Michille: Definitions of the Romance Novel

booksThe shake up with RWA and the ethics debacle, or in Elizabeth’s word the implosion, has injected the romance-writing community with some extra energy right now. At least as far as discussions related to the genre. Romance Scholar Digest is having an interesting discussion regarding the definitions of the romance novel. Eric Selinger shared in an email that there’s an ongoing discussion on Twitter about the need for some linkable definition of the romance genre that doesn’t rely on the RWA, which has led to an interest in a compendium (with citations) of definitions that have been offered of the genre by various hands, scholarly and authorial and industrial, etc. I’m not on Twitter so I’m getting my information from a Romance Scholar Digest email thread. Eric is considering putting them up at the IASPR site or in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS), which I would look forward to. The Teach Me Tonight blog has a list of definitions compiled by Laura Vivanco, some of which I’ve included here.

As we are all romance writers here on 8LW (along with some other genres), and we’ve been discussing RWA, I’ll start with that definition:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
• A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around 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.

This sounds like such an inclusive definition, but as many of are aware, RWA is struggling mightily with inclusivity.

When I was working on my master’s thesis, I used Pam Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) to structure my story. I like her definition from that book (updated from an essay she published in 2011):

The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists (‘protagonists’ replaces ‘heroines’ in her original definition, to include m/m, f/f, and ménage romance novels). All romance novels contain eight narrative elements: a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform; the meeting between the heroine and hero; an account of their attraction for each other; the barrier between them; the point of ritual death; the recognition that fells the barrier; the declaration of heroine and hero that they love each other; and their betrothal.

I imagine she updated the hero/heroine language, too, to allow for alternatives to the m/f only.

Kate Moore’s opinion is that the action/interaction/plot of the romance must transform the characters. She notes that works like Gone with the Wind, which includes a “love” story are not romance because something else, like war or hardship, transforms the characters rather than their interaction with one another. I agree with her on this. I suppose I could say GWTW is romantic, but not a romance, IMO. I have discussions with friends about this too. One of the definitions I saw when noodling around on the web for this post talked about the requirement that the characters be alive at the end. I COMPLETETLY agree with that. Love Story, The Notebook, and Me Before You fall into this category for me – not romance novels. I’m sure there are people who disagree with me on this because they are housed in the romance section of the bookstore.

Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (2012) defines a romance novel as “a love story in which the central focus is on the development and satisfactory resolution of the love relationship between the two main characters, written in such a way as to provide the reader with some degree of vicarious emotional participation in the courtship process.” Not a bad definition and keeps the door open for all kinds of stories, although I would scratch the word ‘two’ from the definition as I have read a couple stories with three people in the relationship who end up with the HEA for all of them together.

In general, I think the message in a romance is love conquers all, but that’s more theme than definition. What are your thoughts on the definition of the romance novel?

5 thoughts on “Michille: Definitions of the Romance Novel

  1. “a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform”
    This is the first time I’ve seen this linked to the romance novel, and it’s really quite interesting. I’m not sure if it’s true, or if it’s always a conscious goal of the romance writer. My all-time favorite romance is *Bet Me*, and there, society isn’t really that corrupt, but the families are dysfunctional and the two protags will create a new family that solves that corruption.

    In *Pride and Prejudice*, the corruption and the cure seem to be the same — vicious gossip ruins a naughty girl’s reputation (Lydia), and threatens the reputations of her sisters. But on the other hand, if vicious gossip had spread the word about Wickham, Lydia would have been better protected.

    I’m really going to have to think about this one, and how it applies to my stories. What exactly is love conquering in my stories? 1. Classism. (Bunny) 2. Apathy and a resistance to being a grown-up/taking responsibility. (Jack and Olivia) 3. ????

    I think some of these definitions must be applied after the discovery drafts have been worked out. For WIP three, I have no idea, and I’m really reluctant to impose an idea on the story — I’d rather discover the story first, and then re-inforce the “conquering instinct” after it’s grown organically. It’s like seedlings — you can’t really tell what a plant is by the first two sprouted leaves. You need to wait until the true leaf develops, and even then, it’s hard to predict the flower and the fruit.

    Thanks, Michille!

    • I think Pam’s use of the word corrupt is more in the way the word is used relative to computers. If a computer file is corrupt, it is unreliable due to errors or malware. The story starts and the protagonist finds out that there is something not right with his/her/their world.

      And the love conquers all to me is more the idea that by the end of the story, that is the thing that you know will last after you close the book.

      In school, we’re taught that the dictionary definition is IT. But definitions can mean different things to different people.

      • Oh, sure. Your definitions are also helpful to me. A corruption or degradation of society (that must be set right) is pretty high stakes, but so is fixing the so-called petty problems of a protag’s world.

        It’s a bit of a different angle of thinking than thinking about “conflict” — I find thinking in terms of conflict sort of helpful in the organic discovery phase, at least sometimes. When I’m spinning my wheels, I know I need to introduce conflict.

        I haven’t tried it yet, but I think also thinking about corruption (error in the computer of life, or great wrong that needs to be righted) could spur some action, as well.

  2. I think for me, this is key: “written in such a way as to provide the reader with some degree of vicarious emotional participation in the courtship process.” The payoff of a good romance novel is the emotional connection. Not just in terms of what makes a satisfying romance novel for me (though this is definitely part of it), but there has to be some insight into how at least one of the characters is processing the courtship, so that the reader can get an emotional handle on things.

    Thanks for sharing these definitions! Lots of food for thought here.

    • I completely agree on the emotional participation and emotional connection. If I don’t have that, I don’t enjoy the story because I’m not understanding where the characters are coming from, where they’re going, and why they’re getting together.

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