Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Subgenres: Rom-Coms

Bottom line: Do you like Rom-coms?

Holly: If a rom-com is done well, there’s nothing better. The problem is finding the ones that are done well.

Erin: I do really love them, but I typically don’t seek them out because the marketing is often so spectacularly bad for the label. 

Ingrid: I probably seek out rom-coms more than anything else, but I’ll also admit that I DNF these the most. With rom-coms, either the humor and romance are BOTH crackling, or it just doesn’t work.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Rom-com?

Holly: It needs to be a romance, and it needs to be funny. 

That sounds simple, but it isn’t always. For example, books by Jenny Holiday, Lucy Parker, and Kate Clayborn are sometimes called rom-coms—and they all have funny bits and excellent romance, but they also feature characters dealing with serious issues like grief, illness, or trauma. I do laugh when I read books by these authors, but I also cry buckets. 

Erin: My expectation is similar to Holly’s. When we were looking at what to read for this week, I reviewed several lists, and I’d already read most of the books included in them, and I would not have categorized them as rom-coms. The levity must outweigh the serious issues, so either the issues aren’t super heavy serious (think The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa) or the issues are presented in a humorous or sardonic way (think Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall).

Ingrid: I think both Erin and Holly make excellent points. And, I’ll admit that in retrospect some of the titles that moved me the most were rom-coms that elicited a very broad range of emotions.

What do you think is fun about the subgenre?

Erin: It’s specifically designed to evoke laughter and spark joy. Theoretically I suppose all romance – with all the happy and optimistic endings – should spark joy, but romantic comedies are designed to do so in a way that other stories are not. The catharsis of getting through an angsty book fills one emotional need, but the laughter that we get from rom-coms fills a completely different one. Which is why it’s such a bummer when the label isn’t right.

Ingrid: Well, laughing releases a lot of happy hormones the same way reading about love does. So I think rom-coms tend to really fill the reader up with a bubbly happiness that lingers, and I find that absolutely wonderful.

What do you find problematic about the subgenre?

Holly: This is not about the books in and of themselves, but rather about marketing. It seems like every contemporary romance is marketed as a “rom-com,” regardless of content. Part of this is that humor is really personal, so what one person finds humorous, another will find cringeworthy. Another is that people have different thresholds for how much humor is needed for a book to be a comedy. Should I be rolling on the floor laughing the whole time? Can it also deal with serious topics? How much seriousness can balance the levity before a book becomes more a contemporary romance with some jokes than a rom-com? 

To give a specific example, I picked up Three Little Words by Jenny Holiday because all of the cover blurbs talk about how funny this book is. Imagine how shocked I was to discover that the heroine had an eating disorder and the hero was a recovering drug addict who was estranged from his parents. Let’s just say this book was not all sunshine and rainbows and I felt very lied to. (It was still an excellent book.)

Erin: This is also not specifically problematic as such (though it can certainly veer into that space), but as Holly mentioned, the humor is subjective, and sometimes that doesn’t jive with the reader. Maybe the book is completely absurd, and the reader has no patience for that, so they say it’s not funny. Maybe it’s full of banter, and the reader doesn’t enjoy it, so they say it’s not funny. I often fall into a category where I don’t think that the behavior of the characters is particularly amusing because their maturity levels don’t seem to match whatever my expectations are for them. OR – and this is where the actually problematic stuff comes in – maybe the jokes are made at the expense of others in order to get a laugh, and that’s just not cool. 

Holly: Erin’s totally right. I definitely DNFed a book marketed as a rom-com because all the jokes were of the Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus school of thought, with a sprinkling of fat-shaming thrown in for good measure. (It was Hot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis.)

Ingrid: YES. I can pretty easily skate right past jokes that just don’t land with me, but nothing makes me walk away from rooting for a relationship like watching a hero or a heroine crack jokes at someone else’s expense, or play up tired and hurtful stereotypes. And I love banter, but when it’s just constant one-upmanship, that’s gets very old as well.

What kind of humor do you look for in a Rom-com?

Holly: I think that rom-coms come in a couple of distinct flavors. There are banter rom-coms, where the humor comes from really sharp dialogue; think Julia Quinn. There are voice rom-coms, where the humor comes from a strong narrative voice, usually told in 1st POV; think Mia Sosa. And then there are situational or slapstick rom-coms; think Pippa Grant

If I’m reading something purely for the humor, I tend to prefer voice rom-coms. I can buy a lot more snark as a character’s internal voice than as part of their dialogue with others. Too much banter just makes me tired.

Erin: I also love a strong narrative voice (both Mia Sosa and Alexis Hall have this), but I also find situational humor funny. When one thing after another went wrong for the protagonists in I Think I Might Love You by Christina C. Jones, it totally made the book. The beats were all just perfect and nothing felt forced. Actually, in all three of the books I’ve mentioned so far, it was probably the combination of voice PLUS situational humor that made me laugh out loud over and over again.

Ingrid: I feel like I tend to binge a bunch of one type, tire of it, find a new schtick, love it, read everything that hits like that, tire of it…etc. I read it all, and I just cycle right on through.

What’s one rom-com you loved? What’s so great about this book and why is it so funny?

Erin: Y’all, I’m still selling Boyfriend Material to anyone who will buy it. I laughed so hard I cried reading it more than once. As in, more than one instance the first time I read it, and also more than once because I’ve read it several times. In the first place, Luc is completely ridiculous and he knows it, but also he’s got co-workers that interact with him in just the funniest ways, and now I think I want to read it again… (Alex Twaddle 4eva!)

Ingrid: The last series that got me going was the Leveling Up series by K.F. Breene. Unfortunately, the series isn’t done. And Holly said she didn’t laugh as hard as I did…but I really, REALLY laughed with that one.

Holly: My go-to rom-com that I’ve been recommending for years is A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare. However, I haven’t read it since it came out, uh, ten years ago, so maybe I should reread it and see if it still stands up as my platonic ideal of a historical rom-com?

Books we mentioned in this discussion:

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Subgenres: Rom-Coms”

  1. A while ago, I read “Life’s a Beach” by Portia MacIntosh and I thought it was more of a comedy than a romance! I remember thinking, if the main couple broke up at the end of the book, I’d still have been satisfied by what I read… which is not a good sign for romance haha!

    It can be hard to balance the “rom” and the “com” aspects, especially because comedy is so subjective as you all mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

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