Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Dear romance writers: Please grow up

Kassia Krozser has posted an excellent column about the image of romance novels over at Romancing the Blog. Here's a snippet:

....I wish I could say that I don’t feel shame when I tell people that I read and write romance.

I can’t, and the industry isn’t helping me.

You want to know why romance novels aren’t taken seriously? Because we (romance professionals, however you fit into the scheme) don’t take them seriously. We consistently present an amateur, unsophisticated image. And then we make excuses for it. If we can’t treat romance novels as grown-up fiction, we’ve lost the battle.

I find it downright embarassing that nearly every time romance writers gather--whether in person or online--the conversation invariably devolves into endless gushing about "hunky heroes" and steamy sex scenes. Why do so few appear to understand that it's ludicrous to expect the world to accept romance novels as serious literature when the women who write the stuff persist in acting like giggling schoolgirls peeking through a window of the boys' locker room?

I still cringe at the memory of an incident at the Romance Writers of America Conference in Denver in the summer of 2002. I believe it was just after lunch when a large group of romance writers headed to their rooms in one of the hotel's towers. We were stopped in the elevator lobby after a fire alarm had sounded and we were compelled to wait for some fifteen minutes until the fire department gave the all-clear and put the bank of elevators back into service.

Standing in a circle about twenty feet away from the bunch of stranded romance writers were five or six firefighters. Very young, nice-looking, and polite, the men talked quietly among themselves. By contrast, the romance writers were breathtakingly obnoxious. The passel of middle-aged women gawked, snickered, pointed, whispered, and giggled about how "buff" the men were and how "hot" they looked in their firefighting gear. From the looks on the young men's faces, I knew they could overhear the comments that ran along the lines of, "What do you think about that tall one--boxers or briefs?" "Neither--and that's just how I like it!"

This went on for the whole time we waited in the lobby. Apparently secure in the anonymity of the crowd, the women grew louder and bolder, making utter fools of themselves as they objectified the group of serious, professional young men.

It was not a proud moment for me, standing with that bunch of romance writers, all of us members of a professional organization that is working to gain respect for our genre. Why is anyone surprised that we haven't come very far?

Visit an online romance community or attend a romance-writers' conference and you'll quickly begin to understand that the behavior I witnessed in Denver was no aberration. This is how romance writers talk and act every day. Sure, I can take a joke, and I'll admit to laughing at the occasional "ornery" comment. But this constant focus on the "naughtiness" of romance novels isn't cute.

It's unprofessional.

Kassia Krozser complains about the embarassing covers of romance novels, but that's only part of our problem. If romance novels have any literary merit at all, if there's something more to the books than heroes to drool over and overwrought sex scenes, shouldn't romance writers stop behaving in ways that continually suggest otherwise?


Anonymous said...

Ha! I love how you think Brenda!

Anonymous said...

Well, Sister B., you nailed the problem in one hammer blow. I've witnessed this, too.Now, I've never been to an RWA conference, but I distinctly REMEMBER that fireman incident, because it was bantered around in posts at a particular writing listserv. And the banter ran along the same lines as what you witnessed--going on and on about the hunky firefighters and the "hot scenes" they inspired.

I recently had to post a comment to defend Romance The Genre on another fave blog of mine after the blogger used the dreaded "trashy romances" cliche. With the slobbering covers we've had over the years and the silliness of cover model contests and other things that serious writers of other genres would not consider, it's no wonder we're thought of as a pink-poufy-enclave-of-sex-obsessed-housefraus.


I went to one local conference year ago where middle-aged women were drooling over some cover model with long hair and some pirate-y outfit. I walked past the guy and kept going and didn't look back. I may have said, "Hello" in passing if he was in a corridor, but beyond that, nothing. I was too embarrassed at how much hyperventilated attention the poor guy was getting. I cringe at the custom of having pecs-n-bosom covers and I am not impressed by men in pirate outfits--unless it's Johnny Depp being brilliantly off-kilter or Orlando Bloom being heroic and enthusiastic and the script has something to recommend it. Than pirates are fine. :D

We have college theses written about Romance The Genre as "authentic literature", we have feminists raging against the patriarchal machine and in favor of Romance The Genre as liberating and female-empowering fiction, we have Christian Romance writers trying to calm those who want to throw stones at the overheated genre, but all that effort will all mean nothing if we don't act like mature and professional gals who happen to dig and write love stories. Love stories, not sex stories. But that's another controversial subject... :)


Karen Scott said...
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Karen Scott said...
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Karen Scott said...

Mir wrote:
"I went to one local conference year ago where middle-aged women were drooling over some cover model with long hair and some pirate-y outfit."

I'm not sure what you're point here is? Is the problem the fact that they're middle aged?

What's so different about this mode of behaviour, in comparison to the behaviour of men drooling over females in sexy skin-fitting suits, at various sci-fi conventions?

I think you'll probably find that this is more about group dynamics than females actually getting over-heated by the sight of naked torso's.

Brenda wrote:
"If romance novels have any literary merit at all, if there's something more to the books than heroes to drool over and overwrought sex scenes, shouldn't romance writers stop behaving in ways that continually suggest otherwise?"

Absolute hogwash. Romance writers are humans first, and writers second. What you're actually saying, is that if they want to be taken seriously, then they need to behave a certain way, they need to conform to your personal standard of behaviour? That comment has judgemental, written all over it.

That's akin to me saying that all Inspy writers should carry their bibles round with them everywhere they go, pray at least three times a day, and not have any fun, because writing inspirationals is a serious undertaking and should be treated as such.

Well personally, as a thirty year old woman who reads romance novels, if I went to a convention and had to choose between an author who obviously knows how to have a good time, and an author who was too busy looking down her nose at the rest of her peers, I would choose the fun author anyday of the week.

As for drooling over, over-wrought sex scenes...your problem with this is?

I think romance writers should really concentrate on doing the best they can, and not worry too much about how the genre is perceived by 'serious' external literary authors.

Somebody like Frederick Forsythe will probably never read what you write, and so what of it?

I personally have no problem with taking romance writer's seriously as long as they do a good job, but then I'm just a mere reader, what do I know?

As far as I'm concerned, I'm the one you should be trying to impress, not John Grisham or Tom Clancy. I'm the one who will buy your books by the bucketloads if you do a good enough job.

Brenda Coulter said...

What's so different about this mode of behaviour, in comparison to the behaviour of men drooling over females in sexy skin-fitting suits....

I'm glad you brought that up, Karen. There's nothing at all different about the behavior. I believe the men and the women who do those things are equally rude.

I don't feel any pressing need to respond to your other comments except to say that somehow I doubt there was ever any question of you buying my books. ;-)

Anonymous said...

What's so different about this mode of behaviour, in comparison to the behaviour of men drooling over females in sexy skin-fitting suits, at various sci-fi conventions?

The behavior is rude on both sides, but there is one glaring difference to my mind, at that is simply this:

At sci-fi conventions (at least the ones I've attended), both the women who dress that way and the men who do the ogling are paying to attend the convention--and it's unlikely that any of them are professional authors. Additionally, those women chose to dress provacatively.

In the case Ms. Coulter cited, there was a group of PROFESSIONAL women ogling over a group of people who had absolutely no connection to the convention, other than their jobs brought them there. The firefighters did not choose to dress provacatively (though there is something about a man in uniform), and certainly did not expect to be ogled in the course of exercising their professional duties.

Both groups are rude, but I submit that one was unprofessional, and that's exactly the point Ms. Coulter seemed to make. When one is in a professional situation, one should act like a professional.

Camy Tang said...

I think the point is that romance writers in general say that:

1) romance has literary merit, regardless of the reader, whether a romance reader or a literary fiction author, and
2) because romance has literary merit, the genre and romance authors should be given the same respect as a literary fiction author.

They don't. It's partially due to reconceived notions about the romance genre.

It very well might also be due to the unprofessional conduct of so-called authors. A lawyer who farts and spits isn't going to garner much professional respect. A snide or immature author isn't going to be taken seriously by a publishing professional.

It doesn't mean authors need to be dry and dull. Most of them aren't. Most of them are very friendly and approachable.

But it's possible to be approachable and also professional, if that's the impression you want to make. Remember, it's the romance writers who are complaining they're not being taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

Just kind of curious about the definition of 'literary merit' that is used here. That term brings up memories of dreadful English classes where the teacher preaches about the evils of romance and fantasy/science fiction novels.

I read novels from almost every genre out there and I never read it with a focus on its 'literary merit'. Rather, it is much more important if the reading was enjoyable, amusing (at times), and educational (ie. history you learn from regencies).

As for accepting romance as 'serious literature'. I don't think that is going to happen, regardless of the behaviour of Romance novelists. First of all, 'serious lit' does not refer to a genre, rather it is a list of books that have received critical success. At times, that could be a romance (Gone of the Wind, Romeo and Juliet). It couldn't be a whole genre though - thats why many mainstream/mysteries/etc. aren't considered 'serious literature'.

Of course, there are a lot stereotypes and prejudices against romance. Yet I have serious doubts that that is due to the behaviour of the writers. People who look down romance are generally astonishingly ignorant about the genre - they wouldn't be able to name any titles/authors, let alone list the behaviour. They dislike it for preconceived notions about how the plot is (or the lack of plot). One of my English teachers once challenged me for my dislike of Hamlet - she stated that romances do not have themes of brotherly love, friendship, betrayal and revenge. I can name at least five offhand. Of course, some people dislike romance for perfectly valid reasons - just not in my experience.

Even if the writers' behaviour is immature, rational people judge a book by its contents, not the writer. Most people don't know, or care to know about the writer's behaviour or personal life. I wouldn't blame the genre's difficulties on writers - rather blame preconceived notions of people and narrow critics.

Also, I agree with PeggyK. I read romances for the 'hunky guys', 'steamy sex' and happy endings. Why else would I read it? If I just want an ordinary romance between an ugly, stupid guy and an average, unfulfilled, overworked woman with inconclusive endings, almost any novel could offer me that.

That said, I agree that the romance writers at the convention were rude - they made the firemen uncomfortable and behaved inappropriately as humans. Regardless of profession or age, that showed very poor manners. On the otherhand, if they had remarked on the men's physical attributes once the men had left (thus not offending anyone), I wouldn't really have any problems with it.

Jaynie said...

Oh wow. I've got to be honest - I did practically the same thing once. I had firefighters at my wedding reception. Yes, we had to evacuate when the restaurant next door had a kitchen fire. I was standing on the street in my wedding dress about to burst into tears when a couple of my friends handed me a glass of wine and started a discussion on the firefighters arms. Those dudes were yummy...and I still have the pictures of the hunky guys posing with me. If I couldn't stop myself oogling them on my wedding day, I doubt very much I would have refrained at a romance con.

Brenda Coulter said...

First, after rereading my comment to KarenS I realized that I owe her an apology. I was having a busy day and didn't give much thought to what I said to her and how it sounded, and I think it came off, "You're so beneath my notice I'm not even going to respond to your comments." I'm sorry, Karen.

Second, I think a couple of you are reading a lot more into the last sentence of my post than I actually wrote. I was asking a rhetorical question: If romance novels have any literary merit at all, if there's something more to the books than heroes to drool over and overwrought sex scenes, shouldn't romance writers stop behaving in ways that continually suggest otherwise? I was not making any judgments about the sex content of some romance novels; merely pointing out that romance writers have always insisted there's more to the books than just drool-worthy heroes and steamy sex--the stories are about relationships. Many romance novels are actually quite as well written as what "outsiders" perceive to be more literary books. So when romance writers as a group behave like silly teenage girls, we're perpetuating the stereotype.

Anonymous said...

Gosh - I think it's fair to say that most any group of women (be it romance writers, insurence agents, or bus-drivers,) would get all giggly and drooly over a group of hot-looking guys at a conference. Don't men all do stupid things at conferences like having nude girls dancing and such? So I don't think the problem is romance writers, I think the problem is human nature.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm just a reader. I love oggling cute guys! I read romance for more than the sex, but the hot guys, (swoon!), I do love hot guys. I'm happily married and all, but I'm with the firefighter bride-- a tight, toned body sure gets my attention. Which makes me feel bad for romance writers out there who are being judged for expressing their enjoyment of the fine male physique. Poor romance writers! There they are, enjoying themselves at a conference or wherever, and when they see a well-formed man with a sweet smile, they all have to act serious, or oblivious, or something other than how they really feel. You know, if I were at a nursing conference, or a teaching or business or accounting conference, and if my girlfriends and I saw some cute guys, we would DEFINITELY take notice. I guess there would be people there who would judge us. Everyone's so different. Doesn't the Romantic Times conference have a hunk contest? If so many people who read romance enjoy the hunks (and enjoy oggling them), maybe romance writers shouldn't feel like they have to downplay the hunk enjoyment so much. Besides, if romance writers de-hunk their websites and stop oggling hunks at conferences, I doubt it'll make a difference in how romance is perceived to the people that matter. And, at least to some people like me, romance is about the relationship and the journey and the romance, and also, it IS a little about the hunks. (Gasp!) Why can't we acknowledge that? Is it so terrible?

Brenda Coulter said...

Like some of you here, the individual who linked to this post yesterday from another blog has completely missed my point. It's possible for romance fans and authors to read about, write about, and (yes, Teresa) even post photos of hot guys without being childish and rude. I have visited the blogs of several erotic romance authors who, while they make no apologies for what they enjoy reading and writing, still manage to conduct themselves like professionals. I respect them for that. Anyone who suggests otherwise is willfully misunderstanding what I have written here.

Anonymous said...

Gotta tell ya, I loved running into this site. I'm a published romance author and I'm mortified by the entire slumber-party atmosphere that surrounds RWA meetings. I have to force myself to attend a meeting because frankly, I don't want to waste an entire day watching giddy girls braid each other's hair and kiss the ass of the latest contest winner. I mean, seriously, you pay to enter enough contests, you're bound to win. How many contests did Hemingway or Harper Lee enter?

The popularity contest mentality of the local chapters, and the belief by the unpublished that if they shine enough apples someone's going to introduce them to their editor, just makes my skin crawl. And the fact that published authors take advantage of their built-in "adoring" fan base truly makes me want to cry. We're not taken seriously because we act like we're trying out for the pep squad, rather than writing books that are worth reading.

Here's what I say: Scrap the damn cheesy covers (my publishing house is famous for them), research, research, and research some more before you write a book, and present yourself in a professional manner. Seriously, every time I walk into a RWA meeting and it turns into a pep rally or looks like a Mary Kay meeting, I just want to turn around and run. Writer's groups should spend less time patting themselves on the back and more time promoting books that were written by articulate, intelligent people FOR articulate, intelligent people.

Brenda Coulter said...

Too bad you didn't sign your name, Anonymous. You sound like a kindred spirit.

Thanks for stopping by.