So Paige-- here's the question you asked.
Very serious question- what distinguishes a classic/timeless romance novel from a nicholas sparks, or a harlequin romance?...what are examples of books that I should read to maybe find that more obvious difference? Or is it just the right marketing and publisher?
This is my niece. Doesn't she look like someone you should hire as a super-vp of marketing or some other equally zillion dollar job?
Categories of Written Stuff
I learned this from Mike Eichholtz, and with some modifications, I've used it ever since. I have no idea if he borrowed it from somewhere else.
Trash is written to make a buck and pay the bills, and it is meant to be commercial. But there is good trash and bad trash, and the difference between good and bad trash is the level of craft, skill, and quality (I will get back to that). Twilight is a good example of bad trash-- actually, terrible awful no-good very bad trash. It's poorly written on every level, from the badly constructed sentences to the artless images and plot to the flat and unbelievable characters all the way up to the romantization of behavior that checks off every item on the "Are you hooked up with an abuser" checklist. So, bad, but clearly highly lucrative.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, is good trash. Well constructed, well-written, well-drawn characters, compelling stories. Stephen King- good trash. John Green- arguably good trash. Hunger Games- arguably bad trash.
Classics, of course, are works that stand the test of time. They have a universal quality, something recognizable and relateable over time. Nobody knows whether something is a classic or not until a few decades have passed.
The dirty secret of classics is that they mostly started out as good trash. Take Shakespeare-- he was not trying to create genius work for the ages, but was just trying to make a buck and do his job. He just happened to do it very, very well, with genius command of the language and a full understanding of how human beings work, so that centuries later we can recognize his characters as real people and the themes and concerns of his work as still with us.
Good vs. Bad
Characters that are recognizable as human beings. Concerns that connect to deepest human motivators. Themes that offer ideas and insights that are both specific and broad. Good command of the language. Good control of organization, structure and materials of the work. Does the writer say what she has to say effectively.
Works that have large or important qualities but for one reason or another, can't quite transcend their time and place, and may, in fact, have value because they are a window on their time rather than having a universal, timeless quality. Moby Dick. Maybe the Great Gatsby. Their characters are recognizable and real in the sense that you can think, "Yeah, if I was shoehorned into the societal boxes of those specific circumstances in that particular time and place, I might turn out like that."
I suspect that Austen is at least partly a Great Work writer-- her characters are recognizable and human, but they live in a world that is so strictly defined by its rules that it's hard to relate to some features of it. On the other hand, great fantasy and SF creates entire worlds that nobody lives in and still manages to create legit classics.
Your aunt wondered if romance and classic are mutually exclusive, and that might be a good question-- "romance" is so culturally defined, along with the gender roles that feed into it, that it might be a super challenge to come up with something that's universal. Romance itself is arguably pretty specific-- that your dream relationship is specific to you, and then how that plays out in the actual world is very specific to your own situation. But I have to believe there are universal elements in there that somebody ought to be able to capture in literature.
Romance novels seem similar because (at least this used to be true) the publishers literally handed writers a chapter-by-chapter outline of how the romance would play out. Nicholas Sparks is the king of recycling certain story elements in different ways ("Where will I insert the tragically dead character this time?") but these kinds of writing, whether they're good or bad trash, are aiming to evoke emotions rather than explain or explore anything. In other words, instead of saying, "Let me show you something about how the world works," the writers are saying, "I want to show you something that will make you cry." Maybe there's an argument for calculated emotional manipulation as a worthy literary goal, but I'm doubtful.
The really challenge about romance writing is that while the story may seem to be about a couple, it is almost always one person's story. Titanic the movie is Rose's story; Jack is just a prop for her growth. Your beloved OC was Ryan's story and Seth's story. Romance can be a critical element of how the character changes and grows, but ultimately it's all about how the character changes and grows, not about the romance. Writers of continuing fiction like soap operas, tv series, and comic books have all struggled with showing how a character can grow within a relationship-- generally speaking, when the couple finally get together, the writers can't figure out how to not be boring and show characters that continue to change and grow, and do so as part of a couple.
The need to have a narrative center (a point of view character) is also problematic for writing about romance because it makes the romance appear one way-- we look at what the relationship means just to the main character, which feeds some people's desire to see their prospective partner in terms of "What that person means to me and what I get out of this" instead of a more complicated two-person thing. Now you've got me wondering about how well any literature portrays relationships at all.
So as with a travel novel or a fantasy adventure novel or a war novel, the "genre" is not so much the thing as it is the bucket that the thing is carried in.
So can you be a trashy romance novelist without hurting your brand? I'm no expert in branding, but I do think you can probably write trashy romance novels that are also great pieces of writing. I would imagine you do it by honoring both the tropes and traditions of the romance novel while filling it up with real characters, well-observed behavior, and a world that is real and recognizable. And it doesn't hurt to have sold something-- book publishers seem to ask "Is this a great work of literature" far less often than they ask "Can we get a bunch of people to give us money for copies of this?"
Your great grandmother did indeed say on more than one occasion that she liked Harlequin romances because she could fall asleep reading them and they were so light that they wouldn't wake her up when they fell on her. As readers, we might want something more, but maybe not a a great romance novel so much as a great novel about a character who finds a way to be in the world and as part of that finds a way to be with another person. If I were trying to write a romance novel, I would try to write that.