A View of the Humble Romance Genre

by LimebirdCat

First of all, an apology. I’m sorry – I have been away for a very long time due to illness. I’m currently away from my ‘real-life’ job too because of it, so naturally I am taking a hiatus from Limebirds too. This is hopefully not going to be for too long I hope, but until I’m fit and well again, I’m afraid there is a minimal service from me.

As I’ve agonised over my magnum opus, I have decided to read around the genre a little, to perhaps give myself some inspiration. The story is a romance and a thriller, so I’ve had to have a jolly good look at those areas.

When I was being taught Art at High School, I was told that emulating another artist was a good way of starting out and finding your own style. I was rather in love with the work by Charlie Adlard, a comic book artist and the late, great Beryl Cook. I am no great artist by any means, but the point is, is that emulating can help sometimes.

I didn’t particularly want to emulate other writers, more familiarise myself with the genre a tad and seek out the formula’s within the novels. Reading around and seeing what is formulaic is such a helpful thing to do. It shows you in a lot of ways what the audience expects from that kind of area, hence its usage and popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot, probably far too much, romance fiction recently. Most of it is historical and mostly written by American or American-based authors writing about 19th century Britain.

Over my many readings of many novels, I have identified a few features that I find particularly interesting.

First up, Americanisms are a major distraction for me. British people do not say ‘fall’ instead of Autumn.  Nor do we drop the letter ‘u’ from words like ‘color’. As I’m reading along, I’ve been able to identify if a book is really well written by how distracting I find the use of what I term Americanisms. If I’m dragged away from the voice and the perception of the piece by these small flaws in the narrators voice, I get pretty cross if the book is really good. Sometimes the author has tried extremely hard to get the language spot on, not just by modern British standards, but by Victorian standards too. I appreciated that extra hard work. It really shows so as a reader I can forgive these ‘slips’.

In those cases, I can forgive the odd slip. In fact, the story can be so engrossing, that I only discover the writer is American, or writing to an American audience, because they’ve used the word ‘color’. Otherwise, I would have thought the writer was British, so convincing were they. The novel ‘Unravelled’ by Courtney Milan is a very good example of a well-researched novel with a convincing voice. The writer even went to the records office in Bristol, UK, to research her book. That level of dedication raises the humble romance novel to a new height.

Similarly though, if a British writer is writing in an American voice and they get words wrong, that can irk me too. The best example I can think of where a British writer has gone all-out on writing a novel completely in an American voice is EL James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. She spells colour without the ‘u’, calls a handbag a purse and her character goes to the bathroom, rather than the loo. I did get a sense of the writer’s voice with this – EL James tried to convince us that the narrator was American.

There are flaws – of course there are. There are a lot of turns of phrase that are distinctly British and this can distract the reader from the story, even a British reader. I’m expecting the narrator to speak to me with an identifiably American lexicon, so I am jarred from my reading by some quintessentially British idioms that wander in.

Voice is important in any genre though, so romance novels are not alone. I think that romance novels, especially the historical ones, are simply a good example.

There is the subject of adult situations that take place in a lot of romance novels. Modern romance has no qualms in getting everyone stripped off and having a jolly romp. I think that that is okay and can happen – but it has to be contextual and justifiable. It has to aid the story and have its place in the narrative. Frankly, there have been some novels where the hero and heroine seem to have problems being able to keep their clothing ON. It turns the story into little more than a predictable, eye-rolling series of ‘encounters’.

When I read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ I was fed up the constant love scenes. As I got to book three in the series, I was desperate for them to just crack on with the plot. The plot itself was quite interesting and I really was rooting for the characters by the end – a sign of a good book in my opinion.

My favourite novel of all time is ‘Jane Eyre’, a novel I class as a romance. There is absolutely no hanky panky in this story; in fact, it’s a major plot point that Jane will not behave in that way. She values herself more than to allow herself to be the mistress of some rich bloke, nor did she find committing adultery palatable in the least. Morals strongly held by the Bronte sisters themselves. Some may say society today could learn from Jane’s example.

For me, Jane Eyre is the best romance novel. The tension between her and Rochester is utterly compelling and deeply charged. Let’s not beat about the bush, it is an obviously sexual tension they experience. Yet, despite the attraction and the depth of emotion they do experience, it all comes down to Jane not being willing to defile herself in anything that was ‘unpure’ by her standards. This chastens Rochester and perhaps brings about some self-re-examination on his part.

The escapades of the heroines that are placed in her era by modern writers would fill Jane and Bronte alike with contempt.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, is that sex isn’t needed for a romance to be, well, a romance. Yes, it famously sells, but it is not necessary. I’ve definitely seen a pattern emerge from all the novels I’ve read, in that the more the couple end up in bed, the more I’ve become bored of the story and even flipped over those scenes to just get back to the plot.

Another feature that I’ve seen appear in romance novels, as well as other types of genres, are the annoying subplots. I don’t care if the hero’s brother is getting off with his childhood sweetheart, ten years since they’ve seen each other. I just want to know about the tricky situation over a pound note going on with the hero and heroine.

Not all subplots are bad by any means. To be honest, some can offer light relief and texture to the main plot. I object to them when they offer nothing at all to the main story and act simply as fillers and asides.

A really, really good romance novel I read last year had a deeply annoying subplot or two running in the background. The novel was ‘His at Night’ by Sherry Thomas. It even won a few awards too as I recall reading, so it is a really good book and terribly diverting.

I just objected to being made to read about the hero’s brother. I understand why it’s in there and I completely get the purpose for it, but I just think it’s a sign that the main story is so successful that the minor subplots pale in comparison. I think that is certainly something to watch out for when writing them. Do they add to the story? Are they blatantly being outshone by the main plot, ergo exasperating the reader?

A commonly recurring thing is ‘damage’. A lot of the protagonists appear to be two damaged people who find each other. In ‘Unravelled’, Smite was abused by his mentally ill mother as a child and Miranda was left orphaned on the streets as a kid. Yet, they find each other and ultimately happiness together. In ‘What I Did for a Duke’ for Julie Anne Long, Genevieve is heartbroken and Moncrieffe lost a wife and child years before. Same outcome as the Thomas novel. Even when we look at my favourite ever novel, Jane Eyre, we can see this pattern: orphaned, unwanted and unloved Jane finds love with Rochester who was tormented by the arranged marriage he was put through to make his family happy.

Less frequently, we see one protagonist as a strong, undamaged person, trying to ‘save’ their damaged romantic interest. A very good example of this is seen in Ana and Christian in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

It does make the plots a tad predictable and a bit repetitive. The more you read around the genre, the more you see this being repeated. I’m sure other genres have their little plot foibles too, but it’s interesting to flag up.

Another very general point that I’ve encountered when it comes to romance writing is the pigeon holing and bad press it gets. People see it as kitsch porno’s that are easily mocked parodied. The term ‘mucky novel’ or ‘dirty book’ are too readily assigned to this area in writing. I think it’s woefully unfair to stereotype or putdown a novel because it subscribes to a certain genre. I actually really like romance writing. It’s engaging and diverting, two things I always want from a book – like any reader.

Admittedly, some of it is a bit melodramatic and trite and you can easily understand how parodies such as Twitters ‘fifty sheds of grey’ sprang up. I guess though, that this is simply one of its stigmas that it has to endure to account for some of the more poorly written works.

The above are just my takes on things I see recurring over and over again, which I think is so interesting.  I do absolutely still love romance novels though and will keep reading them, as I will other genres I read. They have their formulas, which can be annoying at times, but some are clearly written with a very clear eye for detail and a flair for narrative description that it makes it a genre never to deride or ignore.

I’m not sure when I will post again as I’m not sure how long this blasted illness will last. Never fear though, I will return as Limebirds is such an important forum with a fantastic writing team and readership. Tis’ a pleasure, nay, an honour to be counted within their number.

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8 Comments to “A View of the Humble Romance Genre”

  1. An interesting post and eloquently put. It is something I’ve been aware of but not the reasons why. I usually just lump together as boring or repetitive. I wonder if some writers think their readers are stupid. Get well soon!

  2. Great post – hope you are feeling better soon.

  3. First, hope you get over your illness soon, Cat. We can’t have a Limebird not flying happy and healthy!

    Second, you bring up a lot of thoughtful points in this post, over which I’ve had to mull these last few hours.

    I think you’re right that romance as a genre gets a bit of a bad rap, because so many “bestsellers” fall into the traps you mention. But, I think they’re designed that way, in order to sell best. Many books seem to try to appeal to as large a cross-section of readers as possible. The least common denominator issue, perhaps? That may create a story more easily sold, but not a story more easily told, or read, for that matter.

    I’m a weird semi-proponent of the genre, though, so my opinion is likely a bit off. I love classic romances (Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite stories of all time, and, while I have a difficult time slogging through Joseph’s scenes in Wuthering Heights, I still find the overall story lovely). But, I have yet to read a modern romance that sticks with me for more than a minute after setting it down.

    I say I’m odd because I adore writing modern romances, even though I don’t enjoy reading them. I know, a cardinal sin for a writer, not to read and absorb her “competition.” I don’t like calling my stories “romances,” though. I prefer to think of them as love stories. I see the difference as the one being strictly about the romance, while the other is about love, and all the growth, experience, and drama that such a love can (should?) encompass. Thus, I likely fall into that problem area you mention, with the subplots not directly related to the main love affair. 🙂 I enjoy focusing on a main couple in my love stories, but I also enjoy examining the other relationships that build the characters from damaged/incomplete separates into a more fulfilled whole.

    Hm. Sorry for talking so much about me, but it’s hard to separate my idea of what I like in a good “romance” without the back story. Hopefully, I didn’t bore you too much. 🙂 The post really made me think about my chosen genre, though, and I couldn’t let it pass by without commenting.

  4. Great post Cat, we’ve missed you! I hope you recover soon. I have to admit that romance is not my gender of choice but I have read some of them. I guess I have to be different, as long as there aren’t too many I enjoy all of the little side stories. I like how a good author weaves them into the narrative and then draws everything together in the end. It helps with the sense of completion.
    I agree with you on so many things, you’ve brought up many good points. The use of language to draw in 🙂 or snap us out 😦 of our reading is so very important. I haven’t read the fifty shades books, I’ve heard too many bad things about them but I have read Jane Eyre and agree with your assessment there. A love story can definitely be told well without the gratuitous sex that so many rely on these days. I love it when an author stays true to the values I have tried to pass on to my daughter. Be well!

  5. Great points. I so agree about Jane Eyre as well. Great story, and doesn’t belittle the female character. In fact it makes her stronger, which is what we want more of not less! Hope you get better soon.

  6. Thank you for such a well thought out analysis, Cat. I hope you return to the blogging world when your health is back on track.

    I think Downton Abbey is a good example of engaging romance writing for the screen. And I think it’s ALWAYS best to never let the romantic leads get what they want–unless it’s time for the series to end. I think a refreshing take would be to write “the great love that got away” story. There are far fewer of these type, I think. And I can’t help but think of James Joyce’s story, The Dead, as the greatest love story (for a short story) of all time in this latter category.

    • I agree, the one that got away makes a much better story in my opinion.

      My vote for this would be Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Although, within the metafictional novel written by Briony, the lovers are reunited after Dunkirk.

  7. I do hope you recover soon Cat!

    An interesting post. A lot of genres of course have formulas that they tend to follow, I guess if something works people don’t want to break the mould, but it can get predictable if you read a lot in one genre. Romance novels do have a bit of a bad rep, they’re seen as trashy and not proper literature often, and we think of Mills and Boon (not that I’ve ever read a Mills and Boon novel, that I can remember anyway, so I shouldn’t judge them!). But as you say some of the classics are wonderfully romantic and far from trashy.

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