Romance readers and authors get a lot of derision thrown their way. So much so that many have a mental checklist that runs every time they read mainstream media articles about romance or the people who write it. We know that even the most well-intentioned pieces will use terms like “bodice ripper” and make mention of Fabio; some will praise the genre for moving past the days of clinch covers and towards more palatable packaging. Many will speak of the elusive “well-written romance”, which may or may not exist. Recently, author Diana Gabaldon deployed each of these trite views of the genre–a genre whose readers have supported her with their enthusiasm and their dollars to the tune of an acclaimed bestselling series and a highly-rated television phenomenon. In an interview with Vulture she insisted that her books don’t fit the romance mold:
A romance is a courtship story. In the 19th century, the definition of the romance genre was an escape from daily life that included adventure and love and battle. But in the 20th century, that term changed, and now it’s deemed only a love story, specifically a courtship story.
On Twitter, Gabaldon–a self-professed non-romance writer–expanded on this point:
It’s difficult to take Gabaldon’s definition of the genre seriously when she seems so painfully out of touch with it. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, easily the most profitable and talked-about novel of the century so far, spent its sequels following the married life and personal tribulations of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, who remain the protagonists throughout the series. Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series, another blockbuster in the vein of Fifty Shades, follows a single couple through five books. Both are “so labeled and packaged” as romance novels. According to a FAQ on Gabaldon’s website, romance authors themselves feel Outlander and its sequels are not romance novels:
I joined GEnie (one of the big online “information services” available in the late 80’s—well before the Web as it is now existed) shortly after winning the award, and one (quite well known) author sent me a private e-mail, saying that she thought she had better come out and tell me, since there were several messages from her on the board saying so, that she felt it was not right for Outlander to have won, since “it wasn’t really a romance–there wasn’t enough concentration on the relationship between the hero and heroine, she was older than him (hey, everybody knows you can’t do that! (You want to know how many times I’ve heard “You can’t do THAT in a romance!”–from romance writers at romance conventions?) they didn’t meet until page 69, you didn’t know he was the hero until much later, it was much too long, and it had all that HIStory, it was in the first person!! (an utterly heinous crime in that genre, apparently), and as for what I did to Jamie…!!
While Gabaldon may be content to cling to the attitudes of romance readers and writers as they stood twenty-five years ago, the genre has moved on. Today, Romance Writers of America has a much broader, more inclusive definition for what does and does not constitute a romance novel:
All romances have a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending. Beyond that, however, romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality. Romance fiction may be classified into various subgenres depending on setting and plot elements.
Gabaldon’s series fulfills each of those requirements. Her books, while including time travel and historical intrigues, are at their very heart a love story about Jamie and Claire. And while on her website Gabaldon asserts that romances must have happy endings, the RWA only stresses the need for “an emotionally satisfying ending.” Though Gabaldon’s books sometimes end on distressing cliffhangers, they’re far from dissatisfying. By today’s definition, Outlander is most certainly a romance. Yet she still chooses to push the genre away:
If you call it a romance, it will never be reviewed by the New York Times or any other respectable literary venue. And that’s okay. I can live with that. But more importantly, you will cut off the entire male half of my readership. They would say, “Oh, well, it’s probably not for me.”
Though Outlander in its television form has drawn in male viewers, and male readers of the series undoubtedly exist, the audience the series has attracted is undeniably, overwhelmingly female. And Gabaldon’s concern about her male readership didn’t stop her from marketing the book as a romance to begin with. In the interview, Gabaldon explains why she was fine with the idea of marketing Outlander as a romance when it was first published:
So my agent said, “Well, we could insist that they call it science-fiction or fantasy, because of the weird elements, but bear in mind that a bestseller in sci-fi is 50,000 in paperback. A bestseller in romance is 500,000.” And I said, “Well, you’ve got a point!”
In other words, Gabaldon’s agent and publisher knew that Outlander best fit the romance mold, and would sell like crazy there. Jude Deveraux’s A Knight In Shining Armor came out in 1989, sparking an entire subgenre of time travel romance, whose readers eagerly embraced mingled aspects of historical romance and science fiction. Marketing Outlander as a romance novel was the smartest move Gabaldon and her team made, a move Gabaldon was fine with at the time, provided she wouldn’t be saddled with the stigma of romance for the rest of her career:
Provided we had dignified covers — we wouldn’t have bosoms and Fabio and things like that — and also that if the books became visible, they would reposition them as fiction. Which they did. When Voyager, the third book of the series, hit the New York Times bestseller list, they very honorably redesigned the covers and started calling them fiction.
In other words, Gabaldon raked in romance reader dollars and used the genre to make her book a hit. She even won a prestigious RITA award for Best Romance in 1992 from Romance Writers of America (Gabaldon’s website lists this win as “Best Book” and takes pains to point out that non-romances can win the award; RWA’s website lists it as “Best Romance” and every other winner in the now-retired category have been romance novels). Then she took the money and ran.
In a piece at Book Riot, Jessica Tripler points out that many romance readers would agree that Outlander and its sequels aren’t romance novels, but by RWA’s definition, they most certainly could be. And there isn’t anything wrong with that. Romance readers buy more books than any other type of reader. There’s money to be had, and personal recommendations in the romance community are solid gold. So why, then, the reluctance to embrace the title of romance novel/author? Why does Gabaldon feel the need to mention Fabio and bosoms whenever the question arises? Does she believe that she or her books are somehow more legitimate because they’re no longer shelved in romance at Barnes & Noble? She states often that her books are wholly genre-less, but there are no similar sections on her website adamantly insisting that they aren’t science fiction. The only logical conclusion to come to is that “romance” is to authors as “cooties” are to children on a playground.
Romance readers will continue to embrace Gabaldon’s series, because they have no compunction about venturing into other aisles in the book store. They’re passionate about reading, love all types of stories and subgenres, and spend literally a billion dollars a year on books. Gabaldon knew it was a smart business move twenty-five years ago to align herself with the community; now, like a suddenly popular middle school student, she doesn’t know who her old friends are. Without romance readers, Outlander would have never found its audience. Maybe Gabaldon should remember that and be thankful to the genre, rather than fixating on and perpetuating cliches that contribute to the stigma against a genre that has loyally supported her for decades.