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.