Monday, December 29, 2014

What is a romance?

Whether or not you’ve read romances, you likely have a notion of them in mind. And if I dropped you into a bookstore with no signs to indicate genre or section, you could still unerringly identify the romance section by its books’ pastel color scheme, florid script, and unsubtle cover art.

Still, it’s good to define our terms.  When writing about romance novels, I mean something fairly specific, and some of the works I exclude from the genre may surprise you.

While romance scholar Pamela Regis offers an eight-component definition, it boils down to this: “The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.”[1] I have several reservations about Regis’s definition of the romance, as it focuses unnecessarily upon the heroine, assuming that she is the focal point of the novel, an assertion with which I fundamentally disagree. Many romances are now written at least partially from the hero’s perspective, and some lack a heroine altogether.

Moreover, the notions of courtship and betrothal, while apt for dealing with certain sub-genres, must be twisted almost out of recognition to be applied to some contemporary, futuristic, and paranormal romances. It may have once been the case that the marriage proposal was the climactic moment in a majority of romances. But even in historical romances, the order of narration may be varied, for instance when a couple begins the novel trapped unhappily in a marriage of convenience, or when they find themselves “accidentally” hitched midway through the book in response to some crisis (pregnancy, shotgun wedding, elaborate scheme gone awry). Marriage may not even be hinted at in some books, particularly paranormal romances, which often focus on a biological bond rather than a societal contract as the mechanism by which the relationship is cemented.

A definition proposed by Lisa Fletcher in her 2008 book Historical Romance Fiction comes much closer to the mark: “a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you.’”[2] This definition anchored in notions of both discourse and performativity is perhaps overly broad but is overwhelmingly compatible with my own working definition: Romance is a work of narrative fiction teleologically oriented toward the recognition and avowal of requited love.

Let’s unpack that.

When I speak about a telos for the romance genre, I mean that it is deliberately geared toward a predetermined end-point, a moment of emotional fulfillment in which tension abates and the reader experiences satisfaction. There are two necessary conditions for this end point.

First, love must be avowed—in other words, spoken. This is where Lisa Fletcher’s emphasis on the speech act “I love you” comes in. The hero or heroine may have been in love since the beginning of the novel, but if he or she has not been able to say so to his/her beloved, then the promise of the novel has not yet been fulfilled.

The speech act can actually supersede sentiment, from a narrative point of view. It is not uncommon for the text to emphasize a protagonist’s inability to say the words ‘I love you,’ even when his (usually the hero’s) feelings are clear to all: himself, the beloved, and the reader. The heroine may remark to herself or a confidante, “He loves me; that’s obvious. He just can’t bring himself to say the words.” Until the avowal occurs, however, the narrative tension remains.

Second, the love must be requited. Very often one or the other of the protagonists will discover and admit his/her feelings before the other. It’s not enough for only half of the couple to be in love, however, so if the words ‘I love you’ come but are not welcomed and reciprocated, the story is not yet complete. An apt example of an unfulfilling avowal is Mr. Darcy’s disastrous first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It certainly contains the requisite confession of love: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”[3] Darcy’s delivery betrays his pride and condescension, causing Elizabeth to reject his suit in the most scathing terms. Until both Darcy and Elizabeth’s feelings for one another have matured, the story remains incomplete.

There is another key requirement of just about any romance novel: the happy ending. In the romance world, the “Happily Ever After” (or HEA) is part of the author’s tacit compact with the reader. By the end of the book, the protagonists must be happily partnered, having resolved any obstacles that threatened or prevented the union. Such obstacles may be external, such as disapproving relatives, unequal socioeconomic status, or the threat of a villain who seeks to harm one of the protagonists. Conversely, sometimes obstacles may be entirely internal, as when a protagonist must conquer feelings of guilt or self-doubt that have kept him or her from embracing the potential relationship, or when one must learn to trust the other. At the end of the novel, some fallout from the obstacle(s) may linger, but it can no longer impede the union of the couple. They have formed a stable family, and the novel closes on a promise of a happy future.

So Gone With the Wind, while a highly romantic tale, is not a romance novel. The love story of protagonists Rhett and Scarlett is ultimately one of failure, manipulation, and missed chances. His final words to her in the novel are, “I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can’t. ... My dear, I don’t give a damn.”[4] This weary dismissal is the very antithesis of the love avowal that orients the romance genre.

Neither should we think of Romeo and Juliet as a romance. In a romance, protagonists are never allowed to die. They can be presumed dead for a stretch of the novel. They can be brought to the point of death (fever, gunshot, stampede). But they can’t be irrevocably killed off. This would destroy the HEA by permanently separating the protagonists. The only real exception to this rule is found in the paranormal subgenre, where supernatural forces can sometimes keep the hero and heroine united even when one of them dies.[5]

But what about one of Shakespeare’s comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing? It fulfills most of the key criteria of the genre, centering on the rocky but rollicking courtship of Benedick and Beatrice. With a bit of help from friends, the two are made to recognize their feelings for each other, and the play ends with couple’s impending nuptials as the hero proclaims, “Let’s have a dance ere/ we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts/ and our wives’ heels.”[6] If Much Ado had been written as a novel instead of a play, it would very likely be a romance. But as theater, it comes from a different literary tradition with its own generic conventions.[7] Comedies, for instance, classically end in marriage. Romance is the domain of narrative prose: novels, novellas, and short stories. Theater, as a performance-based genre, is one that shows. Romance is narrated; it tells and in so doing attempts to place the reader in the mind (and heart) of its protagonist(s).

So, to recap: Romances must bring protagonists to the point where they can acknowledge and reveal their mutual love and embark on a life together, having dispatched the obstacles preventing or threatening their union.

The risk of defining the genre, of course, is that where one seeks to describe, one may instead become overly prescriptive. In particular, the rise of increasingly elaborate series has been gradually chipping away at the HEA imperative. So I will be revisiting my criteria often with an eye toward identifying both outlying texts and sea-change moments within the genre that necessitate a reevaluation of its parameters.

I welcome responses to my definition: how well does it align with your understanding of the genre?

[1] Regis, Pamela, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), p. 14.
[2] Fletcher, Lisa, Historical Romance Fiction (2008), p. 1.
[3] Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813), Ch. 11.
[4] Mitchell, Margaret, Gone with the Wind (1936).
[5] A good example of this is J.R. Ward’s vampire romance Lover Unbound (2007), in which the heroine is brought back from death as a corporeal sort of ghost. Some novels also channel the Orpheus story in requiring the hero to rescue his beloved from the underworld or a demon dimension.
[6] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, scene 4.
[7] Generic (i.e., pertaining to genre) conventions are the tropes, structures, and other hallmarks by which a given genre is identified.


  1. I was delighted to learn about your blog today at Dear Author. What a wonderful new contribution to the scholarly discussion! Very glad to see you drawing on Fletcher and Regis here--I quite like your discussion of the teleology of the romance, which reminds me of An Goris's discussions of the HEA as the telos of the romance novel. Do you know Laura Vivanco's book on the Literary Art of the Harlequin / Mills & Boon Romance? It also seems relevant to the work you're going to do here.

    I do have some hesitations about your account of Regis, here. Her book was from 2003, and in 2009--and ever since--she very deliberately revised her definition to speak of "protagonists" rather than "heroines," precisely for the reasons that you cite. And even in the 2003 book, she points out that the betrothal element--like the other seven--can happen at any point in the narrative, and not just as a climactic moment. (That is, she accounts for the marriage of convenience and other plots you mention.) As for the "biological bond rather than the social contract," are there romance novels where that biological bond doesn't get supplemented by some conscious or deliberate choice on the part of at least one member of the couple--assented to, rather than simply experienced? I've only taught a few paranormal romances (Ward, Cole, a couple of others), but they don't seem to me that far from Regis's model, really.

  2. Thanks very much for your feedback!
    Your point about Regis's updated terminology is well taken. My primary difficulty with her definition is that it ultimately seems to be predicated upon plot markers rather than a general trajectory and telos.

    As for the biological rather than social contract, I was using social to mean not simply intimate assent within the couple but as bond that takes some sort of cultural (social) format. I say this because the notion of betrothal (even in an unconventional sense) entails some sort of eventual outside recognition of the couple's unified status. JR Ward definitely has both types in her novels, but when I wrote this post I was thinking in part of Emma Holly's paranormal erotic romances, which tend to give all non-biological forms of bonding minimal treatment.

  3. Welcome to the conversation! I realized that "heroines" was too limiting when someone asked, "Have you read E.M. Forster's _Maurice_"? I hadn't. I did. It's a great book, with two heroes, and, for me, a definition changer.

  4. Thanks, Anne, for the clarification about betrothal. I find your notion of "social recognition" as a necessary component of betrothal very interesting--hadn't ever thought about that myself. In some of the HFN romances I know, the social recognition element is handled very obliquely, but you may be right that it's still there, however implicitly.

    So great to have this new conversation started!

  5. In some of the HFN romances I know, the social recognition element is handled very obliquely, but you may be right that it's still there, however implicitly.

    Isn't that what Pam was getting at with the idea that one of the "accidental elements" is a

    Wedding, Dance, or Fete [...] The emphasis here is on inclusion, and this scene is promised in every romance, even if it is not dramatized. Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the community comes together to celebrate this. (38)

  6. Hi, Laura! Interesting point--it may be that I'm reading an "accidental element" as implying social recognition, even if the betrothal scene itself (or what takes its place) doesn't include that kind of social context.

    Anne, you mention Emma Holly's paranormals--is there a particular one you'd point me to that seems to lack the betrothal element, or the social recognition? It's been a while since I've read or taught Holly; I wonder whether I'd see something there you didn't, or vice versa.

  7. Pam: Absolutely. This genre keeps reinventing itself, maybe faster than we can account for it. Perhaps the most prudent approach would be to put a little asterisk on any definition with a note to watch this space. :-)

    And Eric: The Emma Holly books I'm thinking of are the demon paranormals, some of which really minimize any social context for a resolution to the relationship. Demon's Fire comes to mind. That series throughout emphasizes the biological bond as the driving force in the establishment of the relationship. It might also be the case in some of the novels of the Hidden series. A complicating factor may be that a number of these novels are MMF, MMMF, etc, and thus don't fall readily into social end-points that are readily recognizable in terms of betrothal.

  8. Thanks, Anne! I'll take a look at them. An interesting example of (to me, anyway) the symbolic substitution of sexual promise for betrothal comes in Alexis Hall's "There Will Be Phlogiston." A wonderful m/m/f novella, that. Maybe we're thinking about how menage affects the structure of romance here?

  9. I'll have to check that one out -- thanks very much for the tip! And yes, I think that menage's disruption of betrothal as an endpoint to romance is a big part of what's at stake; in Holly's work, it's converging with the paranormal emphasis on biological bonding (through hormone synchonicity, genetic profiles, etc.).