Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Where We Live in Literalia

In Literalia, the city-state of literature, there are some obvious residential neighborhoods. 

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.

The "lit fic" crown tend to cluster in austere high-rises that are subsidized by library budgets.  Mystery writers are either in quaint thatched cottages with a cat in the window and a dead body or three under the hedge, or in brownstones on side streets in a city that never sleeps.  There are cemeteries in Literalia for the horror writers, hospitals for the medical thriller-writers, even a Potemkin federal building for the occasional author of international thrillers.

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.


  1. I've thought a lot about this too, and honestly I think it has to do with the fact that romances are largely written by and for women.

  2. If romance novels -- nice, juicy, emotionally satisfying stories -- were written by men, maybe then the romance genre would be deemed worthy of notice. But we've seen with Nicholas Sparks the kind of hash men mostly make of romance, so I'm not entirely convinced we'd want to read what men wanted us to read.

    Here's my counter-example: mysteries. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Julia Spencer-Fleming -- all authors of very satisfying genre fiction that's well-reviewed and regarded as skilled and respectable. They're all living pretty well in Literalia.

    Still you could be right -- that's a genre that's equally read, and enjoyed, by men and women. So what's our take-away? That when women write books for other women to read, they slip a few rungs down on the ladder? And when (almost exclusively) women write a genre aimed at, and enjoyed (almost exclusively) by women, they earn the scorn of pretty much everyone?

    It doesn't help, of course, that the men running the publishing companies decided that the way to make money was not to seek out the best writers and publish a smaller number of better written and/or better edited novels each year but instead get a LOT of writers, have them write a LOT of novels, pay them a pittance, and make money by sheer volume.

    So, truly, there are a lot of reasons why we ended up in the ghetto. The next question is, how do we get out?

  3. But don't you think that it's the form, the formula, the recipe itself, that keeps romance fiction from becoming a better district in Literalia? Although other genre fiction also have formulaic structures, those formula do not demand a relationship and HEA, and those requirements keep romance fiction fettered. Mystery, sci/fi, horror, adventure can have any ending the author chooses and almost anyone can serve as the protagonists, but romance fiction must have an HEA and must have a couple as the protagonists which requirements limit or determine everything else in the book.

    If romance fiction resides in a ghetto it does so by choice. But who, having read a well-written, tautly plotted, happily ending romance would live elsewhere?


  4. I got this note from my editor yesterday in my inbox in regard to Magdalene:

    I think you need two covers. I expected this to be your best book, but it is still so much better than my expectations and I don't want people to see the cover and dismiss it as dredge from the romance ghetto.

    He said more; I won't quote the whole thing. Thus, *I* know his comment wasn't a slam (because I have converted him to the Gospel of Genre Romance). He's simply thinking strategically.

    Yeah, you know, we're out there in the Detroit of literature, but we clean up nice (if we're allowed).

  5. Dick -- I don't think I agree with this statement:
    If romance fiction resides in a ghetto it does so by choice.
    In fact, I know I don't. Patricia Gaffney, Joanna Bourne, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie -- I don't think any of them think they deserve to reside in the ghetto.

    And if the romance genre is in a ghetto by choice, what would be the steps we'd need to take to get out of it? I'm willing to look at that question more carefully, so by all means list the things we'd need to do (up to, but not including, writing something other than romances) and I'll see if I can think of someone who has done one or all of those things.

    Truly, I don't think we're here by choice. Sure, some authors might shrug and say, "Yeah, I get it. My category romances are pretty schlocky and I'm okay with that." And others may be in denial. (With 5,000 titles published each year, I'll cheerfully admit that a lot of them are schlocky.) But I'll put LaVyrle Spencer's writing in Morning Glory up against the writing in 80% of the lit fic that's out there. I'm not saying it's Faulkner or Hemingway; I'm saying it's a well-written book that doesn't deserve to be in a ghetto.

    Moriah -- I'm with your editor: position the book as something other than romance. Because, ironically, romance readers are more generous and less prejudiced than non-romance readers. We'll read a great book that has a romance in it but is being called something else. Try getting a non-romance reader to read something packaged and marketed as a romance. They won't do it.

    And, yes, we clean up very nice. We're smart, well-educated, well-spoken, and endowed with our share of talent. It's not the absence of any of those things that's the reason we're dwelling in a ghetto. But the presence of those things might *just* have something to do with the invisible barriers keeping us here.

  6. If romance fiction resides in a ghetto it does so by choice.

    I *think* I know where you're coming from; however, after having lived in the ghetto's community center since the early '90s, I would posit that it's the acquisitions' editors and sales departments' choice, not the authors'.

    The fact is, most romance writers are going to write what they're brainwashed to think is what sells. Why? Because that's what's being bought. Because publishers don't know their end consumer (readers) and don't know that they want more, different, ANYTHING other than what they're getting over and over and over again.

    Granted, there are going to be people who want the same thing over and over and over again, but categories take care of that (and hat's off to those authors who can write well within those constraints because I can't). I mean, Harlequin has a whole subscription service. They couldn't have it if they didn't have consistency of product.

    So I'm saying that the person with the least power in this equation is the author--if her goal is to get a publishing contract. The choice (fault) lies with the publishers.

    I know plenty of authors who'd love to write DIFFERENT and still be in the romance arena, but who don't dare because their goals conflict with their artistic instincts and they don't have enough confidence in their writing to follow their bliss.

  7. Moriah -- Yes, you may be right that the industry has pigeonholed us -- although the readership isn't 100% made out of brainwashed sheep, so the market has some bottom-up complicity. No, we can't buy what isn't for sale, but among what's for sale, we don't need to buy it as though all books, all plots, all authors are fungible. (Which is, of course, how romance novels are marketed.)

    I know plenty of authors who'd love to write DIFFERENT and still be in the romance arena, but who don't dare because their goals conflict with their artistic instincts and they don't have enough confidence in their writing to follow their bliss.

    Well, that's a really great question: can there be a sub-genre of romance novels that are marketed as just great novels and accepted as such? Put that another way: if Jonathan Franzen wrote a novel with a central love story that ends happily, a novel that was emotionally fulfilling, would it be lauded by the lit fic crowd or decried? If it would be lauded, then we (romance writers) are more redlined than even I had imagined...and Heidenkind's theory that it's all part of a sexist suppression of the interests of women seems even more likely.

    But if it wouldn't be lauded -- if he'd be laughed off the pages of the New York Review of Books for writing sentimental pap -- then there's something inherent about the substance, context, and conventions of the romance novel that no one, not even Jonathan Franzen, can rehabilitate.

    In that latter case, your writer friends are tragically right not to attempt to follow their bliss...

    A postscript to that is the question I tweeted: if a favorite author wrote in another sub-genre, would you read her new book(s)? I was thinking of paranormal sub-genres, so that if Susan Elizabeth Phillips wrote about vampires or Joanna Bourne wrote a zombie rom, how much would my love for her carry the day? But why not stretch that question to your hypo? Why can't a bestselling author change her literary spots? I kept on reading Pat Gaffney and Barbara Delinsky when they switched over to women's fiction. I didn't like their books as much, but I still enjoyed them. So maybe the bliss is: toe the line until you've got a solid following, then write the bigger & better romance!

  8. I don't think there is anything that will change it. I say that romance fiction is in the ghetto by choice because the form itself--and all authors of romance fiction have to follow the formula or they aren't writing romance fiction--keeps romance where it is. I don't, myself, see that as necessarily a negative. Would a sonneteer choose to write something other than sonnets in order not to be held to the strict form the sonnet demands? Yet a sonnet can never equal an epic. There is a certain cachet, I think, in being able to make 14 lines reverberate, just as there is in making a constantly re-iterated story pattern sparkle.

    I enjoy reading romance fiction, have a considerable respect for those who write it, and worry not at all about it's "standing."

    I'm not so certain that publishers are at any greater fault than readers, myself. Romances that don't have a relationship and an HEA or for which the HEA is questionable don't usually succeed despite publishers publishing them.


  9. Dick -- The problem with this statement:

    I say that romance fiction is in the ghetto by choice because the form itself--and all authors of romance fiction have to follow the formula or they aren't writing romance fiction--keeps romance where it is.

    is that it's circular. It's like saying that Ambien puts you to sleep because of its soporific qualities.

    I'd love to know what it is about the romance formula that peeves the non-romance reading public. Is it the emphasis on emotionally fulfilling stories? The lack of gritty realism? The fact that women write it, buy it and read it? (Present company excepted, of course.) The way it's published in bulk, packaged intentionally so that books look interchangeable, and consumed like potato chips?

    I honestly don't know. And I agree -- publishers aren't solely at fault, but I do believe that Messrs. Mills and Boon, and the lovely people at Harlequin Enterprises have had a lot to do with it.

    Hell, I don't even exempt Fabio from playing his own hair-swishing part in this...

  10. That the argument is circular doesn't make it invalid. I think the formula affects the "standing" of romance fiction because its outline is invariable and on the surface at least, simplistic. It's rather like bread,in that regard, which, although it can have modifications which make it appear to be something else, it doesn't really change much from loaf to loaf. I think most people tend to sneer at that kind of repetitiousness, not because the repetition doesn't fulfill a purpose--as bread certainly does--but simply because it's repetition; it has a ho-hum factor that people avoid, thinking that they won't learn anything from it.

    In a way, they won't learn much that is truly "new" from romance fiction. They might see a different approach to a problem or a different solution to a troublesome relationship and certainly they might be able to gain insights they didn't previously have, but the romance will not, as say, some parts of the canon do, truly teach them, because they know before they begin reading that all will turn out well in the end; despite flood, fire, and mayhem, the hero and heroine will find their HEA. Regardless whether the problem the story is hung on is addiction or rape, everything will come out right in the end. They know, before they begin reading, what the lesson will be--love conquers all.

    I always recall teaching Pope's "Rape of the Lock" when I have a discussion about the "standing" of romance fiction. Students tended to look upon the heroic couplet with the same low regard that many cast upon romance fiction, because, after all, it's relatively easy to make rhymes. It wasn't until the intricacies that Pope managed to incorporate in twenty syllables were explained that they realized the couplet wasn't so simple after all. But overcoming the outward repetitiousness of the couplet requires knowledge that one can only obtain by submersion in the form. And that very repetitiousness--such as you suggest many a Harlequin displays--militates against the submersion--the ho-hum factor.

    The same I think is true of romance fiction.


  11. 2 out of 3 . . . and 3rd is ok. I'm not sure it's literary. I'd say maybe literary lite. The way it's told (first person plural)is occasionally annoying but not really intrusive.


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