I have just finished reading the critique of romance novels at Obsidian Wings (incidental to commentary about that utterly tiresome woman who wrote that utterly tiresome and utterly stupid [thereby making conclusively proving the point of her article, and I suppose I have to admire that sort of dedication to the craft of Reinforcing The Notion That Women Are Stupid Whores] WaPo opinion piece), and the list of examples of romance genre constraints amused me:
I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules.
This was written by a woman who has never read an Anne Stuart hero, I’m guessing. Or any romance novel published after 1984—or shit, even before 1984, because a lot of Old Skool heroes weren’t especially self-contained.
(Keep in mind as I write this that I haven’t had time to read through all the comments, and I’m not especially interested in jumping all over hilzoy’s head, even though I think she’s quite clearly wrong about several things.)
Here’s the crux of the problem: hilzoy has confused popular (but non-essential) genre elements with actual constraints. As far as I am concerned, there are two constraints to genre romances:
1. The central plot concerns the romantic/sexual relationship between a central unit of people. The overwhelming majority of genre romances are written about monogamous heterosexual couples, but there’s a burgeoning number of romances being published that center around homosexual characters and polyamory (triads consistng of two men and one woman seem quite popular). And note that I use the term “people” loosely—romances can conceivably (and often have) been written about non-human people all the time.
2. The romantic couple are together by the end of the story, and there’s a reasonable assurance that they’re a) in love and b) happy about that state of affairs, even if the other parts of their lives aren’t perfect.
Constraints, in my opinion, are vital plot elements that define the genre—that, when missing, make you “That wasn’t really a romance novel.” And the constraints for romances, as far as I know, aren’t any more restrictive than any other variety of genre fiction. Mysteries, for example, conform to the following requirements:
1. Some sort of crime is committed, typically a murder.
2. The crime is solved by the end of the story, whether or not the wrongdoer is apprehended.
Horror novels conform to the following:
1. Something scary (usually of some sort of supernatural source, though exotically psychotic killers work as well) happens.
2. The characters struggle to overcome the scary thing, often with heavy casualties on life or sanity. They usually succeed, though sometimes they don’t.
SF/F novels are interesting because the primary constraint seems to stem from setting rather than plot elements. Science fiction takes place in worlds that conform to the known laws of our universe (oftentimes with interesting extrapolations); fantasy universes don’t have to. Speculations of what would result after a fundamental change in science or technology are sometimes the primary drive or inform the conflict of some science fiction novels (what would happen if an Artificial Intelligence became truly sentient? What if we were contacted by aliens? What if we finally figured out a feasible way to break the superluminal barrier?) but the fact that SF/F is informed by setting and world-building rather than plot constraints means there’s a lot more freedom to fuck around. However, most seem to stick to the fairly old-fashioned Adventure Novel constraints, namely:
1. Something threatening (oftentimes to the world) happens.
2. The protagonists fix it.
Here’s something else to think about: these constraints, while useful in some ways, are to some extent artificial, because there’s a lot of bleed-through, especially in romance. Romances take place in all sorts of settings and feature other plot elements to help flesh out the conflict, and other genre novels have some species of romantic entanglement to spice things up. My response to people who claim that genre fiction novels in general and romance novels in particular are unduly constrained in and of themselves is usually “You haven’t read enough genre fiction.”
But—and there’s always a but—fads and reader preferences oftentimes drive the types of romances being bought and published. The self-contained hero is no longer quite as popular as he used to be, and hasn’t been for a long, long time, but the heroines, by and large, are still of the “completely oblivious to their own charms” mold. There’s nothing, as far as I know, that requires that the heroines be this way, and a good number of romances violate this rule cheerfully; even if an individual reader despises a heroine who’s fully aware of her charms and has no scruples about using them (like, say, Lilith of Meljean Brook’s Demon Angel), the reader doesn’t typically go so far as to say “This isn’t a romance novel.” However, an outsider who is attempting to figure out genre constraints from a random and limited sample of romances might very well come to the conclusion that heroine type is indeed a genre constraint instead of a popular element. There’s a great deal of variety in romance, but jumping in blind can be a dicey thing—as it tends to be with most genres.
So here’s a question: why is there a perception of greater homogeneity than there actually is? My theory: the covers. Whether you’re getting a crap fiesta or a work of art, the books are graced with the same man-titty and heaving bosoms, and people, after reading one crap fiesta (and given the amount of crap out there, odds are high that somebody picking a romance up on a whim will end up with crap), extend the crappiness to books of similar appearance.
The trend in covers has changed of late, ‘tis true, but those clinch covers—they stick with you, man.