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Monday, September 1, 2008

Musings on Romance Writing

If you're just jumping in, I'll save you a mouse-click - we're having a discussion about romance writing. Catch up HERE.

Meg made a comment that I began to respond to, about not wanting to judge romance writing. My comment was so long I thought I'd just post it here. This is an interesting conversation, no?


I feel the same way, Meg. I don't have a high opinion of the genre but then I feel bad about that. How can I possibly judge? If someone likes it, they like it. Just because you write it, doesn't mean you aren't smart and literary, either. It is what it is. For me personally, it doesn't satisfy because I get hung up on what feels like cheesiness. I like romance to be a lot more complicated and sophisticated and EARNED. In a romance novel, the romance doesn't feel earned; the terrain is too predicable for me personally.

But on the other hand, I will boldly contradict myself and lay down a more honest opinion of romance writing:

Something that bugs the hell out of me in society today is this dichotomy between a proliferation of absolute online RAGE and, on the other hand, a politically correct hesitance to really state your opinion on anything. We soft shoe and tippy-toe in case we could possibly offend anybody.

Here's what I really think. I think that romance novels are a simple type of entertainment with a place and a purpose but that they are in no way, shape or form on par with really great, transformative writing and by that I don't mean dead white men literature but writers like Sherman Alexie, Russell Banks, Anne Lammott, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson and I could go on for weeks.

But then, I'm not sure romance writers would equate themselves with writers like that, either. I really don't know. They might read and enjoy great writing too. Romance writers might write other stuff that IS on par with truly great writing. But romance novels are romance novels.

Maybe it is the mark of a great writer that you could put on that hat and write romance but be equally adept at writing something much more sophisticated. Maybe there is a preconception that romance writers just aren't good writers. How can we know that based only on romance novels? We don't know what else they write. But this sells. So they are making money writing what would appear to be "low-brow". Maybe some judgment or prejudice comes from professinal jealousy. These writers are making money hand-over-fist. They sell to the masses. How can anything populist have actual merit?

Well - waitta gol darn minute - aren't movies populist? Are screenwriters not good writers? Well, they surely don't make money hand-over-fist, by dint of statistics alone, but who's to say what good writing is or isn't? None of the writers I mentioned above are making two million dollars a book. Is making less money the mark of a great writer? That seems to be an elitist conclusion, to say the least.

I guess the question for me is this: to write anything well, you have to have some kind of passion for the subject and for the act of writing itself. So it follows, then, that romance writers really feel a passion for the contrived, simplistic, cheesy, over-the-top stuff they write. Or do they? Maybe the joke's on us.

The bottom line is that in the world of writing, there is a great spectrum, from serial, boilerplate romance and detective stories (three words:Mary Higgins Clark) to intellectual and sometimes inaccessible literature (two words: Don DeLillo). Who among us has not been on a plane or on vacation and read something we got at the airport and enjoyed it but later threw it away with some embarrassment? And the bar may be different for each of us: for me, M.H. Clark is a no-fly zone. I just can't read her writing, it's too awful for me. Steven King used to be considered about one notch above Clark but over time, has risen to a much more respectable position. He ain't no literary writer but damn can that man tell a story. And I like him because he doesn't take himself too seriously.

But who am I to say? For some, that itch-scratching is exactly what they wanted and needed in that moment or during that time in their life. When I was a kid, I consumed Nancy Drew books. Total serial writing by a number of writers. I was ten, I liked it, it worked for me. Who am I or anybody else to judge what scratches an itch for a reader? Isn't it all bread and circus?

Here's what for me is the entertaining question: Do romance writers take themselves seriously? Or do they know full well that they are scratching an itch and laughing all the way to the bank?

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deb said...

Confession time--I tried to break into the romance genre during the early 1990s. Became a card-carrying member of the RWA. Spent two solid years reading nothing but romance novels. Mainly because I heard it was an easy way to break into publishing.

Do romance writers take themselves seriously?


They love the genre. Really and truly adore it. And I know many who would call those who deride it elitist.

And you know what? They have a point.

There's a lot of trash in other genres, too. A lot of movies--A LOT--are shallow, stupid, and cater to the lowest common denominator.

The fact about romance readers is that they're not fat housewives who sit around the house eating candy. Most are college educated and many have careers. For some reason--which remains a mystery to me, I admit--they love these books.

I never learned to love it. I tried, I really did. I wrote about places and things that interested me, but I just couldn't write to their guidelines. Unless you are a top best-seller, the guidelines are very detailed and very strict.

But I must extol romance writers as among the nicest, most helpful writers on the face of the earth. My first mentors who taught me the basics were romance writers who could probably write in any genre. They were so kind and generous.

Many of these writers ARE excellent writers--well educated, incredibly intelligent. I often thought back then that some were wasting themselves writing romance. Some do cross-over into the mainstream (my personal favorite is Janet Evanovich).

Why do they continue writing romance? I guess because they like it. And I'm not going to judge them for it.

Christina said...

"...but that they are in no way, shape or form on par with really great, transformative writing."

What you're saying is that romance writing is not literature. There is little - if any - attention paid to the language in a romance novel.

If I need light reading, I usually pick up something like a Nick Hornby novel. His plots and language aren't too complicated, but he writes well.

I think romance novels are like the fast food of books - not good for you if you indulge on a regular basis. Bug fun once in awhile.

Chris said...

Never having read a "bodice ripper" myself, I don't have any opinion one way or the other. I tend to meet any artistic work on the level it's intended.

If I'm reading an airport paperback, I don't expect it to be Faulkner or Steinbeck. If it can elevate the genre even while being bound by the genre, all the better.

Conversely, if I'm going to see the new Wes Anderson, I expect something more intelligently written and visually well-crafted than "American Pie 3."

I'm just hoping Billy Mernit will weigh in on the whole romance novel thing, since he ghost wrote them way back when.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, so sorry to read you're such a cynic on romance writing. I'll second chris' sentiments, wish Billy Mernit would chime in on this subject; he's the master of all things romantic. Why I'll bet he's even hiding Cupid wings behid his back!

I think your response to the romance genre is based on a very personal decison you're already made: do you want to be romanced in your own life? If the answer is, "yes," I think the whole genre opens up for you. But IF you've been stung in the past, OR if intimacy makes you squeemish (as is in the case with a lot of manly men) you probebly have a jaded view of the genre, and pooh-pooh everything related to romance. A type of Santa Claus debunker on a romantic scale, if you will.

Personally, I LOVE romantic comdies. Never read any series romance novels, cuz I'm a guy. Closest I ever got to that stuff was watching a "General Hospital" when I got home from college for a couple months.
Still, I'm glad romance novels are out there, cuz get this Julie-girl: being romantic in one's life is LEARNED. How else are you going to make your own forays in romance work? Seeing what works and what doesn't gives you confidence in matters of chorting. And in a roundabout way, romantic comedys and romance novels do that.

Back in line with the jist of the topic, I think romance writing CAN transform, only not in the way you probebly mean it. Romance writing panders to the need of those with a taste for that stuff. I think you're being a little TOO NARROW attempting to put romance writing on par with other novel genres; where to needs and expectations of the readers are much different.

I'm totally with ya on the on-line rage thing. So sad when you come across that stuff. Some people are just so unecessarily misserable. Wish I could turn them all arround and make them happy, but in dealing with them sometimes I feel like I'm the protagonist, and they're the monsters, a la "28 Days Later" or "I Am Legend." and the best I can do is stay away from them, lest I risk infection!!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Kenner said...

I'm enjoying the posts and the comments, and as an author of romance and other commercial fiction, I feel compelled to jump in.

... "in no way, shape or form on par with really great, transformative writing "

But Julie, you're comparing apples to oranges, aren't you? While I agree with you that Linda Howard probably doesn't stand around going "dang, me and JC Oates," I also have to question, why she would want to. That's not what she's writing (or what I'm writing, for that matter).

So the question is, what, in your mind, makes writing transformative? What makes it effective and bold and life-changing? Does it have to be "deep" to be important?

Or can we step back and judge value by some other criteria? Like, say, enjoyment. Because goodness knows there are a lot of women (and men, though it's harder to get them to admit it) who genuinely enjoy romance novels.

Or maybe it's impact? Maybe a work is effective if it has an impact on someone's life. If it helps someone get through cancer, or survive grief after 9/11 or gives them a way to occupy themselves in the hospital while their mother dies. If that's the case, then romance fits the bill, and I've got the fan mail to back it up. And dang, believe me when I say there is no better feeling than knowing your work helped someone escape from a personal hell, even if just for a few hours.

Romance novels (and all commercial fiction, for that matter) exist to transport the reader. To entertain. To give someone the opportunity to lose themselves in another life, another moment, a fantasy. And romance serves that purpose and obviously serves it well considering the numbers.

In fact, there are no strict guidelines in a romance (though in category romance, each line has its own "feel" and word count), and in this day and age, romances run the gamut, with the only real requirement being that the romantic plot be the primary plot, and that there is a happily every after. Beyond that, though, all bets are pretty much off.

Are some romances better written than others? Well, duh. Of course. Are some more "purple"? Some heavier on plot, some more focused on character? Some laugh out loud funny and some that require a box of kleenex? Of course. Not every book is the same, and that goes for romance novels, too.

As for craft, like Deb says, you only have to attend an RWA convention to see how seriously romance authors take their work. Robert McKee spoke at a recent conference, to a packed ballroom. Character arcs and story structure well-studied in the romance community, and the cross-over in theory and lingo with screenplay writing is actually quite extensive.

Debs also writes about the well-educated authors. Personally, I'm a former attorney. I know romance authors who are airline pilots (and former jet pilots), doctors, award winning producers, physicists, accountants, professors and the list goes on. But I don't know anyone who doesn't take the writing seriously.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I started my writing career in romance in 2000, and have written both category and single title romances. Most recently, I've been writing primarily fantasy or suspense or "chick lit", but I've had at least one romance each year for the last few years, either a category romance or a novella.)

So there's my two cents! Like I said, interesting discussion. Hope my perspective is interesting. Maybe it'll even be transformative :)

Julie Gray said...

Julie - THANK YOU for such a wonderful comment! I am truly grateful for your perspective. If you would ever be willing to write a guest blog on The Rouge Wave about your experiences, I'd get you free cupcakes for life. Thanks again!

Julie Gray said...

I also wanted to add that I ghost wrote a detective mystery book last year. One that fell into this elitist category of "oh YAWN" this isn't "transformative" litra-cha, but I had the best time of my life. It was really, really fun. I'd totally do it again. It wasn't "high-brow" but was as entertaining as all get out. I hope it gets published; I'm on deck to ghost write the next one. What a blast.

Julie Kenner said...

Way cool on the ghost writing! That sounds like fun.

And as for guest blogging, I'm totally there. Let me get past about a month of deadlines staring at me and I'd love to. Thanks for the invite! And, um, thanks in advance for the cupcakes!

meg said...

Yes, interesting discussion.

It's like eating at McDonald's. It might satisfy an urge but no way is it equal to a meal at Charlie Trotter's.

I guess for me I just don't get the appeal. I had a similar discussion with a woman online a few months back as she tried to convince me of the value of fan fiction. Which to me is like eating at White Castle. Which is a step below McDonald's.

It just came to me what bothers me about this genre. I don't care if someone wants to read it or write it but it's the need to read it over and over.

I understand the need to write and to write what interests a person. I just can't get pass the need to read so much of it.

Anonymous said...



If someone is gay or lesbian or non-gay, would they write passionate romance.

Who writes the most romance.
Gay, Lesbian or non-Gays?

Why do non-Gays write the best romance?

Julie Gray said...

I'm not sure that there are statistics about the number of straight romance writers versus gay romance writers but I have the sneaking suspicion that sexual orientation is not as important a distinction as the ability to write.

Seth said...

I don't read romance novels -- although I did hang in with Diana Gabaldon's time travel romance series for a couple of books -- but I am a great lover of genre literature, and I do think it is literature. I don't think it's apples and oranges -- although I once saw a great cartoon showing all the similarities of apples an oranges: fruit, round, warm color, etc.

I know Nathaniel Hawthorne disagrees with me here, but I think all works of fiction should be taken seriously, and they should be held to a high standard. The reason I don't read "romance novels" (the marketing category) is that I have a lot of respect for actual romantic fiction -- which to my mind includes such books as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, the obvious prototypes, but also contemporary works like A Sport and a Pastime, The Dying Animal, High Fidelity, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Remains of the Day.... I'm all in favor of books that explore love, even books that are optimistic about love. I just want them to be good books, and honest.

As I said, I adore genre literature, but it must be admitted that some "genres" (again, talking about publishing/marketing categories here rather than subject matter) are probably more limiting, because they have set boundaries. Science fiction has always been a little more welcoming of experimentation, while from everything I've read, romance publishers just aren't. So it's probably going to be hard for the next Sherman Alexie or Joyce Carol Oates to write something truly astonishing in that genre.

Which brings up an interesting question: are there any real genre-busters publishing in the "romance" houses? Someone comparable, let's say, to Scott Turow, who for my money towers over Grisham and the other lawyer-thriller hacks?

Seth said...

And whoa, Meg, whaddya mean White Castle is a step below McDonald's? Them's fightin' words. ;-)