There’s currently a very interesting discussion going on right now about narrowing the definition of romance in the comments section of our Gayle Wilson interview. Go check out the whole discussion, but I’ll excerpt the bits that interest me most here.
Reia kick-started things by saying this:
If there are no boundaries as to what may be included in the genre called “romance,â€ what exactly are asking for? A non-genre genre?
Come, now—that’s engaging in some slippery slope reasoning. Nobody’s calling for the RWA to be completely inclusive and without boundaries. The thing is, the RWA already has a definition of romance that I think does the job quite handily:
“A romance is a book wherein the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying.â€
And then Robin stepped in and kicked ass all over the place:
(…) I think sometimes in Romancelandia there is a confusion between what constitutes a Romance novel and what’s romantic to a particular reader. If it’s not romantic to us, we may not see a book as a Romance. Of course all sorts of ideological considerations play into this judgment (from the race and sexual orientation of the protagonists to questions of how dark is dark in Romance, etc.), but in terms of generic definition, I think it’s essential to divorce the notion of what’s romantic to each of us from what constitutes the genre of Romance, if for no other reason than basing the second question (what constitutes Romance) on the results of the first will, ironically, defeat the fundamental need for formulaic coherence in the genre, since so many of us find different things romantic.
Robin has articulated something very, very important: just because it makes you go “ick” doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong.
Oh, hey, a chance for me to come up with a really silly analogy that hopefully illustrates the point:
What we consider a “cake” is usually defined by a combination of sugar, eggs, flour, leavener, and liquids in very specific ratios and baked for a certain amount of time. We know what a cake is, what it’s supposed to look and feel like. A cookie isn’t a cake (though if you drastically decrease the amount of water for just about any cake recipe and dab the resulting batter on a cookie sheet, you’d get a cookie). A loaf of bread isn’t a cake. A pie isn’t a cake. Some quickbreads like muffins tread the twilight zone between cake and non-cake.
But let’s say somebody decided to do something sort of wacky to a conventional cake recipe. Instead of using chocolate, vanilla, lemon zest or any of the other flavoring agents we normally associate with a cake, somebody decided to use curry paste, kaffir lime leaves and garlic. For whatever reason, they wanted to make a curry-flavored cake.
Now, the thought of a curry-flavored cake makes me go “Ick.”
Is it edible? Not to me, but hey, there may be others who love it.
Is it still a cake? Well, yes. It’s gross as all hell (just the thought of mixing kaffir lime leaves into cake batter makes me want to cry at the sacrilege), but hey, it’s still a cake. It has a cake-like crumb, and it was made and baked as a cake. Dude. IT’S A CAKE.
Things took a really interesting turn when bondage was brought up. Reia said:
(…) [A]n almost identical debate popped up on the old AOL Pet Peeves board. The subject was whether or not RWA was being too vague in it’s definition of Romance. I only lurked since I was more interested in the debate about whether or not Fabio helped or hurt the industry, so I’ll recap as best I can.
There was concern that without firmer definition of the genre, RWA was not setting a clear boundary between romance and erotica and/or bondage stories. The opposing view was similar to your slippery slope reasoning comment with a slight difference. It was believed that the approved publisher’s requirement would prevent erotica or bondage stories from blending with romance.
And further down, after I explained how one would be able to distinguish bondage erotica from bondage romances, Reia said:
And even if there are sixteen bondage scenes, some nonconsensual, or even some bondage scenes that would be considered rape, you still have a genre romance according to the current RWA definition. Is that best for RWA?
And at this point, thoughts started percolating in my head about what’s “best for RWA” and this instinct many, many people share about excluding what are perceived as undesirable elements from the romance definitionâ€”all in the name of “what’s best” for the genre and the association that is allegedly the genre’s greatest advocate. And since I’ve waxed on and on and on in the comments alreadyâ€”seriously, check out my comments, they’re, like, HUGE! (said the size queen)â€”I thought I’d make this into a full-length article.
First of all, like I said in the comments, if the concern is with non-consensuality, why bring up bondage at all? After all, we have plenty of non-bondage romance novels that feature rape.
What I didn’t say was: if it’s not the non-consensual nature that’s freaking people out (and if it were, then Ye Olde Bodice Rippers should’ve been brought up, not bondage stories), then let’s be honest and say up front what is.
The sex toys? The whipping/spanking/finding pleasure in pain? The restraints used? The (oftentimes willing) abdication of physical control?
Second of all, once somebody starts asking questions like “is it best for [insert organization/country] if we allow so much openness in a definition?” I almost always get a massive case of the heebie-jeebies. For a long, long time, people have used questions like these as a prelude to excluding and marginalizing groups, from women to people whose skin color registers as something darker than “khaki” on a paint chart to gay people wanting to marry.
Not that what’s been going on in the RWA is even close to the Civil Rights movement in terms of importance. Not remotely close. But I think the desire to exclude certain elements as inherently undesirable or distasteful stems from a similar urge that causes people to want to exclude groups that are viewed as somehow undesirable. The desire to practice a species of literary eugenics is overwhelming for many people, and frankly, I think that’s the impetus behind the whole “tighten up the definition of genre Romance” thing. It’s not a unique impulse.
There are people who would not consider genre fiction novels as worthy of being considered literature because they’re trashyâ€”junk food for the mind, debased writing that lacks intelligence and insight, etc. ad nauseam.
There are people who read and write genre fiction who think romance novels in particular are not worthy of being considered part of literature for various reasons, not least because of the “ew, girl cooties and mushy crap!” aspect of the stories.
And then there are people within the romance genre who think BDSM romances, erotic romances, mÃ©nage romances and gay/lesbian romances aren’t somehow good for the genre and should, therefore, be excluded. Usually, there’s a lot of squawking and squeaking about how these stories are too much like porn, which in turn is oftentimes accompanied by squawking and squeaking about how they don’t want these books to corrupt their wee chilluns. The latter argument always makes me want to say, “HEY! Do you have any idea how many kids found their parents’ stash of stroke magazines and/or videos at a young age and somehow still managed to grow up sane, law-abiding, non-sex-crazed citizens?”
What’s best for the RWA? I can think of any number of things that would help the RWA.
Not throwing a horrorshow of a prize ceremony that becomes the embarrassment and laughing stock of the romance community, for one. All right, that cock-up was due to certain select people in the RWA and not the organization as a whole, but unfortunately, it reflected poorly on everyone.
Ditto not instituting wide-reaching rules such as, ohhhh, graphical standards without consulting the membership at large.
Narrowing the definition of romance so that all icky elements are purged is pretty low on my list of “things that would be best for RWA.”
As always, Robin says it best:
When you think about different genres, you don’t immediately come up with long lists of requirements. Even sonnets, which have notoriously restrictive requirements, aren’t as finely detailed as what some seem to be asking for in the Romance genre. If the RWA wants to arbitrate what they feel to be “romanticâ€ Romance, or morally upright Romance, or ideologically acceptable Romance, then I think as a dues-based organization, they have a right to do that. But outside of that, I think we’re beyond the limits of generic definition and into taste.