As Serena pointed out in the comments to her recent post, Why We Like It Wonky, romance is a convention-bound genre. She wrote:
When I started writing romance, I’d read maybe fifty books in the genre, and I didn’t yet understand how important the “soft” constraints of the genre were. Meaning, yeah, there aren’t very many hard constraints. Any hero, any heroine, a happy ending. And really, shouldn’t you be able to wrest a happy ending out of just about any situation? But then there are all these other genre-expectation constraints, having to do with what typical readers want to read.
The soft constraints — they are many in number. Consider the sort of people and relationships described in the list below, which comes from the submission sheet for Harlequin’s Kimani Romance line:
- The hero and heroine should be single — not in a relationship at all, recently engaged, recently divorced (not just separated), widowed or exiting a relationship.
- The hero and heroine should not be shown as sexually or emotionally involved with anyone else at the start of the romance.
- The hero should exhibit good character and not be abusive or violent toward the heroine, misogynistic, dishonest, amoral or engage in criminal behavior.
- The hero and heroine should be sympathetic characters to the reader. They should be educated and successful or on their way to success.
- Explicit and excessive profanity in the text and dialogue is not permitted.
- Condoms and safe sex should be used in intimate scenes where the hero and heroine are not married or not yet in an exclusive relationship.
- Drug use or alcohol abuse by the hero or heroine is not permitted. Use by secondary characters should be limited as well. Descriptions of violence should be kept to a minimum.
- Unless the story line has been approved by your editor, the heroine should not be pregnant before engagement or marriage. All children of the heroine and the hero — past and present — must be conceived within the confines of a long-term relationship, during an engagement or marriage.
- Unless the story line has been approved by your editor, the heroine or hero should: be between their early 20s and late 30s; not have children when the story opens; not be married to each other at the beginning of the novel; and not live together before having an exclusive commitment, engagement or marriage.
I’ll concede that this is a particularly strict set of rules, and that it applies more to category romance (series romance like Harlequin’s various lines, or the new Indulgence line about to launch from Entangled) than to the genre as a whole. But certainly, romance as a genre is at least softly constrained by the requirement that heroes and heroines be sexually, emotionally, educationally, professionally, and verbally upstanding. Which, when you think about it, is a lot of upstandingness.
Literary fiction is not nearly so demanding. Lit fic protagonists are allowed to lie, to be adulterous, to have sex with strangers without using reliable birth control, to puke on train platforms and sit on toilets. In literary fiction, characters can do whatever people do.
But romance is an escapist medium, so of course it makes sense for it to be bound by a different set of rules. If romance novels mirrored real life, they wouldn’t be romance novels. There’s a promise of comfortable fantasy implicit in the genre — or even explicit, as when we talk about the “Harlequin promise” — and when that promise is violated, readers get upset.
Justifiably so, at times. When you mess with a convention-bound genre, sometimes what you end up with is just that — a mess. I read a category romance novel once in which I couldn’t figure out who the hero was supposed to be. The man having sex with the heroine in the first chapter was one possibility, but then he left the novel for eight or ten chapters, and another man came into view who had numerous sort-of caring, highly sexed-up thoughts about the heroine. He got several scenes in his point of view (whereas the initial hero candidate had no point-of-view scenes), which led me to believe that he was the real hero. Then — and this was the clincher for me — he had hot, mutually orgasmic sex with the heroine. Hero! I concluded.
And yes, I was slightly disturbed at that point, because the heroine had yet to break up with her boyfriend, and hero-candidate-the-second hadn’t said or thought anything particularly loving or tender about her. But the remainder of the novel would resolve those problems, right?
Wrong. Hero-candidate-the-first returned, and the plot veered sharply to the right. Hero-candidate-the-second got the boot, his point of view disappearing from the novel altogether. The heroine went swimming in a cesspool of guilt and was (sort of) made to atone for her infidelity. The “real” hero got some point-of-view scenes and figured out how to forgive his cheating woman. There was an unconvincing happy ending.
Let me tell you, when I finished that book, I would’ve gladly lit it on fire, so thoroughly had it confused and disappointed me. Which is to say that from the reader’s point of view, genre conventions are not to be trifled with.
And yet wonk-o-mance frequently, cheerfully, thoroughly trifles with them, with delightful results. As Serena put it, “I love wonkomance because it’s a reminder that sometimes books defy those soft expectations and still get embraced by romance readers.” Wonk-o-mance gives us the sort of story that encourages us to invest emotionally in the passionate affair of an unemployed ex-con with, say, a seen-it-all, done-it-all rodeo buckle bunny. (Quick! Somebody write me that book!)
There are two varieties of wonk-o-mantical convention tampering that I find particularly fascinating. The first is the use of the less-accessible heroine (or hero — though I’ll focus here on the heroine).
In an April 2011 New Yorker profile, comedic actress Ana Faris talked a lot about the rules of romantic comedy, many of which also apply to romance novels. She said, “As a lead in a romantic comedy, you have to make the women love you and the guys fall in love with you. It forces your choices to be cutesey and safe, which is why women are always falling down, rather than grabbing their tits and saying, ‘F*ck you, bitches!'”
Romance novel heroines are similarly confined in the cutesey, safe box. They hardly ever say things like, “F*ck you, bitches!” And this is because writers of romance are advised that the reader (who is always presumed to be a woman) ought to want to marry the hero, and she should feel as though the heroine is her new best friend. This soft constraint — The hero and heroine should be sympathetic characters to the reader – pushes authors to create heroines who are less unique.
Nor is it simply that the heroine must be reliably cutesey and safe. She must also, according to the soft constraints of romance, be accessible. The constraint goes well beyond any external characteristics of the characters — beyond the Kimani guidelines quoted above — to the level of craft. Creating sympathetic heroines in romance requires deep point of view and immediate, complete revelation of motivations.
Readers expect to know what the heroine is thinking, pretty much always. From the first scenes of the novel, they expect to be given the details of her past and to learn why she’s behaving as she is. And, most important, they expect this access to her perspective to give them the information they need in order to like her.
Wonk-o-mance, by contrast, occasionally gives us less-accessible or even inaccessible heroines. Meg Maguire’s recent release, Headstrong, comes to mind. This novel’s heroine, Libby, is brash and often irritating. Whereas the typical heroine is a girl’s girl, never happier than when she’s exchanging pedicures with her best buddies and dishing about a man, Libby doesn’t even particularly like other women, and they certainly don’t like her. She lives on a boat and showers at a gym. She’s very intelligent, but lazy about it. She flirts outrageously, makes a public spectacle of herself, and takes advantage of people she likes. For the first half of the novel, it’s challenging to identify with Libby. But she’s interesting.
Equally interesting is the process of watching Maguire peel back Libby’s layers one at a time — the way that she walks the reader through a closer identification with the heroine at the same time that the heroine opens up emotionally to the novel’s hero. It’s a very different sort of emotional trajectory for the reader, and a very different sort of story. Not a romance. A wonk-o-mance.
And a wonk-o-mance, I’d argue, that finds a different, equally legitimate line to skate between realism and escapism. Headstrong delivers a powerful, affecting love story, but it delivers it with a heavier dose of realism than genre-conforming romance ever can. Rather than present perfect, lovable people with perfect, lovable problems, Maguire gives us a heroine who’s kind of a pain in the ass. A heroine who reminds me of a couple people I’ve known, and struggled with, and ultimately loved — people who deserved to be loved, warts and all.
The other pathway from romance to wonk-o-mance that interests me has to do with dialogue. The romance genre requires characters to talk about how they feel. At a bare minimum, they need to have an honest conversation at the book’s emotional resolution that clears up their differences, opens their hearts, and leads to the happy-ever-after. In most romance, the characters talk about their feelings a lot.
Realistic? Hmm. Sort of, sort of not. Depends on who you’ve fallen in love with, I guess, and what your personal tolerance level is for stripping away all your emotional defenses and inviting somebody who you don’t yet know well to stab you in the heart. I guess we’ve all got to do it if we want to have emotionally fulfilling relationships, but I’d also venture to guess that most people don’t ever have conversations with their beloveds that reach the romance novel level of soul baring. Not stone-cold sober, anyway.
This is another way in which wonk-o-mance veers away from the genre toward greater realism. The conflict in many of Theresa Weir’s romances — Amazon Lily, Long Night Moon, Cool Shade — depends upon the hero and heroine’s refusal to talk about what they’re feeling, despite the obvious depth of their emotional connection. When Corey, the heroine of Amazon Lily, realizes she’s in love with the hero, Ash, she immediately thinks something along the lines of, “Well, at least I have the good sense not to tell him. I’m not stupid.”
Likewise, Isabel Sharpe has a series of three novels for Harlequin Blaze with a rather wonk-o-mantic subplot in which two older, post-divorce characters meet, fall for each other, and refuse to talk about their attraction for three books, until finally they fess up toward the end of the series. They’re afraid, you see. Love is scary. Love is risky, and these people are cowards. Like me. Sharpe’s series was good, but it was the subplot that kept me reading, and it was the subplot’s resolution that really satisfied me.
You see, it turns out that I like my romance with a stiff shot of realism. I like it when romance novelists shed some of the soft conventions of the genre and experiment with what happens when they blend the realism of literary fiction with the escapism of romance.
The results are occasionally a train wreck, but when it works, it rocks my world. And I know I’m not the only one.