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