Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Genre With No Name

I'll step back a bit today from SF to comment on a broader question that I alluded to in my first (real) post. There is a genre of fiction that most of you probably read if you are visiting this site. Taken as a whole it sells like hotcakes, filling a lot more shelf space at your local Barnes & Noble than mainstream fiction does. Yet it has no name - at least no familiar name that clearly refers to it - and most people who read it don't know that it exists.

No, not rocketpunk - that doesn't fill any of the shelves yet (though a lot of SF is arguably rocketpunk without knowing it). And rocketpunk has a clear, unambiguous name, even if I only just re-coined it a few weeks ago.

In truth the nameless genre does have a name, instantly familiar too - but while it more or less retains its original meaning in literary history, the name has shifted enough that in popular usage it only refers to one subgenre of itself. Give up yet? The genre with no name is Romance.

Romance in the usual sense - the kind that gets even less respect than science fiction, but sells a lot more books* - is a legitimate and long-standing subgenre of the true, broader Romance genre, going right back to the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle. Or at least to Chretien de Troyes, who reworked Welsh and Breton tales, via Geoffrey of Monmouth's fake history, into the gold standard of Western schlock lit ever since.

* I've seen a plausible claim that more science fiction is now being sold as "futuristic romance" than as SF.
Though part of Romance in the broad sense, boy meets girl is only part - the boy generally has to slay a dragon or two along the way, or elude the Cardinal's guards, or zap a few enemy spaceships. Only quite recently have the girls been allowed to slay dragons themselves, a notable enrichment of the genre. Science fiction is a subgenre of Romance, as are fantasy, mysteries, and really most of what people read for sheer pleasure rather than because they think they should.

Literary fiction, so called, is hardly ever Romance these days, though at one time nearly all of it was. They parted ways early in the last century -I would pinpoint the moment of split with one book, A Farewell to Arms. Here is a perfectly good Romance - but because it was the 1920s, and Hemingway, Cat Barkley has to get run over by a bus on the last page. (That book didn't bounce off the wall - it burned up from atmospheric friction before getting there.)

So, what exactly is Romance? According to Debra Doyle - who rudely wrote a fine essay on the subject before I could get around to it -
The dictionary definition of "romance" as a genre is: "a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious" (which is sort of right, though the "remote in time or place" clause oversimplifies a much more complex quality of removal from everyday reality.)
Romance doesn't have to happen in a galaxy far away, or in the Middle Ages. It can happen in Los Angeles - but the LA of Chandler and his successors, not the ordinary, everyday LA of creeping along the 405 at five mph. The freeway may not go any faster in Romance, but waiting at the end of your offramp are some plug-uglies, or a dangerous dame, or both.

Now that you know what genre you've been reading all these years, why does it matter to anyone but lit geeks? Doyle got to that first, too: It is a question of literary standards and expectations, which boil down to realism. The realism at issue here is not the sort we genre writers labor over - how to array footmen to stand up to a mounted charge, how a lady lets a gentleman know of her interest without risking scandal, or what orbits are practical for a ship with arc-jet plasma drive.

The question is about how realistic the characters and situations are expected to be. Characters in Romance are a bit (sometimes a lot) larger than life. They aren't ordinary schmucks, as has been the fashion in much Serious Lit in recent times. The settings and situations are also not quite ordinary, because Romance essentially takes place in Faerie, or at least its outskirts. The days are a bit brighter, the fields a bit greener, the slums a bit slummier.

Romance, therefore, cannot - and should not - be judged by the same critical standards as mainstream and literary fiction. It will never pass those tests, and as Doyle points out, will not be the better for trying. It has its own set of standards. What those standards are I'll leave for another post, or more likely many posts, because the standards for Romance literature have largely been either forgotten or never yet worked out. Still they exist, and it would be good for us to understand them.


Nyrath the nearly wise said...

Yes, romance is slightly more popular than SF the way an atomic bomb is slightly more destructive than a firecracker. Go to any used book store. Generally there may be half a row of used SF books, while there are entire walls full of romance novels.

And this isn't even counting the stealth romance novels you refer to.

Rick said...

I've seen figures that from 40 to 60 percent of all fiction published is romance (in the modern familiar sense), and about 4 percent of those are "futuristic romances," i.e., with SF elements. I wouldn't call them steath, though - they're published by romance lines, and shelved in the romance section.

"Official" SF, if I recall correctly (I couldn't find the original link) is about 2 percent of fiction; fantasy is 4 percent. If the above figures are valid, "futuristic romances" are 2-3 percent of all fiction - at least as much as self-proclaimed SF, and perhaps half again more.

And this isn't including books sold as SF and recognized as such within the SF community - most notably Bujold's Miles Vorkisigan (sp?) books - that have substantial romance elements.

But the broad, original sense of Romance must make 75 percent or more of all published fiction - to romance in the usual sense, add SF/F, mysteries, Westerns, technothrillers, and in fact all of what are usually called "the genres."

This should be the least of surprises. If people are reading for pleasure, by and large they don't want to read about characters living everyday lives more or less like their own - they're reading for escape, or at any rate for fun.

But for writers it means that a lot of the advice being peddled is just plain wrong, because Romance - in the broad sense, including SF - has a different set of critical standards and reader expectations than Realistic [TM] mainstream fiction does.

Carla said...

I'd like to reclaim Romance with a capital letter for the old meaning, in the sense that El Cid is a romance and John Buchan wrote romances. It was still being used in that sense in the 60s, which isn't quite beyond living memory :-) That's what I want to read, but it hides in all sorts of places and under all sorts of names. But I think the boy-meets-girl-and-lives-HEA has taken over the term completely.

Rick said...

Carla - you can see that that's exactly what I am trying to do, at least within the confines of this blog. Our chances of persuading the wider world to do so are, alas, fairly precisely zero.

It's unfortunate, not only for clarity of usage, but because I agree with Doyle that "the genres" AKA Romance have shared basic critical standards that hardly ever get discussed.

Linda C. McCabe said...


I agree with you that the classical definition of romance is far from what the current genre of romance has become.

I'm in the edit/polish phase of a novel which fits your description of a classic romance where there are larger than life characters who fall in love and slay magical beasts. The distinguishing difference is that there is not the guarantee that it will end with a Happily Ever After ending.

Romeo and Juliet didn't end happily, but that love story is a classic, as is the Arthur/Guinevere storyline. I mention that because recently I was at a writers conference and pitched my story to some agents. One kept trying to pigeonhole my story while I was describing it to her. Once she settled on classifying it as a romance she insisted that it have a happy ending, because that is what the genre demands.

I tried to help her recognize that my story was more in the vein of Tristan and Isolde.

I think once I finish my rewrites and polishing that I'll use the term "love story" and fantasy more than I will romance because I do not want any other agents (or editors) to immediately jump to a similar conclusion that it must have a happy ending.

Because thankfully, not all story lines end happily. Life would be far less interesting if you always knew that a story had to end in a pre-determined manner.


Rick said...

Yes - in contemporary marketing terms you have to peddle your story as fantasy, with a love-story element, rather than "romance." I don't follow romance-in-the-current-sense, but my impression is that the Happily Ever After ending is just about mandatory, so much so that it's abbreviated to HEA.

In fact, downbeat endings seem very much out of fashion even in Romance-in-the-broader- sense. The Hollywood ending is pretty general, perhaps because we're bombarded with so much real-world news, most of it bad.

(Note how Tragedy in the classical sense has essentially vanished - the word now just means "something sad happened," and I can't think off-hand of any familiar modern work that is true tragedy, a hero undone by a tragic flaw, etc.)

In spite of the dragons, you might also consider lit-fic markets, where downbeat remains somewhat the convention.

As an aside, one of my little hobbyhorses is that "Casablanca" is a perfectly done happy-ending version of the Arthur story:

... you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life ... we'll always have Paris

So Guinevere goes back to Arthur, who with true nobility accepts what happened, while Lancelot and Gawain go off to slay a few dragons.