The Perplexing Problem of Romance

I spent much of the winter and spring writing a non-fiction project, Writing Romantic Fiction, which will be published in November by Hachette/Macmillan. I was romanceapproached to do the project some time ago, and agreed to do it because it seemed like it would be a good exercise for me, and because it’s good to have something to offer at workshops.

What I didn’t realize is how much soul-searching it would trigger, both about process and how it works and why and but also about the role of romance and romantic novels in my life and in the great flow of books. I love the genre, and writing about it helped me to understand why. Love is important. Not just romantic love, of course, but romantic love can be a great and powerful blessing. Falling in love is a magical, amazing feeling that I would want everyone in the world to experience. Finding a partner—a true helpmate and lover who sees you and understands you and is willing to travel the path of life with you—is wonderful.

And yet, romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred that oozes and splutters.

Why is that? Serious question.

Genre novels such as mysteries or science fiction are often dismissed, but they are not often reviled the way romance novels are. Why is it so much more ridiculous or ignorant to read and write romance novels than something like Game of Thrones or the latest gory offering from Patricia Cornwell?

When I first began writing romances, it was the mid-eighties and women were still wearing power suits to make their way in an often hostile business world, afraid to show the slightest bit of femininity for fear of being seen as weak, so I understood that by writing romantic fiction, I’d have to accept that some derision would be part of what I would have to grapple with. I lived with it. I didn’t like it, especially when well-meaning friends and relatives and even sometimes readers would say, “So when are you going to put this talent of yours to work on something important?” As if I was slumming there in romance, working on my craft until I could do something good with it.

it came to me that my experience was just as important as any story of a soldier’s quest or city tale of sadness. It was just as authentic, it had just as much to say about life.

 

As more and more women came on the scene with romance careers of many ilks, I anticipated attitudes changing. My romance writing friends are some of the smartest people I know, and some of the most erudite—doctors and lawyers, Ivy-league and Oxford, chemists and engineers and psychiatrists. They all had a choice of genres, and chose romance.

I didn’t exactly choose romance. Well, I did. In junior high and high school, I wrote five complete novels on colored spiral notebook paper, and they were all romances. But then I went to college, and of course, one learns different things about Literature in college. When I started writing seriously after that, I began by writing the things I was reading in college, dark stories of loss and pain and fatal flaws and racism. My intention was to change the world, you see. Books change the world, don’t they? Novels can transform entire societies.

Then I had a baby, and another. I grew a garden and learned to cook and found great pleasure in all of those things. I was happily married and my husband was big eater, so that was great, too. I was writing when I could, when the children were sleeping or playing together. I wrote by hand and on an old IBM typewriter and struggling to find my voice. I still wanted to save the world, but more and more it seemed that what I was reading just wasn’t speaking to me on any level. What was I looking for?

The answer came to me one sunny August afternoon. My boys were napping, and I’d just made plum jam. The quilted jars were cooling on the stainless steel counter (I would kill for that counter now), and I was writing a poem about my connection to my great-grandmother, whose recipe I’d used. The lids of the jam started to pop as they cooled, sealing the jam, such a satisfying, final sound, and I realized with a sharp, powerful ache that I wanted to write about that. Not the jam or the lids popping, but the happiness it gave me, the joy I found in domestic life, in a very ordinary sort of woman’s life, and it came to me that my experience was just as important as any story of a soldier’s quest or city tale of sadness. It was just as authentic, it had just as much to say about life.

I wanted to write about women, for women. Plain and simple.

It took another year or so before I realized that the market I sought did not actually exist in any meaningful way. I read and researched and dragged the boys to the library and used bookstore as often as I dared, but aside from a handful of women’s magazines who all wanted short stories, there was nothing.

It was my sister who said, “What about romances?” I’d read zillions of them as a teen, but in college, I got away from all genre reading (who had time?) and in the meantime, they’d undergone a huge transformation. She brought me bags full of them and I started reading. I thought, because academia had trained me to think so, that they would be dull and suburban and the opposite of hip. In some cases, they were.

But in many others, they were not. They were fresh and exciting, about women in towns all over America, doing all kinds of things, and about men who were engaged in as many pursuits, with as much damage as the women. I studied the writers I most admired, like Rebecca Flanders (who writes now as herself, Donna Ball) and noted when they broke the rules. I took apart the best ones and figured out why I loved them.

Mostly, I recognized was that I could write about plum jam and the pleasure to be found in finding a good partner and in children. Is that a small subject? Not when you’re engaged in it.

It also came to me, in a flash one night while I literally rocked one of my sons to sleep, that the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world. What if I wrote to change the world and did it in romance novels? That lit the fire. Two months later, I started writing romances. One year after that first attempt, I sold my second and never looked back.

In romance, I found my voice. I learned that I am a writer who is rooted in the west, also not that popular with the mainstream if you want to know the truth, though we are becoming more and more populous and we do buy books, too. I learned that I am interested in people who have survived trauma and sorrow and moved on, and I’m curious about why that works for some people and not others. I discovered that I am in love with food and kitchens—the hearth—and how food influences and shapes our lives.

As I thought about all of this for Writing Romantic Fiction, it came to me that one thing has not changed in all this time. Romances are still reviled, and the closer you get to a pure romance, the more reviled they are. While I absolutely understand why you might not want to read a genre—I’m never going to read space operas or monster books—I do not understand the continued revilement.

It just doesn’t make any sense. Romances and romantic women’s fiction are not a monolithic thing. They’re enormously varied. They cover a tremendous amount of ground, in thousands of ways. So many different writers choose the genre as the vehicle for their tales, not because they aren’t good enough to do anything else, but because romances are particular, with a particular format, and a very clear vehicle to speak with other women.

It’s time for a change in the wider world. I’m not sure how to get there, but I’m not going to stop trying to change minds. Romances rock. They’re empowering and thoughtful and fun. They can be trashy and poorly written, like anything else. They are often breathtakingly wonderful, beautifully written, elegantly constructed. I am proud to be a romance writer, a writer of romantic fiction, however one says it. If you are, too, raise your hand.

I found my voice here. Maybe some of you will, too.

(I’ll be teaching much of the material in this book at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles August 15, in an in-depth boot camp. If you’d like more information, go to Novel Writing Boot Camp.)

Why do you think romances are still not given the same standing as other genre novels? Is it just gender? The sex? The happy endings? Let’s hear it.

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    Romances rock! You are so right, Barbara. Some are so darn satisfying. I do think romance as a genre is a little like horror in that they are not at the top of the list in terms of literature and so overlooked and shunned by many. But …

    Here’s one of the greatest and well-written romance novels of all time:

    “If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.” ― Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

    And for horror … An undeniably well-written and timeless ghost story.

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

    Someday I’d like to see a post on the virtues of genre novels.

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    • says

      That is the scariest, most intense ghost story ever written, Paula. My grandmother let me watch the old black and white movie when I was about 13 and I never got over it.

      Shirley Jackson is the best horror writer who ever lived.

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  2. says

    You’re not alone, Barbara. As you know, many of us are working toward the same thing you are: respect.

    I used to wince and mumble when someone asked what I write. Now I say it proudly. And very often, the eyes of my listener light up!

    I’m glad that you, and Jodi Piccoult, and Jennifer Weiner are speaking up. I hope it helps. But if it doesn’t, we already know that women get it. They get it to the point that romance sells more than anything else.

    As long as our huge audience gets it, it makes the slights and derogatory comments sting less. For me, anyway.

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  3. says

    You’ll get no disrespect from me. Writing is hard work, no matter the genre. I suspect romance gets a bad rap because of the sheer volume. When people walk through a grocery store and see an entire wall of romance paperback covers that all look essentially the same, they think “cheap trash.” I think we’ve come full circle in the genre now. Writers like you aren’t following the standard formula and digging deeper. Real love, and real romance, goes way beyond two perfect people with great tans. One of the benefits (okay, maybe the biggest benefit) of the surgence of small press and self-pubbed authors is the freedom to experiment. The old formulas can be cast aside without fear. This applies to any genre, of course, but I suspect it will have an even bigger impact in romance, a genre that has been forumlaed (that’s a word now) to death. I am not a romance writer, but I always have a strong romantic thread in my stories. It’s a basic element of life. Like air. Perhaps that’s why a pure romance offends so many people. It’s something that is within the reach of everyone, if only we all had the courage to pursue it.

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    • says

      “It’s a basic element of life. Like air. Perhaps that’s why a pure romance offends so many people. It’s something that is within the reach of everyone, if only we all had the courage to pursue it.”

      That’s beautiful. And truly, some of the most virulent criticisms I’ve ever had came from people who had been badly disappointed by romantic love, as if the only possible way it could turn out was badly and anything hopeful is just absurd.

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  4. says

    “I am interested in people who have survived trauma and sorrow and moved on” – so am I!

    So much so that one of my possible subtitles is ‘a modern retelling of the Book of Job.’ But Job is a woman.

    ‘Romance’ used to just mean ‘a novel’ – the best romances still do.

    The trick is to find the right marketing terms so that readers know exactly what category a novel is in – and can find the ones that make them happy. After all, isn’t reading supposed to make us happy?

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  5. says

    I’m a little baffled by the implication that romance is the only genre that provides a vehicle for “writing about women, for women.” One of the great clichés of the “literary fiction” section is that every other book is about sisters learning to come together and reconcile after their mother dies.

    That said, if romance is what works for you, good on ya. :) Good writing is good writing, no matter what the label on it is.

    -The Gneech

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  6. says

    Love this post.
    As a woman with a degree in English Literature who has explored many types of writing, when I decided to create my own, I turned to what I most love to read. I find myself reflected most in stories about home, love, and family, which are prevalent in the romances I choose.
    Thanks, Barbara, for the reminder that it’s okay to be who I am, to read what I want to read, and to write what I want to write.

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  7. says

    I love hearing the history of your searching for and finding your deepest longing and your voice, Barbara. Hearing about the jam jars popping as the boys napped and you wrote poetry conveys to me not only a clear image, but a comforting one.

    Hmm, have I ever stuck up my nose at romance. I can honestly say that as a writer I haven’t. And yet, I must admit, as a reader I once did. After all, they were skinny little things, with mawkish covers. They had their own carousel at the dime store. But wow, admitting that and looking back on it, how foolish and pompous was it for a guy who mostly read fantasy to look down his nose at any other genre?

    I clearly recall working in my woodshop, pondering plot points in my mind as I composed my trilogy, and coming to a startling realization: “Oh my God. It’s a romance. I’m writing a romance!” I think it was more startling because I thought I was writing a grim and gritty fantasy. The two seemed incongruous. I realize in hindsight that the books my mom had read and then given me to read as a teen have strongly influenced me. Books like The Far Pavilions, The Thornbirds, and The Mists of Avalon. Now I couldn’t be happier about my strong romantic elements, and the fact that the work seems to resonate stronger with women. Women buy and read a lot of books.

    Epic fantasy has recently gotten new life from the Lord of the Rings movies and Game of Thrones, but we fantasy lovers have always been (and to a large extent, still are) considered geeks. I think that being a geek is a bit less uncool than it used to be. After all, we’re outsiders. Outsiders who are interested in history and science as well as love, loyalty, and honor. And being on the outside is what originally defined being cool. Seems like this sort of turnabout is overdue for the romance genre. Maybe this wonderful post will be the start of it. Because you are so right: romantic love can be a great and powerful blessing. Thank you, Barbara!

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    • says

      Love this, Vaughn. Probably fantasy readers get a lot of the same derision as romance readers–and shockingly, I do like both.

      At my local B&N, the teen romance shelves and the sff shelves share a common aisle. When my husband saw it the first time, he said, “Whoever thought of this was a genius.” Good mingling spot. :)

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  8. says

    I think perhaps romance writing doesn’t get the respect since we take it for granted. Everybody thinks they know what love is. Everybody falls in love sooner or later. But talk to a couple who’ve been married for 50 years. They really know!!! Recently, an old friend died (he was in his 80s). His wife is devastated. When I steal a kiss from my husband in the choir loft, I am acutely aware that she cannot do so sitting in the pews below. I’m a kidlit writer, but I have a few romantic stories brewing in my head, of enduring love. Frankly, I do not have the skills to pull it off, so hats off to you not just for writing romance but for deconstructing it for us. Perhaps your newest book will help me out! Congratulations Barbara!!!

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  9. says

    I love westerns, and it seems to me that westerns enjoy the same low-life status as romances. I don’t care, I still love them and routinely immerse myself in gunfights. Yes, daily. Does that say something about my intelligence or denigrate my work? No. I’d say the guilty pleasure of romance novels is timeless at a soul level. Reading romances and reading westerns feed deep needs that are often hard to admit. But I admit it…. I like to read about the bad guys getting shot. And I also like it when the cowboy comes in, dusty from riding the range, and scoops up the lovely woman at the cookstove and… well, you know. Long live cowboy romance!

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    • says

      Hooray for the western, too. My beloved, who is a very, very smart guy ONLY reads military SFF. What we love to read is not a comment on our brain power or erudition, but more speaks to the way we like to run away from the now.

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  10. says

    Excellent post, Barbara. Thank you for helping me to understand the “why” of romance novels.

    I’ve never understood the appeal of romance novels, though I don’t think I’ve made fun of romances or their authors. It’s just not my thing. I’ve always gravitated toward the non-happy-ending-type of book, the ones where I feel the need to take notes and write research papers about Important Topics in The Novel.

    It probably didn’t help that when I was a teen, some of the girls at school were always telling me about thus-and-such a novel and how I would LOVE it; telling me that I’ll love something is a surefire way to make me hate it, sight unseen. (Unfair, yes, but I dislike being told what to think and how to respond to something.)

    I do, however, like having a romantic element in a novel. In writing both of my unpublished novels, I’ve accidentally included a romance in the storyline. I like how a character developing romantic feelings for another character complicates their relationship, the protagonist’s inner conflict, and the outward conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. I’m just not sure that I have the skills to write a “real” romance, though!

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    • says

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and respond, especially as romances aren’t your thing.

      Love that–themes that need notes. We need those books, too.

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  11. says

    Great post and spot on. One of the best things about sticking with writing over a long career (for me 30+ years) is that you kind of write your way out of being a snob — both as a reader and as a storyteller.

    I recently posted this advice on Twitter: “So many writers I know aren’t reading outside of their genre. Try it. I been reading Chick-Lit of late. Amazing stuff!”

    I will cop to having spent much of my early life being a supercilious boor about fiction. Give me David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Anton Chekhov, or Alice Munro and I was happy.

    Recently, though, I’ve realized how pathetically limited my perspective is. I’ve been reading everything from Jackie Collins and John Green, to Chelsea Handler, Suzanne Collins, and Elizabeth Gilbert this year (also Denis Johnson and Haruki Murakami).

    You are so right that the sky is the limit with romance. The same is true of erotica. The core of both of these genres is human relationships. When the two get mixed you get some pretty wild fiction if authors are up to it. My own work — often about men and their romantic/sexual confusion — is informed by romance (and a bit by erotica). I bill some of my stuff as the antidote to romance fiction, but that’s because what interests me most is what happens once a couple moves beyond “happily ever after.”

    Thanks for this. I’m tweeting the link right now.

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    • says

      Love that–writing your way out of snobbery.

      Oh, David Foster Wallace. I have tried. I have really tried. My son reads that serious sort of male litfic and I wanted to see what he liked, but…well, I just kept wandering away and picking up Elizabeth Gilbert.

      I haven’t read much erotica, but I was wondering the other day why I haven’t. I mean, at least 50 Shades of Grey, right? I’m going to make it a point to do so.

      Romantic stories certainly can be explored after the happy ending. I’ve done some stories like that myself (The Goddess of Kitchen Avenue is about a marriage in very deep trouble). I’m also very interested lately in romances that show up much later, like people in their 60s and 70s and maybe even 80s, during the period of reconciliation. It’s hard to write that as the main story for commercial fiction, but I’ve found myself including it in other ways.

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      • says

        Please, please, oh please don’t start with 50 Shades. Try Megan Hart or Maya Banks, or if you dare, Scarlet Cox. There are some fine erotic romance authors out there who will curl your toes and give you a great story.

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          • says

            Hiya! At the risk of leading the big hulking pink monster out of the corner and being bitten by it . . . aw, what the hell . . . comeon, pink monster.

            Without dissing any type of novel that falls under the romance label, maybe we can agree that only one stereotype is recognized by the public and the media? The bosom-heaving, sexy, clinch-covered HEA. Now that super-hot sex and light erotica have entered the mix, that stereotype is further reinforced.

            Romance novels that don’t fit that definition — of which there are many — still share the same label for the sake of BISAC codes, marketing, etc. How else can we categorize them for readers to find easily?

            “Women’s fiction” has failed as a category label, and RWA hasn’t helped by kicking the category out of its awards, along with YA Romance.

            I don’t know what the solution is, but we’ve been talking about this for years and the public perception hasn’t seemed to change at all. To be fair about it, there are plenty of authors and fans who love the basic genre trope, and why not? It will always be sneered at for its over-the-top entertainment values, but we can’t change that.

            The ingrained sexism of society plays a huge part in people’s judgement of women writers. And a snickering hypocrisy about sex is rampant. As George R.R. Martin says, he gets outraged complaints about his explicit sex scenes, not about his extreme scenes of violence.

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      • says

        I was really blown away by 50 Shades. I know that’s not cool in writing circles, but I was. Not the sex stuff but how it was done and the pure kitch of the language. There’s at least 50 reasons why that book kicked butt.

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          • says

            Haha. Two things, I suppose on that sex stuff of James’s:

            1. I just ain’t into S&M or bondage or anything else denigrating to either partner. At best it’s silly, at worst, well, it’s not what I think of when I think “erotic”;

            2. The language in “the thick” of those scenes kind of got old pretty fast

            I think the build up for each scene and the come down afterwards was often quite well done. But the actual sex just really wasn’t that interesting or enticing.

            Also, really, to me, women are only sexy — again, to me — if they can hold their own and be as demanding and desirous as their partners.

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  12. says

    Maybe romance is the victim of the patriarchal mindset of society. Romance, for the most part, is not written by men or read by men. For the most part. Therefore, it has been deemed unimportant. A parallel to that is the film industry where, still, most movies are made by and for men and those by women and for women get less attention, with the exception of things like Bridesmaids where–Wow! A movie about women that was really good.

    But, most books and movies by and about men have a romantic thread, don’t they? Maybe it’s just to humanize the male lead, but that says a lot about the power of romance, then, doesn’t it.

    As a woman, my thing about romance was the hard and fast formula. A lot of people like that predictability and knowing the ending will be HEA. We all want to know that when we’re in the heady fantastically fun part of falling in love in our own lives.

    I was a little disappointed in myself when I started writing and it came out strongly romantic. But going beyond the initial falling-in-love part and delving into what it takes to commit to a relationship and learning about your flaws in the mirror of the other–that’s where my voice is.

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    • says

      I do think the patriarchal tone of the literary world has something to do with it, Theresa.

      Funny that you were disappointed in yourself for the romantic angle to your work. Surprise! Our voices just do what they do, don’t they?

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  13. says

    Being a “cozy” (amateur sleuth) mystery writer in a room filled with thriller, police procedural, and stalking psychopath writers is no picnic.

    And writing romantic women’s fiction, that is described by a colleague as not enough romance to be a romance and not enough angst to be serious women’s fiction is a balancing act I’m enjoying so far.

    It seems women’s writings have always been dismissed as “Kitchen Things” even sometimes among women. But men and women read and write them, are inspired by them, sometimes have their lives changed by them. That works for me.

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    • says

      “It seems women’s writings have always been dismissed as “Kitchen Things” even sometimes among women.”

      I would say often, not sometimes.

      And I bet it is tough to be in a room with hard mysteries being a cozy writer.

      I totally get the romantic women’s fiction bit of your post. The reviews on my books show that, too.

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    • says

      “Kitchen things”…

      I haven’t heard that before. But it sums up so much of what I love about the sort of writing Barbara is celebrating. We all need to eat.

      And sometimes, with the right story, we can feast!

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  14. says

    Barbara–
    For me, the essential message in your post is passion. Not bodice-ripper or gothic-romance passion, but passion as the key ingredient behind good novels. Never mind the genre. Much emphasis is being placed these days on studying the market, analyzing the reader, and then tailoring what is written to fit these commerce-driven criteria. Yes, it will work, and such writing will get sold. But I doubt very much that really good books will result from this approach. I happen to think writers need to follow where their passion leads. What drives and motivates? What is the honest essence at the heart of a person’s wish to share the workings of her imagination through words on the page? Studying craft/structure? Of course. Reading lots of other writers? Absolutely. But making sure to follow where creative passion leads is what you’re own story says to me. And if that makes me a “romantic,” so be it.

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  15. Denise Willson says

    Hmm, Barbara, this sits with the likes of ‘who built the pyramids?’ A story is a story is a story. Period. That said, this is one romance writer that wishes publishers would create better cover art than the oiled buff guy. You know the one. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  16. says

    Barry, I love this whole comment. Passion is very, very important. I agree with you that is sometimes feels like there is a lot of emphasis on the business, not enough on the love of the work itself. I have just finished the rough draft of a highly romantic, over-the-top new adult romance and had so much fun that it couldn’t possibly be called “work.”

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  17. says

    Thank God you foraged thru, Barbara! It amazes me too that romance can have this stigma, when writing romance can require the utmost effort and craft–mainly cuz so much has been done before, so in order to be different, it takes a lot of thought.
    Reading romance novels is what kicked my butt into finally writing. Romance novels are what comforted me, reminded me that I could still have a life, once my second child was born and I was thrust into the throes of uncertain motherhood. Romance novels saved me, so to speak.
    And so so many women readers prove that it is a needed art.
    Your class sounds amazing. Can’t wait for Writing Romance Fiction to come out!

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  18. says

    “I am proud to be a romance writer, a writer of romantic fiction, however one says it. If you are, too, raise your hand.”

    Raising my hands high, Barbara! And giving you high fives and fist bumps while I’m there.

    Love and sex are part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, along with food, water, air, shelter. Clearly, they are important elements to a satisfying life. They should be celebrated, and that’s what the romance genre does. I’ve long believed that society’s problem with novels that focus on romance, love, sex stems from that embedded vein of Puritanism in many of us that tells us anything “of the flesh” that’s enjoyable is to be expunged from our minds, hearts, and bodies.

    The romance novels of today are different from the ones of decades ago. Today there isn’t always a happily-ever-after ending. Some books explore gritty issues like drug abuse, physical abuse, and depression. And even when there isn’t a HEA ending, happiness happens, grows, spurs change, rights wrongs…because of the love between two people (and today that could mean M/M, F/F, M/F/M, M/M/F, shapeshifters, aliens, AI, and so on). It’s beautiful. It’s hopeful. It’s life.

    I appreciate your post — all of them, really, but especially today’s. Wish I could be in LA in August for your course!

    Sophia Ryan / proud writer of erotic romantic fiction

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  19. says

    When I first knew I needed to be a writer, as a young teen, I remember the crushing despair when the only writing guidelines I could find were for mystery or hard science fiction. Neither of those genres and I have had anything to say to each other before or since, and it took me a while to accept that I didn’t have to settle for or force myself into such rigid boxes. That I could write the stories I loved with a deep passion. That love is a worthy subject of exploring through fiction. Maybe there is an argument for romances getting less respect because they are largely for women, by women, but they are also the genre where the woman always wins…and so does the man. I don’t know why some people feel the need to sneer at stories where both protagonists find love and acceptance in each other, building a family, whether it consists of two or ten or more, but I don’t have to know. I am going to read and write what I love, what kindles the fire in me, and others are free to do the same, wherever that path takes them.

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  20. says

    Last year I explored whether I might write romance novels. I was genuinely interested, and I hoped to sell some books. I’d never read them much, so with an open mind I spent many hours catching up on the genre, reading mostly the bestselling authors. I also read the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” stuff (which has a refreshing sense of humor), various feminist apologies and critiques, as well as romance how-to manuals and the Romance Writers of America offerings.

    I admit it, I was appalled. Sorry, Barbara. Most (not all) of these novels were contrived, formulaic, shallow, cliched, and false to human experience. The “top” novelists I read were writing by remote control, there was curiously very little actual heart in it. All protagonists were extremely beautiful, there’s no such thing as an normal-looking heroine or hero. The books promote myths that are harmful, I think: that there is only one true love, that love endures no matter what, that there is a “happy ever after” for everyone, that rape is a just ducky way to start relationships. They are fantasy escapism — and sometimes we all need a good escape and a nice cozy fantasy, no question. Still, if you want to know why the romance genre gets little respect, that’s why. It’s no big mystery. Yes, there are some good books, but they’re the exception. Yep, lots of other genres do all this crap too — that’s the problem with genre writing. I ended my exploration by thinking: I don’t believe this. This is lying on paper. I cannot do this.

    Romance writing is not synonymous with women’s writing, domestic writing, emotional writing. There are many wonderful, true, deep women writing about women’s experience: Isabelle Allende, Tony Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Sigrid Undset, Muriel Spark, Alice Walker, Mary Oliver, Virginia Woolf…. It’s not all dark and dreary and dull, that’s a false comparison. I love Jane Austen, claimed by the romance genre today, but she is anything but glib and shallow. I reread her entire oeuvre as a palate cleanser last summer. Whew, thank you, Jane!

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    • says

      Goodness! Which romances were you reading? They definitely aren’t the same ones I am!

      Romance is such a broad genre. Like any genre, there are shallow and cynical books written to make money. Or there are books written with honesty, heart, and soul, by writers who genuinely believe in the central value of relationships to our lives, and the transforming power of romantic love.

      I doubt any of Barbara’s books were on your list!

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    • says

      MaryDeEditor–
      The empirical method rides again–thanks for describing your experience. Unlike you, I haven’t done my homework in the genre, so I am not qualified to comment on it. But my next-door neighbor writes historical romances, and does quite well. Often, though, I have heard her complain about how editors demand that she change a novel, so it will more closely conform to type.
      As you say, “lots of other genres do this [formulaic] crap too.” What it says to me is that longstanding emphasis on meeting genre template requirements has less to do with what readers might want, more to do with publisher/retailer convenience. And: isn’t it possible that rigidly maintained editorial requirements have led readers to be less and less adventurous?
      I will almost certainly end up self-publishing my latest story. Why? Because it is unlikely that an agent will take on a mainstream/suspense/thriller/romance. Uh oh, says the agent, where will I slot it? How do I pitch it to editors? Never mind whether it’s any good, it’s just too… different. But in the age of Amazon, that’s my choice: to self-publish MY book, not something I’ve pressed into and trimmed with a cookie cutter.

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    • says

      No, of course there are many women writing literary fiction about women’s lives…now. There were not as many opportunities when I was starting out, and the kind of romantic women’s fiction I write didn’t exist at all, or if it did, it was published sporadically.

      It sounds like you made a pretty thorough study, so perhaps romance just isn’t your cup of tea. From your list, you like literary novels, and that’s a perfectly legitimate choice.

      I would argue, as Autumn has said, that it’s a very broad genre and I can’t imagine you’ve read some of my favorites, including Sherry Thomas and Laura Kinsale in traditional historical romance. Jenny Crusie pleases the more academic reader. There are many others. I find a lot of crap in every genre, and romance has no more than any other. It has just as many fine writers as other genres, too. I’m sorry you didn’t find more of them.

      Smart Bitches is a pretty great site.

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  21. says

    Thank you for this post, Barbara. If I was the manifesto type, this would be it and your words mean a lot. I spent many years trying to be journalistic and literary until I found my voice in romance. Having something that feeds my soul – both through the writing and reading – has (I think) made me a better person. I’m all for writers tuning into their authentic voice, however that manifests, and honoring it. At least it’s worked for me. :-)

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  22. says

    “So when are you going to put this talent of yours to work on something important?”

    This. Exactly this. I’ve heard that, too — “when are you going to write a REAL book?” As if romance were somehow fake, the Velveeta to literature’s artisan cheeses.

    Thank you so very, very much for this post, Barbara. I’ve been a published romance and women’s fiction writer (chick lit, even!) for the past fifteen years. It is hard to bite my tongue when people dismiss genre writing in general, and slam romance writing specifically, as if publishers hand out a paint-by-numbers plot sheet with “sex scene by page x” on it. I have known many writers, whom I admire and respect, who have developed their craft and have more of a sense of professionalism than people realize.

    I’ll be cross posting this everywhere. This is fantastic.

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    • says

      Cathy, I’ve always been dismayed by the way chick lit in particular was dismissed and derided. A young woman trying to figure out what matters–what work? Which guy? Which friends?—is so powerful!

      And now it is re-emerging as new adult. Because that is what happens. :)

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  23. says

    I think the reason romance novels don’t get a lot of respect is because they seem to endorse everything women have worked so hard to overcome: the idea that the most important thing a woman can do in her life is find a man, get married, and settle down. That a woman should overcome her flaws, both real and perceived, and become a better person, not for her own sake, but for the sake of making herself more palatable to a man. That she should be nurturing, compassionate, and beautiful inside and out (but especially out) – not because that’s the type of person she wants to be, but for the purpose of getting a man. That the man is always the underlying motivation.

    There are still segments of society that believe this is all women should strive for, if not that it’s all they’re really good for, and some romance novels read as the propaganda of those segments. I value love and romantic relationships as much as the next person, but the way it’s often portrayed in romance novels doesn’t speak to any of my desires as either a romantic partner or as a multi-dimensional women.

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  24. Karen Junker says

    I have to agree with Mary somewhat, in that I think some romance novels are not written all that well, some have included rape as something the hero can do to the heroine and then be redeemed by her love, and some do promote a ‘one true love’ ideal (which can be unrealistic). Some have the heroine being saved by the hero, which can portray woman as being weaker and dependent on men.

    Some are good. But you can’t tell by the cover. So if you read several romances that make women out to be weaker than men and dependent on men to achieve happiness, you might think they’re all that way.

    I think a lot of women like romances in general because for the most part, they might think the same way as the writer (or the characters in the books). But some women do not. And they can be vocal about the things in some romances that they find troublesome.

    I don’t think readers or writers should take it personally when someone else dislikes what you like. I think it’s possible to simply recognize that it’s not for them and you can still enjoy the genre (or the books in the genre you find acceptable). Oh, sure, some people express their opinions in rude ways, but I think it’s a good skill to learn to ignore it and still hold your own love of the genre close to your heart.

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    • says

      I agree that we can’t all like the same things. It’s just that people don’t just dislike romance, they get very hostile about it and what it is, even if they don’t read them.

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      • Karen Junker says

        I acknowledge that happens. But oddly, when I was in RWA, some of the most hostile comments I’ve ever heard came from romance readers and authors who were critical of 1) People who are, in their terms, ‘politically correct’ 2) Feminism and feminists 3) The President of the United States (various) 4) Other political or public figures 5) Other authors (mostly literary fiction, but some other genres and even other romance authors).

        I may be over-compensating by advocating we all try to get a little thicker skin. I’m still trying to get over being called a bully because of a post I made on someone else’s blog — their position was that people should stop making negative comments on a particular author’s work and my position was that people have a right to their opinion and a right to express that opinion, even if it may hurt someone’s feelings.

        I’ll add that when I first started submitting my work to contests, I was shocked at how hostile the comments that I got were. But when I re-read those same comments years later (after getting my first book published and having some mixed reactions from reviewers) I discovered that some of them weren’t really all that hostile — I was just super sensitive in those days. Okay, maybe the one that said I was going to burn in hell because my heroine was a pagan was a little over the top, but hey — that’s just that writer’s opinion.

        I personally think that people who make personal attacks on a writer’s work are jerks. So are people who picket funerals or vote against allowing all people to marry. That’s just my opinion — we’re all different and I’d rather live in an environment where we all get to have our opinions and express them, even if they don’t agree with mine.

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        • says

          Agreed–people who make political judgments about creative work are idiots. Sorry you had that experience. I think the contest system is kinda broken, but that’s a post for another day.

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    • Marissa Joh says

      Karen, fortunately the formulaic approach to romances perpetuating the culture of rape is fading away. (I’m not talking about erotica. That is an entirely different genre. I predict romantic fiction will start distancing itself from erotica. Maybe that’s only my hope. Story lines for erotica are about thirty years behind standard romance. IMO)

      Romantic heroines of today give as good as they get in love or in life. They are not expected to be virginal. Romantic heroes of today can be flawed. I write romantic fiction and I’m attracted to stories of two people finding each other in spite of all the obstacles that pop up to keep them apart, including their own flaws. My heroes and heroines are stronger together than they ever would be apart and together they can take on the world, and expect to win. I get a tremendous kick out of creating that kind of world.

      Do I write romantic fiction? You bet. And I enjoy every minute!

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  25. Mirmie says

    From purely a reader’s standpoint – THANK YOU!! In these times where everyone’s free time is so very limited, I’d much rather read what I enjoy and what makes me HAPPY!!!

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  26. says

    Barbara;
    Your post is beautiful, so introspective and in peace with itself, it really touched my heart. I can see the stories you write effecting me in the same way, and now I wish I have read something similar for my first romance reads.

    I’ll come out and say my experience with romance was most of the times not fulfilling. I don’t support any specific genres, don’t care for being seen as well-read, only there for a good story. For me, a good story must be cleverly plotted, have a big Heart, or at least surprise me in some way (perhaps that’s why I have more patience with mysteries, even badly written ones; there’s always some form of a surprise involved). The problem is, most of the romantic stories I came across so far were too dependant on -have a guess- the main couples, their feelings, and how the relationship develops. It’s too straightforward for my taste, and as a person, I don’t get the point of most interpersonal drama (I’m sort of the take-it-or-leave-it type).

    But here’s the thing: even with me being me, I did discover some gems in the romance genre that not only hooked me in to the end, but left me foaming-in-the-mouth for more. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but I think the writing, the details, and the angle of narration play a huge part. I call these kind of stories “Big Hearts”; they kind of make me feel like having a big Heart inside (if that makes sense).

    So that’s my personal taste, and I’d leave at that, if only I didn’t feel like I’m being forced to write what I don’t get. As everyone is familiar with, YA urban fantasy usually- if not always- gets associated with teen romance. In most circles, YA = romance, and apparently, if you write a YA with no romantic subplot, then you’re hard to sell. For many years I held a deep grudge against romance precisely for that reason, as I couldn’t see a way out as someone who’s keen on the YA genre but not on romance.

    Well I’m all grown-up now. I decided to forget about the marketplace, to write what I want how I want it, and to live and let live. There’s no point in blaming things on other authors for writing what they write because they like it. If anything, I have myself to blame if I give up on what I’m doing just because there’s a chance that I won’t sell it.

    That’s my thoughts on the subject. I don’t have a problem with any genre, just with the restrictive marketplace.

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  27. says

    Thank you for this. I’m just starting out with writing seriously and I am battling my own … inner shame … over the fact that I’m writing romance. My Mom wants me to be the next Janet Evanovich(perhaps so she can have a steady stream of fun fiction to read?) and I pointed out to her that Ms. Evanovich started out with romance. She kind of wrinkled her nose and said “Yes. She did.” But, despite that, she did say she’d buy my book if it is ever published. :)

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  28. says

    I think at least part of the reason romance or women’s fiction in general isn’t taken more seriously is because it tells a universal story. The fact that it’s a story with which almost everyone can identify creates the illusion that it is easy … at least to a non-writer. Anyone who sits down to write about everyday experiences knows how hard it is to do it in a way that holds a reader’s interest.

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  29. says

    This post and its comments are thought-provoking, and I’ve retweeted the link.

    Mary DeEditor makes a good point about all genre fiction having its “contrived, formulaic, shallow, cliched, and false to human experience” offerings. I write historical crime fiction, science fiction, and paranormal suspense, and I certainly see enough of that in my genres.

    However in too many traditional romance novels, the heroine *is defined* by the hero. That theme is unpalatable to many readers. It’s what kills most romance novels for me. It might also be at the core of this issue about why romance as a genre gets ridiculed.

    But don’t kick romance to the curb. Love steers hearts and history. The inclusion of a love story in any novel, for any genre, has the potential to make that novel fuller. That’s why there’s a love story within each of my novels.

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    • says

      I don’t see that a woman is defined by the hero in most romance novels. In historicals, there is often the need to marry well, or to make an arranged marriage work, but that’s history, not romance.

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  30. says

    Right you are on two major counts. First, it used to go without saying that romance was part of a novel, and in fact, for most good literary fiction, there is some component of romance, or lack thereof. It’s a bad thing that the market assumes that if your book has serious romantic emotions in it, it’s pulp genre, Harlequin formulaic pabulum (sorry, Harlequin). Second, finding the marketing niche to get your book out there is the only route to readership. If the marketing doesn’t happen, the book sits in the literary dead-letter office.

    My own experience is typical. I tried to market a book called 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans , and those few people who read both the book and the promotion asked, “Is it literary? Is it historical? or is it romance?” My answer was “Yes.” Perhaps that’s why I have sold so few copies. My redeeming message was that I had to call the cops after a break-in, and the cop that showed up said, “You’re the writer, aren’t you? I have your book,” and I asked him more. He did.

    The world runs on small miracles.

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  31. says

    I couldn’t possibly agree more with everything said. I don’t read as much ‘romance’ as I used to but the stories I enjoy the most have romance in them and my first published work is an historical romance. And yes, I believe romance novels can change the world, in big and small ways. If not for Rosemary Rogers and Sweet Savage Love, I might never have majored in history.

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  32. says

    “So when are you going to put this talent of yours to work on something important?” Seriously?!? Anybody who asks you that must not be reading your work.

    Your books are brimming with three-dimensional, imperfect (in other words, human) people dealing with problems that are big, small, internal, societal, and sometimes even life-threatening. Your work is a huge influence on my own writing – I’ve analyzed several of your novels in depth, trying to identify elements I want to emphasize in my work, and I’ve learned a LOT by doing so.

    I agree that many people have a terribly oversimplified way of viewing literature that is labeled “romance,” but when you look at any book or movie that’s not about car chases, explosions, and international plots to take over the world, at the core of 99% of the stories that remain is a quest for love. You know, kinda like romance.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll keep taking notes.

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  33. says

    I don’t write romance per se, but all of my stories have strong romantic elements. Romantic elements give life to a story. People connect to it. IMO, there’s romance, then there is RWA romance. Difference? Rules.

    RWA is one of the largest writer’s organizations in the industry. Their success is well documented, and it’s a great place to network and learn. However, the RWA charter is rather strict in what “they” consider a romance novel. A couple of rules (among many), includes the protag must meet the romantic interest by second or third chapter, and have a “satisfying” ending. I made the mistake of submitting to a couple RWA contests, and got blown away because I breached a few rules. Hey, it’s their club, I’m fine with it. To me, though, genre fiction opens doors to great romantic moments, and it’s OK to lose the girl (or boy).

    Oh, and don’t tell anybody, but I’m a RWA member. Most of my writer friends are RWA writers. To be a member, I’m supposed to devote my writing career to the RWA romance process. Let just say I’m one of many black sheep who loves the family (RWA), but tends to walk outside the rules.

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    • says

      Love this: “trying to be a good Catholic before the new pope.”

      I enjoyed my time in RWA, but dropped out when they stopped recognizing women’s fiction as one of their categories. Great bunch of people, but yeah, their rules make less and less sense to me.

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  34. says

    Thanks for this. I struggle to pin down just what I am writing, what to call it–women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, book club fiction…sent to an agent and she said she didn’t do historicals (which surprised me, since I had never thought of it that way) and one reader said, “I don’t usually read Christian romance novels, but…” and I was floored because I’d never applied either of those labels to my writing! If someone told me I wrote historical romances, I think I’d faint away. What would my college professors say?

    But so many of our greatest stories as human beings are told through the lens of romantic relationships. So, whatever they’re called, I’m going to write my stories and work to find my audience. :)

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  35. Susanne says

    Hi Barbara,

    I will never understand the need some people have to make disparaging remarks about my choice of reading. I read romances, SF, thrillers, cozies and love them all. Some books aren’t to my taste, but my neighbour might love them. Each to their own. I just want a good story.

    The need for love is deep within us all. Why would we not want to read about it?

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  36. says

    As a therapist, alot of my work is dealing with love, romance, sexuality, relationships etc. Romance is essential to most people!
    So it is a mystery why romance is ‘put down’ in books. Anyway, we are all free to read what we love to read. As an author, I am writing a love story set in the Himalayas. So, let’s follow our passion as authors and readers and in Life! Who cares what others think if we stay genuine and authentic to be ourselves?
    Thanks for a great post.

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  37. says

    What a great post! I’ve been a sucker for romance ever since I was a teen and read Gone With The Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights. And yes, I agree that too often, romance novels are dismissed as trivial, shallow, and cheesy. But as you’ve so aptly pointed out there is a wide range of romance novels, some formulaic with thin plots and predictable outcomes. Many with the hunky guy and girl in embrace on the cover. These books obviously fill a need as they sell well.

    I’ve written a romantic mystery/adventure, that cannot be easily slotted. It wasn’t dashed off; it’s taken years to write as I had to do considerable research given my story and the characters involved. Because of that, I’m hoping my book, when it comes out this October will not be easily dismissed. Romance is key to my story but it is more than that. Like Life.

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  38. says

    The weak revile what they fear. In a nutshell, that’s exactly what’s going on with romance novels. I don’t worry about the haters; I just ignore them. As THE FOUR AGREEMENTS taught me, what people say is never about you and always about them.

    Great blog post, Barbara!

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