Here is a dictionary definition of the word ‘romance’: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love; a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. And here is a definition of romance when it is used with relation to a story: a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealised way.
These definitions are essential, I think, when it comes to the categorisation of books. My own books are romance novels. They are characterised by the excitement and mystery associated with love, and they are fantasies, removed from everyday life. They are sentimental, and in a sense they are idealised – but not to the point where they are unrealistic.
The key to romance is that the reader can escape their everyday life into a story world that is beautiful and moving (sentimental, idealised) but also vivid and believable. There is a line to be drawn, however, in true romance when it comes to realism. It is not mysterious and exciting and idealised and remote from everyday life for a romance to end in separation, especially that wrought by death.
Gone with the Wind is popularly regarded as one of the best novels of the last century – and I agree. But is it, as many people class it, a romance novel? I don’t agree that it is characterised by a ‘remoteness from everyday life’; I think much of the power of the book lies in its realism. Margaret Mitchell did not write a happy-ever-after ending for her heroine: Rhett leaves Scarlett. The author herself did not know what would have happened to her characters after the book’s ending; she told Yank magazine in 1945, ‘For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less – difficult.’
There is a tendency to categorise all kinds of books as romances simply because within the overarching story there is a story of two characters falling in love. That love story may be only a small part of the whole; it may be an unhealthy kind of love (obsessive, for example); it may well end badly for one or both parties.
Consider some of ‘the greatest love stories’, those of Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Tragedies, all of them. Romantic, absolutely, in places; but romantic overall, in the big picture?
Why categorise so many books as romances when they are entrenched in realism and do not ‘deal with love in a sentimental or idealised way’? Because we lack genres in which to place these books. ‘Women’s literature’ just doesn’t adequately convey the content of many books (and it unfairly matches gender to novel; who is to say a man can’t read a book in which love features?).
Does it even matter? For readers like me, the answer is ‘yes’, because when I read a romance I expect romance – not to have my heartbroken by an unhappy ending. That ending may be clever and gritty and powerful, but it’s not romantic: romance is by definition idealised to some degree.
My own books are romance novels, but because they are mixed in among so many different kinds of books in the genre, I wonder how many readers know what to expect when they choose one of my novels to read: do they expect my heroine to end up having loved and lost?
What we need, I think, is more sub-genres within the romance genre, to provide readers with clear, honest information that will help them determine whether a book is to their taste. No one likes spoilers, of course, but there are romance readers who, when suitably informed, will choose not to read a book with harrowing content and a non-romantic ending. (In the same vein, all readers have their own preference when it comes to sexual content: ‘clean’ romance books may be marketed as such, but there is a vast grey area between that and ‘erotic fiction’.)
What do you think of genre classifications? Do they signpost sufficiently to ensure that you enjoy the books you choose? What new sub-genres would you introduce if you could, to help you and other readers find (and avoid) particular kinds and styles of novels? Do you think genres should be formalised rather than dictated by booksellers? I would love to hear your thoughts.