I've just finished reading the profile by Lauren Collins about Nora Roberts (The New Yorker, June 22, 2009). (You can see an abstract here, but you'll need to subscribe to read the entire profile.) It's been a strange year for media coverage on romances, starting (for me, at least, if not chronologically) with NPR's story on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Then there were the articles in mainstream media on the "well-educated" authors: Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, etc., which Sarah T. discussed over at Monkey Bear Reviews. Ah, but then we close the year with the Alan Elsner piece, first published through his author page at Amazon then republished by the Huffington Post, which I discussed here.
For some reason, all this reminds me of the kerfuffle that happened when Oprah picked Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections for her book club, and he backed out in the middle of the producers' efforts to tape some b-reel. His explanation, which was published in The New Yorker, boiled down to feeling sleezy and exposed as an objectified author revisiting his childhood home in St. Louis for the Oprah crew. But of course he could expose himself in the piece he wrote for The New Yorker. As someone who, at that time, both watched Oprah and read The New Yorker, I was offended to be simultaneously labeled "worthy" of knowing his true self and "unworthy," as a low-brow TV-watching vulture picking at his family's bones and thus driving up Oprah's ratings.
If there is a conflict in the cultural identities of Oprah fans and The New Yorker subscribers, then presumably there's a conflict between romance readers and, well, people who don't read romances. (Or, in Elsner's case, who most emphatically don't write romance novels.) What we saw this year, though, were efforts to explain those groups to each other. Back in the bad old days, one didn't need an explanation of romance novels beyond a few names: Mills & Boon, Barbara Cartland, and Harlequin, and some phrases: "bodice-rippers" and "porn-for-women." These days, it seems, there's interest among non-romance-readers in exploring the cultural identity of romance writers. Look: some of them are Prolific and Sardonic (Nora Roberts), while others were educated at Well Respected Universities (Julia Quinn), and some even have Impressive Day Jobs (Eloisa James). (That none of this is news -- romance authors have been smart, sassy, and had Ph.D.s and great jobs long before now -- is immaterial. It wasn't news until The USA Today wrote about it, right?)
Elsner's essay may, in fact, be a reaction to the rise this year in the cultural profile of the romance author. If the well-educated and well-employed write romance novels, then writers like Elsner (insecure people?) need to distance their work from the romance author's product because of course we have no doubt that Elsner is, himself, as well-educated and well-employed as Quinn and James. His books are better, though because he writes about love but not sex.
Has any of this year's favorable coverage of romance authors actually improved the likelihood that a non-romance-reader will try a romance? Maybe the NPR coverage of Smart Bitches did -- it got me to their site, and from there to Dear Author and AAR, each time finding more books to try because they'd been graded A or so. But then I was already a romance reader. (If anyone knows of a non-romance reader who tried reading a romance this year because of the media coverage, let me know.)
More importantly, has the general opinion of the romance novel gone up over the course of the year? I suspect not, because -- and I'll freely admit this is anecdotal -- when I went to look for 2009 book reviews of romance novels in mainstream media, I found a piece in Baltimore's City Paper on m/m romances written for women. That's good news, of course -- it highlights one of the new sub-genres available for readers -- but the article actually includes this sentence: "Yes, but is it really a romance novel if there's not a heaving bosom?"
On the surface, that's just a colorful reference to the physiology of a heroine and thus a missing element in an m/m romance. But I don't think it's hard to unpack the subtext to the phrase "heaving bosom," and end up with the visceral imagery of "bodice-ripper." Even today, romance novels haven't lost the taint of overblown prose conveying paper doll characters having wildly orgasmic couplings and implausibly happy endings. (A similar reminder came with The New Yorker's website comment on Harlequin Enterprises' decision to create Harlequin Horizons, which "will allow hacks who love the hanky-panky to publish their own bodice-ripping, hay-rolling romps . . ." It's rather breathtaking to see that many pejorative allusions in a single impressively alliterative phrase.)
Why, after the mainstream media has reported on how smart, impressive women are writing romances, does the same media assume that the books these women are writing must be schlock? Because the mainstream media doesn't read romances, so they make assumptions based on last year's cliches, which were based on last decade's shorthand, and so forth back to Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. (Not that the mainstream media ever read Rogers or Woodiwiss, so odds are all the stereotypes are generated from the cover art and back cover blurb -- neither of which is in the authors' control.)
If general media articles still refer to romances as bodice-rippers containing heaving bosoms and authors like Elsner perpetuate the myth that romance novels are "porn-for-women," is it any wonder that the romance novel is still reviled? Elsner admits he had to go to a library to find some romances to read. We'll never know which books he read; we only know that, according to him, they were formulaic, shallow, unbelievable, quasi-pornographic and (big surprise) not as good as his books. He doesn't say so explicitly, but it's hard to read Elsner's essay and not think he held those opinions before he ever cracked open a Harlequin Presents.
Improving the reputation of the artist doesn't necessarily improve the reputation of the art, nor drive up sales to non-aficionados. Just as I might assume professional wrestling to be schlocky and fake, I would be making that assumption not from actual experience but based on impressions gained from a media that is already filtering and labeling its images for me. I was impressed when wrestler and actor John Cena was a guest on NPR's quiz show, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," because he was articulate and funny -- but it didn't make me think differently of professional wrestling, let alone actually watch some matches.
I'm glad that Nora Roberts, Eloisa James, and Julia Quinn got good press this year. They make worthy ambassadors from our world to the non-romance-reading world. But we need some value-neutral cultural exchange programs -- not Elsner's trumped-up excuse of a representative sample, but something like a list of "Ten Romance Novels You Should Read (And Won't Be Embarrassed to Discuss Afterward)" for the mainstream media.
And if we can't get Oprah on board, how about this: The Smart Bitches seem to have cachet in the "outside" world -- maybe they could get something like that going.