Thursday, March 3, 2016

Romance is Dead

I've been thinking about the romance genre lately, and here's my observation.

I'm going to use a food analogy, since I love food. And analogies.

You can't clump all food books together into one category. Some food books are cookbooks, some are travel journals, some are fiction and some are non-fiction. Some are about baking bread and some are about restaurant life and some are about making sushi in Japan.

And if you insisted that EVERY book about food had to be categorized under the same umbrella term--FOOD--it would be confusing and ineffective and make no sense.

Some folks are looking for cookbooks about French food. And some folks want to read about Anthony Bourdain's experience as a sous-chef. And some want to read culinary cozy mysteries.

And so we have sub-categories, created by publishers and booksellers to facilitate sales and help customers identify the correct book for their "taste."

So what does this have to do with the romance genre?

At some point we need to realize that romance doesn't actually exist. There is no romance genre. You could argue that it must have a central love story and a happy ending, but even those parameters are no longer applicable.

The thing is...every reader has a very personal idea about what "romance" is--in general terms, and for the genre itself.

Some folks think books with criminal motorcycle club dudes who humiliate their "women" are romance.

Some folks think books with abduction, torture, and rape should be categorized as romance.

Should erotica and romance be clumped together under the same umbrella? Christian inspirational books with stepbrothers and stepfathers deflowering the new virgin in the family?

Just because these books have relationship arcs does not mean they belong in the same group. If your book has more than one person in it, it includes relationships. These relationships may or may not include love stories and/or sex.

Some "romance" novels have no sex.

Some "romance" novels have graphic orgies.

Honestly, erotica, erotic romance, and romance have no business being clumped together.

But it gets even dicier than that. Because the core concept of "romance" is now blurry.

This group is fragmented for a reason.

Simple, really.


We just don't.

Just like the reader who is obsessed with baking bread could give two shits about Anthony Bourdain's chef experience, the Christian inspirational "romance" reader is appalled by books with stepbrother orgies.

And the person who loves "edgy" NA books thinks the squeaky clean Harlequins are for fuddy-duds.

We don't belong together.

But the publishing industry knows one thing. ROMANCE SELLS.

Romance novels sell...A LOT.

And so, if you slap "romance" on a book description--with a generic cover and title and blurb--your sales will rise.

What does this mean?

It means that the term "romance" as a publishing tool is meaningless. It could be used on a porno book just as easily as an inspirational.

It means that readers have a more difficult time finding books, unless you're sticking with tried-and-true authors you trust.

I think arguing about what "real" romance is--as a genre--is a pointless task. Romance is a personal thing, conceptually and genre-related as well. There are readers who still point to Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood historicals and say "that's what real romance is supposed to be."

And there are new romance readers who have never heard of these authors. Their ideas about romance are totally different.

Trying to fit all these books into one category is ridiculous. It's not helpful for the reader searching for the right book, and it's certainly not helpful for the authors who are trying to find appropriate readers.

But I don't think the industry cares. It cares about making money. And "ROMANCE" sells.

So who cares if your romance novel doesn't actually include a hero or a happy ending?

I care, cried the dinosaur.


Blodeuedd said...

*hides in a cave with books which has HEAs and rainbows and unicorns*

Penny Watson said...


extraordinary ordinary whimsy said...

All good points. Way too broad of a category.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Yup. Things have gotten curiouser and curiouser. Oh, I like your new banner photo. ;-)

Lexxi Callahan said...

Can I bring my blanket fort to the cave? I have brownies.

I think Amazon could help this by creating more specific subcategories under contemporary instead of using keywords. but that's just me

Anny Cook said...

For several years now, when asked what I write, I've answered 'fiction'. As you've pointed out, all the other stuff is meaningless. Really? How do you categorize a semi-contemporary story about the blue-skinned inhabitants of a secret valley who have paranormal abilities and odd mating practices? Is it fantasy? Or paranormal? Or romance? Or...what if it turns out the people are an alien race fleeing their destroyed home planet? Then what is it? Fiction. That's what it is.

ilookfamous said...

I totally agree, especially given some of my reading habits : who we old have thought to find a budding romance in a book advertised as a take on modern day cannibalism?

ilookfamous said...

*would *

Penny Watson said...

Hi Juju! I feel like a lot of these books should be called "relationship" books but NOT romance. I don't think that will catch on...hee hee!

Penny Watson said...

Hi Handy Man ;)

Thank you about the banner. I feel a storm coming...

Penny Watson said...

Lexxi--plenty of room in the cave! Yes, Amazon could help, but as long as authors miscategorize their books, it won't make a difference.

Penny Watson said...

Anny Cook--I like the way you think! If you really write cross-genre stuff, FICTION is the right answer. I'm right there with you!

Penny Watson said...

EM Barton--My favorite reads at the moment are mysteries with plenty of romance. They have just the right blend of character development, plot, and romance for me.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Anny -

I always categorize my books as "beach reads." Books you don't have to concentrate on too hard, but that will keep your interest.


Julia Barrett said...

Yeah, I think I'll go reread some of my old favorites. Good story. Great characters. A lot of romance... A happy ending.

Penny Watson said...

Laura--My books are beach-reads, too! That's a great way to describe low angst-high happy books. Love it!

Penny Watson said...

Julia...I definitely see a difference in the rom books published 10 years ago vs. now. All those things you pointed out are mostly a sure thing. Not so much anymore.

E.E.Burke said...

You really nailed the problem, but it's a tough one to resolve for the very reason you said. Everyone interprets "romance" differently. As you point out, it has gone from a genre definition to a general term for everything from love stories to the extreme sex (to put it mildly).

In some ways, it would be so nice to go back to what I call "classic" romance. Then again, we've been able to broaden and deepen the stories we write because authors have pushed the envelope. The entire industry has fragmented, and we are suffering more than any genre because Romance is such a broad term. Categorization is based on on the brick and mortar model of shelving books.

What's the answer? I'm not sure... But I agree with Lexxi that Amazon needs to provide more useful categories. When I go to select, I can't drill down to what really fits my books. I write Western historical romance, also American historical romance. These are long-standing categories in reader's minds, but you won't be able to select these per se when publishing a book on Amazon. You have to select: Romance, historical, and then choose some time period or interest group they've decided on. Vikings are more popular than Western? Really? To get to Western, you have to select Romance, Western. That puts you with contemporary Westerns. Some readers like both contemporary Westerns and historical, but many don't.

I'll give you another example of fragmentation. The "sweet" romance category. I can't tell you how many times I hear readers say something is or isn't "sweet," and then go into a ratings discussion that's almost comical in how detailed it can get. Is there tongue when they kiss? Grinding? Sexual urges? Are there curse words? Offensive situations? Would you rate it G or PG? It's important to them, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it makes it difficult to agree on a category. We long to categorize, but we live in a culture that wants more customization.

Like I said, I don't have an answer...but I do long to see more classic romance.

Penny Watson said...

EE Burke...that's fascinating about the "sweet" romance category. Which sort of illustrates my point about how personal "romance" is...each reader has her own idea what is acceptable.

And I also miss "classic" romance so much!