Genre fiction, or: why a love story isn’t the same as a romance

Two very different book bloggers almost simultaneously sent me assessments of On Different Strings (KindlePaperback). They agreed on one thing if pretty much nothing else: it is not a romance. Or as one put it “It’s a love story, not a romance: there’s a difference[…] I know it when I see it.”

Then it dawned on me: it’s a small-r romantic novel but not a big-R Romance, similar to the difference between a small-l libertarian and a big-L Libertarian, or between small-c conservative and big-C Conservative. (In other words, between generally subscribing to certain principles of a movement and being a card-carrying member.) Or, permit me a musical metaphor, between rock music with richer harmony and several rhythm or mood  changes, and (genre) progressive rock. Or between mainstream rock with more aggressive guitars and flashy soloing, and (genre) metal.

ODS centers around a budding relationship between two at first oddly matched people, their developing love, and the conflicts with their environment that ensue. That fulfills a necessary condition for a genre romance, but not a sufficient one — genre romance readers expect certain “boxes” to be ticked. Moreover, a microcosmos of subgenres exist, each with their own conventions. (I am reminded of the proliferating subgenres of heavy metal music and the arguments between their respective fans ;)) Romance Writers of America defines the major subgenres here, while  the RomanceWiki has a much more fine-grained list.

Going through the latter, I find ODS has some elements of several:

  • a suspense subplot, which is not central enough to qualify as romantic suspense;
  • a contemporary setting (a present-day college campus), but without the explicit (and repeated) sex scenes that have become the norm in contemporary romance;
  • some cultural and social observations as one might find in a mainstream romance (which is a different subgenre from contemporary romance, little did I know)
  • some inspirational elements, but a poor fit for Christian romance or the copycat Orthodox Jewish version;
  • strong musical elements, but not a genre rock’n roll romance;

The only category it truly fits would seem to be novel with strong romantic elements. Indeed, “Genre-busting love story” was the title of a recent review.

Now if I had decided from the outset to conceive this as a general fiction book with strong romantic elements, rather than billing this as a big-R Romance novel, then I might have wished to plane away some of the courtship material earlier in the book, and have gotten a tighter work overall.

Conversely, if I had from the outset decided on a category big-R Romance and not naively misunderstood how this differs from a love story, I might have had to sacrifice some subplots in favor of expanding the romantic bits, and elaborating on some aspects of the developing relationship that are presently underplayed. For instance: Ian, the engineering professor, had musical aspirations of his own — which is how he initially met his guitar tutor Amy, after all. Our cyber and real-life friends include many such mixed artistic-professional couples, and generally they make the same pact as Ian and Amy (sometimes with the genders reversed): Ian focuses on continuing to be a solid provider and sacrifices his own artistic aspirations, so Amy can fully focus on developing her music. However: this aspect is implied more than spelled out — and a genre romance reader would expect this aspect to be elaborated upon, yea even belabored.

And thus we live and learn…

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