Mar 6 2011 3:00pm

Genus, Genre, Genius: On Reading Romance

Fiction Genres chartOver at this other blog—oh all right, John Scalzi’s WhateverBrandon Sanderson had an interesting guest post about “Post Modernism in Fantasy.” Yes, I know this is supposed to be about Romance. I’ll get there. I promise.

In the meantime, oh, my gosh! Brandon Sanderson is a total academic geek! W00t for  English grad school geeks! While I was getting my MA in English, I, too, was required to read all about deconstruction. At first, the concept made my brain hurt, but, as with many difficult subjects, if you do the reading and pay attention in class, after a bit you catch on.

Deconstruction for the Rest of Us

If you’re interested, here’s an amusing and even useful look at “How to deconstruct Just About Anything.” If you just want to laugh at grad students in the English Department, there’s this. But beware, English grad students are everywhere, and they understand why you’re doing what you’re doing not to mention what you really meant by it. We’re scary that way.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn, by the way, got me reading Fantasy again after a long hiatus that started way back in the day when I got tired of how female characters fared in the genre and Barbara Hambly stopped writing her wonderful novels with Magical women who weren’t doomed to die or vanish from all the exciting parts. 

At any rate, Sanderson’s article got me thinking, but not about Post Modernism in Romance, although that would be a very worthy subject of discussion. No, his article got me thinking about the dangers of limiting an analysis to agreed-upon boundaries. I’m heretical that way. My own approach is to spend at least some time considering what happens if you take away the boundaries. It’s scary, but I like to spend time out there in chaos before bringing things back.

Sea Slugs and Plants. Or do I mean Plants and Sea Slugs?

Humans like to classify, sort, and categorize. We love to rank things and people, and we impose and overlay all that in the way we see and talk about the world. Two (or more) people having a conversation will have communication issues if they don’t share at least some reference points in the way they classify the world. These sets of shared references facilitate our discussions. We can talk about Fantasy novels only because we agree there are story elements that define Fantasy. Or Mystery. Or Romance. When we read a story, we are able to pick out those elements and say, this book is Fantasy, or Mystery or Romance. Most of the time. There’s a lot of Romance that confounds an easy shelving decision.

The world does not always abide by our rules of classification. Plants use photosynthesis and animals do not. Clear boundary, right? Except for Elysia chlorotica, a sea slug that can photosynthesize. Otherwise, the rule works.

It is dangerous, therefore, to trust too fervently in the correctness of the classifications we humans impose. There are spaces where the lines we agreed on must be moved, whole areas where boundaries have blurred. We should be mindful that our observations can impose a human-centric point of view on a world that is point-of-view neutral.

The danger in limiting an analysis to the boundaries of a given classification is that we risk missing a glimpse of another truth. I am not arguing, by the way, that we should henceforth throw everything into the pot for consideration. Discussions of commonalties are useful. My point is that every now and then it’s wise to remind ourselves that our agreement about the commonalities might be flawed.

Back to Stories.

When a genre writer thinks about the story she’d like to write, it’s helpful, and frankly, probably essential, to be aware of the boundaries we agree exist for that genre. Do as Sanderson did, and think about the ways that the rules can be broken or bent or twisted around. And then go further.

What happens if a writer considers only the elements common to a given genre, and never extends the analysis beyond those borders? What depth might a story lose if a writer who has never read a Romance decides to include a Romance in her mystery story? Would there not be tropes that sit there untapped? Clichés some other genre has long left behind?

For even more fun, consider what might happen when a writer versed in the definition of a Romance also makes a study of SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery and so on?  Are there ways in which such a writer might actually produce a superior story? Or perhaps a subversive one.

Here’s the point where I risk making a few people angry. Oh, well!

A writer who refuses to read Romance, and they are not at all hard to find, is crippling her ability to create her art. It is equally true, by the way, that a Romance author who does not read outside her genre takes exactly the same risk.

Just saying.

Fiction genres image courtesy of Enokson via Flickr.


Carolyn Jewel lives in Northern California. She writes Romance and bakes a lot, except when she is at the day job. You can find her on the web at, on Twitter and on Facebook. You can find her books online and at fine bookstores everywhere.

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Saranna DeWylde
1. Saranna DeWylde
A great post!

I agree. If you never experience anything from another POV, be it genre, someone else's shoes, whatever, all you have to offer are the same tired and tattered things you drag out at every gathering like Mom's chipped china.

Recognizing beauty can't happen without contrast. We have to look beyond the worlds we build for ourselves to find something that event horizon.
Milena Benini
2. Milena Benini
Absolutely true. It's so painful when a writer gets into a genre they know nothing about and then make a mess of things by re-inventing the wheel. I've seen this particularly often with speculative fiction, where literary authors write something they feel is fresh and innovative because they never deigned to inform themselves about what's been done before in that trashy genre.

Not to mention that there are a number of writers out there who would do well to read a few romances before they write the obligatory romantic subplot in their thrillers. For some reason, this seems like a particular problem with male authors. Or is it just my impression?
Jenny Schwartz
3. Jenny Schwartz
Okay, so the mention of Barbara Hambly is enough to get me checking out Mistborn. Her "Bride of the Rat God" is one of my all-time favourite novels.

And I couldn't agree more on the cliches/reinventing the wheel risk. Besides, I love having the excuse that I have to read! and read widely.
Carolyn Jewel
4. cjewel
Thanks for the comment love! As you can see, I am a firm believer in reading widely in general. Any reader who's done so knows when a writer hadn't read widely enough. And yes, @MilenaBenini, I do think that that Romance is the genre least read by other writers, and that's is exactly why we get horrible love scenes and more cliche heroines. Sigh.

@Jenny Schwartz: I LOVED the Mistborn trilogy practially beyond reason. Until the last chapter of the last book. Barbra Hambly is amazing. I want her backlist for my ereader.
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