The R-Word

I’ve recently been… disconcerted? Intrigued? Weirded out?… by reactions to my two published novels that imply readers view them as “romance.” Not that I think this is an unfair categorization, or an entirely inaccurate one, but it’s made me think about why I’ve avoided calling my books “romance novels,” and it seems time to write a bit about that. I’ll be touching on genre conventions, marketing, reader expectations, and my own preferences, not necessarily in that precise order. (If you don’t want to read it all, and there is a lot of it, skip to the end for a few bullet-point advisories.)

Let me start by stating, as I have before, that one of the reasons I decided to self-publish was that the traditional publishing world is built around marketing categories – which makes sense in a business context – and my books don’t fit neatly inside one genre, or even a pair of them. This has its pluses and minuses; I don’t personally feel it’s the knell of death, but it is going to perturb anyone who’s used to thinking that way. Now, even self-publishers have to assign categories; each of the platforms I use requires that I fit my books into some genre, and so they are labeled “Science Fiction” (because what else would time travel books be?) and given subcategory labels and subject tags. I haven’t added “Romance” to these labels and tags, and perhaps I should; I do have “Adventure, romance, and time paradoxes!” on my business cards. (Which is false advertising in terms of the third element; the paradoxes don’t show up till later in the series.) But I’ve purposefully tried to avoid marketing my books as romances.

So why is that? There are several reasons, and they don’t all show me at my best. I will admit (and discuss in more detail in a moment) that knowing some potential readers have negative reactions to the romance label has kept me from using it – not that I’ve denied there is romance in my books, but I want them (likely fruitlessly) to be judged on their own merits and not by where they might be shelved in some theoretical bookstore. The other reason is that I doubt they actually belong on that shelf, according to the genre’s own standards.

The Romance Writers of America (not to leave out the rest of the world, but that’s where I live, and I doubt other markets differ wildly) defines romance fiction pretty broadly, but states that it must always contain a) a central love story (“The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work”), and b) an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Well, maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent on the large multi-book plot arcs having to do with many characters and their interactions as they move around through centuries and across geographic boundaries, and trip over political intrigue and water metaphors, and get shot at, but I have a hard time saying that my plots center around Olivia and George, or any other pair of characters, falling in love and living happily ever after. (I am also not one for HEAs as a matter of realistic principle, which doesn’t mean I’ll blithely kill off major characters or destroy them emotionally, but one never knows.) This is tough to demonstrate with only two books out there, since as long as one expects a traditional three-act romantic structure I may seem to be heading that way, but I also don’t tend to stick to formula: perhaps also as a matter of principle, or because I grew and developed as a writer during the course of constructing what was originally supposed to be three books. Given that I am just about to embark on the fifth book of the Waters of Time trilogy (thank you, Douglas Adams), I think it’s reasonable to assume (from your perspective, I mean) that there’s more going on than finding out when my first-introduced protagonists get to boink (spoiler: yes, they do). Because otherwise there’s not much point to all the mysterious hints and tea-in-Vienna epilogues, and because five or more books of “prick-teasing through history” would go beyond a joke. (I will end this very parenthetical paragraph by noting that George was being a jerk when he said that, and he knows it, and he also knows quite well he does not live up to the romance hero standard. There’s also language in, I seem to recall, some romance imprint submission guidelines about how those central-love-story characters ought to behave, in terms of not going off and boinking other people while they’re supposed to be romancing one another, and I will note that Olivia fails there worse than George does, but neither of them is anywhere close to guideline submission, or any other kind for that matter.)

Anyway: love stories, yes; exclusively central love stories, really not. I’m not stopping you from reading my books that way if you want, but I’m just warning you that you’ll miss stuff and get confused. And notice that I say “love stories” plural: there are plenty of them, some romantic and some not, though very few with a classic structure or a one-book arc. (There’s one in Time Goes By that can be read as “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy again” and the fact that the lost-and-found bits involve time travel devices is just the category romance touch. But it’s the arc going on in the background. Sorry, Rinaldo.) I like writing love stories; even more, I like writing relationship stories; I know this makes some people itch and frankly I like that most of all. People in my books have feelings, not limited to romantic ones but including those; they talk about their feelings and act on them and fall over them on the way to getting the job done. Sometimes the job comes first, and sometimes it fades in importance. In Time and Fevers, Beatrice quotes the line from Casablanca about the problems of three little people not amounting to a hill of beans, and disagrees with its implications while admitting to them: the little people and the crazy world that’s trying to distract from their difficulties are constantly jockeying for centrality. My characters don’t know whether they’re in a romance novel or a science fiction adventure or a historical epic or a drama of politics and the office, which I hope makes them more like the rest of us, going baffled and bewildered through life, though less like someone who fits between covers that are easy to find a section for in the library.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I don’t, instinctively, find a difference between writing (or reading) about what characters do with and to each other and what they feel and think about each other, nor do I think that the feelings and thoughts usually categorized as romantic are any different in importance or quality than those more often associated with friendship, collegial admiration, or varying degrees of antagonism, to name a few possibilities. I try to put at least as much effort into building non-romantic relationships as I do romantic ones, and though I hope this is evident even after two books, I suspect it’ll be more so as the series goes on.

But this is clearly not how everyone approaches fiction, which is why I’ve been swerving around the R-word since before Time for Tea came out. Reader expectations are key to getting pages turned, and some people won’t open a book that has a hint of romance in it, for fear of allergic reaction; the only category that comes close in causing hives to break out is science fiction. Heh. But there are plenty of romance lovers out there (cheers!) who expect a certain focus on a central pairing and a love story, and tend to assume that’s what the author will concentrate on, sometimes even against evidence. They may crack open the book (or two of the books), and compliment me on how the love story is developing, only to be confounded or disappointed later. The reactions of romance-allergic readers can be similar: if something’s making you itch, you’ll find it more central to the story than it may be in strictly objective terms.

My own tastes dictate my writing: I don’t really read a lot of straight-up-romance novels (I usually find myself looking around afterwards saying “Was that all?”), though I do enjoy a good hyphenated romance now and then: mystery-romance, fantasy-romance, history-romance, space opera-romance, and of course time travel-romance, and I’m not in the least ashamed of doing so. And (putting aside the difficulty of category and subcategory labeling in single-choice menu forms) probably I should not be worried about stamping the R-word on my books; my cover blurbs may do it for me anyway (“…and their own hearts.”). I know that most of my readers are likely to be female, so what’s wrong with putting a bit more weight on the romance side of the scale? Except that stating that sensible marketing decision bows to the received wisdom about who reads what that I refuse to agree is absolutely true, and submits to the notion that if you call something romance, or if those who review you do, you are bound to scare off a significant portion of the reading public, and that that’s just fine because romance novels outsell everything else anyway. I am hip to the idea that romance novels can be feminist (link is to the Romance Novels for Feminists blog, which is a great source for what the title says, along with my old friend The Radish – and a bunch of other blogs linked therein, I expect, but this is not my area of expertise) and that the old bodice-ripper stereotypes are disappearing fast. (Parenthetically, the concept appears to have lasted to, or been revived in, the 22nd century, to go by Phoebe’s joke about Olivia avoiding having her bodice ripped; Olivia’s familiarity with Regency romance dialogue naturally has a more literary provenance. Uh-huh.) But genre conventions and barriers still bug me, and I find myself in the odd (and soon to be remedied, I promise) position of agreeing firmly with Jennifer Weiner in her rants against glass ceilings for female writers (“if a man wants to write a book and have it received as literary fiction, he publishes the book. And if a woman wants to write a book and have it perceived as literary fiction, she has to publish the book, and then she has to say at least half a dozen times in interviews, “This isn’t chick-lit.”) without actually having read any Jennifer Weiner. (Also see How to Suppress Women’s Writing – which I haven’t read either. Ha.) Not that I want my books to be considered literary fiction – even if they get annoyingly literary at times – because that edges too close to all those literary fiction types who write science fiction or fantasy books and then deny that’s what they’ve done. And owning up to writing science fiction just makes you a genre writer, while owning up to writing romance covers you with pink girl cooties. Well, bring them on. I look good in pink.

I think addressing the way readers see my books is bound to open me up to more inclusiveness in my own reading choices, and more self-awareness in my writing, which is all to the good. And I can always hope that my books will help readers break through some genre barriers in their own minds.

So here are those advisories I was talking about. If you’re thinking about reading my books and:

  •  You are totally allergic to romance: don’t read them. (But ask yourself why you feel that way. Totally allergic to consideration of human emotion? Hm.)
  • You are only mildly allergic to romance, and don’t hate people discussing their feelings now and then: jump in, and concentrate on the other plot elements. The third book will probably grab you more than the first two.
  • You are very strongly attached to the standard format of romance novels: proceed with caution, because you’ll get tripped up by at least the third book if not sooner.
  • You don’t care for plot arcs that aren’t finished in one book: stay away, accept that you’ll be disappointed, or wait until all of them are published. I’m sorry; I write the kind of series fiction that tells one big story.
  • You’re happy to read about romantic and non-romantic relationships happening in the middle of action that might include fist-fights, snarking, musical interludes, literary quotations, bombs, drawing rooms, conference rooms, sailing, theatre, war, racial politics, costume fittings, gardening, and time paradoxes, and you like books with lots of characters and intertwining plots: welcome!

And by the way, I love all my readers, which is the romance that matters most of all. ❤

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