It’s been a weird week in which a lot of things have happened, and I got very
but somehow restrained myself when it came to actually speaking up. It’s the problem of being an author and being conscious of the fact that people are watching what you do. To be clear, I don’t feel stifled by potential readers, it’s more thinking, “Does acting this way or saying these things really live up to the image I want to portray?” and usually when I want to rant about something, the answer to that is, “No.”
But here are some things I’ve been thinking about, in no particular order:
• I should know better than to read most “journalism” on the romance industry. So many of the articles take a “hey, look at what these silly women are doing” approach that I find kind of offensive. But the kicker is that I read two articles recently that made the argument that romance writers don’t aspire to be literary or romance writers aren’t concerned with the same things literary fiction writers are. I got into kind of a shouty argument with a friend, who countered that this was a good thing because literary fiction is soulless and concerned with writing the perfect sentence over plot and character. I disagreed because, as with romance, you can’t characterize a whole genre with such broad strokes. Sure, some literary fiction novels are soulless, and some romance novels are crap. But that doesn’t mean the whole genre is that way. More to the point, the connotations of the statement that romance writers don’t aspire to the same things literary writers do is that romance writers don’t aspire to be good writers. Which I take issue with. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time studying and working on my craft, with the goal of each book being better than the last, and to me, a great book is one that gets everything right: beautiful writing, a compelling story, interesting characters, emotional resonance, all of those things. The ONLY differences between a romance novel and a literary novel, as far as I’m concerned, are romance’s emphasis on the central story being a romantic one and the happy ending requirement.
Basically, the distinction between literary and genre fiction is one of marketing and expectations, not writing quality. For example, if I walk over to the fantasy section of a book store, I’m looking for a certain kind of book. I have expectations for what it will include. Literary fiction is much more broad. But otherwise? Sure, maybe there are some genre writers who are painting by numbers, but a lot of romance writers I have met over the years are genuinely invested in creating a great book.
• Although, perhaps disproving my own point, I read a historical romance novella earlier this week that was just rampant with factual errors. (Not m/m for what it’s worth. And no, I won’t tell you which book it was.) Now, I will grant you, I’m a dweeb and a history buff, so I’m going to spot errors that other readers may not. In this case, there were two that stood out to me: one was a bit about baseball that was so wrong I actually dropped the book in exasperation—and that was something a thirty second Google search could have rectified—and, without giving away the book, the other error is about something so fundamental that if you fixed the novel to correct it, the whole plot would fall apart. That is, the premise of the novel is based on something historically false, and this is not an alternate history. This is apparently a hard limit for me; the writing was competent and I liked the characters okay, but I just could not get past those historical errors.
• I did actually weigh in on an argument on an author loop, which I basically never do, but apparently I hit some kind of tongue-holding critical mass. I mean, I was nice and respectful. I don’t even necessarily think we all have to get along within the community, and some debate and disagreement is good, but it’s a combination of “am I putting myself in the best light?” and “is everybody going to hate me if I say this?” that pass through my mind whenever I type something to put on the Internet, even somewhere semi-private like an author loop.
• I’m reading a Beverly Jenkins novel right now in which the heroine is a whore—this is what she calls herself in the novel, and indeed, she is a woman who has sex for money and the hero is one of her clients—and I’m finding it so refreshing that this heroine totally owns her past and her choices and feels no shame about it! I’m really loving that aspect of the book. That is, the heroine has had a hard life and totally recognizes why a happily ever after with the hero from a prominent family is probably not possible (except it totally is because this is a romance novel) but there’s no effort on Jenkins’s part to make the heroine pure anyway—and I recently read a book with a virgin concubine heroine that was published in 2009, so this is still a thing we’re doing in romance—or regretful of her past life except as it pertains to her current situation and the novel’s central conflict.
I wonder sometimes if some of the reason LGBT romance sometimes feels like it has fewer limits is that the fact that there are two dudes or two ladies or whatever at the center of the book is already a barrier to entry for some readers, and if you’re already redefining a genre, you might as well go for it. Is it the same for multicultural romance? Does the fact that this Jenkins book has two people of color embracing on the cover keep some readers away? (I’m not so naive as to think that it doesn’t, which is a shame because this book is so fantastically trope-y and I’m finding it very entertaining.) If so, does that give Jenkins some room to write a different kind of heroine than what we’re used to seeing? I honestly don’t know; I’m just wondering if that’s what’s happening here, because it’s been a while since I read even a contemporary romance with a heroine who owns her sexuality in this way. (So far. I’m about halfway through the book.)
I’ll leave it there. It’s raining in New York right now, which is washing away the snow finally. I have high hopes that I will soon be able to go outside without wearing clunky boots.