Emotional Responses: Science, Romance, and Science Fiction Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 9 June, 2013

Peter Dixon and Marisa Bortolussi believe that

we cannot identify the nature of a genre without an appreciation of what readers know about genre because popular genre such as science fiction, fantasy, and romance are what readers understand them to be. Because genres are dynamic, it becomes critical to understand how it is that readers develop and acquire the knowledge that mediates the use of genre labels. (545)

Given the number of times ill-informed generalisations are made about the romance genre, it will probably not come as a great surprise to romance readers to learn that when Dixon and Bortolussi asked a number of people "to write a short essay on what a genre label means to them" (548) they found that romance readers and non-romance readers have significantly different understandings of what romance fiction is about:

the results for romance suggest that the stereotypes available in the culture are insufficient for characterizing what is important for readers of that genre. [...] Although everyone may agree that romance concerns descriptions of romantic involvements, we theorize that actual readers of romance are less concerned with simply the narrative sequence that constitute that description and more concerned with the emotional interactions described in the works and emotions evoked in the reader. [...] For science fiction and fantasy, the cultural stereotypes may provide a largely accurate rendition of what is important for readers; for romance, there is a significant discrepancy between cultural expectations and what is important for readers. (568-69)

I wonder if the "cultural expectations" of romance, which focus on particular storylines and character types, make it difficult for non-romance-readers to understand how well romance can be combined with other genres. They might feel that, say, a science fiction romance could only ever be a traditional romance storyline dressed up in science fiction fancy-dress. According to Ella Drake this is an unfortunately common view of science fiction romance: "We’ve heard too many times that the Romance part of SFR means it’s inferior in some way. Or it’s not Science Fiction."

If, however, the inclusion of romance was viewed as a possible means to deepen the emotional aspects of a narrative, one might have a rather more positive view of the potential of science fiction romance. Cora Buhlert, for example, writes that

a lot of writers and readers in hybrid genres such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, SF romance and romantic suspense [...] are often longtime SFF fans (or suspense fans for romantic suspense) and they like action, adventure and worldbuilding, but they also want a bit more emotion and yes, romance, than “pure” SF/fantasy/suspense tend to offer. I certainly count myself among those readers/writers. I was increasingly unhappy with speculative fiction devolving into emotionless big idea fiction on the one hand and increasingly grimdark macho fantasy with unpleasant characters on the other hand. Then one day, I became aware that there was a whole slew of subgenres such as futuristic romance, paranormal romance, time travel romance and fantasy romance, full of books written mostly by women, which promised the action and worldbuilding I had come to enjoy about SFF, but with more female characters, hopefully less needless violence against said female characters and characters and relationships that rang true to the experience of actual human beings.

Those who take a positive stance toward compound genres which include romance presumably value texts which evoke an emotional response in the reader. A forthcoming paper from Raymond A. Mar's lab suggests that readers who enjoy romance may differ from other readers.

The paper, written by Katrina Fong, Justin B. Mullin and Raymond A. Mar begins by noting that "Although theoretical accounts suggest that exposure to different genres of literature may impact readers in different ways [...], little empirical work has been done to explore this possibility. (3) In other words, so far studies have tended to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. One study that did so found that "lifetime exposure to narrative fiction, but not expository non-fiction, was related to improved performance on measures of interpersonal sensitivity" (4).

Interpersonal sensitivity

can refer to both how well one “reads” other people and how appropriately one responds. Thus, it might be said that it is interpersonally sensitive to both recognize when one's spouse is sad and respond sympathetically. (Hall and Andrzejewski)

Fong, Mullin and Mar suspected that it would be fruitful to explore the differences between different types of fiction:

Since each fiction genre is likely to provide a distinctive conceptual framework through which readers construct meaning about the social world (Littlefair, 1992), we expect some variability in how exposure to each genre influences a reader’s social orientation. Unfortunately, since there is little empirical work on lifetime exposure to different genres, our hypotheses are necessarily tentative. (5)

They decided to concentrate on four genres: Domestic Fiction, Romance, Science-Fiction/Fantasy, Suspense/Thriller. Their results showed that:



  • individuals who had more exposure to one genre also tended to have greater exposure to other genres as well. (8)
  • Individuals who exhibited more exposure to Fiction tended to have greater interpersonal sensitivity while individuals who had been exposed to more Non-fiction did not show the same relationship. (8)
  • exposure to Romance continued to be significantly associated with interpersonal sensitivity even after controlling for exposure to NonFiction, foil-checking, age and years of English fluency, gender, trait Openness, and trait Extraversion. Domestic fiction and Suspense were also related to interpersonal sensitivity, but these relations were weaker and less certain. When all genres were considered at once, only Romance was a unique predictor of interpersonal sensitivity. (11)

They speculate that

If it is the simulation of interpersonal experience in narrative fiction that best predicts greater performance on interpersonal tasks, then perhaps it is unsurprising that exposure to Romance — a genre of fiction that focuses on interpersonal relationships — is most strongly related to this benefit. (11)

Finally, it should be noted that

Because this study is correlational, it is not possible to draw causal conclusions with regard to the nature of exposure to various genres of narrative fiction. That is, we cannot infer that exposure to any specific genre causes greater or less interpersonal sensitivity. Given that narrative genre plays an important role in how and why readers select a narrative text (Dixon & Bortolussi, 2005), it is entirely possible that individual differences may shape both interpersonal sensitivity and selection and exposure to various literary genres. (12)

[EDITED on 1 July 2013 TO ADD:

The article by Fong, Mullin and Mar was discussed at OnFiction and I took the opportunity to ask some questions because I thought

It would be interesting to know a bit more about what type(s) of books were being read by the SF readers in the study who scored badly on interpersonal sensitivity. Were they readers who favoured "emotionless big idea fiction" and/or "increasingly grimdark macho fantasy"? And for the purposes of this study were SF romances (if listed) classified as "romance" or as "SF"?

Katrina Fong responded:

In response to your question regarding genre classification, hybrid genres are certainly an interesting question that requires more in-depth probing. With regard to our current study, the sci-fi/fantasy titles were not hybrid (they may be considered more "pure," as suggested in the quote in your post). SF romances were only included if the predominant theme in the author's work was romance; these authors would subsequently be categorized as romance. Future work could definitely begin to tease apart these subtleties.]


Buhlert, Cora. "Invasion of the Girl Cooties." 2 June 2013.

Dixon, Peter, and Marisa Bortolussi. "Readers' Knowledge of Popular Genre." Discourse Processes: A Multidisciplinary Journal 46.6 (2009): 541-71. [Abstract]

Drake, Ella. "Science Fiction and Stereotypes." Contact-Infinite Futures. 7 June 2013.

Fong, Katrina, Justin B. Mullin, and Raymond A. Mar (in press). "What You Read Matters: The Role of Fiction Genres in Predicting Interpersonal Sensitivity." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. [The pdf can be downloaded from here but if you do, they'll assume you've agreed to limit your "use to personal academic purposes and not public dissemination."]

Hall, Judith A. and Susan A. Andrzejewski. "Interpersonal Sensitivity." Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Ed. Harry T. Reis and Susan Sprecher. SAGE.


The image came from Wikimedia Commons and was made available under a Gnu General Public License.