The difference between Romantic and Romance

Our HEA is still going strong.

Robin and I were talking yesterday about books that push genre boundaries, and she made an important distinction between whether something is Romance, as in conforming to genre standards, and romantic, as in something that fits the reader’s individual definition of a romantic story. I was complaining about a book that features torture and rape (you may call it noncon/dubcon, I call it rape) and asking when those aspects became accepted as romance. I’ve read plenty, but always in erotica, not genre romance.

Robin then gently reminded me that epic historical romances of old had lots of rape, captivity, and occasionally even torture, and we don’t exclude them from the category. To the contrary: we call them bodice rippers and consider them the foundation of at least part of today’s romance genre (certainly they are the precursors of many of the non-Regency “European historicals”). So slave and captivity tropes, main character in jeopardy, main character tortured, it’s all been part of the romance genre for decades, and there have been readers who have enjoyed reading these novels for those decades.

I am one of those veteran romance readers who has never finished a Woodiwiss or a Lindsey, and the one Catherine Coulter I read drove me away from the US romance market for years (it meant I missed Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley too, but thankfully I found them later). I stuck to Harlequins set in and written by UK authors, a handful of Regency trad authors that didn’t use too many Americanisms, and contemporary romances by authors like Rosamund Pilcher (not the sagas, just the shorter contemps). I was perfectly happy reading these, but it meant that even thought I found plenty of books to read that were romantic, it gave me a distorted view of what the entire Romance genre looked like. It’s analogous, I suppose, to people who think the genre began with The Flame and the Flower and ignore all the genre-conforming romance novels that preceded it.

In the past couple of months there have been a number of reviews I’ve read (by people whose reviews I trust and whose tastes I respect) about books that feature drug entrepreneurs and gangsters as heroes, books that romanticize Jim Crow settings, main characters who meet cute while one or both are being tortured, and heroes who rape their way through the towns and countryside before the heroines reform them. It’s impossible for me to read these books as Romance, but I also know that since they (a) focus on the main couple’s relationship, and (b) have an optimistic etc. ending for the relationship, they qualify as romance as per the RWA rules.

They’re not romantic in my book. At all. But they are Romance. So there you go.

Luckily, there are a lot of books in the genre (and more than you’d think outside it) that are romantic according to my rules, so I’m not going to run out of reading material any time soon. I just have to keep reminding myself of that, especially the next time that the It Book Of The Moment is something that makes me want to read nothing but mysteries and general fiction and classics for the rest of my life.

De gustibus and all that. Which is really important to remember when you’re in a community with a very wide range of reader preferences, and most of all when those preferences are shaped as much by emotional attachment as by logic and intellect.

34 thoughts on “The difference between Romantic and Romance

  1. I think I successfully avoided all of the rapey books of that era of romance but I don’t begrudge readers their romance in whatever fashion they find it or enjoy it as is the point of your post. It wasn’t a concious decision but more like those books like Rosemary Rogers were never on my radar. Balogh, Kinsale, Spencer, Brown and Victoria Holt made up the bulk of my early romance reading from way back. I read Judith McNaught, too, but never Whitney, My Love not because of the rape scene but because of the whiney heroine. I really enjoyed Shanna by Woodiwiss but never read her other more notable novels. As a romance reader, I love good sexual chemistry and felt that Sandra Brown is/was the best. Nowadays, I couldn’t tell you but agree that romance or romantic scenes can be found outside of the genre.

    • I read Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy and all the various pseudonyms. And I loved Elsie Lee and Marion Chesney and Edith Layton. Had I known about Spencer I would have been all over her, but avoiding the romance aisle meant I missed a lot.

      • I’ve always felt that the romance genre was big enough for everybody to find what they want to read. Gangstas finding love isn’t romantic to me either and since I read more mysteries and whatnot these days, I’m missing all of that fun stuff.

  2. I’m with you on this one. I don’t really want to read about awful people finding true love (and yeah, I think rapists, meth dealers, pimps, and gangsters are some pretty awful people).

    • I think it’s the “awful people finding true love” as the central focus of the story. I know I’ve read a lot of non-genre books with awful people (or they would be if they were real), some of whom find love and happiness. For some reason it doesn’t bother me as much there. But I’m not picking up those books specifically to get a romantic story. Maybe that’s it.

      • That’s definitely it. I can watch things like Boardwalk Empire and root for one gangster against another, but I like that they’re not entirely different people when it comes to their romantic relationships. Things mostly don’t work out. Horrible events take place. They hurt each other over and over. Because they’re just not nice people (and it’s wonderful to see Nucky come to grips with that).

  3. I liked a romance this year with a mobster hero, Harmony by Sienna Mynx, but I don’t think I would have liked it as much if he enjoyed what he did. Also, he is nearly destroyed by it before needing the heroine to rescue him from near death and flee across the country. I find I’m willing to forgive a lot if there’s real remorse and punishment.

    • I read the sample after I read your review and it didn’t work for me. Not just the gangster, but the whole Coppola-ish Cotton Club setup. It would have had to be really well done for me to buy a black singer falling for a white gangster in that environment, as a romance, and the writing didn’t give me confidence that it would succeed. It felt predictable and a bit fetishizing. Great art and great artists came out of that era, but they paid a high cost, and there weren’t a lot of whites who saw black artists as people. So while I understand why readers love the era (flappers, jazz, prohibition, etc.), I’m usually a skeptic. On the gangster aspect, I’m not sure having him feel remorse and be punished would really do it, although I can certainly see how that mitigates the awful-hero aspect for you and other readers. And again, it would depend on the execution, so I’d never say never.

      • I mean, I was squinting my eyes and looking a bit sideways at it, but I was ultimately “willing to be lied to.” I may not have if he didn’t lose everything or if Harmony didn’t acknowledge the ways white men in the club generally didn’t see her humanity and weren’t worth her time.

  4. I have a hard time appreciating romance when I don’t feel that both characters deserve, in a karmic sense, to be happy. Drug dealers and exploiters of women or children are particularly problematic for me. I DNFed a few “edgy” romances over that. I also tend to shy away from characters fixated on revenge and willing to use less powerful, innocent characters to get it.

    I tried, and failed, to finish either a Woodiwiss or a Rosemary Rogers, although I did read some Coulter in my teen years — I had different taste then, and the shock/titillation factor worked in a way that it doesn’t now. Medieval-set historical romance rarely works for me either, to the point that I don’t bother trying, although I can read historical fiction in that period and enjoy it. De gustibus indeed.

      • No it’s not. A lot of it would make your head explode. And I’m not talking about potatoes, either.

        Penman is historical fiction. As I know you know. But it’s really a totally different animal. I read the most highly recommended medievals when I discovered the online romance world, and those were OK, but there is a lot of eyerolling stuff out there.

    • I have a hard time appreciating romance when I don’t feel that both characters deserve, in a karmic sense, to be happy.

      YES! This is it, in a nutshell. In romance, I want them to deserve their HEA. I don’t even care that much if they “earn” it, in the sense of grovelling, etc. But they have to deserve it.

      Of course I read stuff where I’m not sure that’s true, because hey, hypocrisy, but I usually *know* I’m reading outside my rules. Anne Stuart is probably the most obvious case for me. I’m not convinced some of her heroes deserve their happiness (not just the assassin ones, either), but I love her antiheroes so much. Her books are a separate fantasy-romance category for me.

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  6. I am generally a “to each his own” kind of person, but just because older romances often featured rape doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds about it today. Standards change (thankfully). I have read less romance this year and more literary/mainstream fiction because I’m trying to wait out the popularity of BDSM, which I don’t find romantic.

    • I’ve been reading less romance as well. Or at least more fiction-with-a-romantic-element and less genre.

      I’ve been struggling with the changing times question. I’m starting to think there are just some stories that can only be written in 2013 if they are explicitly satisfying a kink or explicitly fantasy. The fact that they were OK 20 or 30 years ago doesn’t make the case for them.

  7. True confession: my biggest romantic passion in the past few years has been Stringer Bell of THE WIRE: his looks (he’s played by Idris Elba), his cool, the ridiculously sexy way he wears an overcoat, his IQ points, and the impossibility of his ever getting what he really wants from life. And yes, he’s a murderer (in a particularly evil, selfish, and underhanded way) and duh, a drug dealer. I didn’t have a problem with my guilty passions; I couldn’t have been the only viewer who had them. But I’d hate for Stringer to be the hero of a romance novel — love SHOULDN’T be big and redemptive enough to make Stringer Bell a hero, and I prefer seeing him go down unredeemed.

    Which brings up a lot of interesting question about romance novels: love, not only of bad characters, but in a bad world. How much CAN love do to bring about positive resolution for good people in a bad world? Jane Austen built an idealized resolution atop the foundations of a profoundly, realistically observed world. How do we manage it (especially when we write historicals and can’t help be conscious of past inequities)? Some of the most interesting comments about this issue that I’ve encountered come from African-American romance readers Qiana and Conseula, in response to an essay I wrote about Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN, (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as told from the p.o.v. of its servants) at

    • I really enjoyed your post on Longbourn, and the discussion was fantastic. Everyone, go read it! Thanks for providing the link.

      I have *exactly* the same reaction to Stringer Bell as played by Elba. I find him endlessly fascinating and attractive. But he is so not a romance hero for me. I don’t think he’s really redeemable as he is written, I think the whole point is that he is a tragic figure in some ways. But I can’t see how you could redeem him and have him remain Stringer. That’s the dilemma of the antihero, and there are very few authors who can manage it. I think what makes To Have and To Hold work for me to the extent it does is that Gaffney does go all the way there with Sebastian and then *he* has to figure it out. It helps that he’s bored and jaded rather than sociopathic, too. The way the book doesn’t work for me is that Rachel winds up being his vehicle of redemption, and that undermines the romance. But as a redeemed antihero story, it’s amazing.

      • I liked “Longbourn” a lot, will definitely go read thank you :). I also do not see Stringer Bell as a romantic hero, but I did not even get to the point where you guys got – I can’t even see him as antihero, he just crossed the line for me ( such line absolutely may vary from one book/movie to another) after which I just could not feel anything positive for him. Omar on the other hand – and not like he was innocent bunny either – but I would have been perfectly fine with him surviving etc, but I should have known better that show did not rock that way .

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  9. Interesting discussion. But honestly speaking, I haven’t yet figured out what’s so great about Alpha Heroes…they all seem to be boorish, rude and in desperate need of manners!

    • Hmmm. I have the same reaction. I wonder if Alpha hero attraction is at least somewhat culturally constructed? Not that all US readers like Alpha heroes, but that they signal something different to readers in different cultures.

      • Yeah – none of the guys from Tamara Allen’s “Whistling in the dark” counts as an alpha hero to me and they are probably my most favorite romantic couple. I don’t mind an alpha in m/m or m/f but he better have some manners and not just do ” I am an alpha hear me roar” Shpill.

      • I’m part of that subset of US readers who doesn’t like alpha heroes–at least not as they’re commonly encountered in the romance genre. To my mind, a true alpha man is secure enough in his own power and strength that he doesn’t need to spend all his time establishing and/or trumpeting his status.

        • I think there are a lot of us. We’re just quieter, for whatever reason. Probably because we don’t think of our preferred heroes as “betas” either, so there isn’t a handy one-word designation for them. Although I’m quite fond of “adult.”

          • Yeah, I know what you mean. One of my favorite heroes in all fiction is Aral Vorkosigan (I love Miles, too, but Aral is more my romantic type), and he’s hardly a beta, to say the least!

          • Gamma.Deb Stover invented this term, and they’re definitely what I like to read and what I write. Men who know who they are, what they’re capable of, and who can get shit done without having to beat their chest and be ALPHA of them all.

  10. I think Pam Rosenthal’s comment gets at why I have no interest in certain kinds of romances or can’t see them as romantic. When I first found Romanceland, I was kind of surprised by the way “hero” and “heroine” were used for the protagonists. But I tend to take those terms seriously–I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect decency from my romance protagonists. I could see letting go of the “hero” idea. But when a character does things that in real life would be criminal, but they are somehow excused/explained/ennobled/romanticized by the text because he is a HERO (like he’s part of the meth trade because he’s trying to save his town or he’s really a protective pimp, or he only kills people who deserve it), I don’t want to go there. I don’t think The Wire (which I also loved) ever pretended its characters weren’t doing wrong or causing damage. But they also had qualities that made us care about them.

    Of course, I have really enjoyed a few novels where the hero plans to revenge himself via the innocent daughter/sister of his antagonist, which I generally have a problem with, so I’ve got my own hypocrisy here.

    • That’s my problem too, with the terms; I feel as if the characters should have the capacity to be heroic, even if they’re just salarymen trying to be good husbands and fathers. And definitely they should value decency, even if they don’t always practice it.

      I wonder if the sympathetic guys in shows like The Wire and The Sopranos get killed off precisely to remind us that they are not good guys, and even when they are, that’s what happens to good guys in these worlds.

  11. It’s such a relief to find somebody who believes in romance and not lust and aggression, which is what a lot of romantic fiction portrays today. Authors like Sandra Brown, Barbara Delinsky and Judith Krantz had such wonderful, strong female protagonists. Loved this post :)

  12. Glad you’re back. I started reading romance in the mid 80s when I was in HS, but I also missed most of the bodice rippers. I think I read one Coulter, one Kat Martin, and Whitney, My Love and those were all pretty scarring. Then I discovered Jude Devereaux (whom I can no longer read) and Amanda Quick.

    When I first started reading romance blogs a few years ago, I’d look through the archives for reviews of Whitney, My Love to gauge the reviewers’ taste. I was pretty shocked to discover what a beloved book it is. That was the beginning of my shift from thinking ‘this is horrible, this isn’t romance’ to ‘this isn’t to my taste’.

    • I had the same reaction when I found online romance. I had run away from those books when they first came out, so when I found they were beloved classics of the genre, it took a while for me to adjust. It did teach me tolerance, though. ;)

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