I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre

As RWA heads into the new millennium (which will begin on Jan.1, 2001, she pointed out pedantically), we’re completing the transition begun years ago that has taken RWA from a great support group to a great professional organization. But as we redefined RWA, we realized that we also needed to remodel our definition of the romance genre since the one on the website was archaic at best. We needed something short and punchy that described the genre in all its glory, something that would be easy to remember, something the press couldn’t make fun of. We talked about it on the links and on the board and in the PR committee, brilliantly chaired by Alicia Rasley, and finally, bloody but unbowed, we emerged with a definition that meets all the above criteria. We think. Probably.

Defining romance is a tricky business from any number of standpoints. The genre is huge and varied, so the definition had to be broad. The genre isn’t about family values or morals since it reflects a spectrum of beliefs and lifestyles, so the definition couldn’t include moral caveats. And the genre gets mocked a lot, so the definition couldn’t sound like jacket copy. That meant we needed a cleanly written, one sentence definition that didn’t exclude any real romance but that did exclude books that violated the basic assumptions of the genre.

After weeks of debate, I can state without fear of contradiction that we’re not going to get a definition that pleases everyone. There were those who suggested that the definition include “love between a man and a woman” and those who pointed out that it would be a bad idea to make RWA officially homophobic, given that respected publishers like Naiad Press have been publishing lesbian romances for years. We’d like this definition to be reflective of the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. There were those who insisted that the genre prohibit adultery and require marriage at the end, and there were those who pointed out that some people should keep their moral standards out of other people’s stories. There were those who insisted that the definition must stipulate a happy ending, and those who pointed out that a lot of great romances didn’t have happy endings, and that it would be a bad idea to frame a romance definition that excluded the book most people cite as the greatest romance of the twentieth century, Gone With the Wind . Oh, we had a high old time debating this one.

In the end, the various groups discussing this decided, not even close to unanimously, that the definition had to address the two aspects of the romance that were inviolable: the story and the ending.

The story part was easy: it has to be a love story. Not a story with a great love subplot, a love story. It has to be a book in which the main plot concerns two people falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. The conflict in the book should center on the love story. The protagonists in the book should be the protagonists in the love story. The climax in the book should resolve the love story. A writer is welcome to as many subplots as she likes as long as the relationship conflict is the main story. It’s the love story, stupid. So how do we frame all of that simply? The PR committee’s decision was to say: “A romance is a love story.” And let me tell you, it took us weeks to get those six words.

So why didn’t we just quit there? Well, have you ever read Anna Karenina ? A good romance heroine does not throw herself under a train, no matter how distraught she is. She might derail a couple to get what she wants, but give up? No. When other people chimed in with their distaste for other mainstream “romances” such as The Bridges of Madison County , the problem was clear: it’s also the ending, stupid.

So we go back to the happy ending definition, right? Well, no, because some of the best romances don’t have happy endings, they’re bittersweet.Those who write romances about protagonists who have experienced tragedy during their struggles shouldn’t have to tack on Disney endings to qualify as serious romance novelists. It was at this point in the discussion that people began saying, “Well, when I say ‘happy ending,’ I mean . . .” and it became clear we were going to have to define “happy ending” in the definition.

The discussions on this one pretty much boiled down to “endings that make the reader feel good at the end of the book.” No endings where the protagonists sacrifice for one another and end up noble and alone, no downers with the hero and the heroine wordlessly staring at a cockroach scuttling across the cracked linoleum of their tenement, and definitely no finales with dead protagonists unless they’re ghosts having a terrific time in the afterlife.

My feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.

The committee liked that but felt it should be shorter. So we tried “A romance is a love story that ends in emotional justice.” Somehow that wasn’t quite the note we wanted to strike, especially since, as someone pointed out, emotional justice could leave both of the protagonists dead on the linoleum with the cockroaches. We then switched to “emotionally satisfying” which seemed less grandiose but still left in the possibility of death and cockroaches. Finally, we added “optimistic” which took care of the cockroaches and left us with this gem:

A romance is a love story that has an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.

And that’s the definition we sent to the board. Any addition you think should be made should be examined in light of two things: Do all romances do that? And is this addition necessary to define the genre? Try analyzing the definition from a practical standpoint: Does this describe all the romance novels you’ve read? And does this bar all the stories you’ve said are definitely not romances? (I knew we had it when Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice made the cut, and Madame Bovary and Message in a Bottle didn’t.)

We’re open to suggestion, so let us know what you think, but barring great opposition, this is probably going to be RWA’s definition of the romance novel for the twenty-first century. And I do think it’s a good one since it meets my definition of a great definition: it’s short and memorable, there’s nothing in there that the press can make fun of, and it captures the spirit of any good romance. Next up: RWA’s slogan. My suggestion: “We’re not polyester-wearing, sexually frustrated, middle-aged frumps and geeks.” I know, it needs work. Stay tuned.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. PAN March 2000