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Monday, October 18, 2010

Guest Blog: Suzanne Johnson - "Writing Outside the Box"

Face it. Romance fiction has spent the past thirty years wedged firmly into a tiny box. There were people (mostly women) who wrote romance books, and there were people of both genders who wrote “real” books. The fact that “real” books often contained romantic elements was largely ignored. A romance was small and insubstantial. A “real” book was not.

How did this little romance box come to exist? To some extent, it reaches back to the 18th century, when Samuel Richardson released "Pamela", widely considered the first novel focused on courtship and featuring a (gasp!) happy ending.

"Pamela" is also a novel, I must add, that caused me much embarrassment in my 18th-century lit class when I answered an exam question with the euphemistic “they went to bed” and the professor returned it with “They did more than that, child! In flagrante delicto!” scrawled across the page in red ink. And then I had to go and look it up to see what the heck “in flagrante delicto" meant. But that was many moons ago, and I digress.

So, Richardson set the stage for Jane Austen, who set the stage for the Brontes, and on it goes. But those are classics, yes? They aren’t “romances” that one needs to hide inside another book jacket or read anonymously on one’s Kindle--although I maintain that if Austen or the Brontes or, for that matter, Margaret Mitchell were trying to publish today, they’d be trotted off to a small handful of “romance” publishers.

Today’s boxed-in romances can be traced back to 1972, when Avon began releasing single-title romances as paperback originals. Romance readers were voracious, and Canadian-owned Harlequin soon came along with its revolutionary idea of marketing romance titles “where the women are”—at supermarkets and retail outlets. It was fast, formulaic, production-line fiction for a loyal, book-buying readership. And thus the box was born. Today, the box may come from e-publishers as often as print publishers, but e-pubs have only expanded the size of the box, not deconstructed it.

However… Now—dare I say it—the box is being wrenched open as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, sci-fi steampunk, epic fantasy, and even space operas are beginning to embrace the embrace, so to speak. The formulaic romance genre is still going strong, but the stubborn genre-gap is breaking down. Why has this happened? My guess is that science fiction and fantasy, long the domain of male writers, is finally facing a generation of women authors who’ve grown up reading SF/F and are putting their own stamp on the genres they love to read. And, sorry, but “romantic elements,” the phrase du jour for the romantic subplot, are rarely the domain of male writers.

Authors such as Meljean Brook and M.K. Hobson, both of whom recently released great mashups of science fiction alt history and romance, must be a nightmare for book marketers and publishers, who cling to the notion of “pure” genres. They don’t quite know how to categorize this new generation of mashups. I sold my first manuscripts as “urban fantasy with elements of paranormal romance,” and expect it to show up in the SF/F aisles of the bookstore rather than romance. Yet the romantic elements are vital to the series—they are, in fact, the thread that binds the series.

I should note here that it’s not just paranormal fiction that is deconstructing the box. Suspense, horror, thrillers, westerns—you name a genre, and “romantic elements” are there.

This is a great time to be an author of romance….whatever we choose to call it. My own new favorite romantic mashup is steampunk romance. What’s yours?

Suzanne Johnson is the author of a new New Orleans-based urban fantasy series (with romantic elements!) beginning with ROYAL STREET and RIVER ROAD, both releasing in 2012 from Tor Books. A longtime New Orleans resident now living in Auburn, Alabama, Suzanne also writes the monthly “Fiction Affliction” columns at, previewing all the upcoming releases in science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and young adult paranormal. Find her online at
or visit her official website at

BLURB: ROYAL STREET…Coming from Tor Books in April 2012
As the junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, Drusilla Jaco’s job involves a lot more potion-mixing and pixie-retrieval than sniffing out supernatural bad guys like rogue vampires and lethal were-creatures. Her boss and mentor, Gerald St. Simon, is the wizard tasked with protecting the city from anyone or anything that might slip over from the preternatural beyond.

Then Hurricane Katrina hammers New Orleans’ fragile levees, unleashing more than just dangerous floodwaters.

While winds howled and Lake Pontchartrain surged, the borders between the modern city and the other world crumbled. Now, the Undead and the Restless are roaming the Big Easy, and a serial killer with ties to voodoo is murdering soldiers sent to help the city recover.

To make it worse, Gerald St. Simon has gone missing, the wizards’ Elders have assigned a grenade-toting assassin as DJ’s new partner, and an undead pirate Jean Lafitte wants to make her walk his plank. The search for Gerry and the killer turns personal when DJ learns the hard way that loyalty requires sacrifice, allies come from the unlikeliest places, and duty mixed with love serves up one bitter gumbo.

CONTEST: Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Meljean Brook’s new steampunk romance, The Iron Duke! Deadline for leaving a comment: midnight ET on October 31. BE SURE TO PUT YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS IN WITH YOUR COMMENT!


Tina Donahue said...

Great blog, Suzanne, and so true. Much success with your upcoming releases. :)

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to think of how far the romance genre has come in the past 30+ years. I'm of the belief that every story is better with a romantic subplot. After all, as a species, what drives us more than the concepts of love and sex?

Dr. Debra Holland said...

It is a great time to be both a romance writer and a romance reader. :)

Bella Street said...

Sooooo true! I've always felt like a (literary) second-class citizen because I love to read and write romance. I'm not surprised the romance genre is busting past the restraints, but I'm so glad it's finally here!

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

Romance still faces some criticism, but I think we have come a long way! Here's to breaking more rules and having more fun!

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Love every one of your words! I think the best thing that can happen to the narcissistic literary world is/are the various genres of romance. What is wrong with an HEA? Does every work have to be angst-ridden? In order to be considered literary fiction must there be a tragic ending?
I'm coming from a background of the classics and literary fiction - a late-comer to romance and by god, I like it!
It's about time a door opened to women lovers of science fiction - not only do we geeks love the sci fi, we love love.

Katalina Leon said...

Wonderful post! I loved it.
Best wishes to you Suzanne with your upcoming books.

Suzanne said...

Yay! Thanks for the comments, everyone! I think it's a really exciting time to be writing romance "outside the box."

Bart said...

Romance has always existed 'outside the box' I give you Lois McMaster Bujold and the Vorksigan saga. But she is only one of many (most?) SF and fantasy authors who incorporate romance into their stories. Romance, which is after all the ultimate human relation, makes stories richer and, like most of SF and F, is ultimately optimistic.

Nicole Zoltack said...

So true! Great post.

Dawn Chartier said...

My favorite is, hmmm. good question. I like a world with all kinds of bad guys and strange creatures...

I haven't tried steam-punk yet, and I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Just doesn't grab me. (yet)...


Suzanne said...

LOL, Dawn--if you'd asked me six months ago I'd have said the same thing. I got stuck reviewing a steampunk for a review site and--surprise--absolutely loved the inventiveness of it! Never say never :-)

Melinda B. Pierce said...

It is a great time to be a romance author - thanks for this post Suzanne!!

Nancy said...

I am just now beginning to read steampunk. Our local romance group (maybe we shouldn't use that name?) had us read 'Steamed' by Katie Macalister. Very interesting. I also read 'The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker' and wondered if it could be considered a steampunk.This is so new to me, but I liked them both. Goos luck with your release and thanks for opening my eyes to the glass-ceiling. Its cracking!

donnas said...

Great post. Very interesting and pretty cool. Thanks for sharing!

bacchus76 at myself dot com

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