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  • Hannah Fielding - Romance Novelist

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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.

  • TREKnRay

    One of my favorite romantic suspense novels is The Lonely Girls Club by Suzanne Forster. I bought it in a supermarket many years ago. I was walking through the book aisle when I spotted an unusual cover.
    There were four women in the story. One woman’s story was complete, but the other three were open ended. They should have been sequels, but the publisher retained the rights.
    Another favorite author, T.J. MacGregor killed off the male in the dark romance series after several books. It was sad, but I am glad I read the book.

    I like to read or listen to a book even with a sad ending if I like the way the author writes. I just finished an audio-book in which the main character was assaulted in a previous novel. Her boyfriend who was a San Diego detective who killed her attacker was killed at the end of the book I just finished. She was an SDPD evidence tech, a skill she learned in the previous book, finding evidence about her own attacker.
    The detective kept wanting to protect her. In the end he couldn’t protect himself.
    The book ends with the FBI agent who helped her in the previous book and is the lead investigator in catching a serial killer, keeps asking her for her thoughts on the case because she is good enough to be an agent and wants to know why she doesn’t join the FBI. After a period of morning, the last sentence in the book is, “Welcome to Quantico,” by her FBI friend. I would classify this as romantic in the old Cisco Kid and Lone Ranger model.

    I prefer books with a female lead. Female detectives are a favorite of mine. Romantic suspense is a favorite sub genre. I don’t want to know in advance if the ending is sad or HEA. I prefer the happy ever after, but it is not a requirement. My investment in the story is in the journey more than the destination. What I don’t like is reading a book that is advertised as a best seller or by a best selling author. I don’t like something like hundred or thousands of recommendations on Good Reads, etc. I like what appeals to me in the blurb or the title. Standardizing sub genres, might bring an end to a ton of books that are not someone’s cup of tea. I like the idea.

    • hannahfielding

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s refreshing to know that some readers aren’t swayed by loud marketing hooks but prefer to ‘click’ with the synopsis and that affinity with writing style counts for a lot. I will look up these authors you’ve mentioned; I love recommendations! Best wishes, Hannah

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