Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Love Me! Validate Me!

Janet over at Dear Author weighs in on the Romance Is Never Reviewed Seriously debate. The death of book review sections in many of the nation's newspapers has been hotly debated for months now. I can't believe I'm the only one surprised by this turn of events, but apparently, I am. Who knew?

Newspapers killed the book review section by ignoring the main reason why people want to read - the entertainment factor. I'm not sure how it is in other countries, but here in the U.S., we seemed determined to squash all the fun out of reading. Here's a newsflash folks - people aren't reading like they used to because it's been drilled into their heads that they should only read to "learn something." That fiction with any sort of "fun factor" isn't legitimate. So instead of going to their doctor to get a prescription for Prozac, they stop reading. Period.

I'm not saying that serious lit-ra-ture doesn't have it's place. It does. But it's not the end all be all. Hey, I like to watch serious costume dramas - but I also like action movies. Both worlds can coexist - but to look at the newspaper book coverage they obviously don't think so. This sort of nonsense trickles down until we're eventually stuck with librarians who turn their nose up at genre (OK, romance) fiction. It bothers me. A lot. Then I'm stuck sharing my profession with librarians that I have fantasies about strangling (OK, not really - but I'm easily frustrated).

That said, I don't see a future where romance is widely respected. While mystery has gained some ground, even that genre still gets some sneers. Genre fiction by it's very nature is suspect. That somehow the authors are merely stringing words together and filling out a paint-by-numbers template. Personally I've felt this opinion among the literary "elite" boils down to one thing. Money. People like to read "fun" books and "fun" books make money. What would you rather read - a doom and gloom book where everybody commits suicide at the end, or a thrilling murder mystery where the protagonist saves the day? Yeah, me too. In fact, I think most people would.

I can't be bothered with "respect" for genre fiction, but I can understand how frustrating it is for the authors. They work hard. And to have that hard work sneered at, to have people say, "When are you going to write a real book?" - well it's frustrating as all hell. I get that. But as a reader - I personally can't be bothered. I've taken to telling people to "get bent" - which is probably wrong of me, but I lost my sense of humor on this subject about 10 years ago.

But even if the New York Times decided to put on latex gloves and a surgical mask to avoid The Love Cooties and started reviewing romance - I'm not entirely sure the genre is ready for it. Half the fun of romance (and I'm talking good romance novels here) is that it's subversive. The heroine gets the guy, gets the life, wins in the end. The feminist in me loves this. When romance is bad - well I look longingly at the bleach I keep in my laundry room and think about mixing a cocktail. Which leads us to the question - how do readers find a good romance?

Online. They talk to other readers, read online reviews, visit blogs - all of which are vibrant, exciting and probably wouldn't exist if the New York Times and others weren't so dang snobby. So if you think about it - we should probably be thanking them. I honestly believe the online romance community wouldn't be flourishing if we weren't sneered at and treated like something the literary world stepped in.

Ultimately in order for romance to be taken seriously a lot of change has to take place. Publishers need to scale back on their production schedule, the copy editing needs to improve (although honestly, this isn't a huge issue for yours truly), and no more half-naked, greased up beef cake. I'm sorry, you can't take any book seriously if it's got Fabio leering out from the cover at you. But does romance want any of this to happen? My guess? Not really.

Romance readers have an insatiable appetite for the genre, so publishers are probably not anxious to scale back their production schedules. As for copy editing? Frankly it's bad all over - not just within the romance genre. This is more of a quality control issue and until readers start taking their complaints straight to the publisher(s), en masse, it ain't going to change. So start that letter writing campaign now Punctuation Police. And Fabio and his harem of wannabes? Do the books sell because of the covers or in spite of them? Probably no way to answer that question, and I'm sure publishers (OK, men who work in publishing) think the books sell because of them. Plus for every reader who hates the Fabio-clinch covers there is another reader who loves them. I think we're stuck with him, for good or ill.

Do I see a solution to this debate? Not really. Mainstream, literary criticism and reviews are never going to welcome romance into the fold. Accepting some mystery was a huge step for them, and I think they're still experiencing a case of the vapors over it. I'm a pessimist by nature, and one could deduce from the post that I'm "part of the problem." That as a librarian I should be fighting the good fight and banging on doors. I am - just on a smaller scale. I know how much power I have (the answer = not a whole lot), so I'm stuck trying to change my little corner of the world. Which is how most change happens regardless of the topic.

Instead of knocking on the door of the New York Times and banging our head against the wall - romance should find a way to open up serious debate and criticism within it's own walls. We should make our own New York Times. Will it ever happen? It kind of already has. Just look around online.

But ultimately the real question is do romance readers and authors want serious criticism? Do they want The Debate? My guess? No. The genre is too "fun" and that's why a good many readers read romance. Criticism and debate is not (nor will it ever be) "fun." Which begs the question - why are we even concerned about the New York Times and other newspapers reviewing the genre when it's not really what we want to begin with?


Rosie said...

Good essay. Your writing is so easy to read.

Don't you think the NYT thing is about validation and affirmation that an author has written a "real" book?

You make a good point about whether or not the genre is ready, willing and able to stand up to the spotlight. I'm thinking "not".

But then I'm the happy reader and not the toiling author. I'm more concerned about abundance of product and choice than a stamp of legitimacy.

Zeek said...

Booktv had two people who co-authored a book called Why we read what we read.

Non-fiction- they adressed different genres and of course, when they got to romance- all kinds of giggling and snide remarks erupted. They based their conclusions on few, per usual as well, then shoved their ops of as valid. Made me sick.

C2 said...

Yup, I agree. I don't think that romance readers and writers want serious criticism (they get enough of the non-serious kind from mocking and snide "oh, you read those books" brigade.

"Serious" critics would have a field day discussing (and by "discussing" I actually mean "decimating") what, often, boils down to very simple plotting - regardless of the fabulous and entertaining wrapping surrounding it.

My 2 cents. :o)

C2 said...

Eek! I read own comment and think "Harsh!". I'm not criticizing, I promise. I was just thinking about the boy meets girl; boy and girl overcome an obstacle; boy and girl live happily ever after thing, you know.


Amie Stuart said...

I agree with Rosie...your writing IS easier to read. Irony....I remember an author saying in a writing class that literary fiction writers, by and large, get bigger advances than genre fiction writers. But we're the alleged sellouts *g*

Pulling tongue out of cheek. I wonder, and I'm pondering here, if the push to get kids to read in school has had a detrimental affect (effect?). Forcing kids to read, to get a certain number of reading points each grading period, giving awards for readers (they did this when i was a kid too but it seems much bigger now), etc I swear all of it burnt my oldest out on reading. I wonder if it's a kidn of backlash...I dont know any of my son's friends that read either...but of course I'm only speaking from my small slice of the world.

Kristie (J) said...

Great post! For the most part I don't care that much whether romance ever gets taken seriously by reviewers. I've been reading and loving it for years and am quite happy to continue doing so - without the reviews. But even as a fan of the genre, it's a bit frustrating that so many Very Talented Writers aren't getting the respect and kudos they should. I've read all genres at one time or another and one of the main thing that keeps me reading romance is that there are a lot of authors who just write so damn good - or well - or whatever word should be used here.

Wendy said...

Kristie J: I think that's what frustrates me too. That some very good writers aren't taken seriously because of the genre they choose to write in. What I really can't stand is when they hit the "big time" with a big book that's not romance and the publisher calls it their "debut" when they have 25 Harlequins in their backlist. Drives me half crazy.

Amie: I was going to bring that very point up and it slipped my mind. I really hate accelerated reading lists and feel that it does have a detrimental effect on kids in the long run. "No Johnny, you can't read that book you think looks interesting because it's only a 3 and you have to read books that are a 5 or higher." Bah! And I'm not just saying that because the schools never give public libraries the heads-up on what titles they're forcing down the children's throats that particular school year :)

C2: I knew what you meant :)

Zeek: I try to avoid BookTV. It's just better for my sanity if I do.

Rosie: Yeah, I can totally understand why an author(s) would be hot over this debate. It is a validation, and they do work very hard for very little respect. But as a reader? I just can't get my panties in a twist over it.

Nora Roberts said...

Good points, nicely made.

Big Sis said...

OH MY GOD!!!! I'm only one degree of separation from NORA ROBERTS!!!

Wendy said...

Boy - my sister doesn't even read romance and look how excited she is!