The Lie of the “Romance”

I’ve noticed on Twitter and other places, how Herself doesn’t consider the Outlander novels to be ‘romance’. I heartily agree and thought this would be a quick and easy rant about why can’t other people be sensible and see this obvious fact.

DG on set
For a change, rather than just spouting off my own – usually fairly informed – opinion, I thought I’d do a little digging to support my statement. Should be an easy thing to establish after all. However, in doing that digging, I ended up doing more and yet a bit more and now – this quick and easy little rant about how Outlander is NOT a romance – has morphed into something else.

I first found the definition of a ‘romance’ on the RWA website which reads thus:

Romance fiction is smart, fresh and diverse. Whether you enjoy contemporary dialogue, historical settings, mystery, thrillers or any number of other themes, there’s a romance novel waiting for you! Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel. An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction. Click here to better understand the subgenres within romance.
About the Romance Genre 

Well bummer. By that definition, Outlander, as a stand-alone book, fits the definition – mostly. I’d say the RWA is a fairly authoritative reference. Wiki has a slightly different take:

The romance novel or romantic novel is a literary genre. Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” There are many subgenres of the romance novel including fantasy, historical, science fiction and paranormal.
Romance Novel – Wiki

It’s taking me a long time to write this because I’m struggling with several different thoughts about it. By the above, Outlander fits into the ‘Romance’ category – yet it doesn’t. You can’t say the entire book is focused on Claire and Jamie getting together when she spends so much time trying to get back to Frank. While Jamie is around and very important to her as a guide and protector in this hostile environment, she isn’t focused on him as a love interest – not even when she agrees to marry him! That book has a reasonably ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending’ ……… but there is so much more to come!

Does Outlander and the following books have romance? Heck yes! Sex? Raw and real! Is that the entire focus of the book? No way! I found the ‘romance’ and sex to be very realistic in that they aren’t always pretty and perfect. Jamie can be quite primal – and so can Claire. It can be very explicit without seeming pornographic or OTT. It’s a natural part of life and the story. Here, Ms Gabaldon herself explained the sex in Outlander best, so I’ll stand aside and let her do it.

“     I do think that the sex scenes are both necessary and integral to the story, or they wouldn’t be there. These aren’t romance novels, but they are (among other things) the story of a very long and complex marriage. Now, there may possibly be long and successful marriages that don’t include sex, but I don’t personally know of any.

Neither are any sex-scenes included for the sake of gratuitous titillation (any titillating that happens is purely fortuitous, I assure you), nor are any of them just about sex. They have structural and emotional reasons for being where they are, and the book would not be the same story, nor have the same complexity, without them.”
Language, Language….(Part I)

In doing my ‘research’ for this (I’m sure Diana would laugh at this statement as I looked up a few minor bits online – this is by no means exhaustive, thorough or unbiased). I came across a couple of other definitions for fiction on Wiki that also seem to be appropriate for Outlander.

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction can be an ambiguous term: frequently it is used as a synonym for describing the historical novel; however, the term can be applied to works in other narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels.
Historical fiction-Wiki

Obviously Outlander qualifies in this category. When I was working in a second hand store running the book department, I always either just displayed the Outlander books (they sold too fast for me to shelve them most of the time) or put them with General Fiction. I never ever shelved them in Romance. (I always recommended them to people looking for something to read and if someone already knew the books I made sure they knew about the series.)

Magic realism or magical realism is a genre where magical or unreal elements play a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.[1] Although it is most commonly used as a literary genre, magic realism also applies to film and the visual arts.
Magic realism-Wiki

This was a new one for me – I’d never seen this particular definition before. The magic of the stones in an otherwise normal historical setting makes this another appropriate possibility.


Realistic fiction, although untrue, could actually happen. Some events, people, and places may even be real. It may be possible that, in the future, imagined events could physically happen. For example, Jules Verne’s novel From The Earth To The Moon was proven possible in 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. Science fiction often predicts technologies that later become a reality.

Another subgenre of realistic fiction is crime fiction like Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie, Alex Cross by James Patterson, and so on. All these works depict a fictional but plausible story.

Historical fiction is also a subgenre that takes fictional characters and puts them into real world events. For example, in the early historical novel Waverley, Sir Walter Scott’s fictional character Edward Waverley meets Bonnie Prince Charlie and takes part in the Battle of Prestonpans.
Realisitc Fiction-Wiki

Obviously our esteemed author has done this not only in Outlander but the entire series, so this too is an appropriate categorization in my opinion. My mate disagrees. He says that since time travel is used to get the characters where they need to be, it suspends the real and so is NOT a proper category.

To me, the obvious thing is that Outlander is a superb story that crosses several genres as any good literature does. There is a great blog that was pointed out to me where someone compared DG’s writing to Shakespeare – very apt I think.
By Any Other Name: Genre Gabaldonian

This brings us to the conundrum that has made this blog both longer and far more difficult to write than I first though it would be. The bigger issue is – why is having Outlander labeled as a “Romance” so distasteful to so many, including the author?

What is the first thing that you (and probably most other people) think of when they hear the words “Romance Novel”?

“Some dialog with no real plot to tie sex scenes together.”

 “Soft porn for women.” 

“Completely unrealistic situations and relationships that no real person could live up to.” 

“Bodice ripper. I mean just look at the covers!” (My mate’s response) 

“I’d never read that trash!”

It seems to me the problem is that ‘Romance’ as a genre has gotten a really negative reputation with the general reading public. The consensus seems to be that ‘Romance’ means sub-grade writing, little to no plot, and lots of torrid, unrealistic sex. How did this happen?! I mean….that can be true of ANY genre (John Norman’s GOR books come to mind for Science Fiction) so why is Romance so picked on? The idea that ‘romance’ isn’t ‘real’ writing or worthy of anyone but middle-aged women with no other outlets to read.

I was reading through Diana’s blogs** and I found this:

     “Robert Louis Stevenson – One of the earliest and best of the romance writers—back when “romance” meant adventure and excitement, escape from daily life. TREASURE ISLAND? KIDNAPPED? THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE? The titles alone are enough to transport you, but the clean prose and vivid characters bring you back again and again.”

So what the heck happened? Why do many intelligent women now have to gloss over the idea of reading a good romance? It is other people’s perception of what the genre is or is not, and it’s so very wrong. Ok, yeah…..there is a whole sub-genre of ‘bodice rippers’ out there. There are people that like them or they wouldn’t sell. Fine. But that one little sub-genre should not dictate the image of the entire grouping.

Just so you all know – I read romance. I tend to lean toward the paranormal ones or romantic suspense, but a straight up romance is sometimes just what I need. There are some great romance authors out there. A favorite is JR Ward who writes the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Yeah, they are vampires – but they are kick ass warriors with attitude. I found Grey Goose because of these books. (No worries, whisky is still my favorite.) These books are all about how these big tough guys melt for their ladies, protect them and treat them right while keeping innocent humans from getting pulled into their war. The stories are good, interwoven between books, consistent and smart. What I love is the characters and the snark. The sarcastic, snarky dialogs seem to draw me to most of my favorites. I would pick up a Harlequin Historical or the Intrigue (yeah those little purple ones) and read them on lunch. Short, easy reads that I didn’t have to concentrate on because I was constantly interrupted – but decent stories for what they were. Some of the best known, biggest authors started out writing for Harlequin – but people don’t realize that. (Nora Roberts comes to mind here. Janet Evanovich, Iris Johansen and Kay Hooper wrote for Loveswept which is similar and I’m sure there are lots more.)

I too had a really bad image of ‘romance’ for a long time. I picked up a Nora Roberts trilogy bound into a single book for a dollar at a book store sale so gave it a try. I was really rather impressed. I read a lot of her early stuff in a 6 – 12 month period just because of what I was going through mentally and emotionally at the time. I got burned out on her though as the more she writes the more alike the stories seem to be. There are several authors that do ‘highland’ romances and I tend to snag those if I’m feeling the urge for such a book. As you will see from my previous post, I have now discovered  JD Robb books (aka Nora Roberts) and loving them. Like Outlander, there is a serious, sensual, deep ‘love story’ as a main thread in the books – but they are murder mysteries with a kick-ass female protagonist. Go Eve.

There is another whole sub-genre of ‘romances’ called ‘Love Inspired’ that are basically a Christian romance novel. NO sex, the couple might kiss….maybe. Very wholesome, well thought out stories but in the same short, quick read format. Lots of morals and values. These too have a ‘suspense’ category and surprisingly Amish/Quaker stories are incredibly popular. Interesting fact: the Love Inspired books are a division of – you guessed it – Harlequin.

It’s too bad that Romance has gotten such a bad name in the literary world. There is a place for these books just as there are every genre out there. There are things I just don’t read because I don’t enjoy them. I’m not a big ‘horror’ fan – I’ve never read Stephen King (with the exception of Salem’s Lot because – you know – vampires) though I guess his books are supposed to be really good. I had customers recommend Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett to me over and over saying it was the greatest novel they had ever read – I gave up about a quarter of the way in because I just couldn’t get into his writing style. Well done characters, magnificent architectural detail, but not a style of writing I enjoyed reading. My dad shuns ‘romance’ yet loves the Eve Duncan books by Iris Johansen – who started out and still writes romance. He is also the one that got me started reading the JD Robb books which he is reading through a second time. Different strokes.

Is Nicolas Sparks a ‘romance’ writer? I got heated debate on that one. I haven’t read him yet (so many books, never enough time) but I had people look for him in both romance and general fiction. I shelved him in general fiction – that was my choice in my department. Because he was a guy? Hmmmm…maybe. Hadn’t really thought about that. What about Audrey Niffenegger and the Time Traveler’s Wife? What about Sense and Sensibility? IS it actually a “romance”?

Genres and shelving classifications are a necessary evil in my mind. You group like books together so people who are looking for something specific have far fewer books to look through to find what they want. Then there is the problem of authors who cross genres and drove me nuts! Do you cheat and put all their books together in the area they are most known for or shelve the books by genre even if that means having the author show up in three different places?

Personally, I like a heterogeneous library. I read all sorts of books from self-help to humor to romance to spy novels and everything in between. I go on binges of fantasy/sci-fi and a newer category is ‘urban fantasy’. (Back to my love of sarcastic, solid characters with great interaction, I found the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher to be a really fun read. Some good underlying truths and morals in there too if you bother to look.) Books I read, like people I hang out with, tend to be so much more than can be pigeonholed into boxes.

In my very humble opinion – Outlander is NOT a “romance” by the current definition. To label it this does it a huge disservice to the depth and scope that it has. Like any truly great, classic work of literature it has romance, and adventure and intrigue and betrayal and real life staring back at you. It didn’t happen, but it could have. These are characters – and great friends. To put it simply, and something I think we can all agree on, it’s a thumping good story that can be recommended to just about anyone who likes to read in any genre.

I know this is long – a lot to cover. I’d really love comments & discussion on this! Thoughts as to  why Outlander is still perceived this way and what can we as lovers of the story perhaps do to help adjust that perception.


**OH! Side note here! For any who have not taken the time to read through her blogs – you are SOOOOOOO missing out. I just skimmed looking for some things to add in this blog and spent a couple of hours just immersed in thorough enjoyment.