Why a Romance Novel is Like a Sonnet

One of the things I hear a lot when people talk about romance novels is, “oh, but they’re so formulaic!” That is a true statement, but what bothers me is that people say it like it’s a bad thing. “Formulaic” is often equated with boring, unoriginal, and low-quality work. I’m writing this post to remind everyone that the art of writing has involved the use of formulas and restrictive patterns for centuries. Take, for instance, that venerable poetic form, the sonnet.

By definition, sonnets conform to a precise formula that dictates both a set rhyme scheme, and the internal rhythm of each line. According to the Academy of American Poets, sonnets also “adhere to a tightly structured thematic organization.” Not only is the external structure of the poem controlled, but to some extent its content as well.

So, are sonnets less beautiful and interesting because they follow a strict formula? Precisely the opposite! The restrictions of poetic form are a tool to help poets unlock the beautiful and interesting things about language. Sure, lots of mediocre sonnets get written that are nothing more than exercises in following a pattern. It takes skill, talent, and artistry to fill that old formula with a unique vision. But over hundreds of years, the sonnet has pulled incredibly powerful poetry out of the brains of some of the greatest poets in the world.

What does all this have to do with romance novels, you ask? Well, romance novels adhere to a strict pattern too. One might even call it a formula: two people meet, sparks fly, complications ensue, conflict arises, complications get untangled, and cue the happy ending! When I’m on a romance kick, I sometimes burn through three or four a week, and they all pretty much follow that pattern. I don’t get bored, because the artistry of a romance novel isn’t in surprising plot twists. It’s about how the author uses that formula to explore her characters, to explore the idea of love and identity, to explore the strengths and failings of her culture, to explore the human condition and examine human dreams.

What makes a really good romance novel so delicious is the endless variety possible within a familiar pattern. Is Nora Roberts less of an artist because all her books follow pretty much the same plot arc? Or is she more of an artist because she has re-imagined the same plot hundreds of times, and always finds something compelling in it?

Generally speaking, romance novels don’t lay claim to great literary insight or artistry. It’s the only literary genre dominated by women, and we’ve learned the risks of laying claim to anything men might value too highly. And so I think romance writers and readers tend to undersell the genre.

I’m not saying all romance novels are great works of art, but there’s something vital at the core of the genre. Like the sonnet, it’s a restrictive form that many use badly; some do it well, and a very few do it exceptionally. Every time I find myself saying, apologetically, “oh, just a trashy romance novel” when someone asks me what I’m reading, I want to kick myself. Because I think romance has huge potential to produce books that are entertaining, insightful, and even revolutionary. And I think it’s silly to disparage a whole genre based on its repetitive, formulaic nature, when that formula is actually what makes it great.

I love sonnets, and I love romance novels, and from now on I’m going to read both of them equally proudly.