What classifies as romance?

So I’ve been catching some flack recently about my decision to not review romance novels on The Boogle. This is a personal choice. Due to the amount of time I have to read and review books, and the amount of submissions I receive, I have the luxury of being selective about what I review.

Just to be fair, there are other books I probably will decide not to review too…It’s not that I don’t enjoy these kinds of books, or dismiss them as crap, but when presented with a textbook vs. an adventure story, the adventure story will win every time. So here is a list of genres that are pretty low on my list of preferences…

  • Textbooks
  • Books titled: How to  ____________
  • Medical/addiction/self-help
  • Poetry
  • Fairy Tales
  • Scrapbooks
  • Blank notebook pages

So the question posed to me was: what if an adventure book is filled with romance? Or a thriller has romantic elements? At what point will you classify something as romance? My first novel ELVIS AND THE BLUE MOON CONSPIRACY had a love story but the book is anything but romance. THE GODFATHER addressed a man’s romantic relationship with two women, following Michael as he courts Apollonia and Kay and eventually marries them both (not at the same time, silly). Could that be classified as romance?

Here is a list of the Top 100 Romance Novels from The Romance Reader to help you get started….

What do you think?

20 Responses to What classifies as romance?

  1. Joan says:

    Possibly the best definition of a “romance” novel that I’ve seen is: the novel is considered to be romance if there wouldn’t be a story if the romantic elements were deleted. By that definition, stories like “The Godfather” would still stand if Mike never married or even dated (men or women). I think that would even be true of “Gone With the Wind” since, imo, Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship was anything but Romantic.


  2. Genre Romance novels tend to follow a formula. Some are sexier than others are. The few I have read all seem the same. Different characters. Different settings. Different times. There seems to be a girl that needs saving and in the beginning she doesn’t like or distrusts the man she will eventually fall in love with, who rides to the rescue one way or the other to save her from the black hearted devil that is making life miserable for her.

    Books in this genre seem to fill a void in the lives of the lonely women (since women are the largest audience for these books.

    After all, that dashing man most women marry tends to age and grow a gut drinking beer with his buddies while watching endless football or baseball or basketball. Most romances end with the wedding. After that, the romance genre makes its money fulfilling a need that doesn’t’ exist in the real world.

    I could use my daughter as an example. She’s seventeen and has broken up with her boyfriend three times. There have been many tears each time while she consumes chocolate to help with her broken heart. Anyone reading this, knows what her sixteen year old boy friend (they are back together again as I write this but who knows what tomorrow will bring) wants, and it isn’t to fulfill a young girl’s romantic fantasy that includes candle lit dinners and lot more unless those lit candles lead to a bed.

    Real life romances tend to always end in a tragedy of one kind or another. After all, we grow old, get fat, come down with cancer or some other disease and die. In between, the man most women marry loses interest and starts checking out younger stuff. My sister is almost eighty. When she got divorced decades ago after having three children with the same man, her ex married his younger secretary and my sister didn’t marry anyone. Studies show that most men marry women ten to twenty years younger than they are and the cycle starts over again. If the old man has money, he usually catches a younger girl.

    There usually is no Darcy to fill the void. By the way, my sister reads a lot of books and many of those books are genre romances designed to fulfill the fantasy that didn’t happen. I grew up watching my mother read romances while my dad sat (when he was home instead of at the race track placing bets on horses) on the other side of their living room reading westerns and mysteries with the television being the only voice in the room. Some romance.

    I read recently that during these hard economic times, the only area that is booming in publishing is genre romance. It seems the desire to escape reality is stronger than ever and only the fantasy world of romance novels fills that need. For sure, most real men don’t.

    Oh, I take my wife out to dinner (dessert included) once or twice each week. She loves it. It makes life easier at home. We even take walks in the evening and hold hands.

    Real world romances, on the other hand, tend to end like Helen of Troy with a lot of people dead.

  3. Clayton Bye says:

    I think Joan’s definition of romance is perfect (“the novel is considered to be romance if there wouldn’t be a story if the romantic elements were deleted”).

    With this said, a successful story demands human relationships, which means that any genre will demonstrate elements of romance. So, in my opinion, to say you will not review romance does require that you define what romance means. For example, the hottest romance market right now is the erotic romance novel. Are you going to refuse to review those as well?

    A more important question, though, is are you living up to the definition of The Boogle found at the top of this page? Define yourself Mark, sooner rather than later.


  4. mmcginty says:

    Thanks for the feedback, especially all the discussion around The Boogle’s policy on reviewing romance novels.

    A couple things to consider:

    So far I have only received one submission to review a romance novel (which I declined). I have also declined about a dozen other books that were not romance.

    Removing my romance stipulations from the Submission Guidelines would seem to placate a lot of dissenters who are upset that I’ve classified romance as “sappy” (which it is). But removing the submission would not mean that I will review romance novels, only that I will receive more submissions for romance novels that I will ultimately decline. The person whose romance novel I declined then asked if my wife would read it and review it – which was insulting not only to my wife but to wives in general.

    On the other hand, I’m getting a lot of praise for being honest, pulling no punches and letting people know exactly where I stand.

    That being said, it seems like the question becomes: why won’t you just suck it up and review a romance novel, you stubborn, coldhearted, fool?????? And do it fairly and objectively!!!

    So is that where we’re at?

  5. Kris Jackson says:

    Good posts, all. Well thought out.

    I’m familiar with very few of these books — I’m a dude. I found Gone with the Wind better than the movie, as was the Godfather, mentioned here but not on the list. I will say that many of these titles are highly evocative, and as literature these books are probably not only exemplars of the genre but would hold up to nearly any comparison.

    What about For Whom the Bell Tolls? Hemingway has to kill the guy, of course, and it’s a lot more than “just” a romance. But what a romantic death, huh? What a romantic leave-taking of his honey?

    And as with all creatures there is a food chain. You can find the sap, you can find the crap, with very little effort. In Orwell’s 1984 there were machines that turned the stuff out by the bucketful to placate the proles. No such machines exist yet, but they will, they will. It will probably be built into Microsoft Word and will be available at the stroke of a key. “It looks like you’re trying to write crap. Can I help?”

  6. Joan says:

    Science fiction is one my favorite genres. Yet, like romance, some will dismiss it out of hand. And while romance happens to reside near the bottom of my literary preferences, I have read some that I loved, just as I have given up on some scifis before I could get past the first chapter–they were such crap.

    Mark, among the genres you like less are fairy tales? Are they really that different from fantasy, which is not on this list? And what are text books–are these non-fiction or the stuff we got in high school?

  7. It really depends on the romance and what other elements are involved — thriller, sci-fi, psychodrama, historical, etc. It’s romance if the removed romantic bits affect the story to such a degree that it cannot stand alone. However, there are all types of romance. If you want literary romance versus a “bodice ripper” then say so. Love in the Time of Cholera is a literary romance, and even though it has an HEA, it’s a psychodrama of the greatest magnitude, philosophical by its very nature.

    I like true literary romances. But if there is throbbing, longing, and fluttering eyelashes, or, if the sex has more page space than character development and the use of sexual slang and Latin terms are present in oozing overabundance, I pass.

    So you can say that you will consider romance but only literary romance the likes of Cholera or Pride and Prejudice. If you don’t want steamy bodice rippers or erotica or paranormal or chick lit, then just be clear. Being clear will reduce your decline rate. Nevertheless, don’t reduce the genre to “wank material for women.” That is an overgeneralization made by a lot of men who, frankly, don’t have a clue because their exposure to the genre is, shall we say, limited. It’s like saying all Sci-Fi is little green men and spaceships. I don’t read a lot of Sci-Fi, but I am a huge Phillip Dick fan and so I know the genre is a lot broader than that. See what I am saying.

    Whatever you decide is up to you. It is your review blog. Over on the peeps, we each have our fetish genres, the ones we have the most experience with: Chris is Sci-Fi and Historical, Emily is erotica, romance, poetry, GLBT, and scientific non-fiction, and mine are Horror, short stories, and Literary fiction (all kinds but mostly psychodramas along the lines of American Psycho and Fight Club.) There are genres we don’t review. Just be clear and all will be well.

  8. mmcginty says:

    Yes, my exposure to the genre is limited, I used to read screenplays, and the romance tales I’ve seen and read were….underwhelming? With that said I would be open to looking at literary romance, mainly for the sake of broadening my own taste. I would need something more than the basic romance formula where one of two things happens: 1) they live happily ever after or 2) one of them dies leaving no strings attached.

    Les Miserables and Madame Bovary were two novels that dealt with romantic themes in a way that appealed to me (if you can call Bovary’s adventures “romantic”). I definitely enjoy romantic themes that are edgy and unconventional but am turned off by “throbbing, longing and fluttering eyelashes.” Tyler/Jack’s relationship with Marla in Fight Club was also another fascinating look at “romance” and I would definitely be interested in reading something like that.

    Give me something more than two people falling in and out of love. It is hard to execute that kind of a story without some degree of sap.

  9. Now that’s the ticket. Bovary was one of my personal favorites, and it’s so funny you mention the “romance” in Fight Club cause the author was upset that more people didn’t key into that. “Choke” looks at romance much in the same way.

    I think if you clearly state literary romance and use those examples then people won’t misunderstand. You are obviously open to it, you just want the serious literary stuff. Nothing wrong with that. I tend to prefer psychological realism, and most often, that isn’t pleasant. In Cholera, love was compared to the cholera epidemic, and the main character, who couldn’t be with the one he loved, turned to physical gratification in order to fill the void — hundreds and hundreds of women he slept with, and even then, his tortured soul couldn’t rest. It was about the juxtaposition of lovesickness and rational order and progress, pragmatic love versus chaste spiritual love. Romance in this way tends to wax philosophic, as it should: Love is a driving force. It molds us, changes us, alters who we are at our base. You want existentialist romance, and there is plenty out there. Generally you can tell by the writing style and the first chapter or so.

  10. Bobby Ozuna says:

    I would agree with Joan’s definition…if you were to strip the story of the romantic element, and you didn’t have a story to tell, then perhaps it’s fair to say you have written a romance.

    My story, Proud Souls, has a romantic flair to it. What I did to help bring about change to my hero, Justin Bower, was added the romantic element in a character named Tessa Jameson. She is dubbed as the “town whore” for her flamboyant youth and she is in love with my hero. Justin is a bitter, broken man who has to choose between ending his life or starting life over. Tessa plays the catalyst that forces him to make a decision. She also symbolizes “hope” in the story…which keeps the story moving forward. There is a sensual, sexy and romantic dance between each character–one acting as though he does not notice her…and she making it very clear–as a whole cat and mouse chase. In the end however, I wouldn’t classify my novel as a romance book…but as Joan pointed out…if you took that concept out of Proud Souls, my story would be very flat.

    I love the topic and I love the responses…

  11. Amanda Hamm says:


    I’ve been following this discussion through IAG and had seen where you said you don’t review sappy romance, which you say is any romance. It’s funny because I agree with that statement and yet suspect we still have quite different tastes. I’ve always been a sucker for a good love story and yet I really don’t like anything sappy. My husband never quite gets the distinction because he thinks all love stories are sappy. It’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess. In my mind, it’s a “love story” if it’s not sappy, and “romance” if it is. But everyone has a different definition of sappy.

    One reviewer classified my first book (Dear Jane Letters) as romance because a love story is central to the plot. But I disagree and think anyone who reads it looking for a romance might be disappointed. It’s intended as a comedy.

  12. I understand totally Amanda. It’s all in how you define “love story” and or “romance.” It brings to mind Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos. Yes, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont had a rivalry of sorts, but the sado-masochistic love they felt for each other was the thrust of the story. The having of each other lay with the domination by one over the other. If you take out all the sex and romantic backstabbing escapades going on between the various parties, there wouldn’t be much left to the story, and it would have lost its impact entirely. Love and Human Malice often go hand in hand.

    On the movie side, what about Natural Born Killers? Take out the rather twisted love story between Mickey and Mallory and it becomes nothing more than a killer story. The impact again was in the juxtaposition of love and malice with a sociological underpinning, which shed light on society’s glorification of monsters. Same could be said for the movie True Romance — a violent action packed story, which wouldn’t have been a story at all without the “romance” between the two main characters. Love was the motivation that started the chain of events. Both have HEAs by the way.

    Most of my own novellas are romance oriented. There is an underlying romantic theme just beneath the surface of all the chaos, bloodshed, psychotic behaviour, murder, mythology, etc. If the main characters are changed in some way by love or are altered by their own distorted feelings of love, for good or for bad, and that arc is the primary driving force of the story, then it’s romance — happy ending or not, literary or genre, including the zillions of sub-genres.

  13. mmcginty says:

    Great discussion going on here and I’ve learned a lot already.

    One thinig that I’m wondering, since the basis of this discussion stemmed from some lingo in my submission guidelines regarding sappy romance. How many people recognize that the wording was tongue-in-cheek? I asked a friend if I should change it and was told, “No, it’s funny. Leave it.”

    While I recognize that nearly every story contains some element of romance, I will decline every book that has anything like this on the cover:

  14. Well, that cover really says it all, now doesn’t it. What you see is exactly what you get. You can’t go wrong in this case, judging a book by it’s cover.

  15. Joan says:

    Mark, when I read your statement I thought it was tongue-in-cheek, but it nevertheless gave me some pause–suppose it wasn’t?

  16. mmcginty says:

    I debated whether or not to change the wording in the submission guidelines. My instincts tell me to make no changes. I am going to leave it as is for the same reason I will never edit a review based on response from the author…(glaring errors aside – of course if I incorrectly stated the author was female when he was in fact male I would feel compelled to go back and edit the review).

    …so back to the reason for leaving the comments about “sappy romance”? Because I am being honest with the authors (plus let’s face it, the comment is driving a lot of traffic!) Same as an author who disagrees with my assessment of their work…I would love to talk about why we disagree, but I won’t go back and change my review just to make them feel better. The Boogle prides himself on honest, no-BS assessments – read: I hate being touchy-feely. I even hate myself for using the term touchy-feely! It goes without saying that I probably won’t enjoy a type of novel that is LITERALLY, about all things touchy and all things feely.

    However, I did link the submission guidelines to this discussion so anyone with anything to say can weigh-in and tell me exactly what they think – which I love!

  17. ruthsims says:

    Hi. As the one who started this kerfuffle, I must say I’ve enjoyed reading the posts. Of course, as I said, I think the blog itself is fun and well done. I think the “tongue-in-cheek” aspect in your comment was lost simply because it’s in black and white. Things are frequently misunderstood in email and posts for that reason. Seeing a face, hearing the words said, rather than reading them makes all the different.

    I laughed at the cover. I HATE covers like that, second only to the gay romance covers with headless naked torsos which invariably have six-pack abs. Ick. The do a disservice to some well written books. Unfortunately, few authors have any input. I was lucky; I was consulted. There’s one genre Romance cover, similar in pose as that one, where the hero’s long hair and the heroine’s long hair are blowing in the wind–in opposite directions!!

    As to definition of romance/Romance, my book, The Phoenix, is labelled as a gay romance. I never considered it to be or wanted it to be. I always thought of it (and still do) as a historic novel with gay protagonists. It has a sorta-kinda-maybe-qualifiedly happy-for-now ending, but to achieve that, an innocent heart is broken and a child left fatherless. One protagonist grows up amidst poverty and violence, the other in a repressively religious home. The sex in it is brief and not explicit. There are no squirting, heaving, shoving, quivering, or dripping body parts, howls of ecstacy, or exploding boiling love juices, or Latin. The history is accurate and important to the story. Does that sound like your definition of a sappy Romance? I suppose it’s labeled that way because they had to label it as something.

    Well, this has been very interesting and fun. I almost quit the group in embarrassment, but now I’m glad I didn’t.

  18. mmcginty says:

    In my world dissenting opinion is something that should be embraced.

    Based on feedback I did make another change to the submission guidelines…

  19. Joan says:

    This discussion of to romance or not to reminded me of these examples of cover art.

    Enjoy! 😀

  20. […] by Mark McGinty, September 2009 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)What classifies as romance?Amish Bonnet Rippers Make for Romantic, Chaste ReadingNo need to bail out HarlequinHot Summer […]

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