I spent the weekend at the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. And I’ve said so, head held high, to every school parent and friend who has asked how my weekend was.
IT WAS AMAZING.
This is an incredible group of writers, from beginners struggling to put the final chapters of their first novel on paper, to the multi-million-copies-sold bona fide royalty of the genre. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, hard-working and genuine and generous. I had a blast! And I learned so much. I’ve come away inspired and rip-roaring ready to rework a couple of old manuscripts that aren’t yet gleaming and resplendent.
So, I had a wonderful weekend. And people ask, ‘what did you get up to?’ so I tell them.
I’m sorry to say their responses have been a little hit-and-miss.
It won’t be news to anyone that Romance is a genre often disparaged, and people will give a couple of ‘good reasons’ for that. For instance…
1. Well it’s not Dickens, is it.
Alternatives include mentions of ‘trash’ and vague allusions to the quality of the writing and the depth of the story.
Here’s the thing, Dickens was the popular fiction of his day. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Hundreds of years later we dub them classics but in their day they were accessible to everyone. They were cheap and common—and brilliant.
You can’t argue with the figures: romance is certainly POPULAR fiction. As to its quality, well, it varies. As in any genre, there is trash out there, sure, but there is treasure too. Rich, rewarding, well-written treasure. I’m reading The Silk Thief by Deborah Challinor and she’s a genius (and a New Zealand author).
Perhaps you’ve come across Outlander? Diana Gabaldon has answered the elitists numerous times and done it better than I can (what with the multi-million dollar book and tv behemoth to back her up) but the quality of the story-telling in these books, and in NUMEROUS others, is right up there. It’s not just romance, I hear you say. No, it’s a melange of many genres—but romance is one of them.
2. It’s chick-porn.
The word ‘chick’. Ick. We are not baby birds.
But that’s not the worst of it. One of the main reasons that Romance is so derided throughout the literary world (and the not-literary world) is the dominance of women in the industry. Women read romance, they write it, they edit it and sell it. Women are making the big bucks and have huge influence through their stories. Of course there are men writing and reading romance but look at the marketing of Romance novels. It’s shockingly pink. It’s not subtle. That’s how marketing works.
Genres that primarily target men NEVER suffer from this belittling. There are rubbish books in all genres, but only in Romance do people assume the writing is rubbish, the story predictable. What is it that makes it perfectly acceptable, rarely even questioned, when you’re looking down your nose at a Romance novel. Is it because the main character is a woman, the writer is a woman, and probably the editor too? Because it is about women’s experience?
Not good enough.
Now, about the porn. The porn industry uses, abuses, and destroys women, in their fictions and too often in real life. Meanwhile, the Romance industry gives top priority to a woman’s needs, her pleasure, and her very self. Women are shown to be whole and complex human beings, not THINGS to be used. Once upon a time, sure, romance novels featured weak heroines in need of saving, but not any more. The heroines in your average Romance novel these days are the masters of their own fates. They save the day, and more often than not, save the hero.
Of course, many Romance novels include sex scenes. Not all, but often they do. Yeah. So do many thrillers. And literary fiction’s never shied from the subject. Erotica is a genre of it’s own if you want to get down to technicalities. If you take issue with any book featuring sex then hey, that’s up to you, but it’s hardly limited to Romance.
3. It’s formulaic.
I once agreed with this. I thought, ‘oh it’d be so easy to write a romance novel,’ and I was so very wrong. I’m not going to to get down and dirty with semantics; there is a formula, but it’s one you’ll find across the board. It’s a pattern almost universal in fiction, whether in novels, film, television, comics, or plays.
The formula is this:
- Create a character: someone interesting, who readers will empathise with, and who wants something.
- Depict a world in which that character operates—and has good reason for not going after the thing they want, until…
- Incite an event which kicks them into action—now they’re going after the thing they want. And unknowingly, they’re going after the thing they really need. But this is all seamlessly woven in.
- Concoct a whole lot of problems and obstacles: be careful here, make sure these are believable and logical in the world, and for the character(s), or else the whole thing will feel contrived.
- Show how the character responds to those problems, gets stronger and wiser… to the point when they lose everything and must face their darkest hour, their true need, their true self. Make the reader think there’s no hope, no way out. All is lost.
- And finally, surprise us when the character achieves what they want and what they need (happy ending) or getting what they need but not what they want (bittersweet ending) or neither (tragedy).
In many ways, a good romance is more difficult to write than many other genres because you have to intertwine the journeys of two characters. To do it well and convincingly is HARD.
What makes romance different: some kind of happy ending is guaranteed.
Oh, wait, that’s true of the vast majority of mysteries, legal dramas, thrillers, comics… hm.
As an aside, Romance writers often cross genres. Over the weekend I met people writing paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, historical, and every combination of the above. The genre is in fact incredibly diverse.
4. It’s so commercial.
They’re in it for the money. They’re sell-outs. Pen-monkey whores.
Heaven forbid an artist should have food on the table and a non-leaky roof overhead.
But it’s true, Romance does pay. Between Romance Novels and Adult colouring books, the publishing industry is keeping its head above water.
You don’t have to like them or read them, just as I don’t have to pick up a supernatural thriller or a paranormal horror. There’s no harm in liking different types of books. That’s not the issue here.
Read what you like. But don’t hate on Romance.
In fact, the revenue the Romance genre pulls in is keeping the publishers above water. And these are the same publishers putting out the books you do read.
So, shut up and be grateful.
5. They’re easy reads.
Romance is easy to read. It’s true. These books are great fun and no doubt about it.
HOW and WHY is this an insult? Seriously! And yet, by the tone, the look, the something, I KNOW it’s meant as an insult. And I can only assume this is said by someone who doesn’t actually ENJOY reading.
I like reading. I read because it’s fun. You don’t have to read. You’re not obliged. But many do like it.
I also like watching TV. Some days I feel like Gilmore Girls, other days Breaking Bad. Some days I want The West Wing, others I’m all about Will and Grace.
I loved The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, but why should that limit my enjoyment of this GENIUS Deborah Challinor book. The next title on my to-be-read-list is Letters to Love by Soraya Lane (another New Zealand writer) and the last thing I read was Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes.
You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on living room shelf and impress the neighbours. I can say I’ve read it, yes, cover to cover, and it was fascinating, really challenging and so artfully complex…
Bring on the fascinating. The challenging. The artfully complex. But a book can be all those things and enjoyable. If that sounds silly, you’re doing it wrong. A book can be deep, psychologically fraught, and still a page-turner. In fact, it probably has to be.
I don’t want to tick off books like I do errands. I want to get to the end and be gutted there isn’t more.
I want a book to make me anti-social.
Make me want to neglect my kids.
Make me think.
Make me laugh.
Make me wallow and then make me WOW.
I know, I expect a lot. But there are A LOT of good books out there. And a lot of them have love stories in them. And many of those are Romances.
So the next time someone puts on that tone, or makes that face, or says that stupid thing… I’ll probably be polite and laugh it off and pretend they’re not belittling what I’ve been working toward for five years now, because I’m a nice person.
But don’t be one of those people.
Written by Amy Paulussen, Chairperson, Canterbury Branch, NZ Society of Authors.