Monday, December 21, 2009

To Defend or Not To Defend: An Open Question

Defending Romance Fiction from the battlements: Is it sensible?  Will it help?  Does it hurt the genre?  And if you need some musical context, here's Sting singing "Fortress Around Your Heart."

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:
  1. Romance fiction is a huge, successful and lucrative genre in mass market publishing.
  2. Romance novels written in the last 100 years are not considered literature, and if it's literature, it's not considered a romance novel.
  3. 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.
  4. As a result of #3, people are often surprised when a smart, successful person is seen to be reading, or owning, romance novels.
  5. 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.
  6. There is -- as in any subset of fiction -- some well-written romances and some poorly-written romances.
  7. 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.
  8. In reality, romances come in a seemingly infinite variety of styles, sizes, periods, degrees of raciness, etc.
  9. There are a lot of non-romance-readers who hold romances in contempt even though they've never read a romance.
Okay.  So, with the assumptions above (and if you disagree with any of those assumptions, please leave a comment!), let's pose some questions:

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...)
Does logic work?  Would pointing out to the NRR that he/she is being unfair, illogical, or otherwise dunderheaded (but in a pleasant, friendly, non-judgmental way, of course) make a difference?
  • 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.
Does defending the genre help?  Does a calm, positive, well-reasoned defense, complete with examples, have any chance of affecting the opinion of the average NRR?
  • 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.
But does defending the genre hurt?  Does a calm, positive, well-reasoned argument in favor of romances, complete with examples, make romance fans look weak and, well, defensive, thus suggesting the genre is indeed as limited and uniform as NRRs think?
  • 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!)
So what's the bottom line:  Should romance fiction fans defend their favorite authors/books/formats?
  • 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?
So, in the end, I come to this:  I don't think romance novels, authors and readers need to be defended.  I think having an open mind about almost all forms of fiction (with a carve-out for some pretty sick stuff sold in stores with XXX on their signage) doesn't require much more than common sense and a recognition that irrational and ill-informed prejudices benefit no one.  For me, I'll defend romances in the future from that standpoint: NRRs don't have to read them or like them, but they should consider the likelihood that romance novels are no better and no worse than any other genre in the bookstore.  In other words, few people read everything, but it's ignorant of NRRs to hold most everything else they don't read in higher regard than romances.


    1. Screw anyone who questions my reading material. How many can stand up and say they've read close to 300 books this year like I did? and 98% of those books were romances.

      I don't care what you read, as long as someone reads something regardless of the genre or type of book.

    2. Katiebabs -- I agree. Being a voluminous reader is impressive no matter what you are reading. And many parents find that comic books uh, graphic novels are as good as the next sort of reading material for a child otherwise inclined to ignore books.

      So, just being curious here, what do you say to someone who disses romances? Or do you just fix them with that awesome KB stare and let the resulting vapor dissipate?

    3. I'm with Katiebabs. Many romance fans are voracious readers. We're also enthusiastic and vociferous - at least those of us online.

      The bottom line for me is that people read. Being respectful of the reading choices of others would be a definite bonus!

    4. Actually it's been awhile since someone tried to insult my awesomeness. LOL.

      On a positive note, I had a co-worker who was very biased against romance but respectful that I read them. She decided one day to try one and I gave her some of the best romances that I believe would convert someone.

      By the time I left my job, she had read every Lisa Kleypas, Julie Garwood and Loretta Chase I gave her and wanted more. She became a Kleypas addict. :D

    5. See -- that is actually a wonderful thing for me to read. I've never ever accomplished that. (I did get a good friend to read all the Eva Ibbotson romances, which she loved, but that may not count because a) she liked the Stephenie Meyer "sparkly vamp" books, and b) she didn't like Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.)


    6. I don't bother to defend romance reading, but one thing I find myself defending one particular romance device, which is under fire by a lot of ROMANCE READERS (forced seduction, in case anybody cares).

      It's like they forgot (or want to forget) romance's roots AND they don't want to acknowledge that this is a common female sexual fantasy.

      I'm going to write a paper on that for Dr. Frantz's panel the year-after-next.

    7. Hmmm. This is always a difficult topic, and can be viewed and approached from different perspectives. I completely agree with you that it can be a powerful sexual fantasy, but (and this is just me) I need the heroine's POV and her reaction to be favorable (continually throughout the forced seduction, or at the end) for me not to be grossed out.

      But if the book is somehow promoting forced seduction, that's more problematic.

      Rape is different, but "rape" in romance novels is often some hybrid act that has elements of anger, control, contempt and sexual attraction in it. And I didn't put it in quotation marks to defend it, merely to signify that the act of rape in a romance novel has some significant differences from rape in real life. It's also no defense of, or justification for, rape in real life.

      I would argue there's a continuum from BDSM (where the act is fully consensual and either it, or the underlying relationship, has been fully negotiated in advance) through to "romance novel rape" (which I define as hero rapes heroine at a point in the story in which they are not in love, or even in lust, although they do end up together). Forced seduction -- say, like the "tied to the chair" scene in Untie My Heart -- is somewhere in the middle: there is sufficient subconscious sexual attraction between the characters that it's not rape, but it wasn't consented to in advance.

      But hey -- that just my thinking. And I surely know that others can, and will, disagree.

    8. *sigh* I had a long post written in Notepad, but Blogger won't let me paste it. It's not the first time I've had this problem with a Blogger blog.


    9. Moriah -- Do you still have the comment? Email it to me and I'll upload it for you. Oh, wait, that'll show up as my comment. Hummph. But I can make it clear it's your comment.

      But don't delete it! I want to read it!!!


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