We here at Olivia Waite have been reading Lauren Vivanco's marvelous For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. One of the very first things it does is categorize various types of romance in light of Northrup Frye's literary modes (high mimetic, etc.). I won't rehash that for you—especially since you really ought to be reading it for yourself—but it made an idea finally crystallize for me. I've been trying to put words around this for some time. Every time some jerk finds one terrible passage in one romance older than me, and uses it as evidence of the moral turpitude/lesser intellect/self-delusion of millions and billions of women—well, through the red mist of rage that obscures my vision and sizzles my thoughts, I have a hard time rebutting the point in ways that are clear and instantly understandable (and not loaded down with ad hominem attacks and swears).
But I think I finally have it.
A romance is like a sandwich.
That is to say, the word "sandwich" does not denote content or quality, but merely form. You put edible things between two pieces of bread—ta-da! Sandwich!
Just so, the word "romance" is not simply about the material—it's about the shape of the story.
On a sandwich, as in a romance, the beginning and the end of the form are fairly predictable (for a given value of predictable). White bread, rye, bagel, gluten-free—there's a bit of variation, but aside from the impressive wackiness of outliers like the KFC Double Down it's generally a bread product on the outside. (The romance version of the KFC Double Down is, obviously, this virgin-heroine-with-amnesia-meets-and-loves-seven-longhorn-shifter-brothers erotic romance by Lola Newmar. That's a lot of, um, sandwiching.)
But the bread's not really the important part. The bread is part of the formula. It's the meeting on one side, the happy ending on the other.
And it's what you put in the middle that counts.
Oh, I could write an endless paean to the middles of sandwiches. Grilled cheese! BLTs! Tuna with just the right amount of mayonnaise (and none of those noisome pickles)! Elaborate gourmet creations like foie gras sliders! The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so pure and innocent a pleasure that it can make me tear up a little.
You can't say "all sandwiches are terrible" or "all sandwiches are delicious." I guarantee that if you say the latter, there will inevitably be someone in the group (or on the internet) who will take it as a dare to construct a list of sandwiches that are the furthest thing from delicious. Liverwurst and peanut butter! Roast beef and Crisco on moldy rye! Tuna cones! Which are exactly what they sound like, and aren't technically sandwiches, but which have the distinction of being the most objectively disgusting possible food.
You can't say "all romances are terrible" or "all romances are wonderful," because there is always a counterexample that comes instantly to mind. It simply depends on your subjective definitions of terrible/wonderful. Now me, for instance, I could read a Regency romance once a week/have a turkey-and-swiss-on-wheat-with-mayo every day for lunch and still be pretty excited about Regency romances/turkey sandwiches.
Wait—it's lunchtime. Why am I not doing that right now?
(Eats turkey sandwich while reading Regency romance.)
The other thing I like about this sandwich metaphor (which I may be taking criminally too far) is that it also functions as a perfect metaphor for a reader's individual taste. Do you like your sandwiches hot and toasty, or cool as a cucumber? Spicy or subtle? How much cheese are you willing to tolerate—or is it a question of the more the merrier? Do you prefer your sandwiches to be made the same way every time, or are you willing to try experimental things like foie gras sliders (in this metaphor, foie gras sliders are as rich and surprising as A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant)
The precise form may vary slightly from culture to culture—enchiladas, samosas, pasties, dumplings, piroshky etc. ... is there any culture that does not have some variation on the "put delicious things inside bread" idea?—but the appeal remains. There's room in the sandwich world for everyone.
And if that's not the romance industry at its best, then I don't know what is.