The surest way to irk Diana Gabaldon, whose latest novel, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, debuted atop the New York Times best-seller list last week, is to call her a romance writer. If so accused, she'll counter that her books are historical mysteries tinged with science-fiction, and that the love scenes are secondary. She has a point: There aren't too many Harlequin titles that include winking references to the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. Still, Gabaldon doesn't skimp on the heaving bosoms and heavy breathing.
If there's anything more irksome in that paragraph than Gabaldon's insistence that she doesn't write romance (presumably because she's more "literary" than that), it's this journalist's implication that 1) if a book includes "winking references" to long-dead Scottish authors, it's obviously too literary to be a romance, and 2) that including a profusion of "heaving bosoms and heavy breathing" is what makes a romance novel.
There's no rule that a romance can't be "literary". There's also no rule that bosoms must heave in a romance novel. According to Romance Writers of America,
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
A Central Love Story -- In a romance, the main plot concerns two people falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. The conflict in the book centers on the love story. The climax in the book resolves the love story. A writer is welcome to as many subplots as she likes as long as the relationship conflict is the main story.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending -- Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
Once the central love story and optimistic-ending criteria are met, a romance novel can be set anywhere and involve any number of plot elements.
I don't see anything there suggesting that a romance novel is precluded from being...uh, literary.
I haven't read Ms. Gabaldon's latest, but I did read Outlander, and I must insist that Ms. Gabaldon is a romance novelist. Here's more from the Slate article:
Despite Gabaldon's insistence that her books aren't romances, her earliest readers were, in fact, bodice-ripper fans—or, at the very least, people who enjoy juicy descriptions of bedroom gymnastics. Outlander actually won 1991's "Best Romance of the Year" award from the Romance Writers of America, an honor that Gabaldon claims was probably undeserved.
I'm going to do my best to ignore that "bodice-ripper" comment, because the larger point being made here is that according to RWA (and who would know better?) Diana Gabaldon is a romance novelist. I think so, too.