Monday, March 21, 2011

Standing Up for My Genre

Perception is reality. I saw that on a tattoo once. And thought, well of course it is. It’s one of those sayings we nod our heads to then carry on. Yet.

Yet. Perception, our perception, IS our reality. We know we are here because of our senses. Without them, what would we be? More so, without them how would we commune with the world around us?

Thus it could be said that how you chose to perceive life will color that life, the choices you make, the enjoyment you glean from it.

All good. Nod along.

But I’ve been thinking about a specific perception lately. The thing is, I write romance. Perception of romance…well, it usually isn’t kind. It is so funny to me how certain stereotypes catch on and never die, while others are shamed out of us. I mean, here in America, our parents, or perhaps grandparents for some of you, actually lived in a time where humankind was separated by the color of skin. Different bathrooms, different entrances, etc. Over in Australia, our parents were around to see a whole culture torn apart, children taken from their parents, in the name of socialization.

And we all shake our heads in disgust. Of course we do. Because we understand right from wrong.

Just like we, as women, understand how utterly horrible it was for women to live in a time where every decision in their lives was under the lawful control of a man. No right to vote, considered inferior in intellect and sensibility. Weak.

And yet, sometimes it is the women who speak the most derogatory of romance, who keep the stereotype of what is or isn’t romance alive. Countless times I have read comments from women stating that they don’t read that stuff, that bodice-ripping, woman-hating, fluff. The idea being that these women are serious intellectuals. The idea being that smart –career minded, because we can’t forget that!- women don’t read romance. Usually, these women make sure to throw out there that THEY read literary fiction. So there!


I find it the antithesis of intellect to make judgments on a topic in which you have no true knowledge. This is like going to a debate having only studied half of a topic. Suicide, any debater will tell you. Moronic, I would say.

Then there are the ones who HAVE read some romance and decided, it’s not for them, they are much more literary-minded (g) but they have nothing against romance per say. Unfortunately, they can’t quite hide that little sneer, they slight edge in their voice that makes it clear, romance is an inferior genre.

Am I being over-sensitive?

I don’t think so. Nor am I asking everyone to love romance. That would be equally moronic. The great thing about personal taste is that every one is entitled to it.

What I am questioning is that sneer. I question WHY a genre about women –empowered women- mostly written, edited, and agented by women is sneered upon in the first place. I hate horror. Don’t read it. Don’t watch it. Do I sneer at it? No. Do I assume that every horror movie or book is going to be exactly like the movies/books put out in the 1970’s? No. So why assume romance is stuck in a time warp? Why turn your nose up at an entire genre based on old stereotypes or preconceived notions? Or to put it another way: To dislike romance is one thing, to declare it inferior to other genres is another.

I used to get the Washington Post Sunday Edition for their book reviews. Until I started to wonder why romance was the only genre ignored by them. Mystery and thrillers got their own section. Romance? Never. That’s fluff. I cannot respect a publication that does not respect the entirety of the writing community. Frankly, that’s quite a bit like asking romance readers and writers to sit in the back of the bus.

Why is it that stories about love are scoffed at while stories that glorify serial killers are respected? Why is the notion that a sex scene in gratuitous and cheap while murder and torture is not? I am fully willing to admit that one may find the good, bad, and ugly in all genres. Yet for many, it is romance that takes the brunt of the ugly while others skate by.

But here is the thing, the part when I reveal the hypocrite in me. I just sold my romance novel. This is the completion of a decade-long dream. I should be shouting it from the rooftops. Instead, I have to brace myself to look someone in the eye and tell say that my book is a romance. I expect the sneer, often get it. That or a patronizing smile. And I feel the need to justify myself. Justify the genre.

So really, the problem is mine. Because in truth, change starts with yourself. Perception changes with each person. If I cower, or try to justify something that I love, I weaken it, and myself. If women –or men- feel the need to hide their “dirty little” romance-reading secret, they are telling the world that the stereotype has merit, that there is justification for putting romance down. A thing only has the value we give it. Diamonds are mere stones without our coveting them. And a romance will be a shameful genre until we treat it the same way we treat any other genre.

More importantly, that which we inherently respect does not need justification as to why we must respect it. Not really. It simply is. You never see a literary writer begging for others to respect their genre –heck are we even allowed to call it a genre? Although, maybe they should, I have pulled many a stinker down from shelves in that section of the bookstore.

So when someone asks me what type of book did I write, it is up to me to look her in the eye and say, “Romance.” And should someone sneer, patronize or question my choice in genre, it is up to me to refuse to cower or validate my decision. But simply say the truth. I write romance because I love it. I read romance because I love it.

End of story.


  1. IMHO, part of the trouble is that some people think romance is a short step away from smut, and that's the sort of thing that some people hide away, or have delivered in a plain brown wrapper. Romance is tough to separate from sex, and even if your book doesn't have sex in it, there's an awful lot of people out here who would like to pretend that sex doesn't exist. (Even WHILE they may enjoy reading about it, themselves!)

    If you have scenes in your book that you're uncomfortable having your mother read, is it because those scenes are sexy? There are many taboos about talking about sex between different generations (which is probably a big part of why having "the talk" with our kids is so awkward and uncomfortable) and also in generally public venues.

    If you happen to see a couple making out in public, do you cringe, scold or cheer? A romance novel is somewhat akin to that. We bring something semi-private (and, I would hope, very enjoyable!) out in public, and if we've ever been frowned upon for getting affectionate with a significant other in public, or witnessed someone else getting a dressing-down for it, I think a romance writer feels a touch of worry they'll be treated to the same sort of response.

    For the record, I like romances when I'm in the right state of mind, but if I'm not in the mood for it, it grates on me. Goes for 'most anything. I go through cycles. And yes, I'm guilty of not speaking up about reading romances. AND cringing to watch a couple make out in public. But I'll try to mend my ways.

    Before I go, sorry it took me so long to say it: Congratulations!

  2. oops, and I forgot my tagline:
    Best to you and yours!

  3. I don't think certain older romance brands have done the genre many favours in that they became so very formulaic. No good book is formulaic, not without a significantly fresh twist or spin.

    I love a good romance. There's more to it than love; it's the slow dissection of the characters and their quirks.

    If anybody sneers at you, you can inform them that romance dominates the market. You're a good writer AND a savvy businesswoman :)

  4. I'm with you, Kristen. I read everything. BTW, my husband agrees with you, too--

    "Why is the notion that a sex scene in gratuitous and cheap while murder and torture is not?'

    He won't watch blood and guts movies, but sexy ones...Oh, yes. ; )

  5. "You never see a literary writer begging for others to respect their genre –heck are we even allowed to call it a genre?"

    Sounds like you're saying literary writers are snobs, which would be the same stereotyping you're accusing others of...

  6. @Gretchen -thanks for the congrats. :) Yes, I agree that is a lot of why people view romance the way that they do. And yet I cannot see the sense in it -the viewpoint, not your argument. (g) Is there not that sense of voyeurism in reading any book? Like you, I'd rather not see someone making out in public, but given the choice between watching someone say, be tortured to death or a seeing a couple in love have sex, which one would most people pick? It's so odd because one act is something most people enjoy and the other something that society finds appalling, yet in terms of genre, the roles are reversed. One questions just why that is.

  7. Lucy, I agree. And those early ones really made an impression because people still think of them today. Of course the titles and covers don't help either. :p

  8. Mutt -Ah, accusing the debater of not practicing what she preaches -your basic, cliched rebuttal. Either you are being argumentative for argument's sake, or your missing the point. But I'll bite.

    I was, of course, poking fun at literary fiction -and I think literary writers can handle it. Let's be clear, I am not saying romance should be above criticism. I don't think any genre should be. What I am saying it that it be treated the same as the others. Which means that as it is made fun of so should it be regarded just as valid a genre as others. There is a distinct difference between generalized stereotypes and outright uneducated bashing.

  9. Congrats. I've been waiting for this book to come out since I read the first snip so hold your head high, you already have fans.

  10. I feel your pain. I write romance as well...and L-O-V-E it. Both reading and writing it. I read widely though, and know that some of the best writers in the business write romance. They are truely talented individuals.

    And I think you're right. If we write a particular genre, let's be proud of it.

    Congrats on selling your book!

    P.S. Pop by my blog when you get the chance. I have a gift waiting for you!

  11. *Hand in the air* I confess, I have been guilty of judging romantic novels in the past, and maybe even the occasional sneer.

    Or I was, until I actually *did* read a few. Not to say I'll ever be a huge fan of romance- I tend, for some inexplicable reason, to be drawn to tragedies instead of happily-ever-afters- but the blinds have well and truly been opened for me in understanding that the perception of romance as some kind of less complex or less worthy genre is a constructed one. If I had never discovered writers like Joanna Bourne and yourself, I would have been missing some of the finest stories I've ever read in my life, and some of the most incredible characters, and some of the most beautiful language.

    So, no more sneering at romance from this literary fiction writer- not even when there's man-titty on the cover (that one comes with a BIG wink ;)). I agree entirely with your elbow-in-the-ribs to literary writers, too- it's clear that some of us take ourselves all together too seriously, and could do with dropping down a couple of pegs and widening our horizons, or else we risk vanishing up our own backsides...

  12. I adore a good love story. :) And yours is one of the best in the genre. You have nothing to be ashamed of and perhaps if more authors who write with your skill and intelligence insisted that Romance be respected, it might change things.

  13. Hear-freaking-hear, Kristen. [g] I feel the same cringe when someone asks what I write and I have to answer romance. *sigh* I just know what they're thinking behind their smile - or at least I think I do.

    Romance makes up something like 60% of the paperback market - which leaves 40% spread among ALL the other genres. Apparently people do like/read it, they just won't admit it, lol.

  14. I'm a little with Claire on this one, but I'm inclined to blame both myself and the industry. I'm so so glad to have read your and Joanna Bourne's writing, so that I know what the good stuff looks like. Otherwise, from what little other romance I've read, I'd be inclined to think of it as third-rate writing too (especially the past couple of months when I've seen some awful self-published romance and erotica).

    And yet I agree with you - why does everyone enjoy reading about gore and grossness and mayhem (I don't, for the most part) and not about love?

    Unfortunately, when you tell someone you're writing romance, all they think of is 1970s Harlequins - formula, formula, forumula. And they come back at you with stuff like "does it have the word bosom in it?" (this happened to me a few months ago). Or, they assume that because you're writing romance, "oh that'll sell right away and you'll make millions - you just have to keep churning them out!" They seem to think we're like that Barbara Cartland parody on Little Britain, lying back on sofas, eating chocolates and dictating to our secretaries.

    Uh, yea.

  15. You're right, there is a perception about romance out there that some look down upon it. Yet, it's still the biggest selling genre of all (aside from YA, which technically is a demographic not a genre)

    I can't stand here and rail indignant about the way people sometimes sneer at romance. Because I'm terribly guilty of rolling my eyes every time I hear a book labeled as "literary".

  16. Hi Tracy - Funny, I sort of know what you mean by that too! I think of, for instance, Love in the Time of Cholera, which I didn't enjoy very much, as the sort of "telling a story in literary fashion just for the sake of doing so". Whereas I loved Ondaatje's In The Skin of A Lion and other people have the same reaction to that story!

    In that sense, it seems that every genre can have examples that make certain readers scoff or sneer at the genre as a whole - but that's not very fair to the individual authors, is it?

  17. This is a theme I've seen a lot in blogs this week! I also used to ~snort~ at my mother's Harlequin Romances when I was younger. But as I grew up, I learned an appreciation for the genre, and now I write SyFy Romance.

    I especially love the point about violent scenes being considered acceptable to a plot, while sex is considered gratuitous. Both can be inserted gratuitously, but likewise each can be an integral part of the overall story.

  18. Kristen, I'm a bit of a grazer when it comes to reading. I read a bit of everything, and yes, while some category romances can be cheesy and not terribly well written, the same can be said of some of the schlock-horror books I've read in my time, too. Romance, as a genre, should not be frowned upon; just poorly written books in general.

    At the end of the day, be proud of the story YOU have written. I happen to know first hand that it is one damn fine book. :-)

  19. I think you said it all in your last two paragraphs Kristen!

    Whether it was true or not, I remember hearing that the queen of historical romance, Georgette Heyer, belittled her own books and wanted to be instead writing 'serious' fiction. Thank heavens for all the fans who continue to enjoy her books long after her death that she DID write her wonderful romances.

    Romance is such a very broad 'genre' and as has been pointed out, people may sneer all they want, but it is a huge part of the total book market and makes a great deal of money for all those involved. So it's probably safe to say that at least part of the reaction romance gets is motivated by jealousy, pure and simple. An odd sort of "tall poppy syndrome".

    It's also worth keeping in mind that *most* romance is written by and read by women - and it's not a big leap to assume that maybe that's part of the problem, given that in the workforce, professions dominated by women tend to be more poorly paid in many cases.

    I started out writing historical romance and more recently have been writing modern paranormal - but common to everything I write is the fact that it's targeted at the womens' market and contains romance/romantic elements. Funnily enough, when writing YA, paranormal etc, even though it may be chock full of romance, we seem to escape at least part of the stigma of 'pure' romance, and I'm not sure why this is. Maybe nobody is game to sneer at 'genres' which have made people like Stephenie Meyer so damned much money...


  20. Kristen--

    I feel your pain. I often times find myself doing the exact same thing with BOTH of my genres. It has me wondering if it's really the particular genre we write or a sort of ego-protection method we're invoking. Like...please don't judge me..I only write "such and such."

    I find myself doing this a lot more when I'm talking about my young adult novels. So many people seem to regard YA as inferior to adult books that I have this inferiority complex about them. "I just write young adult" has actually passed out of my lips. WTF? I LOVE young adult books. I LOVE my young adult books. I shouldn't be ashamed of them, but for some reason I worry people won't take me as seriously because of them. Oh the head games, I tell ya. Same goes for my adult books because they're comedy. I'm not writing "high brow" stuff, but the truth of the matter is that I don't even LIKE high brow stuff. So what's all the fuss about? LOL.

    Ah...well, all that to say I'm with ya, sister. Stand proud. :)


  21. I should hope not Jen! YA books are some of the best around. I know some people who don't write think somehow that it's easier (ha!) to write "for kids" but they don't know what they're talking about.
    Anyway, I wouldn't give up reading YA for anything.

  22. Deniz -- I think a lot of people who write think it's somehow easier. (g) But agreed. Some of the best books I've read in recent years have been YA. They pretty much rock. :)