Crossroads: Romance – More Powerful than You Could Possibly Imagine

Today is February 7th, and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, love is in the air. Which is why this month I’ll be taking a look at romance, and how it rubs up against speculative fiction. Before I get into it, I’d like to say that my analysis has benefited greatly from reading the many insights of others (particularly The Galaxy Express, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Alien Romances, See Light, Radish Reviews, and the work of Pamela Regis and Janice Radway), so if I make any blunders in my own analysis, they are entirely my own.

Two Genres, Both Alike in Dignity

Rose on White Background by Paolo Neo

Speculative fiction and romance have spent much of their histories in the literary ghetto. Neither received the love of mainstream literary critics, and both have been (and sometimes continue to be) dismissed as escapist or formulaic, and so by implication, of no value to (some implausibly imagined) society. And yet, the two genres have been and still are incredibly popular. Clearly, science fiction, fantasy, and romance each provide us with value. Otherwise, we wouldn’t spend our money buying them, or our time reading them.

Despite its escapism, speculative fiction explores social, philosophical, and moral themes as a matter of course. At its best, the genre utilizes its narrative conventions and speculative devices to explore thought experiments, imagine their consequences, and dramatize values. And the romance genre does the same. But the primary difference between the two lies in their central concerns: speculative fiction – whose subtext and narrative structures vary broadly among individual titles, authors, and sub-genres – features myriad central concerns. Romance – across all titles, authors, sub-genres, and even time periods – is always centrally concerned with sex power.

And this is both romance’s greatest strength, and the source of its greatest weakness.

We Don’t Hold with Taxonomic Ambiguity

At one point or another, we’ve all debated the fuzzy definitions of science fiction and fantasy. The genre is porous, and the borders between its variants are hazy at best. Romance, despite some grumbling amongst its critics and authors, is much more clearly defined. Here’s how the Romance Writers of America describe it:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. – Romance Writers of America

That’s pretty succinct. Part of me wishes we had such clarity when it comes to speculative fiction. More significantly, this clarity still holds when we wade into the sub-genre weeds, with sub-genres clearly determined by their time-period (contemporary romance versus historical romance), their plot devices (romantic suspense), their audience (young adult romance), or their content (paranormal romance – which includes both science fiction and fantasy romance – and inspirational romance). The genre can be further broken down either by the type of romance portrayed (heteronormative, gay, lesbian, etc.) or by the way sex is depicted (ranging from “sweet”, with all the action off-camera, to “extremely hot”, with all of the glorious raunch right there in the text).

For all of its simplicity, this taxonomy is incredibly powerful. Every romance title – from the classics like Jane Austen, to more modern fare like Nora Roberts – can be pretty easily categorized. However, the roots of this taxonomy – the need for a central love story, and for a happy ending – impose fundamental constraints on the narrative structure. If a romance is to be interesting, that “central love story” needs more than just emotions, more than just sex. It needs conflict, and that naturally turns into the “will-they-or-won’t-they” dynamic that romance so frequently gets criticized for.

Romance is a formulaic genre because its defining characteristic enforces a consistent narrative structure, which makes criticisms of its predictability and consistency pretty accurate. But there’s more to any good story than its structure, and romance becomes particularly interesting when we consider its subtext.

The Exploration of Power

To give credit where it is due, it was the confluence of three different essays (one by Carrie Vaughn, another by Lilith Saintcrow, and a third by Natalie Luhrs) which first made me realize that romance is all about power. But while their essays focused on urban fantasy and paranormal romance, I think the principle extends across the entire romance genre.

Fiction – of every genre – is relevant to us because it models reality. Sure, our daily grind might not feature interstellar travel, sentient aliens, fuzzy-footed hobbits, or sexy vampires, but the dynamics at play with these metaphorical constructs remain recognizable to us. All fiction – and especially speculative fiction – comments on reality by helping us to step outside of it.

The romance genre – even when it is devoid of any speculative elements – focuses on modeling relationship dynamics. That “central love story” forces this focus upon us. And – just as in physics – one of the defining characteristics of any relationship is the power of its constituent parts.

Jane Austen’s novels – considered by many ur-texts of romance – famously dramatize and portray the economic, social, and gender power dynamics of Austen’s time. It is those dynamics, and in Austen’s case their frequently gendered dimension, which leads them to resonate so strongly. Austen’s portrayal of Lizzie Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), of the Bertrams and Crawfords (Mansfield Park), or of Sir Walter Elliot and Captain Wentworth (Persuasion) all revolve around the power of those characters in their own lives, in their families, in their communities, and in the broader world around them. Yes, the focus is on the love story between two characters, and the respective emotions, logic, and passions which drive them. But this “love story” becomes an efficient and emotionally charged vehicle for dramatizing the power dynamics between the lovers, and in their (fictional) world.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss Irish Thoroughbred by Nora Roberts Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

This carries through seamlessly from Austen’s time, through to our own era. A line can be drawn from Austen, to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, straight through to Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, and from them into the genre’s more modern form. What is Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower if not an exploration of gender and class-derived power? The same can be said for Nora Roberts’ first novel (Irish Thoroughbred), and all of the tamer and feistier heroines and heroes who followed.

Romance’s sword of power cuts both ways: for every novel that dramatizes an empowered heroine (or hero) with agency and the opportunity and drive to apply it, there are others which laud or promote more traditionally heteronormative gender roles. Regardless of how these models align with our own values, or of how we respond to the values they portray, the resulting breadth of argument is one of the romance genre’s core strengths: across its sub-genres and throughout its history, we can find every permutation of social, political, religious, ethnic, gender, and cultural power dynamics. And every month, new permutations are getting published.

So are romance novels all about the sex? Only in the way that science fiction novels are all about the spaceships, or that fantasy novels are all about the swords. The sex – and the emotions, and the relationships – characteristic of the romance genre are just there as an effective means of dramatizing the subtext. They get their more serious job done quickly, efficiently, and by tapping into our deeper primal urges.

Regardless of whatever kink they might feature, romance novels aren’t all about the sex: they’re all about the power.

How Speculative Fiction Gets In on the Action

So how does that play with speculative fiction? Science fiction and fantasy are both at their best when exploring complex social and cultural themes. One would think that a genre which could produce Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea should be equally at home with the power dynamics of Pride and Prejudice or Playing the Odds.

And yet, I find that speculative fiction has both an uncomfortable and close relationship to the conventions and themes of the romance genre, both within the text and within speculative fiction’s broader fandom. The ways in which the two genres interact depends almost entirely on which genre’s roots take primacy in a given work:

Romance/Speculative Fiction

When speculative fiction is written from a foundation in the romance genre (as in the “paranormal romance” or “science fiction romance” sub-genres), the results are very different from when romantic elements get incorporated into an otherwise speculative foundation. The ways in which both the stories get constructed and the ways in which their themes of power get developed are very different, rely on different devices, and produce different effects in the reader.

Next week, we’ll dive into the often steamy, often kick-ass world of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. ‘Til then, what are some of your favorite examples of romance? Or romance-imbued speculative fiction?

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  1. Thanks for the recommendation on Lynn Flewelling! I'll have to look into her work. And I definitely think you're right: I suspect that speculative fiction's greatest incompatibilty with the romance genre is that we tend not to like "clean" HEAs. We seem to prefer a mixed-bag ending, where some aspects work out while others do not. This flies in the face of much romance (though, I don't think it is incompatible – romance only asks that the love story have a happy ending, which I always interpret to mean the rest of the world can go up in flames ;)).

  2. Fantasy Romance also straddles the line, and I can't read the novels that are primarily rooted in romance. The fantasy side is never up to snuff — the world-building, the reliance on tired old tropes. Maybe romance fans would have the same complaints about fantasy with added romance, but for me it's far more readable.

    I'm looking forward to your next post on this, especially now that I'm revising a fantasy romance of my own 🙂

    1. Fantasy romance is such an interesting little niche! I always find it strange that it is so small and relatively unnoticed when compared to supernatural romance (vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, etc.) and science fiction romance.

      I've often wondered why I more frequently find fantasy romance published as pure fantasy by fantasy imprints. Great authors like Jacqueline Carey, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, Mary Robinette Kowal, M.K. Hobson, etc. might all be called "fantasy romance" yet their titles are invariably pubbed and marketed as fantasy to fantasy readers. I think it's a fascinating tendency, and later this month I'll be talking about that intersection quite a bit. I'd love to know what you think!

      1. It may have to do with the fact that fantasy-based FR does not promise that HEA. I have to shout out to my personal favorite, here, Lynn Flewelling, who dominates that even smaller niche, M/M FR. She's writing the last book of her NIGHTRUNNER series and she has promised that she will not kill the two main characters — but I'm not so foolish as to think that means there will be a HEA.

        Also, it's my personal impression that in FR the romance is always playing slightly second string to the main plot, whereas in RF the romance dominates. (To the detriment of everything else, IMO. That guaranteed HEA really shoots tension in the foot, for me.)

        So if the taxonomical shoe does not fit…

  3. Great analysis, Chris. I especially like the Venn diagram, and I'd like to see what it would look like if you separated science fiction and fantasy into separate circles.

    My opinion is on the extreme end (my opinions usually are …): I loathe romance. It has spoiled many a fantasy for me. However, I don't mean that I loathe subplots involving love and sex. I loathe it when the story is harnessed into the service of the romance, or when the story has to wait, impatiently cracking its knuckles, for the love scenes to be gotten over with.

    Obviously love 'n' sex subplots can be successfully incorporated into and enrich all sorts of stories. But romance has a kudzu-esque ability to smother interesting stuff and kill story momentum. I won't name names, but the proliferation of romance in recent years–and the fact that it's almost always perpetrated by female authors–has made me a prejudiced reader: I am now very hesitant to pick up fantasy novels by women. I even started writing fantasy under a male pseudonym myself, for the same reason.

    Thing is, I used to like urban fantasy. In your next post I'd like to hear what you think about Laurell K. Hamilton — whose work both drew me into that genre, and later put me off it.

    1. Thanks, Felicity! Glad you enjoyed the post, and the Venn diagram (there's another one coming up in a couple of weeks when I get into science fiction romance).

      I understand your concerns about romance potentially halting the momentum of a story. It can be handled clumsily, usually when the romance is made incidental to the story's core (and thus an unnecessary distraction). I actually find this most frequently in standard speculative fiction, rather than in speculative romance: in romance, the romantic relationship is so central to the story and the characters that this problem usually doesn't crop up for me. The challenge of tying romance elements into a speculative fiction story, and the risks and pitfalls it brings with it, will definitely come up in a couple of weeks (my fourth romance post goes into it a bit).

      That being said, many of the romance stories often have other issues from my perspective. Laurell K. Hamilton – whose work I initially enjoyed, and like you, later stopped enjoying – kept the romantic/sexual dimension central to her story (and did so from the very beginning), but as her Anita Blake series progressed it over-shadowed all of the other elements that she initially had working for her. The whole question of whether to describe Anita Blake (or Kitty Norville, or Mercy Thompson, or Jill Kismet, etc.) as paranormal romance vs urban fantasy is itself an often contentious topic…and next week I plan to stick my foot into that bear trap. 🙂

      (I get into this more next week, but I think that their work is often both UF and PNR, and while we can sometimes point to individual titles and say "It has so little romance!" the narrative arc of the series when considered as a whole still makes me think of many as PNR)

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