Romance as a genre

August 28, 2013 Uncategorized 10

I used to turn my nose up at romances on the theory — fueled by exposure to Harlequin and Silhouette series books when I worked in bookstores years ago — that they were formulaic, trite, and not very well written.  The fact that they then were commonly referred to as “trashy novels” did nothing to improve their image, either.  At the same time, I enjoyed and even sought out books that included a hint of romance, from classic YA novels such as the “Anne of Green Gables” series and Louisa May Alcott books, to fantasies by Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, to some of the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and even Dick Francis.  So it wasn’t an aversion to love and romance per se that kept me from trying “romance novels” for many years; it was the snob factor. 
It’s true that the Harlequin and Silhouette “series” romances* were (and are) sometimes mediocre.  They were (and are still) written to a very precise set of requirements covering length and structure, detailing what the heroine and the writer could and could not do (including the level of sexual content allowed), and even suggesting topics or storylines.  Usually, the author received only modest compensation, so an author who wanted to make a living writing these books had to churn out quite a few per year.  Yet despite these drawbacks, a number of good and very popular authors first developed their craft writing series romances, including Jayne Ann Krentz, Nora Roberts, and Mary Jo Putney.  And to be fair, some of the books published in the series lines were (and are) actually quite good.
As I discovered when I got past my prejudice and actually tried a few of the non-series titles, the romance genre is just like any other genre.  There are good authors, mediocre authors, and occasionally, bad authors.  As for being formulaic, romances follow a formula in the same sense that mysteries do.  You know that a romance novel will focus on a relationship, and that the hero and heroine will end up happily together, just as you know in a mystery that there has been or will be a crime, and someone will solve it in the end.  It’s not so much a formula as a set of conventions defining the genre. 

Good romance authors write good books; they simply choose to write them within the romance genre.  They write appealing characters and sparkling dialogue, choose and describe interesting settings, and provide realistic conflict and real character development. Often they include another compelling storyline intertwined with the romance, but the romance is never subsidiary to other plot elements; it’s always central.

It turns out that romance is a very flexible genre.  Romances aren’t confined to any particular era or culture. You can now find romances combined with almost any other genre: mystery, thriller/suspense, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, urban fantasy, historical, Western, and probably others I haven’t come across yet.  Even literary fiction can fall within the romance category — after all, what are Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre if not romances?

Romance also comes in varying degrees of, shall we say… heat?  Some are quite restrained and chaste, but most romances written in the past few years contain, at the least, suggestive passages, and many include extremely sensual, even explicit, scenes.  Again, the reader can probably find authors whose style suits their taste (or simply skip the racy bits if they prefer.)  If you prefer your romance to be more chaste, Christian romances rarely if ever include any physical contact beyond kisses.

Increasingly, many romance authors are writing real series: related novels, set in the same “world” (town, social group, historical era, etc.) and featuring recurring and related characters.  Each book in a series focus primarily on the developing relationship between two main characters, of course, but secondary characters — friends, relatives, former comrades-in-arms — from one book often become major characters in another, while the main characters from the first book continue to show up (happily engaged/married/with children, of course) as secondary characters in subsequent novels.  Besides being a good marketing ploy to sell more books (romance authors and publishers aren’t stupid!), this is also enjoyable for readers, who can return to familiar territory and characters with each new book in the series.

Lisa Kleypas’s “Wallflower” series

Romance is now one of the best-selling fiction genres in publishing — no surprise, since women, who make up the bulk of romance readers, buy more books than men do. According to Bowker Pubtrack, in 2009, 58% of readers and 57% of book buyers were women, but they bought 65% of the books purchased.  Romance made up 24% of overall fiction sales, topped only by Mystery at 34%.  In short, romance as a genre has grown up and come into its own. 

The field is far too broad, and this post too short, for me to discuss specific authors here.  Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve reviewed some of the books and authors I’ve enjoyed and will continue to do so.  And if you’d like to suggest your own favorite authors for me to try, please drop me a line in the comments!
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* For those who aren’t familiar with them, “series” is a misnomer here.  The Harlequin and Silhouette books are not usually related to each other, in the sense that Christie’s “Hercule Poirot” mysteries or McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are.  Each line (such as Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Historical, or Silhouette Ecstasy) issues (or issued) between two and eight relatively short books per month, written by different authors and only rarely featuring recurring characters.

10 Responses to “Romance as a genre”

  1. kimbacaffeinate

    I love romance from historical to contemporary. Romantic suspense is by far my favorite ooh and regency romance. All genres have a formula and some authors add fleshed out characters and twist..but we all know we will get our HEA. In fact we demand it. Great post

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Thank you, Kimba! I know you love your romantic suspense! (Me too, at least some authors. Can’t wait to read the latest Jayne Castle!) And regency-era romances are my favorite of the historical romances — or just post-regency. Balogh, Putney, Kleypas, Alexander, Laurens… am I missing anyone especially good? 😉

      That HEA, along with the exploration of character and relationships, is probably the main reason most romance readers choose the genre. I know it is for me. It’s a great antidote to all the horrible news out there, and an inspiration and affirmation for my own happy marriage.

  2. Rita_h

    I am not primarily a romance reader. That being said, I have nothing against romance books or their readers, I just happen to enjoy the intensity of the good vs. bad guys “chase” in suspense more than the “chase” of men after women, or vice versa. Personal opinion only!

    I dislike when people look down their nose at romance readers as if they weren’t literary enough. Come on all, there’s enough books for everyone to pick and choose their genres and enjoy! Thanks for a great post! (side note: I do love romantic suspense and cozy romantic mysteries and some romances, if not too graphic–that just turns me off).

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I totally agree with you — it really irks me when people look down their noses at romance books and romance readers. Most romance writers and an awful lot of romance readers are very intelligent, well-educated women (and a few men.)

      As for me, I enjoy historical romance, romantic suspense, mysteries with romance, fantasy romance, some paranormal romance, and some contemporary romances — the latter two being the most recent subgenres I’ve explored.

  3. Blodeuedd

    I think I always was a romance reader. My first Harlequin I found in my mum’s bookshelf and I took it when I went for a sleep-over to a friend’s house. I was 10, I was hooked. Luckily my grandmother and cousin has shelves filled with Harlequin books. Though even then I did prefer historical ones :=D

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I still prefer historicals over contemporaries, with a few notable exceptions (Robyn Carr, Sherryl Woods, Susan Wiggs, and a few others.) Thanks for stopping by, and I’m sorry it took me so long to reply — I’ve been out of town!

  4. Belle Read

    Great post! I have always read historical fiction with an element of romance, but have more recently been craving romance books. My problem with choosing them for myself is that I am not familiar with the authors within the genre and have to rely almost entirely on reviews.
    I too, stayed away from romance originally because of that heavy stereotype.
    -Dilettantish Reader

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Thanks, Belle Read! Wasn’t it silly of us to avoid a whole genre because of a stereotype? I’ve read so many really wonderful authors since I first dipped my toe in the romance pond. 😉

  5. readerholicnotes

    Good post, Lark! I haven’t been reading as much romance these days. It seems I go through phases with my reading, but I definitely agree and I still have my favorite and auto-buy romance authors–Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Lisa Kleypas, for example.

    I’m reading lots of fantasies right now and as you have said some are romances and some have romantic elements. I like both as long as the story is well-written. For me, I like a relationship between characters–whether it’s just friendship or a full blown romance. Depending on the book sometimes I want more romance between the characters and sometimes less…lol. I usually like it when a series finally has characters get together!

    I’ve always read lots of genre books (mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romance), but I also used to read books which had uncertain endings or characters I hated with endings I hated. I finally decided there were enough sad, bad or complicated aspects to our personal lives and the world without reading fiction with those aspects. So I started reading books which make me happy and make my heart sing. Some are better than others and make my heart sing longer or louder (lol), but if I don’t like a book I’ve given myself permission not to finish it!

    Sorry for writing an essay here…but this was a good topic!

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I’m so glad you did! That’s what I love most about blogging — thoughtful responses and discussions from and with other readers.

      As for why you’ve switched to books which make you happy (and don’t have unhappy endings): my sentiments exactly. I came to the same conclusion some years ago, and now I try to choose books that will strengthen my spirit, not sap it.

      Again, sorry for the late reply, but I’ve been on the road and then trying to deal with the aftermath of the trip — something I know you can relate to!