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.