Friday, November 17, 2017

Is it time to retire the phrase "sweet romance"?

Author Barbara James, in the comments section of several recent RNFF blog posts, used the phrase "sweet romance" to describe her writing. At around the same time, other romance authors on several listservs to which I subscribe were complaining about the same term—"sweet romance"—as well as its counterpart,"clean romance," as a label or category. What, exactly, does "sweet romance" say to a potential reader? And why do some authors find the term problematic?

Barbara James pointed to one specific meaning when she noted in a comment, "But the sex [in my books] is closed door, because I don't think graphic sex scenes are necessary—these are sweet romances!"  By this definition, a "sweet romance" refers to any romance novel in which sex scenes are not depicted on the page.

[A brief digression here into bibliographic historiography; feel free to skip if you want to get directly into the whys & wherefores...

Who first began calling romances without sex "sweet"? I ran a Google Books phrase search for "sweet romance" between the dates 1970 and 1980, expecting to find the phrase turning up in this period, in reaction to the more graphic sensual historicals that poured out of New York publishing houses in the wake of Avon's 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. How could you have a "sweet" romance until you had a "sexy" romance with which to contrast it? Before Woodiwiss, all romances were what we today would term "sweet," so there would be no need to create such a label or category.

Google Books Advanced search was not of much help, unfortunately. It cites Ann Hampson's 1978 contemporary Harlequin romance, Sweet is the Web, includes an advertisement at the back for another series, Harlequin Historicals, which uses the phrase. But as this line did not begin publishing books until 1986, this must be a later reprint copy, rather than an original 1978 copy:

The broad, bold sweep of history and the quiet times of sweet romance—powerful, sinister lords doing evil deeds, and great ladies in gem-studded silks brushing against ragged beggars and homeless waifs (193)

The search noted the phrase appears in the Library of Congress's 1978 Catalog of Copyright Entries Third Series, although whether it appears as a descriptive phrase, the name of a line of books, or as the title of an individual book or books, one can't tell, as the search doesn't show an inside view of the book.

Google also cites the 1979 Australian Parliamentary Papers, and shows a tiny snippet from the book:

But this looks more like a book title than a descriptive phrase to me.

Moving on to 1981-1985 turns up a single citation, in the 1985 New York Times obituary of bestselling author Taylor Caldwell: "Not sweet romance but melodrama was her stock in trade, laced increasingly with her own conservative political opinions."

In fact, the term as used to refer to romances without sex only starts to show up on Google Books' radar in the 1990s, in guides to writers interested in writing romances, and in the works of librarians and scholars:

Wayne Barton and Kristen Ramsdell's What Do I Read Next? (1993) 
A Poetics of Criticism (1994)
Eve Paludan's The Writers' Pink Pages (1995)
David H. Bourcherding's Romance Writer's Sourcebook: Where to Sell Your Manuscripts (1996) 
Kristen Ramsdell's Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (1999)
Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón's North American Romance Writers (1999)

That the term doesn't appear very often before 1990 may be due to the fact that Google's Book search includes fewer books from before the Internet age. I'd be curious to know if anyone has pre-1990 romance novels that refer to themselves as "sweet romances," or which include the phrase "sweet romance" in their sell copy.

End of bibliographic/historiographic digression :-)]

Why do some authors get annoyed by the phrase "sweet romance"? The ones on the listservs I read had two main objections.

First, those who write romantic mysteries, or gothic romances, or other darker books with romance plotlines but which also did not include sex scenes, object that the term misrepresents what they are writing. Their novels may not include sex on the page, but books with haunted mansions, gruesome murders, and psychopath villains should by no means be termed sweet. To label them as such is to misrepresent their contents to potential readers.

Second, feminist-inclined readers object to the term because, taking a page from Deconstructionist literary criticism, they understand that the phrase serves as one half of a binary opposition. The other side of the opposition—"not sweet" romance, or "sexy" romance, (or, if we use the companion phrase, "clean romance," its opposite, "dirty" romance)—is not just other, but lesser. Because of the positive connotations that go along with the word "sweet, "sweet romance" becomes the positive term in the binary, while its opposite is held up as a negative: something to be avoided, shunned, or denigrated. Sweet romances do not feature sex; romances that do feature sex are therefore not sweet. The label "sweet romance" thus implies that sex is bad, shameful, a decidedly unfeminist position.

Why, then, do we not simply call romances that do not include sex scenes "no-sex romances" or "romances without sex"? I think in part because the term "sweet romance" carries some additional connotations, connotations that are about more than just sex.

I hear hints of these connotation when Barbara James brings up the phrase again, this time in a comment in response to an RNFF blog post about how to define "feminist romance":

I write sweet romances. So my characters might be seen as anti-feminist. They are in college, but they want to graduate with their Mrs. Degree, work, and have their first children by their mid-twenties. They would rather become stay at home moms, work from home, or work part time while their children are small.

"Sweet" here does not just refer, then, to the presence or absence of sex. "Sweet" is a political position packaged as a personal choice. It links not having sex (or not showing it on the page) with other personal choices: for a young woman to want to marry (a man); for her to want to have children by a certain age; for her to be the parent who remains at home with young children, rather than her husband. It never questions why certain women should want such things, or what role public policies and institutions might have played in shaping private, "personal" decisions.

Why can't a sweet romance feature a 40 year old heroine? A heroine who falls for another woman? A heroine who never wants to have children? Any of these storylines could be written without explicit sex scenes, couldn't they?

I'm guessing it is because "sweet" carries with it a whole lot of other meanings than just the sexual one.

What would you say to retiring the term "sweet romance" and replacing it with "romance without sex"? Or, in the case of the sweet romance in which "sweet" means just a little bit more, how about "traditional values romance"? Or "socially conservative romance"?

Photo/illustration credits:
Binary opposition: Slide Share


  1. I also dislike the term "sweet" and "clean" romance but, as an author who writes frothier, lighter books, I struggle to find a marketable description or an applicable category. My book isn't in the same sub-genre as hot/erotic romance. I have written some sex scenes but it's mainstream level and often my readers are just as happy leaving them out. I also wouldn't describe my romance as "traditional values" or "socially conservative" either. I've had 70+ heroines, happily child-free heroines, as well as gay and bi characters. But there also isn't sex on the page in many of my stories. I think the "romance without sex" is a bit clunky as a marketing term though. I really don't know where to categorize my books, to be honest, and it's a bit of a struggle at the moment. I think we tend to default to sweet/clean but it's a poor fitting category, TBH. Thanks for your discussion of this.

  2. Sorry--just one follow-up comment. I've heard readers describe what I'd call "soft conflict" books as sweet. I believe what they're referring to is romance that often overlaps with so-called "women's fiction" (another clunky term). The conflict isn't the "bad guys with guns" type of issues but more realistic, every day choices. That said, readers persist in describing my books as sweet so that's where I'll stay for the moment.

  3. I agree with Corrie that "romance without sex" is pretty clunky.

    And I certainly prefer "sweet" romance to "clean" romance, as terms go. I don't think that "sweet" is necessarily a positive term that implies there's something shameful about sexier books - I'd see it as a contrast to "spicy", really.

    If someone comes up with a better descriptive term, I'll train myself to use it, but "romance without sex" doesn't work, for me.

  4. That's... interesting. I've never seen those connotations for "sweet" mentioned before, and it certainly doesn't make me want to ever pick a "sweet romance" up.

    I do think we need a better term than "romance without sex" and I'm not sure there's just one phrase that will work. Even "romance without sex" can be ambiguous, since readers might have different opinions of what "sex" entails. I generally use "closed door,"and "sexual tension only" though they might not describe every book situation.

    The fact that some readers rail against extremely non-explicit books because they were expecting *squeaky* "clean" -- and have their own ideas about what that means -- shows how badly romance has dealt with this particular issue.

  5. How about "traditional" for no-sex/conservative values novels and "mainstream" as a broad non-historical category in which there's some sex, but it's neither heavily graphic nor the only thing going on in the book?

  6. Terms are often infused with personal experiences so they’ll often mean different things to different people even when there’s some consensus. But how about adapting the movie rating system with some tweaking. There’s a much wider consensus for it:
    G: General Audiences – suitable for all ages, some kissing but no suggestions of sex behind closed doors.
    GP: General with proviso–Suggestions of sex scenes behind closed doors
    R-S Restricted Steamy/Spicy
    R-E Restricted Erotica

  7. As a self described independent scholar, I can hardly see where the authority to define a sweet romance can come from such position, for the definition of sweet romance should be defined by the people who read the novels and from a collective academic authority. From these replies, I too am not alone in calling James' work sweet and romantic as a reader. I think the liberal feminism is out of touch with reality. It does not account for healthy normal functional relationships women can have; and this liberal feminist theme seems to be omnipresent throughout raunchy romance novels. Your question is irrelevant, I feel. I would call Jane Austen's works as "Sweet Romances".

    1. The problem with that is the inability of readers to find what they really want. As witness the books that are clean to one reader and raunchy to another.

      I'd also say that the author of this blog is well qualified to be part of a collective academic authority.

  8. Replies
    1. :-) I love it when a comment from a reader sparks my own thinking! I really appreciate your contributions to the conversation, Barbara.

  9. Fade to black is what I call most books where the sex scenes are closed. It's a movie term, but some might not like it. I'd like to stop calling those books "sweet" or "clean," yes please. I read them and like them as much as other romances that do not have closed-door sex scenes. But I wonder when an author uses that term for her own writing what she might think of me because I like more explicit sex scenes too. Am I not clean? Am I dirty? Am I not sweet?
    Some of my lovely liberal feminist friends, of which I am too, say I should own my not clean, not sweet title that others label me with. The problem is it hurts being called out of touch with reality, dirty, and not sweet. It just plain hurts.
    I want to read about sweetness and love and hope like everyone else. I don't care if there's sex scenes in the book or not, nor do I care about the color of the characters or their genders or sexualities, as long as the story's good. So then what does that make me?

  10. I call my romances sweet because I don't have sex scenes, although I can show my couples before and after sex. I also dislike the term "clean", which implies that sex is dirty. It's not. I just don't care to write sex scenes--I write comedy. Also, if you categorize a romance as "clean", Amazon will put it into the Inspirational category. Religion doesn't interest me, and I don't want my books there.

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