Posted On September 19, 2011 by Print This Post

Romantic Nature and Sub-genres by Damon Suede

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!

***

Bio:

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.

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Discussion

23 Responses to “Romantic Nature and Sub-genres by Damon Suede”

  1. Awesome article as always! So many folks who still think of romance strictly in terms of the old school bodice-rippers, dewy-eyed maidens and bare-chested Fabios astride a horse, and find it insulting that their high-literary fiction piece be considered romance, even though people may be falling in love in their book. This is not your grandmother’s romance–it has evolved so much. The constant is that we all crave the happy ending. :)

    Posted by Ellis Carrington | September 19, 2011, 5:34 am
  2. Hi Damon,

    I’ve never read such a dissection of romance novels. Thanks for showing they are deserving of praise and awe.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 19, 2011, 6:42 am
  3. Morning Damon!

    Who knew all those romance types existed? I admit I started reading romance with Kathleen Woodiwiss and can’t begin to tell you how many Fabio covers I’ve stared at, but hopefully I’ve morphed along with the modern romances of today!

    Thanks for a great article!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 19, 2011, 7:13 am
  4. Good morning, Damon! I’m so tickled to have you at RU today.

    Could you tell our readers a little more about your dissection process? Sometimes, I get so swept away (or other times, so bored) that I can’t separate the writing from the story and look at each objectively.

    Any thoughts as to why, as humans, we shun reading about love, while it seems to be what we all seek from the time we are born?

    Happy Monday, all!
    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 19, 2011, 7:23 am
    • Absolutely. :)

      I come from a film/theatre background… so awareness of stucture runs under all my reading time. It’s become so instinctive that I’m not even aware of it, but when I finish a taking in book/movie/play/comic, I will have gathered certain “hinges” that drive the characters/plots.

      The thing is, I believe that character and plot are the same thing. Or rather, I believe those two words are only lenses that help people grok that one thing in a way that’s helpful to them. Cyrano de Bergerac doesn’t exist without ROxane and Christian. If a MOntague is standing below the balcony then Juliet and all her specificity MUST be the person standing up there.

      So when I finish reading, I’m always looking for the anchor points (reversals, surprises, escalations, irony, revelations) of the character/plot and then comparing it to other stories with similar anchors. By compparing them, I learn things about BOTH stories. Which is why Pride & Prejudice remains one of the fundamental models for all contemporary romance literature. It is contemporary for its time! Likewise, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Golden COmpass share a LOT of the same terrain without being the same narrative. The plot/charcter bones overlap deeply, because they are members of the same genus (if not species).

      Does that make sense.

      And as for reading about love, I feel like vulnerability is suspect in modern culture… and often sensitivity equated with sentimentality. That’s why you can put three thousand serial killer crime dramas on air that kids watch freely, but candid love stories are either too “boring” or too “dirty” for those same kids.

      Or in other words: kill ‘em? Sure. love em? Hell no!

      FAR harder to engage people’s hearts than turn their stomachs or pique their prurient interests. Right? :D

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 19, 2011, 11:53 am
      • Oh, Damon –

        You’ll be hearing more from me ’cause I wanna get inside your plot head – LOL. I like to think plot is character as well (since I write a decent character). For some reason, I just can’t always figure out how to get the characters to DO anything.

        As for the love ‘em or kill ‘em thing…yeah, I can see that. It’s often easier to talk with our kids about drugs, violence, gangs, etc. than it is to talk about love and sex. In one, we can claim to be a victim. In the other, we are a participant, and it’s that fact that we have a hard time admitting to our kids, and ourselves.

        Okay, enough philosophy from me today!
        Kels

        Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 19, 2011, 2:19 pm
  5. Great post Damon! And welcome to RU. I’m always amazed when people roll their eyes at romance novels. Just setting aside the sales data on this genre, I tend to defend it by reminding people the books are about relationships. Who of us, hasn’t had some sort of relationsip in their life?

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 19, 2011, 7:53 am
  6. Damon, welcome to RU! I love it when my husband reminds me that many of the mysteries and thrillers he reads have some level of romance in them.

    Last year, Lee Child spoke at our national romance writers convention. Although I don’t recall the title of the book he mentioned, I do remember him referring to one of his books as a romance.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 19, 2011, 9:48 am
  7. Hi Damon!

    Terrific post. I know there are women authors who write M/M, but I never thought women were the target market. This reminds me of an article I read last month on lesbian romances in the fifties in sixties, which were predominately written by men for men.

    Here’s a link to the article.

    http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/when-being-a-lesbian-was-profitable-for-men/

    In order to get past the moral censors at the time, the women were miraculously “cured” by the love of a good man.

    Thanks for being with us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 19, 2011, 10:45 am
    • Oh Jennifer!

      You';’re speaking right to me!

      I was raised by a lesbian and I GREW UP reading lesbian pulp ficiton. In fact I’ve been collecting pulp fiction (books and magazines) for 20 years!

      I think those sapphic romances were/are amazing for all the same reasons that M/M is amazing today: challenging cultural norms, colroing outside the lines, veering into all kinds of nutty postmodern territory, titillating and siturbing the average joe. LOVE THEM.

      That’s where romance and other “formulaic” genres tend to be experimental and forward thinking in the sociological sense: they strike at the primal core of our desires and anxieties. Much like “rude” comedy and “gross-out” horror, romances aren’t squeamish about their subjects. And just because those subjects may be tender, or subtle, or mannered… there is (like horror, farce, thrillers) a fierce energy thrumming in the genre’s veins driven by part sof the human psyche that get short shrift in mass media.

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 19, 2011, 11:58 am
  8. Great article.

    Maybe good to remember we each exist because of a romance, a real life romance! Not bashing the M/M or F/F…just sayin’…We were mostly started in love…and celebrating love can’t be wrong, right?

    Also, sad to say you make the point too well that as a culture we celebrate murder,elevate it to an art form, but show a nut sack in the wild and suddenly we are on the verge of porn and censorship.

    You almost sound like Dr. Damon Suede, Romance Anthropologist. LOL. And I say, bravo.

    Posted by Satori | September 19, 2011, 1:06 pm
  9. Damon – whew! Seriously I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee . . . heck, I’ll make dinner – several courses – and pick your brain on this subject.

    I loved this part:

    “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.”

    That resonated with me. Through our books and those that were writen before ours, we see the depiction of souls who break out of the norm in pursuit if ultimate inalienable right – to be loved. Romance novels are the most obvious evidence of this yearning in every human being and through the blurring of antiquated norms on the page, we see that mirrored in the acting out in real life by those who were touched by those words.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly – Romance is the Ur-genre and I think it’s beause it speaks to the basic need of everyone and the books give an outlet to inner desire until people are brave enough to act on them.

    I could go on and on about my belief in literature as a catalyst to social change but I’ll just say thank you for an amazing post.

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | September 19, 2011, 2:28 pm
    • Thanks, Robin!

      The original title to this post was “ROMANTIC NATURE: the mad science of subgenre and the ways we help Romance evolve.” LOL Terrible blog title (overlong, buries the main topic) but accurate in terms of my ethos, which seems to be yours as well!

      Tell you what: the next time we can get ourselves within an HOUR of each other, I would literally LOVE that! Talking books and pulling things apart makes me so happy. One of my favorite activities.

      Thank y’all for making me feel so welcome.

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 19, 2011, 5:07 pm
  10. Lovely article, Damon! You know how I feel about the whole genre/ sub-genre thing but I love how you’ve put it under the microscope.

    Do have to poke at you a teensy bit for where you pinpoint the beginnings of SF romance – Science Fiction contained romance genes long before Rodenberry was out of diapers. Even Jules Verne often contains elements of romance. Forbidden Planet? When Worlds Collide? The Day the Earth Stood Still? All films ole Gene cut his teeth on – all with extraordinarily strong romantic elements.

    It’s been in SF all along, despite what people usually think.

    Posted by Angel Martinez | September 19, 2011, 5:24 pm
    • Oh, I’m with you on Verne. After all, the original name for sci-fi was literally scientific romance” for exactly that reason! All the early pulp fictions arise from serialized advneture and sentimental fiction…

      With regard to Roddenberry, I was speaking more specifically to the ways sci-fi appeared as a subgenre of romance not the other way around. Mass market sci-romance blooms from the space opera boom of the 60s. I was only speaking to the modern mass-market subgenre not science fiction in general.

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 19, 2011, 8:21 pm
      • I do hear you there – Gene certainly was influential in laying the groundwork for SFR to blossom. I do find it interesting, though, that several writers (Lois Bujold, et al) have been writing SFR for many years, but for decades everyone referred to it as “space opera.”

        It’s really only in the last ten years or so that “Science Fiction Romance” has become legitimized as a sub genre. (And thank goodness for that! lol)

        Posted by Angel Martinez | September 20, 2011, 4:50 am
  11. Yes! A thousand times yes! Thank you for saying so eloquently what rolls around in the minds of most of us romance writers. Everything from The Bard to The 40 Year Old Virgin is a romance tale. Love is the story that never goes out of style.

    Posted by Avery Flynn | September 19, 2011, 8:33 pm
  12. Damon –

    Thanks so much for the thought-provoking lecture today and for hanging out at RU!

    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 19, 2011, 10:09 pm
  13. “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.”

    I LOVE this, Damon – you are spot on!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 19, 2011, 11:08 pm

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