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Defining Genre: The Problem with “Dystopian Romance”

by ◊ 2 years ago 43 Comments Switch View

Over the weekend, I engaged in an Important Debate on when fantasy writer Jay Kristoff posted the following status update:

Calling your book a dystopian when it’s actually just a romance with dirty windows is kinda like lying.

This post isn’t meant to call out Jay in particular. But I think that the core question he raises is an important one, particularly within the sphere of YA.

In the ensuing argument, several passionate debaters stepped in to complain that they, too, had been surprised by romantic content in books that had been touted as dystopian novels by publishers and bookstores. They favored a label more like “dystopian romance,” which might warn them in advance of a high proportion of romantic stuff. I sympathize that it’s difficult to find books to one’s tastes, and that publishers and bookstores often don’t make this process any easier.

What’s more, I also despise the publishing practice of labeling any young adult science fiction work “dystopian.” One of my first articles here at the Academy was one delineating the differences between dystopic and post-apocalyptic literature. I know that my standards for definition of these terms are a bit higher than they are for some readers–a “pear-shaped” society filled with corruption isn’t enough for me. I prefer that the term only be used for fictional worlds that are outwardly utopic (either through scientific or political means) but whose perfection hides a sinister interior. In my eyes, futuristic worlds that simply suck are just part and parcel of the broader category of “science fiction.” I’ve seen many YA works mislabeled in this way–Anna Sheehan’s A Long Long Sleep was one that wholly lacked any dystopian worldbuilding but was still saddled with that label by its publishers.

What’s more, I’m not keen on giving a pass to books with bad worldbuilding. If one complaint about these so-called “dystopian romances” came up over and over again, it was that their worldbuilding was weak or underdeveloped, a facet which these readers took as evidence that the authors simply intended the dystopian society to be a contrivance meant to keep young lovers apart. I’m distracted by poor worldbuilding–that’s why Sean and I decided to include a “viability rating” on all of our reviews. However, I don’t think that a science fiction novel with bad worldbuilding is “not science fiction.” Instead, it’s simply “a sci-fi novel with bad worldbuilding.”

There are several reasons why I’m reluctant, however, to take away the dystopian badges from authors like Lauren Oliver and Ally Condie–writers whose widely celebrated YA dystopian novels were high on the romance but low on the sci-fi plausibility scale. First, even under my rather pedantic definition of “dystopian,” both the worlds of Matched and Delirium fit the bill. These aren’t just societies gone pear-shaped, or bad places in the future. They are, in fact, worlds where the ruling social class made hard decisions in order to exert absolute social control. Outwardly, both novels present worlds that are Utopic; Matched presents the picture of a perfect suburbia; Delirium‘s is a world without crime or mental illness. Though these settings are undoubtedly utilized to up the emotional ante for our young heroines as they fall in love, they do also contain subtle social commentary. What price are we willing to pay to live in a world that is idyllic and peaceful? Is it good to give up free will, art, or labile emotions in exchange for apparent perfection? Perhaps for some readers, these themes are too understated; perhaps they feel the social criticism takes a backseat to the romance to these novels’ detriments. But these aspects are certainly present enough to justify the “dystopian” label. And, after all, classic dystopian works have often heavily featured romance, too. The connection between Julia and Winston in 1984 provides the incitement for the entire plot.

My second reason for resisting this labeling is a bit more complex–and a whole lot more political. I worry about the sci-fi world’s still-violent reaction to girl cooties in literature, particularly as it pertains to just about the entirety of young adult science fiction (or, as marketing departments would call it, “dystopian YA”). It’s a genre largely created by women and consumed by girls.  And it’s been remarkably successful; I think the existence of the Intergalactic Academy and the steady flood of YA speculative works we’ve reviewed are a testament to the growing power of young adult science fiction as a genre. Publishers marketplace shows that YA sci-fi writers are making money; the New York Times bestseller lists regularly feature YA sci-fi writers like Veronica Roth and Beth Revis. It’s undeniable that these YA sci-fi works are different from what’s currently popular in adult sci-fi. Novels tend to be character-driven and fast-paced. The science, when present, is rarely very hard. And it’s likewise rare to read works of YA sci-fi where romance doesn’t at least come into play.

But as Debra Doyle wrote in the above-linked girl cooties rant, including romance in SF has always been a dangerous choice:

We start by positing the existence of a body of sf readers and writers (numerically perhaps fairly small, but nevertheless extremely vocal) who are deathly afraid of getting girl cooties. “Hard sf” is their science fiction of choice, because it has the fewest girl cooties of any of the sf subgenres. No subjectivity, no mushy bits, none of that messy relationship stuff getting in the way of the classic sf values of hardness and rigor (and no, I don’t think the elevation of those particular values is coincidental.) Admixtures from other genres are allowed provided that the secondary genre also provides the reader with a low-cootie environment. Westerns don’t have girl cooties, for example, and neither do technothrillers. Men’s action-adventure is about as cootie-free as it’s possible to get. And so on.

Romance, on the other hand, is absolutely crawling with girl cooties, and any sf which contains, or appears to contain, romance elements is going to be viewed with alarm by this set of readers. It’s often possible to offset the presence of girl cooties by including a sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits, or (in cases where even violence and rivets aren’t enough) by the inclusion of an appendix full of knotty-looking equations — but the readers are ever-vigilant and you can’t fool them forever. The incorporation of romantic elements into a work of sf, therefore, has to be done with considerable care, not to say deviousness.

It’s not difficult to find lady speculative fiction authors who have dealt with dismissals due to the apparent girl cootie-ness of their work. On a post about SF author Judith Tarr’s experiences dealing with gendered dismissals of her work (which is worth a read in itself), fantasy writer NK Jemisin wrote:

The trend of using classification as a way to dismiss “undesirable” work continues [ . . . ] a lot of readers wrestle with the fact that there’s romantic content [in my work].  The romance is superfluous to the plot, but because it’s there, I’ve seen any number of epic fantasy fans vehemently insist that my books should not be part of the epic fantasy canon (::looks heavenward::) and should instead be dismissed as bodice-rippers.  Which tells me that these people haven’t read any bodice-rippers, for one — but it also tells me that some readers have a vested interest in thinking of their preferred genre as a “manly” one, and defending it against the encroachment of Cootiedom at all costs.  Somehow, despite Le Guin and Friedman and Rawn and Elliott and all the other bestselling women, they’ve claimed it as a genre for men.

Then again, I’ve seen those women’s books dismissed as bodice-rippers too, even when they contain no romance — so it’s nice to be in good company.

I find it interesting that dismissals of these works as not-truly speculative fiction focus solely on romantic content. Works with equivalently sketchy worldbuilding, but with a focus on action–”sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits” as Debra Doyle writes–have their sci-fi cred questioned much less frequently. This, despite the fact explosions are no more inherently science fictional than kissing. I’ve yet to see any goodreads status updates calling for a new subgenre called “action dystopian.”

You might suggest that this is because action has a long history within sci-fi. Patrick Ness’s choice, for example, to write a boy’s picaresque adventure complete with lovable hound in The Knife of Never Letting Go was not a particularly unusual one in science fiction. But sci-fi has a long history of embracing romance, too. As a reader who grew up reading soft-SF of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, I never blink at romance-oriented plotlines in young adult sci-fi. After all, McCaffrey’s Brainship books were plenty romantic, as were the works of Lois McMaster Bujold and CJ Cherryh. Romance is, after all, an important part of the human experience–particularly the human adolescent experience. It seems odd to cordon those works off from the rest of science fiction, particularly now, after a tradition of romance-related plotting in sci-fi has already been established.

I’m not sure that the suggestion of shelving any dystopian with a romance-centric plot is good for romance readers, either. There already exists a genre called “SF romance,” and its tropes and traditions are well-established. Books like Matched are not written with these readers in mind and are not particularly likely to satisfy these readers any more than Anne McCaffrey’s novels were. It’s not as if “romance” is–or should be–a dumping ground for any sufficiently mushy book. It’s a genre in its own right, and dismissing any romance-heavy work as a “mere” bodice-ripper does an injustice to bodice-rippers and the readers who love them.

I’m also highly aware of the fact that it’s female sci-fi writers particularly who face increased scrutiny of the genre-cred of their work. Both Mike Mullin’s Ashfall and Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go heavily feature romance–but I’ve yet to hear the reading public dismiss them as romance writers. I can’t help but fear that what has already happened in literary fiction could easily happen in YA–where books by men are taken as the unmarked science fictional default, read and reviewed widely by readers of both genders, while books by women are dismissed as chick-lit, romance, frippery. This, despite the fact that the works are in content very similar. Will women who write YA sci-fi have to try twice as hard to justify their genre credentials? Will they have to squeeze in an explosion to counterbalance every kiss lest their work not be seen as worthy of meriting intergender appeal?

Or has the above already occurred? It’s not as if young adult science fiction has merited serious widespread consideration among adult SF fans despite the profitability, popularity, and flat-out stellar quality of many of these works. Might it be because they’re too romance-heavy, character-driven, and ultimately romantic?

I’m not sure what the answers are. While again, I understand on a reader-level the desire to have more clearly delineated subgenres, the suggestion that “dystopian” literature be split into “dystopian romance” and “regular” dystopian seems to me overly gendered. Though likely unintentional, it’s difficult for me to read this as separate from a continued effort to diminish the writing and experiences of women and girls through false categorization (something Joanna Russ discusses at length in her integral volume on the sexism of the literary world, How to Suppress Women’s Writing) and the privileging of one set of experiences over another. For the time being, at least, I intend to continue calling a dystopia a dystopia–whether the main characters fall in love or not.

About the Author


Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at View all posts by Phoebe »

Discussion - 43 Comments:

  1. I tend to take a proportionate approach to labelling. There’s no problem whatsoever in having romance in SF, fantasy, dystopias, post-apocalyptics, whatever. Plot + romance = all to the good.

    If the main thrust of the story is romance, then I’ll call it a SF romance, fantasy romance, whatever – I don’t consider that a denigration of the story, I consider that letting romance readers know that this is what the story is primarily about so they know to buy it. :)

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    • Phoebe

      In theory, I agree with this except for two problems: first, as I briefly mentioned, SF romance has its own tropes, and “heavy romance” doesn’t necessarily make a “romance novel” (though there may be a crossover in audiences who, say, like novels with cute boys). The second aspect is that books by women are perceived as being more romantic regardless of if they are There’s subjectivity in that judgment, and I don’t even trust myself to judge that fairly, you know?

      But I agree that calling something a romance isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a denigration of it.

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      • Oh, sure, heavy romance doesn’t make a book a “romance novel” – certainly not a romance novel as recognised by those who identify as readers of romance novels. All of my novels have a strong romance sub-plot, but I’ve yet to hear them labelled as ‘romance’. [Though I'm sure some would.]

        I do agree with the discussion of gender and genre, though. Literary fiction by women is “women’s fiction”. Science fiction which happens to include one of the more common human preoccupations of courting/caring might be labelled SF Romance if it’s written by a woman, even though a man writing the same plot wouldn’t attract that label.

        Many of the dystopians you’ve discussed do seem to be walking a line between “dystopian-with-romance” and “dystopian romance” and then it becomes a question of what the author set out to do – examine society using a plot which revolves around a romance, or write a romance in a bleak setting – and how well they pulled it off.

        The gender of the author is a depressing but probable factor in how the book is regarded by those making judgments about which sub-genre these books fall into.


      • Phoebe

        I do agree with the discussion of gender and genre, though. Literary fiction by women is “women’s fiction”. Science fiction which happens to include one of the more common human preoccupations of courting/caring might be labelled SF Romance if it’s written by a woman, even though a man writing the same plot wouldn’t attract that label.

        This was exactly my issue. Thank you for articulating it better than I did. :)


  2. I feel a little uncomfortable coming back to this conversation again, after all, we have discussed it a lot on Goodreads already. But there is a part of your argument that comes back and back into my mind. I appreciate your and other female SF writers’ desire not to be dismissed as serious writers just because you choose to incorporate some romance elements in it. But I have noticed from the quotes and your post, that you bring this point about by dismissing the romance authors’ writing. It appears that by trying to distance themselves/yourself from romance, you imply that there is something really wrong about being a romance writer, as if labeling one’s work a dystopian/SF romance is insulting or undesirable.

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    • Phoebe

      I’m sorry if I gave that impression. Could you point out to me where I implied that? Because I don’t feel that way at all–I actually enjoy some romance, though it’s not my Thing to the extent that SF is and I don’t feel I can speak as authoritatively about it. However, I believe that SF romance and romance generally are genres with their own rich traditions and that writers like Condie don’t actively seem to be endeavoring to write within them. If she believes that she’s writing a dystopian novel, and her novel fits the textbook definition of dystopian, and fulfills the tropes of romance less-so, then I think it’s unfair of me to say, “No, that’s a romance.” A novel with romance in it, sure. A “romance novel,” not so much.

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      • To quote you, it “could easily happen in YA–where books by men are taken as the unmarked science fictional default, read and reviewed widely by readers of both genders, while books by women are dismissed as chick-lit, romance, frippery.” I think the word “dismiss” is pretty telling of that chick lit and romance are genres inferior to SF in this argument.

        Plus, I’d say the tone of these quotes, the vigor with which the possibility of some SF being categorized as dystopian/SF romance is rejected, the desire to get an approval from male readers who are uninterested in novels with romantic elements, create that impression.

        Even the whole idea of “girl cooties” is kind of strange to me. What is wrong with being girly or writing a girly SF and call it that? So some few guys buy into this “cooties” idea, why should women think the same and bring negative connotation to the term “dystopian/SF/whatever romance”? Why not embrace the fact that some works would appeal more to women and stop seeking approval from men? Who cares, women read and buy more books anyway? And what is wrong with calling something “dystopian romance,” it is still “dystopian”?

        This whole arguments mirrors, in my eyes, Le Guin/Atwood hoopla. Only Atwood got heat for calling her work speculative fiction, thus, in Le Guin’s opinion, keeping herself from the “genre ghetto.” I see exactly the same thing here, only the argument is to keep SF works, no matter how romantic they are, from the “romance ghetto.”

        We most likely will never agree on any of this and my interpretation doesn’t match what you intended to say, but that is honestly the impression I got from this post.


      • Phoebe

        Ah, you misread me, then. I don’t mean that the “dismissal” is a valid one and should be treated as valid by the women who are dismissed, but rather is a reflexive dismissal on the part of the establishment within the genre of works that are “girly.” I honestly think that most people doing the dismissing don’t know very much about romance at all, much less hold it in esteem as a genre–esteem that it deserves.

        Even the whole idea of “girl cooties” is kind of strange to me. What is wrong with being girly or writing a girly SF and call it that?

        Nothing is wrong with being girly. The term is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the rejection of men within the genre of female sci-fi writers, not something meant to be taken as gravely as I fear you might be taking it.

        So some few guys buy into this “cooties” idea, why should women think the same and bring negative connotation to the term “dystopian/SF/whatever romance”?

        Again, it’s not that it’s negative. I think it’s fine if that’s what a writer is setting out to do. I don’t think it’s fine if a writer feels he or she is not writing within the genre and we relegate them to that genre regardless of intention.

        Why not embrace the fact that some works would appeal more to women and stop seeking approval from men?

        The ability to name and classify your own writing is an incredibly powerful one–it speaks of ownership of intent. Now, all writers I know are somewhat resigned to some genre pigeonholing on the part of the publishing industry. However, to face the same genre pigeonholing from a subculture that you’re a member of is incredibly disenfranchising. It’s not that we want approval from men. It’s that we want to be able to have some ownership over our own writing, to choose the community and the fandom and so on in which we participate.

        I see exactly the same thing here, only the argument is to keep SF works, no matter how romantic they are, from the “romance ghetto.”

        Nope, again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a romance writer or writing romance novels. In fact, financially SF is probably a bigger ghetto (and about equally esteemed in terms of literary respectability). It’s about choosing one’s community, to the extent that one can.


    • Phoebe

      And to be fair, if an author chooses to call themselves a sci-fi romance writer, or a dystopian romance writer, that’s perfectly okay! But remember that the conversation started with a statement that an unnamed writer calling their own work dystopian was “lying.” Fundamentally, I don’t feel like it’s our place to judge another writer’s genre credentials.

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  3. Kaitlin

    I love this, Phoebe. And completely agree with you. I love writing books that have romance in them. I think it’s really relevant, no matter what sort of society your character is in (I mean, with some exceptions, obv), especially, like you said, when we’re talking about teens. You can be on an epic journey to save the world or fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic hellscape and it doesn’t mean you can only fixate on the danger you are in or the task you are accomplishing. People wanting to connect with each other is a natural thing, and with the amped up emotions of life-or-death situations, I can’t see how romance could really surprise anyone.

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  4. However, I don’t think that a science fiction novel with bad worldbuilding is “not science fiction.” Instead, it’s simply “a sci-fi novel with bad worldbuilding.”

    For me, this is the most salient point in the debate. There are certain SF fans (and fantasy fans, and literary fiction fans, and-) who want the term ‘science fiction’ to carry not only connotations of content, but also of quality. They want the SF label to act as a kind of stamp of approval rather than a catch-all term for works that feature certain genre tropes.

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    • Phoebe

      I think it’s tempting to only claim the best examples of a genre for a genre you love. But it doesn’t necessarily seem fair especially when the tradition of genre definitions can be pretty thorny, as in the case of SF.

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  5. Kristoff’s comment is pithy but sexist. I think it deserves calling out. He ignores the fact that the romance genre has its own strong set of conventions. It isn’t a descriptor that applies to a book in which romance occurs. 3/4 of the novels ever would be romances under his rubric. Why does he feel like he can define the conventions of one genre, yet doesn’t need to understand the conventions of another to start categorizing works within it? Tarr and Doyle’s commentary is just so depressing. “Gendered dismissal” is seriously still an issue? I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. In other words, I agree with you.

    How have I never heard of the Russ book before?! It sounds amazing. I want a poster of that cover.

    For some reason I’m resisting the idea that A Long, Long Sleep isn’t dystopic. I agree that it’s post-apocalyptic, but there’s also something there about a society/community that wants to view itself as perfected. But I can’t make an argument that it’s fully dystopian. Maybe there’s a continuum between the two? (Also, I just noticed what a weird word “continuum” is.)

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    • Phoebe

      It’s the double-u! So strange.

      Hmm, I guess I viewed the society in A Long, Long Sleep as so diverse, thorny–in a way, it outwardly resembles our own society. You see class stratification and the complex positioning of Otto, for example. It lacked that feeling of profound control you see in a dystoipan society (though perhaps you could say that the central family is dystopic!)

      And thanks. I’ve finally bought myself a copy of How to Suppress Women’s Writing and I want to reread it as soon as amazon brings it to my doorstep but if I finish it before the next time I see you I can lend it to you.

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      • Hey, Phoebe. Love the essay!

        Throwing my oar in on this discussion, I will say I didn’t WRITE A Long Long Sleep intending it to be a “dystopia.” I read and adore dystopians, and would not begin to catagorize the perfectly ordinary futuristic society in my book with the anti-feminine hellscape of A Handmaids Tale, or the Big Brother oppression of 1984, or even the lethal brutality of, say, 1940′s Germany. I can see The Hunger Games as being a dystopia, but I set out to write a sci-fi.

        I even take umbridge with those who call it a romance — and those who call it a “dystopia romance” are entirely missing the point of the book. There is no happy ever after, no love at first sight, and while people fall in love like they do in real life, that isn’t the thrust of the story, like it’s supposed to be in a romance. (A genre I respect, but hope my books will never be classified as, because I’ll deeply disappoint any romance readers who are hoping for happy-ever-after!) I

        was attempting to use the futuristic technology to tell a personal story of growth, and once you have the technology, you have to have a world to put it in. That was ALL I was trying to do. My publishers… Well. Their opinion of the subject was, Dystopia is selling, and all YA aimed at women or girls has to be a “romance”. The mislabeling keeps annoying people, and I don’t blame them. I’d be annoyed, too, if I was hoping for a dystopia romance and got neither.


      • Phoebe

        Thanks for the comment, Anna! It’s interesting to hear from a writer who actually has been genre pigeonholed that way. I think A Long Long Sleep is a great example of a novel that really deserves more exposure in Sf circles–the worldbuilding was fantastic, detailed, and very interesting (as was your terrific subversion of a “weak” female heroine).

        I’m sure your publishers had good intentions, but yeah, I can see why your novel wouldn’t precisely satisfy romance readers.


  6. I couldn’t directly reply, so I am answering here.

    With your clarification, and again from my interpretation, the position you are taking is understandably author-centric, whereas mine, and possibly Jay’s (IDK him), is reader-centric. This issue clearly has a different weight to you, for whom classification is a matter of belonging to a community, than to an average reader who wants convenient labels, fitting reads and not much else.

    (Your defense of Matched and its classification I appreciate better now too, although somehow I doubt Condie is as committed to claim the dystopian flag over romance one. She is too busy counting her romance money).

    Anyway, great discussion, as always.

    I do feel official SF/dystopian romance labels are on their way though.

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    • Phoebe

      That’s fine–we limit our nested replies because eventually they get impossible to read.

      It’s difficult for me to respond to this from a purely reader-centric view, perhaps especially because Jay seemed to be talking about intent, and specifically an intent to deceive (“kinda lying.”) That goes beyond frustration about finding a book to one’s tastes, you know? But of course, it’s almost impossible for me to see this from a purely reader standpoint, too, as someone involved from the writer’s side of it. And again, it’s not that I’m opposed to many genre subclassifications. It’s more when it comes down to “dystopian romance” and “dystopian” as the sole categories I’m troubled. It creates a potential situation where the “male mode” is assumed as the default, appropriate for readers of all genders while the “female mode” is seen as only for girls. If we were talking about a gorgeous rainbow of spine stickers that helped readers find space opera and post-apoc and steampunk and diesel-punk and so on and so forth I’d be much more inclined to say, “Sure? Why not!”

      (The irony is that I like and read pretty girly stuff–I mean, you read my reviews, you know! And I’m always writing to the fourteen-year-old girl that I was. I wouldn’t throw a male audience away if they want to read my work, but I’m not particularly anticipating one. It’s more the idea that because of this, my writing doesn’t belong under the umbrella of “sci-fi,” the genre I read in and love more than anything, that makes me sad.)

      Anyway, thanks for continuing the discussion, Tatiana. It’s a challenging and interesting one!

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  7. I’m glad you wrote about this. I was following the discussion on Goodreads and thought it was a really fascinating topic. I think what a lot of people fail to do in this kind of conversation is question why its assumed that an action-oriented, romance free dystopia is considered the default, when dystopias often have just as much to say about the intimate relations between people as they do about technology and politics.

    I get that readers want to know what they’re getting when they pick up a book (though I don’t relate at all, I grew up reading Christopher Pike, who’s books were marketed as light YA thrillers, but often had very adult themes and occasionally no horror/thriller aspects whatsoever, and I loved them), but creating stricter labels won’t necessarily solve that and might make create more problems than its worth.

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  8. I get that genre labels are intended – and are important – for helping readers find books they’ll like. Here’s my problem, though: genre labels are also used as warning labels to say “here are the books you WON’T like.” That seems to be a common motivation for proposing the more specific label – so people can tell in advance that they aren’t going to like a book. And that’s ASS.

    It can be hard to get yourself to cross genre lines. People gravitate toward the familiar and the known. Back when B was a baby, I read that children have to be exposed to a new food five times before they will even recognize the new substance as food (to say nothing of really liking it). This is how we humans are wired; different = suspect. Making more and more specific genre labels only creates more zones of unfamiliarity, builds more lines people have work up their nerve to cross.

    But surely the very best books in a genre I don’t usually read are (by definition!) better than the mediocre books I’m willing to settle for within my usual comfort zone?

    I just feel like MORE subdividing will discourage people from being adventurous and trying new things. And that’s a pity.

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    • Phoebe

      I just feel like MORE subdividing will discourage people from being adventurous and trying new things. And that’s a pity.

      I agree–I think that genre intermingling is actually one of the biggest strengths of YA!

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  9. I think perhaps as women writers we could take a moment to consider why we get so tied up about labels or marketing strategies or whatever that might make boys not to want to read our books. Do we really think male genre writers think this way? “Oops, I better include a kiss,” said Arthur C. Clarke “For the ladies.” NOT.

    You’d think this argument was coming from the other direction, especially when it comes to YA. You’d think Patrick Ness was busting his balls to point out that THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO was romantic so he could tap into the giant market of mostly female readers who are not as interested in SF but love a little romance.

    But it seems to me that the same daft logic seems to rise again and again, that a book is only legit, if boys read it. WHO CARES what boys read? Colleagues, the novel, especially the YA novel is the one realm on earth where women hold and have always held dominion. Girls read trash yes, if you write trash congratulations. But girls read literature too. If you write that, congratulations again. In fact, girls read pretty much anything, and they read MUCH more than boys, and I’m beyond caring. It’s not my job to encourage boys to read. That’s the job or parents of boys (I have a girl) and teachers. As far as what men read – for god’s sake they’re grown men, let them read nothing but PLAYBOY and POPULAR MECHANICS for all I care. Yeah dude, or little dude, my SF book is pretty romantic but I didn’t write it FOR YOU.

    Part of this is about accolades, of course (it’s certainly not about money). Why are we so put out when we don’t win dumb genre or lit fiction prizes chosen by men? Why do we care what they think? Men have been trying for three hundred years to wrest control of the novel from female hands and have failed at every turn. Let them have their 75% of NYT and NPR reviews, their Hugos and their Bram Stoker Awards. I’ll have a little cry on the way to the bank.

    Do you think Stephanie Meyer is whining ‘But it’s HORROR’ as she rolls around in her piles of money? I don’t.

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    • Phoebe

      Gabrielle, I appreciate the comment and your passionate participation but I’d like to ask you to please take it down a notch so we can keep things civil.

      I’ll just say that for many writers, it’s not about money or accolades (though I do think that it would be wrong to simply accept that the literary establishment is male dominated, as the establishment has a significant role in deciding which works get a longer lifeline through history via the canon), but about choosing the community in which we take part. There are many women who are participant in the world of science fiction, and they’re actually part of a rich history in the genre. To be told that this doesn’t matter is incredibly marginalizing, as well as a white-washing of the history of SF.

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      • Sorry. I didn’t mean to come off as uncivil. But I don’t know where I said women’s participation in the world of sci-fi doesn’t matter. I simply said it shouldn’t matter to us that boys or men don’t read our books. And the reason it shouldn’t it because A. a book that only women read can easily become a bestseller and win awards and B. I’m pretty sure the writers of male oriented material don’t stress about reaching a female audience, when they should because women read so much more. The sci-fi establishment is male dominated, that is true. Is it hard for a woman author to break into adult hard sci-fi? I imagine it is. I don’t discount this. I would never even try. But the “romance” label is about being perceived as a “women’s book” which is viewed as negative. This is what I challenge.


      • Phoebe

        A. a book that only women read can easily become a bestseller and win awards

        The bestseller part might be true, but books heavily consumed by women–or flat out just written by women–are far less likely to get review coverage or win awards, which subsequently plays a huge role in which books are taught in schools or accepted into any sort of canon. Strange Horizons published some stats on this. And, like Anna Sheehan said in this thread, for many of us it’s not about our books finding an audience willing to pay–it’s about finding an audience receptive to our books, finding the best audience, finding an audience that will give our works a place in the conversation of books a month, a year, and a decade after initial publication. For works that aren’t intrinsically “romance novels,” this audience is unlikely to come out of a community of “romance novel readers.”

        But the “romance” label is about being perceived as a “women’s book” which is viewed as negative. This is what I challenge.

        I challenge that, too. I think it’s incredibly dismissive that these works aren’t taken seriously–and that women’s literary needs aren’t taken seriously either. I think it’s wrong to constantly court a male audience in the hopes of being found respectable. However, it’s a fallacy to say that a sci-fi audience is a male audience. This is why I discussed the history of soft science fiction in my post. It’s long been a place for both women and men, and when it comes down to it, I think it’s unfair to just dismiss that history with, “Well, romance makes more money anyway. Writers should be happy with that.”


    • I am very much on your side of the argument, Gabrielle. As a female reader I do not really care what men like reading or what they think is worthy of reading and I certainly do not care to read what they like reading. I listen to my lady friends’ recommendations and read the books written by women. Women read and buy and write more than men. We have the power.

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      • Andrea

        Do we want to be ok with institutionalised sexism? What if we extended that to scholarships? Sorry girls, women’s fiction doesn’t resonate like important men’s stories? Why don’t you apply for the lucrative romance scholarship instead of the SF scholarship?

        I prefer books with a romance element but I’m not keen on the gender of the author being a factor in whether those books are regarded as worthy.


      • Not all women want romance in their books, as writers or readers. Being forced to write romance to please the readership that they can’t break out of because only women read books by women is just as stifling as being forced to not write romance to appeal to men. And separating the readership into women and men is really an oversimplification. We need to break out of the binary, not reinforce it.


    • Of course it matters what men read. Reading is one of the main ways we can share other people’s experiences of the world and understand them. If men don’t read about the lives of women, then how can they empathise with the experiences of women? If half of society can’t understand the other half, what hope is there for holding it together?

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  10. Cookie

    I don’t know, I kinda agree with Jay. I don’t have a problem with romance in my stories at all. The romantic content of a book plays no part in its genre- like you said, most, if not ALL books have at least some romance in them. What bothers me is the mislabeling. Calling a book dystopian when it clearly isn’t is annoying. But that’s the publishers fault.
    There was one book I read recently that really disappointed me because it was mislabeled as dystopian. Not to mention the description did not match the content. I felt let down.

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    • Phoebe

      It’s always a let down to read a mislabeled book. However, that’s not unique to books with romantic content. Thanks for the comment, Cookie.

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  11. It is a male dominated genre, as sf cons and writer’s cons both can attest. Writers cons are interesting. The majority of the people who GO to these cons are women. The majority of teachers and panelists are men. There is some disconnect here, and it’s a little disturbing. YA is one of the sub genres were a female SF writer can go with some comparitive ease, so long as they include significant amounts of romance in their stories. In fact, the entire YA genre seems to be slowly degenerating into thinly veiled romances, whether they would have been classified as SF, fantasy, horror, or whatever twenty years ago. It has gotten to the point where I’m beginning to feel I’d need to change my genre in order to write ANYTHING that doesn’t have a significant romantic thrust — forced to switch to pure SF or middle grade in order to sell a story where the thrust is merely personal growth or societal commentary.

    I often think much of the trouble is in the precepts of “genre” itself. If you’re writing a western, its clear it’s a western, whether it’s a western romance or not. However, there are a lot of genres thrust under the catagory of “YA,” and the only constant is young adult caracters. It’s easier to look to the past, to writers such as Tanith Lee. Lee’s books would almost all be considered YA in today’s market, but in the seventies, there was no such market, so they fall under SF. They still fall there.

    Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen, though called “middle grade” authors have written books that span all generations and most sub-genres under “fantasy.” Should they be constricted by the genres attributed to them? They didn’t seem to think so.

    A Romance has as its thrust the romantic relationship between two (or more) main characters. (Twilight, thus, IS a romance.) The setting and the world have little to do with the push of the story. (The fact that one of the characters is a vampire is secondary — he could be anything which would make him think he’s not worthy. A convict. A mutant. Beauty and the Beast.) Anything that merely has a love story as a B story (Hunger Games, Across the Universe,) where the main thrust of the story is the setting, the world, or the personal journey of the main character (Katniss is more interested in survival and justice than who she’s going to sleep with,) is not a romance, no matter how much kissing goes on in the B story sections.

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  12. Andrea:
    Do we want to be ok with institutionalised sexism? What if we extended that to scholarships? Sorry girls, women’s fiction doesn’t resonate like important men’s stories? Why don’t you apply for the lucrative romance scholarship instead of the SF scholarship?
    I prefer books with a romance element but I’m not keen on the gender of the author being a factor in whether those books are regarded as worthy.

    Exactly. It’s not helpful for women writers or readers to say that things are separate but equal, with the consolation prize for being marginalized being making lots of money. If you take the long view, it matters that male and female writers are accorded the same respect and have an equal shot at critical recognition.

    It’s not as though this marginalization is restricted to YA writers. Check out the Vida survey on the ratios of men to women published in literary journals:

    There are actual consequences to the institutionalized sexism being practiced in publishing and reflected in the responses of readers and writers–women are not being given an equal opportunity to be heard.

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  13. I came to an interesting thought after reading this article…I’ve realized that, having read Matched, The Hunger Games, and The Knife of Never Letting Go, there is a vast difference in the way the romance is handled even in similar YA. I’m thinking the way the subject is broached might make a huge difference in how it’s percieved by readers, male or female. I recommend Patrick Ness’ books to male teens in my bookstore constantly because I feel like the romance in them is done in such a way that they won’t be bothered, or find them ‘too girly’. I guess the difference is that in the Chaos Walking trilogy, the romance is never discussed upfront. The character doesn’t sit and think about how much they love so and so, or how they want to touch them and kiss them. It’s more in the private moments, like when the two characters see each other again and just lie together repeating each other’s names. There’s an intimacy to the way the two characters interact that is perhaps more romantic in itself. In series like Matched, the romance is spelled out for you, and there’s nothing left to the imagination. She loves him, and she knows it, and she wants to kiss him more than anything. As in the Hunger Games: despite romance never being the full focus of the story, it has an important part, and it’s also very internal. A lot of thinking about who she might love, or how she percieves romance. There is very little of that in The Knife of Never Letting Go, or any of the following books in the series. It’s implied, but never outright said or spoken. I don’t know, but I’d never thought about it that way before, about why I felt like Ness’ series would appeal to male readers more than Ally Condie’s or Suzanne Collins’.

    I’m not trying to argue anything here, I just thought it was interesting that books could contain as much romance in one or the other and yet, because of the way it’s handled, they might be labeled as ‘romance’, or not.

    It’s a funny way to realise boys and girls like to read about love in different ways, anyways.

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  14. I think that the problem of treating women’s writing as all ‘mushy romance stuff’ is a huge issue in this society. But I think that the writers are falling for it too. When reading YA it often seems that the authors can’t think of an original plot and fall back on the ‘easy’ standby – the romance. Now, I read romance on occasion, and I know that a good romance is not easy, and in fact the only thing easy about romance is doing it poorly. It seems that there is a huge overwhelming need to include romance in our YA books, and to write it ‘as romance’ with all the cliches that entails, including forcing the book into a form that ends with the happily ever after, even if it is not labeled a romance.

    You mentioned 1984 and LeGuin and others who write dystopian and science fiction, and although romance can be an element and can drive character motivation, it isn’t what structures the plot.

    When I pick up a book, my minimal requirement for thinking that it’s a good book, is perceiving that the author has thought more about the subject than I have. This should really be a low bar. Writing a book takes a long time. It isn’t easy. When I pick up something marketed as a dystopian or sci-fi, I want to believe that that the author has thought very hard about the structure of society, or about the way things will be in the future. When a cliche romance shows up, it tells me that the author hasn’t even questioned her/his own assumptions about plot.

    I know that I’m a terrible person because I’m interested in gender and society and science and math and questioning my own assumptions, and so I have a high bar for dystopians and sci fi, but all I really want is a good story. I can read old books and I understand that they were written in different time periods, and their treatment of female characters and non-whites and gays is not so good, but it’s not so good for a reason. When people today are writing and make the same mistakes, or do things like suggest that the only role for a female main character is a romantic role, I’m horrified.

    So part of the problem is saying that women can only write romance, and part of the problem is saying that women will only read romance, so why bother writing anything else for them.

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  15. Darla

    A compelling discussion! As a sidenote, I think you’d find this article interesting (if you didn’t see it already):
    It discusses critical reaction to literary fiction written by women, and speculates on whether something like Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot” would have been dismissed as chic lit if it had a woman’s name on it.

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  16. Sarah

    I don’t mind having romance so much in dystopia, that is not really my complaint. Final Fantasy 7′s On The Way To A Smile did this very well.

    Its more regarding how dystopia feels like its becoming the next big thing aside from Vampires. I don’t want my novel about the internal conflict with an SS officer being “An interview with an SS officer.”

    You can write your interviews, but we don’t need to know how you develop your characters in the book, we just want characters that simply are developed.

    Its more of a complaint about how Hollywood markets and turns into a cash cow franchse everything thats popular with YA. Another words, a hollywood complaint. Susanne Collins may be a good writer.

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  17. My way of defining dystopias is a little looser than yours, more for convenience when dealing with young adult works than any actual belief that I’m right. In addition to the seeming utopias, I also consider frank totalitarian states à la The Hunger Games to be dystopian as well.

    I had not realized that women were often shoved aside as writers of romantic drivel. I suppose know that I know it has always seemed obvious, but I do still consider science fiction with romance to still be science fiction. A good example of a young adult science fiction book written by a male author with a large romantic subplot is The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. I would say the romance level is on par with The Hunger Games.

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    • Lamusiqe13

      Actually, I would argue that The Hunger Games fits Phoebe’s definition of dystopian – it looks completely utopic to the citizens of the Capitol. But it’s true that you have to adopt a looser definition of the genre to work with most YA books. I find Phoebe’s definition to be a little more interesting to consider though, because it’s more common that it seems. Incarnate by Jodi Meadows, for example, fits the definition perfectly, even if it doesn’t employ typical ‘dystopian’ elements like arranged marriage and pre-planned careers.

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