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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I Plead Guilty

"My agent accused me of being a romance writer." 
[laughter from the audience] 
"Which I was ... surprised about."
[more laughter]

A writer said this during a panel I attended this past weekend at the Chicago Lit Fest and it immediately struck me because, yanno, in the immortal words of Joan Wilder: "I'm a romance novelist!"

I want to be absolutely clear that he was incredibly well-spoken and interesting and smart, and this did not come off as an insult. At least, not to me. (If you'd been there, you'd know that his expression was not snobbish.) I was not angry or offended. I was, however, intrigued.

As soon as he said it my eyes darted around the room, taking in the reactions of the other audience members, wondering if I could gauge what they truly thought about the remark. Unfortunately I was in the back and I couldn't see faces, but I did take note of the shoulder-jiggling of those who laughed. It was pretty much everyone, including me. Because it was a semi-private joke, of course. Only three other people in the room knew I was a romance author, the speaker not included.

I was a spy.

I exited the room curious why the other people laughed. Was it because they'd all read his books and knew they weren't romances? Because it's easy--and almost expected--to rip on the romance genre? Because of the funny way he said it? Or because they had read--and maybe loved--romances before but felt awkward in admitting it, so the easiest thing to do was chuck the person next them on the shoulder and go, "Haha, a romance writer. Can you imagine?"*

What I'm wondering is: deep down, does he think he's a romance writer? And maybe that laughter was slightly confessional? Inquiring minds want to know. I haven't read his book but I'm so curious now! Maybe he thinks that by saying that he might lose readers ... but does he realize that he also might gain a whole new set of eyes? (And a rather huge set of eyes, if reader demographics are true.)

(As an aside, I'm going to bet that he--and a lot of readers--don't know that the definition of a romance is a happy ending for the protagonists that brings them together in a romantic way. A "love story" is different than a "romance" in terms of book genre.)

I left the panel, which was early-ish in the morning, and headed out to the street fair--a couple blocks of beautiful, historical downtown Chicago barricaded off and devoted to tent after tent of booksellers and various other book-related (or non-book related) ventures. What sort of romance fiction presence could I find here? I wondered.


The answer? Not a whole heck of a lot. In one book stall I found a couple of boxes labeled "Romance" (easily 60% J.D. Robb, Nora Roberts). In other places, the romances were shuffled in amongst everything else (but so were all genres). Romance was conspicuously absent, save for a lot of YA (Meyer and Collins, etc.). There were several small presses and some self-published authors, but from the covers I can merely guess that they weren't romance.

Given the lack of romance novels at a fair that was largely dealing in used books, I choose to view this as: We romance readers love our books SO MUCH that we never give them up.

Of course it is my hope that no one will ever "accuse" another of being a romance writer, but for now I am suitably comfortable in knowing that romance readers are voracious, spectacular and passionate.

*No one did this, as far as I could see. I'm a fiction writer. Work with me.

20 comments:

  1. I think this is a splendid post...although troublesome, it is not surprising. It never ceases to amaze me how romance writers and romance novels seem to be snickered about, even though the most popularly sold book is in fact a romance novel. I read something recently an editor wrote, she spoke about how in early romance novels, it was taboo for the heroine to have sexual fulfillment unless it was rape partly because of Society's view on sexual release being 'wrong' for women to experience. I wonder if the still laughter about romance novels stems from some of this outdated thinking about woman's sexuality...just thinking...

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    1. You may be on to something. Because in many "acceptable" genres the sex isn't explicit or paid attention to beyond the fact that it happens. So to actually "see" women being gratified (or pursuing gratification) is uncomfortable to some.

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  2. Great topic, Hanna.

    There are enough negative terms applied to romance or "expert" opinions tossed around to make people who haven't read romance form prejudices. Not too long ago I heard about another man saying romance destroys marriages. (Psst... It's more likely due to a LACK of romance, buddy. You better step up your game. LOL) I don't hope to change attitudes, because a lot of them are fear-driven. I won't, however, be ashamed of writing stories about love, hope, compassion, devotion, friendship, and happiness. If those things are mockable, go for it, I say. I'd rather have them in my life and celebrate them. :)

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    1. Oh, yes. Usually men who complain that romance novels ruin marriages secretly feel threatened. Because they know they aren't doing enough. :)

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  3. My explanation is a bit simpler. It's not about fear of sex. It's fear of emotion. And emotion/the feminine, is by its nature not intellectual. Not "literary." Not important. And so, frankly, being called a "romance writer" in that context (and I wonder who the speaker was) is about the most insulting thing a writer could be called. The unspoken word is "just." "Just" a romance writer and, therefore, not a "real" writer worthy of serious reviews and a place in the canon of Important Fiction. "Just" something that women read.

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    1. Excellent points, Blythe, all around. WOW.

      It really is fear of emotion, shoving aside the pursuit of a relationship as something not intellectual or worthy of exploration. Interesting that in real life, love and relationships are such a huge part of existence (for men and women) and permeate nearly all corners of our lives, but in fiction it tends to take a backseat. We ALL want a happy ending emotionally, but for some reason to find one in a story is generally considered discreditable (to non-romance readers).

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  4. I tend to turn around those kind of statements, "own" romance and writing it, and be absolutely positive about writing and reading it. I refuse to be defensive. Different books for different folks. What do they have against love and all that goes with it?

    As for the accusation of it being formulaic, name me one genre that isn't? Mysteries find the criminal. Sci-Fi saves the worlds. Etc.

    I tend to feel sorry for those who have never read romance. They don't know what they're missing.

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    1. Ann, I love these comments and completely agree. I own my romance writing, too. In fact, I love when people ask me what I write and I can look them in the eye and smile widely and announce, without glancing away, that I write romance novels. Sometimes I think they are waiting for me to duck my head and show some sort of shame, but I never do.

      Yep, every genre has its formulas. And YES I wish the people who tended to shake their heads at romance actually read it.

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  5. Really interesting blog topic today, Hanna. :)

    When I was in high school, I read romance all the time. But I was an honor student, and I was enrolled in AP and honors classes, and my romance novels were looked down on to the point that I wouldn't use them for my "Outside Reading" assignments that my English teachers gave me. The teachers themselves probably wouldn't have had a problem with them, looking back. But to be seen carrying them around by the other honor students who were carrying around Ayn Rand and Kurt Vonnegut and other "literary" authors? I couldn't make myself do it.

    I don't have those same fears today, thank goodness. But I still run into similar sorts of condescension. But you know what? The literary classics might make you think (if you can get through them, which for some of them is asking quite a bit), but romance novels make you feel, and they might make you think on top of that. But like Blythe said above, feelings, emotions...that is scary business for some people.

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    1. I actually really love reading a romance in public. I never hide the covers. Kindles disappoint me for this reason. But for that reason only.

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  6. We DO love them so much we can't give them up! I have a huge bookshelf that is so cluttered with old romance novels, I can't add anything new to it. Yet, every time I try to clean it out... yeah, nothing happens. Oh well - time for a new bookshelf!

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    1. Right--it just means more shelves. Not fewer books.

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  7. I find that more often than not, people who look down on Romance have never read one. I usually take the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about the genre. :-) I love Romance, the message that it sends into the world and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

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  8. I do not know why people think romance novels are for airheads or something similar. I learn so much from them. I learn about relationships and the way people interact with one another. I learn about other time periods in regency romance and other places around the world in contemporary romances. I learn about the dress, mannerisms and architecture of yesteryear. There is a place for mysteries but most of the time the only thing I learn from them is the ugly way in which humans treat other humans. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll give that genre a miss as I proudly wave my romance novel at others! A huge thank you to all of my wonderful romance authors for giving me such fabulous reading pleasure. You all rock!

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    1. Aw, thanks, Connie! We would be nothing without the readers, so the pleasure is all ours. Thanks for proudly flying your romance flag!

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  9. I love reading and writing romances and will never feel ashamed about it. I think, as many here have stated, those who look down on the romance genre have never read any. If they did, they'd know there is a lot more to a well-written romance than a ripped bodice and Fabio! Sadly, there are people who assume that if a message is uplifting and hopeful, rather than "gritty", then its not important. And romances are always hopeful, because they have that happy-ever-after. Apparently some people are uncomfortable with that and don't find it edgy enough. Personally, I like to read many genres and feel its unfair to label any one of them superior or inferior, but I can guarantee I've never been in a bad mood after finishing a romance! I mean, come on - without romance where would we be?

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  10. If I had a nickel for every person who mentioned ripped bodices and Fabio when I said I wrote romance ... :) I've perfected the genial smile and polite laugh, then mention that the genre has gone far beyond that now. Usually they don't really want to hear that, but occasionally there's an inquirer who seems genuinely curious to hear how and why.

    And EXACTLY--romances always leave you in a good mood, which is one of the main reasons I started writing them.

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  11. I always like the comment: So is the sex, well you know...Yeah, I know what they're asking. Usually, I smile and say, "Yep and next month, I'm going to start working on my serial killer novel. Lots of hands-on research with that, you know."

    That usually leaves them floundering. heh.

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