A few weeks ago, RWA (Romance Writers of America) announced that, beginning in 2014, there will no longer be a Rita or Golden Heart category for “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.” These are books in which there is a romantic arc, but it is not the main focus of the story. Lots of books categorized and sold as women’s fiction tend to fall into this category. Well-known authors who tend to enter in this category include Darynda Jones, Susanna Kearsley, Deanna Raybourn, and, from time to time, Nora Roberts. There was quite a bit of unhappiness about this move among authors who now feel their books, which are certainly romantic and usually have a happy ending, are no longer welcome in the organization.
Then, yesterday, things got even unhappier. RWA issued a clarification to the rules for general membership (i.e., membership with voting rights). To understand the changes, you first have to understand that RWA is unique among writers’ organizations in that it allows authors who are not yet published but who warrant that they actively seeking publication. This means that RWA offers many resources that are exceptionally helpful to authors in the formative stages of their careers, including workshops on craft, the query process, and the entire business of publishing. The result of this is that a fair number of aspiring authors join RWA simply for access to these resources, even though they may not be writing genre romance. Because the writers’ organizations for genres like mystery and science fiction/fantasy don’t allow the unpublished masses to join, RWA has become the de facto option for aspiring authors regardless of genre. There are also a fair number of RWA members who, though they like to write and would not turn down a publishing contract if it fell in their laps, are not really actively seeking a career in publishing. They are hobbyists who joined RWA because it gives them a chance to talk about books with other people who like books and, perhaps to some extent, allows them to rub elbows with big name published authors at conferences or chapter meetings.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with either category of writer wanting to be a member of RWA; RWA, on the other hand, has issued a statement to the effect that these writers, while they are welcome to join as associate members, they should not be permitted to join as general members with voting privileges. To some degree, this seemed merely a clarification of previously established but seldom enforced criteria, since the mission of RWA is to support *romance* writers, not writers of every genre. And perhaps, if this had been the only change to the membership rules, there might have been some grumbling but not a huge uproar.
But in addition to these criteria, RWA added a pretty big whopper. To wit, published authors whose currently published books would not be shelved in romance (i.e., those novels with strong romantic elements that have been excised from the RITAs) are also no longer eligible for RWA general membership. This means many of RWA’s superstar authors (the one who pops easily to mind is Linda Howard, whose books are all shelved in thriller/mystery nowadays, if memory serves) must either rejoin as associate members without voting rights or walk away from the organization altogether. (Or, I suppose there is a third option, which is write and publish something that actually would be shelved in romance, but I don’t know how many would do that just to retain their right to be a voting member of RWA.)
Obviously, I don’t think this is a wise move on RWA’s part. Membership in the organization is already on the decline as people become more and more uncertain of its usefulness. Moreover, as membership has declined, dues have risen, driving even more people out as the recession hit. Why would RWA *choose* to eliminate the members who, arguably, are its most visible spokespeople and ardent supporters? It’s baffling to me, but at the same time, it has made me think a lot about what it means to write “romance.” What qualities define the romance genre and how much does “purity” matter?
I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few days with folks on Twitter about this. For some, the rules are simple: If a book doesn’t focus on the romantic relationship between its main characters and doesn’t end in a happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) for those characters, it’s not a romance. For others, the rules are looser: If the book features a romantic relationship, it’s a romance, no matter how it ends (although most genre romance readers seem to unequivocally hate the UNHAPPY ending to a romance). Still others seems to subscribe to the “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” rule.
In this era of series like Fifty Shades of Grey (which is classified by some as a romance because the third book ends in an HEA and others as erotica because the first two apparently don’t) and serials like Beth Kery’s Because You’re Mine, it seems it’s becoming harder and harder to draw the line based on the characteristics of any one book. The digital form has made it possible for stories which have an overall arc that’s headed for an HEA/HFN to be chopped up into smaller pieces or, alternatively, packaged as a single, 300,000 word opus. And then there’s the whole question of how much focus must be on the romance to make it a romance.
I don’t have answers. What I have are questions for you. I was planning to use polls for this, but my polling software isn’t cooperating with me, so here are my questions. If you want to answer, I guess you’ll have to do so in the comments. Sorry about that; I know polls are easier.
1. Which of the following meets your definition of a “romance”?
a) The book focuses primarily on a romantic relationship and ends in an HEA/HFN.
b) The book features a romantic relationship (but it is not necessarily the focus of the story) and ends in an HEA/HFN.
c) Each book in a series features a romantic relationship, but only the final book features and HEA/HFN.
d) The book focuses on a romantic relationship and may or may not end in an HEA/HFN.
2. Do authors who write books that fall outside your definition of romance still qualify as “romance writers” to you if their books fall into one or more of the categories listed above?
I’m curious as to what you have to say, so I hope you’ll respond even though I couldn’t make the poll thing work.