Links, Labels and Limits

The majority of my pleasure reading has always been genre fiction. Through my early teens, I read a lot of fantasy, I’ve always read mysteries, and of course in the last few years I’ve been reading a lot of romance. I had a great dinner conversation with a friend the other day about her love of mystery-reading. That love began with watching mysteries on TV with her mother, who would say things like, “Don’t worry, that person will be fine; that actor’s famous.” Later, they watched Law & Order together, and we agreed that we liked the show because “you pretty much know what you’re going to get.”

That’s the appeal of genre for me. I don’t mean that it’s formulaic, but I can trust that things will come out right. I’m not naturally a cheerful or optimistic person, so for pleasure I choose books that guarantee me emotional satisfaction at the end: in genre fiction, typically, order is restored, justice is done, and good at least ekes out a victory over evil. (That’s one reason I chose 19th-century fiction as my academic field, too).

Both as a reader and a critic, I’m interested in the way readers, authors and publishers label books, and in the rules, conventions, and limits of any given genre. These rules and labels are great for marketing books and for helping readers find stories they want, but they can become too limiting. Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations and read some things that have me wondering about the limits on romance.

First was the news that the Romance Writers of America decided to discontinue its RITA award for “novel with strong romantic elements.” Obviously I’m not an RWA member (but here’s a comment by Deanna Raybourn, who writes in this category); a professional organization has every right to make decisions about its mission, and I can see they’d find reasons to focus what they’re doing. As a reader, though, I think of all the books I’ve enjoyed that offer me romance plus “something more” and I wonder why the genre wouldn’t want to lay some claim to them, allow play around its edges. Who decides how much “something more” makes a book not a romance? How come there’s still a romantic suspense category, when most of those books have a pretty even balance between romance and the “something more”?

At a moment when publishing’s biggest hit is a trilogy that isn’t always labelled a romance but basically is one, drawing narrower limits seems extra misguided to me. As far as I can tell, unlike RWA, neither the Mystery Writers of America nor the Science Fiction Writers of America define the limits of their genre on their websites. They are very big tents. I can see why RWA wants to have a definition–lots of people will call any book with a love story “romance,” but for genre romance readers, a happy ending is a basic requirement, and protecting that definition makes sense. I accept that there are some stories about love the romance genre can’t tell. There are other books for that. On the other hand, I think the tight policing of genre boundaries contributes to romance’s lack of literary street cred. I think we should be pointing out and celebrating when writers outside the genre draw on its conventions.

What really bothers me, though, are labels and rules that reinforce traditional assumptions about gender. For instance, author Molly O’Keefe had a couple of posts recently on writing difficult heroines and being tired of “nice.” I don’t mean to criticize O’Keefe; the posts were interesting and the Dear Author one (first link) in particular generated good discussion. But this struck me as an essentially defensive promotion of her new book–that is, her “difficult” heroine needed defending and commentary, or was seen as noteworthy, in a way a similarly flawed hero would not be. And … yuck to that.

The genre’s just imitating the rest of life here, of course; it’s no different from female bosses being called bitches for the same traits that are admired as leadership in their male colleagues. But I wish a female-dominated corner of the publishing industry would kick against these rules of behavior more. And no, that doesn’t mean all heroines must conform to my definition of feminist or be characters I’d like, or that writers should write or readers read stories they don’t want to. But we could at least stop labeling heroines who don’t conform to “nice girl” standards “difficult” and “unlikeable” (I like a lot of difficult women, and have met some “nice” ones I didn’t much care for).

Romance readers do want to like a novel’s hero and heroine; we’re being asked to root for their happy ending and see it as emotionally just. But if everyone has to like a heroine, she’s going to be bland and boring–and then some people will hate her anyway. There’s a broad range of “likeable” out there to suit a variety of readers, and I’d hate to see it narrowed.

The same goes for labeling heroes “alpha” or “beta.” Sure, I find these labels handy in some ways (if fans of uber-alpha heroes love a book, I usually know it’s not for me). But the more we think of characters as having to fit into neatly labeled boxes, the less variety we get and the less we allow them a full range of humanity. I don’t know about you, but I don’t label real people I meet in any of the ways romance characters get labeled.

Finally, I read a post by author Michelle Styles on real-life Regency businesswomen. Her opener:

‘Were there any successful Regency business women?’ my editor asked with scepticism . . . . ‘Georgette Heyer never had any businesswomen as heroines. Make sure your ideas are historically accurate, Michelle. Our readers demand it.’

I’m not sure whether this story is a joke or not. I hope it is. Setting aside the question of whether Heyer should be our sole guide to historical accuracy (um, no), why would we want to stick forever to the genre as defined by one of its progenitors? If a genre is going to survive, it has to grow and change, as romance obviously has over the years. For that to happen, editors and readers, as well as writers, need to stay flexible about the rules.

My neighbors up the street just painted their formerly blue house beige, and a couple of nights ago I dreamed that everyone on the block followed suit. The new color is quite elegant, but we have long, dark, rainy winters, and an all-beige block would be depressing. Romance is a pretty vibrant, multi-hued genre and I think it will stay that way, but I’m always wary of signs that someone wants to impose an all-beige code. Bring on more colors, I say!

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21 Responses to Links, Labels and Limits

  1. VacuousMinx says:

    I’ve been trying to write a post on the RWA changes as well, from the reader perspective obviously. You’ve hit on many of the same issues I have with the changes. Weirdly, it appears that the RWA is trying to become more like MWA and SFWA, or at least elevate its professional status. But it’s doing this by shrinking the tent rather than enlarging it, both in terms of its reduced categories and in terms of the new judging guidelines. I find it quite puzzling and disheartening.

    I hope that Harlequin editor was joking as well. Because otherwise, oh dear.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I hadn’t really paid attention to the judging changes, but there is a long discussion of them here. I guess I’m dumb, but I fail to see how the “romance” in a book can be rated separately from plot and characters. I actually didn’t know before that Golden Heart judges only read the first 50 pages of a manuscript, which … seems to me as a reader like a crazy way to give out an award. No wonder I’ve read so many books that tank after a strong opening. I’d love to read your readerly take on these changes.

  2. willaful says:

    The funny part about the line to me was “Make sure your ideas are historically accurate, Michelle. Our readers demand it.’” Yeah, like maybe five of them.

    I love books that have that “strong romantic element” plus “something more.” I didn’t read romance for most of my life, but the books I loved almost all had that strong romantic element.

  3. SonomaLass says:

    I love novels with romantic elements; my favorite books in other genres (fantasy, science fiction, mystery) have romance in them as well, just as many of my favorite romance novels have interesting political or intrigue plots. I’m going to miss that category.

    I’m reading a book right now with a “difficult” heroine — she’s prickly and defensive, with a very checkered past. I don’t think the point is for me to “like” her, but rather to understand her, admire some of her strong qualities, and believe that she can be happy loving the man she finds in the course of the novel. To me, romance is about “fit,” about believing that these characters have learned to be honest about their needs and desires, and have found someone who meets those in a way that will bring them lasting happiness. Like you, I have many friends who are probably difficult, and I have known “nice” people who grate on my last nerve.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is a very eloquent way of putting how you feel about the characters. I want to CARE about them, which isn’t necessarily the same as liking them. I am sure that I can be “difficult” and I want to read about characters who are human like me.

  4. Thank you for mentioning the article I wrote for Smart B*tches.
    Because my editor knows that Regency authors are most likely to get letters from readers questioning things if they deviate from Heyer, she wanted to make sure. Some readers do care passionately that the historical world feels right and to many readers of Regency that means Heyer’s interpretation. Editors are not experts in the various historical time periods. They edit across a wide range. They assume the author has done her research to the degree required. Editors are trained to ask the questions that readers might.Sometimes it is a case of the unknown unknown for both parties. It is why I find the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary so useful. It gives definate dates for slang for example.
    I put some of my research in the author’s note at the start because I figured that readers might have questions.
    Anyway, it is an area I am now passionately interested in and I am curious to know why these women have been overlooked. Sara Rice for example is supposed to have the model for Fanny Price’s Aunt Norris in Mansfield Abbey. I am not sure who Mrs Gaskell based Mrs Thornton (John THornton’s mother) on but it is clear that she does have a hand in running the factory. Businesswomen are there in 19th cnetury literature but they seem to be overlooked in historical fiction.

    The RWA appear to have done away with the Regency Rita as well and have changed the contemporary series ritas back to a long and short focus. The judging for the Ritas is also different this year. There are several areas that the judges will have to rank, rather than giving an over all score. It will be interesting to see what this throws up.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michelle. In the context of this post, I feel I should have said how glad I am you got to write your businesswoman heroine, and I look forward to reading about her.

      In some ways, doing away with the Regency category makes sense–why treat one type of historical as different? But my impression is that Regency-set novels dominate the market to a huge extent right now. I have to wonder if books set in other periods will lose a chance at recognition, and that would be really a real shame.

  5. The trouble with the RWA’s attempt to become like MWA or SFWA is that unlike those organizations, the RWA is open to all romance writers–unpublished and published. You must be published in a qualifying market (published 3-4 short stories in qualifying mystery or SF/F magazines or have a novel published by a qualifying publisher, the last I heard of their restrictions) to even be elgible to join. The RWA’s relative free-for-all is why they have so many kerfluffles over who is and isn’t published and what is and isn’t a romance novel, but at this stage, they can’t very well boot all unpublished authors out and start over as a professional romance writers’ organization with eligibility qualifications…

    As for this “What really bothers me, though, are labels and rules that reinforce traditional assumptions about gender.”, I’m falling over myself in agreement. Sometimes I grow frustrated when many draw attention to books simply because they step outside of romance/traditional gender norms. Okay, so the hero is a virgin. It’s rare in romance, and sometimes I do want to grab a book with a virgin hero since in general, romance heroes are so highly sexed. However, discussions of virgin heroes, sexually experience heroines, “beta” heroes, and “difficult” heroines still exist within gender assumptions and create yet more character archetypes and tropes as opposed to characters unique to this one book, to this particular story. As a result, the books tend not to stand on their own merits, but mostly in comparison to others, which in turn tends to lend credence to the opinion that most romance novels are interchangeable with one another. The primary reason why I enjoy Judith Ivory’s romance novels is because I find them unpredictable. Ivory’s novels reel you in with popular romance tropes (rake and prim widow, virginal hero and courtesan heroine, damaged, tortured playboy and poor spinster companion, etc) and then takes the story on its own path. So I don’t need to be reeled in with “my characters are ‘different'”–tell me about the story.

    The Heyer=Regency thing is something we’ll never escape (honestly, without Heyer, would we have the Regency romance?)! Heyer placed her stamp on the setting and created a playground in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people play, so it’s a given that her “world” will dominate. The only thing that irks me is when people place Heyer-Regency expectations on non-Regency settings! Why yes, my heroine can walk through Hyde Park without a chaperone–it’s 1911! *g*

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for this great comment, which helped me think something through. I am so torn about tropes. On the one hand, I know EXACTLY what you mean. Sometimes it seems like a writer is not “allowed” to tell a story unless it can be described in terms of familiar romance tropes (virgin widow with a secret baby and an alpha duke spy with amnesia, billionaire dominant and naive young virgin, blah blah blah). That can really keep stories in familiar boxes, or, as you say, even if they cross those lines, the discussion is all about what line got crossed, reinforcing the line.

      On the other hand, I have found one of the pleasures of reading romance is learning the repertoire of familiar tropes writers draw on and seeing how each production of them is staged in a different way (ooh, look what THIS one does with the road romance, vs. this other one). Comparison and contrast enrich the reading. Some of my favorite books are knowingly playful with tried and true tropes.

      I guess I think a balance is necessary. A writer needs to be aware of tradition and conventions but not so beholden to them that she’s working to a formula. Her hero may be alpha, but I want he to be thinking of him as a person, not “I’m going to write a wounded alpha hero.”

    • VacuousMinx says:

      The Heyer=Regency thing is something we’ll never escape (honestly, without Heyer, would we have the Regency romance?)! Heyer placed her stamp on the setting and created a playground in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people play, so it’s a given that her “world” will dominate.

      I was nodding my head until I got to this part of your comment, Evangeline. I understand why Heyer was so instrumental in creating the genre. But her output ceased 40 years ago. There has been a huge amount of historical research on the era since then, including work on neglected topics like economically powerful women.

      There is no excuse in 2012 for an outdated, Edwardian take on a couple of decades of British history. None. I love Heyer’s work. But her Regency world is not the only one that can be built from the material we have now. At this point it looks like ossification more than homage.

      • That is true, but to be very blunt, how many authors of Regency historicals began writing them because they stumbled onto great research about the time period, and how many began writing them because they read Heyer, and then Balogh, Beverley, Darcy, and other Regency authors who began their careers in the 70s and 80s? Or what of those who started writing Regencies because they loved the works of Quinn, Enoch, et al, or just watched Austen adaptations? The Regency romance (traditional and single title historical) is mostly traced back to Heyer, Quinn, Balogh or Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, not to non-fiction and research texts.

        I’ve seen a few discussions about Heyerisms or Victorian/Edwardianisms in Regency romance (i.e. dance cards), but even if a few Regency authors stop and say “wait a minute, is this factual, or hearsay from other Regencies?”, they are “fact” because it’s been regurgitated and repeated and recycled for so long. Honestly, I wince a bit at this topic because it tends to lead into the accuracy vs “mistorical” debate, and it is taken personally. Heyerworld, Maili’s Ochlassieland, and any other Romancelandia version of history, are like a pair of old, comfortable sweats you don’t have to think about, and in general, the function of history in historical romance is to provide a glamorous, adventurous backdrop to the story, not to exist as a character in its own right. A bit frustrating? Yes. But at the same time, there are talented authors who work in Heyerland, just as there are many talented authors who push beyond this to create enjoyable works. All any of us can do is hope authors–like Michelle Styles–who base a novel on an exciting historical tidbit, will blog about the historical background.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        The issue here, at least for me, isn’t how “accurate” Heyer is (I have enjoyed plenty of books set in Heyerlandia, Almackistan, or whatever you want to call it). If authors are inspired by that version of the period and want to set a story in it, fine. It’s the idea that if Heyer didn’t do it, no one else can, or that notions of what’s correct/allowable are dictated by Heyer. That’s a crazy constraint to place on a story. And even if it’s true that some readers think that way, which it no doubt is, author’s notes, etc. can deal with their concerns.

      • It’s the idea that if Heyer didn’t do it, no one else can, or that notions of what’s correct/allowable are dictated by Heyer. That’s a crazy constraint to place on a story.

        I’m not disagreeing with this at all. I think we might be talking over one another we’re seeing this from different angles. Over the years I’ve witnessed–and quite often–authors of historical romance writing their books, and then asking questions about the plausibility of their plots or characters. When others with more knowledge point out that A,B & C are inaccurate, the common reaction is for the author to shrug and say they want A, B & C to happen in their book and so it will remain. What else am I to take from this than that many writers of Regency romances consider Heyer and/or their favorite Regency authors as the “world” from which to spring their own stories?

        I’m not pointing fingers because when I started writing historical romance, I wrote Regencies because it’s what I read (then I grew bored with the setting and skipped around time periods before falling in love with the Edwardian era). I never got into Heyer or Austen, but I read a lot of traditional and single title Regency authors, and just started writing whatever plot and characters leaped into my head. The concept of world-building or more research never entered my head–as long as my prose sounded “historical”, my characters didn’t do things all of the Regencies said were no-nos, and I basically colored within the lines, I was happy to write on.

        It was only later on, after needing to research non-Regency settings in order to write them, that I saw a broader scope for characters and plots. Hell, I even took Edith Wharton’s portrait of Gilded Age New York at face value until I began researching the setting. And it took years of reading non-fiction, memoirs/autobiography, newspapers, and even fiction written during the 1900s to gain the ability to parse through fact and authorial world-building. How many people–forget authors–even have the time or interest or inclination to do so? I’m blessed in that I have the time and desire to do the research, but at the same time, I’ve sacrificed a lot of writing hours–hours that I could have probably used to be published long before now. :-/ So while using Heyer as the be-all, end-all for the Regency setting is aggravating, I completely understand why it is so and why it will probably remain so.

    • “honestly, without Heyer, would we have the Regency romance?)!”

      Heyer didn’t give birth to the Georgian (or Regency to you) genre, though. There were authors who wrote in this genre long before she came along (such as Garvice, Butler and Ellesworth (sp?); all virtually forgotten now). And what made it popular – e.g. bringing the genre into the mainstream – is actually Barbara Cartland (whom Heyer apparently disliked). Heyer always had a solid cult following, even when she was alive, similar to how Judith Ivory has a cult following today, but she was never a big-name author. Not until maybe last ten years, thanks to American readers’ endless campaign to keep her name alive. I don’t know why, but it’s only in the US that Heyer’s credited for the birth of the genre. It’s far more accurate to credit Heyer for redefining the genre. And also for raising the benchmark for the depth of research.

  6. kaetrin says:

    I’m a bit sad about the RWA deleting this category too – crossover novels are a way to bring new readers into the genre – many romance readers entered through that door. This move doesn’t really make any sense to me.

  7. VacuousMinx says:

    For whatever reason I can’t reply above; this is addressed to Liz and Evangeline’s responses to my previous comment to Evangeline.

    False facts are not facts. For me at least, this is not about how authors get their inspiration or why they are writing their books. I was reading Heyer when she died, and I read every other author that was even remotely like her in the 1970s and 1980s, until I was down to the absolute dreck. I’m a fan. I get that part.

    And even scholars are frequently motivated by many things other “non-fiction and research texts,” so it wouldn’t occur to me that romance novels authors should be limited to that.

    My comment, and I assume part of Liz’s point, is about what the books are like and how authors justify repeating & reusing as historically authentic material that we now know is not part of that period of British history. Like Liz, I have read and enjoyed books with many flagrant errors, anachronisms, etc., because the author’s voice was compelling and the romance was wonderful. That’s not what we’re talking about here, or at least not what I thought we were talking about.

    • Yes, the core issue is how an influential author’s world-building is accepted as a truth of the actual history.

      It took me a long time to get readers to accept that the Scottish hand-fasting custom never existed. Yes, there are documented incidences of “hand-fasting”, but not in a way many understood it.
      In Scotland until maybe 1910s-1920s?, a Scottish couple may marry anywhere, any time and however they like. If they wish to conduct a ‘hand-fasting’, then they can. Another couple, however, could decide to marry on a bridge with just two witnesses, they can. My own great-grandparents married within ten minutes of deciding to marry. They did so in front of two strangers they collared off a street. :D Basically, having at least two witnesses was a legitimate form of Scotland’s ‘marriage licence’. How a wedding would be conducted was entirely up to each couple. Marry at home in front of their families? Sure. Marry at a pub in front of friends? Sure. Marry in a tavern in front of a barkeeper and his wife? Sure. Of course, in some regions, churches didn’t like this, so they made a compromise: “You can marry however you like, but please allow us register your marriage in our kirk records. For formality’s sake and all.” This gives us an impression that most couples of yesteryear were married in churches when in fact many never did. :D
      In some chapters of history, though, there was a movement against this type of marriage, due to southern Scotland and England’s influence, so marriage regulations differed from one region to another in different time periods. But I digress. Sorry.
      Yeah, ‘hand-fasting’ is probably one of most misunderstood concepts and yet, it’s heavily recycled as a fact in the Scottish historical romance genre. *sob*

      I do think it’s fine for readers to resist learning various accurate versions of history as it’s much easier to focus on characters/story with the “official” version of history as a backdrop. Especially if they don’t want to be distracted while they’re emotionally invested.

      It’s, however, not fair for them to slam authors for ‘historical inaccuracy’ when in fact what they’re really objecting to is authors diverting from the official version (Heyer’s version or whatnot).

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