There’s Romance . . . And Then There’s Romance

Interesting back-and-forth between @wildchildeditor and @Patti_OShea today: Why does Amazon classify books like Frankenstein and The Scarlet Letter as romances?

Actually, these are romances. The label Romantic originally referred to the intellectual reaction to the neoclassical values of the Enlightenment. Think of the Enlightenment – often referred to as the Age of Reason – as the period just before the American Revolution. The Romantic Period started roughly there and went strong to about 1832.

Some movers and shakers of the Enlightenment:

John Locke — the tabula rasa (blank slate) guy. He said we are born as a blank slate and become who we are through our experience in the world. He was all about nurture, not nature. So you can see why the Enlightenment crowd tended to deny that a person could be inherently evil.

This kind of thinking lead to disaster for the ruling classes: If people were not inherently evil . . . well, then, maybe they also were not inherently slaves — or kings, either, for that matter! Revolution!!! Freedom! Dignity for all! Competence, not birthright, justified power over others. Until the Enlightenment, monarchs ruled because God made them monarchs, and servants served because God made them servants; trying to change one’s place on the Great Chain of Being was an insult to one’s creator.

While this idea was percolating among the thinkers of the day, the actual do-ers were out circumnavigating the world, discovering The Longitude, steam power, electricity, and the existence of gases, “discovering” inoculation (was it God’s will a child should die of smallpox when there was a way to prevent it?) and generally demonstrating Man’s dominion over the world (though Woman was creeping into the fray, nano-bit by nano-bit.)

So, the Enlightenment – and this is an oversimplification – led to rules of social organization based on principles of science, control informed by reason, order, progress for the common good, and belief in Man’s perfectibility. (But don’t be misled; not all – not even a majority – of Enlightenment thinkers had any love for democracy. At best, they were ambivalent, more wary of the rabble than of the monarchy.) If the Enlightenment had any god, it was Apollo, lover of skills like music and medicine, and of order and self-control.

You can see artistic expressions of Enlightenment values in Mozart’s music, notably in The Magic Flute; in the written works of Voltaire, notably Candide.

Visually, see the formal gardens at Versailles.


Romanticism was a reaction against all this formal, rational, utilitarian order. The romantic championed individual over collective experience, the hidden over the obvious, the preternatural over the natural. Dionysos was his or her god.

The romantic rebelled against imposed order and sought not to be enlightened but to be inspired. Sublime! was the word of the day — denoting a natural world more powerful than human intervention. (Which is why Frankenstein is a romantic work: Dr. Frankenstein met with disaster when he tried to subvert the laws of nature.) Feeling took precedent over thought.

A Romantic hero was, as Lady Caroline Lamb said, mad, bad and dangerous to know.

As @wildchildeditor tweeted:

@likari @Patti_OShea It’s interesting to see how much the concept of what makes romance has changed and stayed the same.

Posted in Theory. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “There’s Romance . . . And Then There’s Romance”

  1. Marci Baun Says:

    Interesting post. As the Enlightenment was a movement away from spirituality, a reaction as you would to Middle Ages and their way of thinking, and toward rationalism, science, etc, you could also claim that the Romantic period was a move back to a more spiritual way of looking at things. Not quite as it had been in the Middle Ages, but the interpretation that fit the Romantic Era. The word “inspired” has its roots in the Latin word “inspirare” meaning “breathe or blow into” but with the connotation that ideas, thoughts, etc, came from a divine being.

    And while, technically, Frankenstein and The Scarlet Letter are romance, they fit in this genre in the loosest sense of what the word has come to mean to people now outside of the literary circles.

    That being said, Amazon has a powerful computerized catalog. One would think they could classify books into multiple subgenres as most indie pubs and smaller distributors do on their websites. So many books any more cannot be pigeon-holed into one genre, but often straddle two, three, or more of them. For instance, a novel could be paranormal and vampire and horror or romance and shape shifter and paranormal or sci-fi and mystery and… Most people have a preferred genre (or genres). By cataloguing books in all of the genres that are applicable, sales would most likely increase as it would simplify the search for the consumer, inducing them to spend more. The way it is now, it can frustrate the reader.

  2. likari Says:

    I agree with everything you wrote, including the fact that Amazon is losing out as much as the reader by frustrating sales.

    Not only do people have preferred genres, but some people (like me) sometimes need to have a new-to-me genre pointed out. I can’t try something new if I don’t know it’s there!

  3. Patti O'Shea Says:

    I’m not arguing that in the Literature definition these books are romances, but if I walked into Borders looking for “The Scarlet Letter,” I wouldn’t head for the Romance section. I’d head for Fiction or perhaps a Classics section. In a bricks and mortar bookstore, romance is defined as genre fiction with a promised happy ending. I expected the same parameters at Amazon.

    Now here’s my scenario. It’s lunch hour at the Evil Day Job, I can only spend a few minutes browsing books and I want to look at romances. The genre kind of romance, not the literature definition kind. I clicked through 56 pages (I checked before I closed the browser window) and found maybe a handful of titles that fit what I was after. I’m frustrated at this point because it’s ridiculous that 99% of what I’m seeing is not what I’m looking for. I end up buying nothing because I can’t find what I want.

    So while strictly speaking, Amazon’s classification isn’t wrong, it doesn’t help sell books and it doesn’t help readers find books. With bookstores closing across the country (Borders just shut (or is about to shut) in the neighborhood of 200 stores), being able to browse online becomes more critical for readers to find new-to-them authors. I have no problem locating a book on Amazon if I know which author or title I want, but browsing? Today was far from a success in my eyes. Probably far from a success in Amazon’s eyes, too, since I gave up without buying anything. How many other browsers are going to check out 56 pages before they give up? I’m guessing not many.


  4. likari Says:

    So while strictly speaking, Amazon’s classification isn’t wrong, it doesn’t help sell books and it doesn’t help readers find books.

    This is the crucial point! So true.

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