The Romance Genre on the Web

Researching online romance genre communities and their perspectives

Too diverse for one label?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bron at 8:56 pm on Thursday, March 22, 2007

Recent discussions about the RITA Awards over at Romancing the Blog and the Smart Bitches (here and here) and the inherent challenges and difficulties of determining the ‘best’ romance books brought to the front of my mind a question I’ve been pondering for a while. I still haven’t come up with a definitive opinion, either way, so I’m going to throw it over to you all for your consideration and opinion:

Is romance too broad and diverse a genre to be effectively covered by one ‘label’?

Is there too much difference – stylistically, in content, approach and purpose – across the huge range of contemporary romance novels to call it a single genre? Or is the general definition of romance (a story with a main focuses on a romantic relationship and an emotionally satisfying ending) sufficient to unite that diversity?

I’m not just thinking here about all the subgenres. Obviously, there can be a great deal of difference between, for example, a Christian Inspirational romance and an erotic urban fantasy romance, to pick two ends of the sensuality scale. But is there more to the diversity than levels of sensuality and the key plot themes?

If I can illustrate the question with an example. If you take a look at the amazon reviews for Jo Beverley’s The Shattered Rose, it’s pretty clear that this is a ‘love it or hate it’ book, with not a lot of middle ground. I read this book last year, and I loved it. However, if you’re after a light, relaxing, easy read, a straight-forward ‘traditional’ romance, then this book is definitely not it, and I can perfectly understand people being disappointed if that’s what they were looking for. The Shattered Rose is challenging, and at times confronting, in terms of the main characters, their actions and their motivations. The historian in me (who has read a fair amount of medieval theology and Christian mysticism) loved the fact that the hero and heroine were people of their time, with a medieval perspective on religion, faith and Church, and they dealt with their conflicts – especially their internal guilt, doubts, and fears – within the framework of that medieval perspective. But that made their actions quite challenging to understand, from a 21st-century view of the world.

Now, I also love and enjoy lighter and less challenging romances, too (like the two I just read yesterday!). I’m not suggesting that there is less ‘value’ in books-as-entertainment than in books-that-challenge. They all have important places and roles in literature. I do wonder, though, about the advantages and disadvantages of calling it all ‘romance’, and whether the sub-genres we have – which seem to focus on sensuality, length and setting as delineating factors – are sufficient to describe the diversity.

So, the floor is open for your thoughts….



Comment by Laura Vivanco

March 23, 2007 @ 2:41 am

is the general definition of romance (a story with a main focuses on a romantic relationship and an emotionally satisfying ending) sufficient to unite that diversity?

Yes, I think so.

I’m not suggesting that there is less ‘value’ in books-as-entertainment than in books-that-challenge. They all have important places and roles in literature.

I’m not sure this distinction really holds, though. What ‘challenges’ you might not challenge another reader, and, conversely, something that challenges them might not engage your interest at all. For example, I’m not infrequently stopped in my tracks by some of the attitudes and circumstances portrayed in American romances and they remind me that there are many things which are very different in the UK. Someone reading the same book in the US might think of exactly the same book as light entertainment. Or a particular book might happen to touch on something that’s a ‘hot button’ for a particular reader and therefore makes her think. So I really don’t think you can divide books up neatly into ‘entertaining’ and ‘challenging’ ones: it’s as much or more about the reader as it is about the book.

I do wonder, though, about the advantages and disadvantages of calling it all ‘romance’, and whether the sub-genres we have – which seem to focus on sensuality, length and setting as delineating factors – are sufficient to describe the diversity.

But that’s why we have sub-sub-genres (and even sub-sub-sub-genres) of romance. For example, inspirational romances include historical inspirational romances and romantic suspense inspirational romances. Erotic romances include historical erotic romances (and that can be further sub-divided according to the particular period), contemporary erotic romances, futuristic erotic romances etc.


Comment by Grace

March 23, 2007 @ 4:27 am

If we stuck to the definition you’ve listed

general definition of romance (a story with a main focuses on a romantic relationship and an emotionally satisfying ending)

it probably would be enough. But there seem to be a lot of subgenres squished under the romance umbrella that don’t focus on a satisfying ending. Or the romantic relationship.

But maybe that’s as subjective as what’s a fluff book or a challenging book (see Laura’s post above). Maybe the definition of a satisfying ending is fluid, and maybe it should be. I like to see the two main characters ending up together with the possibility of a future established in my mind. And I like there to be only two!! which isn’t always the case in some subgenres.

I read romance for the ending. I know in advance it’s going to be satisfying and I’m going to experience these two people falling in love, and I hope to enjoy the ride. So for me, this is an essential element to call it romance.

The thing I would really like is a print book sensuality rating system like most epubs have. They rate the sensuality of their books on their own without some industry regulation. That way you aren’t surprised/shocked/disappointed by the content of the book you purchase.


Comment by Bron

March 23, 2007 @ 9:38 am

Laura wrote: So I really don’t think you can divide books up neatly into ‘entertaining’ and ‘challenging’ ones: it’s as much or more about the reader as it is about the book.

Laura, I agree that readers bring a lot to the interpretation of a book. I, too, have been confronted from time to time by aspects of romance books – sometimes US, and occasionally UK books (Australian culture having absorbed some things from both cultures – and been stubbornly independent about other things! 🙂 )

However, when I used the term ‘challenging’ (and I obviously wasn’t clear) I wasn’t trying to divide things neatly, but rather to raise the issue that some books challenge – as a direct intention of the author – some of the ‘rules’ of romance. In The Shattered Rose, the heroine has committed adultery – and not in a way that can be quietly hushed up and ‘forgiven’ by the hero. It is public knowledge, and both Church and State, because of the times, have a large stake in how the matter is dealt with. Beverley challenges the conventions of romance not only in her adulterous heroine, but also in the fact that Jehanne’s (and to a lesser extant, Galeran’s) way of working through to a resolution of their situation is not that of a 21st century couple dressed in medieval clothes, or of a ‘fairytale’ medieval couple. There is no easy way out, for either of them, or for the reader.

Now, other authors have challenged the boundaries of the genre, too. Sexuality is one of the ways the boundaries have been stretched, and there’s been a lot of focus, discussion and debate on that around the boards in recent years – on erotic romance, non-hetero romance, ménage a trois (or more), non-human romance (shapeshifter, werewolves, etc). For some people – Grace, you commented on this – some of those don’t meet their expectations for a ‘romance’.

While I haven’t read a lot of them myself, there are clearly – judging by discussions on various websites – other books which stretch and/or break ‘rules’ or expectations in aspects of romance other than sexuality. Anne Stuart’s dark, morally ambiguous hero in Black Ice tramped over some heroic expectations, at least in the first half of the book; do readers who read more traditional, sweet romances still consider that a romance? Are the stylistic and thematic differences, the mood of the novel, the author’s intentions, and the reader’s experience served, or ill-served, by classifying them in the same genre?

I’ve rambled on a bit, but I guess that’s some more background as to why the question still lurks in my mind 🙂 I think, too, that I’ve asked the question because I wonder, from a writer’s perspective, whether despite the huge diversity, there are still some boundaries that it would be incredibly difficult to break. For example, in a romantic suspense, if something tragic happened as part of their investigation – maybe they catch the murderer but can’t save the missing child – but through the drama of it all, the hero and heroine developed a deep, real and committed relationship: would that still be a romance? If not, would it, with its focus on a romantic relationship, be excluded from other genres?

(And can I just confess here that no, while I’ve broken other romance ‘rules’, I haven’t broken those ones in my manuscript that’s currently doing the agent rounds. All the right people live. The kid lives. Heck, even the dog survives!)


Comment by Laura Vivanco

March 23, 2007 @ 10:14 am

I have the impression that adultery wasn’t always the no-no that it is nowadays in romance. Sheila Bishop kept returning to it as a theme in her work, for example.

Adultery was at the very basis of much of courtly love and continued to be present in literature after the Middle Ages. Yes, that did mean that they were usually tragic rather than having the happy ending that’s required in the modern romance genre, but I don’t think adultery is automatically unromantic. Some authors can make it work for some readers. Jenny Crusie’s technically got some adultery in Tell Me Lies but because I understood the heroine’s actions and sympathised with her, this didn’t make me think her behaviour was unromantic.

If we’re going to exclude from romance things that some people find unromantic, then what about the rape and forced seductions that were so popular in the past and can still occasionally be found today? I find them really, really ‘challenging’ and completely unromantic.

Clearly there are different issues which, depending on culture/expectations/the development of the genre are seen as pushing the boundaries. And, for some readers, the consequence of such boundary pushing may be that the ending isn’t satisfying or optimistic because they don’t believe that the hero and heroine will be happy together. But I don’t think such feelings in a certain number of readers should influence the definition of the genre. As far as I can tell, the authors of these romance think of the endings as ‘optimistic’ and one can tell that from the way they describe the ending. I think that textual evidence is the best guide to whether a romance is supposed to be read as ‘optimistic’ or not. If we go by readers’ feelings, we might end up in a position where we’d have to redefine the genre every couple of decades, as modern readers looked back and felt revulsion/distaste for the endings of earlier romances.

The way readers seem to deal with the differences in tone seems to be to label some romances ‘dark’ or ‘gritty’ rather than ‘sweet’, ‘light’ or ‘fluffy’. But on the whole I get the impression, from the online discussions I’ve read, that although certain romances may not be considered particularly ‘romantic’ by some readers they don’t go so far as to deny that they’re romances unless the hero or heroine die, or if the hero and heroine are permanently separated at the end of the book. As you know, there was one attempt made to tighten the definition, and that was in the area of one-woman-one-man, and the RWA rejected that. I think the RWA definition, focussed on the central romantic relationship and an optimistic ending for the lovers, gives the genre enough flexibility to grow and change but preserves what’s at the core of every romance.


Comment by Grace

March 23, 2007 @ 11:04 am

Oh I love a tormented, dark hero, as long as he’s “redeemable.”

I consider just about anything romantic (though maybe it’s not what I want to read myself) as long as the couple ends up with the possibility of a future together. If they don’t, it’s more of a “love story.” Thorn Birds is one of these. How about Anna Karenina? A lot of romantic elements, but it’s more medieval–forbidden love bring us to ruin. Gorgeous, but I’m not reading those books or others like them for “fun.” It’s a completely different kind of entertainment.

I can handle a child or adult dying if it’s a more “adult” book and not a tender. That’s what I like about romance today–something for every mood. I just like to know (to some extent) what to expect when I pick up a certain book. I don’t want a hero/heroine with a broken spirit in my tender. And I want some heat when I’m in the mood for that. I don’t want to know everything (where’s the fun in that!).

What really appeals to me about a dark hero or the couple having to overcome some heavy obstacles to be together is the affirmation that love and the human spirit can overcome whatever trials come at us. That’s another thing that appeals to me about romance.


Comment by Jennie Adams

March 23, 2007 @ 8:18 pm

I think there are some stories that are being published as romances, that from my perspective at least, don’t fit the definition you’ve cited here, of ‘a story with a main focus on a romantic relationship and an emotionally satisfying ending’. If, for example, a ‘romance’ story happens to have a male and female who end up ‘together’ at the end of the book but experience no romantic or emotional journey with each other to get there, if the focus of that book is on some other aspect of story, then I don’t consider it a romance but I have seen books of this type labeled and marketed as romances.

The majority of romance novels I come across nowadays do fit the above definition of a romance story, but I’m not sure of how much else is out there, either, or what parameters are used on some of the kinds of ‘romances’ I haven’t sought out or read.

I think overall it works to have the diversity of romance books under the general umbrella of ‘romance’. But I think each reader also has to choose his or her definition of romance, and that is where it can get sticky for readers, writers, and those marketing the books.



Comment by Emily Veinglory

March 26, 2007 @ 11:52 am

Romance is one of the most coherent genres out there. If we can have awards cover all movies, all popular music, etc etc why not romance? Genre doesn’t unite anything, it just draws a rough chalk circle around it. Awards don’t pick the best, just someone’s (judges or publics) idea of what is pretty good.


Comment by Keziah Hill

March 26, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

Although we are very happy when well deserving writers get recognised. Congratulations Bronwyn on your Golden Heart final!


Comment by Jennie Adams

March 26, 2007 @ 4:47 pm

Yes, congratulations, Bronwyn. Very excited for you!



Comment by Bron

March 26, 2007 @ 8:33 pm

Thanks, Keziah and Jennie!


Comment by Jo Beverley

April 1, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

Well, a mention of The Shattered Rose will bring me out of lurk. That book came to me almost in a vision and I tried not to write it. When it insisted, I never thought it would be published. When my agent said Zebra loved it, I wondered what they were indulging in in New York. I often wonder that. *G*

I’m really glad it was published, but not at all surprised that it’s a love it or hate it book.It fits all the technical requirements of a romance,though I often think that broken marriage stories are marginal, and that true romance is courtship.But in its tone and details, it doesn’t fit, as you say, Bron.

That’s one reason the other couple are there with a much more normal love story. Many readers say I should have given Raoul and Aline their own books, but they are so normal there isn’t a book there. Which means it was a real treat to tell a simple, uncomplicated love story.

To answer the question here, I do think the definition works, though I prefer “triumphant ending” to emotionally satisfying, since some people seem to find tragedy emotionally satisfying, which makes it subjective.

Yes, it covers a lot. But then so does mystery, SF, horror, etc etc etc. And most of the time, people who care know what a romance novel is and agree about it, which is pretty amazing.




Comment by Bron

April 6, 2007 @ 7:25 pm

Jo, I’m not so sure that it ‘doesn’t fit’ – but perhaps it’s more at one end of a spectrum. Or the outer edge of an hexagon 🙂 There are romances that are more grounded in the realities of life, more grit and less ‘fantasy’, and The Shattered Rose is one of them.

I’m very glad you wrote the book, and that Zebra loved it and published it!

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