Call for Comments: Breaking Down The Romance Genre

From Hannah: Way back on Episode 24, we talked about the concept of genre in general: Why is genre occasionally a dirty word? What are the rules a piece of fiction has to follow to be considered a member of a particular genre? How useful is this concept in understanding a work? So I want to revisit the genres in an upcoming episode, but this time I want to focus on romance.

So what is the romance genre, specifically? It’s commonly defined, as my favorite romance writer Courtney Milan put it, by two conventions: 1) centering the love story and 2) a happy ending.

Despite being one of the best-selling genres in the book business, romance still isn’t taken as seriously as it should be (in any context) and is often dismissed as a genre because of its major audience (usually with a plainly misogynistic insult). I’ll save the nuances of that discussion for the episode, but it’s notable how romance centers women. According to a study commissioned by the Romance Writers of America (which is a group worthy of critical discussion in and of itself for both its past and recent history), 82% of readers identify as female.

What has always interested me about the romance genre is that it taught me how central love was to our conception of society. You’ve heard me talk about before how marriage in novels written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte signifies more than love. (In fact, I’ve published on it.) If you’ve watched Downton Abbey (which so desperately wants to be a Victorian novel), you can just see how transparently the marriages are in reinforcing the monarchy and aristocracy. Or you could listen to our Bridgerton episodes to see just what types of politics are embedded in the Netflix series. Courtney Milan, Beverly Jenkins, Vanessa Riley, Soniah Kamal, Casey McQuiston, Olivia Dade and other contemporary romance writers are using the genre that are both reminiscent of authors like Austen … and push back against the type of world she worked to solidify through happy marriages.

And starting with Marry Me, the rom-com movie looks to make a return in 2022!

In short, romance is arguably the most important genre, both in terms of ubiquity and shaping how we see the world.

From Wayne: Why do we love love stories? Romance is possibly the single most successful genre, at least when it comes to novels where it is estimated that it accounts for roughly one third of all mass market paperbacks sold. Even when Romance is not the specific genre of a story it is likely to appear as a character subplot. You are likely to find some element of the love story in almost every other genre. Science Fiction? There’s a love story. Horror? People are into each other. Superhero? Clark and Lois. It is a trope that predominates fiction, whatever your genre of choice may be. Whether we think of ourselves as fans of the Romance genre or not, we all consume an awful lot of it.

Is it just that the idea of love is so universal and relatable that it permeates everything? Is this a specifically cultural thing. The doomed romance/star-crossed lovers trope is baked into western European culture. Romeo and Juliet is something everyone s aware of (even if they don’t know the specifics of it). Even further back we have the Arthurian Romances: Tristan and Isolde, the classic Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, and many others. Sure, there was a lot of fighting of dragons and Saxons, but love stuff was at the core of it. These tales helped codify the very notion of romantic love.

Which gets into “Just what is this Love thing, anyway?”, but maybe that’s another topic.

So what is Romance as a genre? If it appears in some form in everything, what are the guidelines that specifically say “Romance?” Why are we attracted to these tropes? Do you love Romance as a genre? Hate it? Have an open, polyamourous relationship with it? Let us know in the comments.

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