Am I wrong to fear putting the “romance” label on my novels? Other people keep putting that label on them. Should I go with the flow? I ask the question because of an exchange with a writing friend recently. I was testing the elevator pitch for what may be my next novel.
Hannah is a wrecker's daughter. She can set a false light or rifle a deadman's pockets as quick as any man. Now Hannah is coming of age, and there isn't a young man in the village that she'd give the time of day. But the soldier boys are coming, and Hannah might just catch one, if they don't catch her first.
This provoked an interesting response from my friend:
See you say you don’t write romance but you do. They aren’t harlequin romance but they are stories of love and family and relationships.
And my friend is absolutely correct. All of my books are romances, in at least two senses of the word. In the general sense of the word, they are stories about the forming and breaking of loving relationships. In the older literary sense of the word, they are not works of literary realism but tales of adventure and romance. I could honestly describe them as historical romance, except Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, which is a fairy tale in the Arthurian mode, which is to say, a romance.
But in today’s market, the “romance” label comes with some pretty strict caveats and my books are not, as my friend says, Harlequin-style romances. In commercial terms, the rules of the romance genre are strict, perhaps stricter than for any other genre. I don’t believe my books fit that formula. Most notably, they don’t have a happily ever after ending.
The Harlequin style of romance is wish-fulfillment for women, just as military novels are wish-fulfillment for men. I see nothing wrong with either of them, as long as they do not make their readers turn sour on the real world, on real marriages, or real service. But such books are not the entirety of romance as a subject and theme in literature, any more than the standard military novel is the entirety of war as a subject and theme in literature. Indeed, many of the greatest works in the canon are tales of romance or tales of war, and sometimes, like Henry V, of both.
This is surely as it should be. There is, after all, no more dramatic and consequential event in the life of most people than courtship and marriage, unless it is the call to go to war. Love and war, therefore, stand at the head of all themes in art, both as subjects in themselves and as metaphors for the many other things of life.
So, yes, my books are romances, both in the narrower sense that they are concerned with love and courtship and with families, their formation, their heartache, and their dissolution, and also in the broader literary sense that they do not shy away from portraying beautiful maidens, honorable knights, kindly giants, enchanted swords, Viking ships, royal palaces, suffering saints, and boisterous kings.
But in commercial terms, they do not seem to fit in the romance section. Do I misjudge the “romance” label? Is there room under its umbrella for what one review of The Wistful and the Good called “a deeply historical tragic romance?”
But even if they do, do I want to place them there? After all, the “romance” label puts off many readers. A case in point: me. Another case in point: When I posted a snippet and the same teaser in the Fictionistas’ Office Hours this week, one commenter said:
From the blurb: is this YA Romance? If not...the blurb is misleading me about the story’s premise. If so, not a genre I buy, but sounds like a fun setting with potential for many types of danger and adventure. (I’m a sucker for beaches, ships & wrecks. And plucky girls, of course.) 😜
Well, that’s the problem. Does the blurb misleadingly suggest a YA romance? Certainly, it suggests a young woman looking for a husband, so in that sense obviously yes. It also suggests that she indulges in wrecking — using false lights and other tricks to cause ships to run aground and founder — so that her people can plunder the cargoes, and that the soldiers are coming to arrest her for this crime. There is a lot in this that is not the usual matter of YA romances.
Or is there? I don’t think I have ever read a book labeled “YA romance.” But when I think about it, I realize that two of my favorite books, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Red Shift, would both fit that classification.
Part of my problem with all of this is that I was never one to guide my reading by genre. I write historical fiction, for instance, but I don’t read it any more than I read any other genre. I honestly can’t fathom why people would want to read the same kinds of books over and over again. I don’t say it is wrong to do so. It’s a free country. Read what you like. But to me, the outward characteristics by which genres get defined and by which books are classified into genres are the least interesting thing about them. I’m much more interested in certain themes, but not just in one theme either.
Genre definitions today seem to be based on the premise that the age and sex of the protagonist should match the age and sex of the reader. This notion seems bizarre to me. In our supposedly ultra-inclusive society, do people really only want to read about themselves? By that criteria, a lot of classic works of literature would now be classified as YA romance: Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, and Great Expectations, to name just a few. By this same criteria, To Kill a Mockingbird would be considered a chapter book, since its protagonist and narrator is six years old.
The corollary of matching the age of the protagonist to the age of the reader is that the themes of the story are supposed to be those of interest to readers of a particular age. Thus YA must not only have characters who match the age of the reader but also themes of special interest to the age group of the reader. Putting aside the question of why every person of a given age group should be interested in a certain specific set of themes, where does this leave a story with characters of one age but a theme of interest to a different age group, like, for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird, whose theme is probably not uppermost in the concerns of the average 6-year old girl.
In the book I am thinking about writing, the thing that interests me is something we might call the sphere of compassion. The sphere of compassion is the grouping that includes all the people we feel for and wish well. When someone falls within our sphere of compassion, we respect their lives and their property and, depending on how close we feel to them, we may render them aid. When someone falls outside our sphere of compassion, the loss of their life or property does not touch us. We may even celebrate it or participate in harming them.
This is at the heart of the snippet that may form the start of the next book:
“It’s a seal,”said Simon.
“It’s a mermaid,” said Marion.
Hannah left them and ran along the sand, feet splashing through the intruding tide.
“It’s a man,” she shouted, looking back at them. “Somethings been chewing on him.”
Simon and Marion came running up, more careful to keep their feet dry. Marion stopped short, but Simon leaned over the body and looked.
“Someone’s bashed him on the head,” he said. He knelt down beside the body, but Hannah pushed him aside.
“Mine,” she said, “You thought it was a seal.” She started to go through the corpse’s pockets.
“Four pennies and a farthing,” she announced, cataloguing her finds as she went. “A button. Four bullets. A watch chain – no watch. A letter – ruined. A ring!”
Hannah bit the ring, which yielded slightly. She stuffed it hurriedly into the pocket of her smock.
Simon pulled a knife out and went to cut off the buttons on the man’s red coat.
“Mine!” Hannah insisted.
“You got a knife?” Simon asked.
“I’ll bite them off. You leave him be or I’ll bite you.”
“I’ll let you use the knife for two buttons.”
“Gerroff him then.”
“Don’t cut the buttons,” Marion said, still keeping her distance, “take the whole coat and the breeches.”
“How am I supposed to get them off him?”
“Unbutton it and roll him over. The three of us together could manage it.”
“You’ll have to touch him then, you baby.”
“I will. Equal shares on the coat, though, if we all help.”
“Including the buttons,” Simon said.
“Where would we hide it?” Hannah asked. “Da will take the lot if he sees it.”
The corpse, despite being half-eaten, evokes neither pity nor horror in the three children. Why not? Because the dead man lies outside their sphere of compassion.
Our sphere of compassion seems to be bounded partially by how much we know about people, how much they are like us, and how much their actions, or their mere existence, threaten our access to the resources we need. Today our sphere of compassion is pretty wide, most of the time, though it is far from infinite. We are generally well-fed and unused to famine or riot. We don’t see most people as a threat to our safety and comfort. This is not because we are more moral but because we are richer. As the belly starts to pinch, as our children’s cheeks start to grow hollow, as the sparkle goes out of their eyes and the laughter out of their mouths, the sphere of our compassion shrinks rapidly. The children have no pity for the victims of shipwreck because they get their bread by wrecking.
Wreckers were people who lived along dangerous shorelines where ships were often wrecked. They would scavenge any shipwreck they came across. But they did not always confine themselves to scavenging wrecks that happened by chance. They caused them. They were also known to murder the crews of ships if they resisted or might live to give witness against the plunderer. Wreckers existed all over the world, anywhere ships had to navigate tricky waters. They probably exist in a few places still. Their sphere of compassion is pretty small.
Today we perhaps lose something of the significance of the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. It was not simply that the injured Jew whom the Samaritan found on the road was a stranger. It was that he belonged to a people who were outside the sphere of compassion of the Jews, as the Jews were outside the sphere of compassion of the Samaritans. The normal thing for a Samaritan to do when finding an injured Jew by the side of the road would have been to rifle his pockets, give him a kick in the ribs, and walk on. But the Samaritan goes outside of his sphere of compassion and is charitable to one he has no reason to be charitable to.
This is what fascinates me. How do our spheres of compassion form, how do they change, how do people justify the limits of their compassion, and what makes us occasionally step outside of them? We would understand both history and current politics much better, I feel, if we understood the sphere of compassion better.
An isolated coastal village whose people regularly engage in active wrecking, killing their countrymen to line their own pockets, seems like the perfect place to examine the sphere of compassion. Why choose a young woman as the protagonist of such a story? Because young women are naturally the most compassionate of creatures. Their spheres of compassion are typically larger than almost anybody else’s. A young woman willing to set a false light and rifle the pockets of a corpse is a particularly interesting subject with whom to explore this theme.
But how do I write a teaser to give that impression to the reader in the modern market? What genre label should I put on it? This is important because there seems to be a void in the current category system into which books like mine seem to fall. On Book Funnel, for instance, many of the group promos for both historical and fantasy stories specify that romances are not included. Romance can be an element of the plot, they say, but not the main plot. I know exactly what they are trying to exclude, and I don’t think it is my sort of book they are trying to keep out. But romance is, in fact, the main plot of at least three of my four books. Just not the Harlequin kind.
My books don’t fit the Harlequin mold of romance because they are attempts at serious popular fiction. A Harlequin-style romance is not aiming to portray the human condition accurately but to provide an escape from the drudgery and insecurity of everyday life. Again, this is not to criticize the form, merely to say that my books are attempting something different.
If the category for my books is serious popular romance, they are certainly not without company. The literature of the past is full of such works. But in contemporary letters, they seem to have less company. Or if they have company, I struggle to find it. (As always, I am eager to have you point out examples to me.) One thing I know for certain is that you won’t find a “serious popular YA romance” section in your local bookstore.
So what am I to do? What label am I to give my books? Am I wrong to fear that if I call them romance — historical romance, to be specific — my intended audience will turn their noses up at them, while those who do buy them under that label will find their expectations disappointed?
You have encapsulated exactly why I get so frustrated with modern, sales-driven genre designations. The tools used to serve readers or aid scholarship are now a giant cluster of a machine that just perpetuates itself. It's very frustrating when promoting, because you feel like you *have* to fit into these narrow boxes in order to market your work. I wish I had a answer for you! It sounds like your books are some that could fit into multiple genres depending on the context. You are correct that most classic Romance readers expect a happily ever after. Would literary (with romantic elements) be a more apt genre for you? Or historical fiction/fantasy with romantic elements? It's unfortunate they don't have fluid designations like that in most promos.
Love this. I’m always struggling to define the genre of my own books and I also read widely across many genres. And I worry a lot about reader expectations and genre expectations in my book sales process. It’s so hard! Categories feel very limited.