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Week One - An Introduction to the Romance Genre

October 5, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (12)

or Why Write Romance?

Romance is an enormous genre, one that we frequently underestimate in Canada. Roughly 50% of all mass market fiction sold in the United States each year is romance, and this has been a consistent market share for as along as I’ve been in the business. “Romance pays the rent” is a saying often heard from booksellers in the States, and a walk through any chain bookstore will show that the romance section is generally both large and located at the back of the store. Romance readers will walk as far as necessary to get the books they want - and they are avid readers. The total sales volume for 2007 (the last year for which sales numbers are available) was $US 1.375 billion.

Romance Writers of America compiles statistics each year, which is my source here. (You can read more HERE.) There are no similar compilations done for Canada, but I believe that romance sales in English Canada are consistent with US English sales. 

• So, one reason to write romance is that there is opportunity for writers. When a market is large, there are more books published within that market, which means that there are more publishers acquiring titles, from both new and established authors. According to RWA, the total number of romance novels published in 2007 was 8090 titles. 

• Secondly, romance is pertinent. Romance is a mirror of popular culture, partly because it is a genre focussed on the dynamics of relationships. Romances, regardless of the period in which they are set, will resonate with the popular concerns of the times in which they are published. There is an idea that a romance reader wants to live vicariously through the novel, that she wants to relive the adrenaline rush of falling in love, or even that it’s her desire to step into the shoes of the novel’s heroine. In order for that to be possible, the heroine of a romance novel must seem to be real, to be like us, to be a timely representation of what it means to be an adult woman in our society. She must share our concerns and our realities in order to be an appropriate candidate for our sympathy and our emotional investment. As romance is primarily an American genre - the bulk of titles are published by New York based print publishing houses targeting the American market - it is most reflective of American popular culture and concerns.

• Perhaps it’s not a surprise then, that romance is a conservative genre.  The main focus of any romance novel is a love match, a story of a man and a woman overcoming obstacles to create a lasting bond. In many ways, romance is about family. It’s about pair-bonding. It’s about happy endings. It’s about a pair of protagonists moving beyond their respective histories and learning to operate as a couple. So, a third reason for writing romance is that it’s interesting. I am very interested in character and in character arcs, so exploring the evolution of a relationship between two fictional characters is an intriguing for me. Every book is different, because every book has different characters who different issues to resolve. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of telling human stories.

• The fourth reason I write romance is that I’m an optimist. No matter how the story begins, a romance ends with what readers call an H.E.A. - that’s Happily Ever After. And no, I don’t think that’s trite - I think that we can all use a little H.E.A. in our lives, and the sales for romance (especially the surge in the genre’s sales volume over the past year) show that I’m not alone in that perspective. The H.E.A. can be a challenge to achieve in real life, and maybe that’s another reason for the popularity of the genre.

The fact is that H.E.A.’s become elusive when our rules and expectations change - when women want something different from life, the major relationships in those women’s lives need to adapt and accommodate those changing perspectives. That includes marriage. What we as women want from life and marriage is in flux, and has been in flux since the 1960’s. The responsibilities we balance seem to become ever more complex and choices are more complicated. It’s no coincidence that the romance genre has grown so quickly in exactly the same time period. This genre, above all others, is concerned with the emotional truth of women’s lives, and in a period of transition such as the late twentieth century, that is more pertinent to readers. The books published in the romance genre, and the changes in the reader expectations of the genre over time, have echoed the changing role of women in western society, particularly in American society. The genre provides a place to explore ideas, like the evolution of gender roles and the balance of partnership in marriage, and how those ideas manifest in our lives.

Romance novels reflect the diversity of our lives and the wide variety of our concerns. And they show, over and over again, that we can triumph. That core optimism is a big part of the enduring appeal of the genre.

• Because romance is a reflection of popular culture, the expectations of the genre are always on the move. A romance novel must reflect a current facet of our culture in order to strike a chord with readers. Over the past four decades, the traits of a successful romance have changed and changed dramatically. Older books seem dated when we read them now - although we may love them as classics of the genre, the concerns they mirror are no longer our own. The characterization of the heroine has really changed over these years, as she has become more active, and the characterization of the hero has changed, in that heroes have become more fully rounded characters. The conflicts and the relationships are more ‘real’.

Change means challenge and it means opportunity - I find it very exciting that the genre is always mutating, that a kind of book might be marketable now but not five years ago or five years in the future. There’s a tremendous opportunity for writers in that kind of change. I had a great time, for example, writing my book FALLEN, which is a future-set science fiction romance (post-nuclear but pre-Apocalyptic, as my editor loves to say) with a fallen angel as a hero and a suspense subplot. It’s quite the mash-up and was a challenge to write. Science fiction romance - or urban fantasy romance - is a new and growing subgenre, a hybrid that didn’t exist five years ago and will be radically different five years from now. That’s just fun.

• Finally, the raw size of the genre means that it can embrace a great deal of diversity. I don’t think there’s any reason for an author to feel “stale” in the romance genre, as there are options aplenty. I’ve written in a great many subgenres of romance over the years, but there are market segments I’ve yet to explore (and some, inevitably, that I never will.) We’ll look at a number of subgenres in the coming weeks. Some of our upcoming guests on the blog have been chosen to fill some of those gaps in my understanding of the market.

Because this is a blog post - not a dissertation - I’ll stop now. You’ve probably caught a whiff of my enthusiasm for this genre - be warned that I’ll try to infect you with that same energy over the next eight weeks. I have fun writing romance.

We're going to jump right into market stuff next week, so be ready for that.

Still to come this week -

Today - We'll usually have one post on Mondays, but since today is launch day, we have three. You've seen the intro to me, and this intro to the romance genre. Still to come is a post on resources for romance writers.

Wednesday - We’ll have some links to older blog posts of mine on the genre (because I do go on and on about this kind of thing.)

Thursday - We’ll welcome a very special guest. Dr. Nancy Down of the Library of Popular Culture at Bowling Green University will drop by to talk more about romance and popular culture, as well as the program at BGU.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Seattle, where I’ll be teaching a couple of workshops and giving the luncheon keynote at the Emerald City RWA conference this weekend. I may or may not be able to log in before next week, so give a big welcome to Dr. Down, please, and ask her lots of good questions.


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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