What is Amazon up to with *Romance Literary Fiction*?

Genre is a subject I have successfully avoided for years. I purposefully stopped writing about terms like ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘bodice-ripper’ because it felt like a useless exercise. Opinions about romance novels seem to be carved in stone.

“I’m not really into espionage novels,” is something you might hear someone say. No censure, just a simple statement of preference.  I have a hard time imagining the same person saying “I’m not really into romance novels.” To say ‘romance novel’ to most people who consider themselves educated and well read is like a Texas border guard demanding papers. People scramble to prove they are worthy, and that means disassociating themselves in no uncertain terms. When it comes to romance, you’re far more likely to hear “I don’t read trashy novels.”

At the same time it’s true that genres – or the reception of genres — evolve. Hard-boiled detective fiction was once a secret vice; now authors like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are held in high regard. Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard brought westerns out of the shadows.

The question is, will the same happen for romance fiction? Could it be happening now?   I started thinking about this when I noticed that Amazon had come up with a new and (in my opinion) awkward classification: Romance Literary Fiction.

Amazon.com
Amazon.com

So I did some googling. 

In 2014 there was a Huffington Post article with the provocative title “How I Learned to Stop Being a Literary Snob and Love Romance.” It was written not by a person, but by a corporate entity: Zola Books, which has a website called Bookish, where the object is to sell books. What’s off-putting about this is the way the anonymous author claims authority:

Then, in my second week on the job, I was invited to a romance author luncheon. I faked my way through conversations about “my first Julie Garwood“ and was delighted to discover that the authors I met were sharp, outspoken, well-read ladies. (I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t expect I’d be able to talk to the women about Internet culture, body image and other non-romance topics.) Six months later, I was moderating a panel with those two of those authors, talking about fans’ tendencies to scold heroines over heroes, the ideal of the happily-ever-after (including when or when not to employ it) and other intricacies of the romance genre.

Bookish has no insights to offer, clearly.  

The article “The Lure of Romance Writing (and Earnings) for the Literary Set” (2015) also did not do anything to clarify for me what’s going on in the genre.  Jane Friedman is a professional consultant to writers; I haven’t met her or worked with her, and I know nothing about her, good or bad. But I have to say  that she  doesn’t really seem to understand the inner workings of the genre.  She knows that writers want to be published, and that they hope to make a living do that, but here’s what she says about an author who trained in a traditional academic MFA program who turned to romance writing:

And Iva liked the romance community she found, comprising women who she says are warm and outgoing, vibrant and middle class, who reminded her of the women she grew up with. “I felt at home with them. The literary world is much more introverted, and much more bitter, cynical, and weary to some degree. There’s a vast amount of transparency in the romance world. That’s how women operate; it’s a women-dominated field.”

In the romance industry, emerging authors don’t have to search out advice or mentor-shop, Iva said. Experienced authors and peers will tell you how it works, repeat what they told you, then take you by the hand and show you. “You could call that mothering,” Iva said. “It’s just how they do it.”

I re-read this about twenty times trying to pinpoint what bothers me. Some of this is from the author Friedman is interviewing, but it’s presented without commentary and so I wonder:  Do the author and Friedman really see romance novelists as middle-class females? Do they see writers in other genres as upper class or working class?  Is it expected that a writer of romance novels will be kind and supportive of one another and selfless in promoting each other?  I know some romance novelists who are like this, but not many. Most of us are regular people, and we do not all get along. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want examples. And if you do want examples, do a little searching here for “Dear Author” and “Smart Bitches” to see how less-than-motherly things can be.

Friedman goes on to discuss how an MFA can be useful to a writer of romance novels: 

Iva says she owes her skill at the craft to her MFA program, and other romance writers I talked to who have MFA degrees—including Marina Adair and Kait Ballenger—emphasized the value of their degrees in teaching them the craft and how to accept feedback and criticism. The combination of disciplined writing chops and romance’s marketability certainly appears to be rocket fuel for a publishing career. Adair sold seven romances while earning her MFA from San José State University; while she started out in screenwriting, focusing on family films and teen comedies, she says she can’t imagine writing anything else now except romance. Ballenger also signed traditional publishing deals while enrolled in a low-residency program at Spalding University, and now has multiple romance books out, with more on the way. Before pursuing romance, Ballenger focused on writing and publishing young adult novels (her degree concentration is children’s/YA), and she continues to pursue both genres. But romance is now paying her bills, and she doesn’t have a YA deal yet.

The debate about the relative worth of MFA programs is an old one, and fraught. Some successful writers (with and without MFAs) will tell you that it’s a waste of money. Writers who teach in MFA programs will tell you the opposite.  I have a PhD and not an MFA; I sometimes teach at conferences and I taught fiction as a regular faculty member at two universities, but never in an MFA program. My feelings are mixed, though I do agree that learning to accept feedback and criticism is crucial to developing as a writer. 

And I’m still no closer to understanding what is meant by Romance Literary Fiction, which Amazon thinks I write. It is  clear to me that as a for-profit corporation, Amazon only changes things if they see a potential for increased sales.  That’s not something to complain about, on the face of it. What is less clear to me is whether they made this decision based on trends they were seeing, or if they are trying to start something. A google search for “Romance Literary Fiction” in quotes provides a partial answer:  it shows up only on Amazon.com.  So they are trying to start something, but what?

Thinking about Romance

For a very long time fiction that is marketed as ‘romance’ has been the butt of the joke. While this is still the case — few people will admit in public to reading romance novels for fear of being dismissed as frivolous twits  — the last fifteen years has seen a steady trend toward more thoughtful discussion.

Case in point: Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. This book came out in 2011, but I just got around to reading it, and I wanted to mention it in case anybody who stops by here is curious about scholarship focused on romance fiction.  It’s not light reading, but it is a thoughtful look at romance fiction in the greater scheme of literature over time.   The focus is on books published by a  particular UK publisher (Harlequin Mill & Boon) but Vivanco’s analysis has far broader implications.

As a university professor my area of expertise was not literature; I’m an academic linguist by training, and for me writing fiction began as an avocation and morphed into something else.  But an academic is an academic, and now I’m interested so  I just joined the Romance Scholar listserve. I don’t plan on launching yet another career, please understand. I’ll sit in the corner and listen.

A long time ago — maybe as much as ten years — somebody sent me a paper she had given at an academic conference on romance fiction. The paper was about Into the Wilderness, which shocked and, truth be told, delighted me. Unfortunately just after I received it I had a computer disaster and I lost both the paper and the information on who sent it to me, so I never had a chance to talk to her about it or even thank her. If she happens to see this, I hope she’ll get back in touch.

Review: Bet Me

Bet Me
Jennifer Crusie
St Martin’s

Reading all the excellent early reviews of this book (even Kirkus, curmudgeons that they are, rave) a person might get the idea that Jenny Crusie is all about a bit of light hearted fun, a writer you can count on to make you laugh. Which is, in fact, true.

Crusie’s  prose is deceptively accessible, her characters quirky and interesting (Min, the sensible actuary who has given up on love and is looking for a cat; Cal, the self-possessed, easy going partner in a firm that does software seminars and who doesn’t believe in ‘forever’), her plots just twisted enough to keep you wide awake and eager to turn the page without giving you a headache. You can read this book like that, and you’ll enjoy it. But that would be a shame, because there’s a lot more going on here. You know that old chestnut about the spoonful of sugar and the medicine? Crusie knows it too.

This is a wonderfully funny novel, a romp of a novel, and it’s also a scalpel-sharp look at the way men and women approach each other these days, for better or for worse. Most readers will catch at least some of the veiled nods to the fairy tale: the rose bushes gone to thorn outside Min’s house, the fact that Cal has to climb a steep hill to get there. But if you read carefully (which is hard, because you will be caught up in the repartee and the romance) you’ll see that Crusie, a former academic, has taken a run at a dozen theories about love and attraction, and skewered them all. From the fairy tale to modern psychology to string-theory, everybody’s take on what brings two people together and makes them stick is examined and found to be full of holes.

Except, in an odd way, the fairy tale itself. Cal and Min, non-believers, fight it, and can’t quite escape fate or each other.

The biggest chance that Crusie takes here is the issue of Min’s weight. She’s plump, or chubby, or fat — all of these adjectives get tossed around. She loves carbs. So does Cal, but he’s got two things she doesn’t: a great metabolism, and (this is the leap of faith) his head on straight when it comes to body image. He looks great, tall and well built; Min stays away from purple jumpsuits because they make her look like Barney’s slut cousin. In one of the most interesting discussions between them, she finally comes out and asks him what he thinks about the f-word, and he gives it to her straight: she’ll never be thin, no matter how hard her mother pushes dieting. Her genes won’t allow it. And more than that, he doesn’t mind.

This is what’s so great about this novel. It takes on the thorniest issue of all — women’s bodies and sexuality — and deals with it. As a woman made more in Min’s image than a model’s, I certainly identified. But did I believe Cal? In spite of the fact that I’ve been married to somebody a lot like him for a long time (tall, rangy, good looking) and the fact that my genes are winning the battle to turn me into a small, round Italian matronly type, I *still* find it hard to believe Cal. That’s the power of the modern myth.

Crusie takes it on and looks at it hard, and she makes you laugh while you look at it too. She gives us a great love story, a tremendous lot to think about, and a happy ending. What else could you possible want?

what I’m reading

Quick takes on books I’ve read recently.

[asa book]0061351504[/asa] There are a couple authors who I read automatically, even though I have not loved every book, and in fact, have really disliked some of them. Jodi Picoult is one example, and so is Ann Tyler. I can name two books of Tyler’s I really disliked, and far more that I think are wonderful.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes contemporary romance that usually works for me, and sometimes REALLY works for me. I think I like her Ain’t She Sweet best of all her novels (but stay away from the audio; there are some real issues with the way the reader handles the main male character). What I Did for Love was a good read, quick, amusing, with an interesting hero and a lot of good secondary characters.

[asa book]0981608728[/asa] A World I Never Made is Lepore’s first novel, and he’s off to a great start. This story centers around Pat Nolan, who comes to Paris to identify the body of his daughter, who committed suicide. Except the dead woman is not his daughter, and despite their rocky relationship, he recognizes immediately that his real daughter is in trouble somewhere, and he has got to find her. He teams up with a French detective, and off they go. This novel is tightly plotted with tension that rises steadily, interesting settings and really creepy bad guys. The one problem I could identify was a sense that sdome developments happened too quickly and raise doubts that undermine the willing suspension of disbelief. Another twenty five pages would have given him time and space to explore some of the personal relationships in more depth, which would have solved the problem. But then maybe you’ll disagree.  The story moves back and forth between France and Morocco.
[asa book]0821777777[/asa] Jo Goodman is a well established writer of historical romance, some set in the old west and this one,  If His Kiss is Wicked, set in Regency England. Emmalyn Hathaway lost her parents at a young age and came to live with her uncle, a famous painter, and her cousin Marisol, who is very pretty and very given to indulging her whims, especially when it comes to men. In trying to help Marisol out of a bad situation, Emma is attacked, abducted, and badly beaten.  Thie trauma of this has made her afraid to leave the house and worse still, she believes it was her cousin who was the target, and she is still in danger.  Emmalyn goes to Restell Gardner, who comes from money but choses to live a different life as a solver of problems. An early Sherlock Holmes type, idiosyncratic but very self-aware and intuitive both. Restell isn’t so sure that Emmalyn wasn’t the target.

I liked this novel for its lovely twisty characterization of Emmalyn, who lives a kind of intellectual double life that is slowly revealed.  The fact that the mystery sometimes overshadows the romance might be a problem for some, but it seemed to me that the narrative benefitted.  Restell and Emmalyn do have a lot of chemistry and very engaging conversations (one of my favorite things in a good romance), but if you’re looking for mindless entertainment, this book is not for you.

[asa book]0385342373[/asa] I have been waiting a long time for Margaret Lawrence to come out with a new historical.  Her earlier series set in post-revolutionary Maine  (beginning with Hearts and Bones and ending with The Ice Weaver) are books I still return to. Strong, engaging female characters are at the heart of the Hannah Trevor novels, and the story is told in many voices, by means of court testimony, witness statements, Hannah’s notes and writings, and the narrator. So I wanted to love Roanoke, but I had some problems with it.

By no means do I expect an author to always write the same book, and in theory I had no problem with the idea that this novel was set in an earlier period (the Elizabethan) and had men as its central characters.  But there’s something out of balance. The plot swings back and forth between England and the new colony of Roanoke, which establishes a choppy rhythm that might have worked better if the narrator hadn’t been one step removed from the main character, Gabriel North.

If I can come up with a more cohesive essay on the issues I see in this novel, I will write a full length review.

[asa book]0061128899[/asa] This is what I’m currently reading, and so far I’m very caughtu p in the story.