I’ve seen polls where this time travel book ranks as the readers’ favorite romance novel ever and (SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) the hero “dies” at the end.  See, he’s a medieval Earl, who’s in love with a modern day woman.  The inevitable result?  She’s alive in the present, knowing that he’s dead in the past.
But, Deveraux fixes the “WTF?!? Nickolas can’t have died alone?!  Who wrote this crap?!” shrieking of her fans but having his soul reincarnated into a modern man’s body.  The book ended on the upbeat scene of the heroine meeting New Him and knowing who he really was.  This seems to satisfy most people.  (End Spoiler!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  Personally, I’m still not completely happy with A Knight in Shining Armor’s ending, but I think it’s clearly a romance novel.  If I gotten to the end and she left Nickolas dead-dead, I’d have burned the damn book on my barbeque grill.  An author’s got to give some kind of happy ending or it’s just not a romance novel.  It’s like a pact with the reader.
In my opinion, the grandmother of all romance novels is Pride and Prejudice.  (Somewhere out there, someone is reading this and thinking, “What about Jane Eyre, Cassie?  Come on!  Rochester has influenced every third hero in romance section of the library.”  Fair point, but I think Darcy influenced every second hero and, besides, Austen came first.)  Anyway, I would argue that Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel, in most respects.  Strip it down and it’s all about the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy.  Seriously, I dare you to try and take him out of that book.  The whole thing would fall apart.  It’s got other stuff going on, but emotional push-pull of Darcy and Elizabeth is the main plot.
However, one argument as to why Pride and Prejudice might not be a “romance novel” in the modern sense of the world is the lack of sex scenes.  Most romance novels have sex, no doubt about it.  But, is it a requirement of the genre?  I would say no.  For instance, several of Lynn Kurland’s books have the “hotter” parts of the love scenes off screen, but I can’t imagine a straight faced argument that they aren’t romance novels.  There’s no sex in the first Twilight book, but I’m certainly willing to hear arguments that it’s romance novel.
On the other hand, I don’t see Fifty Shades of Grey as a romance novel.  I see it erotica.  To me, sex in a romance novel is a part of the relationship, but it doesn’t define the relationship.  I’m certainly willing to see this as hair splitting.  After all, I’d classify Lora Leigh’s work as “romance,” and she writes some very steamy stuff.  But, looking at books on a “Just Sex vs. Just Emotions” spectrum, a true romance novel tips towards the emotional end, in my opinion.  You can have a romance novel without sex.  You can’t have a romance novel without feelings.
Obviously, this whole post is full of stuff people can disagree with.  Like I said, it’s hard to define what a romance novel “is” with any clear cut restrictions.  You just know it when you see it.  A while back, Tami Hoag’s Cry Wolf was repackaged as a “suspense” novel, with a different cover and the love scenes edited down.  I assume this was done to make the book seem less like a romance novel and that annoyed me.  You can’t make a few halfhearted changes and change a book’s genre.  Why would you even want to?  Let a book be what it is!  Romance novels are as viable and interesting as any other literature out there.  They deserve to be celebrated for what they are.

- Cassandra Gannon


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