Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

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love books

Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

I spent the weekend at the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. And I’ve said so, head held high, to every school parent and friend who has asked how my weekend was.

IT WAS AMAZING.

This is an incredible group of writers, from beginners struggling to put the final chapters of their first novel on paper, to the multi-million-copies-sold bona fide royalty of the genre. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, hard-working and genuine and generous. I had a blast! And I learned so much. I’ve come away inspired and rip-roaring ready to rework a couple of old manuscripts that aren’t yet gleaming and resplendent.

So, I had a wonderful weekend. And people ask, ‘what did you get up to?’ so I tell them.

I’m sorry to say their responses have been a little hit-and-miss.

It won’t be news to anyone that Romance is a genre often disparaged, and people will give a couple of ‘good reasons’ for that. For instance…

1. Well it’s not Dickens, is it.

Alternatives include mentions of ‘trash’ and vague allusions to the quality of the writing and the depth of the story.

Here’s the thing, Dickens was the popular fiction of his day. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Hundreds of years later we dub them classics but in their day they were accessible to everyone. They were cheap and common—and brilliant.

challinorYou can’t argue with the figures: romance is certainly POPULAR fiction. As to its quality, well, it varies. As in any genre, there is trash out there, sure, but there is treasure too. Rich, rewarding, well-written treasure. I’m reading The Silk Thief by Deborah Challinor and she’s a genius (and a New Zealand author).

gabaldonPerhaps you’ve come across Outlander? Diana Gabaldon has answered the elitists numerous times and done it better than I can (what with the multi-million dollar book and TV behemoth to back her up) but the quality of the story-telling in these books, and in NUMEROUS others, is right up there. It’s not just romance, I hear you say. No, it’s a melange of many genres—but romance is one of them.

2. It’s chick-porn.

The word ‘chick’. Ick. We are not baby birds.

But that’s not the worst of it. One of the main reasons that Romance is so derided throughout the literary world (and the non-literary world) is the dominance of women in the industry. Women read romance, they write it, they edit it and sell it. Women are making the big bucks and have huge influence through their stories. Of course there are men writing and reading romance but look at the marketing of Romance novels. It’s shockingly pink. It’s not subtle. That’s how marketing works.

Genres that primarily target men NEVER suffer from this belittling. There are rubbish books in all genres, but only in Romance do people assume the writing is rubbish, the story predictable. What is it that makes it perfectly acceptable, rarely even questioned, when you’re looking down your nose at a Romance novel. Is it because the main character is a woman, the writer is a woman, and probably the editor too? Because it is about women’s experience?

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Not good enough.

Now, about the porn. The porn industry uses, abuses, and destroys women, in their fictions and too often in real life. Meanwhile, the Romance industry gives top priority to a woman’s needs, her pleasure, and her very self. Women are shown to be whole and complex human beings, not THINGS to be used. Once upon a time, sure, romance novels featured weak heroines in need of saving, but not any more. The heroines in your average Romance novel these days are the masters of their own fates. They save the day, and more often than not, save the hero.

Of course, many Romance novels include sex scenes. Not all, but often they do. Yeah. So do many thrillers. And literary fiction’s never shied from the subject. Erotica is a genre of it’s own if you want to get down to technicalities. If you take issue with any book featuring sex then hey, that’s up to you, but it’s hardly limited to Romance.

3. It’s formulaic.

I once agreed with this. I thought, ‘oh it’d be so easy to write a romance novel,’ and I was so very wrong. I’m not going to to get down and dirty with semantics; there is a formula, but it’s one you’ll find across the board. It’s a pattern almost universal in fiction, whether in novels, film, television, comics, or plays.

The formula is this:

  1. Create a character: someone interesting, who readers will empathise with, and who wants something.
  2. Depict a world in which that character operates—and has good reason for not going after the thing they want, until…
  3. Incite an event which kicks them into action—now they’re going after the thing they want. And unknowingly, they’re going after the thing they really need. But this is all seamlessly woven in.
  4. Concoct a whole lot of problems and obstacles: be careful here, make sure these are believable and logical in the world, and for the character(s), or else the whole thing will feel contrived.
  5. Show how the character responds to those problems, gets stronger and wiser… to the point when they lose everything and must face their darkest hour, their true need, their true self. Make the reader think there’s no hope, no way out. All is lost.
  6. And finally, surprise us when the character achieves what they want and what they need (happy ending) or getting what they need but not what they want (bittersweet ending) or neither (tragedy).

In many ways, a good romance is more difficult to write than many other genres because you have to intertwine the journeys of two characters. To do it well and convincingly is HARD.

What makes romance different: some kind of happy ending is guaranteed.

Oh, wait, that’s true of the vast majority of mysteries, legal dramas, thrillers, comics… hm.

As an aside, Romance writers often cross genres. Over the weekend I met people writing paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, historical, and every combination of the above. The genre is in fact incredibly diverse.

4. It’s so commercial.

They’re in it for the money. They’re sell-outs. Pen-monkey whores.

Heaven forbid an artist should have food on the table and a non-leaky roof overhead.

But it’s true, Romance does pay. Between Romance Novels and Adult colouring books, the publishing industry is keeping its head above water.

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You don’t have to like them or read them, just as I don’t have to pick up a supernatural thriller or a paranormal horror. There’s no harm in liking different types of books. That’s not the issue here.

Read what you like. But don’t hate on Romance.

In fact, the revenue the Romance genre pulls in is keeping the publishers above water. And these are the same publishers putting out the books you do read.

So, shut up and be grateful.

5. They’re easy reads.

Romance is easy to read. It’s true. These books are great fun and no doubt about it.

HOW and WHY is this an insult? Seriously! And yet, by the tone, the look, the something, I KNOW it’s meant as an insult. And I can only assume this is said by someone who doesn’t actually ENJOY reading.

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I like reading. I read because it’s fun. You don’t have to read. You’re not obliged. But many do like it.

I also like watching TV. Some days I feel like Gilmore Girls,  other days Breaking Bad. Some days I want The West Wing, others I’m all about Will and Grace.

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I loved The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, but why should that limit my enjoyment of this GENIUS Deborah Challinor book. The next title on my to-be-read-list is Letters to Love by Soraya Lane (another New Zealand writer) and the last thing I read was Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes.

You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on living room shelf and impress the neighbours. I can say I’ve read it, yes, cover to cover, and it was fascinating, really challenging and so artfully complex…

Bring on the fascinating. The challenging. The artfully complex. But a book can be all those things and enjoyable. If that sounds silly, you’re doing it wrong. A book can be deep, psychologically fraught, and still a page-turner. In fact, it probably has to be.

I don’t want to tick off books like I do errands. I want to get to the end and be gutted there isn’t more.

I want a book to make me anti-social.

Make me want to neglect my kids.

Make me think.

Make me laugh.

Make me wallow and then make me WOW.

mirren

I know, I expect a lot. But there are A LOT of good books out there. And a lot of them have love stories in them. And many of those are Romances.

So the next time someone puts on that tone, or makes that face, or says that stupid thing… I’ll probably be polite and laugh it off and pretend they’re not belittling what I’ve been working toward for five years now, because I’m a nice person.

But don’t be one of those people.


This article is also featured on the NZ Society of Authors Canterbury website.


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Other writing

The Other Writers’ Group has got me thinking about Other writing. On a regular basis I write novels and blog posts and diary entries. But I used to branch out more.

I once wrote a children’s book. I started a second, and a third.

I once wrote terrible poetry and song lyrics without music.

A few days ago I wrote a poem – the first in a very long time. Thought I’d share…

 

Reminders of you

Aubergine, all creamy,
only firm for a moment, then
melting away like ice cream.
Cooked perfectly, they remind me of
you.

Coriander (or cilantro),
how you abhor it.
An over-reaction, I think,
but, still, it reminds me
of you.

Salvador Dali, a poster
in Paris, (en route to the Dutch embassy)
for an exhibition you would adore.
I won’t go, but it reminds
me of you.

Macaroons (or macarons)
at every patisserie and
boulangerie, and chocolaterie.
They’re everywhere. And they
remind me of you.

You’d like it here.
I’d like you here. In a way
you are here.
Because all these
things remind me of you.


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Instead of writing…

Category : Art , Daily Life

Read a very interesting article today about the distinction between, and perceived hierarchy of, literary fiction and genre fiction. I wasn’t too sure about this myself. ‘Literary fiction’ seems like a label you should never give your own writing (seems a bit conceited). It’s the kind of thing you say about novels that you think are superior to what your siblings/spouse are reading. Genre fiction can be used as a bit of an insult, a way of distinguishing entertainment from high art.

I don’t know which of these two ball parks I was aiming for with my first novel – a modernised version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My second novel was carefully constructed within the conventions of the Romance genre. This third one is definitely an attempt at something like literary fiction… though I’m relieved to find out there’s a big fuzzy grey space between and I’m allowed to fit in it.

Genre fiction, also known as Popular Fiction, gets a bad rap. One of the reasons is that it follows certain, successful conventions, especially around plot. The genre novel has a certain predictability, I guess, if you stand back far enough. The detective’s first suspicions about who-dunnit will not be correct. The man the girl hates at the start will be her significant other at the end. The problems presented in first couple of chapters will be solved by the time you finish the book. These books are often very satisfying. Readers enjoy resolution, especially if, just pages earlier, they thought it might be impossible. But critics are often harsh on genre novels just because they follow these conventions.

The article I just read answered this beautifully:

… conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and infinitely various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative.”

This was certainly my experience in writing a genre novel. Going in, I shamelessly followed the formula for romance. I plotted the whole thing out so as to match the rhythms of the vast majority of romance novels on the market. But once I started writing I soon found it hard to stick with the other conventions. The plot, I persisted with, but the genre’s most typical (and perhaps commercially successful) writing style, ie. the use of certain types of language, was just not my style. Meanwhile, within the confines of most of the conventions I found myself both liberated and empowered. I felt free to be creative and I suspect the finished product is actually a much better book than my first. It is certainly more cohesive. And even with all those lingering looks and brush-of-his-hand… I suspect the writing is better. Who’d have thought?

The thing is, Popular Fiction is popular for a reason. Readers aren’t all idiots. Some fiction is bad, sure, but some Literary Fiction is bad too. Where lieth the boundary between good and bad fiction? Well that’s a whole other question. I suspect, like the literary/genre line in the sand, it’s a bit blurry. The surfers keep dragging their boards through it.

Another great bit from the article (which is really quite long – I warned you):

Somewhere in its history, reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame. What is it, exactly, that those pleasures are guilty of? Novels aren’t status symbols, or they shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s the last vestiges of our Puritan heritage: if it’s not hard work, it’s sinful. Maybe it’s just that we’re self-loathing capitalists, and anything associated with commerce, as genre fiction is, is automatically tainted and disqualified from having any aesthetic value. Either way our attitude toward genre fiction smacks of mass cultural neurosis.”

So I think I need to get over it, along with everybody else. I will march on and not worry about whether or not my novel is too ‘genre’ or too ‘literary’. And i’ll try to save worrying about whether or not it’s any good till the editing phase.

If I’m going to get the first draft done before this baby comes I don’t have time to worry. Or read full length articles about genre.

It’s a lovely hot spring day here in Paris. I had low expectations – due to having very little sleep last night and a grumpy baby to deal with first thing in the morning – but the day has picked up. I did get a nap this morning, and then ticked a few more things off the to-do list – which always makes me happy.

It helps that that baby went to sleep this afternoon – finally – and I didn’t get torn away from writing before I was ready. I celebrated with one of my favourite hot-day treats…

The iced-mochaccino float.

Ingredients:

  • cold, leftover coffee from breakfast
  • hot chocolate powder
  • cold milk
  • ice cream

Further instruction is probably unnecessary, but here you go: 

Mix the first three in proportions you prefer. If the hot chocolate powder won’t dissolve in cold liquid then heat a small amount of milk in the microwave and dissolve the powder in that. Add this small warm portion to all the other cold ingredients and you should still have a cold drink. Ice cream goes in last – a big scoop of sweet deliciousness which hopefully doesn’t overflow your glass. Leave the spoon in there so that you can eat the ice cream before it melts. 

Yum.

Tonight I’m going out. That’s right: very rare occasion. Even rarer, I’m going by myself! It’s a girls night book swap. Unfortunately I have no books to swap, but I’ve been assured there will be plenty and I will just have to come up with another way to pitch in.

Also have a doctor’s appointment this evening – just routine stuff, but there’s always the hope that some bright ideas re: skin and sleep might come out of it. Better get on and make dinner or I’ll be in a mad rush later.