Murder and Metafiction

By Laura Vivanco on

The cover of Running HotThere's a short metafictional passage in Jayne Ann Krentz's Running Hot which manages to make quite a few points about the appeal of popular romance, and implies it isn't less realistic than crime fiction:

He glanced at the cover of her book. The illustration showed the shadowed profile of a woman. She had a gun in her hand. The title was equally ominous.

"Looks like a murder mystery," he said.

"Romantic-suspense," she corrected.


"Meaning it's got both romance and a couple of murders in it."

"You like books like that?"


He smiled. "Thought you said you weren't a romantic."

"I'm not." She turned another page. "Doesn't mean that I don't like to read about romance."

"What about the murders?"

"They get solved by clever sleuthing on the part of the hero and heroine. It's very satisfying."

"You know, in real life the motivation for murder is usually a lot more straightforward than it is in fiction," he said. "Somebody gets pissed off, picks up the nearest gun and shoots the guy who pissed him off."

"Really?" She did not seem particularly interested.

"What's more, the majority of cases get solved because someone talks, not because of forensics or clever sleuthing."

"If I want real police work, I'll read the newspapers, not a book," she said.

"Probably a good idea. Let me know how that one ends."

She turned another page. "I already know how it ends."

"You read the ending first?"

"I always read the ending first before I commit to the whole book."

He looked at her, baffled. "If you know how it ends, why read the book?"

"I don't read for the ending. I read for the story. [...] Life is too short to waste time on books that end badly."

"By badly, you mean unhappily, right?"

"As far as I'm concerned, the two are synonymous." (152-154)


Krentz, Jayne Ann. Running Hot. 2009. New York: Jove, 2010.

Validation for Happy Books

By Laura Vivanco on

In an essay on "Literature and Happiness" D. J. Moores defends works of literature which are basically happy in nature and their arguments seem relevant to assessments of popular romance fiction, with its guarantee of happy endings and preference for uplifting emotions:

Jonathan Haidt, an influential social psychologist, has demonstrated the complexity of elevation, [...] an emotion that Haidt “discovered” after reading Thomas Jefferson’s account of being uplifted by particular narratives in which a character behaves in admirably moral ways, cannot be dismissed as so much apolitical fluff that distracts us from real sociopolitical evils. It is equally complex, if not more so, as are the Aristotelian fear and pity that culminate in the tragic response. To my knowledge, no compelling arguments exist that prove negative emotions are any more complex than positive ones. The converse, in fact, may be true: recent research indicates that negative emotions might be neurologically and psychologically simpler, as they are implicated in instinctual survival mechanisms by prompting immediate action—fear makes us run, disgust makes us spit, anger makes us fight, etc.—whereas positive emotions exert beneficial downstream effects that prove too complicated to measure in the moments when they occur. Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering research psychologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has discovered that positive emotions are not epiphenomena or mere effects of some other cause but causal agents that serve a valuable purpose by undoing the effects of negative emotions: relieving stress; improving health; strengthening the immune system; providing a sense of meaning and purpose; and broadening and building psychological resources for the future.


According to Haidt, the emotion of elevation is characterized by all of Fredrickson’s downstream effects, and it also prompts us to behave in more altruistic ways, reorienting us away from self-focused concerns to altruistic ones, opening those who experience it to a whole family of other-directed emotions, such as gratitude, love, and empathy. At the least, then, inspiring narratives relying upon elevation for their aesthetic effects rival, in affective complexity, the fear, pity, and catharsis implied in the Aristotelian understanding of the tragic response. (263-64, emphasis added)


Moores, D. J., "Literature and Happiness." Philosophy and Literature 42.1 (2018): 260-77.

Part I - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on


Yesterday I went to a one-day conference/symposium on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing. There were 5 papers which focussed on romance novels, one on Fifty Shades (I think there have been debates over how to classify that, though it could be considered erotic romance), and various papers which looked at links between romance and other forms of women’s writing.

I’m going to write up my thoughts about each of the papers here but these are very much my thoughts on the papers, rather than an accurate description of each of the papers themselves. That’s mostly because it’s difficult to write fast enough to take accurate, detailed notes which won’t misrepresent the finer points of someone’s argument but also because (a) I’m not sure how much information all the participants want to have shared online about their work and (b) I’m a bit single-mindedly focussed on romance, so even when a paper is primarily about books which are not genre romances my brain will tend to zoom in on the bits of the paper which relate to romance scholarship (as opposed, for example, to scholarship on feminism, capitalism etc).

The first three papers were:

Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

In my second post I write about:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

In the final post I attempt to summarise papers by:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans


Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy


Fran is working towards her PhD, on the topic of "A.L. Kennedy and the Quest for Happy Ever After": "Fran’s thesis focuses on the work of contemporary Scottish writer A.L.Kennedy, examining issues of gender, love and sex in her work, and how these issues relate to the notion of Romance as it appears in British Literature as a whole."

Although Kennedy does not identify herself as a romance writer, the paratext of her books does tend to mention their romantic elements and she has said "I believe in God, I believe in love - they probably make very little sense without meaning much the same thing" (Mitchell 123).

Tomlin: The blending of the passionate and the painful sets Kennedy apart from the traditional genre #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Although Kennedy's characterisations seem very realistic, Fran quoted Robert Louis Stevenson's observation that "True romantic art [...] makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism" (Stevenson, qtd. in Norquay, 60). [As I discussed in For Love and Money, there's nothing preventing romance novels from being written in the low mimetic mode so "realism" doesn't disqualify a novel from being considered a romance. It should be noted, though, that when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about romance in 1882, he wasn't thinking about the modern romance genre.]

Fran said that Kennedy's novels are structured in such a way that the reader wants there to be a happy ending but although the possibility of one exists at the close of the novels, they haven't got there. [A lack of an HEA doesn't automatically disqualify a novel from being a romance, though, given that the RWA merely require a romance to have "An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending". It would seem, though, that the endings aren't "emotionally satisfying" to Fran because an optimistic potential isn't enough for her, but that could be a matter of personal taste rather than a clear indication that the books aren't romances.]

Tomlin: Is Kennedy producing a more literary romance? How is this distinct from the traditional genre? #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Overall, the paper raised questions about the definition of a "romance novel". Amy Burge, for example, suggested one could think of romance as a strategy and/or a structure (which might fit with Fran's use of the term "quest" in the title of her paper) and I think referred to Gillian Beer's The Romance.

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Bakhtin suggested that traditionally the carnival is a one-off (though recurring) way in which the status quo can be temporarily transgressed. It's a safety valve which ultimately functions to support dominant structures and relegitimate it. In modern, neo-liberal capitalist society, the carnivalesque has been individualised and commercialised, to similar effect:

Dimmock: Commercialisation of transgression in contemporary culture prevents it from threatening power structures #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

In the Fifty Shades trilogy, although the BDSM appears transgressive, the series does end with the protagonists in a fairly traditional (married, heteronormative, with children) relationship.

Fifty Shades is set in the US but the author is British and in the UK BDSM has perhaps traditionally been associated with the ruling elite. More recently there was the 2008 court case involving Max Mosley and just this year there were revelations concerning the Conservative minister John Whittingdale MP, though

According to the former editor of the Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling, Britain is "still known abroad as the 'nation of floggers'".

"A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children," says Ms Pelling, "sending them away to boarding school from an early age. (BBC)

It wasn't working-class children who were sent to boarding schools. And the Marquis de Sade was an aristocrat, of course. So perhaps that would suggest that BDSM has traditionally been a carnival for the elites.

It also occurs to me that female submission is actually fairly traditional (and perhaps therefore not so very transgressive) in the romance genre. It's not always been made explicit, and certainly wouldn't have been expressed as BDSM, but dominant heroes who give heroines "punishing kisses" or more were extremely common at one time. It also fits with traditional gender roles within marriage, in which the wife was expected to love, honour and obey. One romance which made me think more about the extent to which female (but definitely not male) submission has been accepted within the genre was Jill Christian's The Tender Bond (1961). It's a vintage romance in which Martin, a man who is ultimately not chosen as the hero, quite clearly has submissive tendencies and the heroine observes that

He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.

Martin would never seek to dominate her.

Martin is eventually paired up with a woman who states that she's:

not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."

Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."

"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]"

[More details about that book can be found in this post I wrote in 2008.] In that context, a female dominant/male submissive romance would presumably have a lot more subversive potential than one like Fifty Shades.

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

Veera's paper is the heroine-focussed counterpart of the paper she gave to the 2015 PCA/ACA conference:

Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes 

The heroes examined in this paper exemplify how a successful romance hero is a discussion on the pressures society puts on men and breaks reigning stereotypes. The romance genre almost demands that male protagonists show softness in order to be worthy of the heroine, which renders the stereotypical notion of the brutish Alpha antiquated. It is therefore necessary to update the vocabulary used to describe heroes and to examine the issues they represent in today’s romance writing.

Romance heroes have developed rapidly with the genre. The rapist Alpha is seen to a far lesser extent than it previously was, and the Beta hero’s soft personality is viewed as distinctly positive. However, although the surface division between Alpha and Beta types remain, any closer scrutiny reveals that the modern hero is in fact more a blend of the hard and soft traits than weighed in favour of one or the other.

This paper discusses the diversity and ambiguity this blending causes in romance heroes, using as examples the heroes of Mary Balogh’s novels Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride and The Famous Heroine. The discussion takes into account the criticism of the romance hero, both past and present, and shows the change in basic terminology used to describe these male protagonists, which on close reading of Balogh’s novels proves to be useful as a basic tool regarding reader preferences and the hero’s function in the novel but inadequate in truly describing the wide range of male personalities found in the genre.

Returning to the same three (linked) novels by Mary Balogh, Veera turned her attention to their heroines.

Mäkelä: 'The Honourable Miss Jennifer Winwood' learns agency in Dark Angel #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of Dark Angel initially conforms to gender norms and attempts to please the men in her life but eventually she gains agency in her relationship with the hero.

Mäkelä: Miss Samantha Newman regains agency in Lord Carew's Bride (note the different arc of agency to Jennifer's) #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of Lord Carew's Bride has internalised oppression by men and so cannot act without reference to the man who left her disillusioned. Eventually she does succeed in throwing off her victim status and physically fights back against her oppressor.

Mäkelä: Miss Cora Downes 'takes charge' (notably sexually) in The Famous Heroine. Wishes to please society, not men #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of The Famous Heroine is of a lower social class than the other two heroines so her concern is with pleasing society rather than individual men. It seems she attempts to fill the traditional womanly roles of mother, wife and homemaker (I think Veera was referring here to the romance heroine as described in Kay Mussell's Fantasy and Reconciliation) but does so in ways which burst out of the traditional limits.

Veera's analysis raised a number of questions: to what extent does the series shows a progressive change in heroines? If it does, does this reflect changes in the genre as a whole? Is it better to want to please individual men or patriarchal society? To what extent is "society" depicted as patriarchal in these novels given the power of the patronesses of Almack's? And to what extent are romance authors like those patronesses as they decide what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a heroine?


Mitchell, Kaye. A. L. Kennedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Gossip on Romance". R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 51-64.

A Very Apologetic Non-Apology

By Laura Vivanco on

In 1992 Frances Whitehead, at the time the Editorial Director at Mills & Boon, had an article published about popular romance, in which she traced its history back to "the Greek novels of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD" (62). She goes on to mention Richardson and Austen, then observes that

Throughout the 19th century, romance continued to appear in all guises and those at the top of the literary tree influenced the writers below them. [...] This curious situation, with romance simultaneously occupying the high and the low ground - the literary and the lowbrow - has continued in the present century. (Some romantic passages from D H Lawrence could be said to qualify for inclusion in both categories.) But whereas romantic love is an acceptable theme for a "literary" author, it is often a source of ridicule in more popular, down-market fiction. (63)

This sounded to me like a defence of popular romance novels, so I read on eagerly, and was pleased to see Whitehead comment that "writing romance isn't like painting by numbers" (64). It began to seem as though the main distinction, in her mind, between "literary" and "genre" fiction, was that, in "genre" fiction, the reader can expect the plot to develop in particular ways, according to which genre is involved:

Having followed the fortunes of hero and heroine throughout the book, the reader demands that they are united for all time. To have them decide that they don't want to spend their lives together would be comparable to James Bond admitting defeat or Christie's Hercule Poirot failing to solve a case. Predictability, the cardinal sin in the "literary" novel, is a necessary and reassuring factor for the reader of genre fiction. (64)

I was, therefore, rather dismayed to see the following statement in the closing paragraphs of the article:

Romantic novels are entertainment, not literature, and do not need to apologize for what they are. They serve their purpose and in the process keep countless women amused and happy, off the valium and out of doctors' surgeries. This in itself is justification. (68)

Sometimes, it seems the defenders of romance are indistinguishable from its detractors.

Edited to add: a response on Twitter reminded me of something I'd read before, which makes me think that Whitehead was probably echoing her boss.

Joseph McAleer, in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, states that:

The Mills & Boon imprint, like any successful commodity in a mass market, stands for a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending. This flavourful confection, wrapped in a brightly coloured paperback cover with a dreamy scene, is to many addictive in its escapist nature. Alan Boon, the acknowledged genius behind the stylized Mills & Boon romance, admitted the restorative quality of the novels which he edited for some forty years: 'It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels.' (2)

It's possible that Boon was just quoting something others had said, but with which he disagreed. However, the context in which it's reported, and Whitehead's reference to valium, make me fairly sure he shared her views and, probably, shaped them.


Whitehead, Frances. "Love Makes the World Go Round (?): The Romantic Novel as a Publishing Phenomenon." Logos 3.2 (1992): 62-68. [The article has recently been reprinted elsewhere, and you can read the whole of it here.]

Conventional Criticisms of the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on

Given how often criticisms of romance are interpreted as being, at their core, the result of the denigration of a genre associated with women, I was intrigued to discover that many of the negative responses to popular romance can also be found in the critical work on Hollywood movies. The common factor would seem to be happy endings, which are, apparently, commonly supposed by critics to be "a ubiquitous feature of Hollywood cinema" (MacDowell 1).

Here are some of the critiques made of Hollywood movies which sound rather familiar:

  • "Probably the second most common scholarly assumption about the ‘happy ending’ is that it is inherently ideologically conservative" (3).
  • Some critics have resorted to "Freudian psychoanalysis" (4) to understand their appeal.
  • "narrative ‘closure’ is in itself ideologically suspect – a view rehearsed many times in both literary and film scholarship since at least the 1960s" (4).
  • "the ‘happy ending’ is in some sense ‘unrealistic’" (15)

All these quotes are from the introduction to James MacDowell's Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema and I think I may have to get hold of the rest of his book because he aimed

to broaden our conception of what ‘happy endings’ clearly have the potential to do, and to explore some of the implications of that potential. While I do not in the least intend to imply that ‘happy endings’ never function in the ways they have so frequently been assumed to function, I am nevertheless keen to convince the reader that, at the very least, there is little in the convention that ensures they must always do so. Demonstrating this is the necessary first step towards a much-needed reconsideration of this most famous and maligned of conventions. (15)


MacDowell, James. Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. [Introduction available in full here.]

Sex and the Believable HEA

By Laura Vivanco on

Susan Ostrov Weisser suggests that

the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the "meant to be" narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice. If it doesn't go well ... you guessed it; it wasn't meant to be [....]. That is, "first comes the passion," then a more "mature" version of romance, which will develop out of the first stage, and which will be permanent if the object is the One. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship. Few of my students seem aware that historically this is a rather novel idea. [...] The initial stage is supposed to have features very much like passionate sexual desire: intense, spontaneous, inexplicable, beyond control. The "mature" second act is more akin to friendship, stressing liking, mutuality, compatibility, and loyalty. (8-9)

This may have become "the chief ideology of Anglo-American romance" (51) but

the nineteenth-century press shows deep conflict, apparently fascinating to the Victorian public, about the essential nature of love itself: Is it instinctual or voluntary? Is it under our control, or is it what one writer called a "master passion" that cannot be constrained by choice? [...] The most dominant anxiety in the nineteenth-century press is that love is a desire for gratification, a strong and universal instinct that overrides judgment - analogous to, if not rooted in, sexual desire and other egotistic longings. In this view romance is said to lead to no good except pleasure. (53-54)

In other words, there were concerns that an uncontrollable sexual passion was more likely to be a recipe for disaster than the "starter yeast" for a long and happy marriage.

That there are still differences of opinion about the relative importance of friendship, similar outlooks and beliefs versus that of passion, is evident in popular romance fiction. For instance, in a short story Joanne Rock wrote for the eHarlequin website, her heroine has just been dumped by her fiancé, Ben, who seemed a sensible, rational choice of partner, and promptly gets back together with Myles, a man with whom she had a one-night stand two years before:

He was pure fantasy. The kind of man that had no business in Kasey’s life since, even though she’d always been a bit of a romantic, she knew that lasting relationships should be based on more practical grounds like fundamental compatibility, common interests and values.

That’s what made her so successful as a casting director. She knew how to put believable characters together on–screen. She put together people like her and Ben — both successful, career–oriented people with common goals and dreams.

Her feet paused on the planks of the wooden boat dock, the soft swish of rhythmic waves and the swirl of Saturday morning marina activity fading into the background as she wondered how she and Ben could look so great on paper and still fail so miserably in real life. What if she’d been basing her relationships on all the wrong things? (9)

Just a couple of days, a few sex scenes and only a very limited amount of conversation later, Myles has gained the

knowledge they were meant to be together. [...] For him, nothing was more important than keeping Kasey in his life — now and always. (18)

My impression is that, over the years, popular romance has attempted to identify the necessary ingredients and the order in which they should be mixed, to create a believably happy ending for the protagonists. While one may be able to identify an overall trend in the baked items they produce, the flavourings, cooking times etc can vary considerably from one author to another:

beginning in the 1960s, when sexual attraction began to be depicted as the initial magnetism drawing the protagonists together, there are authors, such as Mary Burchell, who do not follow the trend. This is still the case, with some authors downplaying its importance, and concentrating on other aspects of love. Examples include Jane Donnelly, who sees love as the recognition of one's other half; Betty Neels, who emphasizes the growth of love over time and Leigh Michaels, who stresses the friendship aspect of love. (Dixon 172)

What I conclude from all this is, firstly, that whether a reader finds a romance's happy ending believable may depend on (a) the reader's beliefs about the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship and (b) the author's receipe for love. If one believes, for example, that passion is a pre-requisite for intimacy, and that the first will inevitably lead to the second if the passion is strong and special enough, then a series of sex scenes followed by a declaration of ever-lasting love will provide a convincing HEA. If, however, the reader believes that shared political, religious and moral beliefs are very important to a lasting relationship, or that a shared sense of humour is vital in a marriage, the same HEA is likely to leave the reader unconvinced.

Secondly, I wonder if changing beliefs about the importance of sex in creating and sustaining long-term romantic relationships might help explain the increase in explicit sexual content in the genre from the 1970s onwards. Some readers undoubtedly do read romance primarily for their erotic content, however this is not necessarily the sole or even the main reason for its inclusion: the increasing number of sex scenes can be understood as a consequence of the assumption that passion is the "starter yeast" for long-term relationships and the stronger the starter yeast, the stronger the relationship.


Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Ostrov Weisser, Susan. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Rock, Joanne. "Girl Gone Solo." eHarlequin, 2004.

Romance Flows On

By Laura Vivanco on

In "Happily Ever After ... And After: Serialization and the Popular Romance Novel" An Goris takes a closer look at what happens after the "happily ever after" in series by Nora Roberts and J. R. Ward but since I haven't read them, I thought I'd excerpt some of An's more general comments about series and romance:

According to information provided by RWA, sixty-three percent of the top bestselling romances between 2007 and 2011 were part of a narrative series (Fry). Roughly eighty-five percent of the romance novels that appeared on the extended New York Times bestseller list in April 2013 similarly belong to a narrative series. Two of the most famous romance novels of the last decade, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2008) and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), are likewise part of a narrative series.

As a narrative format, serialization is neither new nor rare. It is used frequently in a wide range of genres and media, including literature, film, television, radio, and comics. [...] Serialization’s status as an exceptionally effective commercial tool makes romance’s apparent historical reserve towards the form all the more remarkable [...] if romance is a genre that understands the commercial currents of the publishing industry better than most, what factors might explain its historical reserve towards the commercially successful serial format? (Goris)

Sons of the SheikI think it's important to distinguish between novels which contain an entire romance arc and which are linked to other such novels by an ongoing cast of characters and/or adventures (e.g. E. M. Hull's The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik, Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades and Devil's Cub or Jo Beverley's Company of Rogues series) and series in which the central protagonists' relationship develops over a number of novels (as in the Twilight series).

An Goris describes the first kind of series thus:

The character-based romance series is structured around a group of recurring characters (siblings, colleagues, friends, inhabitants of a small town, etc.). Each installment in the series features the complete romance narrative of one member of the group. The narratives are connected to each other via the recurring characters and sometimes via non-romance subplots. The type’s defining serialization strategy is to locate the serial elements not in the romance plot but elsewhere in the narrative. This allows for the inclusion of the HEA in each individual installment in the series.

Harlequin/Mills & Boon almost always publish series of this kind. One of the earliest I know of is Mary Burchell's Warrender Saga: the first book was published in 1965 and the last in 1985. They have experimented with the second type of series but it presumably wasn't very successful because I could only think of one definite example: Lynne Graham's The Drakos Baby series. I have a vague recollection of a pair of novels in which the heroine of the first book died and her sister than married its hero in the second. If anyone can identify them, or think of other HM&B series of the second kind, please let me know!

I think the near-complete absence of type-2 series at HM&B might have something to do with the expectation that Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances will include a complete romance plot arc in every book. This may have been shaped not just by a desire to publish a homogenous product but also by the way in which the novels were sold: for much of the company's history category romances were novels which had short shelf lives. I imagine it would be intensely annoying for many readers to pick up what they thought was a romance, only to discover that the story arc had begun in a previous and now unavailable novel.

An Goris speculates that

Romance’s initial hesitation towards narrative serialization has to do [...] with the opposing narrative dynamics that drive the romance and the serial forms. Romance is a generic form predicated on achieving narrative closure (Capelle 145; Pearce, Romance Writing 146). It reaches this closure in the happy end to the love story that is its main focus. This happy end – known in the romance community by the acronym HEA, which stands for Happy Ever After – is not a coincidental element of the genre, but is universally recognized as one of the romance novel’s defining and distinguishing features (Regis 9). The serial, by contrast, is a narrative from defined by its lack of a definitive ending.

Were the Twilight and Fifty Shades series marketed as genre romance? I have a feeling that they weren't. And as far as I know, Diana Gabaldon has always insisted that her Outlander series is not romance. Lord Peter Wimsey may be a hero close to the hearts of many romance readers, but the novels in which he finds love with Harriet Vane are shelved as detective fiction. I think one could say something similar about Roarke in J. D. Robb's In Death series. Catherine Cookson wrote plenty of series, but her novels are usually classified as historical fiction, sagas or romantic fiction rather than as romance. This illustrates Goris's conclusion about this second type of series: it

takes up a peripheral position in the romance system. The generic identity of many novels in such romance-based series is fuzzy. It tends to oscillate between romance, urban fantasy, and mystery. The novels are often primarily advertised as belonging to a genre other than romance. In bookstores and libraries, for example, they are usually placed in the fantasy, mystery, or science fiction section, which implies an exclusion from the romance category that is shelved elsewhere in the same space.

Goris suggests that there is also a third type which

combines the strategies of the other two types. It is a narrative that is formally structured around a group of recurring characters with each installment focusing on the courtship plot of one member of the group (with another member or an outsider). Yet each installment also includes the narrative representation of substantial romantic events between at least one couple that is formally the romantic focus of another installment in the series.

I can't think of many examples but I have a feeling at least one of Suzanne Brockmann's series might fit this description.

One of the most important possibilities opened up by by series of the first and third kinds, and also by those in the second if the protagonists make a permanent commitment to each other part-way through the series rather than at its end, is that they can show what happens after the "happily ever after":

Traditionally, the HEA [...] functions more as a narrative promise than a narrative actuality. It implies romantic love, stability, and happiness for its protagonists, but it does not include extensive actual representations of this happiness.

This fundamentally changes in the serialized romance narrative in which the fictional universe must be extensively represented after the happy end of at least one (and often multiple) couple(s) has been reached.

Clearly this does offer interesting opportunities but I think it can be less than interesting, and indeed can make a series seem increasingly unrealistic, if it transpires that an entire social circle is falling into married bliss like dominoes, with each previous pairing making brief appearances in which they flaunt their ongoing bliss along with the increasing size of their family. By definition, I imagine this is a problem which is likely to be limited to series of the first and third kinds.

An concludes that

The boom of narrative serialization has the potential to be somewhat of a game changer for the romance genre. The incorporation of serial dynamics into the romance form is not only pushing the genre’s traditional narrative boundaries but also opening up a new narrative space in which the genre is articulating its core romantic fantasy to previously unprecedented extents.

This may well be true, but "the genre's traditional narrative boundaries" haven't been "traditional" for very long given that "the romance genre" emerged in its current Romance Writers of America defined form, only relatively recently. Romances (in the sense of stories featuring "a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending") have, of course, been around for centuries, but I don't think that they've constituted a recognised genre (i.e. a distinct marketing category) for very long (although, as a medievalist, my idea of what constitutes a short time is perhaps a little longer than some other people's). In any case, I don't think it ever has been understood that way in the UK, where "romance" has tended to be more broadly defined and used as a synonym for "romantic fiction."

I wonder if perhaps what's happening is that as "romance" in the US has acquired more sub-genres it's been increasingly influenced by the norms of those other genres (such as mystery and fantasy) in which series (of type 2) were more common. As long as these new romantic series continue to have romantic relationships at their cores, complete with happy-ever-afters, I'd see that as an expansion of "romance."

Some purists, however, would perhaps see the situation as one in which "romance" is being diluted by non-romance elements and in which the HEA loses some of its power when it is no longer the triumphant conclusion to the protagonists' story. Maybe that's why in 2012 it was announced that

the RITA, the academy award of romantic fiction, is discontinuing the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category after this year. After much discussion both among themselves and with RWA, the Women’s Fiction chapter spearheaded by Therese Walsh will disband because of some wording in RWA’s bylaws: “…to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy…” (Flaherty)

It looks, however, as though the Women's Fiction Chapter of the RWA is still in existence.


Flaherty, Liz. "The times they are a-changin’…" 6 December 2012.

Goris, An. "Happily Ever After ... And After: Serialization and the Popular Romance Novel." Americana 12.1 (2013).