Stuff of Romance: Remedial Romance

by Moriah Jovan

Moderator’s Note: This is the first of what I hope will be a series of monthly posts from many perspectives related to romance writing, with particular application to romance as a genre in Mormon literature and/or by LDS authors. If you’re interested in contributing, email Jonathan Langford, AML blog coordinator, at jonathan AT motleyvision DOT org.

The Romance Writers of America defines genre romance thusly:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

To me, someone who’s been reading romance since I was 11 years old (or thereabouts), the above is a pretty broad and open-ended definition. I’m as steeped in genre romance protocols as I am Mormon culture, thus, being inside it, it’s hard to explain what is and is not genre romance.

The first real criteria is that the romance takes center stage: the meeting, the conflict (first internal, then external), the building of the relationship, the ritual death (aka black moment), and resolution. Yes, it’s true. The dirty little secret of romance is that you know the resolution going in: The couple winds up together, happily ever after (HEA).

Who knew.

Now, here’s what every romance reader knows: It’s not about the HEA. It’s about the meeting, the conflict, the building of the relationship, and the ritual death. In other words, it’s about the journey, not the destination. In fact, that’s what all genre fiction is about: The journey.

The constant complaint about romance (especially among those who don’t actually read it) is that it’s formulaic. Of course it is. So are mysteries. And thrillers. And horror. And science fiction/fantasy (especially if you have a grounding in Joseph Campbell).

Why is the word “formulaic” only applied to genre romance?

I’ll tell you why: Harlequin.

Harlequin has a brand, a brand they’ve successfully built and nurtured over the years. You know what you’re getting with a Harlequin. If you want sweet inspirationals, you buy Steeple Hill. If you want uber-alpha males and impoverished, somewhat powerless females, you buy Harlequin Presents. If you want paranormal, you buy Harlequin Nocturne. If you want sweet-to-steamy Americana, you buy Harlequin American Romance and, if those are too short for you, Superromance. There are 23 “lines” to choose from, each catering to a specific taste.  I think Harlequin is brilliant and more often than not, the books coming out of Harlequin are examples of some really good writing. It’s just that critics of the genre have never spent much (or any) time with the genre and so they assume it’s bad.

The next question is why is the word “formulaic” only applied to genre romance scathingly?

I’ll tell you why: Women.

It’s written by women for women, and, sad as I am to say this, I don’t foresee a day when women’s writing, women’s work, women’s interests, and women’s need for a happily ever after are valued as worth anything other than disdain.

Heaven forbid the romance writers of now be given the same respect and adoration Jane Austen is given simply because she’s dead, and who is now being claimed as the Mother of Romance.

Or A.S. Byatt, a contemporary author, wrote Possession, A Romance, which is as much a romance novel as anything else (look! it even has “a romance” right on the cover! and a happily ever after!), simply because it was marketed as literature and not romance.

Ultimately romance is about relationships. If one doesn’t want to read books about relationships and happily ever afters, that’s fine. But it distresses/amuses me when women pick up a romance, then complain about it being all about the relationship.

Yes. It is.

And the events that forged that relationship.

Next time: Romance 101: The more subtle elements of The Formula.

Moriah Jovan is the pen name for Elizabeth Beeton, who created B10 Mediaworx to publish herself. Since then, she’s put out two books of her own, The Proviso and Stay, and assisted in the publication of Peculiar Pages titles The Fob Bible and Out of the Mount. Her third book, Magdalene, will be available on April 24, 2011, and two more Peculiar Pages titles are coming in June and October. At the moment, she’s busy wading through Burke’s Peerage, figuring out the proper address of an Earl, and devouring books on the American Revolution.

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34 Responses to Stuff of Romance: Remedial Romance

  1. This is very interesting to me, as I don’t know much about the romance genre. Great post, and I’m looking forward to your series.

  2. Mary Walling says:

    I read Harlequin when I was a young girl. I loved them. I even watched a couple of their made for tv movies. I really like a good romance once in a while. Better yet a good historical romance mystery. I enjoyed this article very much and look forward to the next one.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thanks Stephanie and Mary. :) I hope I do it justice. It’s such a broad topic.

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    Back in grad school, I read an excellent critical essay about romance novels, feminism, and reader response theory. Unfortunately, I can’t remember either the author or the title at the moment! But she made a lot of excellent points about why romance (even formula romance) is actually a significant genre.

    I do think there’s something you’re missing in your evaluation of why Harlequin romances are considered “formulaic”: the fact that there really IS a formula controlled by the publisher. Unless every person who has told me about this formula was merely passing on an urban legend, there are apparently requirements for each type of romance that dictate what *kinds* of things have to happen, right down the page range they have to happen in. So no, the answer is not just “women.” Nor is a scathing response to a genre limited only to romance, as many, many sf&f readers/writers will tell you.

    I, too, have been reading romance novels since the age of 11. I’m reading one right now ( An Unlikely Countess by Jo Beverley). And I’m enjoying it. But it is in no way as well-written as any given book by Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. I just finished reading the first three Lensmen books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. The writing was in no way as good as any given book by C. J. Cherryh. As painful as it is, I think we have to acknowledge that when a genre’s readers regularly accept works (for the sake of reading more in their beloved genre) in which the writing is substandard, that genre is very likely to gain a poor literary reputation. And the similar history of disdain toward science fiction suggests to me, again, that the negative perception of romance isn’t exclusively about looking down on women.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    I do think there’s something you’re missing in your evaluation of why Harlequin romances are considered “formulaic”: the fact that there really IS a formula controlled by the publisher.

    Well, I guess I figured that once I pointed out that since a reader knows what to buy to get *exactly* what she wants because that’s what Harlequin has trained her to expect, then it could be assumed that there are strict editorial standards as to what does and does make the cut to support the brand. Yes, there are strict editorial standards re the formula. That’s why I called out Harlequin and its lines. My apologies for not stating that explicitly.

    But it is in no way as well-written as any given book by Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer.

    First, I don’t consider Jane Austen a romance writer. She’s being held up as the Mother of Romance in an attempt to, IMO, legitimize the genre, which I think is a reach. On the other hand, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his cronies weren’t very impressed with her and her damned scribbling women compatriots, either. So maybe she was the Jo Beverly of her time.

    Second, I didn’t say they were all equal to Austen, but to single out one modern romance and say, “This isn’t as good as Jane Austen” is a bit like comparing apples to Volkswagens (and not only that, but the 1972-1973 models with the auto-clutch).

    I just finished reading the first three Lensmen books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. The writing was in no way as good as any given book by C. J. Cherryh.

    I had to google them. They’re science fiction/fantasy, so…I’m really not understanding the correlation of those particular writers to genre romance, Jane Austen, or Georgette Heyer. Can you elaborate a little?

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    I think part of the idea is that fans enjoy the formula despite ordinary (or even occasionally painful) prose. Doc Smith was not a stylist in any way, but C.J. Cherryh is; yet Doc sold every bit as many copies as the far more literarily competent writer—and with a story type that made no pretense of artistic merit. Doc just wrote stories, man; fun, escapist stories designed to entertain, not to deeply explore existential questions.

    And yet…even Doc Smith’s stories asked and explored some very interesting (and even difficult) questions—they just did so with more emphasis on entertainment, pace, and imaginative events than interpretation and style.

    Points on the same continuum; different in many details, yet still evidently related at the level of reader expectation and some level of formula.

    (I’ll save my rant[s] on the fallacy of formula/formed writing for your next post in the series.)

  7. All writing is formulaic. Period. There are only five basic conflicts to any story. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Technology, Man vs. Fate and Man vs. Self.

    What makes a good book is how the author brings these themes to life and the characters who act out the story.

    Confession: Jane Austen is not the end all be all for me. She’s okay. Her work is entertaining, but does it move me to the depths of my soul? No. Is she the mother of romance? Definitely not.

    Stories about relationships are older than that. They’re older than the Bible. As long as people have been telling stories, they’ve been about relationships between us. Some romantic, some not. Ancient Sumerian creation myths focus on the romance and relationships between the gods and goddesses to form the world as do many creation myths around the world. Even the Christian creation myth focuses on Adam and Eve and their relationship.

    As to the question of feminism and the romance novel, the ever-talented Zoe Archer (if you haven’t read her, you should) had this to say:

    “Feminism is defined by its respect of other women’s choices
    It is not an ideology of convenience. Female identity and empowerment takes many forms. Deriding the choices of millions of women because it does not fit your conceptualization of feminism defeats the purpose of feminism.

    I am a romance novelist and I wear my feminist badge proudly. The two are not mutually exclusive, and to deem it so means that you misunderstand your own ethos.”

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    (I’ll save my rant[s] on the fallacy of formula/formed writing for your next post in the series.)

    Oooh! I can’t wait!

    Re storytelling versus…everything else. I have in mind a romance writer who is acclaimed loudly throughout the genre as writing gorgeous prose. That’s true. She does. But to me, she’s dead boring and besides that, her heroine (in the one book I read) was TSTL (too stupid to live), so the plot fell apart about halfway through. In my opinion, telling a compelling and cohesive story trumps gorgeous prose.

  9. “In my opinion, telling a compelling and cohesive story trumps gorgeous prose.”

    Amen! And a compelling and cohesive story about strong and interesting characters can “cover a multitude of [prose] sins.”

  10. C. M. Malm says:

    First, I don’t consider Jane Austen a romance writer.

    Not in the sense of being a formula romance writer. But her books are most certainly about getting the hero and heroine together, in spite of numerous obstacles, for a happily ever after ending. The one really notable exception is Emma, in which the heroine doesn’t even realize she’s in love with the hero until almost the end of the book. But I would consider Austen to be A mother (not necessarily THE mother) of the genre if for no other reason than that her work has inspired so many women to write romances.

    Scott Parkin has explained about E. E. “Doc” Smith and C. J. Cherryh, and he’s correct that style isn’t everything if you have an entertaining story to tell. But I think he’s missed the point that I was trying to make. Those who love a genre will love almost any entertaining story in that genre, regardless of literary merit. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But Moriah’s essay was complaining about how little respect the romance genre gets, and claiming that it’s because the primary readers (and writers) of the genre are women. My point was that SF (which has traditionally had more male than female readers) gets just as little respect, and for what I think are very similar reasons: a long tradition of books that, while vastly entertaining to their intended readers, are lacking in whatever “oomph” of style or theme it takes to be considered of literary merit.

  11. Scott Parkin says:

    Thanks for the clarification, C. It turns out that I riffed somewhat to the side of both you and Moriah in my reply. Continuing on my riff on what you said about what she said about what I said about what she said…

    I can’t speak for Romance because I’m not a reader in the genre. But the complaint that “my genre doesn’t get respect from the literary establishment” always falls a tad flat for me because the literary establishment hates everything—especially genres where fans like works for reasons other than literary merit (research, imagination, speculation, action, etc.). Those who worship style above everything else will always look down their nose at the rest of us.

    Fans will never get the validation they ask for—regardless of their chose genre (including literary-academic, btw)—because fans have an unreasonable expectation of what acceptance is. But that’s yet another rant for a future date.

    I guess I read the conversation a little differently than you (or at least I twanged off in a somewhat different direction than you did). I’m still twanging slightly off of what either of you are arguing.

    I understand frustration that a (the) primary complaint about Romance seems to be that it’s…well…Romance. Sort of like those who hate sf because it’s set in space or on alien worlds and has made-up stuff in it (don’t get me started on the Deseret News movie reviewer who hates all sf and automatically derides sf movies because they have sf in them—if only they’d take out the sf stuff, the movie might be interesting…).

    The idea that a highly structured story like a Harlequin Romance is obviously and inherently inferior because it’s structured (aka, formulaic) while at the same time lauding the works of dead authors who follow exactly the same formula, but who wrote as literateurs rather than contract authors begs a fair question—is there another element of those literary Romance authors that makes their work of greater literary value? The answer appears to be emphasis on prose density (or elegance or floridity) to the functional exclusion of the other elements of Romance story. The balance shifts toward technical competence rather than engaging story.

    Which always seems a little odd to the genre fan, because while the one is a bit harder to read, it’s still clearly a Romance because it clearly follows the formula. To then complain that the difference between Literature and Romance is adherence to a formula—when we can all map Austen directly to the formula—is at least a bit perplexing.

    (And while I understand resistance to a well-defined formula, the limits of the literary genres are no less stringent—just less formalized [aka, written down] and policed by a different approval board. The forms must be honored; the question is which forms and which elements of form do you value most.)

    It suggests that the literati are reacting to the lurid pink covers and the under-educated women who buy them rather than either the prose style or the story elements; which seems a distinctly non-academically valid way of making broad condemnations of entire classes for doing exactly what the beloved literary writers did.

    It just seems arbitrary, unfair, and more than a tad academically dishonest.

    In sf, the complaint that the entire genre lacks literary merit was largely blown up by the New Wave authors of the late 1950s and 1960s who wrote works of clear literary merit (Bradbury and Vonnegut remain active members of the literary canon), and who largely changed the game for sf for the next several decades. Even now, authors like Gaiman, McKillip, and Mieville get high marks for literary merit (as did Gene Wolfe before them).

    And yet sf itself is still decried as utterly devoid of literary merit because those few authors who appeal to the academy are not actually genre writers—they are literateurs who transcend the paltry conventions of their genre.

    I call baloney (or balogna if that’s your preference). Those of us who have been reading in the genres for our entire lives hear the quack and know it’s a duck—even if it is a particularly well-formed duck with a lovely, lovely voice. Not different in kind at all; only different in some details that don’t really mean much to many (most) readers.

    Which was sort of my point about Doc Smith; he wrote some stories with significant themes at least as well as more literary types (and with equivalent stylistic aplomb), but because he was “just” a genre writer (and content to be so) he never got the same credit that more overtly literary writers got for less skillful handlings—especially when the primary distinction seemed more a marketing gimmick than a legitimate qualitative or structure difference.

    Which is a shame not only for Doc and his fans, but for the academy that so blithely dismisses works that deserve serious readings because they think they can be assigned to a despised genre—that itself is based on precisely the elements they claim to admire in literary stories.

    My intent was less to point out that fans are style blind as to suggest that the distinctions between literary and plebian examples are often less extreme than critics would have us believe.

    It’s an argument that can’t be won, but it’s still fun to have now and again.

  12. Jonathan Langford says:

    To be fair, I’m not sure it’s the academics as such that are the chief sources of the problem, if by “academics” we mean those who are employed at universities to teach and study literature. Academics will and do study anything, including romance. The romance genre has a bad reputation across a broad population of those who don’t actually read the stuff — just as sf&f does.

    And I think in both cases it does have something to do with the stereotypes about those who read it. The notion of undereducated housewives who read romances in a desperate attempt to escape their boring lives (similar to the stereotype of soap opera viewers) is surely an unjust stereotype, just as is the stereotype of the asocial teenage male geek who reads sf&f because he/she lacks the skills to interact with others in the real world (though I admit to having been that geek, and having lacked social skills — and having learned a lot about living through the fiction I read). Similarly the stereotype of the sneering academic whose dry, empty life is validated by reading dry, empty, pointless and plotless stories in literary magazines about other people with equally empty lives.

    Stereotypes about genre readers center in part around assumptions and arguments about the interaction between genre fans and the stories they read. In all three cases I mentioned above, there’s a notion that the literature in some ways caters to or enables presumably unhealthy behavior. And the criticisms sting because there’s an element of truth to them. Sf&f geeks often are more than usually socially clueless as adolescents, and academics can be better at theorizing about life than acting effectively. (“Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach” is one formulation of the stereotype; more fond of questions than of their answers, is I believe the way that Boyd K. Packer put it.) I can’t speak to stereotypes about romance readers, because it’s not a group I belong to. My point, though, is that what leaves readers of every genre enraged (and rightly so) is analyses (academic or otherwise) that describe their reading habits as a pathology. And yet in some cases clearly they are, or can become part of, or at least rub shoulders with, questionable patterns of social/personal behavior.

    It’s an interesting question, whether (for example) reading stories about the empowerment of adolescents who don’t fit in with their peers (a very common sf&f theme) reinforces a lack of social skills among its readers or actually helps them to develop socially and personally. I tend to the latter viewpoint (along with Bettelheim, among others). In fact, I wrote a whole master’s thesis around the premise that the coming-of-age stories in The Lord of the Rings could assist its (especially adolescent) readers in their own coming of age. Even if true, however, such an argument can in turn become a point of sneering, as it supports the notion of sf&f as an adolescent and hence “immature” genre. My personal response is to shrug my shoulders and say that in the Mormon view of things, all of us on earth are adolescents. Indeed, in an eternal scheme of things we may ultimately discover that fiction of all kinds (reading and writing it) is an adolescent enterprise. I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m tempted to point out that resentment of being called adolescent is itself an adolescent behavior. But I digress.

    Or maybe not, since along with being called unhealthy, I think one of the things that torques off romance readers and sf&f readers both is being called immature because of what we read, and the notion that other literary genres are inherently more mature. And to be honest, I do think that obsessive reading in any genre — the type of thing C. M. Malm describes, and that I cheerfully admit to in myself — is probably inherently immature, as is obsessive behavior of many different types. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, though it can, I think, become a bad thing (and sometimes has for me).

    My final thought here is a partial response to Scott Parkin’s comment about fiction being looked down on because it adheres to the conventions of a genre. It’s my sense that in general, works of fiction aren’t looked down on because they adhere to those conventions, but rather because they don’t seem to do anything more than that. The notion is that there’s nothing there but the conventions, plus a little window dressing. Hence the insult of calling it a “formula.” If there’s nothing that surprises, nothing that seems to strain against the boundaries of the genre, then the work is seen as inferior. I’m not going to argue here about whether that’s a justifiable reaction, but I will say that I think this is a pretty universal way of looking at these things, independent of genre.

    Part of the problem is that readers who aren’t trained in a particular genre’s conventions may not see where the innovations come. Nowadays, for example, we tend to overlook one of the central innovations of The Lord of the Rings: that unlike the stereotypical quest story, it winds up being about losing a treasure at great cost, not gaining one. In some ways, it’s almost an anti-quest story. I’ve also seen it argued that in fantasy literature, the stereotypes are the surface structure and the realistic details are the deep structure (a reversal of the way of the way it is in realistic literature), which opens up a host of interesting possibilities for literary analysis. In science fiction, a high value is placed on the quality of the social/scientific speculation — something that’s not part of traditional frameworks for literary criticism, and that therefore doesn’t hit the radar of some critics (though science fiction has now developed a healthy critical tradition of its own, and a fair degree of academic respectability). I don’t know the romance genre well enough to know what constitutes innovation/creativity in that field, but suspect that similarly there are some things there that romance readers see that outsiders don’t.

    All of which goes back to the notion that not all literature is trying to accomplish the same thing, and therefore should not all be judged by the same sets of standards or analyzed using the same precise set of tools. I think, however, that it is legitimate to talk about the interaction (healthy, unhealthy, or both) between a genre and its readership base. The problem is that such discussions can so easily become exercises in mutual name-calling.

    Anyway, fascinating stuff. Thanks, Moriah, for opening up the can of worms…

  13. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thanks, Moriah, for opening up the can of worms…

    I’m magnifying my talents.

    Scott’s notation about romance covers is right on. That’s a problem. However, it’s a problem of men’s making because, at the beginning of the mass marketing of romance as, well, what it is now, the book salesmen were males selling to male booksellers. The male booksellers liked the lurid covers (and not a Boris Vallejo painting amongst them, either!), so it stuck because now the covers are encoded. You see a certain type of cover (even if it doesn’t have the stereotypical art) and you can just tell what it is. The squawkings amongst the academics who actually do read and study romance are mostly about the covers because they camouflage the true artistry behind marketability and consumer cues. I personally have never been ashamed to have a romance cover in public, but I’ll tell you what–having an e-reader sure makes my life a lot easier.

    Now. About immaturity and pathology. Jonathan, as I read your comment, I was thinking about a married couple I knew in Provo. They were a lot older than me, total misfits in every stereotypical scifi/fantasy way, didn’t have any children, and hung out playing Dungeons & Dragons with a bunch of kids half their age. (Erm, did the D&D reference date me?) They invited me along one day and I just couldn’t get the whole D&D think for anything, but it was nice to have been invited and they were all nice people.

    I did wonder why married people that age were hanging around doing this, but then I thought, “Why do any of us do anything?” They had jobs, they had a decent life, they loved each other, and they shared this hobby. So what? Is it immature? Not for me to say. Why do people spend their lives participating in Ren Faire and SCA and the Highland Games and then turn Irish on March 17?

    When it comes right down to it, there’s a reason superhero and fantasy movies make so much money, and it’s not because these otherworldly tales of derring do are confined to the realm of immaturity and pathology.

  14. Scott Parkin says:

    Part of the problem is that readers who aren’t trained in a particular genre’s conventions may not see where the innovations come.

    This probably formulates my meander most effectively, and dovetails with my (admittedly uncharitable) commentary on so-called “literary-academic” work.

    What gets me is not the attitude itself—everyone should have their own preferences and spend effort to formulate and express the reasons for those preferences—but there seems to be a regular logical inconsistency where a literary author is lauded for telling a story identical in most ways to a story told many times already in the genres.

    The example of Contact that Dan Wells offered in his post is a fine example. It’s a perfectly adequate novel, but it breaks absolutely no new ground either in terms of literary style or complexity, or in terms of new ideas or viewpoints. Yet it received plaudits for raising those very old ideas—apparently because Sagan was a “real” scientist and not just a genre scribbler. (Don’t get me started on A Handmaid’s Tale…)

    I admit freely that I may only be remembering the examples that stuck in my craw and that there are thousands of examples of genre authors getting broader critical credit for innovating those story structures and ideas. It’s a common fan reaction to feel besieged by a faceless academy that doesn’t appreciate their passion.

    But I do hold the critical press to a higher standard because they should know better—it’s their focus and area of expertise to have actually read something of the genres they dismiss (especially when they laud clear genre stories produced by non-genre authors).

    My mother in law reads formula Romances at an alarming rate, and my wife reads a lot of crossover novels (romance/supernatural, romance/fantasy, romance/horror). Neither of them fits the stereotype—one runs a educational resource lending library, and the other works in academic publishing—but both are unabashed fans of the categories. Neither would be considered eccentric by much of anyone, and they certainly don’t fit the stereotype.

    (I admit to limited experience here. While I know many who would fit the sf stereotypes from D&D parties to Spock ears and costumes, I also know them to be smart, passionate people who are comfortable with their enthusiasm for certain ideas. Interesting how wine freaks are considered connoisseurs, but sf freaks are considered malcontents and Romance freaks are considered misfits. Interesting how the Ayn Rand freaks are apparently viewed as the intellectual elite.)

    Of course people tend to cut those who share their passions a lot more slack; if I don’t share the enthusiasm, it seems alien and wrong. I can’t ask anyone to accept my passion, but I can ask them to understand it—and with understanding, to offer less condemnation and division.

    Which is why pronouncements from the critical and academic press about the broad fitness of genre fiction seems more hurtful. To me, at least.

  15. Moriah Jovan says:

    Romance freaks are considered misfits…

    Not misfits. Lonely, uneducated old cat ladies who’ve never been married and are not fit to have a real relationship with a man.

    Ayn Rand freaks are apparently viewed as the intellectual elite.

    BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! No. Brainwashed cultists, on a par with those Mormons.

    Fortunately for me, I’ve apparently been able to meld Romance, Objectivism, and Mormonism into some cohesive brain candy that people actually like. So a-myth-bustin’ I do go.

    I’m really actually used to the slams on Romance and don’t really mind them too much. What upsets me is when Romance is misdefined and then slammed on the basis that it is X, when it is, in fact, NOT X. I don’t remember where in my internet travels I read this, but someone said something like, “I really don’t like it when I pick up a romance and it’s just all about the relationship.”

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Admittedly, it’s hard to understand how anyone could think that romance *wouldn’t* be about the relationships… Kind of like criticizing a science fiction story for including, you know, science.

  16. C. M. Malm says:

    sf freaks are considered malcontents and Romance freaks are considered misfits

    Actually, I would reverse those two. I think SF freaks are considered misfits (unable to be socially “normal”), while Romance freaks are considered malcontents (dissatisfied with their relationships–or lack thereof–with ordinary men). Both are stereotypes with a highly visible sliver of truth (as Jonathan said), and yet you’d find many, many examples of readers in those genres who don’t really fit those stereotypes. Where, in that stereotype of Romance readers, would one find a place for either Moriah or me at age 11, happily reading Harlequins? How does one explain, based on that stereotype, that the vast majority of Romance readers have always tended to be happily married women? (This was, I believe, one of the facts that came out in the critical research I referenced in my first post.) Is the desire to read about “happily ever after” pathological because it isn’t encountered very often in undiluted fashion in the real world?

    You know, I have to wonder if that’s a key, right there. Because there’s a “happily ever after” element in a lot of SF&F. Good wins; evil falls. As I think more about it, though, in most of the SF that is considered truly “literary,” there is no “happily ever after.” And, following that idea further still, the vast majority of what is held up to us as “literary” does not have any “happily ever after”; often it’s just the opposite. So maybe I did ask the right question in the last paragraph: do the arbiters of “good writing” in our society view the desire for a happy ending as pathological?

    I’m really enjoying everyone’s input on this, and the interesting directions the conversation has gone. :~)

  17. Moriah Jovan says:

    …do the arbiters of “good writing” in our society view the desire for a happy ending as pathological?

    Well…there’s Oprah’s list. She’s completely allergic to a happy ending. And she’s not too keen on women writers, either.

  18. Wm Morris says:

    “but there seems to be a regular logical inconsistency where a literary author is lauded for telling a story identical in most ways to a story told many times already in the genres.”

    This is precisely the issue I have with McCarthy’s “The Road” — but I’ve already said that many times.

    But I’d like to push back a little on the academic bashing here. I don’t doubt that Scott and others have encountered sneering, but just like one shouldn’t stereotype Romance readers or SF&F fans, one also shouldn’t condense what is a huge messy field to the appellation “literary-academic.”

    The reality is that academics tend to reward (e.g. write and teach about) works that lend themselves to interpretation because this is how they justify the reading and study of fiction as an academic discipline. In addition, as various critical theories trend and then wane certain types of literature are privileged or lose that privilege. That’s the nature of academic disciplines.

    The rise of women studies and cultural studies as well as the trend away from theory-as-theory and back towards the context surrounding a novel (historicism) have all opened up the discipline more towards genre.

    Of course, modernism and literary realism still dominates. And I completely agree with the frustration over literary authors who dabble in genre without understanding it and then get lauded for it. So I’m not disagreeing with the points made so far so much as pointing out that it goes both ways.

    I’d also say that it’s a pity that the genres themselves often marginalize those works that deal more with style and ambiguity. I find the cult of transparent prose as tiresome as the cult of High Literature.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Guilty on the charge of doing unto others what (I believe) they have done unto me. Which doesn’t excuse my boorishness, but I hope explains a little of my frustration. I do know better, and I apologize.

      I agree that the actual academy tends to be far less condemning than they’re reputed to be. We all had one professor who couldn’t stand stories that we though good, and we’ve nursed that grudge for years because that person was in authority at the time, and thus became the symbol of all authority.

      Actually, my misplaced ire is more fairly directed at two classes of commentators: pop reviewers who justify their biases as unquestioned literary doctrine that any true literateur should understand; and non-literary types who do pretty much the same thing—neither of whom actually represent the academy. As much as I appreciate New York critical press, there has been a strong bias for years that remains stuck in my craw precisely because it condemns stories I consider worthy while lauding stories I consider adequate for reasons I consider irrelevant.

      While I read fairly broadly, my home genre remains sf (by which I mean the broader set of mytho-poeic stories; science fiction, fantasy, horror, myth, supernatural). As with any genre, the large tent breaks down into many, many smaller ones—a consistency across nearly all genres, I think—each with their specific fans.

      In sf, for example, you have the mannerpunk authors who focus almost exclusively on comedies of manners with an emphasis on social convention and florid descriptions of how characters dress (analogous, I believe, to Regency romances). Not my thing, but I can understand the draw even if I can’t participate in the fandom. Same with military fantasy (Chronicles of Scar, etc.) that offers excruciating detail on medieval battle tactics at both the individual and field level, with a fairly limited frame story to connect the various battles.

      One such subgenre of sf is the poetic fantasies of authors like Patricia McKillip. These are beautifully written stories that focus on elegant prose and rich description using distinctly poetic language—language that I believe competes favorably with non-genre stylists. They tend to be “small” stories (rather than epics) that focus on a limited cast and context. It’s not a large market, but it is an intensely loyal one that keeps a fairly large set of authors working.

      I think part of the conflation that many of us experience is the pop press operating as shills for whatever the next “big” book is from a particular publisher being mistaken as the institutional or academic press. In other words, marketing masquerading as criticism.

      Heaven knows, I understand the idea. I write technical white papers where I take a company’s lead product as the model, then propose an industry best practice based on the specific capabilities of that product—creating practice models founded on product features, not underlying theory. I justify an unnamed product’s features by showing how it meets a selected set of theoretical goals, using generalized language that leads readers to conclude that this one specific product is, therefore, superior at meeting those goals. I don’t point out competing goals or products (except to shoot them down), and I make no effort to present equally valid models that use different tools and practices.

      It’s marketing, pure and simple. But it takes the form of concept innovation or thought leadership. Propose a model, then nudge people to discover the small handful of products that best address your model. Marketing disguised as research.

      Which is a bit of a veer from the original discussion, but which helps clarify some of my own tendency to conflate reviewers with the academy; the form of research with little of the underlying study.

      The problem is that we all want universal acceptance for our own particular interests, but the market isn’t set up that way. Those of us who try to cross categories end up being frustrated when the exclusive language of the genres (that’s designed to justify that particular genre at the expense of others) interferes with a more neutral exploration.

      It may be a problem that can’t be solved, but I still think it’s worth trying anyway.

      Happily-ever-after may not reflect all the realities of life, but the search for hope is a worthy goal. I think we’re all better off with a balanced literary diet, but I can’t hold it against anyone when they choose to seek hope (or style, or intrigue) in the free time between experiencing a life that tends more toward the hopeless (or bland, or boring) side of the spectrum. Being reminded of a hopeful possibility can give many of us energy to deal with a far more mundane reality (and far better than letting our hope be snuffed out by fear or ugly experience—the parable of the talents leaps to mind).

      Is that a crutch? Sure. Like any tool it can justify stasis or catalyze growth. Or it can just entertain with no other strings attached—all of which seem like fair values to be sought in literature, and none of them necessarily exclusive.

      Which no one here argued against; it’s just where the thought led.

      • Wm Morris says:

        Agreed on all points. This is also why I’m not as interested as I once was in any notion of literary respectability and instead am interested in finding the cool, cross-category, sub-sub-genre experiments. At one point I looked at my list on GoodReads and was a bit embarrassed by all the three and four stars. But then I took a closer look and realized that the reasons for them is that I had found some people who could steer me to titles that suit my sensibilities (and are just plain good). The two star titles (esp. in SF&F) tended to be me pulling something off the shelf at the library and thinking, eh, it doesn’t look too bad. Usually it is.

  19. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’d also say that it’s a pity that the genres themselves often marginalize those works that deal more with style and ambiguity.

    Probably because ambiguity doesn’t give the payoff that reading genre delivers consistently. I mean, there’s a reason people read “formulaic” stuff and that’s because they get the payoff they want at the end. Style (the stuff in between) is another issue.

    As for style and quality of prose and storytelling, I will say that Romance is totally hampered by the lackluster sameness of the covers and titles. It’s maddening for someone like me, who really wants the meaty reads with the HEA to know that somewhere in that sea of heaving bosoms and Fabio and his successors, somewhere in that sea of interchangeable titles, is some truly fine writing. But how do I ferret it out? And I’m a lifelong Romance reader! If *I* can’t do it, how will a newbie? Or, worse, a critic?

    I can think of one brilliant author who was hidden behind Fabio in the past (Laura Kinsale) and who is now hidden behind inane little landscapes. I can think of another brilliant author (Judith Ivory) who’s hidden behind wimpy little floral arrangements. There are more examples; those are just the ones that are most frustrating to me at the moment.

    • Wm Morris says:

      I hear you on the covers. Same problem exists with fantasy, even the stuff that’s darker and more literary.

      And I think that’s an important point about ambiguity. I don’t mind some of it, but I find that a steady diet of it drives me up the wall. At some point, I’m like
      “just take a stand already — you’re not being literary, you’re just being afraid to throw a punch.”

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I once offered a glib suggestion that literary fiction attempts to ask questions well, and genre fiction attempts to answer those questions. Thus the fundamental divide because the first and most basic goals are essentially incompatible.

      Inherent in that idea is that literary readers often seek the clever turn of phrase, the elegant formation of idea or concept, interesting structural presentation, and characters with unique viewpoints founded in recognizable experience. Because the goal is to explore a setting, characters, and situation sufficiently to distill out one or more existential questions—questions that by their nature are intended to spur introspection in the reader, not to suggest an answer—the genre attempt to answer those questions seems small minded and narrow, and completely misses the fundamental goal they seek in literature.

      Likewise, because genre readers seek vicarious experience and methods of dealing with those questions in a real, pragmatic sense the question seems like a starting point not an end unto itself. Thus the complaint by many genre readers of style without substance, and stories ending right when they started to get interesting. Genre writers accept the question as already asked and spend little time exploring its nuances as a question—only the nuances of solution.

      Those of us who live in both worlds often move (relatively) easily across those boundaries and seem confused that other don’t do the same. Which is why the palid genre story that gets literary plaudits is so annoying—yes, it meets the goals of literary readers, but so does this genre story over here that meets not only the literary goal but the genre goal as well. Because the genre elements are too evident, the literary-only reader’s automatic defense rises, and the worthy genre story is rejected out of hand.

      The same happens in reverse. Genre readers have learned to mistrust too evident a style or too complex a presentation because those stories so often unsatisfactorily address an answer to the question.

      It takes time and effort to train each audience to learn not to have a gag reflex. It does seem to be happening more often, and oddly the the rise of the ebook may actually hasten the breakdown of traditional classifications and lead to a more broadly read (or at least broadly exposed) readership.

      I can only hope, because there are so many good stories being told by authors in places we would never think to look.

      • Katya says:

        I once offered a glib suggestion that literary fiction attempts to ask questions well, and genre fiction attempts to answer those questions. . . . Genre writers accept the question as already asked and spend little time exploring its nuances as a question—only the nuances of solution.

        Can you offer some examples of this? In my experience, science fiction is an ideal format for exploring questions of self and humanity, because you can create characters who challenge those concepts (e.g., aliens, androids, clones). Likewise, fantasy often explores questions of how we define goodness and morality.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Obviously I’m not Scott, but I’ll attempt a partial answer related to the field of fantasy.

          In classic fantasy a la Tolkien, Le Guin, Donaldson, etc., there’s typically little doubt as to who the good guys and bad guys are. I agree that there can be some marvelous exploration of what good and bad mean, through exploring actions and their consequences, but it’s in the context of answers to such questions being both knowable and known. When Eomer complains, “The world is all grown strange…. How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragon replies: “As he ever has judged… Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

          In literary fiction, by contrast, the very concept of good guys and bad guys is problematic. It’s very easy to imagine a literary story that started with characters labeled “good” and “bad” but then wound up exploring the complexities of their behavior so that at the end, we were left pondering which ones really were the good guys and which were the bad guys. And readers of literary fiction would be inclined to see this ambiguity as a positive thing, whereas I daresay most fantasy readers would find such a story quite dissatisfying.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          It’s very easy to imagine a literary story that started with characters labeled “good” and “bad” but then wound up exploring the complexities of their behavior so that at the end, we were left pondering which ones really were the good guys and which were the bad guys. And readers of literary fiction would be inclined to see this ambiguity as a positive thing, whereas I daresay most fantasy readers would find such a story quite dissatisfying.

          I have to admit I’m partial to this little trick. I even used it in The Proviso to a little extent: The “villain” who gets all the stage time isn’t really the villain. And he wasn’t always that way. He has complexities that have at least one member of the Good Guy Team unwilling to totally write him off (until he crosses her line in the sand). She loves him; he loves her. Additionally, the Good Guy Team has one member of it who’s done the Unforgivable, and can actually empathize with one thing the villain did, so it’s not as if any of these people are wholly good or wholly evil.

          Thus, my goal was to create a villain who’s actually likable and, in fact, my readers do like him for the most part. It’s just that…he’s not really the villain and the real villain says about 20 words, and so I didn’t really meet my goal.

          Wholly good and/or wholly evil is boring. But even I couldn’t make my true villain NOT wholly evil. I just did a good camouflage job.

        • Katya says:

          It’s very easy to imagine a literary story that started with characters labeled “good” and “bad” but then wound up exploring the complexities of their behavior so that at the end, we were left pondering which ones really were the good guys and which were the bad guys.

          Yes, this is easy to imagine. But I want an example, anyway. :)

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          (Responding to Katya): Sorry, but the truth is that I’m simply not as well read in literary fiction as genre fiction. So while I may have read such a story in the past, I’m having a hard time coming up with one that illustrates the specific scenario I described.

        • Katya says:

          Fair enough. Maybe I’ll scour TV Tropes and see if I can come up with anything that approximates the phenomenon you’re talking about.

  20. Moriah Jovan says:

    It does seem to be happening more often, and oddly the the rise of the ebook may actually hasten the breakdown of traditional classifications and lead to a more broadly read (or at least broadly exposed) readership.

    I hope so. I’m finding more and more self-publishing compatriots who are really good writers, but are self-publishing because they can’t figure out how to classify their work. They can write a good blurb, let the consumer read a chapter or two, and rely less (or not at all) on where it goes on the shelf. The consumer can make those decisions…or not.

  21. Th. says:


    Wow. I just read all this and now I’m exhausted.

    I grew up reading mysteries then, in high school, switched to sf/f. Then I abandoned the genres entirely and I’m not quite sure why. I don’t dislike them. I suspect I’m just not the person Moriah talks about who wants a specific payoff each time they read. I find unadorned formula unbearable. But, on the other hand, I read books all the time within and without specific genres where I know the ending from the beginning yet I’m no dissatisfied because — again, as Moriah said — “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. So it’s not the simplicity of the formula I find tiring, but the lack of complexity in the telling. This issue comes up in literary fiction as well, of course, but I find it interesting that I find lit rags to have a higher average pay off than, say, Asimov’s which, although it had some great stories, disappointed me far more often than does, say, One Story.

    Which is not to disparage science fiction. I think sf is as open or more open to litfic stylings than litfic is to sf formulas, even if I myself end up seeing more of the latter.

  22. Moriah Jovan says:

    I suspect I’m just not the person Moriah talks about who wants a specific payoff each time they read.

    This might be tangential, but it’s something I found interesting the last couple of days:

    1. I’m compiling and publishing a book of short stories for one of my clients. One of them appeared in a 1950s anthology and was written in second person (past tense). It was an exquisite story and I loved it. But…there was no resolution and it was depressing as hell. So…I liked it, but there was no real payoff, and I was bummed after reading it. Basically, I don’t want to read too much of that.

    2. My husband this morning finished a short story by Stephen King and he was really mad because the end was so ambiguous. He said, “I want to read the rest of the story.” I said, “That was the whole story.” He said, “I know, but I still want to read the rest of the story.” My husband’s a casual reader at best (i.e., in the bathroom) and not only did he not get a payoff that satisfied him, he didn’t get ANY payoff at all.

    I’m inclined to believe that a majority of readers want some kind of resolution and/or payoff. More often than not in the literary stuff I read (and yes, I do read quite a bit of it), there just…isn’t one. Or the other.

  23. Th. says:


    I don’t see resolution as equal to payoff. But the bell rang so I’ll have to explain later.

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