Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Romance with a Capital R : Or Why Genre Romance is a Thing

Once again, the debate about what constitutes a Romance rages across social media. Of course, I have an opinion. I have an opinion about everything. Even things I know nothing about. Like American politics. After all, I have watched Dave, The American President and Wag the Dog numerous times. I also saw All the Presidents Men in the cinemas back when it was first out. I get to have an opinion.
Anyway…subject in hand. Romance. Genre Romance in particular.

Not a Romance under present guidelines...but back when it was written...maybe a small r romance.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…you get the drift. A romance was any novel that wasn’t true. It was a made-up story. It was purely coincidental that Jane Austen wrote romance in the form of what is known these days as what I shall call capital R romance.
Early last century, Mills and Boon published romances. They might have been about a dog in the wilderness and written by a man. But they were considered romances because some author sat in his garret and “romanced” about a dog in the wilderness.

Somewhere between the Great War and the Great War Part II…it’s all about semantics…women became a force in reading. Not that we didn’t always read, once we were allowed to learn to do it, but women also developed buying power and they wanted to read romantic stories about love that didn’t necessarily end up in tragedy. Because any woman daring to “love” in literature almost invariably came to a bad end.

It was also in this era that genre started to really become a thing. We had the Golden Age Mystery writers like Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Wentworth, Marsh. A very stylised distinct type of mystery. Not new but suddenly everywhere and available everywhere. Serialised in magazines, in libraries for a modest subscription, eventually in paperback (pulp fiction). We won’t talk about the rather sordid tales of PI’s and loose women who eventually ended up dead. The thing is, you knew what you were getting. A neat mystery with a satisfactory solution that the reader might almost guess before the big reveal.

This was also a time of growth for science fiction. Another genre. Once again, magazines, library books, pulp fiction with lovely lurid covers, often with semi-clad females. When they weren’t being murdered over in the mystery genre, they were tangling with aliens and probably coming to a bad end.

It is interesting that most of the Golden Age Mysteries writers included romance in their mysteries. This was also the Era when Georgette Heyer invented the Regency Romance. She started off writing small r historical romances but in the end, only a handful of her books are not considered true Romances under the modern definition.

So, it’s obvious there was a badly needed genre for women who dared to love to get their happy ending. Romance had a bit of a dodgy start, but by the fifties we pretty much knew what we expected from them. One main protagonist we could relate to, a hero suitable for her to redeem and a background cast of characters to provide colour. Occasionally there was a girl somewhere who came to a bad end. Usually for daring to love the hero. Still working on that one.

An interesting sideline. When Harlequin started to acquire Romances from Mills & Boon for the American market, they had to be cleaned up a little. No sordid bigamy, children out of wedlock and suchlike nasty things that those decadent English readers tolerated. The American market still has some idiosyncrasies. But that’s a story for another day.

The real story behind capital R romance is the marketing machine. Because Romance readers are demanding and voracious. They consume more books than any other segment of the reading market. They have very specific demands and the marketing machine know that if they want to capture all that filthy lucre, they have to give them what they want.

What do they want? Happiness. They want to go on a journey that ends up with a Happy Ever After. Romance readers know that in real life, a happy ever after is as elusive as the unicorn. That moments of happiness are as hard to hold onto as dandelion fluff in the wind. If they are going to engage with the protagonists, go on a journey that is often fraught with tears and angst, they want the big reward at the end. They want the fairy tale. They want to believe that love triumphs AND survives. They want it ALL.

When they pay their money, they aren’t buying the sweat of some authors brow, the pain of RSI from typing until all hours to get the book done on time. They aren’t even buying the pretty cover, although they are a nice bonus. They are buying the feels. The feels they get from suffering along with their protagonists and that magical, almost unbelievable happiness when somehow, despite everything, it all comes out right at the end.

What am I trying to say here? I’m saying that we want something with certain ingredients, we label it. You want muesli with oats, sunflower seeds, sultanas and nuts, you check the label. You get home and eat the muesli and discover cranberries in it and you hate cranberries, you are going to be unhappy. You might leave the bowl half full. You might chuck the packet at the wall in disgust. You did not get what you wanted. What you paid for.

From the Romance Wiki: “Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."

Much has been made of the phrase “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” by those who say that it doesn’t matter if one of the romantic couple dies so long as the other partner is optimistic about the future and emotionally satisfied even if grieving their heart out for the loved one. IT IS NOT ABOUT THEM. It is about the reader. 

Do you really find it emotionally satisfying when you are left grieving the might have beens? When one partner of a romantic couple you have emotionally engaged with is left ALONE. That is not romantic. The love affair might have been romantic. The end of it is not. That is tragic. We might find it absolutely wonderful writing, deeply moving, a literary tour de force. It is not a Romance. We expect both, preferably all, the lovers to survive. Because it is a journey and the destination is supposed to be HEA/HFN for all the main protagonists. Like the marines, we don’t leave anyone behind.

When you are dealing with a product purchased by millions of people who have a specific recipe they want to buy, you label it correctly. Romance is now a label. Romance with a capital R, aka genre romance, is shorthand for saying, when you buy this book it will have the essential ingredients you want. There will be love. There will be people we hope you relate to. Most of all, those people we hope you like will end up happy (and mostly alive, bearing in mind paranormal romance) at the end, no matter what happens to them on the journey. We promise you this.

It's a promise. A happy ever after promise. Do NOT break that promise. People will not forgive you. You don’t have to make that promise to make people read your book. If your book does not have a HEA you don’t have to pretend it does. If it’s a good book, people will read it. They will tell other people to read it. If you lie about your book people will be sad and upset. They will feel betrayed. They will tell other people not to buy your book. Even if it is a good book. Because you promised something you didn’t deliver. You stole their money under false pretences and expected them to swallow the cranberries just because you thought it made the muesli better. Tastier. More meaningful. *cough* Literary.