Earlier this week an author colleague posted a link to a review of her latest novel. The reviewer was highly complimentary regarding the author’s writing skill, but he expressed deep disappointment that a writer of her ability was “frittering away her talents in a genre that didn’t deserve them” – ie romance novels. Boy meets girl, boy and girl have a conflict to resolve before the novel ends happily. According to the reviewer, it’s all “boringly predictable”. (You can read the full review here.)
What is it about the romance genre that draws this type of dismissive reaction? I’ve written before about romantic conflict – that is, something in the characters of the hero and heroine that prevents them from getting together. This conflict is what romance novels are all about, and Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example. Jane Austen is one of the most gifted writers of all time. At the end of P&P Lizzie and Darcy have worked through their character flaws – the pride and prejudice of the title – and they reach their happy ever after. Pride and Prejudice is the perfect romance novel. Is it boringly predictable with its happy ending? Would Jane Austen have put her talents to better use writing a tragedy? Or science fiction? How about authors such as Charlotte Bronte, or Elizabeth Gaskell? Is North and South so predictable it’s not worth reading?
Personally I think this reviewer has missed the entire point behind a romance novel. Of course the reader knows that the story will end happily and that the hero and the heroine will get together. The question is, how? With the very best romance novels, the writer keeps the reader wondering how the conflict between the protagonists can possibly be resolved. This gives the novel its page-turning quality and prevents it being predictable – we don’t know HOW the happy ending will be achieved – in the same way we don’t know HOW Sherlock Holmes is going to solve the crime. No one ever accused Conan Doyle of being boring and predictable, even though his stories always end the same way, and that’s because the journey is such a fascinating read. It’s the same with romance novels.
And if people insist on “literary” as well as page-turning romance, they really don’t have to look far. Even that massive epic War and Peace features love stories in which (spoiler alert) the Rostov brother and sister are happily paired off at the end. The happy ending – one of optimism for the future – is absolutely integral to War and Peace. In Tolstoy’s other great novel, Anna Karenina, Anna and Count Vronsky don’t end up living happily ever after. Does that mean it’s a better book?
Love stories are some of the oldest stories in the world. There are millions of romance novels, and so there are bound to be a massive number of them that are badly written and predictable – just like there are tons of badly written and predictable crime novels and thrillers, sci-fi and so-called literary works. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t great writers who write in these genres. What I’d really love to see is more talented writers taking on the challenge of writing a great romance, and fewer people denigrating the skill involved in writing an entertaining and moving love story – the type of story that has produced some of the greatest works in fiction.
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How about you? Do you think romance novels are boring and predictable? Do you think writers who write in this genre are wasting their talents?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear them!