So, I’ve been away for a while. Between birthdays, a trip to Texas for my brother’s wedding, re-releasing “My Antarctica” and getting “Scarlet’s Game” wrapped up for a release on October 26th, managing House Unicron and so on, it’s been quite busy. Add into this various physical injuries, a mess of client work and a member of my House departing to pursue new dreams, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’ve been quiet here.
Things have finally calmed down, and someone pressed The Big Red Button. So, let’s talk about that. Y’all seem to like it when Uncle J.S. gets aggro, and I’ve got PLENTY to say about this one.
It all started with this hot take from an author named Nick Younker on Twitter.
On average, people who read or watch
#horror are smarter than those who subscribe to comedy, romance, thriller, action or superhero fiction. There’s no confirmed reason why, but theory suggests it forces you to intimately analyze the actions of characters. #HalloweenMovie #IARTG
My (predictable) response to this was, “Huh? What?
OH NO HE DIDN’T!”
Now, I could have just tweeted back something along the lines of, “K…but you wrong, though.”
And I thought about saying exactly that. But instead, I started thinking about all the reasons this is objectively, factually incorrect. So, I decided to go through and dissect this out in long form, rather than trying to fit it all into a Twitter thread and deal with the inherent limitations therein. Feel free to chime in below in the comments section with your opinions or FACT-BASED refutations, if you have them. (Note: The plural of “anecdote” is not data, and if you’re just going to tell me it’s “common knowledge,” save your fingers the keyboard stress.)
Romance is not a genre unto itself. Rather, it is a hybrid, an amalgamation of other genres over which the story of people meeting and falling in love is superimposed. We could fairly argue in many cases it would be more accurate to say “Sci-Fi/Romance” or “Fantasy/Romance” or “Paranormal/Romance,” etc. The reason romance is considered a genre in its own right, although I firmly believe this is not entirely accurate and yes, I’m aware this is a somewhat radical heresy coming from me, is because it places the love story and the promise of an emotionally satisfying Happily Ever After, or HEA, front and center. If you take away the conventions of romance, you still have pirates and undead minions and evil sorceresses and poltergeists and contemporary lit and and and and AND.
Romance is HARD to write well. Not only do you have the tropes of romance to contend with, but also the tropes and expectations of the OTHER genres in which you’re writing. If you’re writing sci-fi horror, for example, your love story has to make sense against that backdrop. You have multiple opposing forces in play, and juggling them all to satisfy readers of each genre while still creating something greater than the sum of its parts is a daunting task at best. I can speak to this from personal experience, and believe the vast majority of romance authors would concur with this assessment.
Romance keeps the publishing industry afloat. More than half of all paperback books sold in the US are romances, and romance is the single most hotly contested genre on Amazon, with the top earners being in the romance genre, followed by suspense/thriller/mystery. Additionally, and tellingly, Mark Coker of Smashwords reported in 2015 that LGBT fiction increased sales on Smashwords by 200%, and romance took off by 42%. Horror and its variants were not among the genres and subgenres demonstrating such an increase.
Romance is informing AI. In 2016, JSTOR Daily noted Google was feeding thousands of romance novels into its experimental AI system to increase its conversational tone and thus its perceived “humanness.” Why not other genres? Surely Dashiell Hammett or Clive Barker or Mary Shelley or Dickens or Hemingway or the Bronte sisters would do just as well, right?
As it happens, the entire point of feeding romance novels specifically into the system is twofold.
First, romance is generally written in a more conversational tone, with less “highfalutin” language, than many other genres. (Every rule has its exceptions.) Second, the entire point of giving a nascent AI net romance to read is to serve as the first test of true “humanlike” intelligence in that the system can not only read these works, but choose between them and express both preference and a range of potential reactions from delight to neutrality to disdain or even disgust. Since horror is designed specifically to highlight the negative aspects of the primal being, it contains so many self-limitations as to exclude itself from validity as a test of AI viability, whereas romance by its nature suffers none of these.
Romance is finally being taken seriously by academia. I remember when I was at university not that long ago, a certain writing professor informed me that romance was a trash genre written by trash people. After all, if romance was so great, why weren’t people studying it seriously in the same way they do “litturatooooooooor [sic],” horror and “The Greats?” When I pointed out to him that several universities had actually started doing so, he harrumphed and made some crack about “fourth-tier cow colleges.” For the record, I got a C- in his class, and I didn’t give much of a damn.
But the fact is, yes, horror and lit have been around the block a lot longer than romance in terms of time and grant funds tied to examining it from a serious academic standpoint. This has provoked an unjust prejudice across broad swathes of academia that romance is formulaic, derivative and unworthy of consideration. Such a charge which might have been fair in Barbara Cortland’s day, but as Stephen King wrote in The Dark Tower, the world has moved on. For now, romance is still considered a bit of a sideshow, but given twenty years or so, what the academics of twenty years ago considered “pop culture garbage” will be given the same weight as horror, which was treated the same way in the 1960s by the so-called great minds of the day.
Romance deals with the best, and worst, of the human condition. Horror is specifically designed to elicit negative emotions such as fear, dread, anxiety and anger. Romance deals with the entire spectrum of human emotions, in every conceivable combination. However, romance does offer a safety net horror does not: the expectation that in the end, love WILL triumph over all and the people involved WILL enjoy a happy ever after, or at least a happy for now. This means readers can look at even the darkest horror tropes with a subconscious assurance that everything will somehow turn out all right, no matter how grim things become for the MCs. Both genres can deal about equally with transgressive topics, but how they are played out on the page will obviously be different for romance as opposed to horror, and the intent of the writer will likely be different as well.
There is ZERO objective peer-reviewed evidence to indicate a predilection for horror makes readers or writers more intelligent than those who produce and consume other forms of fiction.
I was unable to find so much as one study, not ONE notation, footnote or allusion which bolstered the assertion that horror producers and consumers are in any way superior to producers and consumers of romance or any other sort of fiction. Rather, the (little) research I was able to find seems to indicate male producers and consumers of horror do so in order to get in touch with their feminine sides in a socially-acceptable way, whereas male producers and consumers of romance seem to largely dispense with such pretenses and just get on with it. Leaving this to one side, consumers of fiction in general who can fully lose themselves in the story and read it as an immersive experience seem to have more empathy and a higher emotional intelligence than those who do not.
Finally, let me refute the idea that horror “forces readers to intimately analyze the actions of characters.”
This is no more or less true in horror than in any other genre. Some stories demand close reading, looking for the breadcrumbs and Easter eggs which the reader might have missed when reading for pure enjoyment. Some do not. Some stories elicit a need in the reader to look backward for clues which might foreshadow the impending action. Some do not. Not every villain has motivations which require close reading to apprehend, and not every hero acts in uniformly heroic ways all the time. Some readers will be analytical in their consumption, either through training or inclination, while others will not. Thus, stating this as a defining characteristic of horror producers and consumers is at best a broad-brush treatment, and at worst wildly inaccurate.
There is no particular reason to throw shade on, or attempt to promote, either genre based on intelligence of consumers, and in fact the lack of objective peer-reviewed studies on genre readers rather than consumers of fiction in general seems to bolster this assertion. I freely admit that I do not have access to every journal out there, nor did I look more than three pages deep on Google for any of my searches. Therefore, the possibility must be acknowledged that such research does exist and I simply did not encounter it in my preparation for this post.
If this is the case, and someone can provide a citation to such research, I’m perfectly happy to examine it in toto and evaluate it on its merits. However, the research provided herein indicates the “My genre is better than your genre” tone of the hot take which started all this may not be quite as cut and dried as it appears. In fact, exactly the opposite appears to be in play.
If we’re comparing apples to apples, based on factual available data, it actually appears romance is the superior genre in just about every metric except academic consideration, and we’re catching up there too. From sales to AI, it’s romance, not horror, which is leading the charge, and dismissing romance as the realm of the uneducated, undiscerning or unsophisticated is a woeful mischaracterization bordering on outright calumny.
Sorry, Nick. It was a valiant effort.
Image credit: KBURD at KnowYourMeme.com.