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17 April 2006 @ 02:10 am
The Curse of the Romance (or Historical) Novel  
I posted this to both the RomanceNovels and the HistoricalFiction communities, because I figured people who read and write romance or historical novels might understand this romance-novel-hostile attitude in the rest of the world, and be sympathetic. It's really a complaint about the divide between genre fiction and literary fiction.

I wrote something unique: a bisexual historical romance. I’m very proud of this work. I think it’s intelligent and witty, with well-developed, sympathetic characters.

Because I’m unknown, and perhaps because it’s an unusual idea, I’ve had a hard time getting publicity and sales. But I also think I’m running up against the Curse of the Romance (Historical) Novel. Literate people don’t read them (they claim). Romance novels are just formulaic stories churned out like sausage by semi-literate cogs in the greasy wheels of Harlequin and other imprints for the even less literate consumers who gobble them up like animals at a trough. No reading, writing or imagination required.

I’m tired of the “Romance (Historical) novel equals trash” equation and I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Selling my book at the GLBT Expo at the Javits Center a few weeks ago, I was forced to confront the fact that some people are so turned off by the genre of the romance novel that they just can’t believe my book could possibly be any good. In my naivete, I had truly thought when I wrote this book that the mere fact of its unique concept, the bisexual romance, would overcome any and all resistance to the prejudice against the romance novel. I was wrong.

Recently I gave a reading and led a discussion from my book. It was a big success (I think). Some people were turned on, as I deliberately chose some pretty sexually explicit scenes to read for this special group. But one comment really got to me. A man said that he was “very pleasantly surprised” and that it was “much better than he thought it would be.” Gee, thanks, I think.

It was the Curse of the Romance Novel. For many people, a romance novel just can’t be a good thing. In fact, for many men, especially, the words “bisexual” and “romance” in the title seem to equate with porn. They like porn, they tell me, but it just never occurred to them to read porn. Porn is something men look at pictures for, preferably moving ones, on the Internet.

I’d like to interpolate here that, for me, there is an element of porn or erotica in romance novels, even chaste ones, the kind that end with a kiss and a marriage proposal. That is, I think of romance novels as fantasies, ideal situations with none of the inconveniences of real life like STD’s and condoms and worrying that the reformed rake our heroine is marrying at the end will go back to his old ways after the honeymoon. In that sense it’s like porn, which portrays all the fun aspects of sex without the practical stuff.

But in terms of writing and reading, what I don’t like about porn or even erotica is that usually there’s minimal story and the characters barely exist as distinct individuals. It’s just not sexy to me. I get turned on much more by story and characters than by pictures alone, however sexy the images may be. So my, or any, romance novel is not “just” porn—it’s writing. It’s fiction. If not at the level of literary fiction, it’s at least genre fiction. And I don’t believe that has to be mutually exclusive with good writing.

I also think it’s important to define what we mean by “romance novel.” In the broadest definition, one that I’ve found many times in searches on the Web, a romance novel is a story that focuses on the love story (as opposed to politics or suspense or murder, etc.) and that ends happily. “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, is a love story, but not a romance in the modern sense (unless you consider double suicide a happy ending, and it’s not for me to judge…) In that sense, “Phyllida” is a genuine romance novel and I’m happy to admit it.

Another comment I got recently was even worse in some ways. An acquaintance, talking about my book (which he hasn’t read) presented me with the profound advice I’ve heard quite a lot of recently: that I’d sell more books and expand my market exponentially if I included female bisexuality in my next book.

Ya think? Huh. What d’ya know?

When I launched into my standard reply to this advice, that I can only muster the creative energy required to write for something I feel like writing, not what I think will sell or what will win a popularity contest, he cut me off, saying, “It’s not as if you’re writing the great American novel.”
Ouch!

Well, apart from the fact that for me, my book is MY great American novel (“Moby-Dick” without Moby, perhaps?), I think this is yet another dig at the romance novel. Also comedy. If it makes you laugh, it can’t be any good. In fact, probably very little work went into it at all. It obviously just wrote itself, just as those actors in sitcoms clearly make up their lines as they go along.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. Even some pretty smart people seem to get discombobulated by the idea that comedy takes real work to write. Now don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t sitting miserable and agonized over the computer, near suicide with the torment of writing my comic scenes. But I did work very hard at them. I rewrote them, refined them over many weeks, and I had to be inspired to work on them. I didn’t just sit down any old time, drunk or sober, rested or exhausted, and crank out pages of brilliant comedy on demand. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done as a writer, and also the most enjoyable. I wasn’t suicidal; I was ecstatic that I could do this.

“Phyllida” represents the best work I have done so far. Is it the best writing ever? Of course not. Is it my best writing ever, forever? I hope not. I hope to go on improving. But I put as much thought and work and creative energy into it as any writer of “real” fiction, and I’m as proud of it as any writer of “real” fiction is of her work, and I’ll put my characters up against the ones in “real” fiction any day of the week and they’ll kick their asses. OK, I’m getting silly. Sorry—I’m punch-drunk from too much blogging in one day after a long hiatus.

Anyway, now that I’ve written it I want people to read the book because I’m pleased with my writing and because it’s the kind of book that needs readers. It’s a sexy romantic comedy. While I was writing this book I literally turned myself on and cracked myself up at the computer. I had to periodically relieve the sexual tension by imagining myself in the character of Phyllida with her sexy husband Andrew Carrington (no other hardware required than the imagination) and I also made myself laugh out loud every time I thought up an extended comic conversation with Andrew and his gay and bisexual friends in the exclusive gentlemen’s club he belongs to, the Brotherhood of Philander.

But the fact is, sex by oneself isn’t usually as much fun as sex with a partner, and laughing at jokes is definitely a hell of a lot more fun with other people than all alone at the computer. Like acting or standup comedy, it’s better with an audience. So I need to sell the book in order to have the full orgasmic experience of sharing its pleasures.
 
 
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boswellbaxter on April 18th, 2006 01:43 am (UTC)
There's a lot of snobbery toward historical novels, I know, and I'm sure it's even worse for historical romance. Most of the snobs, I suspect, are people who aren't secure in their own positions in the academic or literary world.

Of course, there's a lot of rubbish in the world of historical fiction and historical romance, but there's a lot of rubbish in the world of literary fiction, too.

As most of the snobs are people who can't be bothered to read what they criticize, there's not much one can do to change their minds. Best thing to do is to ignore them, keep on writing what you enjoy writing, and gear your marketing toward those who enjoy romantic comedy.

ann_amalie: Phyllidaann_amalie on April 20th, 2006 06:05 pm (UTC)
Sanity is soooo welcome
Thanks so much for this sane, calm advice.
After some of the ranting threads that have developed from this original (supposedly humorous) rant--well, one, actually--it's a pleasure to hear the soothing voice of reason.
And yes, I'd say that it's especially true of any kind of romance (as opposed to other genres) that the harshest critics are those who've never read one.