What Counts as Romance?

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If you’re a romance reader or writer, you probably just groaned at that title. “Oh no,” you’re thinking, “not another one.”

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, which is the time when all the non-romance readers come out of the woodwork to tout great “romances.”

This happens every year. And every year, Romancelandia collectively cringes as list after list triumphs The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet or Lolita, of all things.

If you’re new to romance or working outside the genre, you’re likely scratching your head. “Aren’t these romances?” They focus on love, after all.

The answer is no, they’re not. (Every romance reader just nodded in agreement, but also sighed in exasperation this has to be spelled out.)

I used to be quite confused on this point myself, so I’m here to share what I learned. Hopefully, it will clarify for those of you who still want to put Lolita on romance lists.

This Ain’t a Scene, It’s a Goddamn Tragedy

That’s actually the category a story like Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby fall under: tragedy.

Why?

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet. Still wasn't a romance.
Oh, now I know what Gatsby and R+J have in common. Leonardo DiCaprio! (20th Century Fox)

People die. There’s no happy ending. The couple doesn’t ride off into the sunset. Romeo and Juliet are both dead, which is tragic. Shakespeare even reminds us about that. These two young people die because their parents wouldn’t just let them be happy together.

Truly, it’s a lesson for the ages.

There’s a similar beat in Fitzgerald’s work, which was written, oh, some three centuries later. The tragedy here is that Jay Gatsby and Daisy are in love with each other, but they can’t be together. Daisy married Tom. Both of them are “old money.”

Social propriety would never let Daisy leave Tom for Jay Gatsby, who is “new money” (and appears to have made that money in shady ways).

Gatsby’s death is ambiguous—did he drown? Was it an accident, or did someone murder him? Did he die by suicide? Potentially it was the latter—the man killed himself over a love that could never be. Alternately, Tom or Daisy killed him or had him killed. Or maybe it was simply an accident.

The iconic 1925 first edition cover of The Great Gatsby, with a pair of disembodied eyes and lips over a neon, futuristic city.
The first edition of Gatsby was pretty creepy. Are we sure it isn’t a horror story?

Why do people mistake these tragedies for romance? They certainly have romantic elements. Jay and Daisy’s story, much like Romeo and Juliet’s, is one of forbidden love. Passions run high in both stories, so much so that, in Romeo and Juliet, both of the titular characters end up dead.

Whatever the case, Jay and Daisy will never be, for he died.

So there are, perhaps, romances within these tales. More accurately, they are great love stories.

Wait, Isn’t Romance Synonymous with Love Story?

You’d like to think so! The problem here is that romance is a codified book genre. So while many people write it off as “silly love stories,” there are certain rules that we can’t break. (Some rules are more flexible today but your mileage may vary.)

The cardinal rule is the story has to end either happily ever after or “happily enough for now.”

Most romance readers stand fast by this rule. If the couple doesn’t get a happy ending of some sort, it’s not a romance. That’s true even if there’s great passion and love between characters.

Both Romeo and Juliet and Jay and Daisy break this rule. Romeo and Juliet are both dead. Not exactly a happy ending, although perhaps the best outcome either of them could see, given their social circumstances.
In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby turns up dead in his pool. Daisy—cruddy character she is—is left to spend her days with Tom. Her best outcome here is moving on or trying to love Tom.

Again, not exactly a happy ending.

That’s the biggest problem in trying to call Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby “romances.”

Can’t We Break Conventions?

As I said, the rules for romance are more flexible today than they were in the past. An example is the idea that romance must occur between one man and one woman. Today, queer authors challenge this heterosexist rule. Some also introduce polyamory into the mix (goodbye, love triangles).

Even the “happily enough for now” represents a relaxation of the HEA rule. Your couple doesn’t need a fairy tale ending, where it’s marriage, babies, and forever. (Indeed, many authors rethink issues such as marriage and babies.) A book can end with a couple who is happy enough for now. Not every relationship lasts, not every marriage is forever.

A young man and woman seem to be upset after having yet another fight. Their relationship is one that maybe would be better if it ended.
I mean, even if we like romance, we can recognize that not every relationship should last either. (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels.com)

But at the end of the book, the reader wants to walk away with some emotional satisfaction. They spend all book rooting for the main character and their love interest to get together. When the couple is happy, then the book has a satisfying conclusion.

Romeo and Juliet doesn’t give us this satisfaction. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Instead of love conquers all, we see two people who are so frustrated at their inability to conquer “all” that they end up taking their own lives.

Not exactly a situation that gives you the warm fuzzies. And that’s why R&J is a tragedy, not a romance.

Obsession and Abuse Is Not Romantic

I mentioned previously that romances tend to focus on stories about passion and love. Without getting too much into how some “romantic” gestures are actually just codified abuse, we often have trouble seeing the difference between romance and abuse. We love cheering for the underdog who chases after his crush. We rarely draw a line between his dogged perseverance and stalking.

This probably contributes to the conflation of stories about great passion with “romance.” Perhaps the most notable entry here is Lolita, which some authors include on lists of great romances.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile. He is obsessed with Lolita, who is twelve when he first meets her. He kidnaps her, manipulates her, even marries her mother to get access to her–all in the name of his (sexual) love for her.

But here’s the catch. We’re not supposed to cheer for Humbert Humbert. Nabikov’s text reminds us at quite a few points that Humbert is a monster; even the character himself identifies what he’s doing as wrong. Rather than a romance, this is a man’s slow loss of control, a descent into a certain sort of madness. At the outset of the novel, the character resists his attraction to Lolita, but it’s a losing battle. He eventually loses his hold and succumbs to his basest desires and behavior.

This is not romantic. We should not cheer for him. Nabikov wants us to be appalled, in many ways. If there’s anyone we should feel sympathy for, it’s Lolita. And in all of this, Humbert blames Lolita for his own inability to restrain himself. It’s her fault that he’s attracted to her, her fault that he can’t control himself. Somehow.

Lolita is a stark look at rape culture and misogyny. It is not a romance.

We’re Trained to See Abuse as Romance

Nor is Balance. This novel was billed as a romance by its own author, who clearly believed that the book was about a great love story between a teenage gymnast and her 30-something coach. At no point does the book mentioned the abuse of power, manipulation, or abuse. Rather, we’re given a portrait of a teen who believes she and her coach are in some great romantic relationship.

This could be a great exploration of the psychology of abuse and manipulation, especially of young girls. But it’s played as romantic, when what it amounts to is an uncomfortable narrative of exploitation masquerading as “true love.”

A man covers a woman's eyes; it doesn't look abusive, but could it be?
“Just see what I want you to see.” — men, to women, probably (Anete Lusina/Pexels.com)

Balance could be a very good book if it explored the dark side of these difference-of-power relationships. Instead, it ignores them and presents this kind of behavior as “romantic.”

It seems to be taking its cues from books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey—both, arguably, romances to an extent. Both books present a couple that we’re supposed to root for. Both of these couples have a happy ending.

Yet readers accuse both Twilight and Fifty Shades of romanticizing and normalizing some fairly creepy behaviour. Many readers point out the cycle of abuse in Fifty Shades. Ana expresses discomfort or discontent about Christian overstepping boundaries. Christian apologizes (or gives her a present). Ana forgives and forgets. Then the cycle repeats. And Twilight gives us both a century-old vampire stalking a teenage girl and a teen girl who feels her life means nothing without her vampire boyfriend—wonderful messages to give impressionable teenagers about what romantic behavior and normative relationships look like.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Thus we can see how people conflate “romance” with “love,” and love with “passion.”

As mentioned, pop culture often presents some fairly problematic behavior through a lens of “aw, it’s so romantic.”

And, in some cases, romances—actual, factual romances—are guilty of this as well.

With that in mind, it’s easier to see why some people equate any story that has a romantic element with “romance.”

The more that romantic relationship is central to the plot, the more likely people are to try and bill the book a romance. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is front and center in the play, but this great love story is not a romance. Jay Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy is one of the core plot points of Gatsby, but it is not a romance. Humbert Humbert’s obsession and “relationship” with Lolita is pretty much the entire focus of the novel, but it is not a romance. And so on and so forth.

If the relationship is the core focus, though, are these things not romances? Absolutely not. They’re love stories, perhaps, but even that doesn’t fit in the case of Lolita. Lolita is not a love story; it’s a horror story, really.

The Cardinal Rule of Romance

So, what’s the dividing line between a “love story” and a “romance”?
Two things. In a romance, you must:

•   Have a couple that the reader roots for
•   A happy ending

Romeo and Juliet has characters you want to root for. They do not get a happy ending. Twilight has characters we’re supposed to root for, and they get a happy ending. Twilight is thus a romance of sorts, however problematic the characters are.

In this case, Balance fits into the genre of romance—with the notable fact that we probably shouldn’t cheer for the 30-something coach to get sexually involved with his underage athlete. While this character is presented as the “hero,” a step back lets us problematize and criticize that designation.

Is a 30-something man who gets involved with teenagers in a program he oversees really a hero? Or is he someone taking advantage of them, or something worse? If we think critically about the text, we see we really shouldn’t be cheering for this character—much as we shouldn’t cheer for Humbert Humbert to get with Lolita.

Could We Read R+J as a Happy Ending?

There’s one more corollary here many non-romance readers like to consider.

If both characters end up dead, a la Romeo and Juliet, is that actually happy in some way?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself. Here’s the crux of the issue for R+J: we’re not shown both characters reuniting in heaven and saying they get to be with each other always, so they’ll be happy for eternity. (And really, we maybe shouldn’t see that, since it implies suicide is a good thing.)

We could assume that is the “happiest” ending for Romeo and Juliet.

Their families wouldn’t relent and let them marry. They’d have to live apart, pining for each other.

Really, we can imagine other happy endings for these two though. Maybe they escape their families and ride off into the sunset. We could imagine Juliet goes to a nunnery, and she and Romeo continue a clandestine love affair. Maybe they manage to defy their parents and put an end to the feud by getting hitched. Perhaps they marry gay people and all four of them end up carrying on separate relationships on the side. Maybe Juliet ends up widowed and Romeo, now head of the Montague family, marries her (much to everyone else’s horror).

Death is thus not a happy outcome for these two. There are many other happier possible endings.

The Merry Bad Ending

By compare, I played with this idea in Bad Spirits. Ultimately, Timmo is already dead and transformed into a monster. Ilya could survive him, but that would not be a happy ending (nor a romance). Both characters here come to a bad end; much like Romeo and Juliet, their social positions would never have allowed them to be happy together in life. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, though, it’s hard to imagine what a happy life would look like, given that one of the characters is dead right from the get-go.

The cover of Bad Spirits.

In the final scene of the book, Ilya wakes up in the afterlife with Timmo. The suggestion is that in this space, they’re allowed to be what they could not have been in life: happy with each other. For them, it’s the best possible outcome—indeed, the only possible outcome. We’re also explicitly given the suggestion that there is some form of life after death here. In Romeo and Juliet, there is simply death.

So, is Bad Spirits a romance? We can argue that, certainly. Both Timmo and Ilya have an undeniable attraction to each other. Both are caught up in a tangled web of politics, identities, and lies that make it difficult for them to maneuvere. They’re not particularly good for each other, but they want to be together.

Some would certainly argue that, since they’re both dead, it’s not a romance. Yet there’s a certain amount of “happily ever after” in the final scene.

Whether or not it’s a romance or merely a twisted love story is in the reader’s hands.

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