Romance, A Genre Bound By Limitations?
What defines a romance novel? The RWA, or Romance Writers of America, has stated the definition of romance is a love story that concludes on an optimistic note for the protagonists. Either a “Happily Ever After” or “Happy For Now” ending will suffice.
Some authors and readers balk at this description, saying it constricts the full scope of emotions and experiences.
However, all genre fiction has guidelines. Imagine a mystery where the audience never finds out whodunnit. Yes, there are thrillers where the bad guy gets away with the crime. Regardless, the reader knows who is behind it by the conclusion, even if the authorities do not. Science fiction that posits no speculation, no technological changes, or creates nothing different from our world isn’t science fiction.
Detractors of romance do so in part because the genre demands a happy, upbeat ending. Some literary critics turn up their noses at the idea. “How puerile to believe in true love or love that requires a lifetime of commitment and fidelity!”
Readers counter they are familiar with love in all its variations. They merely seek out HEAs in fiction, perhaps as a form of escapism from the harsh realities of life. In turn, that explanation is derided as unsophisticated. Such notions are for children’s fairy tales, not “serious literature.”
Labels can be limiting or deceptive. A single work of fiction can belong to multiple categories. I recently read a book classified as “Christian Heavy Metal Pulp.” Using a Venn diagram, one finds novels can belong to several genres. Literary fiction can likewise be a mystery, just as romance can be fantasy, erotica, science fiction, suspense…
And just about everything else. An intentional attempt at one genre can result in an accidental romance novel.
The Literary Roots of Romance
Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela (Or Virtue Rewarded) is generally considered the first English language “romance.” It’s been criticized for the hero’s attempts to ravish the heroine. Pamela’s acquiescence and blind adoration of Mr. B confound academics. The plot revolves around love, culminating with the heroine reforming the rake–ostensibly so.
It’s impossible to discuss romance and not mention Jane Austen. Without Pride and Prejudice, one wonders if the genre would even exist. Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park are classics in the annals of romance.
Other literature doing double duty is Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which addresses the rigidity of class structure. Charlotte Bronte’s morality play Jane Eyre is a Gothic romance. The respective couplings of Margaret & Thornton and Jane & Mr. Rochester result in matrimony.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights portrays how a powerful amour transcends death. For that reason, it is not a direct predecessor of modern romance. Cathy and Heathcliff’s ghosts haunting the moors for eternity don’t make for the uplifting conclusion the genre requires. It may be “romantic,” but a romance it is not.
The great writer and poet Thomas Hardy created beautiful, depressing novels denouncing the constrictive social mores of his time. His virtuous characters acted in ways considered immoral. Therefore, they often came to unfortunate ends. One exception was Far From the Madding Crowd‘s independent heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Her road to true love is rocky. She finds it with her friend, the solid shepherd, Gabriel Oak.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is a sublime work encompassing many themes. It addresses religion, spirituality, nationalism, society, technology, and love in myriad forms–including Eros, Agape, Philos, and Mania. Although the lengthy tome is titled Anna Karenina, the book is more than just about Anna’s doomed love. Besides her ill-fated, torrid affair with Count Vronsky, a parallel romance between Levin and Kitty unfurls slowly over time, culminating in domestic bliss.
Twentieth Century Un-Romances
By the end of the Victorian Era, readers were consuming love stories with happy endings in droves. The books featured pure-hearted heroines finding their ever-afters with handsome lords and titans of industry. Much like today, these novels were commercially successful. Yet they received critical hatred and were dismissed as poorly-written, formulaic melodramas.
In the future, Sweet Savage Flame plans to document the history of romances in the 20th century before The Flame and the Flower, which was the progenitor of the modern era.
Fiction That Some Think Are Romances, But They’re Not!
Here, we note some books that are misperceived as “true” romances.
Margaret Mitchell wrote the “Great American Novel,” Gone With the Wind. Kathleen Windsor’s Cavalier-Era romp, Forever Amber, was influenced by the Pulitzer Prize-winning saga of Scarlett O’Hara’s love life during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras. Both were romantic epics, but not romances.
Boris Pasternak’s Noble-Prize-winning Dr. Zhivago depicts a love story for the ages. After years of separation, the main character, Yuri, dies of a heart attack while married to another woman. His true love, Lara, disappears, presumably to a gulag.
Robert Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County was a huge hit in the 1990s. Oprah Winfrey touted it as a thrilling “romance,” displaying the general public’s misunderstanding of the genre’s conventions. The brief affair between a married woman and a photographer made for a passionate tale, but that’s all. The protagonists did not end up HEA.
Often cited as a romance author, Nicholas Sparks actually writes romantic fiction. What’s the difference? The endings!
A Walk to Remember and Message In a Bottle depict main characters who die. As both husband and wife die at the finale of The Notebook, it’s not genre romance. However, I’ve read a few books with epilogues where happy couples die of old age. So that one might be a gray area.
On the other hand, Sparks’ short novel, The Wedding, where a man secretly plans a lavish ceremony for his and his wife’s anniversary, ends happily. So it does qualify as an accidental romance, as the main theme involves their relationship.
Modern Fiction That Doubles As a Romance
Consider the definition of modern romance, and let’s evaluate individual works of fiction by that standard.
A book can transcend its intent. Once the masses consume art, the creator loses absolute control over it. An author with literary pretensions may swear their novel isn’t a romance, but love is unstoppable. If a romantic relationship is integral to the story and concludes on an optimistic note, that is a romance novel!
Below is a brief list of works written as literary or genre fiction published between 1900 and 2000. As these depict love stories with HEAs, they also qualify as romance novels
The Accidental Romances of the 20th Century
- A Room With A View (1908) – E. M. Forster
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) – D.H. Lawrence
- The Golden Hawk (1948) – Frank Yerby
- A Woman Called Fancy (1951) – Frank Yerby
- Speak Now (1969) – Frank Yerby
- Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – Gabriel García Márquez
- The Accidental Tourist (1985) – Anne Tyler
- Lucky (1985) – Jackie Collins
- Exit to Eden (1985) – Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)
- Belinda (1986) – Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)
- The Princess Bride (1987) – William Goldman
- Outlander (1991) – Diana Gabaldon
- American Star (1993) – Jackie Collins
- High Fidelity (1995) – Nick Hornby
Have you read books that weren’t written as romances but adhere to the genre’s standards? Do you enjoy romances that straddle different categories? Please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.