Categories: The Bastard Children of Romance

Harlequins2 Last week on our message boards a discussion arose about category romances – specifically, whether or not one reads them and why. For those of you who don’t know, categories (a.k.a. “series romances”) are the shorter, usually numbered books released each month by Harlequin, Silhouette or Love Inspired(Steeple Hill) in the U.S., and Mills and Boon in the U.K. Currently, Harlequin publishes more than 2 dozen different category lines, and there are numerous obsolete lines in the publisher’s history. (Harlequin also publishes single-titles under the MIRA and HQN imprints.)

To avoid confusion with single-title romances that are part of a series, but are not “series romances” – like Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series – I’ll use the term “category” when referring to category/series romances.

Whether the discussion takes place in Romanceland or in real life, invariably the same reasons are trotted out for refusing to read categories and dismissing them all out of hand. Sadly, these reasons mirror many of the reasons non-romance readers give for dismissing Romances. Hey, there’s nothing like being discriminated against within your own minority, is there?

So, what are these reasons for writing-off all categories like they’re the Bastard Children of Romance?

#1 – Silly/Computer-Generated Titles
This argument mirrors the standard disparagement of Romances based on the bodice-ripping clinch covers the genre is famous for. You know, the argument that reasons all Romances should be dismissed as unworthy because the covers clearly illustrate what they really are: trashy women’s porn. Because, don’t we all know that a book’s cover is a reliable indicator of its quality? So, using the same reasoning, we should dismiss all category romances as being silly because, if the title is silly, clearly the book must be too. Right?

Now, I will admit, that I too cringe at many category romance titles. (Just like I’ve cringed at many a Romance cover.) Titles like The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl, The Tuscan Tycoon’s Pregnant Housekeeper, and The Millionaire’s Misbehaving Mistress make me gag, and titles like Covert Cootchie-Cootchie-Coo and Pregnesia – the story of a pregnant amnesiac – make me wonder, “What in the hell were they thinking?”

Of course, there are also many category lines whose titles aren’t any sillier than your average single-title Romance, but those lines don’t seem to have the same visibility with non-category readers as lines like Harlequin Presents. Just like non-Fabio/non-bodice-ripping covers don’t have the same visibility with non-romance readers. Basically, it boils down to this: Judging a book’s quality based solely on its title is about as reliable as judging a Romance based solely on its cover. Which is to say: not reliable at all.

#2 – No Character/Plot Depth
This argument mirrors the claim that Romances lack depth, but non-category readers are using the reasoning that less pages necessarily equals less quality. Evidently, quality is determined by the quantity of words, not how those words are put together.

As any long-time category reader will tell you, quality depends on the author, not the word count. Just because there’s an extra 100 pages tacked onto a book, that alone isn’t going to make the quality of writing any better. Many authors excel at the shorter category format – authors who make you wonder how in the world she made you feel all that in such a short amount of time.

#3 – They’re Formulaic
Where non-romance readers argue that Romances are too formulaic, non-category readers argue the same about categories. There are too many Secret Babies. Because, apparently, there aren’t a million and one single-title Secret Baby stories out there.

To me, the argument that categories are more “formulaic” than single-titles is ridiculous. One of the most popular features at AAR is dedicated to readers’ favorite familiar plot-devices and character types, and the lists consist mostly of single-titles. If that doesn’t indicate that we all like certain “formulas,” I don’t know what does. Frankly, Harlequin is just taking the work out of readers’ hands by grouping the books for us so we can easily find exactly the “type” of Romance we’re looking for – no Special Title Listing needed.

And if you don’t like reading about the virgin mistresses of ruthless billionaires, try one of the other two dozen category lines – because they aren’t all Harlequin Presents.

#4 – I Read One and It Sucked
Like non-romance readers who claim all Romances suck based on one bad reading experience, non-category readers often claim that they read a “Harlequin” (a.k.a. category) that sucked, ergo all “Harlequins” suck. Because choosing one book among thousands is an excellent method of determining the worth of an entire literary genre – or group within a genre, as the case may be.

Yes, there are many lackluster categories on the shelves. But guess what: there are a whole lot of lackluster single-titles out there too. For readers who steadfastly rely on reviews to avoid them this may not be readily apparent, but trust me, they’re out there.

Finally, I also suspect that some of the disparagement for categories stems from readers not realizing that some of their favorite books are actually categories. That’s right: Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Ann Krentz, Suzanne Brockmann, and Linda Howard are just a few of the (now) big name authors who wrote category romances. It was after they became well-known that their category books were reissued as non-categories. Roberts’ MacGregors; Crusie’s Anyone But You and Getting Rid of Bradley; Brockmann’s Tall, Dark & Dangerous; Howard’s Mackenzies – all were written as part of a category line, and all are frequently listed on readers’ favorite books lists.

So here’s a challenge for non-category readers: Find a fellow reader whose taste is similar to yours, ask what her Top 5 category romances are, then read them. Maybe your opinion won’t change. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be opening the doors to a whole new world of books. Wouldn’t that be grand?

For you category readers, feel free to share your Top 5 category romances of all time in the comments section. Maybe you’ll inspire a fellow reader to expand her horizons.

–Katie Mack

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66 Responses to “Categories: The Bastard Children of Romance”

  1. Alessa says:

    I find category romances comforting. I usually pick one up after I’ve been disappointed (or ticked off) with another book. There are times I don’t want to be surprised. I want to know EXACTLY what I’m getting. I want a billionaire’s virgin, marriage of convenience, revenge plot and I want it done right! ; )

  2. Katie Mack says:

    AAR Sandy: Katie, as a long-time romance reader, I’ve had more experience than I’d like with prejudice against romance – so, no, I wasn’t labeling categories as crap.

    Didn’t think you were. Sorry if it sounded like that.

  3. Moran says:

    I love reading Category romance and Harlequin Presents line is my favorite category romance line- I love the drama and the fact Presents books are full of emotions. I also enjoy reading Silhouette Special Edition line but not as much as Harlequin Presents books.
    My all time favorite category romance are (it was very hard for me to only pick 5): Pregnancy of Passion by Lucy Monroe, The Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress by Lucy Monroe, The Greek’s Christmas Baby by Lucy Monroe, The Magnate’s Mistress by Miranda Lee and The Prince & the Pregnant Princess by Susan Mallery.
    I usually read the same Harlequin Presents book like- Lucy Monroe, Miranda Lee, Lynne Graham, Sandra Marton and I can say I enjoy almost every book I read by them. Most of the Silhouette Special Edition books I read are by Susan Mallery- I just love her Desert Rogues series.

  4. Caitie says:

    I really like Suz Brockmann’s Tall Dark and Dangerous books, some in particular are especially wonderful:) Crusie’s Anyone But You is another favorite for me.

    Another great series is Cindy Dee’s Medusa books…I’ve really enjoyed these a lot! The first one is The Medusa Project.

    And some Blaze books are really good quick reads too. I’ve liked all the Karen Foley and Leslie Kelly ones I’ve read so far!

    Like any other subgenre, categories totally depend on authors…they don’t all work for me, but when they do, they can be as good as any single title romance :)

  5. Stacy says:

    Maria F: I like Jessica Bird’s categories (she’s now better known as J.R. Ward). She wrote about 5 or 6 for Silhouette. Still the must-keep-reading writing, but without the over-the-top aspects that puts some people off her Black Dagger Brotherhood books. And they are tightly focused on the central romance. I wish she’d write more of them!

    Maria F:
    I was Jessica’s editor on those titles, and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I love the Black Dagger Brotherhood, too, but there is something really special about the tight focus on the romance in Jessica’s Special Editions. And I adore her great alpha-but-sensitive heroes. I’m another who wishes Jessica had time to write more category!

  6. Stacy says:

    Molly O’Keefe: Series romance done right hits all the highlights of why people love romance. Chemistry and conflict.

    Molly:
    You hit the nail on the head! Chemistry and conflict are at the heart of great romance, no matter what the length of the story.

  7. Nathalie says:

    I like Harlequin books. They are great reading material when I’m too tired to read a more serious book. Since I’m a university student, I read a lot of bog, heavy text books. My brain needs to relax sometimes.

  8. Fran says:

    I started reading categories when I found out many authors I read got there start writing these. I went looking for all of their older books starting with Marilyn Pappano. I hunted down every category book she had written and continued to write after she went mainstream. I still have her Southern Knights series ’94-’98 (my how time flies) and reread them occasionally. Still have Night Heat & New Year’s Knight, Temptations by Lyn Ellis also known as Virginia Ellis. Call Me, Alison Kent’s first book, a Temptation. Driven to Distraction by Judith Duncan. She was a wonderful author. I read everything by Janice Kay Johnson, until recently. Not finding much to like these days. My only recent find, Sarah Mayberry, has some good Blazes.

  9. annie says:

    I like a lot of category reads. My newest discovery is Kelly Hunter, who writes presents extra, which I like better than the normal Presents. They’re still steamy and glamorous, but there’s a delicious thread of humor woven through it. Hunter’s characters are great and the sassy repartee between her heroes and heroines is fun.

    I also like the Romance line, Liz Fielding and Marion Lennox are autobuys for me.

    One of the other things I enjoy about categories is the variety of settings you get from all over the world.

  10. Kaye says:

    I had to go pull the storage box from under the bed to see if I had any that weren’t already spoken for.

    I have all the MacKenzies (some in dulicate just in case), remember fondly the Jessica Bird (and wish I had kept them) have Marilyn Pappano’s Sothern Knight series (set in New Orleans) and a Blaze trilogy of Donna Kauffman (Her Secret Thrill, Against the Odds & His Private Pleasure) that I especially liked.

    But my all time winner is ‘Annie and the Outlaw’ by Sharon Sala. It is a Silloutte Intimate Moment from 1994 and still a comfort read. The plot seems over the top formularic (sp?). She has an inoperable brain tumor and he is a fallen angel on Harley working on redemption. But I get swept up in it (and probably shed a tear or two) every time I read it.

  11. Yuri says:

    Thank-you for all the recc’s – AAR has really honed my single titles finds but I am always looking to expand my horizons with category romances.

    My Top 5 (6) are:

    - Linda Howard – Mackenzie’s Mountain (my all-time favorite Howard)
    - Fiona Brand – Marrying McCabe (I know everyone disparages this one but it works for me)
    - Linda Howard – Mackenzie’s Pleasure
    - Suzanne Brockmann - Letters to Kelly (so sad and wonderful)
    - Linda Howard – White Lies (best amnesiac story ever!)
    - Emma Darcy – The Wedding (dated but I love it)

    I notice all of these are older books so my Top 5 from 2008 are:

    Johnson Janice Kay The Man Behind the Cop,
    Marinelli Carol Hired: the Italian’s convenient mistress
    Darcy Lilian The Children’s Doctor and the Single Mum
    Monroe Lucy Forbidden: the Billionaire’s virgin princess
    O’Keefe Molly A Man Worth Keeping

    These books cover subject topics as wide as grief, what parents owe their children, neonatal care, spousal abuse, culture clash in amongst the handsome billionaires and waif-like heroines.

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