Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The power of negative thinking

A few last words before we leave the subject of romantic fiction for a while.

It is in the nature of things that romantic novels appeal mainly to women readers. And for that reason, romantic fiction (a pretty woolly term if ever there was one) is largely despised by the literati.

This arrogant, unpleasant attitude has a long history, at least in English intellectual life. The origins of this contempt for women, and for popular culture generally, have been more than ably chronicled by John Carey, in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Carey also presented some of his material in the form of a recent TV documentary.

You and I, however, know better than to sneer at a book simply because it appeals to a group of readers to which we do not belong. Well I do, anyway. If we have any sense at all we know that there are lots of books which have fairly narrow and specialised audiences. Poetry, for instance. Much science fiction. Gay books. And so forth.

One would like to think that most writers would hold the same view. However, what we absorb from the general atmosphere in early life tends to linger in the mind; and I have noticed that, whenever I meet any romantic writers, I am forcibly struck by the fact that they have been brainwashed. For years and years they have been belittled and sneered at, and generally led to believe that romantic fiction is trash, and is (allegedly) infinitely inferior to the real stuff -- i.e. literary fiction.

So often, and so intensely, has this idea been beaten into the heads of romantic novelists that many of them unconsciously believe it to be true. For instance, when I remarked to one writer recently that her latest book could just as easily have been marketed as a literary novel as a romantic one, she took this as such a compliment that tears began to form in her eyes.

Well now, I am always ready, I hope, to compliment a lady, but in this case my remark was not so much a compliment as a comment on the publishing business.

Let us banish this idea of genre inferiority once and for all. (If you need supporting arguments, see chapter 5 of The Truth about Writing, available free online.) And let us remember too that science-fiction writers have been treated in much the same way. But the sf guys (and gals), as far as I can see, have never believed a word of it. Faced with the idea that literary fiction is the real thing, they just snigger back.

Evidence? Try the Ansible newsletter, wherein Dave Langford always quotes some ridiculous, pompous statement which compares sf with lit, unfavourably, and then he proceeds to skewer it for the crap that it is. In the latest Ansible, he quotes Joyce Carol Oates, who is clearly a thinker to be avoided; and Langford also includes several other 'As others see us' paragraphs.

Perhaps some research chemist should develop a monthly antidote of the Ansible kind, and administer it to those who write romantic.

12 comments:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Three cheers! What a hero you are to say it - and do so agree with you. Have always wondered why women writing about relationships are so often dismissed as 'romantic nonsense' while certain male writers committing their angst ridden prose to paper are so often lauded for what is essentially an exploration of the same territory, from a young male point of view. My own 'Curiosity Cabinet' was dismissed by one reader as a 'guilty pleasure' - she (sadly, it was a she) enjoyed it but felt that she shouldn't have! A quick browse through the websites of the vast majority of Scottish publishers will show you what a desert we inhabit up here. Unless you write detective stories, or cutting edge literary fiction, your bum is well and truly - as they say up here - oot the windae. This has been the subject of intense discussion between a group of us recently - mostly female, all professional writers with good track records, all in despair. And yet we are readers too! We can't all be wrong.

Emma Darwin said...

You're so right. I've lost count of the number of men who've said to me, 'I don't read romantic fiction but I loved your novel...'. In which case, I feel like saying, you do read romantic fiction.

It's the labelling that's so reductive, and the apparently irresistible impulse to class things, once labelled, as higher/lower or better/worse or literary/genre.

The fact that my novel The Mathematics of Love was longlisted for the RNA Award of which you were a judge, GOB, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers and Goss First Novel awards, says to me how ridiculous this either/or thing is. Why can't we be both/and?

And once you acknowledge that things can be both/and, then labels no longer have the power to constrain us: writers can write what they write best without shame, readers can read what they want without apology, and a book can be itself, whatever that self is.

Emma

Andy O'Hara said...

Many years ago during a divorce I was packing for a solo camping trip when someone tossed me a thick book to take along. I spent the next few days by a fire, reading and thoroughly enjoying it. Little did I know back then that it was--horrors--a romance novel.

Jane Henry said...

hurrah, hurrah.

As a long time member of the RNA who is about to have her first novel published, the more people who come out in favour of the romantic novel the better in my view.

After all... where would our classics be without, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dr Zhivago. etc etc...

I've never been particularly embarrassed or felt belittled by writing romantic fiction, tis the stuff of life after all. But then I started out working in children's publishing, which pre Harry Potter was really the bottom of the heap!

Martin said...

I agree entirely. De gustibus non est disputandum. There are no absolute standards in art, only individual appreciation and reception history.

As for J.C. Oates, I didn't like what little of hers I've read, but funnily she has made appreciative statements about H.P. Lovecraft.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Joyce Carol Oates has frequently appeared in fantasy/horror genre anthologies and magazines, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, for instance. I'm not terribly fond of her work, but if she's been ashamed of the writerly company (or genre audience) she hasn't been ashamed enough to use a pseudonym. She also writes genre mysteries (originally under a pseudonym tho they're now being issued as JCO "writing as").

Nadine said...

Bravo! Michael.

You are one in a million!

bastet said...

I have a friend who wrote an intricately researched historical romance. She was at some party and someone mentioned her book.
"What is it?" said some guy.
"Well, it's a romance..." she started to say.
And he shook his head and said, "Liz, Liz, you could do so much better."

See what I mean?
I do something that might be called magical realism, but I don't say literary fiction because I'm afraid it sets up a tone of superiority that I don't want.

David said...

Many thanks -- the mention is (again) greatly appreciated. Ansible readers seem to have become sensitized to "As Others See Us" quotations, and now send them in vast numbers. I worry that my coverage may make disdain for SF seem more universal than it is, rather as figures for some kinds of crime can be boosted merely by more attentive reporting....

Sylvia said...

It's absolutely true that romance writers end up being apologetic for what they write. I respect any writer for being able to create a world out of his/her head. And though relationships may be termed as Catherine noted, those are the stuff of life and it's not easy to deal with them in life and even in writing.

Thanks for the post.

BlueRectangle Books

Colleen Thompson said...

As an author of romantic suspense and historical romance, all I have to say is thank you. I've grown very annoyed with comments such as, "Research? You don't have to do research for those, do you?" and "I couldn't believe it. Here, it was romance, and it was actually (insert gasp) *good*."

Gee, thanks. I think.

Ironically, I blogged about this topic ("Oooh, Girl Germs!") earlier this week, before reading your brilliant post. Hope you'll stop by.

http://boxingoctopus.blogspot.com/2007/05/oooh-girl-germs.html

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