What constitutes a romance? When is something Capital R Romance vs. a story in another genre with romantic elements? When does the line fall so thin that Capital R Romance lovers don’t really care?
There’s been a lot of talk on the bookish interwebs recently about the nature of romance—romance novels in particular. Essays have been written; Twitter threads have been shared. What spurred it? The HEA.
For those unfamiliar with romance acronyms, HEA stands for Happily Ever After. It’s a necessity in romance that has been a familiar friend since the publishing boom in the nineteenth century.
But what, in essence, is a romance?
In print, on film, in whatever medium you choose, a romance is a story in which the primary plot involves two or more people falling in love. It ends in some kind of permanent relationship, whether that relationship has been determined an HEA (Happily Ever After) or a HFN (Happy For Now). Conflicts have been overcome, feelings have been declared, and everyone—including the reader—can sigh in bliss and move forward with their lives. Of course, a romance can have other plot elements. That’s what subgenres are for. But the core of Capital R Romance is this: people meet. They fall in love at a pace determined by the author. Things happen that make their relationship difficult or impossible. They overcome those things. They kiss, and the story ends. (Okay, not always that last one.)
Anyone with an inkling of the history of books knows this whole thing pretty much started with the advent of the Three Volume Novel in English. While adventure stories and moral plays had been produced in print before them, an increase in literate women helped to elevate the numbers of stories about women in love. Of course, there were false starts; gothic novels were sensational, but could end with a woman being ruined and learning the error of their ways. Passion was wrong, and abandoning your family for an unsuitable match would be even more so. The influences of the Restoration and the Methodist expansion led to the suppression of many ideas (including rewriting several of Shakespeare’s comedies to have a more moral message). In the later part of the Georgian period (as George III grew more and more ill and his advisors took over), and into the Regency (when the crown was held in trust for a monarch too young to rule), literate society found new ways to spread amusement.
You probably know where I’m going with this: Jane Austen.
If you want an example of a proto-romance romance novelist, it’s Jane Austen. Male and female (but mostly female) readers of her novels were interested in stories that ended in a wedding. Well, a desired wedding. Mostly. And they read them for the same reasons we do:
Seeing someone in a better situation than yours.
Having hope for a future that is unknown.
Loving happy stories.
As we know, the canon has been maintained for centuries by men (and women) who believe happy stories about love and marriage are particularly inferior unless there is something “special” in their writing style … or of course, they were written by men. Only a few names of the authors publishing those three volume novels with weddings endings have made it into the canon, but the prolific publication of pulp novels in several genres (romance, mystery, adventure) continued well into the twentieth century.
To the point where today, romance titles alone produce 2 billion dollars a year for the publishing industry. And that does not include the other methods of exchange in places where romances are very popular, including used bookstores and libraries.
And fanfiction, of course.
Aside: there were several years where 80 percent of my reading was fanfiction; it was the easiest way to get new stories for free that I could leave and come back to while in a high-stress point in my life. In this case, tagging and descriptions could warn you off if something wasn’t going to have an HEA. In this situation, this could be less a spoiler and more a content warning, since I, and many readers like me, go into fanfiction looking for stories that end well.
But more on that later.
The key thing that differentiates Capital R Romance from stories with romantic elements is the intent of the author. The second, which usually follows the author’s intent, is the publisher. If an author wants their book to be considered by romance readers, they will usually go to a publishing house known for romance. If they have written a book with romantic elements, but they do not believe it qualifies as romance, they might not go to a romance publisher. If their agent believes it has crossover appeal, they might market it to publishers that are more in the “Chick-lit” category of publishing, which sometimes markets to the same readers—though as a warning, if you haven’t yet learned, those books might have covers that make you think “love story!” but might not end as you’d expect. Be very careful selecting love stories that aren’t Romances.
There are books and authors that toe the line and this can happen in all genres. But where you might find yourself most unsure is in speculative fiction. It took me a long time to realize Paranormal Romance (PNR) and Urban Fantasy could be very different, and could be written to different strong points. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters are a good example of a PNR series: each book features a new couple who fall in love and fight the big bad in a new way. Other characters from the other books are featured, but each is basically its own story. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, on the other hand, is very much not that. Some people consider it PNR because of the elements: vampires, wereanimals, fae, ghosts, necromancy, zombies, love and sex, all those things that you would expect. And while most romances are strictly limited to one book, the fact that love stories are drawn out over more than one book in this series does not completely tell you that this story is not a romance, even at 25 novels and counting. What does tell you this is not a romance is that relationships start and stop, grow and fall, all with the tide, and there is no happy ending in sight. Unless we consider ourselves in the middle of one very long romance novel, we can safely say Romance is not the direction the author meant to go.
Of course, there are other gray areas as well. Romantic YA is not technically Capital R Romance because it is only produced by a few subsets of Romance publishing, but you can certainly have a story with all the necessary elements of romance that is a young adult novel.
This, of course, is because publishing is all about categories and separates most stories about people of a certain age-group into its own “genre”, even though YA is not really a genre. There are genres within YA: romance, adventure, fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, etc.
So in the future, you might see me talk about YA novels that are, in essence, romances. But just know that this column will mostly be a place to discuss romance between grownups. Or people pretending to be grownups, at least.
In the end, if you’re not sure if what you’re reading is a romance novel, just invoke Miss Prism, no matter how sardonically her words might have been written at the time:
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
In this case, that is what romance means.