Categories: The Bastard Children of Romance

Harlequins2 Last week on our message boards a discussion arose about category romances – specifically, whether or not one reads them and why. For those of you who don’t know, categories (a.k.a. “series romances”) are the shorter, usually numbered books released each month by Harlequin, Silhouette or Love Inspired(Steeple Hill) in the U.S., and Mills and Boon in the U.K. Currently, Harlequin publishes more than 2 dozen different category lines, and there are numerous obsolete lines in the publisher’s history. (Harlequin also publishes single-titles under the MIRA and HQN imprints.)

To avoid confusion with single-title romances that are part of a series, but are not “series romances” – like Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series – I’ll use the term “category” when referring to category/series romances.

Whether the discussion takes place in Romanceland or in real life, invariably the same reasons are trotted out for refusing to read categories and dismissing them all out of hand. Sadly, these reasons mirror many of the reasons non-romance readers give for dismissing Romances. Hey, there’s nothing like being discriminated against within your own minority, is there?

So, what are these reasons for writing-off all categories like they’re the Bastard Children of Romance?

#1 – Silly/Computer-Generated Titles
This argument mirrors the standard disparagement of Romances based on the bodice-ripping clinch covers the genre is famous for. You know, the argument that reasons all Romances should be dismissed as unworthy because the covers clearly illustrate what they really are: trashy women’s porn. Because, don’t we all know that a book’s cover is a reliable indicator of its quality? So, using the same reasoning, we should dismiss all category romances as being silly because, if the title is silly, clearly the book must be too. Right?

Now, I will admit, that I too cringe at many category romance titles. (Just like I’ve cringed at many a Romance cover.) Titles like The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl, The Tuscan Tycoon’s Pregnant Housekeeper, and The Millionaire’s Misbehaving Mistress make me gag, and titles like Covert Cootchie-Cootchie-Coo and Pregnesia – the story of a pregnant amnesiac – make me wonder, “What in the hell were they thinking?”

Of course, there are also many category lines whose titles aren’t any sillier than your average single-title Romance, but those lines don’t seem to have the same visibility with non-category readers as lines like Harlequin Presents. Just like non-Fabio/non-bodice-ripping covers don’t have the same visibility with non-romance readers. Basically, it boils down to this: Judging a book’s quality based solely on its title is about as reliable as judging a Romance based solely on its cover. Which is to say: not reliable at all.

#2 – No Character/Plot Depth
This argument mirrors the claim that Romances lack depth, but non-category readers are using the reasoning that less pages necessarily equals less quality. Evidently, quality is determined by the quantity of words, not how those words are put together.

As any long-time category reader will tell you, quality depends on the author, not the word count. Just because there’s an extra 100 pages tacked onto a book, that alone isn’t going to make the quality of writing any better. Many authors excel at the shorter category format – authors who make you wonder how in the world she made you feel all that in such a short amount of time.

#3 – They’re Formulaic
Where non-romance readers argue that Romances are too formulaic, non-category readers argue the same about categories. There are too many Secret Babies. Because, apparently, there aren’t a million and one single-title Secret Baby stories out there.

To me, the argument that categories are more “formulaic” than single-titles is ridiculous. One of the most popular features at AAR is dedicated to readers’ favorite familiar plot-devices and character types, and the lists consist mostly of single-titles. If that doesn’t indicate that we all like certain “formulas,” I don’t know what does. Frankly, Harlequin is just taking the work out of readers’ hands by grouping the books for us so we can easily find exactly the “type” of Romance we’re looking for – no Special Title Listing needed.

And if you don’t like reading about the virgin mistresses of ruthless billionaires, try one of the other two dozen category lines – because they aren’t all Harlequin Presents.

#4 – I Read One and It Sucked
Like non-romance readers who claim all Romances suck based on one bad reading experience, non-category readers often claim that they read a “Harlequin” (a.k.a. category) that sucked, ergo all “Harlequins” suck. Because choosing one book among thousands is an excellent method of determining the worth of an entire literary genre – or group within a genre, as the case may be.

Yes, there are many lackluster categories on the shelves. But guess what: there are a whole lot of lackluster single-titles out there too. For readers who steadfastly rely on reviews to avoid them this may not be readily apparent, but trust me, they’re out there.

Finally, I also suspect that some of the disparagement for categories stems from readers not realizing that some of their favorite books are actually categories. That’s right: Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Ann Krentz, Suzanne Brockmann, and Linda Howard are just a few of the (now) big name authors who wrote category romances. It was after they became well-known that their category books were reissued as non-categories. Roberts’ MacGregors; Crusie’s Anyone But You and Getting Rid of Bradley; Brockmann’s Tall, Dark & Dangerous; Howard’s Mackenzies – all were written as part of a category line, and all are frequently listed on readers’ favorite books lists.

So here’s a challenge for non-category readers: Find a fellow reader whose taste is similar to yours, ask what her Top 5 category romances are, then read them. Maybe your opinion won’t change. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be opening the doors to a whole new world of books. Wouldn’t that be grand?

For you category readers, feel free to share your Top 5 category romances of all time in the comments section. Maybe you’ll inspire a fellow reader to expand her horizons.

–Katie Mack

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