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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

On romance and genre in literary criticism

Published .


Hello, my name is Ben, and I am a genre snob. Or at least I was. I'm trying to quit, but as fellow genre snobs can attest, it is not easy to surrender culturally-inculcated notions of genre and embrace a more nuanced approach. Still, I need to try. For the children!

This week I read Amanda Scott's Tempted by a Warrior, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. Had I paid more attention when entering the giveaway, I would have noticed that the book is historical romance, not merely historical fiction, and passed. I didn't notice, however, and I won the book. As I prepared to write my review, I discussed the book with a friend--who, as it happens, reviews paranormal, romance, and even paranormal romance((You didn't see that one coming, did you?)) for one of those review sites to whom publishers send books with the eager trepidation marketing people perfect after too many years in college.

I opened the conversation by quoting one of the sex scenes in the book:

Me: There is a list of words that automatically ruin sex scenes for me, and "tempestuous" is one of them. Her: I can't imagine why. Me: Aside from that, this book isn't that bad. Her: "Turgid" tops my version of that list. Me: Yes. And "tumescent." Lots of T words, eh? "Throbbing" and "pulsating" don't help either. Sometimes I can tolerate "throbbing", but if any part of your body is "pulsating," you should seek medical attention.

To be fair, the sex scenes aren't actually that bad. There's two of them, and aside from triggering my list with "tempestuous," they are tasteful.

Oh, and this was before my friend realized which book I was reading:

Her: Are you reading that romance? Me: Yes. . . . I'm trying to parse everything now and make sure my reactions aren't biased by the fact that this is romance. The rational part of me knows that there is nothing wrong with "romance" in general, just as there is nothing wrong with "science fiction" in general . . . but the irrational part of me insists this is not the case. Me: Maybe it's just fluff fiction I dislike, regardless of genre.

Sadly, this is wishful thinking, and I know it. Romance is the genre, for me, that belies my claim to be genre-neutral. I am sensitive to genre snobbery, because as a lover of science fiction, I dislike it when anyone shuns science fiction based on a claim that it is not "real literature." But the moment somebody pulls out a romance, I recoil, and my prejudice rears its ugly head. I'm worse than a genre snob: I'm a genre bigot!

And then my friend blew the discussion wide open by dropping the elephant in the room:((Warning: the preceding mixed metaphor may blow your mind. Sorry about that.))

Her: Remember, you have to review it as a romance.

Boom, suddenly my mind bifurcates. One Ben (we'll call him Genre Ben) agrees with this proposition. The other Ben (we'll call him Agnostic Ben) rejects it. A single sentence summarizes my internal conflict over how I write reviews and how I perceive books in general. It doesn't help that I read a book about art criticism last week, so the subject is fresh in my mind.

Looking through my reviews, Genre Ben has left his fingerprints everywhere. Of thrillers, Genre Ben writes, "I don't pretend to hold thrillers to the same standards as great works of art" (from this review). Even worse, when reviewing another romance, Genre Ben comes right out and says, "It's unfair for me to expect this book to rise above its genre." Right there, an implication that romance is somehow inferior. Oh, I am ashamed of you, Genre Ben.

The problems with genre are myriad. How does one define a genre? Who decides which genre--or genres, since a book can be more than one--a book inhabits: the author, the publisher, bookstores, the reader? I agree that as a naive labelling tool, genre is useful. For the purposes of criticism, however, Genre Ben makes me uncomfortable.

Agnostic Ben snickers, feeling victory is close at hand. Not so, for he does not hold the high ground. I happen to agree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who laments that she cannot review The Year of the Flood as science fiction. Le Guin respects Margaret Atwood's desire not to be

. . . relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers, and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

Le Guin's point resonates with me, with both Genre Ben and Agnostic Ben. After all, genre influences our expectations. As Genre Ben observes in that earlier romance review, we expect westerns to have horses, outlaws, and guns; we expect science fiction to be filled with difference, whether it's spaceships or robots. If the author insists her novel is not science fiction, then fine: it's not science fiction, so all of this unrealistic language must be interpreted without the benefit of the science-fictional lens.

So at this point in my conversation with my friend, Agnostic Ben decides to move the marker:

Me: I only disagree in part. I agree that our conception of genre influences how we perceive a book, and that in turn affects how we write a review. Where I disagree is the premise that genre somehow alters the merits a book must have in order to judge its quality.

In other words, Agnostic Ben's platform is that we should not condemn a book because it claims membership in a particular genre. My friend had none of it, however:

Her: It's our job as reviewers to appraise whether or not the book meets the expectations of the genre . . . and to have a firm enough grasp of the intricacies and indiosyncrasies of each genre and subgenre to judge them as such.

Well said! I did not have an adequate response for this, and so I unfairly segued into an epistemological attack on the concept of genre, and a confession of my own insecurities on this entire issue.

In particular, I examined the fact that books often belong to more than one genre: the book that started this whole debate, Tempted by a Warrior, is historical romance. But is it really two genres--historical fiction and romance? Or is historical romance a subgenre of romance, much as, say, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction? Or maybe the book is romance, and its setting is historical.

Sometimes when the debate over what constitutes science fiction comes up, I opine that science fiction itself is merely a setting rather than a genre proper. It makes sense, after a fashion. There are many different types of science-fiction stories: action-adventure, comedy, tragedy, even romance--the good old, classic genres, right? Science-fiction books belong to many different genres, sharing only the backgroup of a science-fictional setting in common.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this argument. It does not seem to address the fundamental point both Le Guin and my friend are trying to make, the role of genre in a reader's (or reviewer's) expectations and criticism. All I've done is relabel "genre" to "setting."

So perhaps we cannot entirely rid ourselves of genre--it is here to stay, in one form or another. Then the question of defining genres becomes paramount. From the beginning, I have to dismiss any notion that genres can be disjoint. As "historical romance" makes clear, a disjoint definition will require so many subgenres as to make one's head spin. Let's go easy on ourselves and allow genres to overlap.

I will not attempt a general algorithm for categorizing a story by genre. I am an amateur at this game, and no doubt more learned people than I have tried. However, let me explore what passes for romance these days, since it is the central genre under discussion here.

Romance as a genre has undergone drift over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry for Romance (genre) refers to the traditional definition of epic or heroic narratives, tales of dazzling deeds. In the 19th century, Wikipedia explains, "the connotations of 'romance' moved from the fantastic and eerie . . . to novels centred on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage." Thus is born the the romance novel, which places its "primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an 'emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.'" Wikipedia also notes that "the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism, and criticism."((Because adjectives, like witches and wishes, always come in threes, children.))

That definition comes from the Romance Writers of America, incidentally. The second clause, regarding an optimistic ending, surprised me in its specificity. It makes sense, however, because this clause differentiates romance from every other genre. People fall in love all the time--it is practically a disease--and characters in novels are no exception. The element of romance occurs in almost every story; after all, love is one of the most powerful sources of conflict. Some of my favourite books are love stories, wrapped in hilarious British absurdity. So a book just about romantic love between two people, even one whose primary focus is love, may not be a romance. Unless it has a happy ending. (I am a sucker for tragic endings, so maybe this is why romance and I part ways.)

My goal in this little exploration, in case you were wondering, was to find out why romance is its own genre when love is universal. The requirement of a happy ending is a good reason, but I'm not sure if it is strong enough to make romance a genre in its own right. Agnostic Ben is shaking his head as I write this, but I want to deny any agenda here. I'm just investigating my own tastes, trying to discover why I avoid romance and whether I can rationalize this prejudice or banish it.

Nevertheless, I didn't avoid this romance, and I did eventually write a review. I was more critical than I thought I would be. And that garnered a comment:

Frankly, I think more men should write romance novel reviews! Because they tend to cut directly to the problems and not gloss over what works and what doesn't work. Whereas when women (like me) write snarky reviews, other women (hard-core romance lovers) get all bent out of shape--for whatever reason--maybe because they don't want their novels have any mirror on reality or to be feasible/workable in real life.

While I don't want to digress into a gender stereotype discussion, the notion that some reviewers (regardless of gender) "cut directly to the problems" instead of giving romance a free pass is an intriguing one. Because I think that was the visceral reaction Agnostic Ben had when my friend told me I had to review Tempted by a Warrior "as a romance." Although she did not mean it that way, my first instinct was to interpret this admonishment as an instruction to be more lenient because, as Genre Ben would phrase it, "the book is just romance."

No book is just anything though. Genre Ben and my friend might be right in that we cannot completely decouple genre from criticism--nor would be desirable, I suppose. By the same token, not all criticism stems from genre, and Agnostic Ben wants to give precedence to these genre-independent perspectives when deciding a book's merits. Alas, it falls to poor, ordinary Ben, a mere mortal, to reconcile these positions and synthesize appropriate reviews. In the past I have often succumbed to genre snobbery; doubtlessly I will do so again, despite my vigilance. Hopefully, however, I will often succeed in going beyond--but not excluding--genre in my criticism.

Thanks to my addictive use of Goodreads, I have written a review for every book I have read since August, 2008--about 300 reviews in total. Many of them suck--more from being rushed without revision--but there are a few gems of which I am ridiculously proud. I like to take my endeavour to review the books I read seriously, and that requires serious thoughts about how I write reviews.

But I don't want to take it, or myself, too seriously. So here's a lolcat.