Expectations, Genre Labels and the Romance Quotient

Mark Pottenger


Previous versions of this essay were posted on the AAR (All About Romance) message boards (no longer available).


Expectations affect experiences. Recent experiments have shown that what a person expects can affect things as fundamental as feeling pain (try a web search for hypnosis and pain perception), tasting flavors (try a web search for expectations and taste response), and seeing colors and words (try a web search for hypnosis and Stroop color-word interference). The impact on more complex phenomena can be even greater.

The placebo effect is a demonstration of expectations so strong that people have said the equivalent effect from a drug would earn it a “miracle drug” label. Believing that you are taking a drug with effect x produces effect x even when what you are actually taking is supposed to have no physical effect.

I’ve eaten some hot food over the years, but the only times it has caused hiccups is when I encountered spicy heat that I wasn’t expecting.

Almost every time business earnings are mentioned in the paper there will be a demonstration of the power of expectations. If a company reports good earnings, the stock only goes up if the earnings are better than expected—the stock goes down if the earnings are not as good as expected. A stock can go up even with a report of bad earnings if the earnings are not as bad as expected. Many people buy stocks based on expectations of future company performance. In fact, many people buy stocks based on rumors and reports from sources external to the company—acting on expectations with even weaker foundations.

I have no idea what percentage of relationships hit this, but I have certainly heard it mentioned as a problem. Some people plan to change their new spouse as soon as they are married, but the spouse often doesn’t cooperate. Any relationship founded on expectations of changing the other is headed for trouble.

Much Christmas and birthday behavior depends on expectations. A child wishing / hoping / asking for (expecting) a particular present can be very disappointed if they don’t get it even if they get other presents that are much more valuable / thoughtful / personal. The wished-for item might also get an underwhelming response if the recipient was sure it was coming.

A surprise party can be worth the extra effort/secrecy required because the recipient is more strongly affected because he/she wasn’t expecting the party.

Recent scientific research has suggested the possibility that Bayesian reasoning (combining expectations with evidence) may be part of the fundamental wiring of human brains.

Readers of books and viewers of movies and television shows approach them with expectations based on publicity/hype, word of mouth recommendations, reviews, etc. Reactions of disappointment often follow excessive hype. Pleased surprise can sometimes follow lower expectations. Good reviews let people approach a book / movie / show with more accurate expectations than when the only available information is paid publicity.

The AAR annual poll distinguishes between bad books (judged as objectively as possible) and disappointing books (judged against expectations).

Book covers and blurbs attempt to establish reader expectations, though there is a serious disconnect problem with many romance covers and blurbs that seem to be unrelated to the actual texts.


Discussions about genre boundaries and what genre labels are appropriate for a given book are fairly common on the message boards I frequent. This essay is an attempt to help.

Caveat: I was not an English major in school and have read almost no literary criticism or theory since, so the opinions presented here are those of a devoted reader of genre fiction, not an expert. (I’ve read over 3,200 F&SF books since I started keeping a reading log in 1975 and over 4,000 romance books since I started reading in that genre in 1992.)

I know the whole genre label problem would go away if all fictional genres were just labeled “Fiction”, but I (like many genre readers) LIKE to have genre labels to give me a clue about what to expect in a book.

Here is the definition I will use for the romance genre:

A genre romance novel (or series, novelette, novella or short story) tells a story about entities developing a permanent sexual love relationship with a “happily ever after” ending.

I deliberately avoid saying heterosexual couple because I know homosexual romances exist and that romances exist about relationships between more than two people (triads or other menages). (IIRC, Honey Moon by SEP is about a woman and the two great loves of her life.) I also avoid restricting the entities to humans of Earth since science fictional romances can feature other species, computers, etc.

I specify sexual love (Eros) to distinguish from other uses of the word “love” such as love of parent or child, country, humanity (agape), God, etc.

I include the HEA ending even though I know not all readers do because the HEA is a critical factor for me.

A discussion about review information on a mailing list I’m on resulted in the following list of information potential readers might like to know:

Title - Author:

HC/TP/MMP/EB - Publisher - Year:


Sub-genre and themes:

Setting(s) (times/places):

Overall Grade (A+ - F):

1-10 Humorous style:

1-10 Light to serious issues content:

1-10 Kisses to burning sensuality (or subtle to hot):

1-10 Poor, middle class, rich protagonists:

1-10 Untitled, titled, royal protagonists:

0-10 Internal conflict:

0-10 External conflict:

0-10 Secretive hero:

0-10 Secretive heroine:

0-10 Portion of text devoted to babies & children:

0-10 Portion of text devoted to appearance & clothing:

0-10 Level of action/adventure:

0-10 Level of angst:

0-10 Level of male-bashing:

0-10 Level of mystery:

0-10 Level of paranormal activity:

0-10 Level of suspense:

0-10 Level of violence:

Forced seductions/rapes:

Animal characters:

Accuracy (historical or other): *

Hero background/profession/type, age if known:

Heroine background/profession/type, age if known:

Believable HEA ending:

Series (Y/N & reading order):

If yes previous titles:


Additional Comments:

*Using these levels of historical accuracy (updated from my Accuracy is in the Mind of the Beholder part of an April 2003 AAR column):

Hidden history: history that could have happened but we don’t know about it. There are no invented countries, no characters with titles (the Duke of X) that did not exist in the depicted time, etc. All events in the story COULD have happened—we simply don’t know if they did because we have no actual historical record of those events. Any story of an unsung hero could be hidden history as long as the events in the story do not contradict the known historical record. (Paranormal stories where the paranormal is hidden from society at large can fit here if you accept that the paranormal elements could be real.)

Altered history: history as we know it with minor alterations (preferably described in notes). Small kingdoms that don’t exist in our history can place a story here or in altered reality.

Accepted history: history as accepted in popular culture or a particular subculture (e.g., RomanceLand) despite known differences from history according to scholars, such as the fictional Regency established by Georgette Heyer, the American Old West of dime novels and other fiction, and other settings where “everyone knows” things that weren’t so. Contradicting accepted history based on newer or better research almost demands footnotes or end notes for the author to avoid mistaken criticism.

Alternate history (and superseded history): history that definitely contradicts history as we know it, usually splitting from our history at a single point and developing separately after that.

Mythic history: historical contexts used to tell a myth or historical contexts treated as myths rather than hard facts. This is history that approaches fairy tales, but is not quite as distanced from us. Rather than a vague once upon a time, a mythic history story *claims* to be set in a real historical setting, but characters and events are usually larger than life and there is little or no attempt to depict the setting as we think it actually was.

Alternate history + reality: history as we know it up to a point and a paranormal or magical history after the branching point.


The old (1960s-1970s) Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett (Lord Darcy Investigates, Murder and Magic, Too Many Magicians, Lord Darcy, possibly other collected stories) is set in an Angevin Empire that split from our history when a monk codified working laws of magic a few centuries ago.

The Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) series (Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, story in Bite anthology, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead to Worse, Dead and Gone, Dead in the Family, Dead Reckoning, Deadlocked, Dead Ever After) by Charlaine Harris split from our history when vampires came out of the crypt. All the other magical species are still in hiding.

The Hollows/Rachel Morgan series (Dead Witch Walking; The Good, The Bad, and the Undead; Every Which Way But Dead, A Fistful of Charms, For a Few Demons More, The Outlaw Demon Wails, White Witch, Black Curse, Black Magic Sanction, Pale Demon, A Perfect Blood, Ever After, The Undead Pool, The Witch With No Name) by Kim Harrison has a history that split from ours in the 1950s when early genetic engineering created a plague that cut the human population so much that all the paranormal species came out of hiding.

Altered reality: history as we know it with overt (not hidden from the culture at large) magical or paranormal elements added (or some other non-magical element such as a species not living on our Earth that changes the setting from the world as we know it).

Small kingdoms that don’t exist in our history can place a story here if not in altered history. I would tend to put them here if the setting is an island and in altered history if they are in the middle of a continent, but others could argue differently.


Sorcery and Cecelia and the sequels The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician by Wrede & Stevermer and Mairelon the Magician and the sequel Magician’s Ward by Patricia Wrede. These stories are all Regency plus magic.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants, League of Dragons).

I categorize all of the Vanza/Zamar books by Amanda Quick here.

Alternate reality: stories that contradict in some way the currently accepted world-view of modern physicalistic science and world-view of the reader. This does not say that the reality they depict is in fact unreal or untrue, just that it is outside the limits of the current physicalistic paradigm. Alternate reality usually has its own very different history because of the different reality. Alternate reality often includes non-human intelligences such as Abominable Snowmen, Aesir, afreets/afrits/afrites/efreets/ifrits, angels, basilisks, banshees, Big Feet, brownies, cacodemons, cherubim, daemons, demigods, demons, devils, djins, dragons, dryads, dwarves, elementals, elves, faeries, fairies/fays, fauns, genies, ghosts, giants, gnomes, gods, goddesses, golems, Halflings, immortals, imps, incubi, jinni, kobolds, lamias, mermaids/men/folk, Minotaurs, naiads, nixies, nymphs, ogres, pixies, pookas/pucas, Redcaps, revenants, salamanders, sasquatch, satyrs, selkies/silkies, seraphim/seraphin, shapechangers, Sidhe, sprites, succubi, sylphs, talking animals, titans, Tritons, trolls, undead, undines, unicorns, vampires, wee folk, werewolves, wraiths, xerafeen, yeti, or zombies.

Psychic abilities (as distinct from working magical powers) can put a story in alternate reality if the reader doing the categorizing does not believe they exist in real life. If the reader accepts psychic abilities as normal, the same story would belong in one of the earlier categories.

Fairy tale: “once upon a time . . . .” Settings are usually (but not always) not identifiable as any known historical time and place. They are often medieval historical, but contemporary fairy tales are also possible. Magic or magical beings are usually major story elements.

Deliberately anachronistic history: deliberate/intentional use of anachronisms to create contrasts or incongruities.

Deliberate hodgepodge history: deliberate mixing of eras, regions, cultures, etc. to create contrasts or incongruities. This is anachronistic history carried farther.

Fictional reality: treating fictional settings or characters as real. This is not necessarily limited to attempting to imitate the style of an earlier work as in a pastiche. This is including characters and events from other works of fiction in a story setting as if they were from non-fictional history.


The Thursday Next novels (The Eyre Affair, Lost In A Good Book, The Well Of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing) by Jasper Fforde might qualify, though they twist reality somewhat differently.

The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein.

Several romances by Minda Webber: The Reinvented Miss Bluebeard, The Reluctant Miss Van Helsing, The Remarkable Miss Frankenstein.

Some steampunk includes people or events from popular 19th Century fiction as part of the story setup or world-building.

Genre labels

The earlier review information list is by no means complete, but it does summarize a lot of possible story features readers either want to read or want to avoid. Some of these features (focus on relationship, adventure, etc.) can apply to books in any genre and some are defining characteristics of genres. This is where genre labels get tricky. Any book with content meeting the defining characteristics of multiple genres could legitimately be described as belonging to all the included genres. Rather than being simply a romance, a book might be an adventure – historical fiction – mystery – romance or some even longer hyphenated genre. I actually bought a paperback copy of a hyphenated genre book not long before I started my switch to ebooks: Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris says “Fantasy/Mystery” on the spine.

If you are a more visual thinker, visualize the Venn diagrams used in symbolic logic (circles that may or may not overlap). A book can be viewed as placed in the intersection of mystery and romance (or other) circles.

With the increased mixing of genres I have seen in recent years, I think it would be nice to see more hyphenated genre labels.

I also prefer to know the era of a story before I start reading, so I like to see that along with genre labels. A full label, therefore, would be a complete genre label followed by a complete setting label (including a clue about historical accuracy). Some Harlequin Historical books have an abbreviated form of this with the era or setting labels on the spines.

I think more than half of the content of a book should belong to a single genre to get a single genre label: romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.

Books that are reasonably equal parts from multiple genres should get hyphenated genre labels: mystery-romance, romance-fantasy, fantasy-mystery, etc.

Books where one of the component genres is only a minority of the content should use an adjectival form of the minority genre as a modifier for the genre label: romantic mystery, romantic fantasy, science fictional romance, historical fantasy, etc.

I don’t expect to see such labels from big publishers any time soon, but the community of readers (and reviewers and bloggers and self-published authors) could use such terminology at any time to increase the clarity of descriptions of books.

Romance Quotient

The use of a 50% content cut-off to get a genre label is where the Romance Quotient comes in. (I thought of calling it a Romance Ratio, but the initials RQ are less likely to be confused than RR.) The Romance Quotient is the portion of the book devoted to genre romance content OR advancing the relationship even though at one level it could be categorized as belonging to another genre. If the Romance Quotient of a book is less than 50% I would like to see it categorized as something other than a genre romance.

In this context, I think the Romantic Suspense label is a bit of unintentional honesty for many books: they are NOT suspenseful romances because the suspense takes up much more of the book than the romance.

The “OR” in my description above of the Romance Quotient is critical. Any story element characteristic of any genre can be either purely of that genre or also serving another genre.

Take sex scenes as an example (since they are frequently argued about). With no other context available, I would categorize the natural genre of a sex scene as either erotica or pornography. With a story context that gives it meaning, a sex scene can serve to advance a romance, a mystery, a spy story, or almost any other genre.

This principle applies to any scene or thread in a story—it has a natural genre and it can also help the developing story elements of other genres.

In some books, sex seems to be a substitute for love instead of a manifestation or demonstration of love. When that happens, I would count those scenes in the erotica quotient of the book rather than in the Romance Quotient. I don’t know if this is a communication problem or some stylistic barrier between author and reader, but I suspect the “not a romance” reaction in a message board RWA/RITA discussion would happen whenever the judging reader saw sex scenes as “just sex” rather than “sex showing love”. It always comes back to story-telling skill and reader experience: did the author’s words succeed in conveying the intended meaning to THAT reader? (A reader with hot-button reactions to certain words, phrases or scenes will experience a different story than a reader with different hot buttons.)

Do other story features serve the romance?

I believe conflict is considered essential to most story telling and many writers and readers think a pure romance has too little conflict to carry a book-length story, so most book-length “romance” books include conflicts from various genres. If those other genre elements are not bent to the service of the romance, the book is more of a genre blend deserving a multi-genre label.

Every facet of a story can be presented in a way that advances the relationship story at the heart of a romance (some with MUCH more difficulty than others), often by illuminating aspects of h/h character or increasing h/h intimacy. Conflict, secrecy, babies, adventure, mystery, suspense, etc. can all advance the romance. They don’t have to do so and in many stories they don’t, but in stories where they do the Romance Quotient is higher.

Story Examples

A recent (when I started writing this in 2006) Blaze book, Midnight Oil by Karen Kendall, supplies a couple examples of scenes serving the romance. Up to the point in the book I’m describing the hero has been pretty much a self-lying jerk (“It’s just business”). The heroine tells him about a near rape years earlier, explaining her avoidance of football players. This is attempted rape serving the romance because this is the first time she has trusted anyone enough to tell the story. After she leaves, the hero uses his fists & feet to destroy a bunch of kitchen cabinets scheduled for remodeling, wishing it was the long-ago assailants. This is one of the first scenes where it is clear he is coming to love the heroine, not just lust after her, so it is violence serving romance.

Another example is Some Like It Wicked by Deborah Raleigh. There is a separation late in the book that serves the romance. The separation is short in pages and months in story time. The hero takes that time to create a successful gaming hell to prove to himself and the heroine that he isn’t totally worthless. (One could question his choice of business, but he is using his strengths.)

Intent and results

Every reader brings a unique life history to the process of reading a story. That means that every reading of every story is unique. Even the same reader experiences the same story differently at different times in the reader’s life. There is a common reality—a particular printing of the story—but not a common reading experience. (I specify a particular printing in reference to recurring typo discussions. Someone reading a recent [early 2000s] Harlequin edition of Georgette Heyer has a different experience than someone reading a decades-older edition from a different publisher because of the numerous typos added by Harlequin.)

An author may have intended story features naturally belonging to other genres to function purely in those genres or to advance the romance, but there is no guarantee that all readers will read what the author intended in those story features.

If an author intended mystery elements in a book to advance a romance, the intended genre might have been mysterious romance. If a reader experiences the mystery elements as pure mystery (not helping the romance), for that reader the book is a mystery-romance or a romantic mystery.

I think it could be very helpful for readers to know the author’s intended genre, but that is another change unlikely to happen with big publishers (though a real possibility with self-published authors).

Unique Readers

I am an over-sixty single male, which immediately makes my viewpoint different from the majority of romance readers, yet I can think of many other details that make me a unique reader.

I can offer myself as an example of the reading experience changing with time. Before I started reading romances I was about as history-free as a literate person can be—I was a devoted F&SF reader totally focused on the future, not the past. The first romance I read was a Georgette Heyer Regency Romance and there was a LOT of terminology and cultural context I didn’t understand. I have studied much more history since I started reading romances than I did in my whole life before that. When I reread that first Heyer book now everything is familiar and understood.

I have proofread material written by members of my family and coworkers for decades and proofread program code on a routine basis during work, so I have a tendency to see typos and mindos even when I’m not trying. The more I learn, the more I see. An example of that is the lay/lie confusion so common in American English. Until the early 2000s I only occasionally noticed misuses of these words. After reading an extended discussion of these words on an email list, I made the effort to solidly learn the correct usages (which I either never learned in school or forgot). Now I notice more lay/lie errors than I used to.

Most of the time I do not visualize scenes as I read, but occasionally written scenes trigger flashes of visual images. (This is not consciously controlled.)

I stopped watching TV in the 1980s and only rarely watch movies, so I am not in touch with large chunks of modern culture unless I read about them in newspapers and magazines or hear them discussed on the radio. My detachment from media culture increases with time. Most film/TV star names do not conjure any image in my mind, so stories that try to shortcut character descriptions by dropping names give me no image.

I am a mostly armchair astronomer (enjoying pretty sky pictures), only looking through a telescope on rare occasions since I moved from Arizona decades ago, but I still have a fair grasp of some basic celestial motions. (The Astronomy Picture of the Day site at http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html is one I visit daily.) In one category romance I read, the h/h look at an almost full Moon in the west in the early evening (on their way to dinner). How many readers will notice this error and be briefly jerked out of the story?

I prefer to read fiction for the first time in as close to a single sitting as possible, so I usually set aside a block of time and pick a book short enough to read in that time. I concentrate or focus enough to tune out minor distractions, but glitches in the text can break that focus. I don’t identify with characters in the story, reading as an outside observer. For reasons I don’t know, scenes with superficial injuries on the level of skinned knees cause a shiver of sympathy while scenes with major trauma have no similar effect.

I do not try to deliberately analyze fiction while I read it. I sometimes think analytically after the fact about fiction I have read, but rarely while immersed in the story.

My memory is porous enough that I can enjoy many rereads of a story as much as or more than the first reading. I also tend to remember things I strongly like or strongly dislike better than things that I mildly dislike or feel neutral about, so I forget most details of a lot of stories fairly quickly unless I think about them after I finish reading them.

Every reader could compile a list of personal reading quirks longer than this after some reflection, and no two lists would be completely the same.

Genre Examples

Despite all my warnings earlier about how every reader is unique and therefore will produce unique evaluations of every book, I will suggest a few genre categorizations here. (All of these categorizations are from memory, so I am arbitrarily picking books I think I remember well enough to categorize.) I believe that the common reality behind all the unique reader experiences can be approached by consolidating genre categorizations from multiple readers. When a living author is available, the author’s intent (if stated) should rule in genre labels unless a large majority of readers clearly see the story as something else (see intent and results above).

I have included a lot of Georgette Heyer titles both because many people will have read them and because I think very few of her books are just romances.

Carroll, Susan: The Bride Finder (1998): Suspenseful Paranormal Romance – Accepted Georgian Wales

Castle, Jayne: Amaryllis (1996): Lightly Suspenseful Paranormal Romance – Future Colonized Planet

Castle, Jayne: Zinnia (1997): Lightly Suspenseful Paranormal Romance – Future Colonized Planet

Castle, Jayne: Orchid (1998): Lightly Suspenseful Paranormal Romance – Future Colonized Planet

Chase, Loretta: Lord Perfect (2006): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Crusie, Jennifer: Bet Me (2004): Comedic Romance – Contemporary New York

Darcy, Clare: Elyza (1976): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Davidson, MaryJanice: Undead and Unwed (2004): Romantic Comedy-Chick Lit-Fantasy – Contemporary Minneapolis

Davidson, MaryJanice: Derik's Bane (2005): Comedic Paranormal Romance – Contemporary America

Davidson, MaryJanice: The Royal Treatment (2004): Comedic Alternate History Romance – Contemporary Nation where Alaska is in our world

Duncan, Dave: Strings (1990): Romantic* Science Fiction – Near Future Earth (mostly)

(*Whether this is actually romantic can be debated. There is definitely a h/h relationship, but it is more karmic compulsion than love on her side.)

Evanovich, Janet: Back to the Bedroom (1989): Comedic Romance – Contemporary Washington DC

Evanovich, Janet: One For The Money (1994): Comedic Romantic Mystery – Contemporary New Jersey

Garwood, Julie: The Secret (1992): Romance – Mythic Medieval Scotland

Harrison, Kim: Dead Witch Walking (2004) (and sequels): Alternate History+Reality Science Fiction-Fantasy – Alternate Contemporary Cincinnati

Heyer, Georgette: The Black Moth (1921): Adventure-Romance – Accepted Georgian England

Heyer, Georgette: These Old Shades (1926): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Georgian England & France

Heyer, Georgette: Devil's Cub (1934): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Georgian England & France

Heyer, Georgette: The Spanish Bride (1940): Fictionalized Biography-War Story – Hidden Regency Peninsular Campaign

Heyer, Georgette: Regency Buck (1935): Mystery-Historical Fiction – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: An Infamous Army (1937): War Story-Romance-Historical Fiction – Accepted Regency Belgium

Heyer, Georgette: Arabella (1949): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Black Sheep (1966): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England (Bath)

Heyer, Georgette: The Convenient Marriage (1934): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Georgian England

Heyer, Georgette: The Corinthian (1940): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Cotillion (1953): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Cousin Kate (1968): Gothic Historical Mystery – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: False Colours (1963): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Faro's Daughter (1941): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency London

Heyer, Georgette: The Foundling (1948): Coming of Age-Comedy of Manners-Historical Fiction – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Frederica (1965): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Friday's Child (1946): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: The Grand Sophy (1950): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Lady of Quality (1972): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England (Bath)

Heyer, Georgette: The Masqueraders (1928): Adventure-Romance – Accepted Georgian England

Heyer, Georgette: The Nonesuch (1962): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Powder and Patch (1923): Comedy of Manners – Accepted Georgian England

Heyer, Georgette: The Quiet Gentleman (1951): Romantic Mystery-Historical Fiction – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: The Reluctant Widow (1946): Comedy of Manners-Romantic Mystery – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Sprig Muslin (1956): Comedy of Manners – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Sylvester (or, the Wicked Uncle) (1957): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England & France

Heyer, Georgette: The Talisman Ring (1936): Comedy of Manners-Mystery-Romance – Accepted Georgian England

Heyer, Georgette: The Toll-Gate (1954): Comedy of Manners-Mystery-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: The Unknown Ajax (1959): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Heyer, Georgette: Venetia (1958): Comedy of Manners-Romance – Accepted Regency England

High, Philip E.: Invader On My Back (1968): Romantic* Science Fiction – Future Earth

High, Philip E.: The Prodigal Sun (1964): Romantic* Science Fiction – Future Earth

High, Philip E.: Reality Forbidden (1967): Romantic* Science Fiction – Future Earth

High, Philip E.: These Savage Futurians (1967): Romantic* Science Fiction – Future Earth

High, Philip E.: The Time Mercenaries (1968): Romantic* Science Fiction – Future Colonized Planets

High, Philip E.: Twin Planets (1967): Romantic* Science Fiction – Multiple Earths

(*Most of High’s books are from the 1960s and feature couples and a theme of finding one’s perfect partner. In some the perfection of the partners sounds more genetic than romantic.)

Howard, Linda: To Die For (2005): Suspense-Comedy-Romance – Contemporary North Carolina

Kenyon, Sherrilyn: Night Play (2004): Comedy-Paranormal Romance – Contemporary New Orleans

Knight, Angela: Master of Wolves (2006): Alternate History+Reality Romance – Alternate Contemporary America

Krentz, Jayne Ann: All Night Long (2006): Suspense-Comedy-Romance – Altered Contemporary California

Lackey, Mercedes: The Lark & The Wren (1992): Romantic Fantasy – Medieval Planet

Lackey, Mercedes: The Fairy Godmother (2004): Romantic Fantasy – Fairy Tale Kingdoms (This is a wonderful stand-on-your-own-feet Cinderella story. The hero isn’t introduced until almost halfway through the book and takes quite a while to stop being an ass and start being a hero.)

Laurens, Stephanie: Devil’s Bride (1998): Suspense-Romance – Accepted Regency England

Lee, Sharon and Miller, Steve: Conflict of Honors (1988): Romantic Science Fiction – Multiple Planets

Lee, Sharon and Miller, Steve: Agent of Change (1988) + Carpe Diem (1989): Romantic Science Fiction – Multiple Planets

Leinster, Murray: The Pirates of Zan (1959): Slightly Romantic Comedic Science Fiction – Multiple Planets

McCaffrey, Anne: Dragonflight (1968): Romantic Science Fiction – Future Colonized Planet

McCaffrey, Anne: Dragonquest (1968): Romantic Science Fiction – Future Colonized Planet

McCaffrey, Anne: The Rowan (1990): Romantic Science Fiction – Future Earth & Colonized Planets

McCaffrey, Anne: Damia (1992): Romantic Science Fiction – Future Colonized Planets

McCaffrey, Anne: Restoree (1967): Romance-Science Fiction – Near Future Other Planet

McCaffrey, Anne: The Ship Who Sang (1970): Romantic Science Fiction – Future Interstellar Culture

Novik, Naomi: His Majesty’s Dragon (2006), Throne of Jade (2006), Black Powder War (2006): Science Fiction – Altered (with non-magical dragons) Napoleonic Wars

Quick, Amanda: Lie by Moonlight (2005): Lightly Suspenseful Altered Reality Romance – Altered Victorian England (I consider all the Zamar and Vanzagara novels to be altered reality.)

Quick, Amanda: Second Sight (2006): Lightly Suspenseful Psychic Romance – Accepted Victorian England

Robb, J. D.: Naked In Death (1995): Science Fiction-Mystery – Near Future Earth

Sands, Lynsay: Single White Vampire (2003) (and sequels): Comedic Paranormal Romance – Contemporary Canada & America

Wrede, Patricia C. and Stevermer, Caroline: Sorcery and Cecelia (1988): Mystery-Romantic Fantasy – Altered Regency England

Wrede, Patricia C. and Stevermer, Caroline: The Grand Tour (2004): Mystery-Romantic Fantasy – Altered Regency Europe

Convincing HEA

A Yes/No for a believable HEA ending was on the reader info list earlier because it matters for some readers. I am one of many readers who insist on a HEA as part of the definition of the romance genre. A HEA unconvincing because of the story and characters in the body of the book might as well not be present in terms of categorizing a book as a romance for some readers. Because there will never be universal agreement about any book, the romance label can still apply, but a warning that x% of readers don’t believe the HEA might be appropriate.

One problem for me with HEA believability is that the behavior of many romance heroes looks a lot like the symptoms of an abusive personality and quite a few others look obsessive. Neither abusive nor obsessive spouses seem to me to be great candidates for living Happily Ever After.

Labels by marketing and labels for series?

I have recently encountered some genre labels that I think mislead potential readers: books that say "Paranormal Romance" on the spine that I believe should say "Fantasy" to avoid leading readers to expect a HEA ending. I don't know sales figures, but I suspect that romances below the best-seller level probably sell more copies than similar books called fantasy. If that assumption is correct, the labels could be due to marketing decisions. It is also possible, of course, that some publishers don't adhere to a strict HEA ending policy for their genre romances.

Examples are the D'Artigo sisters series by Yasmine Galenorn (four books published when I started this essay, with closer to twenty last I checked, that I have read AS FANTASY) and the Gardella Vampire Chronicles by Colleen Gleason (five books, but I stopped reading at one).

The normal romance HEA ending is reached in a single volume. A very small number of romances follow a single couple through more than one book. Some succeed in continuing a story without devaluing any earlier apparent HEA endings, and some diminish or tarnish the first HEA. JAK is one of the few romance authors I've read with several multi-book romances, and not all of her multi-volume romances work for me.

I would like to suggest that multi-volume stories that build to an eventual HEA ending need a variant of standard genre labels. The SERIES as a whole may be called a romance (singular), but the individual volumes should bear the labels of whatever other genres make up most of the text. By this standard, the individual Galenorn and Gleason books should say "Fantasy" on the spines to not mislead readers.

Series labels

Most of this essay has been about individual books/stories, but this section is about series (in the meaning of a group of books sharing some essential story elements) and reading order.

I read F&SF for many years before I started reading romances. Most F&SF series have stories that build through multiple books, so it is best to read them in order. Occasionally an author writes books out of the order of the chronology of story events, and there can be valid arguments for either story chronology order or publication order. The Pern books by McCaffrey and the Liad books by Lee & Miller are examples of series that I would recommend to read in publication order rather than story universe chronological order, partly because some of the tales filling in the backstories grab me less than the first tales published in each universe.

There are also some series that are more episodic or standalone, without any overall story arc or development, where reading order isn't a big deal. The Tom Swift Jr. series that I read in my teens was like that in one way (even though there were new inventions in every book, Tom was 18 years old through more than 30 books), but not in another (inventions from earlier books could appear in later books).

When I started reading romances, I found a different sort of series: the one-couple-per-book series. Some have overall arcs of development and many don't. In some of the series without an obvious overall arc of development, primary couples from one book will be important secondary characters in other books, but in other series primary couples get little page space outside their own books.

Many Paranormal Romance series that I've read are best read in order, including series by G. A. Aiken, Dana Marie Bell, Meljean Brook, Kresley Cole, Bianca D'Arc, MaryJanice Davidson, Thea Harrison, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Angela Knight, Shelly Laurenston, Katie MacAlister, Erin McCarthy, Robin D. Owens, Cindy Spencer Pape, Kimberley Raye, Tielle St. Clare, Lynsay Sands, Nalini Singh, Kerrelyn Sparks, Vicki Lewis Thompson, and Christine Warren (though the way the "Others" books have been published & revised makes reading order a bit of a challenge).

I'm unsure about the Cynster books by Stephanie Laurens. I have read them in order of publication, but they are more loosely connected than most paranormal series. Her Bastion Club books are definitely a read-in-order series.

I like the fact that AAR reviews mention if a book is part of a series, but I'm wondering if it is worth trying to encourage the online reader/reviewer/blogger community to add a few modifiers to the word "series". Some possibilities:

ARRO Author's Recommended Reading Order

MRC Major Recurring Characters

MVCA Multi-volume Character Arc

MVSA Multi-volume Story Arc

MVSCC Multi-volume Same Central Characters

OPCMV One Primary Couple, Multiple Volumes

OPCPB One Primary Couple Per Book

RIAO Read In Any Order

RICO Read In Chronological Order

RIPO Read In Publication Order

These labels can overlap, so there are probably better systems (though I didn't get any suggestions when I posted an earlier version of these thoughts on the AAR Potpourri message board some time ago, and a librarian I once asked didn't think her city's library system had any systematic way to label series). MRC could mean books like Nina Bangs' books with the cosmic troublemakers as recurring secondary characters but no obvious MVSA, or Meljean Brook's Demon books with the h/h of Demon Angel present as important secondary characters in most following books with a MVSA, but the latter could also be described as MVCA. Laurens' Bastion Club books, with the buildup to Dalziel's story, could be described as MRC, MVCA or MVSA. MVSCC includes series like the Tom Swift Jr. books or the J. D. Robb "In Death" books, though I've also seen suggestions that the In Death books are RIPO.

The majority of books published as romances are OPCPB, but there are exceptions (which I consider to be badly assigned genre labels). The Undead (Queen Betsy) books by MaryJanice Davidson are labeled Paranormal Romance but still haven't reached a primary couple HEA after at least 14 books. A number of books by Katie MacAlister are labeled Paranormal Romance but take three or four books per couple.

There is a lot of overlap between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy, but I don't approach UF expecting OPCPB. I bought & read all the available Lupi ebooks by Eileen Wilks after one of my brothers recommended them. The ebook publisher is too cheap to include cover images, and I have never seen genre labels on any ebooks to date. I checked the Fantastic Fiction site and found the Lupi books listed there as Urban Fantasy, which fits the fact that most of the books have centered on one couple. For another example, I consider the Otherworld series by Yasmine Galenorn to be Urban Fantasy rather than Paranormal Romance (as does the FF site), but the one book I bought in paperback before switching to ebooks said Paranormal Romance on the spine. A quick web search turned up an author site saying the author considers the series Urban Fantasy and has no control over publisher genre labels. Maybe not seeing publishers' genre labels on ebooks is a blessing in disguise.

A large portion of my reading these days (about 2/3 so far this year) consists of books in series. In line with my earlier plea for better labels on individual books, I would like to see publishers do a better job of labeling books in series.

Always list all books in the series at the front or back of the book. Clearly label the list as Author's Recommended Reading Order, Chronological Order, or Publication Order. Do NOT just list the titles in alphabetical order unless that is also the recommended reading order.

Include all anthologized stories/novellas/novelettes in the list, correctly placed in the specified reading order.

For those who care about numbers, here are some terms. Some years ago I tried to recall appropriate series words for various numbers and did a little dictionary checking. Trilogy and tetralogy both trace back to the ancient Greek religious theatrical competitions. The three tragedies were a trilogy and the three tragedies plus one comedy that made up a playwright’s complete entry were a tetralogy. The words were later generalized to describe three or four works of any kind. Since the cultural and linguistic origin is Greek, I checked for other words using the Greek number roots rather than the Latin (quattro- is from Latin). For two works, duo can be used, though it isn’t specific to writings, or one can just talk about a book and its prequel or sequel. I was able to find OED mentions for pentalogy (five books) and hexalogy (six books). I didn’t find any mention of heptalogy, octalogy or ennealogy, but heptad, octad and ennead are words for groups of seven, eight and nine items. The word Decalogue (or decalog) is reserved for the Ten Commandments, and I didn’t find decalogy. I did not try to find terms for groups beyond ten books.

I read a lot of books in series, and some of those series feel like they have gone on too long while others still feel fresh after many books. As with any generalization about fiction, a good author can write a counterexample, but I would say I find a positive correlation between the number of major characters and the number of books I'm willing to read. Genre also make a difference. With just one central couple, a trilogy or tetralogy will often work for me, but anything longer has to have a good reason. With many major characters, I can happily read many more books as long as they don't feel like rehashes of the same material.

Examples (counts are what I had read when I created this list in 2012, + mostly indicates anthologized stories):

6+UF Magic books by Ilona Andrews: I'm still interested.

3 UF Mercy books by Toni Andrews: unfinished since 2009. Will this be finished?

9 PNR (3 linked Salem trilogies) by Annette Blair: is there more to come?

8+UF Mercy & Alpha books by Patricia Briggs: keep going.

7+PNR Demon books by Meljean Brook: this story is hanging unfinished. [2016 update: this got wrapped up at 8+5.]

10+PNR IAD books by Kresley Cole: what is planned?

10+PNR Undead books by MaryJanice Davidson: please wrap this up.

50+SF 1632 universe books by Eric Flint & many others: keep going.

9+UF Night Huntress (& World) books by Jeaniene Frost: keep going.

11+UF Otherworld books by Yasmine Galenorn: please wrap this up.

4+PNR Elder Races books by Thea Harrison: more, please.

9+PNR Mageverse books by Angela Knight: thank you for wrapping this up. I was getting very tired of too much of the ubervillain.

10+PNR Pack and Pride books by Shelly Laurenston: keep going. [2016 update: looks like this is done at 12+4.]

10+PNR Guardian/dragon books by Katie MacAlister: please wrap this up.

10 PNR Celta books by Robin D. Owens: keep going.

12+PNR Vampire books by Kerrelyn Sparks: please wrap this up. [2016 update: this got done at 16+1.]

4 UF Katie Chandler books by Shanna Swendson: book 5 just came out four years after book 4. [2016 update: looks like this wrapped up at 7 books.] [2019 update to the update: there are now 9 books.]

19+PNR Others books by Christine Warren: I'm ambivalent. [2016 update: looks like this series was finished in 2013.]

9+UF Lupi books by Eileen Wilks: I'm still interested, but is there a planned arc?

Tangential note: I need to find a better way to keep up with releases. While checking some counts for the above list, I came across info about an Elder Races novella that came out a couple months before that I hadn't heard about. I also found out about the Shanna Swendson continuation after a four-year gap.

A Proposed Paranormal Taxonomy

The term "paranormal" (as used in paranormal romance) covers quite a range.

I think we might want clearer or more detailed labels than the overly broad use of "paranormal" for the same reasons as the other possible clarifications discussed earlier. Clearer labels can make the reading experience more enjoyable by setting more realistic expectations. With paranormality, there is also a disbelief or comfort issue. As a long-time F&SF reader, I enjoy all the variations I've listed, but I know of other readers who can enjoy some subsets of the paranormal but not others. Clearer labels would let such readers pick and choose more carefully without having to try or avoid everything with the paranormal label: approachers could look for subsets they like and avoiders could steer clear of subsets they don't like.

Here are some possible categories (with labels I coined--I have not run across standardized terminology).

Everyday light paranormal romance includes things that some people ascribe to paranormal talents and some people don't, such as hunches, intuition, thinking about someone right before a call or contact, etc. Things like this pervade fiction.

Mild paranormal romance includes people demonstrating actual psychic abilities, but mild ones such as dowsing, psychometry, etc.

Psionic paranormal romance includes people consciously and accurately using strong psychic/psionic abilities, such as telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, telehypnosis, teleportation, clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc.

Magical paranormal romance is the same as psionic paranormal, but is presented in a world in which magic is known to work.

Beyond human (metahuman or transhuman):

All the categories to this point just include human characters. There are many stories with characters other than humans. Such stories often also include humans with paranormal talents.

Ghost paranormal romance adds ghosts or wraiths, which in most stories are transformations, survivals or residues of humans.

Undead paranormal romance adds vampires, revenants, zombies, liches, ghouls or other varieties of undead creatures from various cultural traditions (or new types invented by authors). In most stories the undead are (usually but not always magical) transformations of humans, but I've read some vampire stories that present the vampires as a separate non-human species. Most paranormal romances with undead protagonists modify the traditional undead natures fairly substantially to enable romantic relationships with humans.

Shifter paranormal romance adds werewolves or other shapeshifters. The explanations are almost always magical. Some allow humans to become weres (contagion or curse models), but many treat weres as separate species established by major magical events in the past.

Multi-sapient paranormal romance adds other sapient species (often but not always humanoid) on this Earth or an alternate Earth. These sapient species can be from any mythology or cryptozoology or new species invented by authors. This can include Bigfeet, brownies, dragons, dryads, dwarves, elves, faeries, fauns, giants, gnomes, kobolds, merfolk, nymphs, ogres, pixies, satyrs, selkies, trolls, yeti, etc.

Multi-dimension paranormal romance adds planes/dimensions beyond Earth. Access to other dimensions is mostly magical (e.g., Faerie realms), but sometimes a scientific-sounding explanation is given. This isn't the same thing as alternate history, which has many instances of the same Earth that have developed along different historical lines, usually without any paranormal additions.

Genie paranormal romance adds one or more version of afreets / afrits / afrites / efreets / ifrits, djinns, genies or jinni. These are (usually strongly magical) sapient species, often with partially or completely non-physical natures. Elementals probably also fit in here.

Demon/angel paranormal romance adds angels, cacodemons, cherubim, daemons, demons, devils, imps, seraphim / xerafeen, etc. Incubi & succubi probably fit in here, since I believe they are usually categorized as classes of demons. Many, but not all, demon/angel stories use a Judeo-Christian-Islamic framework or background.

Gods paranormal romance adds beings like gods: Aesir, demigods, gods, goddesses, Olympians, titans, etc. These are usually lowercase (polytheistic) gods or just beings with great (god-like) powers. Greco-Roman, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian and Native American traditions are probably the most used. God-like beings are rarely the protagonists.

In SFR (science-fictional romance), there are also often aliens with varying levels of divergence from familiar Earthly humans, or human races from other planets (often without any attempt to explain origins).

Also, an observation: SF, fantasy & paranormal romances treat the concept of "species" rather strangely, since they have many separate "species" that somehow manage to breed together despite interfertility usually being one of the defining characteristics of a species. All the interplanetary and other breeding would require a really wide definition of Homo Sapiens, with all the planetary populations, shifters, weres, vampires, elves, fairies, etc. as sub-species.

A few examples of expanded labels:

The Demon books by Meljean Brook are Magical + Undead + Demon/Angel + Multi-dimension PNR.

The Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carriger are Magical + Undead + Shifter Steampunk.

The Undead books by MaryJanice Davidson started as Undead PNR and now are Magical + Undead + Shifter + Demon + Multi-dimension (counting Hell as a separate dimension) + Time travel PNR.

The Elder Races books by Thea Harrison are Magical + Undead + Shifter + Multi-sapient + Multi-dimension + Genie PNR.

The Dark Hunter books by Sherrilyn Kenyon are Magical + Undead + Shifter + Multi-dimension + Demon/Angel + Gods PNR, including the only protagonist god I've been able to remember so far.

The Arcane Society books by JAK (Jayne Castle / Jayne Ann Krentz / Amanda Quick) are Psionic PNR.

The Pack and Pride books by Shelly Laurenston are Magical + Shifter PNR.

The Wild About You books by Vicki Lewis Thompson are Shifter + Multi-sapient PNR.

The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris are Magical + Undead + Shifter + Multi-sapient + Multi-dimension (counting an offstage fairy realm) Mystery/Fantasy.

The Lupi books by Eileen Wilks are Magical + Undead + Shifter + Multi-sapient + Multi-dimension + Demon + Gods Urban Fantasy.

I urge anyone publishing or discussing or reviewing paranormal stories to qualify the term to increase clarity.


I mentioned earlier that blurbs can be misleading, but many are still useful. I normally read the blurb before starting any book. When accurate, a blurb gives me some idea of the plot and lets me pay special attention to the romance h/h from the start of the story.

While I now buy mostly ebooks instead of paper books and I see many virtues to ebooks, in the first few years almost no ebooks I bought included the equivalent of the back cover blurb. I think some ebook publishers have corrected this, so readers like me who rely on the blurb to help define expectations before reading can continue the practice.

I sometimes look up ebooks I plan to read in BYRON or on the Fantastic Fiction site, but I don't always find them, and sometimes neither has a blurb.

Other genres

I have primarily discussed the romance genre here, but similar issues exist for other genres. In the other genre I read a lot of, F&SF, there are broad divisions of Fantasy and Science Fiction, there are finer divisions of Heroic, Epic, Quest, Hard Science, Alternate History, Space Opera, etc., there are settings all over many universes, there are humorous, serious and tragic stories, etc. I know the mystery genre also has many subsets. Even (or especially?) readers of non-genre fiction could benefit from clearer labels.

Expectations again

I have said more than once that expectations have a huge impact on every reading experience. If the genre label says Romance then I expect the ending to be HEA (self-contained within one book) and can be disappointed if it isn’t. If I expect a romp and hit an angst-fest I’m not likely to appreciate it. I believe more detailed genre labels such as I have suggested here could improve reading pleasure for many readers by letting them pick books to fit moods and approach books with reasonably accurate expectations.

Community action

I doubt that any big publishers will act on label (or blurb) improvement any time soon (though surprises are always possible), so I wonder if there is anything the community of readers can do to encourage better labels from small publishers and self-publishers.

Are there any existing web sites that already supply better genre information than publishers do? I know there are a number of bibliographic sites out there, some genre-oriented, but nothing I have looked at quite satisfies the genre label need I see.

Is there any site that consolidates/pools data from many review sites to give more complete coverage than any single review site can supply?

Has anyone organized a wiki about published fiction that supplies genre details?

Copyright © 2012 Mark Pottenger

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