Monday, August 07, 2006

Are you smart enough to write romance?

Anyone who publicly admits to writing romance novels can count on attracting a lot of strange looks and thinly-disguised insults. Tell people you're a hairdresser or a CPA and they'll smile and nod. Tell people you're a romance novelist and the conversation will come to a dead stop--for about five seconds. After that, perfectly nice people will quite often turn stupid and mean. They'll actually say things like, "Really? How can you write that garbage?"

No, I'm not kidding. And it's not just strangers who blurt those awful things; often, it's the romance novelist's own family and friends. When I began writing, nobody knew about it but my husband. When I finally told one of my best friends that I had written a romance novel and that the full manuscript was under consideration by a publisher, her immediate response was, "Oh, please don't tell me you wrote a Harlequin."

Well, yes, actually. I did. That manuscript was purchased by Steeple Hill Books, which is owned by Harlequin Enterprises.

It's amazing, really, because romance authors must be fairly intelligent and articulate individuals or they wouldn't be published. Yet they're continually painted as fools who dash off a new book every other week because, hey, any idiot could write that fluff.

Maybe some of you who have actually tried to entice a New York publisher to read your romance manuscripts would like to share with the class just how "easy" it is. Yes, I see a lot of hands, but I'll answer this one myself: Of the six manuscripts I have completed, the first was sold, and then the second, third and fourth were soundly rejected before I submitted and sold the fifth and sixth. Friends, this is not an easy gig. I know quite a few published romance authors, and while they all agree it's deeply satisfying work, I've yet to hear any of them suggest that writing romance novels and getting them published is a walk in the park.

The really odd thing is that we who are producing stories to entertain and delight others are constantly ridiculed for what we do. Sell chocolate ice cream, and everybody will love you. But for heaven's sake, don't write a romance novel unless you're prepared for some clown to slap a Kick Me sign on your back.

It is often suggested that such hecklers are simply jealous, but I believe the urge to ridicule those who write romance stems from something else entirely. Since romance is a genre enjoyed by millions, detractors assume the novels must be of substandard literary quality. How else would so many people be able to read and enjoy them? According to this reasoning, if you read Proust, you're an intellectual. But if you read Harlequin romances, you're a dowdy, donut-eating housewife with no intelligence and not a lick of ambition.

But that perception doesn't line up with the facts. According to Romance Writers of America's 2005 Market Research Study on Romance Readers, 42% of all romance readers are college graduates. 15% hold higher degrees or have done some postgraduate work. 7% hold associate degrees, and 17% have attended some college or a trade school. 11% of the survey respondents were not high school graduates, but because some of those people were still attending high school--the survey included ages 13 and up--that's not a very telling number. In fact, excluding teenagers from the study would push up the percentage of romance readers who are college graduates. So these figures are impressive, indeed, and more than adequately refute the charge that romance readers lack intelligence and ambition.

In their quest to demonstrate their own intellectualism by shaming readers and writers of romance novels, the genre's detractors love to insist that every romance novel is exactly the same: Not just poorly written, but unimaginative and laughably predictable. That tired objection was summarily dismissed yesterday at Teach Me Tonight with this very apt analogy:

Football fans go to a game knowing their team and the rules of the game, and they know there are a limited number of final outcomes, but within those constraints, there are many possibilities which will determine whether they consider it a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ game. Similarly, all genres have their conventions and it is these conventions and rules which distinguish one genre from another. Genres can then be subdivided into sub-genres, which again have their own rules/conventions. To someone who doesn’t read within the genre, these subtleties may be easy to miss, just as I would find it impossible to distinguish between a rugby league and a rugby union game, or between different types of red wine. The connoisseur, however, is very aware of the differences, not just between different wine-growing regions (romance sub-genres), but between vintages (authors) and individual good or bad years for that vintage (individual novels by a particular author).

Well said. The entire post is excellent, so be sure to click over and read the whole thing.

Romance novels don't suit everyone's taste. There are certainly genres that I have no interest in reading, so I can accept that some people simply don't care for romance. But I think we can safely conclude that those who go out of their way to ridicule readers and writers of romance novels just aren't all that--well, intelligent.

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K J Gillenwater said...

I think there are 2 reasons romance gets the shaft:

1) It's mainly a genre geared towards women. Men and women have very different ideas about what constitutes entertainment. Why do you think there are films designated as 'chick flicks'? Men lean more towards action adventure-type stuff, non-fiction, sci fi, thrillers, etc. (GENERALLY, not always...I like a good sci fi book myself) If men don't 'get' something, it is very easy to dismiss it as dumb or beneath interest.

2) The sheer volume of romance books sold and the demand for them means that there are more crummy romance books out there than any other genre of writing. I wish I knew the statistics, but doesn't romance have the lionshare of readership in the U.S.? I have read many poorly-written romances just because there are so many authors to choose from, so many 'types' of romance (from romantic suspense to historical romance to chick lit), that it is very easy to find a book that is not very well-written.

If there is a large appetite for something, the publishers will go overboard to sate it. Which means taking on mediocre books. It's all about supply and demand. And demand is high for romance.

Susan Rix said...

I agree that romance novels aren't to everybody's taste, but why do people who have never even read one, slate the genre?

Coming out of the closet and admitting to being a reader of romance, especially HMB, is hard enough at times, but to actually tell people that I also aspire to be published by them is proving to be even harder!! People sneer and snigger as if it's something anybody could do.

Now, I just laugh at them!

In my experiences the derogatory comments don't even come from men, but other women who believe themselves to be 'above' such reading.

While I agree with Kristin that there are (and always will be) some published romance books that are badly written, I have to say they're very hard to find in a Harlequin romance of any line.

Editors' standards at Harlequin get higher and higher. It isn't easy to get a book accepted for publication, and none of Harlequin's existing authors can afford to become complacent.

I will hold my head high with pride when one day I too will hopefully achieve Harlequin's high standards.

Mikesell said...

Brenda, be fair. The sign said "Kick Me Gently."

Did I miss the announcement on MS#6's sale? Congrats!

Brenda Coulter said...

Hey there, Chris. Long time no heckle. Yes, I sold my third book a few weeks ago. Thanks for the congratulations.

Kristin, you bring up a couple of good points, but as mscreativity says, most of the snide comments about romance books come from women. As for the stats, romance novels account for well over half of all paperback fiction sold in the U.S.

K J Gillenwater said...

And women yearn to be accepted into a male dominated society as equals...if men sneer at romance (to include book reviewers) then so will women. They don't want to appear 'weak' or following traditional molds. Somehow finding love and the perfect man means that you are not a strong woman that lives in the 21st century. For the highly educated woman of today, they are supposed to yearn for independence and lives that don't depend on men. A traditional romance is all about falling in love (note I say 'traditional romance') and for some this is a 50s-type mentality--needing a man to be happy in life.

Plus, women always want to attack other women. There is a level of competition out there that turns my stomach sometimes. Natural childbirth vs. birth with drugs. Breastfeeding vs. bottle-feeding. Taking your husband's name when you marry vs. keeping your maiden name. It never ends. And it comes right down to sneering at women for reading Nora Roberts instead of Virginia Woolf.

Anonymous said...

Such a great comment, Kristin, on the competition sometimes staged by women against other women. Often, that is where a lot of romance bashing comes from.

Smart blog. Smart posts.

K J Gillenwater said...

Barbara...I'm flattered by the compliment!

I love your blog, Brenda, b/c you post such intriguing debates like this. :-)

Brenda Coulter said...

...if men sneer at romance (to include book reviewers) then so will women. They don't want to appear 'weak' or following traditional molds.

Kristin, I'm afraid you might be onto something, there. [Sigh.]

Barbara, thanks for stopping by and for saying nice things about my blog. And congratulations on snagging yet another RITA award. I'm afraid I know more than a few romance writers who wish you'd move on to another line of work and give them a chance at one of those golden statuettes!

Mirtika said...

I think that folks who believe books should stimulate the brain are gonna knock romances, cause the romance reader isn't looking for a mental scratch: They are looking for an emotional experience.

Romance, especially very well written ones, can satisfy on several levels (thrills, suspense, mystery, humor, chills, pathos), but it's ultimately about the special tug a reader gets seeing two people who belong together overcome everything to be together and make couple magic.

Women traditionally celebrate this a lot in life--that whole coupling up thing. It matters to men, but for women, it's a whole big thing to celebrate, have parties and showers, talk about over coffee, plan for since childhood.

I know that if a romance really worked for me, it made me weep by the end. The sense of catharsis--the RELIEF--that this wonderful couple worked everything out and got the interlopers and obstacles out of the way, it's wonderfully pleasurable.

And anyone who isn't tuned into wanting that emotional ride is not going to understand romances or particularly enjoy them.

I will add that growing up, I got flack for liking Sci-Fi more than for liking Victoria Holt. Sci-fi readers were ridiculed to a certain extent. My older sister called us booger-eaters. (To be fair, she ridiculed romances, too.)

So, I suppose I just enjoyed the less-fashionable genres. :D


mercurial scribe said...

i love reading romance novels! i need them as a break from the horribly deep Anna Karenina or the sarcasm of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Romance novels are fun and interesting and make me review what attracts me, what makes me think, what makes me feel.

Never let anyone mock you or insult you for the wonderful work you do! KEEP WRITING!

pacatrue said...

I wonder if this is a version of mocking whatever is popular. I think tons and tons of people go into high school learning to disparage anything that is popular or somehow for the masses, be it music or hairstyle or whatever. And then if something they like becomes popular, they have to insist over and over again that they liked them BEFORE they were cool. In high school this might be fairly healthy because it is part of identity formation, but a lot of people I think stick with it all their lives. They have to make fun of what others like to separate themselves out and prove themselves better than others.

TrudyJ said...

What you say is certainly true, Brenda, and I can attest to having learned it the hard way. As a writer who has had some (limited) success with so-called "literary" fiction, I once decided (when in need of cash, of course) that I would write a romance novel because "how hard can it be?"

After two rejections from Steeple Hill I got a much better grasp on the fact that yes, romance editors do have standards and yes, romance writers do work hard at their craft, just like the rest of us. I have a lot more respect for romance writers now! (Especially anyone who's been accepted by Steeple Hill).

I will say though, that there is enough snobbery about genre fiction in general in the all-female writers' community I work among (directed towards me for writing fantasy, and to others for writing mysteries) that I figured admitting I'd been rejected by a romance publisher would be the ultimate humiliation!!

Brenda Coulter said...

...I figured admitting I'd been rejected by a romance publisher would be the ultimate humiliation!!

Trudy, as someone who has worked very hard but is still batting only .500 against Steeple Hill (yeah, in baseball that'd be good), I chuckled over that remark.

Thanks, everyone, for posting all these insightful comments. I really enjoyed reading them this morning.

Crystal Laine said...

Brenda, This was a fabulous post! I'm sending all of my friends and family to this post because you "'splained it, Lucy" so well. And you can't tell me that everyone doesn't appreciate a good romance. Who doesn't long for love? Congrats on your book, and love your other ones.
Signed, A True Romance Lover

Brenda Coulter said...

Crystal, you are very kind. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I remember a discussion online years ago that was similiar to the football analogy. Someone said that reading romance novels was like starting out on vacation and always ending up in San Diego. Nora Roberts answered by saying, "But there are so many different ways to get to San Diego!" Even though I know pretty much where the ending is going, it's always interesting to see how the couple gets there.

Riccarla BOBROM

Brenda Coulter said...

That's it exactly, Riccarla. We read romance novels to experience the journey.