Friday, May 26, 2006

On the Romance Genre: a historical take

There's bit a lot of discussion about what precisely defines the romance genre over at, MiladyInsanity, JorrieSpencer, Brianna's Mommy, and Bev's Books to name a few. Most readers are of the opinion that a romance HEA must involve the hero and the heroine staying together. They don't have to be married or have kids, but they must stay together.

I commented on that:

I think the definition of a HEA is changing and that’s what Aphrodisia is responding to: as long as the woman is happy, it doesn’t matter if she ends up with the hero or not. As long as everyone is happy at the end, to me, that means it is an HEA, regardless of who she’s with at the end. I don’t care if she’s partnered, married, with kids, etc, as long as she’s happy. I’m also satisfied with a “Happy for now” ending, which implies that there’s an ongoing story. So, no I don’t think it’s false advertising for Aphrodisia to stretch the genre to accomodate these changing attitudes which is what I think they’re doing.

Racy Li commented back on that:

Markets change and evolve to meet the changing tastes of society. Romance is changing to accomodate the women of the “Sex in the City” generation. I think in a few more years, it will change again, to meet the tastes of teenagers who grew up reading romances in Japanese anime.

Bev responded that:

I mean it sounds completely reasonable that any “living” thing will change over time. The same is true of literary genres, I’m sure. What we read now is definitely not the same thing published and read 100 years ago.
The problem is that there are limits, even to this type of change. Limits imposed, not by readers or even publishers, but by our own human natures. Do genres exist because we created them the way they are or do they exist because we exist and we need ways to explain that very existence to ourselves? The world around us changes, but we as human beings do not. Not that quickly, at any rate.

Bev is coming from the position that a romance is ultimately a story about a relationship (we'll leave discussions of threesomes and gay/lesbian relationships for another day) between two people, usually a man and a woman. A romance requires an life affirming HEA (happily ever after) which means that the two people must stay together.

Others, including, Angie over at Brianna's Mommy

But if you’re talking about the heroine’s HEA alone, you’re not talking about romance. Romance is about a relationship and the HEA there. If you have anything else, you have chick-lit or women’s fiction. I can’t agree that Romance is changing to include a story that’s not about the couple. Because you’re not redefining romance then, you’re just writing a different genre and calling it romance.

I decided to do some lazy research and did some googling about the history of the novel and the romance genre.

On Wikipedia (yes my history colleagues I know Wikipedia is not exactly the most reliable, but that's why I said lazy research) it says:

As a literary genre, romance refers to a style of heroic prose and verse narrative current in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

The term was coined to distinguish popular material in the vernacular (at first the Romance languages French, Portuguese and Spanish, later German, English and others) from scholarly and ecclesiastical literature in Latin.

You can read the whole article here, but essentially, what the article says is that the term romance originated the describe stories that were different from Biblical stories. These were stories like those of the Le Morte D'Arthur cycle, the Odyssey, which later grew to include myths like the Scandinavian and Norse sagas.

Wikipedia also notes that one of the most distinguished literary critics of the 20th century, Northrup Frye, wrote in his ground-breaking work, Anatomy of Criticism:

Thus if the hero is superior in kind to men, the action is a myth. If the hero is superior in degree to others and to his environment, the mode is that of Romance, where the actions are marvellous, but the hero is human. "The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability... Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints. Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories."

Thus, the definition of a "romance" as a story of a relationship between a man and a woman, is actually quite a recent and modern invention.

I tend to think of "romance" in a broader more historical sense, which reflects my interest in myths and fantasy. It involves love, but it can also involve action and adventure. For me, as long as an ending is true to the story, then I'm good with the story.

However, with that said, I understand what many people are saying. I like stories with happy endings too. (It's probably the main reason why I've stayed away from acclaimed fantasy series like Roger Zelazany and George R. R. Martin, though I finally picked up Game of Thrones the other day.) But for me a happy ending can just as easily have the hero and heroine going their separate ways, as long as it remains true to the story. Sometimes I think modern romance writers try too hard for the HEA and as a result it seems forced. I think that's why I tend to like romance and stories of relationships outside of the romance genre mainly because, well it seems more fitting to me.

And thus, in conclusion, it don't think it IS false advertising to have a book labeled "romance" if the hero and heroine don't end up together, because in fact, it marks a return to the traditional wider definition of what a romance is. Though clearly most modern romance readers seem to want the definitively modern HEA where the couple remain together, which means the market is likely to stay that way. However there if there is room for a subcategory of vampire romances, there is definitely room for a romance subcategory with non-traditional endings.

p.s. I'm new to this blogging thing, so if anyone has any objections to me mass-quoting so much, just email me and I'll take them down, though I think I put links back to the original site for every quote.


At 3:21 PM, Blogger Milady Insanity said...

Great post, Alau!

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Bev (BB) said...

However there if there is room for a subcategory of vampire romances, there is definitely room for a romance subcategory with non-traditional endings.

Yeah, but what exactly are you going to call them? THAT is what I've been asking all along. Partly because I thought chick lit & women's fiction already took care of the problem and partly because I'm just curious that way. (VBG)

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Lynn Green said...

Romances with non-traditional endings?



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