Whether or not you’ve read romances, you likely have a notion of them in mind. And if I dropped you into a bookstore with no signs to indicate genre or section, you could still unerringly identify the romance section by its books’ pastel color scheme, florid script, and unsubtle cover art.
Still, it’s good to define our terms. When writing about romance novels, I mean something fairly specific, and some of the works I exclude from the genre may surprise you.
While romance scholar Pamela Regis offers an eight-component definition, it boils down to this: “The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” I have several reservations about Regis’s definition of the romance, as it focuses unnecessarily upon the heroine, assuming that she is the focal point of the novel, an assertion with which I fundamentally disagree. Many romances are now written at least partially from the hero’s perspective, and some lack a heroine altogether.
Moreover, the notions of courtship and betrothal, while apt for dealing with certain sub-genres, must be twisted almost out of recognition to be applied to some contemporary, futuristic, and paranormal romances. It may have once been the case that the marriage proposal was the climactic moment in a majority of romances. But even in historical romances, the order of narration may be varied, for instance when a couple begins the novel trapped unhappily in a marriage of convenience, or when they find themselves “accidentally” hitched midway through the book in response to some crisis (pregnancy, shotgun wedding, elaborate scheme gone awry). Marriage may not even be hinted at in some books, particularly paranormal romances, which often focus on a biological bond rather than a societal contract as the mechanism by which the relationship is cemented.
A definition proposed by Lisa Fletcher in her 2008 book Historical Romance Fiction comes much closer to the mark: “a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you.’” This definition anchored in notions of both discourse and performativity is perhaps overly broad but is overwhelmingly compatible with my own working definition: Romance is a work of narrative fiction teleologically oriented toward the recognition and avowal of requited love.
Let’s unpack that.
When I speak about a telos for the romance genre, I mean that it is deliberately geared toward a predetermined end-point, a moment of emotional fulfillment in which tension abates and the reader experiences satisfaction. There are two necessary conditions for this end point.
First, love must be avowed—in other words, spoken. This is where Lisa Fletcher’s emphasis on the speech act “I love you” comes in. The hero or heroine may have been in love since the beginning of the novel, but if he or she has not been able to say so to his/her beloved, then the promise of the novel has not yet been fulfilled.
The speech act can actually supersede sentiment, from a narrative point of view. It is not uncommon for the text to emphasize a protagonist’s inability to say the words ‘I love you,’ even when his (usually the hero’s) feelings are clear to all: himself, the beloved, and the reader. The heroine may remark to herself or a confidante, “He loves me; that’s obvious. He just can’t bring himself to say the words.” Until the avowal occurs, however, the narrative tension remains.