One of the more interesting pieces of feedback I received from my last post on romance was found in the number of people who really, really liked what I'd called all those contemporary romances that made me laugh: Contemporary Comedy Romances. The fact that I'd named the subgenre something that described it was commented on by several folks via email and on Twitter, with much appreciation.
I hadn't realized I'd done something so noteworthy. I was trying to differentiate contemporary romances with humor from the contemporary romances that are out to make you uglycry, the contemporary romances that are suspense thrillers (which already have a name, obviously), the contemporaries that are sweetly emotional or possibly inspirational, and the contemporary romances that are holy cow take-the-battery-out-of-the-smoke-detector sexy hot. As I said in my last column:
"contemporary romance" is rapidly approaching uselessness as a genre name. We could both love contemporary romance, but you could be talking about Debbie Macomber or Susan Wiggs, and I could be talking about Lisa Renee Jones or Julie James, and those aren't quite the same thing. There's a lot of room in the "contemporary" label for divergent styles of writing, from angst and ugly cry to slapstick or memoir-style first person comedy.
Given the replies I received, it seems I'm not alone in feeling that the genre names we have don't always accurately describe the variety within them. It's very useful to have a quick, obvious description of what types of books we're talking about.
I think paranormal romance went through a similar problem a few years ago—there was Paranormal Romance: Vampires. Then Paranormal Romance: Vampires and Also Weres. Pretty soon after that, we had Paranormal Romance: Vamps, Weres, Elves, Selkies, Valkyries, Hobs, and Possibly Golem (not Gollem). I know I started to differentiate between which flavors of paranormal romance I was talking about, since the name was so big it didn't describe the different types.
Take for example the werewolf or vampire series by Molly Harper. It's partly a fantasy series, partly paranormal romance, but also part comedy. If you were looking for something similar to How to Run with a Naked Werewolf, and you said you liked "paranormal werewolf romance," I would need more information because that's too broad a category. If you're looking for humor, I wouldn't want to give you something dark and gritty as a suggestion.
Paranormal, like contemporary, has a lot of flavors. There's Paranormal: Comedy (such as Molly Harper or Lynsay Sands) and Paranormal: Dark With Angst (take your pick) and even Vampire Camp (JR Ward). And of course there are those urban fantasy novels which feature a slowly building romance over several books.
It's sort of like Law & Order and CSI. At various times, we've had CSI: Original Recipe, CSI: Miami, CSI: Los Angeles, and CSI: New York. And then there's Law & Order: Original Recipe, Law & Order SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: LA, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. All of these are different variations of the same core.
And so it is with broad romance genre terms. Readers want to be able to communicate what we're looking for, and many of us use author names to describe something we want to read: "small town contemporary romance like Susan Mallery"; "emotional historical romance like Meredith Duran"; "futuristic romance like those Elizabeth Lowell novels." It's useful to have author names to refer to, but perhaps one of the developments of readers talking to one another online is that we'll also develop more names for the styles we like and to describe those groups of books we love.
What would you name your favorite type of romance? Pastel-sunset contemporary? Used-to-be-landscape-now-it's-a-flower historical? (I'm kidding). Angsty gripping paranormal? How do you describe what you love to read?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned toward a book.