Thursday, March 9, 2017

Hyphenated Romance: the Asian Carp of Fiction on Amazon

If you’ve spent any time of late searching through the genre categories at Amazon, you've probably noticed that science fiction, fantasy—and any fiction category with the word “paranormal”—have been taken over by what we might call “hyphenated romance”. 

To begin with one of the most egregious examples: Search for “paranormal fiction” and you essentially get paranormal romance and nothing else: page after page of covers with naked male torsos, saddled with titles like Taken by the Shapeshifting Alpha Alien. (Various “shifter” romances are especially popular at the moment, I see.) 

A few minutes ago I executed a search on Amazon for “vampire novels”. Every single result was a Twilight knockoff, a love story that featured a hunky male vampire seducing a lithesome female protagonist. 

Vampire romance, in other words. These are not really vampire stories at all, of course. Each one is a retelling of a common romance novel cliche: the bad boy whom the girls just can’t resist, even though they know better. Because who can resist a bad boy, after all?

Classic vampires aren't objects of romantic interest: They’re evil dead things. Let’s be clear about that. 

On Amazon, hyphenated romance has become the rough equivalent of crabgrass, or perhaps the Asian carp—a transplanted species that is gradually crowding out native species in North American waterways.

Romance authors who write paranormal-, SF-, fantasy-, and other genre-flavored, hyphenated romances have tended to favor listing their books on Amazon under their secondary category headings (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal) rather than their primary one (romance).

Thus it happens that a reader looking for the next ‘Salem’s Lot or I Am Legend is stuck with a hundred vampire romances. A reader looking for the next Starship Troopers is given a list of novels about romance with strong-chinned aliens. 

This has provoked a predictable reader backlash, and Amazon has recently told romance writers to make sure that their books are properly categorized—as romance novels.  

Not surprisingly, this is causing a mixed reaction: Readers are generally pleased by the new restriction. So are writers who write actual science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

Many romance writers, on the other hand, are crying foul. They don’t seem to grasp that a love story with a Harlequin-esque cover (usually featuring the romantic embrace—the universal visual code for the romance genre) doesn't become ‘science fiction’ just because the love story is superficially set on a spaceship.

It is true that many works of crime/SF/ and horror fiction have a romantic subplot as the B-plot, or even the C-plot. In ‘Salem’s Lot, the hero, Ben Mears, has a romantic relationship with Susan Norton. But this is the B-plot (one of several B-plots, in fact) in the novel. ‘Salem’s Lot is primarily about vampires taking over a small town in Maine. 

Likewise, Carrie White in Carrie is a teenage girl who attends her senior prom with the captain of the football team. But if you’ve actually read Carrie, you’ll understand immediately why Carrie isn't a romance novel, and how that romantic rite of passage is very much a supporting B-plot. 

I have nothing against romance readers or writers. My mother read her share of romance novels. (She favored historical romances.) One of my high school classmates is a traditionally published romance author.

I loved my mother dearly, and I respect my classmate. I never considered either one inferior in any way because their fictional tastes differed from mine. There are plenty of intelligent readers who would have zero interest in Starship Troopers or ‘Salem’s Lot, for any number of reasons.

Likewise, there will probably always be a market for romance novels—hence their sheer number. But romance novels shouldn't be shoved into genre categories where they don’t belong, simply because (perhaps) the romance genre is overcrowded. 

Miscategorizing ultimately makes Amazon’s search function unusable. Miscategorizing is unfair to writers in non-romance genres—not to mention the readers who have no interest in romance novels, hyphenated or otherwise.

And as for hyphenated ‘erotica’—that bastard cousin of hyphenated romance? Please, don’t even get me started.