A romantic challenge

Ritas, their worth and the newsletter redemption

I hope you’re having a very happy holiday! We’re sitting down to procedurally-generated Netflix movies, last-minute grocery deliveries, and panic about bin collection. I hope you’re doing the same!

My friends, who are very bad influences, have suggested that perhaps my newsletter would be more frequent (and more interesting) if I tackled another one of my reading challenges.

In the past (wavy flashback hands):

So what genre comes next?

I’m vetoing science fiction because I just finished assembling The Big Book of Cyberpunk. I’ll be shilling writing meaningful content for that already.

I’m tempted by horror. I think ‘the oldest and strongest emotion’ is something that deserves a lot of consideration right now. But the power of ‘horror’ feels more appropriately examined during the next American election. Cheering, right?

The prose and cons of romance

I have become, over the past decade, a romance reader.

Generally speaking, romance accounts for around a third of my fiction reading: a mahoosive plurality. I’ve read 192 books so far in 2022, says Goodreads. I would categorise around 70 of those as ‘Romance’.

Despite my enjoyment of the category, if you take publishers’ marketing as statement of intent: most romance isn’t really intended for me. This is born out by the numbers. Romance authorship and readership - especially compared to other genres - is disproportionately female. YouGov, for example, has romance readers in the UK as 82% female. (By contrast: 30% of SF, 45% of fantasy, 51% of thriller, and 57% of mystery readers identify as female.)

There are some real and serious problems around inclusivity in romance. But one of the reasons the genre is so interesting to me is that it is starting from a gaze - and by that I mean ‘the default assumption of shared perspective’ - that isn’t mine. Demographically-speaking, at least.

Romance is also explicitly a category about responding to audience needs. What do you desire? What does happiness look like? Most books are predicated on characters looking for emotional fulfilment, but romance books say the quiet parts out loud. The plot, conflict, and resolution are overtly about a person’s quest for happiness.

Romance also understands that what we want can change: based on who we are, where we are, what stage of life we’re in, or simply how we’re feeling at the time. There are romances for every audience segment and every occasion. (There’s a big caveat here - to explore later. Romance is still ‘gatekept’ by editors and retailers, although possibly less than it used to be. That means the genre isn’t entirely responsive: there’s still a top-down imposition of what the powers that be think readers want.)

Romance is also one of the highest-volume and most dynamic parts of publishing. As a cultural and business phenomenon, it runs far ahead of the rest of the sector. By the standards of romance readers, my 70 novels/year is nothing. Romance readers laser through hundreds and hundreds of books in a year. (A friend of mine just read four in one night.) Romance is the FMCG of the book industry: it is consumed.

As a result, romance generally leads publishing as a retail form in everything from trend awareness to metadata usage. It is commercially important to the sector, and to culture as a whole. Tapping into YouGov again, we can see how young the genre is. 20% of UK romance readers are Gen Z (vs 8% of the population as a whole). Romance similarly significantly over-indexes for Millennials and Gen X, and under-indexes for Boomers and above. Romance is not your grandmother’s genre. (Well, it may be, but it is her grandkids’ as well.)

All of that means: romance is a different perspective, it is (theoretically) audience-focused, and it is valuable as hell.

What’s love got to do with it?

I’m fascinated by the idea of values, and I’m keen to see how they are displayed in romance books. I’m going to use the Rokeach Value Survey again as a quasi-official list. The RVS also handily categorises values in two ways: Terminal (what’s the goal?) and Instrumental (what’s the best way to get there?). I’m curious to see how romance books answer both questions.

The RVS contains forms of ‘love’ in both sets of values, e.g. there’s ‘a love that we strive for’ and also an ‘acting with love gets to us to our goals’. It is really the other values that I find most potentially fascinating. Is the book about achieving an exciting life or a peaceful one? Is it about finding pleasure or earning wisdom? Does it reward courage or forgiveness? Etc. Starting from my assumption that romances are about what readers want, I think there’s a huge amount to draw on in terms of values analysis. (Even an analysis as shoddy and subjective as what I’m going to do.)

As far as process goes, I think I’m going to crib from my earlier attempts:

  • I’m going longitudinal - e.g. I’m going to look at the category over time, rather than a bunch from a single year.

  • I’m going to start with a single award - in this case the RITA. The RITA Awards have repeatedly and spectacularly imploded over the past few years. But, for my purposes, they’ll still (mostly) do the trick as a proxy for ‘what romance books were admired’ at a point in time.

  • …and a single category: Best First Book. This goes from 1990 - 2021. I prefer Best First Book as it spans a variety of genres, avoids mid-series titles, and the author’s reputation isn’t (theoretically) as much of a factor.

  • One criticism of the RITA is that the award is not diverse. (It isn’t.) To compensate, I’ve replaced all the RITA finalists I couldn’t find with debut romances from BIPOC authors. I also added a few others that were recommended to me, were Goodreads finalists, or just popped up while googling about. Not a robust methodology, but one that adds much-needed variety.

Here’s my core list, currently at 38 books.

Well, actually…

I’m conscious of how annoying it is when a dude blunders in to a traditionally female space and starts mansplaining everything.

I am not pretending to be an expert on any of this, nor trying to draw any masterful conclusions that will demystify the Great Secret of ‘What Women Want’. (I’ll leave that to incel forums.) I’m a bona fide romance fan, and I’m excited about the prospect of reading more of it.

The twin objectives of this project are a) to learn more about a genre that I both respect and enjoy and b) to have a bit of fun. If, any any point, this project becomes either disrespectful or un-fun, I’ll bin it. Life’s too short to waste good books.

One last links round-up for 2022:

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