Both Jessica at RacyRomanceReviews and Sarah at Monkey Bear Reviews have posted recently about a fundamental question: Should we defend romance novels to non-romance novel readers? Well, that isn't precisely what their blog posts are about, but it's what a lot of the comments have focused on. So, with apologies to Jessica (who is a real philosopher!), I'm going to attempt to clarify my thinking on this issue. If you get bored, jump to the last paragraph for the conclusion.
First, some assumptions:
- Romance fiction is a huge, successful and lucrative genre in mass market publishing.
- Romance novels written in the last 100 years are not considered literature, and if it's literature, it's not considered a romance novel.
- Romance authors can include some very successful writers (e.g., Nora Roberts) and some very well-spoken and well-educated writers (e.g., Eloisa James), but romance readers are considered (rather homogeneously) neither smart nor successful.
- As a result of #3, people are often surprised when a smart, successful person is seen to be reading, or owning, romance novels.
- Also as a consequence of #3, some smart, successful people are reluctant to have others see that they own/read romances because that might suggest that the owner/reader is less smart, etc.
- There is -- as in any subset of fiction -- some well-written romances and some poorly-written romances.
- But, unlike other genres or "lit. fic." generally, there seems to be no recognition of the truth of #6 outside the fans of romance fiction. To put that another way, people who don't read romances assume all romances are the same: equally devoid of quality and possibly even literally all the same, i.e., written to a formula and thus completely fungible.
- In reality, romances come in a seemingly infinite variety of styles, sizes, periods, degrees of raciness, etc.
- There are a lot of non-romance-readers who hold romances in contempt even though they've never read a romance.
In light of Assumption #9, would having a non-romance-reader (hereafter, NRR) actually read a romance make a difference to that NRR's opinion of romance?
- Probably not, unless one could give the NRR the perfect romance novel to suit that person's taste. As most of us are aware, handing a book to someone and saying, "You'll love it," is often the trigger to get that person either avoid the book like the plague, or read it in resentment. Subtle marketing must be employed, which is hard. I would consider this a low-probability-of-success strategem. There's also the problem that the average NRR would discount a single well-written romance as being statistically valid evidence of anything. (Never mind that they managed to form a negative opinion on NO evidence at all...)
- It might make a difference to the NRR's ad hominem (a personal or prejudicial attack rather than a logical argument) assumption, as in the case of Limecello (comment #7) whose visitor remarked, "You have more trashy romances than a New Jersey housewife!" (impressive: two insults for the price of one) or Collette (comment #12), who has been told she's "too smart" to be reading romances. We should be able to get people to behave better, but of course that does nothing to influence their opinions of romance novels. But when I try to imagine explaining to a NRR that as they instinctively allow for the possibility of variation of quality (good, bad and indifferent) in all other genres, even others they don't themselves read, why don't they accord the same variation in romance fiction, I can only imagine their eyes glazing over. I have a feeling this is a deep-seated prejudice.
- Reluctantly, I would say not much. Again, to turn around such a deep-seated and nearly universal negative opinion is a marketing job -- and it's not one that the various publishers of romance novels care about. They don't expect to increase their market by getting NRRs to "convert" or even to read a well-regarded romance novel. Therefore, romance publishers don't even attempt a general-media marketing approach. This is one reason why most NRRs have only the sketchiest idea what a romance novel is like. Their exposure to romances can be so limited: some cover art at Wal*Mart or the supermarket, a section to be avoided at the bookstore, a TBR pile or collection of keepers at a relative's house. Having a romance reader explain how great the best romances can be is unlikely to turn that opinion around.
- I think the answer here is no. Certainly no one should feel the need to defend romances. It doesn't look like a winning strategy (see above), so the only real reason to defend romances is because one cares to. I defend the movie, "Pretty Woman" because I love it and feel it is unfairly maligned; even now, nearly 20 years later, it's still being listed as a movie that hates on women. To me, it's about the transformative power of love -- Vivian's love of Edward transforms him! -- not the transformative power of money or shopping. And I'm not alone: here's someone else who just had to defend that movie! Now I ask you: does my defending "Pretty Woman" suggest it's a worse movie than you previously thought? I'm sure I didn't change your opinion of "Pretty Woman" -- I'm not that persuasive! -- but I don't see how defending it suggests it needs defending. Incidentally: PW's total domestic gross is $178 million dollars; the market has spoken on that movie the way the market has spoken on romance novels. (See? I'm still defending it!)
- Clearly, no one should defend anything they don't want to defend. What strikes me after laying all this out is how stupid the prejudice against romances is. Sure, if a NRR doesn't like romances -- and I daresay the vast majority of them would not actually like a romance novel if they read one -- nothing we say can get them to change their mind. But wouldn't it be an improvement if NRRs just shrugged and said, "I don't like romance novels," instead of insisting that they are right not to like romance novels. Is there anything published today (and available in a mainstream bookstore -- just to avoid the raunchiest of porn) that you personally would deride in the same broad strokes and blanket terms as many NRRs reserve for romance fiction? And yet we know that the vast class of NRRs include smart and successful people. So how do these NRRs get so closed minded? And if defending romance novels is equated with suggesting all readers should have an open mind and an accepting spirit ("I don't myself want to read [X], but I'm sure there are good [X]s out there," where X is anything from military history to manga), why not defend romances?