28 September, 2006

Historical fiction and romance

For some reason, the terms ‘romance’ and ‘romantic fiction’ frequently have derogatory tones. This was commented on in the first episode of the BBC4 series on romantic fiction Reader, I Married Him [link], and is a regular source of comment and debate around the net.

Why does the term ‘romance’ have such a bad image? Snobbery, sexual stereotyping and prejudice are frequently cited. These have been cogently argued against elsewhere (e.g. Alyssa Goodnight, Grumpy Old Bookman, Romancing the Blog, to name but a few), and I have no more to add.

I wonder if part of the problem is one of definition. ‘Romance’ means different things to different people. In the workshop televised on Reader, I Married Him, I thought it was notable that each of the participants had their own idea of what constituted romance. My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary offers the following two definitions that could apply to modern fiction:

A) prose or rarely verse tale with scene and incidents remote from everyday life, class of literature consisting of such tales;
B) love affair viewed as resembling tale of romance; love-story.

Now, these two definitions give me quite a different impression of the likely contents of a book. Sense A is romance in the sense that the film El Cid is a romance, in the sense that H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan and Sir Walter Scott wrote romance, and in the sense that Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, CS Forester’s Hornblower series and the James Bond franchise are romances. One might also use terms like ‘swashbuckler’, ‘derring-do’ or ‘adventure’ to describe them, or variants on ‘cracking yarn’. There may or may not be a love story in the plot, but if one is present there will certainly be a great many other things going on in the book as well, and the characters will be concerned with other activities and desires besides their relationship. This sense of ‘romance’ was in common use in the 1960s, when Hodder & Stoughton described John Buchan’s novels as romances in the jacket copy of Greenmantle, but is less common now.

Sense B is the more usual current sense. There seem to be numerous subtle gradations within it, e.g. the recent discussion here about historical romance versus romantic historical. I make the distinction on the basis of the relative importance of the love story relative to the setting and the rest of the plot. So:

  • historical fiction - may or may not have a romantic relationship as part of the plot, but if present the love story is a part of the plot and not the dominant element. Setting and historical events are vital to the plot, and character, motivation and incident feel as though they belong to that particular time and place.

  • romantic historical - a romantic relationship is a key part of the plot, but other elements of the plot are also important. Setting is important and character, motivation and incident are credible for the period.

  • category romance - a romantic relationship is the dominant feature in the plot, with any other plot elements and other characters being absent or secondary. Their relationship is the most important thing in the lives of the hero and heroine, and there will be a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending when they are happily mated. Credibility of setting, motivation, character, incident and plot are optional.

I don’t put these forward as hard and fast definitions. For one thing, they are nothing like specific enough to be useful except at the most generalised level. I do think they illustrate the pitfalls of discussing ‘romance’ without defining the term. Looseness of definition can easily slip into a circular argument: romances are all trash; Book X is good; therefore Book X is not a romance. Or, from the other side: Book X is good; Book X has a love story in it and that makes it a romance; therefore romances are not trash. Just alter the definition until it fits the argument. Other ‘genres’, such as historical fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, etc can be treated the same way. Books that the commentator likes (and are therefore ‘good’) do not belong to the genre being condemned, whereas books that the commentator doesn’t like (and are therefore trash), do.

What do you think?


Unknown said...

After I finish twitching about the term "category romance" which means something totally different on my side of the pond, I still have an issue with Credibility of setting, motivation, character, incident and plot are optional. being part of the definition of the genre.

While this may be true of some of the lesser examples of the genre (and I’ll agree that it is) I do not think it is true of the better examples (Julia Ross, Pam Rosenthal, Jo Beverley, Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale) and thus I think including it in the definition is a slight. I’ll also point out that MANY of the books we put in the historical fiction and romantic fiction categories during the last discussion contain just as many errors and anachronisms as some of the so/so “category romances” I’ve read over the years.

Most of the historical romance writers I know are experts (or nearly so) on the era they choose to focus on, and they’re always studying and researching for their books (since no one ever really knows “everything” about anything). I’d put them up against a good professor any day. Not only do they know the big picture history of the day (politics, major events, wars, etc.) but they know the domestic history, too (which many history students are totally ignorant of). They know how the clothes worked, how people cooked, traveled, what they ate, how they entertained themselves, etc.

Sarah Johnson said...

Yes, I was going to mention that in the US, at least, "category romance" means "series romance" - historical romances released as part of a numbered series, as Harlequin/M&B does for a lot of its lines.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I personally prefer to lump historicals into two categories: historical romance (with a romantic relationship between two people at the heart of the story, and usually with a happy-ever-after ending) and general historical fiction (everything else). In the bookstores I frequent here in the US, that's pretty much how the division goes--historical romance on one set of shelves, historical fiction, along with general fiction, on another.

Maybe I'd make this three categories, if one gives literary historical fiction its own category. By literary historical fiction, I think of historical fiction where the emphasis is more on style than on story, character, and historical background, but it's an pretty nebulous category too, and I think a lot depends on how it's marketed.

Carla said...

Kalen - that's exactly why I said "optional". Every now and then I read some Harlequin Mills & Boon historical romances - this is the type of novel I mean by 'category romance'. Of the last sample, 1/4 had a strong period setting, 1/4 seemed to have some details right but not others, and 2/4 read like modern characters in fancy dress. 4/4 had a strong hero/heroine relationship and a happy-ever-after ending. Okay, I don't claim this as a representative sample, but that's the pattern I was trying to capture in my definition.

I don't make the distinction on accuracy or anachronism or amount of research, but on the type of story. Taking a recent example, Warriors of the Dragon Gold contained a highly anachronistic reference to potatoes in the mid-11th century. I still count it as historical fiction. The first of the HMB novels I mentioned above contained no anachronisms that I noticed. I still count it as historical romance. I use the terms as descriptors, not value judgements.

What does 'category romance' mean on your side of the Pond? That's just the sort of thing I meant about different people using the same term to mean different things. I use it to mean HMB novels and similar, where the romance and the happy-ever-after ending are key and everything else is secondary. Would 'historical romance' be a better term?

Carla said...

Sarah - Is it the numbering that makes something a category romance, then?

Susan - A lot seems to depend on marketing. The categories are so nebulous that for many books it's a matter of debate what to call them. Perhaps categorisation isn't helpful?

Bernita said...

It all seems remarkably subjective,perhaps because no one can agree on the semantics.
I sometimes wonder if the denigration of "romance" (for stories like Buchan's in general and those like Harlequins in particular) arises from that continuing current of thought that decries anything not "scientific" as untrustworthy, superstitious confabulations: a basic dislike of fiction in general, but graduated and modified by degrees.

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - both the categories and the numbering go together, I believe. The only place where I've been able to find a reasonable definition is Wikipedia. (They give Avon as an example of this, but as far as I know, Avon does single-title romances only.)

Margaret Porter said...

For me it's all about the intended audience, and how the novel is marketed by the publisher. This determines a books geographic location in the bookshop, whether in the UK or the US, or other countries!

Meaning I'm closest to Susan in dividing the historical realm into two types.

1. Mainstream or general historical fiction, which includes commercial as well as literary historical fiction.

2. Historical romance and romantic historicals for a female readership. Histrom is wholly focussed on the love story, romhist pays significant atttention to historical characters and events--but both would be shelved in the romance section.

As to perceived quality--in my opinion neither mainstream/literary nor romance authors hold a monopoly on accuracy (or lack of it), writing skill, and so on.

A very interesting discussion!

Unknown said...

Yes, but "category romance" is the only one where you specifically state that Credibility of setting, motivation, character, incident and plot are optional. Which implies, at least to me, that in the other two types these are required and expected, but that in genre romance crap is totally ok. And as your potato example shows, there’s crap all over. And while, yes, there are a lot of genre romances out there with errors in them, I bristle at the idea of saying “errors perfectly ok here” as part of the definition of what makes it a genre romance (not to mention that you also said that “motivation” and “character” are optional, which frankly leaves me gobsmacked; how can those two things be optional in ANY fiction?).

“Category romance” in the states means the tiny romances published by Harlequin and Silhouette in a “line” (meaning that they have a theme to them, like “medical romances” or “sheiks and Italian counts”) and that they’re issued in a four book group each month (which most readers get via subscription). This is very different from single title romance, which includes anything and everything that is not a “category” book (Nora Roberts to Jo Beverley to J.R. Ward).

I have no idea what Mills and Boon is putting out in England, but it doesn’t sound like it’s doing a very good job of representing the better part of the genre. I checked Amazon UK, and they have books by both Julia Ross and Pam Rosenthal. THOSE are the cream of the crop, IMO, and in no way meet the “crap ok definition”.

Carla said...

Yes indeed, a most interesting discussion. It seems there is even more variation in the semantics than I had imagined.

Carla said...
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Anonymous said...

I've loved reading your comments above. This has been on my mind a lot because my first novel, which I considered historical, is marketed as a historical romance. And yes, it stings to have romances sneered at, though I'm getting over it. I have discovered some talented romance writers and would love to see more mentions of authors in your comments. In the USA, I've found Judith Ivory to be an extraordinary writer, for example.
Should I mention my book title? I'm not here to promote, but if you're curious, it's Always and Forever, set in 1830s Louisiana.

Carla said...

Hello Gretchen, and thanks for dropping by. Judith Ivory is new to me. What time period does she write in?