Should Dystopian Romance be a Separate Category?

Recently on GoodReads, fellow Apocalypsie Jay Kristoff wrote the following rather provocative status update:

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

This started an intense debate in the comments about genre definitions, expectations, and the marginalization of female sci-fi writers. Author Phoebe North has a great post about the debate at the Intergalactic Academy. In it she questions the idea that the presence of romance in a dystopian work makes it somehow less sci-fi and states that woman writers get called out for including romance while male writers do not. She asks:

"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?"

It's an interesting question, to be sure.  

For what it's worth, my genre definition of dystopia is fairly inclusive.  During my Dystopian theme months at Presenting Lenore, I include dystopians, post-apocalyptics and even some sci-fi with dystopian elements.  Having read well over 100 novels of this persuasion, I've discovered that dystopians can fall into a number of sub-categories, from horror (Alexander Gordon Smith's ESCAPE FROM FURNACE series) to satiric comedy (Megan McCafferty's BUMPED and THUMPED) to action/adventure (THE HUNGER GAMES, among many others).  

Some dystopian novels definitely come off as more romance-driven than others, but that doesn't mean they aren't "real dystopians." Though, as more publishers try to cash in on the label dystopian, often mislabeling books just to ride the trend, I can see where readers would feel betrayed. BUT this is not limited to the sub-genre romance.  In fact, my problems with mislabeling have come far more with action/adventure type books than anything else. 

Fortunately for readers, it's usually pretty obvious from the cover and summary of a novel what the main focus will be.  So if you don't want to read a "dystopian romance," stay away from "girls in pretty dresses" covers and run if the summary mentions "a mysterious boy".

What do you think? Should there be a separate category for dystopian romances? What about dystopian horror? Dystopian action/adventure? Dystopian comedies? Would stricter labeling be useful to you as a reader or a burden? Tell us in the comments!


Gabrielle Prendergast said...

I think it's fair for romance to be a sub category of any category. Most of the readers will be girls, but they are a bigger market anyway. I'd much rather have a reader who has never read sci-fi at all, pick something up because it is romantic than a reader read a romance because it looks like sci-fi. Romance helps to blur the barriers to "boy" genres (action, sci fi etc)

L.L. Muir said...

I suppose I'd like to be warned if a book is dystopian horror, which is probably the same argument.
But seriously, I expect to be able to tell from the blurb which subgenre it will fall into. If he's miffed about the time wasted reading blurbs, then HE MUST NOT HAVE TIME TO READ A WHOLE FREAKING BOOK.

Just sayin'.

Kerimichelle said...

I like when you said, "dystopians can fall into a number of sub-categories". Different branches on the same tree.

As long as the stories fall under the parameters of what makes up a dystopian novel, I don't see why some romance, or horror, or action would make it anything else.

A kiss does not undo the world created in a Dystopian novel. Was there not a love affair in 1984?

Lenore Appelhans said...

Gabrielle - The question is, then, what do you label as romance? Who decides? How much romantic content does there have to be? Would someone miss out on great dystopian worldbuilding in a book (not just "dirty windows") like DELIRIUM because it has a major romantic plot? Would Mike Mullin's ASHFALL be labeled as a romance? Or Patrick Ness' CHAOS WALKING trilogy? Both have major romantic plotlines.

Lenore Appelhans said...

L.L. - Horror is not my favorite either. But there definitely are buzzwords in the summaries of such books that warn me to stay away!

Lenore Appelhans said...

Kerimichelle - Yes. 1984 had a romance. But I doubt anyone would classify it as a "dystopian romance"...

Kerimichelle said...

I think my point was missed somehow. Perhaps it's the late hour. Maybe I'm only making sense in my head... My point by referencing the love affair in 1984 was to make a point that it wasn't a dystopian romance.

There are pretty clear guidelines to what makes a dystopian novel. I think as long as those are met, then it falls in that genre. Should there be a sub-category, such as romance, or horror, etc... It doesn't make it less of a dystopia.

You asked if there should be stricter labeling, if there should be a separate category. I think not. A distopian romance/horror/action/adventure is still just a dystopian novel.

That's all I was trying to say. Now I'm wondering if this post even makes sense. Ah, whatever.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Kerimichelle - I know what you meant :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

It depends on what the focus of the story is. If the book is dystopian, with a romance in the background, then it's dystopian. If the book's a romance set in a dystopian world, then it's romance. How much of the actual story is spent fostering more of one aspect over the others? That should determine the genre; the rest is set-dressing.

Suzan said...

Some random thoughts here:

Publishing companies have long attempted to classify novels down to minutia to target audiences. Sub genre-branding can be tiresome for writers who write either cross-genre stories, or stories with additional elements, like romance, horror, humor, etc..

Dystopian novels, as a rule, are not plot formulaic, but setting formulaic. Much different than category romance or mystery. Romance novels follow a specific plot formula, as do mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense novels.

Just because a dystopian novel contains a love story or elements of horror, or even humor, does not mean it should be re-classified or thrown into a sub-genre. If it meets the dystopian criteria first and foremost, then it is a dystopian novel.

Readers are smart enough to figure out whether a story leans toward romance, or horror, or humor.

All of my dystopian writings contain a love story, and are character-driven. I consider them dystopian. Period.

My espionage stories also contain romance elements. They are still espionage, and not romance.

I'd hate for my novels to be shoved into some sub-genre, because I think they would appeal to both men and women.

The difference is that the ROMANCE is not the plot, like in romance novels. It's just one of many plot elements.

Hope this makes sense. Haven't had my coffee yet. :-)

Renee said...

"Just because a dystopian novel contains a love story or elements of horror, or even humor, does not mean it should be re-classified or thrown into a sub-genre."

Absolutely. As a reader this pigeonholing is annoying and truly unhelpful. When I'm looking at a book, and deciding if it looks interesting, I'm looking at the broader themes and storylines. It makes sense that a book about people might have a touch of humanity--which can at times *gasp* include love or relationships.

Making that marginal, or the mark of a lesser work, is RIDICULOUS. And the thing is, this kind of sex-love-relationships stuff can be SO subjective.

I also wonder if this is a debate going on just in the U.S.? Is this another hit over the head with the ol' Puritanical cudgel? Enough already.

Tere Kirkland said...

Sure, I am a woman, but I enjoy a little romance in any genre. I mean, as humans we are constantly experiencing sexual tension. Romance is a common subplot, and it certainly doesn't take away the credibility an author has established in the main plot.

A true romance ends with a greater emphasis on the love story than the repercussions of the final conflict.

But YA shares something with romance that not all other genre fiction does... A happy ending. Even if the YA ending can't truly be called "happy", there is usually an element of hope and a promise of change for the better.

If you don't want romance in your dystopian, read the blurb.

Jaime Morrow said...

I think putting romantic dystopians in a category of their own is kind of ridiculous. If we were to do this with every genre that happens to have romance (in whatever dose) in it, we'd have WAY too many categories and sub-categories. Who cares if there's romance in dystopian books?

Well, and like others have stated, the blurb on the jacket usually gives a pretty strong indication of whether or not romance factors in. If you don't want romance in your dystopian books, don't read it then.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

There are so many books crossing and sharing so many genres and subgenres that I don't think we need anything quite that specific. I think it's better to just "label" them with multiple genres, if necessary.

Sallie Mazzur said...

I feel that the big misconception for all genre's of books is that the majority of book sales are in the moment decisions. If I am looking into a book that I want to buy, I find out enough information so that I can determine if I'll like it or not. But most people browse book shelves in person at bookstores and make decisions on first impressions - whether it be the cover art/model, the front or back flap or just the back cover blurb. It gets difficult when you have people who are avid enough readers who are able to take the time to research or learn about a book before purchasing, and a person who picks up a book for the first time without any previous knowledge.

I took a women's studies class in college, (isn't that how all conversations start? haha) and we talked about how female characters are treated in Sci-Fi novels, as well as how women authors are compared to male authors and if women authors in the Sci-Fi genre treat female characters differently than male authors do. For example, this topic, which was taught over a course of 13 weeks with 75% of the class not really interested in the course material, just getting an easy A (which is a whole other topic on how college students think female literature is considered easy A classes...), there are so many sub-topics that we came across but did not have enough time to discuss. This is one of those ever changing and mostly negative aspects of the female gender. We're allowed to vote, but we can't be the head of our own households. Then we're allowed to have independence from men, but we're compared to them. I'm really not trying to sound like a feminist, because I actually hate the labeling of a person as a feminist, but COME ON. When are people going to get over the idea that women are inferior to men? Specifically, if an author says that a romantic dystopian is not dystopian because of the romance, that's just balogna. If people want to get literal, use a dictionary. Or, better yet, don't say something subjective. Oh wait! That's impossible.

Oh man, this went on for far too long. Anyways, thanks for sharing this post. Hopefully readers learn a lesson from picking up a book with pretty "girly font" and "girly crap" on the cover and not do it again without maybe, I don't know, opening the book and looking further into the story before putting money towards it.

Sallie Mazzur said...

Really really realllly sorry that ^^^ was so long!!

JustSarah said...

I like to think of it this way. I do exactly support reclassification per say. In fact I'm not against a romantic subplot.

What I don't want is a romance heavily centered around "Star Crossed Lovers." However unrequited love is perfectly fine. As long as its Subplot.

I played a cyberpunk game a long time ago, that even made "Star Crossed" lovers ok for that story.

But I think one story for "star crossed" lovers is more than enough. Thanks.:P