Today, I’m over the moon to introduce you to a new RU Visiting Professor. Damon Suede is witty, conscientious, and full of interesting ideas about romance and writing in general. If all those qualities weren’t enough to endear him to me, he’s originally from Texas – bonus! Please give Damon a warm welcome as he chats with us about romance and the exciting evolution of sub-genres romance has spawned!
Welcome to RU, Damon!
I love romance.
Actually I love mysteries, sci-fi, thrillers, fantasy, erotica, historicals, and pretty much any well-written prose that tells a gripping tale… but there’s something about romance that pierces some secret core of who I am. I write M/M but I have been reading every species of romance since I learned what my heart was for.
Romance is primal. Every one of the genres I mention above (and most every one I didn’t mention) features romantic situations even if they are not literal romances. In fact this strange overlap has birthed a litter of subgenres which continue to mutate and revitalize romance in general (and M/M by extension). In many ways, people coming together, loving each other, and reaching positive resolutions is how you build a universe filled with power and possibility.
Now… secretly I believe that romance is the Ur-genre; I argue this often and I have yet to find a reader, critic, or author who can disprove it. Much of what we think of as fiction comes from much-derided “sentimental” novels of the nineteenth century. Take THAT, romance bashers! After all, it’s no accident that roman is one of the oldest words we have for novel in several languages! The adventure of falling of love has fascinated humans as long as primates have spent time together… which is to say, since the origin of the species.
Typical of a tenacious organism, Romance (in all its configurations) has used subgenres to conquer new mental terrain and widen its audience. Folks who never would have touched a romance get converted to fans by cross-genre titles featuring felonies, vampires, robots, and more. Subgenre offers a perfect Trojan Horse to breach the walls of anti-romantics and authors have embraced it. And for existing fans and stymied writers, paranormals, gothics, and regencies (et al) can offer entire worlds to explore and expand without betraying their essential DNA. These narrative crossbreeds allow Romance to go off road without driving it off a cliff because the dominant traits of ancestry will out: they remain love stories that end positively.
The explosion of M/M as a genre speaks to this eloquently. Written primarily by and for heterosexual women, M/M pushes all kinds of boundaries yet orbits the fundamental questions of intimacy and tension that drive all human relationships. That homoerotic relationships in these books focus on men says more about readers’ willingness to set aside prejudices, preconceptions, and the “tried-and-true” in favor of something unexpected. No surprise that alongside its mass-market M/F cousin, M/M has proliferated so quickly and with such adaptive gusto. Blood is thicker than bias, after all. Naturally M/M thrives in cross-pollinized ideas and any subgenres. A simple gender shift in protagonists opens entire vistas of unfamiliar romantic possibility for the writer and reader. Small wonder so many M/M readers eschew “het” romance because they’ve gotten bored with (what they perceive as) its well-worn ruts and gender-rigid roles.
Paranormal and historical readers often level similar criticisms about the “mundane” contemporaries comfortable sticking with the tried-n-true. Subgenre has allowed Romance to explore wild new territory without shunting love stories to the side. It lets romance bend rules without breaking them and keeps us all on our literary toes. Comparing Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, and Meyer’s Twilight will change the way you see all of them. Dissecting Jane Austen and Barbara Cartland and Nora Roberts in tandem might blow your mind. As Picasso once said, “No artist is a bastard. We all have forebears, and we build on the work of others.”
Well, naturally. 🙂
At the same time, subgenres complicate the path from “meet cute” to “dazzling sunset” in productive and infuriating ways. Fertile ideas breed like bunnies. Sometimes the fantastical elements or baffling puzzles enrich the love story and sometimes they (frankly) get in the way. Any kind of worldbuilding runs the risk of distracting rather than impacting the lovers and their transformation. Striking the balance is tricky, and I doubt it’s possible to accomplish it “perfectly” because readers and critics vary so wildly in expectations and preconceptions.
What are your expectations and preconceptions? Have they adapted over time?
Recently I’ve gotten into the habit of tracing the romantic DNA in every novel I read. Even the grimmest mystery, the most detached sci-fi, or the driest historical fiction contains strands of Romance… Like any good mad scientist examining a creature, I imagine ways that the book in my hands could have become a love story or even the small nudges that forced its mutation into something that is not. I constantly analyze ways my fellow lunatics work with subgeneric species by sampling and comparing their experiments. Such research pays extreme dividends. Writer’s block becomes impossible when you let fertile ideas roam wild.
At the moment, I’m deep in a steampunk M/M novel that has been kicking my asterisk. I didn’t even know it was steampunk until the characters insisted. I wanted to surprise myself and my readers and so I got funky with my inner Frankenstein. Working in a sub-sub-subgenre like gay steampunk romance has gotten me thinking about the nature of Romance and the ways we nurture our stories to different ends.
In essence, every subgenre novel must survive as a conjoined twin, neither side neglected and sharing their vitals. The genres which have crossbred successfully share certain narrative genetics: nature and nurture, natch. Back at the dawn of the current vampire boom, paranormal could blur into romance because Rice and Whedon had laid the seductive groundwork in decades of pop culture. Early sci-fi romances drew heavily on Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe and other sexy space operas which had established certain charged relationships and gender roles in far flung futures. And of course, romantic suspense and other mystery hybrids started earlier than any, because mysteries grew out of Gothic. They shared nearly identical DNA; their separation at birth remained largely cosmetic and the amalgam as seamless as an organ graft between twins.
In the process of all this experimentation, Romance has scraped off some of the shakier, shadier elements of generations past: women no longer need to be passive and dutiful to the point of self-destruction; rape isn’t glamorized, chastity isn’t compulsory and protagonists need not be white, heterosexual, physically perfect, or technically alive; love stories enshrine more than bourgeois values and majority norms. Most of the formulaic tropes associated with the genre by nonreaders (and nonwriters) are fossils of an earlier romantic strata. We recognize them as relics of our honored forebears, and evolve. Romance honors and revisits its heritage in a way few genres do (or can). Stasis is unnatural! That may be one of its greatest strengths: a sense of past that urges us towards possibility.
Consider the books you read and write. Who are your literary ancestors? What will your artistic legacy be?
Evolution requires active participation. Opposable thumbs don’t appear out of thin air! Vestigial organs and dazzling mutations only make themselves known in active interaction with the environment. If Romance is the DNA, and novels are the critters, then I’d argue that authors and readers are the natural forces that shape the progress and prospects. Every time we put proverbial pen to paper, we nudge the species by our choices and our mindfulness. Every reader engages in literary husbandry by reading and recommending stories. Romance offers that power and that responsibility because the same genetic thread that connects us to these books connects us to each other as readers and writers.
Romance lives and evolves, not an “it” but a fertile She. Our genre remains a sturdy, supple creature and even though she dominates bookshelves without effort, she IS the fittest and she wants more than mere survival! The subgenre explosion of the past decade erected menageries and jungles of the mind where new visitors and old friends feel welcome. As you read this, thousands of authors discover new strains and more startling hybrids daily while tinkering in their literary labs. Millions of readers prowl bookstores on safari, waiting and watching for the next unexpected delight, the next familiar miracle.
I love the structure of genre, but mainly because structure makes Life possible. Knowing my story’s forebears and imagining its descendants keeps the ideas fertile and fresh. Rather than obsessing about the framework and mechanics, I want to face each Romantic subgenre as a hybrid creature with needs and breeds of its own. All artists experiment, considering where we’ve been and where we’re going, keeping Art alive.
My steampunk story started pouring out of me in a rush this morning. Hallelujah! After a week of halting, scuffed steps, the characters and the world have been tick-tock-clicking along –well– less like a well-oiled steam-powered M/M machine than a living, breathing, thundering beast.
Which, I am reminded, is only natural.
Romance is the pounding heart of all stories: the delicious friction between people, powers, ideas and ideals. And that is why I call Romance the Ur-genre; she less resembles a mere species than Nature herself… a loving, fertile, ferocious Nature that is read in tooth and claw.
RU Crew, what are some of your favorite amalgamations of sub-genres? Do agree with Damon about romance being the Ur-genre?
Don’t miss Wednesday when we host a panel of freelance editors–Lisa Stone Hardt, Rhonda Helms, Deborah Nemeth and Cindy Davis!
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to M/M, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. You can get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.
- LEAP HERE: on the Power of Improv for all Creative Professionals by Damon Suede
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for September 19-23, 2011
- Imperfect Words: The Unfathomable Power of Placeholders by Damon Suede
- Readers’ Choice: On the Power of Set Pieces and Whammos by Damon Suede
- Romantic Suspense: Hot? Not?