Nov 13, 2013

Three assumptions that make me grit my teeth...

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a journalist and one of the questions she asked me was, “What cliché about romances would you most like to dispel? (or something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing here). I replied (and again I’m paraphrasing) that I thought clichés about romance novels were old-fashioned and out-dated and people had moved beyond them.

Did I say this because I believe it?

Hmm…not completely. I do think it holds true in some circles, but not all. It’s like ripples in a pond, though. Those circles are ever increasing and will eventually encompass all.

If the truth be told, I said it because my mind went blank. There’s a reason I’m a writer rather than a speaker. ;-) But it started me thinking about the clichéd assumptions surrounding romance novels that do get up my nose.

And these are my top three:

1. Romance novels are formulaic and, therefore, poorly written
2. Happy endings are unrealistic
3. All romance readers are bored housewives

1. Romances are formulaic and poorly written

Look no one is silly enough to say every romance novel ever written is a work of art. Just as they’re not silly enough to claim the same for every literary novel ever written. That’s just unrealistic. There’re a lot of novels in the world and they cover the entire spectrum from work of art through to drivel. So, yes, some romance novels are poorly written. Be assured, though, that some are works of art.

I’m now going to say something rather shocking. Romance novels are formulaic. What I want to know, however, is when did the word, and the idea of, formula get such a bad wrap? When did it become associated with all things evil and negative?

For heaven’s sake, all genre fiction is formulaic. There are some people who argue that literary fiction is formulaic too. Every piece of writing is formed by the conventions that surround it. Every piece of writing. Conventions = rules. Rules = formula.

Somewhere along the line formula came to imply that something was easy. Therefore, writing romance novels must be easy. And if something is easy—or perceived as easy—the assumption is it has little value. Easy? Ha! Shall I tell you what my formula consists of?
* My story must focus on the developing relationship between my hero and heroine.
* My story must end happily
* I write Sweet Romances for Mills & Boon so any love scenes must not be explicitly described.
* The story must be roughly 50,000 words long.
* My hero and heroine must be sympathetic

Those are the rules I follow when writing a romance novel. I can defend each and every one of them if challenged. I follow rules just as poets who write sonnets or haiku follow rules. Just as dramatists writing tragedies follow rules. Just as an essay, a book review and an investigative piece of journalism follows rules. If you think a formula makes the writing easy, go ahead and try it and then come back and tell me what you’ve discovered.

I’ve run out of room to address those other two pieces of nonsense that make me grind my teeth. Maybe I’ll talk about them next month. :-)

In retrospect, I don’t regret the answer I gave to the journalist. Journalists hate two things—being accused of getting their facts wrong, and being old-hat and out of touch. Quite frankly, these clichés are passé and antiquated (and just plain wrong). The more people in the big wide world who are aware of that, the better.

What about you—what clichés about romance novels and readers make you want to scream?


  1. Michelle

    I am so with you on this I love the romance stories that I read and yes some are awesome and some are just stories but they keep me interested and I really enjoy them, I want a story that will make me smile in the end and that journey that is filled so many ups and downs along the way keep me turning the pages. I am proud to tell anyone that I read romance and over the years I have had many people tell me they are dribble and all the same and I say don't knock them unless you have read one first although yes they all have a HEA the story along the way is different the heroes and heroines have different personalities. :)

    Have Fun

  2. Oh, Helen, good for you for being loud and proud about your love of romances! I have had very few people dare to tell me that romances are *bad* because I usually tell them how fab they are first, before they get the chance to say anything. ;-)

    And I agree totally about the HEA. Each character is different and they all attain their HEAs in different ways. One thing formula doesn't signify is unvaried, tedious repetition. The variety in the romance genre--in just one Harlequin line for that matter--is astonishing!

  3. Go, Michelle. You are so right. We do use a formula of sorts. Doesn't every writer in every genre? But that doesn't mean we write boring, or the same over and over. The readers expect the happy endings too. Like they're going to read a book that ends with a relationship going sour? I don't think so. I once read a book (suspense) where the heroine was killed at the end. Tell you what, I'm never reading that author's books again. I'd followed that woman for over three hundred pages only to have to bury her at the end. Big disappointment.

    1. Ack on that suspense book you read, Sue! TBH, I don't hate unhappy endings -- literary fiction and the classics are full of them (War and Peace anyone?) -- but when I pick one of those books up I know an unhappy ending is a possibility. If a writer, however, marketed a book as a romance and then it had an unhappy ending...well that's just a lie and as a reader I'd never trust that author again.

      As far as formula is concerned, I think somewhere along the line someone decided it meant that "Page 1: Hero & heroine must meet; Page 20: insert kiss; Page 30: insert an argument b/w the H/h;" etc. Which is, of course, nonsense. You're right, we don't write the same over and over. If there was no variety in the genre then readers wouldn't keep buying new books -- they'd reread their old ones instead. ;-)

  4. I HATE the word formula because like you, Michelle I think that it denigrates a book to "easy". Haiku's and sonnets have very definite formulas . Genre fiction has a promise to readers - I don't think that's formulaic at all!
    I also HATE unhappy endings. I want to smile and sigh and laugh and yes even cry but not because someone's killed off the heroine.
    But what really really gets my goat is the people who start off with "I've never read one but...." then go on to trash an *entire* genre based on nothing!!!
    Grrr, can you tell this is subject sets my blood boiling? :-)

    1. Amy, you should read the first couple of chapters of Pamela Regis's "A Natural History of the Romance Genre." She does a brilliant defence of both romance novels and formula.

      Oh those "I've never read a romance, but...' people seriously get up my nose too. Mind you, such ignorance is usually pretty easy to nullify (as long as one can rein in their temper). ;-)

  5. Michelle, I love this post. I often equate romance with crime and point out that a book from the crime genre usually starts with a crime being committed, then follows a detective / cop / amateur and ends with the crime being solved. How is that less formulaic than a romance novel?

    I read a great blog post the other day at Romance Novels for Feminists that had some great advice, including:

    • Don't endorse a monolithic view of romance; when you speak or write of the field, make sure to emphasize the wide variety of styles, subgenres, and levels of writing out there

    • Use the term "romance fiction" or "romance novels" rather than simply "romance," to emphasize that a work of romance is a crafted literary accomplishment (apparently other popular genre awards deem their works "novels" or "fiction," in contrast to the RITA awards, which only use the term "romance")

    • Question the assumptions lurking behind the denigrating questions people tend to ask about romance, rather than answering the denigrating questions themselves

    • Make clear you're speaking from a deep knowledge of the genre

    • Make comparisons with other genres

    • Avoid defending the genre; work from the assumption that the genre is worth studying and discussing

    • Refer to the history of the genre; discuss the ways romance has changed over time (to displace the monolithic assumption, see above)

    • Show respect for both authors and readers

    • Bring gender into the discussion: why is romance fiction, primarily written by and read by women, looked down upon, while male-oriented popular fiction is deemed worthy?

    You can read the whole (fabulous!) article here:

  6. Hehe, Rach, we've been reading the same blog! I loved this post at Romance Novels for Feminists. The points made in that post are so valid. I'm working on using the term "romance novels" now (rather than romances) because of this post.

    The hardest of these for me to master, but has sort of become 2nd nature to me now is point 6 -- "Avoid defending the genre; work from the assumption that the genre is worth studying and discussing." It's amazing how this attitude unbalances the people who automatically start to denigrate romance novels. No one likes to feel ignorant or wrong and when one starts from the basis that romance novels have worth then people have a tendency to keep their opinions to themselves until they listen to yours. Of course, they can't refute the evidence once it's presented to them. ;-)

    BTW, I love your comparison of romance fiction to crime fiction! It's true...and quite frankly how many people would keep reading crime novels if the mystery was never solved?

  7. Hi Michelle,

    Loved your post. I must admit I hate the word 'formula' as some people do seem to think romance fiction is easy and it's a matter of slotting in words to a preordained structure. Argh! I gave a short presentation recently to a local writers group (non-romance) and said for me romance fiction required two things - a love story and a happy ending. When I put the alternative as being like a mystery where the mystery never got solved or a whodunit where the reader never discovers the one responsible, they all started nodding and smiling. I believe there are an infinite variety of romance stories possible and feel the word 'formula' is so misunderstood it's best to avoid it.

    As for romance being denigrated by those who haven't read I do wonder if it's to do with the fact it's seen as a predominantly female field and female readership. Fortunately I believe a lot of that old prejudice is changing.

    1. Annie, when I'm wearing my academic hat I can't avoid the word 'formula' so I've decided I'll just have to reeducate the world so they can see formula for the positive, affirming, useful tool that it is (well, one lives in hope, don't they). ;-)

      I expect your and Rach's approach to likening romance novels HEA with the mystery being solved or discovering the who in the whodunit must really strike a chord with readers and would help them understand the whole idea of genre and convention -- and that has to be a good thing!

  8. I find it difficult to pick which cliches get up my nose but I can say that my basic opinion is this: "If you don't write or regularly read romance stories, then keep your damn thoughts on the subject to yourself."

    Sorry, I lie. The cliche of romance novels being trashy leads me to keep my reading of them to myself.

    I definitely don't consider writing romance formulaic, and I appreciate the stories I read all the more because I know that they are not easy. I figure if my favourite authors wanted easy, then they wouldn't be writing.
    I do expect HEAs in my romance stories, because that is what I've come to expect from the genre. There has been stories that I have read where I find the journey for hero and heroine to the HEA to be unrealistic, BUT I choose to read romance as a form of escapism so at the end of the day I don't really care if the story is unrealistic.

    Um, as for the third assumption - I most definitely am not a bored housewife. I am a 29, almost 30 year old female who is finalising my university degree (currently finishing a few pieces of work) and will be in a fulltime job within the NZ public sector as of next Monday. I have every intention of continuing to read romance in my own time.

    You could throw any number of cliches at me and I still could rebut them

    1. I heartily agree with you Lyn -- why on earth do people feel the need to tell romance readers that they're reading trash? It's just crazy. And rude!

      Trashy and formula simply don't go hand in hand--just like easy and formula don't. And there are days, believe me, when I wish writing romance novels WAS easy. Like you, when I pick up a romance novel I want that HEA -- I ache for it. And, yes, not every romance novel hits all the notes for me, but that's just personal preference and subjectivity most of the time.

      Ha! Bored housewives? There's been so much research done on that particular head -- esp the surveys by RWAm -- that they've blown that cliche out of the water. It's a proven fact that romance readers come from all walks of life, all education levels and all backgrounds. And THAT makes me smile. :-)

      P.S. And go you for rebutting those cliches!

  9. Bravo, Michelle! Well said!

    Yes, it's a shame that the romance genre often gets a bad rap. And kind of weird too because some of the most popular movies are pure romance - Love Actually, Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally to name a few. So why does a written romance get looked down on so badly!

    What could more satisfying than to write a book that leaves a reader with a lovely warm fuzzy feeling! Long live the "formula" of a happily ever after, I say!

  10. Well said, right back at you, Sharon! Absolutely nothing wrong with a happy ending as far as I'm concerned (or the romance reading public either, obviously).