Shades of Purple

on November 9, 2006

What is a romance?

You might as well ask “What is Blue?” or “What is Good?”

I say “Blue” and think about a rich, royal blue. You might envision sky blue. Or teal. Or violet. But, you say, violet is purple. Is it really? What is purple? A mixture of blue and red. So purple has blue in it, but some purples have more blue than others. That’s what makes the color spectrum so beautiful–every shade is represented, and they’re all gorgeous. (Except for puce, but we won’t go there.)

RWA has defined romance, and has defined “romantic suspense” which is why I hesitated before entering. (But once a contest slut, er, diva, always a contest diva!) My books tend to be more on the suspense side, but I was bolstered by the fact that JD Robb, Tess Gerritsen and others with stronger suspense than romance elements have finaled (and won.)

But I’d argue that you can’t define romantic suspense any more than you can define the color purple. Romantic suspense runs the spectrum, from a lot of suspense (red) to a lot of romance (blue).

Some people consider THE TITANIC as romance. (Waving hands!) Others don’t (no happy ending between the h/h). What about GHOST? To me, a romance. To others, not. GONE WITH THE WIND, same thing. And CASABLANCA! Without the romance, you have just another war movie.

Mystery Writers of America addressed this problem years ago and declined to define a mystery. I’d argue that we should leave the definition of a romance squarely where it belongs: in the eye of the individual reader.

(BTW, I was always struck my how many contest judges told me I wasn’t writing romance because my H/H weren’t together in chapter one, or because I didn’t introduce one of them. I was once told, “You might be writing suspense, but this is definitely not romantic suspense.” Yet, both my editor AND agent say I’m writing romantic suspense. My personal definition? The hero and heroine are alive and together by the end of the book.)

I’m one of the judges for the International Thriller Writers Thriller Awards for best novel. One of the things that has come up: What is a thriller?

I can’t share our conversations, but the fact that this has even come up illustrates my point.

What is a thriller? I know what I think is a thriller. Other people might not agree with me. Does that make me wrong? No. Others might think a story is a thriller because of certain elements, but the same story may leave me thinking, ho-hum. And I might read a book a can’t put down that has all the elements I love in a thriller, but another reader may think it’s boring.

Why do we have to “define” genre at all? In fact, right now genre blending–and genre bending–stories are selling like hotcakes. They always have, but we’re hearing about them more. (Marketing anyone?) You have paranormal romantic suspense. Romantic thrillers (as opposed to romantic suspense, LOL.) Historical mysteries, supernatural thrillers, humorous mysteries, and my personal favorite, the commercial literary novel.

I understand the need for bookstores to know where to shelve books. I get that. But don’t define a genre and tell people that what THEY think is a romance (or a mystery or a thriller) isn’t.

It’s up to the reader–the customer–and she is always right.

Even the sky is purple sometimes.

So what about you? What makes a book a “romance” and what doesn’t? What do YOU need to consider a book a thriller? What do you think is the difference between a thriller and a suspense? A suspense and a mystery?

And do you think it even matters?