Genre Constraints

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.

Categorized:

Random Musings

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  1. 1
    SonomaLass says:

    I agree that the covers are one “generifying” element—these books all look alike, therefore….

    I also think that when some people say “romance genre fiction” they are thinking “category romance”; they just don’t know the correct term.  I have talked to many people whose feelings about romance novels are strongly affected by their passing knowledge of (particularly) Harlequin.  They say to me, “Did you know that there are GUIDELINES that the writers have to follow!?!”  Category title repetition (discussed elsewhere) contributes, too.

  2. 2
    Cathy in AK says:

    I think literary fiction has its constraints as well:

    1.  Much angsty inner narrative broken up by minutely detailed setting that is supposed to reflect the theme of the story.

    2.  At the end, the MC is either dead or dying.  Though there is a bit of wiggle room allowing for the MC to be dying at the beginning (hey, let’s not get *too* rigid here).

  3. 3
    KimberlyD says:

    I know chick lit covers follow a formula, just like romance novel covers (and many are recycled, as well). But I have to admit I’m more likely to pick up a chick lit book and judge it by the contents, rather than the cover art. I’m less likely to do that with romance novels. Maybe its because chick lit covers appeal to me more in general…I’m not sure. I do know that I would pick up more romance novels if there were other types of covers out there. And I hate the generic garden/beach/landscape scene for romance novel covers as much as I hate heaving bosom/man titty covers.

  4. 4
    rebyj says:

    I’ve passed up many a book cuz of the cartoonish chick lit covers. One of my favorite chick lit books I picked up because it’s cover had a picture of a stick of butter on the front. It was a great read! ( Cover the Butter by Carrie Kabak)

    Sci fi book covers rarely indicate the quality of the story within.As a romance reader I just started reading sci fi in the past few years. I jumped in with the Sharon Shinn Archangel series so subsequent books have had quite a bit to live up to. All of those had stylistic covers that were eye catching and did actually have something to do with the stories within.

    The biggest complaint about covers that I personally have is that Sarah and you have been stingy on the cover snark lately. Don’t tell me you’ve grown out of it cuz I’ll be heart broken!

  5. 5
    Laura says:

    >(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)<

    Here’s the thing: I read almost as many mystery/thriller books as I do romance books, and the proportion of crap is no greater in romance than it is in mystery.  But for some reason, that doesn’t make people say “oh, I hate mysteries.”  No, they just say, “well, that one sucked.  Let me try another.”

    Even romance covers don’t look that much alike from subgenre to subgenre.  Yes, historicals look alike, chick lit romances look alike, romantic suspense novels look alike, erotic romances look alike…but historical covers don’t look like chick lit.  At least, not usually. 

    So do you think someone who picked up a crappy piece of historical romance might go in and pick up an erotic romance because the cover looked so different?  Do people just not think about the subgenres when they think about “romance?”

  6. 6
    Anonym2857 says:

    ~I also think that when some people say “romance genre fiction” they are thinking “category romance”; they just don’t know the correct term.  I have talked to many people whose feelings about romance novels are strongly affected by their passing knowledge of (particularly) Harlequin.  They say to me, “Did you know that there are GUIDELINES that the writers have to follow!?!”~

    Sigh.  I’m not targeting SonomaLass at all – just addressing the perception she’s raising – but this kind of statement always makes me want to jump on my horse and ride.  I’m not a writer, just a reader, so no doubt scores of others are more knowledgeable than I on this subject, but I feel a need to defend my beloved categories.  I don’t consider ‘guidelines’ to be a pejorative term, as some do. Category authors are not told what specifically to write about. They are given a description of the parameters of each series line that will form the framework-– word count, sweet story, sexy story, mystery, professional woman, young woman, mature heroine, virginal, sexually experienced, exotic locale, etc.  There are dozens of different lines (that’s why they are called CATEGORY romances). If one particular framework doesn’t inspire you, don’t submit your MS to it.  Send it to the line that best fits your story, or take it elsewhere.  The same argument can be aimed at readers: if you find that a specific brand of books isn’t to your taste, don’t read them. There are plenty of other lines to pick from that won’t insult your intelligence. It’s ignorant and unfair to damn the entire category genre as being dreck – especially since there are bad books written in every genre of fiction.

    As a result of having category guidelines, each time a reader picks up a Presents, a Desire, a Blaze, or whatever, said reader can hold certain expectations about the type of story inside. Not the specific plot points. Not that every story will be the same as every other. But if one has a preference for books with a medical element, one can read the medical lines. For exotic locales and overbearing foreign alpha males, read Harlequin Presents. For a sexier read, go for a Temptation, Spice or Blaze book. For a sweeter, innocent read, look for a Silhouette or Harlequin romance. 

    I always contend that it takes a heck of a lot more skill to write a good category than it does to write a mainstream romance BECAUSE of those very constraints. I also believe part of the reason many of today’s best-selling authors are as good as they are (think Nora, Howard, Lowell, Korbel Stuart, Crusie, Hohl, Krentz, Evanovich, Greene, yadda yadda), is partly due to the fact that they not only capitalized on innate God-given talent, but also honed their technical skills writing categories. Being constrained to write within a limited framework encourages an author to make every word count, and not get too caught up in extraneous detail or distracted by too many tangents. To write a unique, creative story each time while working within the guidelines of the category can truly reveal the mastery of the author.

    Guidelines aren’t stifling to creativity – in many ways, they inspire it. 

    And from a business POV, it’s simply good marketing.  Regardless of what opinion individuals may hold about the framework, the fact is this type of publishing and marketing works.  Categories sell, and sell well—even with, or often in spite of, idiotic titles and red-handed, man-thumbed heroines on the covers.

    Diane

  7. 7
    Marianne McA says:

    I know Dear Author has already pointed it out, but if anyone hasn’t read the comment thread you mention, it’s worth scrolling down to read Nadezhda’s comment. (Gary’s comments too – there’s a lot that’s interesting there, despite the off-putting number of comments.)

    (This is going to come out in bold, isn’t it? And I don’t know how you fix that….)

  8. 8
    Marianne McA says:

    Wrong again..

  9. 9
    Nora Roberts says:

    I addressed the statement about ‘constraints’ in the comments of hilzoy’s blog, saying pretty much what Candy says here.

    I don’t think the covers are all alike. I’d agree, to a large extent, with the poster here who said covers per sub-genres are alike. But even then, there are interesting and creative variations. Yes, yes, there IS a lot of sameness as to ‘feel’ in cover design, just as there is in other design in other genres.

    I also agree with the poster who talked about guidelines re category Romance. Guidelines are not evil. They give the writer, particularly the new or new to category writer the framework of category, and the culture of each line.

    If category didn’t have this framework and this culture, it wouldn’t BE category.

    I won’t agree it takes more skill to write category than mainstream, but it takes every bit as much, both ways. One needs to use the same toolbox, the same tools, and the same skills, but in category in a smaller space and with a more exacting touch. You have to get the job done more quickly—but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it well, and produce a solid product.

  10. 10
    Kristin says:

    Who wants to read a romance novel where the heroine knows she gorgeous and thinks every man is in love with her? Yeah, I really want to read about a snotty, egocentric woman falling in love. No thanks.

    From personal experience, I always felt like a complete and utter ugly duckling in my formative years. Extra tall from a young age. Braces for 2 1/2 years. Solidly built rather than willowy and model-like. Never thought I was pretty really. Until I hit my 20s. I started dating. And I began to see that I was sort of attractive and started to like myself. And then I found a handsome spouse who thought I was the bees’ knees.

    That is real. That is how many women think of themselves in their awkward teen years.

  11. 11
    Jane O says:

    Has anybody considered the constraints on the sonnet? It has to have exactly 14 lines? And there are only two rhyme schemes? Come on. Sonnets must really be crap.

  12. 12
    Robinjn says:

    The thing that keeps hitting me in all this discussion is that almost every book I read is, at least in part, a romance. I read some lit fiction but mostly sci-fi and urban/paranormal fantasy that is shelved with the sci-fi versus romance. And in pretty much everything I read, even when the central focus isn’t the romance, there are still fairly strong romantic elements (Jack McDevitt being an exception, very little romance there though relationships do have a presence).

    As an example, when Candy brings up polyamory with a triad of two men and one woman, one of the men being non-human the very first thing I think of is Karen Traviss’ superb Wess’har series. Very sci-fi but also relationship oriented. She explores culture and romance and the heroine is seriously, truly kick ass; not that pretend kick-ass that really is wanting to be rescued. And seriously, I can’t recommend this series highly enough Go buy City of Pearl today.

    To me, the question is, how many books are NOT a romance of some sort? From Cold Mountain to Girl with A Pearl Earring, from Hemingway to LKH.

    So to me, the only difference in romances is that the relationship itself is the centerpiece. That’s it.

    submit word: needed27. Yes, I probably should have had 27 coffees before posting this because I’m not sure it makes as much sense as I’d like it to.

  13. 13
    Ashwinder says:

    Haiku has constraints
    Of five seven five per verse
    Are they then all crap?

  14. 14
    Chicklet says:

    I think there are several factors at work in this inaccurate perception by non-romance readers.

    1. Interchangeability of Harlequin Presents titles.
    Due to its widespread placement in non-bookstores, Harlequin is the face of the genre for many people. It can’t help but reinforce their perceptions that all romances are the same when the titling for this line functions like a Mad Lib. (“To create a Harlequin Presents title, choose at least four of the following words, changing them to possessives as grammatically necessary: Greek, Bride, Tycoon, Virgin, Secret, Millionaire, Baby, Secretary.”)

    2. The generic look of so many cover models.
    Remember the Valentine’s Day thread where the Bitchery listed our choices for hot heroes/heroines, multicultural and otherwise? That list ranged from Gerard Butler to Alan Rickman to Tony Leung to Gael Garcia Bernal to Angelina Jolie and on and on and on, encompassing an incredibly wide array of skin tones and bone structures. But most cover models fall into a very narrow depiction of attractiveness, and tend to look remarkably similar (and therefore unmemorable). I wasn’t reading romance in Fabio’s heyday, but I have a feeling part of the reason he became so popular was that readers could actually distinguish him from other cover models.

    3. Changing trends in book design, across all genres.
    For literary fiction and non-fiction, there seems to be a trend away from literal depictions of the book’s contents to more metaphorical ones and for literary fiction, a move away from depicting people’s faces and using objects or body parts instead. Browsing through a bookstore, aside from biography, which essentially demands using an image of the subject, it seems that genre books (romance, SF/F, mystery) are the ones still using cover models in the traditional way. (Though some subgenres within them may have the metaphorical covers, like romantic suspense and romantic thrillers, or crime novels vs. “cozy” mysteries.)

    What does this mean for non-romance readers? Mostly that when they walk through a bookstore, they register a difference between the types of cover designs, on a subconscious level if nothing else. Do genre books look dated? I wouldn’t go that far, but I think it’s telling that chick lit started selling well because its covers looked different (dare I say “more sophisticated”?) than many romance novels, even though quite a few chick lit novels were simply contemporary romances with different covers. (That is, of course, until chick lit covers became recursive and derivative of each other, thereby losing much of their effectiveness.)

  15. 15

    why is there a perception of greater homogeneity than there actually is?

    In some ways, this may be the kind of question that’s easier to answer when you aren’t steeped in the genre.

    I gave this some thought a while ago, and this was what I concluded, as an explanation for my own perceptions.  I don’t know how true it would be for others.

    To my way of thinking, romance usually dictates three things:

    1) The type of central conflict.  (Romantic: they will fall in love, but stuff will get in the way.)

    2) The central characters.  (What stuck in my mind was a comment I heard years ago from Patricia C. Wrede, that people complained reading Sorcery and Cecelia/The Enchanted Chocolate Pot that they could tell from the get-go that Characters A and B and Characters C and D would end up falling in love.  Wrede and her co-writer said, well, duh—that’s because this is a ROMANCE, and the point is not to spring that on the reader as a surprise.  I’m under the impression, from discussions here, that having multiple heroes and genuine uncertainty as to who the heroine will end up with is a relatively new development.)

    3) The conclusion.  (It will be happy; the characters will end up in love and together.)

    NONE of this = bad.  Re-read that fourteen times if you’re about to jump on me for slagging the genre.  I use the sonnet example all the time to talk about how constraints don’t reduce quality.  But it does mean a certain impression of homogeneity, when I look at the genre.

    By comparison, I think mystery generally dictates #1 and #3—a crime (usually a murder), and it will be solved—but #2 is deliberately left half-unknown, because finding out Whodunnit is the point of the book.  SF/F more often than not dictates that the problem will be dealt with (#3), and often you know early on who both the heroes and the villain are (#2), but the nature of the central conflict can vary from book to book.

    In all three genres, you can find sub-genres with greater homogeneity, and you can find examples that break the rules.  No argument there.  But if I try to view each genre from a high enough vantage point to see the whole, then the details fade away, and those are the patterns I see.

  16. 16
    Sarah Frantz says:

    Candy, ages ago you posted this Cat and Girl comic and I still think it’s the best explanation for “constraints” that I’ve seen.  It’s my desktop wallpaper for my work computer and it reminds me why I spend my days analyzing romances.

  17. 17
    Candy says:

    Who wants to read a romance novel where the heroine knows she gorgeous and thinks every man is in love with her? Yeah, I really want to read about a snotty, egocentric woman falling in love. No thanks.

    Between “complete obliviousness about her charms” and “raging egomaniac who crushes hearts beneath her heel” lie a host of reasonable alternatives. I’m not especially averse to heroines who are either unaware of how attractive they are, or who have body image issues—those resonate with me more, personally, to be honest. But variety is a good thing, and a good author is able to allow me to inhabit another character’s headspace, no matter how dissimilar they may be from me.

    I also can’t help but think it’s unfair that heroes get to be such tremendous assholes and are lauded as “tormented” and “alpha,” and let’s face it, many romance heroes are completely aware that they’re a hot piece of ass, but heroines who put the hero through the same sort of wringer tend to be labeled evil, snotty, egotistical bitches.

  18. 18
    Kristin says:

    Hmmm, I don’t think I’ve read a romance where the guy thinks he’s all that. Usually he is just very sex driven…and sleeps around, maybe. But not saying to himself, “I’m hot, I can get all the poon-tang I want, baby.”  That would be an utter turn-off for me.

    I read mostly historical romance, so this is coming from that angle. Typically, the hotness factor also includes a wealth aspect…as in, his hotness isn’t as important, if he’s got a lot of cash. He becomes more of a catch to all and sundry, if he’s got a bucket of money to go along with tolerable looks.

    I suppose there’s a hero/heroine for everyone.

  19. 19
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Who wants to read a romance novel where the heroine knows she gorgeous and thinks every man is in love with her? Yeah, I really want to read about a snotty, egocentric woman falling in love. No thanks.

    Don’t you think there’s a happy middle ground?

    I sure do. Heroines need not be clueless ingénues who don’t understand their own strengths, powers or beauty in order for us to like them. I don’t think my heroines are snotty or egocentric, but the DO know that they’re attractive and they know how to “make it work” (as Tim Gunn would say *grin*). I think this is far more normal and realistic than the fantastically beautiful but woefully clueless heroine (though I know one of these in real life, she was a total ugly duckling).

    And I’m more likely to like/identify/root for a heroine who gets it and works it, then I am to love the innocent Disney princess. But then I’m a bitch myself.

  20. 20
    Kalen Hughes says:

    One of my girlfriends happens to be the executive editor of LOCUS (it’s sort of the science fiction version of ROMANTIC TIMES). She and I were discussing this whole brouhaha over dinner and she said, “All stories are love stories, or, at least all the ones worth reading are.” Hello. Reality knocking.

    She was quoting either Neil Gaiman or Guy Gavriel Kay. I can’t remember which. I love ‘em both, so it doesn’t really matter.

  21. 21
    AgTigress says:

    Constraints and guidelines:  virtually all professional, published writers, academic non-fiction, popular non-fiction and, I assume, all types of fiction, even the most ‘literary’, have to write within clear guidelines of content, style and word-count.  Sometimes these general parameters are initially set by the writer herself in the synopsis, and indeed, all effective writing follows at the least the author’s self-imposed rules, but once there is an agreed contract with a publisher, any substantial deviation from that framework is inadvisable.  The author is expected to deliver the kind of manuscript the publisher expects.

  22. 22
    --E says:

    I think the perception of romance novel homogeniety is because the defining principles of the genre are definitions of the intersection of both plot and theme.

    Mysteries generally have a defined plot (whodunnit), but the theme can vary wildly.

    SF/F is defined by setting, but both plot and theme can vary (though, as you point out, a noticable number have fallen into predictable plots).

    Men’s military fiction is similar to Romance in that it, too, has a reasonably set plot and theme. (Plot: bad guys trying to destroy Western Civilization. Theme: Rah rah, USA!)

    But all romance novels will have the same baseline plot and theme. Plot: people in love and/or lust, and what they’re going to do about it. Theme: “Love is good.” There is, obviously, plenty of room in there to write books of wide variety, and of course subplots and subthemes abound.  (I believe, though with no scientific basis, that the better and classic romance novels rise on the strength of their subplots and subthemes: the places where they deviate from “formula”.)

    However: when we study literature in high school and college, there is major emphasis put on analyzing plot and theme. We’re trained to look at that, and not necessarily other aspects of a book (such as “entertainment value” or even “educational value.” I’ve learned a lot of science fact from science-fiction books).

    So a reader who has been trained to look closely at plot and theme may easily see the commonality amongst all romance novels, while completely missing the differences. (And likewise see the differences amongst other sorts of novels, while missing the commonalities. Don’t get me started on the tropes of literary novels!)

    This comment is not offered as an opinion on whether this phenomenon is good or bad, but rather as an opinion/explanation of where the perception comes from.

  23. 23
    Delos says:

    Candy:
    “I also can’t help but think it’s unfair that heroes get to be such tremendous assholes and are lauded as “tormented” and “alpha,” and let’s face it, many romance heroes are completely aware that they’re a hot piece of ass, but heroines who put the hero through the same sort of wringer tend to be labeled evil, snotty, egotistical bitches.”

    Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking about it for several weeks, and have been wondering why the heroes get to act like total assholes and are considered brooding, whereas the heroines are not allowed to display the same characteristics without being totally evil.

  24. 24
    JMM says:

    “Who wants to read a romance novel where the heroine knows she gorgeous and thinks every man is in love with her?”

    Me! Me! *Waves hand wildly*

    Seriously, I would love to see more heroines who know their own power. I hate the ‘I’m so plain and ordinary and stupid and I don’t deserve him’ (Him often being a jerk who has played with the heroine’s feelings for 230 pages) heroine.

    I hate to say it, but romances these days ARE… homogenous. Heroines are SO bland; it’s as if the authors are so terrified of offending readers, they remove any trace of a personality.

    Heroines are written so as to provide no controversy.

    Have you seen a heroine who was, say:
    FOR the death penalty?
    Carried a gun (without being a cop?)

    Was an actual businesswoman (as opposed to a woman who pretends to run a business while doing everyone’s job because she can’t, simply CAN’T fire an incompetent employee! “Dear G**, someone must think of the CHILDREN!” 

    Actually WANTS to tear down that termite infested Victorian mansion?

    Doesn’t turn into a puddle of goo when around kids?

    Doesn’t give up her job, home, agenda, etc, when it conflicts with the hero’s wishes to live in Small Town America and have 6 babies?

  25. 25
    Nora Roberts says:

    ~Have you seen a heroine who was, say:
    FOR the death penalty?~

    This is kind of an odd one. I’m trying to think how it would come up in a Romance. 

    ~Carried a gun (without being a cop?)~

    Mostly, in my circle, people don’t carry guns. But I’ver certainly seen it in Romance. I’ve written heroines, non-cop, who’ve carried guns.

    ~Was an actual businesswoman (as opposed to a woman who pretends to run a business while doing everyone’s job because she can’t, simply CAN’T fire an incompetent employee! “Dear G**, someone must think of the CHILDREN!”~

    Again, yes. And I’ve written many of my own. 

     

    ~Actually WANTS to tear down that termite infested Victorian mansion?~

    I can’t say on this one. Don’t see how this would make anyone weak or homogonous anyway. But I’m pretty big into rehab myself.

    ~Doesn’t turn into a puddle of goo when around kids?~

    Yes. But certainly most would be written to like kids.

    ~Doesn’t give up her job, home, agenda, etc, when it conflicts with the hero’s wishes to live in Small Town America and have 6 babies? ~

    Again yes.

    I’ve also read, and written, heroines who are very self-aware, know their own power and charm, and are comfortable with their sexuality.

  26. 26

    “But all romance novels will have the same baseline plot and theme. Plot: people in love and/or lust, and what they’re going to do about it. Theme: “Love is good.””

    —E,
    It may appear that all romances have the same theme, since the resolution of any conflicts coincides with the finding of a soulmate.  But from the writing standpoint, it would be really boring if all we had to work with was ‘Love conquers all.’

    As far as themes go, I’ve done books about the definition and value of honor, the need to overcome sibling rivalry and bad parenting, and a ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ book that had a heroine that wasn’t just unaware of her good looks, she was genuinely plain.  And she did not have a particularly agreeable temper to make up for the face.  She married a perfect 10, who was rich, charming and had major character flaws.

    I also had an extremely beautiful heroine who was not the least bit bitchy, but was using her looks to catch a husband, looking specifically for money, title, and position in society.  She ended up choosing love over money.  This book would fall much closer to your ‘love is good theme’ I think.

    In these books, the themes play out, and the conflicts are solved, but the fact that the characters have found true love is not sufficient to bring about a resolution.  While it may give them courage to change, love itself is not enough.  Action is required on the part of the characters.  They need to grow.

    So, love is good.  And it’s kind of a given that it will be present in romance novels.  But we also have to be writing about something deeper, or all the books really will be the same story.  In the plot, the characters fall in love and form a bond.  But the theme is what the characters find out about themselves, as they are falling in love.

  27. 27
    RfP says:

    I think literary fiction has its constraints as well:

    1.  Much angsty inner narrative broken up by minutely detailed setting that is supposed to reflect the theme of the story.

    2.  At the end, the MC is either dead or dying.  Though there is a bit of wiggle room allowing for the MC to be dying at the beginning (hey, let’s not get *too* rigid here).

    Those aren’t constraints, they’re a trend.  Which is exactly the type of confusion that led hilzoy to sneer at genre romance.  Constraints and trends are two different things.  Constraints and *apparent* trends (i.e. assumptions based on books’ marketing) are even more divergent.

    It can be argued that the marketing, and real trends in writing, can create de facto constraints—constraints on what authors feel free to write, or on what editors feel free to buy.  But as long as the trends aren’t “hard” constraints, they won’t be universal.  Not all lit fic is as you describe—never was, never will be.  Not all genre romance is as hilzoy described—never was, never will be.

  28. 28
    Ivy says:

    I just don’t understand why anyone would give a crap what ignorant people think. 

    I don’t know Charlotte Allen and I don’t care what she thinks of me, of romance, of the war in Iraq.  She’s just not that important. Frankly, the brouhaha in the blogosphere about *nothing* proves her point.

    And I don’t care that Hilzoy thinks about romances, whether they’re books or unbooks or novels or unnovels.  Why do you folks let the stupdities of other people get you all worked up? The people that agree with Charlotte Allen & Hilzoy are not going to have their minds changed and vice versa.

    Why care what a stranger thinks?  Let them spew their stupidities. If you don’t respond, then you don’t give them the buzz & attention they crave.

  29. 29
    Kaz Augustin says:

    Just to bring down the tone of this erudite discussion, hilzoy is talkin’ out her ass. She says she reads romance novels, and enjoys them (somewhere in that long-ass comments thread of the article), and thus when she is criticising romance, she is criticising herself. You may begin the sobbing now.

    This is the ‘let me drown you so I can climb on your back to safety’ ploy. We all do it to some degree, but to see it so blatantly exhibited by a supposed philosophy professor (are you kidding me?) is pernicious.

    The shame is that hilzoy is otherwise quite intelligent and her posts are enjoyable to read, but the use of this defence, imo, manifests aspects to her personality (yes, I’m a Psych grad) that’s less than savoury, and causes me to shun Obsidian Wings in the future. I mean, no big, I’m just one little person, but that’s just how I see it.

  30. 30
    Kaz Augustin says:

    That should, of course, be “that are” rather than “that’s” (para c).

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