I Always Loved Love Stories but. . . Life Beyond Genre Romance

I always loved love stories, I think. I wanted my life to be a love story, I thought. As part of a Reader’s Advisory initiative at work, I was assigned to read a romance novel. Plenty of times in airport book shops I eventually bought the book that promised within the hope of some once upon a time.I had a vague idea of why a woman might read those, a blurry memory of my mother eating corn chips perched in a folding chair. I figured she read them for the same reason I read the Twilight series during the month after I finished my Master’s coursework. Genre romance books read like chocolate ice cream all the way until the spoon scraped the bottom. No harm done, right? Except, the empty calories and diabetes.

We received a brief introduction to genre romance during a staff meeting that included tips like: 1) the steamier the cover the hotter the physical intensity, 2) hardcovers mean better writing, 3) romance readers pick from this section because they know what they’re getting, a happy ending.

“So the books on this list have happy endings?” I asked.

“Yes,” The selector for the collection replied.

I didn't recognize any of the titles in the adult section of her packet, but I scanned the Young Adult titles on her handout and found Fault in our Stars and Hunger Games. “But there are some here that don’t have happy endings.”

“There’s something about the ending that is happy,” she responded.

Ummm, okay, then how did that make romance different than regular fiction? I had recently decided that the novel I was writing would include a focal romance, one that I wrote intentionally this time, instead of just alluding to its possibilities so romance as a narrative element, love as character motivation, these were interesting to me. I spent several days scanning Young Adult titles and checking some out. I had one month to make a case for at least one of them to be “romance”.

What Girls are Made of by Elana Arnold

In a few sentences: The main character believes that her mother told her the truth, there is no such thing as unconditional love, and as a result questions her own identity when not defined by a relationship, even though the boy leaves her and her best friend is in love with her.

Genre “romance”: Well, the book is definitely is only about love, but it is about how the couple broke up. However, there are hints that her best friend is in love with her, so not a happy ending, but a hopeful ending. Does that count?

I have lost my way by Gayle Forma.

In a few sentences: A girl falls on top of a boy and another boy helps her take the injured boy to a hospital. This event begins a day spent by three strangers in New York City. During the day, they each assist the other in intentional and unexpected ways, actions that in turn help them heal.

Genre “romance”: Two of the three main characters are attracted to each other. The plot is not written around the romance. The novel has an unresolved ending, but one of the two main characters in the maybe relationship doesn’t die so again, not a happy ending, but a hopeful ending. Still, not sure if this counts.

The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi

In a few sentences: The two main characters are childhood sweethearts who never realized what they felt until the boy returns after a long absence away from the village in Afghanistan where they grew up playing together. However, acknowledging their attraction is problematic because they are from two different ethnic group. They run away together and get married because they are from incompatible family backgrounds.

Genre “romance”: Happy ending for the love story, yes. The difficult social context, fighting families and religious fervor transformed into violence via the Taliban leave much death and sadness in the couple's wake. Question-If the book is set in another country, is it romance? While I can't quantify it with hard evidence fiction with multicultural elements remains in general fiction no matter how central the romance narrative is. Genre fiction, with the exception of all the sheik baring titles, is pretty mainstream culture fare which connects back to what the presenter said about readers “knowing what they’re getting”. I was informed later in a training specific to Reader's Advisory that the “certain” background of the genre romance reader even affects shelving of other collections like Street Lit.

Love Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

In a few sentences: The main character is a girl who is a senior in high school who feels forced to choose between worlds, the one in which her Indian parents live and the one she imagines, going to film school, living in New York City, pursuing the boy she likes. The coming of age narrative is set against the backdrop of racial tensions, parental anxieties, teenage freedom and cultural confusions that come to a head when a terrorist attack occurs in another Midwestern city.

Genre “romance”: The book summary I read listed socio cultural elements and character motivation beyond the boy, yet those elements are what draw the main character and the boy together, almost as if he is a symbol representing the opportunity to choose her place between worlds and also the cultural connector that reminds the reader that coming of age means choices no matter where someone is from. Question- Is this emphasis enough to make it a romance or is it just a means to an end? If it is a means to an end instead of the end, then does the book become fiction like apparently all my other favorites? I always loved love stories, but it seems romance is not all I wanted after all.

Next week is the next staff meeting where I need to present the romance I read. After this exploration, I was still so uncertain about genre romance that I considered skimming a Harlequin romance or maybe one of the books with cowboys holding babies on the cover, just to be sure I could talk about the right thing. Then I remembered an interesting fact the first of these titles mentioned, the definition of a feminist movie. The book stated that a feminist movie must have two main characters that are female and they must discuss something other than men or relationships. At the end of this list, I this thought is significant.

Genre romance must be engendered, because a happy conclusion is the only end and the love affair the only beginning and middle worth reading. With so many more interesting characters and settings out there to be developed, it seems a shame to want to live only for ever after with a very specific group of people in a narrow geographic region of the world. I always loved love stories, I think. I wanted my life to be a love story, I thought. If life imitates art, I realize I want love in my story, but to live my life as more than genre romance. After all, if those books are chocolate ice cream, its ingredients catch up with the reader eventually. As I age, my metabolism will slow and despite working out like crazy the sugar will cling to me in unwanted places. I think it best to limit its sticky influences now and choose multiculturalism along with multi grains and diverse and colorful vegetables from the garden.

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