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!