How Do We Define Romance?

stormwalker How do we define romance? On a romance blog, one might as well ask what is life. It’s one of those broad, overarching topics susceptible to endless debate. We see authors offering endless variations from the most conventional to the most edgy and subversive. And yet, at the end of the day, we expect our lead couple to end up happily ever after – or at least happy for now. Though I still get irked with market restrictions from time to time, I have appreciated in recent years that we’ve been seeing a market full of change, choices, and great authors. And then I went to RWA 2012 in Anaheim.

The Elimination of Novels with Strong Romantic Elements as a RITA category

At the general meeting in Anaheim, Romance Writers of America(RWA) announced that it had decided upon a plan to reconfigure the RITA awards. The specifics are summed up quite well by The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood(be sure to check out the equally informative comment thread) and the one change that jumped out at me was the elimination of the Novels with Strong Romantic Elements(SRE) category. That’s right. The category that has recognized more than a few beloved authors and which just put Barbara O’Neal(aka Barbara Samuel) into the RWA Hall of Fame is being eliminated.

Not surprisingly, this development has caused no small amount of consternation among authors. This appears to have happened in part because of the action itself, but also in part because, as author and RWA member Mindy Klasky has reported, “While I knew that outside consultants were reviewing the contest, I did not know that any recommendations had been made, much less that any final decisions had been reached. I certainly did not know that those final decisions were going to be unveiled at the General Meeting.” She then goes on to suggest that the outside consultants chosen by RWA never took the step of consulting with and/or surveying the general membership about this change to the RITA categories.

So, what is the SRE category exactly? Well, RWA defines it as, “A work of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries.” To clarify matters, the organization has also posted their RITA judging guidelines which read, “Novels of any tone or style, set in any place or time are eligible for this category. A romance must be an integral part of the plot or subplot, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” In other words, these sound like books that both contain a romance with an HEA/HFN and yet are innovative in that they incorporate other elements as well. The books I’ve read in the SRE category contain a romance plot(romance is an integral part of the book, by definition, after all), but they also focus heavily on other aspects of the plot, whether that be a mystery, the interrelated relationships of a family, or even just following the longer character ARC of a couple over several books. Books such as those by Deanna Raybourn, Ann Aguirre, Susanna Kearsley, Stephanie Dray, Jennifer Ashley(aka Allyson James), Pamela Morsi and Julie Kenner all come to mind – and indeed all of these authors have been RITA finalists in this category.

But, are books like this romantic? Of course. By their own definition, they have to contain a romance which has a satisfying resolution and that romance has to be integral to the book. I spoke with Susanna Kearsley about this very issue, and of her writing, she stated, “Do I think I write romance? Yes. But for me, a romance novel, besides having an HEA or HFN, only has one other key requirement: that the love story be essential to the plot. In other words, if you pull the love story out of the book, the story falls apart, because everything—every other element—has been stitched to that one central seam. That’s my own, admittedly personal, definition of a romance. And that’s what I write.”

And what do we lose by eliminating the category? On the face of it, as a reader, I see my choices in romance being narrowed and limited. In reading over the changes to the guidelines for the RITAs I can almost feel the definition of romance shrinking. And that’s sad.

I find it doubly sad when considering that the less traditional categories such as women’s fiction, SRE, urban fantasy and the like often serve as the bridge that first brings new readers to romance and then leads them ever more deeply into the genre. In an email discussion with Deanna Raybourn (a past RITA winner in the SRE category), she described that phenomenon as follows: “I always used to joke that SRE was the “gateway drug” to the good stuff, but what I’m hearing from readers is that this is absolutely true. Many of my readers started off with me or with Lauren Willig or Susanna Kearsley and so many others like us. They used our books as a springboard to traditional romance. Sometimes in reading one of ours, they would find that they loved having a relationship to root for and it was an easy slide into more straightforward romance from there. For readers who would never have picked up a romance on their own, our books were a bridge between worlds, opening them up to something new. I have heard from many of them in the aftermath of these decisions and they are all saying the same thing: they’re going to miss this category because it was what got them into romance in the first place.” So, now that a category of romance eligible for the RITA has been eliminated outright(as opposed to others which have simply been combined), one cannot help but wonder if the taking away of that choice for award recognition will have echoes in the market.

Not only does this hold the potential to limit choices for readers as authors may decide not to write to a category that no longer exists or publishers may limit their offerings since it’s no longer considered romance, but it also seems to have the potential to play into the hands of romance’s critics. After all, romance has been called a paint-by-numbers genre for more than a few years and romance authors belittled for writing stories to narrow guidelines. In a time where I see authors of other genres (mystery comes to mind) expanding the bounds of their genres beyond what I used to see available on the shelves as a teenager in the 1990s, this decision gives the impression that romance is going the other way. If the rules become more constricting, what happens to innovation?

The Membership Question

On August 20, 2012, RWA issued a clarification of the membership guidelines to its members. The document is not publicly available online, but I have a copy and to summarize, RWA essentially states that membership requirements were not changed at the annual meeting in July. Instead, RWA is clarifying the existing by-laws as well as making clear that membership is open to “all persons seriously pursuing a romance fiction writing career.” However, this clarification goes from first expressing concern over chapters soliciting members who are not currently pursuing publication to a discussion of who may continue as general members versus who should not.

Some of the points raised are obvious, namely that writers of nonfiction which is clearly not romance should probably not be general members, and the same goes for folks who have decided to set aside their writing for an extended period of time (i.e. not just a temporary setback). The memo also states that authors who write romance and who also write in other genres are still eligible for general membership, but of SRE, it is stated that, “If you write only fiction with strong romantic elements but not specifically romance, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? This question is the hardest to answer. It depends on how you view your work and how you describe yourself as an author to potential readers and whether or not your books would be classified as romance or shelved in the romance section of a physical or online bookstore.”

While these are clearly intended as guidelines and the memo states clearly that this is not a hard and fast rule, it still seems to take some of the definition of romance away from RWA, and away from readers of romance while placing it squarely in the hands of marketers. I cannot help but wonder if this is truly what was intended. After all, RWA, authors, and readers do not pick where books get shelved. Retailers decide that and, based on what I’ve seen in some bookstores I’ve visited, it can be a strange and arbitrary decision indeed. I’ve been in a store with an extensive romance section covering everything from series titles to big historicals to novels by more than a few SRE authors(At various times, I’ve seen SRE authors Pamela Morsi, Deanna Raybourn, and Susanna Kearsley each listed as “top romance bestsellers” by that store.) I’ve also been in at least one store where Harlequin series titles occupy the romance section and all else is shelved as general fiction.

In issuing the clarification, RWA stated its concern that it maintain its tax exempt status as a business organization under Section 501(c)(6). Given this concern, one can understand why the organization may want to emphasize that general members need to be seeking a romance fiction writing career since this is the stated purpose of the organization. However, the step from requiring pursuit of a writing career to seemingly narrowing the genre definition into one which could possibly exclude published authors who already, by their own category’s definitions, write books where romance is integral to the story, doesn’t entirely make sense. In researching this subject, I have not been able to obtain a copy of the report issued by the outside consultants nor have I been able to locate information as to their credentials, so I cannot help but wonder if RWA might want to seek out some better tax advice.

Again, what does this mean for readers? Well, shortly after this clarification was issued, Deanna Raybourn tweeted, “With RWA’s clarification of membership yesterday, my options are changing to associate member or leaving. Sad to see this!” She then later blogged about both this issue and the RITA recategorization in more detail, stating of the message sent to cross-genre authors, “And although I’ve nattered on about the RITA, it’s not about the award itself. It’s about the very clear message being sent that unless your books are solely romance, you’re not one of us.” As a reader this saddens me not just because I’ve enjoyed so many books by the affected authors, but also because as a reader, I like to have choices. I like my romances to range from the traditional to the, well, not so traditional and I think the various branches of romance writing cross-pollinate ideas, which has the potential to benefit all. Are we really going to start reaching a point where a romance writer is defined by where bookstores, over which she has no control, stick her books or by how many of her book’s pages contain the mushy stuff?

And one last thought: When I started considering how these recent decisions by RWA might narrow the definition of “romance fiction,” I read over the by-laws and found a curious thing. RWA hasn’t actually defined the term “romance fiction” in there. Given this lack of a definition, perhaps the organization as a whole should consider that and perhaps consider also that a definition might still be adopted which would leave room for all of the various categories from series to historical, urban fantasy to SRE, which currently reside under the inclusive tent of RWA. Looking at this from a reader’s perspective, that certainly appears beneficial.

RWA’s Position
When I started to prepare this piece, I reached out to RWA several times and it is my understanding from the organization that the person for me to speak with is currently on vacation. I would like to report the organization’s side of the story as well, so once I get the chance to interview someone from RWA, I will be posting an update here on the blog.

– Lynn Spencer

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15 Responses to How Do We Define Romance?

  1. maggie b. says:

    I think romance/RWA will only be hurting itself long term. I consider myself a romance reader but a lot of my books come from the “fringes” of romance. Susanna Kearsley is a favorite. Sarah Addison Allen always has a romance in her books. Anjali Banerjee. Pamela Morsi.

    And how are they really going to define this? Linda Howard has been including villain viewpoint for years. Frankly, that saps the romance right out of the story. Her books tend to be less romantic than Allen’s and less focused on the HEA/HFN. Should she be kicked out? I don’t even know why Morsi’s books aren’t considered romance anymore – she wrote two/three books in WF and then went right back to writing books that end with an HEA. Bikini Car Wash sure fit my definition of a romance novel.

    More authors are including love stories in their works. We should be welcoming them with open arms. RWA is going to make themselves obsolete if they keep whittling at their definition.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      I think that’s a good point. A lot of the authors considered SRE actually write books that would completely fall apart if the love story wasn’t there. Linda Howard’s recent books are a good case in point. And then there are authors like Susan Carroll whose books are published in trade and sold with general fiction, but I consider them historical romance just as I would consider Laura Kinsale or Roberta Gellis historical romance. It’s meatier than a wallpaper historical, but definitely focused on a love story with an HEA ending.

  2. Leigh says:

    I am not sure how to comment. I do think that it is important to have an professional organization with all that goes along with it – recognition, support, mentoring, and camaraderie. I am sure that being nominated and winning a RITA is a big shot in the arm for writers both personally and professionally. However as I reader I find that I am more likely not to have read any of the books than have read them and I read a lot of romance books.

    While each year I am curious about the nominated books and winners I can’t say that I buy on that criteria only.

    Plus I am not sure of RWA’s reasoning. They receive money for submissions. Do they pay the individuals -other authors to read the books? I guess what I am asking is how do they lose money by including this category and what did they hope to accomplish by eliminating? Is it because they only take a certain number of books and this category takes away from their idea of “pure romance”?

    RWA has always seemed rigid and infexible and this latest decision just reinforces that. And they are not really a relevant part of my reading experience.

  3. I’m not a member of the RWA, although I was at one time. I’m a member of the RNA, where full membership is only opened to published authors of romance. Susannah Kearsley is a full member, and btw, I love her definition of romance!
    In the UK, where the RNA is based, romance is a very different thing.
    I see romance as a story where the developing romantic relationship between two or more characters is central and results in a happy ending. But the very definition of romance has changed so much over the years that it’s hard to put a line and say “this is where romance stops.”
    And why should we?

  4. LeeB. says:

    So is someone at RWA actually going through each book to count how many pages contain “pure romance”?

    Ridiculous of them to cut that category.

  5. Hannah E. says:

    “And what do we lose by eliminating the category? On the face of it, as a reader, I see my choices in romance being narrowed and limited. In reading over the changes to the guidelines for the RITAs I can almost feel the definition of romance shrinking. And that’s sad.”

    Does the RWA control the definition of romance? Frankly, I’ve never paid any attention to the RITA awards, since I always disagree with the finalists/winners anyway. And until they create a category for LGBT romance, I don’t think they can lay claim to the right to define the romance genre as a whole.

    • Becky says:

      My RWA membership history is patchy. But the last time I remember the “definition of romance” issue coming up, it was about limiting romance to 1 man, 1 woman. It seems like LGBTQ romance has been gaining ground lately, with that article in RT a couple months ago and motivated, active leadership in the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter. It makes me uncomfortable to see a call for a definition popping up now, just as momentum is building.

      Not that I’m happy to see a lack of definition allowing others to be excluded. In my opinion, SRE belongs in the RITAs, and those who write it should be welcome in RWA. But I do think, if we’re going to try to create a definition of romance, that it needs to be as broad and inclusive as possible. I wouldn’t want to fix the problem for one group, only to cause problems for others.

  6. bungluna says:

    I’ve been an avid romancer reader for 30 years and I have never paid attention to the RITAs or to the RWA. Every time I see an article about them they seem more rigid and irrelevant to my reading life. I pay more attention to this site for guidance as to what’s good out there, and I have discovered some wonderful books with romantic elements that truly satisfy me. It sounds to me like they are backing themselves into a corner for marketing reasons and will end up alienating their memebership into the bargain.

  7. LeeAnn says:

    I agree with bungluna. ….and Leslie. Ditto!

  8. Erika says:

    I actually like what the RWA did. I’ve read Vince Flynn’s spy thrillers and in a few books there is a SRE however his books are spy thrillers not romances. There are women’s fiction books which have SRE like Iris Johansen but aren’t romances. Defining the genre more narrowly helps the reader. I wouldnt want Johansen recent books being confused with her clearly romances older books.

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  10. I think romantic fiction is a very “broad church” and it would be boring if all romance novels were the same or the definition too narrow. I too like Susanna Kearsley’s definition and I have to say that her novel ‘The Winter Sea’ was one of the most romantic stories I’ve read in years! Even though there were a lot of other things happening, for me, it was the love story that stayed in my mind long after I put the book down. So how is that not romantic?

  11. Elaine C. says:


    Thank you for a thought-provokng, well-thought-out article. Leaving out SRE from the RITA’s doesn’t sound like a good decision to me. The commentary here has been very interesting. I am saddened by the change and hope it won’t hurt Deanna Raybourn and Lauren Willig (the writers with whom I’m most familiar in this category) or any other writers.

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