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.
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?