Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Where We Live in Literalia
Bestselling authors get to live in the homes of their dreams: Stephen King is in that Gothic Victorian mansion over there, J.K. Rowling has her own castle (of course), Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman live in a sprawling craftsman-style bungalow with bicycles out front, and Salman Rushdie is in a very charming Georgian townhouse.
And there's a seedy red-light district for those sad, anonymous writers of porn.
If Literalia were zoned by readers, we in the romance fiction section would live in tidy suburban tract housing (well, except for Nora Roberts, who has a nice spread well out of the city center) -- a Levittown, if you will, of neat yards, generic landscaping, and cookie-cutter houses.
But Literalia isn't zoned by the readers. Its subdivisions were decided decades if not centuries ago, and we live in ghettos that are barely habitable. Only the red-light district digs are rattier. Never mind that some romance writers make more money than Michael Chabon, sell more books than Salman Rushdie, and have better name recognition than most of the lit fic crowd -- in Literalia, we're redlined and we have been for a while.
What I'm struggling to understand is why. Why did the romance novel -- which I'll define as a book about a love story that has a happy ending -- flourish but never command respect? I no longer think it's because of the quality of the writing, i.e., that lit fic writers are such better writers than we are. Yes, there are romance writers who aren't great writers. But there are some who are, and truthfully, the quality of the writing isn't the determining factor of what sells well and what doesn't. If better-written romances sold better, possibly writers would hone their craft even more. If creative writing courses promoted the skills needed for writing romances, we'd have more MFA candidates joining RWA.
But everyone who writes knows that if you write romantic fiction, you're never ever going to be allowed to live in any of Literalia's nicer neighborhoods. And if you want to avoid the romance ghetto, you'd better learn to write more like the lit fic crowd.
Which makes Eleanor Brown's novel, The Weird Sisters, so interesting. Here's the New York Times review by Janet Maslin. (I'll admit, I haven't read this one yet) Sure, it's billed as a book about sisters, but... If I'm reading the subtext of Maslin's review correctly, it sounds like all three sisters have happy endings, and possibly in part because they find true love. What? A book with three heroines and -- if my surmise is correct -- three love stories and three happy endings? That's sounds a lot like something we might read.
I'm sure Eleanor Brown wants it to be a Jonathan Franzen-level buzz-worthy lit fic treasure. But happy endings aren't the mainstay of the lit fic crowd. It could be women's fiction, which fares slightly better in the Literalia housing map than romances, but is still looked down upon by the lit fic crowd in their high rise buildings. There are happy endings in women's fiction books, mostly of a rather rueful or hard-won sort. But it might (just might) also be a (shhhh) romance. A lit fic romance... too much of an oxymoron?
Now, I know -- it's incredibly unlikely that Eleanor Brown is going to do a Romland blog tour, get reviewed by anyone at All About Romance, or be sitting at a table at the RWA literacy event in June signing copies of The Weird Sisters. Which is kind of a shame, at least I think so. Why shouldn't she get some buzz among romance readers? And wouldn't it be great if a book reviewed -- favorably -- by the New York Times, no less, turned out to be an emotionally fulfilling read?
One reason why it might not be emotionally fulfilling (just to repeat: I haven't read it yet...) is if there's a lot of moral ambiguity or realistic complexity. We do like things to be pretty straightforward in our romances. The hero can be flawed, but make him too realistic and people will tell you flat out he's not heroic enough. The heroine doesn't have to be gifted and gorgeous, but make her too humdrum and readers won't like the book.
Still, the list of unabashed romance novels that are beautifully written isn't the null set. For some reason, even a romance with exquisite prose, complicated characters, and enough meat to make people growl over what plot elements really mean, is still very clearly a romance and not just a novel-with-a-happy-ending. Romances don't "pass" very well for anything else.
Which is why we are so consistently being told where our place is.