romance · writers

Why romance writers are “frittering their talents away” writing a predictable genre

pride and prejudice, helena fairfax romance
                  Image courtesy of Pixabay

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.)

My beloved Jane Austen collection
My well-loved Jane Austen collection

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!

 

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56 thoughts on “Why romance writers are “frittering their talents away” writing a predictable genre

  1. I completely agree with your comments, Helena, and you’ve chosen great examples. The most telling thing for me is the fact it is a ‘he’ who has written this review. Sad but true that the male species find it difficult to acknowledge the power of romantic fiction. It also reminded me of the bit in Little Women when the professor tells Jo to stop wasting her time writing her silly melodramas (or some such), because she was capable of more. And so it proved for her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosemary, that’s a good point about it being a man who has written the review. Another possible reason why the romance genre isn’t taken seriously is that it’s written by women, for women. It’s a shame that so many men would never dream of picking up a romance novel, as this genre covers such an enormous range of styles and subjects. Even from a point of view of “just” being entertaining, they are often real page-turners despite the fact we know they’ll end happily. My husband had never read a romance novel until I started writing. He read The Silk Romance on his way home on the train and got so engrossed in the story, he missed his station! Perhaps we should persuade more men to read them :) Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am still reading plenty of romance in amongst other genres. For me it’s about the connection I have to the characters (flaws and all) and the connection they have to each other … and as you say Helena, the exciting thing is how they get there!

    As with all genres, it’s the fact that a romance novel can take you out of your life for a short while, entertain and offer escapism. Not wasted talent if a writer can make that happen AND provoke emotions and physical reactions in the reader.

    Great post.

    I’ve made a note to link with #TalkoftheTown tomorrow (hope that’s ok!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shaz, that’s another great point about romance novels taking us out of our own lives for a while. I don’t see anything wrong whatsoever in escapist and entertaining fiction. I don’t understand why “escapist” is often used in a derogatory way regarding romance, but never when it comes to, say, James Bond or Batman. Some romance novels teach us deep things, and some “just” entertain – same as any other genre.
      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m thrilled to be part of #TalkoftheTown!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Also Helena, it may be just the right story at that time for that person who picked up the romance book. ie they’ve been through/going through similar turmoil and it does help the reader by reaffirming that they’re not the only one, that it’s a collective experience.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, that’s exactly it. I totally agree! That’s what the best books do in any genre – reflect your life back to you in a way that reaffirms you’re not alone, and also makes you think about your own experiences in a different way. Romance novels are perfect for that, as they are all about relationships. That’s a great point!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Helena (and with the 2 previous people who commented). In my January blog I talked about ‘literary labels’ asking how important they were and quoting from George R.R. Martin who, in a wonderful interview, says that for him ‘a genre is a matter of furniture’ and what really matters is the central notion of ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.

    http://laurettelong.com/despatches-and-hatches-omens-and-portents/

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Laurette, thanks for dropping in, and thanks for the link to your post. I loved that quote from George R.R. Martin! It was interesting what you had to say about literary labels. What are they for, except to help booksellers market books? And the idea of “the human heart in conflict with itself” perfectly sums up a great story, whatever the genre. I love it. Thanks for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Helena, your thoughts echo mine entirely, though you’ll have worked this out from my reaction to Tom’s original post. It’s so bizarre that so many writers (mostly men) feel the need to slag off the genre… and so often it is the female writers who receive the flak. I haven’t seen David Nicholls criticised or any of the classics you and I mention. Anyway, thanks for the feedback. And I adore George R Martin’s quote – brilliant.

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  5. Hi Helena,
    What a great column! I imagine Simenon was criticized for writing his Maigret books as well (although this is almost inconceivable to me). And what about Agatha Christie. Have you ever opened one of her books thinking Poirot was not going to succeed? On the other hand, love does not equal romance. Anne and i have always had a love interest in our novels, although, as has been pointed out to us, this does not make them Romance novels. Thanks for this, Helena.

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    1. Hi Ken, that’s a good question you raise regarding when a love story can be called a romance novel. I feel a whole new article coming on! :) I love Maigret, too, and if you’re interested, a new TV series has started here featuring Rowan Atkinson as Maigret. I haven’t had chance to watch it yet, but it’s had great reviews. I love Agatha Christie, too, and lots of other modern detective stories. The coppers always solve the case but I never get bored!
      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks so much for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with all that has been said above. There is an element of snobbery involved, because romance books are the most popular genre for book sales, and people tend to look down on populism. And the fact that the majority of romances are written by women for a largely female readership, and we all know how some men don’t take women and their achievements as seriously as they do men’s. I suspect that there are many men who have never read a good romance novel, so perhaps women should be encouraging their sons to read them as well as their daughters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s a shame men won’t pick up a romance novel, Rachel. Why are boys taught to look down on anything feminine from an early age? J.K. Rowling published her books with her initials, rather than the name “Jo”, as she thought boys would be less likely to read a book by a woman. I agree, we should encourage boys to read romance novels. Apart from that, they are missing a lot of great stories!
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment.

      Like

  7. Reminded of something about Ian Rankin, that crime fiction was regarded (by various snobs in the industry) as “genre fiction, and therefore inferior to the straight novel.” he didn’t like that assumption, and neither do I. I think any writer should workably try to entertain the reader, and most importantly that it’s all about character interaction – creating interesting people whom the reader cares about and seeing them spark off each other in fascinating ways.

    As romance is also a genre, the same snobbishness almost certainly sidelines it in the same way. I think this is unfair, and that (like librarianship) there are a lot of old farts in senior positions on boards, committees etc. who should be thrown headfirst into the Tiber…

    I’ll try to link to that article on Rankin from which I quoted:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/11448255/Face-it-book-snobs-crime-fiction-is-real-literature-and-Ian-Rankin-proves-it.html

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    1. Hi James, thanks for the link to the article. I agree that writers should try to entertain the reader. The books that entertain are the ones that endure the longest, rather than the ones that win all the literary awards. The best writers know how to entertain. Ian Rankin makes some good points. I enjoyed your image of slinging old farts into the Tiber :)
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!

      Like

  8. Hi Helena,
    Hemingway said “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” So perhaps he agrees with you.

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  9. Forgive me, but I’m about to be blunt. I don’t give a good rat’s ass about anyone who thinks that writing romance is somehow a waste of my time and talents. I have no interest whatsoever in winning the Booker Prize or writing the next Great American Novel — I’m more than happy to leave that to the literary writers who love working in that particular field. What *I* want to write is a bang-up story that keeps the reader glued to the book and has them cheering at the finish, and to that end romance has turned out to be the perfect genre for me. I love writing paranormal and SF romance, I appear to be good at it, and the royalties I’m getting prove that *someone* is reading it.

    Romance is boringly predictable? Bye Felicia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nicola, romance is the best-selling genre in the world. I love what you say about them being bang-up stories that keep the reader glued to the page and cheering at the end. It’s very difficult to write a story that does that – it’s not as easy as romance writers make it look, as you know! It takes a lot of skill to write a cracking read. Your stories sound fabulous. Hope the royalties continue to flood in!

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  10. I think almost every branch of “genre” fiction faces its own special version of this (I know mysteries do, and SF/F has also). I think the reason that it is such a common trope in romance is because romance fiction is perceived to be written for women by women, and is therefore of less value. Which attitude is nuts, but it’s out there, and I think we all know it.

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    1. I agree, that’s a big part of it, Donald. Sci-fi used to be looked down on, too, but is now much more accepted by “literary” folk. Let’s hope the day will come when the best romances are recognised, too. Mind you, as Nicola said above, romances sell better than anything, so why worry!
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  11. As Donald said, it’s not just romance, Helena. I write fantasy (as well as romance) and years ago, a college professor who I adored took me aside and said, “Fantasy, bah!. Don’t waste your talent like that.” *sigh* How sad that times haven’t changed. It escapes me why people have to bash each other like that. Write whatever makes you happy, I say!

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    1. Hi Juli, I can’t believe a professor would be so discouraging! And there are some brilliant fantasy writers around. I totally agree – write what makes you happy, and write the stories readers love. That’s what it’s all about!
      Loved your comment. Thanks for dropping in!

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      1. I couldn’t believe he said that, either, Helena. Obviously, I discarded that bit of wisdom. ;) Never say never, though. If I get a wild hair, someday, I may write a literary novel…I don’t rule anything out! :)

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Having a release party this weekend for my latest release a paranormal/fantasy romance that is F/F and i just shared this in the event for a healthy conversation as both men and women have attended the party so far and participated.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Amanda! That’s great that both men and women are attending your release party. I hope the post opens up a lot of debate. Very best of luck with your launch!

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  13. Clapping madly. Well stated, Helena! I have no idea why people feel the need to mock romance. They are quick to forget that Pride and Prejudice is a perfectly constructed romance novel. It has multiple layers, which is what makes it so enduring, but it doesn’t change what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Speaking from my own experience as a writer within this derided genre, my first thought is, yes, there is something predictable about the romantic fiction that I and many of my friends, write. But I believe we each bring our own unique vision to the subject.
    I would never in a million years claim that the books I write are literature. And there’s an important point that needs to be made here. I don’t *want* to write literature. I don’t think I’m capable of writing literature! If I felt I had to write something more profound for the sake of credibility, I’d be undergoing even more stress and angst than I do at the moment. Which currently is plenty enough for me, than you very much!
    We all have our own range of abilities and our own range of interests. If I’d been another Iris Murdoch, I daresay I’d have written different books. Anyway, is there nothing formulaic in crime novels, for example? They always have a pesky murder! How predictable is that?
    Gillix

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    1. Hi Gilli, some of the very best writers set out to entertain, and not to write “literature” – eg Dickens and Shakespeare. I think every writer wants to entertain their reader in some way or another, or what’s the point of writing? And as for being predictable – nearly every story is. Boy and girl get together, cop solves murder, good triumphs over evil.
      I enjoyed your comment. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for dropping in!

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  15. Great blog post, Helena and wonderful counter to Laura’s review. I fall under the chick-lit/mum-lit bracket (*tumbleweed moment) but always marvel at anyone who thinks those novels/stories are somewhat easier to tell or write. They all establish stories through compelling characters and relationships and more often than not, echo others’ experiences. I have written short fiction before which has been completely out of character and genre and been asked why I don’t stick with that instead of ‘settling’ for chick lit….oooh, I won’t tell you how I replied :)

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    1. I love the tumbleweed moment! I can really identify with that pregnant pause when you tell people what you write. And that reminds me of another one of my bugbears – when people describe books as “an easy read” and assume the author has just scribbled it down during her lunch break. An easy read is really difficult to write! One day I think I’m going to publish a “difficult read” – it will save me a hell of a lot of time editing :)
      So glad you enjoyed the post, Kristen. Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  16. Standing O for your blog post! Excellent commentary on the romance genre. I enjoyed the supportive comments from your readers. Thought Hemingway’s quote was right on! I believe HEA (happily ever after) was coined because romance novels ARE HEA and are expected to be by readers. What has not been mentioned is the “messages” quietly layered within a romance. Reactions of the characters to situations are a “take” on their worldview. This gives us writers a chance to insert our views through the characters. I know in my novels I don’t sermonize, but do make clear how a character feels about the contemporary issues such as environmental concerns, legalizing marijuana, the role of caretakers, the Alzheimer’s disease epidemic in our world population, and even taking on that most difficult gift we can give– forgiveness. I don’t always set out to write with a message, but I believe all of us have a world view that sneak into our protagonist’s viewpoint. Hopefully a conversation of pro and con on an issue can ensue after reading a book with characters who act out how they feel about the issues of the day. If the writing brings out thoughtful discussion, that writing cannot be dismissed as a waste of talent.

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    1. Hi JQ, thanks so much for your kind comment on my post. I like what you said about the messages layered within a romance. I went through a phase of reading old romances, from the thirties onwards, and it’s true that they are all full of the writer’s world view – whether intentional or “sneaked in”, as you so aptly describe it. Romance novels provide a fascinating social history and often raise awareness of deep issues. I truly believe romance writers do influence readers and should be aware of this when they write (as you are with your own novels). Romance novels might not be reviewed by the mainstream press, but they’re analysed and discussed by readers quite deeply and thoughtfully in lots of other places, eg on book blogs. Like you say, romance writing can’t be just be dismissed.
      I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comment. Thanks very much for taking the time to post it.

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  17. Great column, and I agree 100%. And,besides, what’s wrong with “predictable” sometimes? Just like sometimes you want a haute cuisine meal and sometimes you want comfort food.

    It’s even worse if you write (or even just read) Harlequin romances. “How can you write/read that pap!” “Oh, it’s so formulaic.” Or (my personal favourite) “A computer could write one of them if it had the parameters.”

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    1. That’s so true about the “formula” comment. Romance novels have a structure that readers expect in order to have a satisfying read – conflict, crisis, resolution, etc. It’s a structure, not a formula. Haikus have a structure, too. You might as well say you could write one of them with a computer!
      I like your comment about the haute cuisine and the comfort food. It takes skill to cook a good comfort meal, too!
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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  18. Great post, Helena! No, I don’t think romance writers are wasting their talent writing romance. There is a very good reason why romance novels are so popular. Don’t many of us crave happy endings? Escaping into a different world and forgetting all of our surroundings? Yes, of course, you know that with (most) romantic novels the hero and the heroine will end up together, but for exactly this reason I love this genre so much! For me the most important is the journey of how these characters achieve the happy ending and not the fact that there will be one. #TalkoftheTown

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  19. Hi, Heidi, you’re right, there’s something so satisfying about knowing all will end happily. Sometimes the knowledge that a happy ending is waiting makes me turn the pages even faster. In my own novels, I make sure the final scene has as much impact as possible in a feel-good, uplifting sort of way, as there’s nothing worse as a reader than reading an entire novel only to reach the final pages and finding them a damp squib. The last scene of my novel The Antique Love was voted “Most romantic love scene ever” by readers of one blog, which I was really chuffed about.
    Everyone knows the hero and heroine will get together, but I always try and make that final scene as dramatic as possible.
    Thanks very much for dropping in, and for adding me to the #TalkoftheTown!

    Like

  20. I am very interested in your article and I believe that you are right, Romance is my favourite genre. Yet, sometimes I feel that it takes a great author to get Romance out of its predictable path and this involves creating strong, interesting and sometimes flawed characters. I think some people nowadays think it is ‘uncool’to like romance novels but I think it is truly a beautiful genre!

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    1. Thanks for your interest in my article, Hayley. I totally agree that the key to a great romance is the characters. And it’s a shame people are embarrassed to admit they enjoy romance novels. Thanks for saying it loud – I agree, it’s a beautiful genre!

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  21. I love romance novels and I completely agree with you! There is such a stigma when it comes to romance novels, and authors. I’ve read some novels which, like the review you mentioned, have bad writing, and predictable plot twists. But I’ve also read novels by talented authors who really make you feel every emotion along with the characters.I think an author that is able to do that, and gather such a wide fan-base must love what they do, which surely isn’t a wasted talent!

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    1. Hi Lily, good to meet you. It’s a shame there’s such snobbery around romance. Andrew Marr has just finished a three-part series on BBC about genre fiction. He covered mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. No romance. Yet it’s the biggest selling genre fiction in the world. And I agree if you write books that people love and that move them then you’re definitely making good use of your talents.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  22. I must confess that at first I was adamant that my novel was “not just a romance” precisely because I was afraid of facing that type of negative flatulence. Why can’t a good novel just be a good novel? Honestly, most books are better for a little romantic tension.

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    1. Hi wisegreek, I think there are a lot of inventive romance authors around, but once a new idea takes off, many writers – encouraged by agents and publishers – come forward to copy it to meet the demand in the market, and that’s when it starts to become stale. I think it’s the same in many genres. There is a glut of psychological thrillers at the moment, for example.
      Agents and publishers are always looking for the next big idea to take off. The world of publishing can seem a bit relentless at times.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your interesting comment!

      Like

    2. The romance genre of books is by far the most popular of genres, selling $1.44 billion, way ahead of any other genre, so I’m not sure what you mean when you say that genre needs to become more popular.

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      1. Rachel, I wondered about this at first, too, since like you say, romance is the best-selling genre in the world. Then I assumed that by “more popular” the commenter meant “not looked down on as much”. It is strange that romance authors entertain millions and millions of readers around the world, and yet the skill it takes to write a good romance novel isn’t recognised.

        Liked by 1 person

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