Welcome to our first Saturday Discussion of September. Labor Day is over, there’s a chill in the evening air, kiddos (and some adults) are back to school, broadcast TV seasons are soon to resume, and pumpkin spice infuses the vast majority of things we humans put in our mouths. This can only mean it’s time to hit the books, and, in our case, that, of course, means romance novels. Sharpen your pencils, turn to a fresh page, and settle in, because September is back to romance novel school, where even the most seasoned romance reader (or writer) may learn a thing or two.
First, let’s get the basics out of the way. What is a romance novel? Believe it or not, this can be a tricky question for some who are unfamiliar or very new to the genre. Does it mean any book with a love story in it? Any book with a relationship in it? Books for women? Are these kissing books? There are a lot of questions one may ask about romance novels, and the answer to many of the above questions can be a definitive “sometimes.” Let’s go right to the start for the definitive answer. According to Romance Writers of America, here it is:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
That’s it. As long as the growing love relationship is the main focus of the story, and the lovers are, at the end, together and happy about being together, that ticks all the boxes. This may be a little confusing for those outside the genre. But…but…but isn’t Gone With the Wind a romance novel? No, because :spoiler alert: Rhett leaves Scarlett at the end. Romeo and Juliet? Nope. :four hundred year old spoiler alert: They both die at the end, and it’s a play, not a novel. Brokeback Mountain? Technically a short story before it was a movie, and no again, because :is this really a spoiler at this point? We’re picking classics for a reason here: the lovers separate and then one of them dies. Separation is not romantic, death is not romantic, and when both of them happen in the same piece, that is about as anti-romantic as it gets. Nicholas Sparks, we are looking at you.
Okay, so what exactly counts as “a satisfying and optimistic ending,” then? Doesn’t that make the whole genre predictable? There is great poignance in tragedy, nobility, even. Think of Camelot, and the great romantic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. :insert game buzzer sound here: No. First, that’s a musical, in stage or movie form, based on folklore/legend, and how is there even any optimism in that ending? Okay, nostalgia, but that’s looking backward, not forward. Romance novels don’t look back in grief for what is gone forever, (well, maybe in the beginning or middle) but forward, which is where the optimism comes into play. No matter how rough things may be, the lovers are a united force at the end of the book, ready to take on all comers. There still will be troubles, but the big difference is that now our lovers are not going to face those troubles alone. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts, which were, when we look at each hero or heroine individually, pretty great to begin with, because these characters have what it takes to draw us readers into their world, time and again.
Hmm, well, what about the stereotypical romance characters? You know, the fainting virgins, the arrogant alphas, that kind of stuff? Uh huh. Yeah, we don’t really do that in romance fiction. Not to say there aren’t virgins, in any gender, because there are, but there’s not a whole lot of fainting going on, because romance characters are made of sturdier stuff. One, they don’t, as a rule, grow up in a vacuum. Granted, there may be characters, again, of any gender, who grow up in a sheltered environment, rural community, far-off space station or fantasy world, convent or monastery, medical facility, or what-have-you, and may have a learning curve when it comes to interacting with the outside world as a whole, let alone members of their preferred gender, but that’s sheltered, not stupid. Those arrogant alphas? Well, they come in more than one gender, too, from swashbuckling piratesses to business savvy CEOs who wear stilettoes instead of neckties, to military officers, bikers, vampire queens, or, well, pretty much anything else. With romance, it’s not so much the type as the individual that makes the character. Stereotypes may come quickly to mind to those outside the genre, but take a quick perusal at the new release sections in bookstores or libraries, or borrow the e-reader of a seasoned romance fan, and those stereotypes fly quickly out the window.
All right, but what about the sex? That’s the big difference, isn’t it? Well, the answer to that one is yes, and no. Most romance novels do include sex, because all romance novels are :points to RWA definition above: about the growing love relationship, and, when that involves grownups, that often involves sex. Note that we said often. because, sometimes, these books have no sex at all. Inspirational romances, where the spiritual relationships of the lovers grow along with the romance, do not contain explicit sex, and Young Adult romance, which focuses on teenagers, often does not go into great detail. Similiarly, going back into the stacks, as it were, traditional Regencies, as well as their spookier (and not confined to one historical period) cousins, the gothic romance, also generally shut the bedroom door. Then there’s the sweet, or clean, romance, which delivers all the emotion of their more detailed counterparts, but leaves the specifics to the reader’s imagination, where they can fill in the blanks as they will. On the other end of the spectrum, we have erotic romance, where the author tells us every detail, but, in the end, it’s all about the love. Most romances fall somewhere in between, and the important thing isn’t that the sex is there, but that both parties have a positive experience. As, we might add, does the reader.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you agree with the RWA definition of what makes a romance novel? Does it bother you when non-romance readers try to pass off non-romances as romances? How would you define the romance genre to someone who has never heard of romance fiction before? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. If you don’t like romance fiction, we’re a little confused about how you got here, but we want to hear from you, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.