Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Cranky Reader's Manifesto

{But first a word from our sponsor: You know, amazingly Blogger does not actually close down a blog for inadequate postage. Really. But I feel bad about this blog in particular because Sarah T. of Monkey Bear Reviews actually has it up on her blog list, and that's got to feel like a swiz if someone clicks on it and sees that I post once a month. So I'll try to do better. Honest. With the accent on the word "try."}

My backstory.

I was reading romances back before they were sold conveniently in drug stores and the like. I remember reading horrible romances out of the library as a child, books with titles like, "Cherry Stone, Career Nurse." When I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I read the entire series, but I reread the volume where Anne finally falls in love -- or rather, finally acknowledges that she's in love -- with Gilbert Blythe. Never mind that Anne was a much more interesting character as a rambunctious ten-year-old with better intentions than common sense; I only cared that she and Gilbert finally declare their love for each other. *sigh*

Somehow I discovered Harlequin Romances, which back then -- and we really are back in the Middle Ages here, people: 1967? 1969? Let's call it A Long Time Ago and get back to the point -- were all reprints of Mills & Boon romances published in England. As such, all the authors were from the British Empire: English, Scottish, South African, or Australian. I knew all their names, and while some of the books were forgettable, some were the opposite. I recently used's awesome used-book facility to get a copy of Roumelia Lane's Terminus Tehran, a book so memorable that I can recite the plot elements even now, more than 35 years after the last time I read it. (What? No, I haven't read the used copy I bought. I just like knowing that I can!)

In high school, I once got the only A in a history class because a romance novel had some discussion of a Praxiteles sculpture of Aphrodite, and I was the only one in the class who knew that. In college, I majored in Philosophy. My aunt (who had been a Philosophy major as well) commented that I was the only person she knew who had Emanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on the same book shelf as a Barbara Cartland romance.

No surprise, therefore, that I eventually thought I wanted to write romances. Never mind that I'd never taken an English class beyond high school. Never mind that I knew nothing about plot structure, point-of-view, story arcs, character development, or even what made a romance good. I don't recall thinking, "How hard can it be?" but if I had, I soon learned: it was hard. When I heard of a friend's mother, who'd made lampshades out of her rejection letters, I was empathetic. My mother told me that her father described it as "ordeal by market." What a wonderful phrase.

Okay, so I burned my first romance. I suspect I threw away at least one more. I might have a full-length manuscript on 3.5" floppy disks someplace, but I'm hardly going to tear the house apart looking for them. Bad is bad, people, and I wrote some pretty bad stuff.

All of that is to humble myself before I write what I am about to write. I am a cranky romance reader. It's not just that I dislike paranormals, although I do (I'm sorry, but how does fur & claws = hot & happy romance?). It's not even that I know enough about England to make virtually every Regency-era historical romance published today seem like a Sci-Fi/Fantasy in which history is rewritten with the help of time travel, and the Revolutionary War somehow got flipped around, so that 20th Century Americans ended up occupying 19th Century London.

(Don't get me started on the excessive over-use of the word "bloody," which to us here in the States is a colorful and quaint British exclamation, like "botheration," but which in England as recently as 1971 was a Very Bad Word. So, if no woman of refinement and breeding would have been caught dead uttering That Word in 1971, you can be assured that no heroine would have uttered it, or even thought it, in 1815. Try this the next time you see it in a Regency romance novel: substitute the word "f---ing" every time you see "bloody" and consider whether it seems anachronistic. Yes, it really was that bad a word.)

But still I loved reading romances all the way through law school, which I attended at an advanced age in the early 90s. At some point, though, I lost track of who was good. I had a select number of authors I liked, but they were aging out, or switching to more mainstream fiction. I deeply mourned the loss of Patricia Gaffney to mainstream fiction. Her romances are wonderful even today. ("To Love & Cherish," which I re-read a couple days ago, is close to a perfect romance, I think.) I had no trouble packing up hundreds of paperback romances everytime I moved. After all, I just know I'll want to re-read them.

At some point in the last ten years I stopped buying new authors, so eventually the number of romances I bought -- and thus the number of romances I read -- dwindled. Worse yet, even if I found an author I liked among the ones I did read, her work would often lack sufficient originality to stay clear in my mind. The next time I was in Barnes & Noble, I'd look at the scads of titles and authors and struggle to remember, "Now is it Stephanie Laurens that I like, or Liz Carlyle? Or is it both? Or neither?"

To the rescue: The Internet. I love the Internet. I love, where I can trust dozens of cooks' recommendations and ratings when picking out a recipe. I love the power to plan a trip, make the reservations & buy the tickets all myself. I love Amazon (although I don't love their ratings -- too many gushing reviews, and the "I hated this book" ratings are even less reliable). I love blogging, although I clearly don't love it on a daily basis. (Sorry.) And now I love the romance-reader review sites.

I'd had no idea of their existence until I heard the piece on NPR's Sunday All Things Considered about Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The fact that the host, Rebecca Roberts, seemed the very exemplar of the sceptic helped make the interview loads of fun. (Plus, Candy & Sarah actually used the word "heteronormativity" with what sounded like straight faces.) Better yet, their website has some reviews. I started reading books that they gave As. That led me someplace else, which led me to Sarah T. at Monkey Bear -- now a daily read -- which led me to Dear Author and eventually to All About Romance. I've bought over 20 books (mostly used; I'm sorry to deprive the authors of royalties I know they richly deserve) because they got top marks from some reviewer or other and I've been reading roughly a book a day ever since. (This could help to explain the absence of blog posts, but you and I both know I have no excuse.)

Have you ever noticed that when you first learn of something it's suddenly ubiquitous? Well, it seems as though the mainstream media (not as monolithic as all that, but still lumpable into some sort of generic blob) has recently Discovered Romances. I won't post links to all of it; here's a link to Sarah T.'s discussion on the media's love affair with what I'll call the Ivy League Connection, and one to her post on the larger question of how the media has been covering romances. (If by some odd chance my post here isn't long enough for you, I left a lo-o-ong comment on the latter of those two Monkey Bear posts, and an implausibly -- for me! -- short comment on the former.)

So, here's what I make of all this. The problem with romances isn't that they're stigmatized (although it's undeniable that they are; the only genre I can think of that is denigrated more is porn), it's that the people who love romances haven't wielded enough power to fight back against the stigma. Here are some thoughts about why that might be the case.
  1. It's a closed set (to use a mathematical term). Romance readers read romances, and some of them write romances. Virtually no one who doesn't self-identify as a reader of romances reads them or writes them. Yes, that sounds circular, but think about it. I've read mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, chick-lit, fantasy, young adult, literary fiction, and memoirs. But I don't identify myself as a big fan of any of those genres, in the sense that I'll read a so-so mystery just because I like whodunits. I read specific authors in those genres, or specific books, because I think I'll like them. I don't think that's happening with romances, meaning people who don't consider themselves romance readers don't read romances. Sure Nora Roberts sells a gazillion books every year, but how many non-romance readers are reading her books? And what about Susan Elizabeth Philips or Jennifer Crusie (both of whom write funny, literate, charming romances)? While it's true I think some of their books are better than others, all of them should have cross-over appeal. But do they? (That's a genuine question, by the way. If anyone knows, leave a comment, please.) And if they don't, does anyone?

  2. Hollywood doesn't make films from romance novels. And for people whose reading list is sparked by the cultural zeitgeist, that's a huge hit. Now, I have to tell you that I cringe when I think about Harlequin romances adapted for TV movies. Maybe the resulting show is good, maybe not. But for me, there's something structurally wrong with a literal adaptation of a story that is best understood as a fairy tale. There are two things I think are true of every single romance: A happy ending, and a distinct lack of realism. The happy ending is pretty obvious. But the lack of realism is just as key. We (I think I speak for at least one other romance reader, even if I don't know who that person might be) read romances to escape money troubles, broken relationships (hell, broken toilets!), dead-end jobs, etc. Even people with great marriages, homes & lives still read romances because the jolt of emotion feels good. Trust me, I've had two storybook romances (unlikely but true) and I know all too well that when it's time to pay the property tax bill, the fluttering of one's heart and/or loins dims a bit.

    So back to the point about film & TV adaptations. Take a contemporary romance, like any of Nora Roberts' books. The plot is filled with things that could happen in real life, only in the book those situations and activities are suffused with a fairy-dust quality. The heroine is trudging through her life, but we read about how she feels about the hero and we're transported. In a movie, we'd just see her trudging. Even a voice-over isn't going to convey the fairy dust. So after 90 minutes of trudging, the happy ending seems fake, or forced, or ludicrous.

    Hollywood does make great romances. (I personally saw Pretty Woman dozens of times in the movie theater; it got so bad that my friends and family would duck my calls if they thought they'd have to see it with me one more time.) They have tons of fairy dust, and their happy endings are just as aww-inducing as romances. They just do it differently. (Case in point: Pretty Woman. Imagine that story as a romance novel. Bet you can't get past the first chapter, where the heroine is revealed to be a hooker. Just too raw for a romance...)

  3. Historical accident. Ask yourself this: Why didn't Jane Austen start an entire trend of literary romances that are studied and lauded as much as her work is? I think it's because Austen's novels aren't in the direct line of the evolution of the romance novel. Her books are richly detailed characters studies with a happy ending (or several happy endings, depending on how you look at it). You could probably trace Austen to Dickens to Grace Matalious (Peyton Place) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) or even Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). I would argue that today's romance evolved from the Gothic romances of the late 18th and early 19th Century -- wildly unrealistic while also being fun and emotionally satisfying. (Think how much better a happy ending is after a delicious bit of a character's anxiety or desperation. Not too much unhappiness, and not mundane anxieties like in real life, but that moment where you can shed a tear for the unlucky-in-love heroine before she discovers that he is alive!/does love her!/can marry her!, etc.)

    But if I'm right, not much in the past 200 years has given romances legitimacy. When I first went to England in 1971, I was shocked (shocked I tell you!) to see that my very well-educated and slightly snobby English cousins had a complete set of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances on their bookshelves. (The cousins otherwise read mysteries, including relatively obscure American authors like Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo mysteries, set on Cape Cod.) When I worked up enough courage to ask them about Heyer, I got a characteristic haughty look and something opaque about Heyer's books being quite good. Which she is. (Her Regency romances are meticulously researched, by the way, and I'll give a prize to anyone who can cite me a page where a heroine -- other than Faro's Daughter, perhaps -- uses or thinks the word "bloody." A nice prize. Just give me some time to think of one...)

    And other than Heyer? Anyone? Any other names of romance authors who were deemed suitable for snobby cousins' bookshelves? Look, I'm not denigrating romance authors here -- I have my favorites that I'll grab at the first sign of smoke, and I'll defend them to anyone. What I'm talking about is mainstream legitimacy. I don't know why there was an evolutionary parting of the more detailed happy ending stories (Austen, et al.) from the faster-paced, emotionally charged Gothic romance such that Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett) is in one class and To Love & To Cherish (Gaffney, again) is in another. I just think it happened, and it's why our beloved romances are now the third-class citizens in the publishing world.

  4. Which brings me to my final point. Publishers. We've been reading recently about how romances are a $1.5 billion industry. But what are publishers doing to fuel that industry? Potato chip-thinking. The assumption, as far as I can tell, is that the reader doesn't really care that much who she's reading, just that she's reading. Sure, sub-genres flourish or not based on sales (if paranormals didn't sell, they wouldn't get published), but specific authors are pretty fungible, even the great ones (barring the record-busting authors, like Roberts; she's not fungible, per se). I'm sure Avon is happy that Eloise James is getting great press, but they probably aren't pushing that coverage the way Atria (a publisher I've not heard of before) is pushing Jennifer Weiner's latest novel, Best Friends Forever.

    [A momentary digression: I've alluded to an evolution of romance novels. So, let's say that Jennifer Crusie's books evolved from the classic contemporary romance novel -- where she got her start, as it happens -- and Jennifer Weiner's work evolved from smart, snappy journalism -- where she got her start, as it happens. Different paths, but their books end up pretty close together if you're visualizing the respective family trees: funny, descriptive, nice story arcs and cheery characters. I suspect you can be certain with a J.Cru book that there will be a heroine, a hero, some sex & lots of laughs; with a J.Wein book, I'd bet on a heroine, some trouble, but lots of laughs, and a life lesson or two. Not really that far apart. But look at how differently they're marketed. I've not seen Jennifer Crusie's closet pictured in Entertainment Weekly, for example. I'm just saying.]

    And where do publishers get the notion that we, romance readers, will read anything with a pulse? Because we read anything with a pulse. Okay, maybe not you or me -- we're discriminating readers. But those other romance readers -- you know, the ones we assume are lined up every month to buy all of the series romances regardless of author, or every Regency romance with a ripped bodice on the cover. No, really -- one of those articles recently had a publisher swearing blind that they tried non-lurid covers and they didn't sell as well. Um, Pavlov, anyone? They use lurid covers for 25 years and are surprised when a non-lurid cover doesn't evoke the same response.

    And why don't they try making more authors into brands, like Nora Roberts now is? (By the way, how many romances has Roberts written? Do you really have to write in the three figures before you're a brand name? Compare that thinking to Stephen King/Dan Brown/John Grisham/Sue Grafton -- they were all brands before they'd hit double digits.) Because (and here's my manifesto) for once I don't think I'm in the narrow end of the bell-shaped curve. I think that cliche generic romance reader (see what I did with the double meaning of generic? -- and it's after 5 in the morning, people; I'm writing on fumes here) is the narrow-end. I don't think that many readers are that oblivious to who the author is, and whether she's any good, or even whether the book is any good. The problem seems to be that because publishers expect a certain result, they're reluctant to view the data in a contrary perspective. And I bet they're super-reluctant to gather new data. I know they do some market-research, but I suspect it's narrowly tailored to answer questions at the margins of what they think they already know.

    In the end, I believe romance readers are punished for their loyalty. (And authors are really punished -- I read a recent blog post on the amounts of money romance authors can expect to earn, and it's slave wages for sure. It does not seem as though a lot of that $1.5 billion is trickling down to the authors!) Because we love romance, and love romance novels, we're expected to read pretty much anything that fits the mold. I'm all for accepting that people's tastes differ, but as the websites like Dear Author & All About Romance suggest, there are good romances, great romances, and not-so-good romances. But they're all marketed the same (other than some blurbs and "New York Times Bestselling Author" tags), and publishers probably think they sell the same.

    We have to start proving them wrong.


  1. Excellent post!

    It is so frustrating when a friend says she hates romance novels but has either only read one really bad book, or none at all. For some strange reason, many people seem to find chick lit acceptable, but not contemporary romance.

    I find your point about publishers not marketing romances differently interesting. One thing I've noticed is that they are very quick to label particularly successful romance authors' novels as "Fiction" on the spine, and NOT as "Romance". Nora Roberts is always billed as "Fiction", as are Suzanne Brockmann and Linda Howard.

    Glad you're finding All About Romance useful. I find their review database brilliant for looking up older books. Their "If you like..." lists are also useful for finding authors with a similar style.

  2. Very nice post. I love your manifesto and your point about how romance readers only identify themselves as romance readers, even if they read a lot of other stuff. I can enjoy a book for different reasons, but when it comes right down to it I really only care about the romance plot. :)

    I do have to disagree with you on your romance antecedents timeline, though. Jane Austen was inspired by Gothic novels (e.g., Northanger Abbey). I would say she borrowed the same sense of fantasy and emotional resolution and applied that to her stories. And what about Arthurian romances, which were hugely popular in the Victorian Era?

  3. @Sarah -- Thanks. I have some ideas on things we all can do to break the logjam, but it's clearly an uphill battle, as people's misconceptions about romances are pretty well entrenched.
    @Heidenkind -- Clearly there are a lot of literary intersections between authors like Austen and (particularly) the Bronte sisters and the more anonymous "gothic" romances of the 19th Century. But I really do think that the Brontes and Austen beget authors like Edith Wharton and Margaret Mitchell, while the entire literary world thinks today's romance authors are fungible and the equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield: they get no respect!
    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that romances are quick reads, relatively speaking. Of course, westerns are quick reads too, but Louis L'Amour gets a whole more respect than even Nora Roberts. I'm starting to think that sexism is playing a role here as well as all the other things I indicted!