I’m only an aspiring writer, so that makes me prima facie ignorant of the writing biz. And that’s why one might think me unqualified to disagree with Kiki.
Kiki of course is Kiki Opdenberg, the host of the cool new podcast The Kissy Bits—Romance Writing Without Cooties, straight from Melbourne, Australia. I got really excited when in her premier episode, “Why Romance,” she responded to criticisms of romance stories. This was right after I had written about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I was tired of reading reviews by reviewers who just didn’t get it.
“Romance is too predictable,” say the critics. “Boy meets girl. They fall in love and live happily ever after. Yawn.” But maybe they just don’t get it. When you read a detective story, you expect the detective to catch the bad guy, you just don’t know how and perhaps even who’s the bad guy. “Romance,” Kiki says, “celebrates people.” Maybe we do know the plot, but the story is new every time.
In that first show she goes even further. She says, “Romance is one of the great myths. And every good book will deal with the myth, whether as its main theme or as a side-strand.” And she’s right.
That brings us to this week’s episode. Tee Morris of The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy asked in his episode #004: What’s the difference between a romance story with a genre elements and a genre story with romantic elements? What’s the difference between a romance western, for example, and a western with romance? Kiki’s answer is—
Well, first things first. What is a genre? It’s a way to brand a story so that the reader can know what to expect from it. This agrees with Kiki’s description, again from her first episode:
These formulae exist for a reason. They let us categorize books into genres. So, if you feel like gun-totin’, horse-ridin’ heroes, you know you’ll get them in a western. You want two people in love? Hello, romance novel!
So what about a novel about a wolf-woman searching for love across 1830’s America? It’s a science-fiction novel, by the way. But I didn’t like it because it was a science-fiction novel. I liked it because it was written by Pat Murphy, and Pat Murphy is expert at making you identify with her protagonists, no matter how extraordinary they are. And I liked this book because it made me cry.
Some readers no doubt do gravitate toward one genre or another for superficial reasons. They only like strongly-plotted stories, for example, or they only like touchy-feely stories, or they only like character stories, or whatever. But some of us—and I’d like to think we weren’t as rare as all that—enjoy all aspects of a story. We appreciate each story for what it offers, no matter what its genre. Please don’t confuse the genre of a book with the genre of its readers.
That brings us to Kiki’s latest episode. She believes there are three ways to determine whether a book is a romance sub-genre or genre fiction with romantic elements. She uses these to springboard into a long list of romance categories and sub-genres, noting the similarities and differences, combinations and mutual exclusions, clarities and ambiguities. It’s like an SNL skit.
I have a much simpler answer. You see, genres are there so that readers will know what to expect. Genres don’t limit the tastes of the readers, but rather serve as a window into those tastes. Genres are a means of marketing to readers. So, what is the difference between a romance sub-genre story and a genre story with romance? Answer: Marketing.
This particularly implies that there’s not necessarily anything different in the story itself. Rather, the difference is in how it’s marketed to readers. Granted, some stories only fit into one genre or another. A space opera, for instance, is clearly science-fiction; it cannot be marketed as a western. But just because some stories fit cleanly into one category or another doesn’t mean all stories do. At the edges, there are stories that should be able to go either way.
At least this cross-genre reader doesn’t care which way they go.