Will Romance ever come to terms with its marginalization by the mainstream literary establishment?
Yeah, I know many readers claim they just don’t care, or think literary fiction is overrated pretentious crap, or scoff at popular fiction authors who talk about the need to promote female authors, while still seeming to ignore the largest segment of them who are writing romantic fiction. But for all that bravado (and I do believe that there are readers and authors who really and truly don’t care), I also think there’s a deep vein of defensiveness in the genre community that comes from years and years (centuries, really) of denigrating, dismissive attitudes toward fiction penned by women and focused on romantic love and sex.
And who can blame us for that? It’s frustrating to have people with absolutely no experience actually reading Romance believing they have the cultural authority to pronounce it unworthy (while quite possibly, in the meantime, gobbling up rom com films like M&M’s). I know that some of my friends find my appreciation of the genre deeply curious. And while I used to think that if they only read some of the best books the genre has to offer, they’d get it, I also realize that becoming a Romance reader requires undertaking a paradigm shift to the devices, language, and tropes that are typical of the genre, and that takes time and investment. So now I mostly don’t bother.
We even see it from within. For example, Megan Mulry is one of the latest authors to struggle with the implications of reading and writing romantic fiction:
I’m pretty sure I used to sit at the Smart Table. I was a magazine editor. I knew the difference between my Woolf and my Wolfe (and the other Wolfe). As my dad would have said, I had the advantages. Poor Dad. All that time and effort spent on my education and I go and write a bunch of twaddle about relationships and sex and why the contemporary woman is in a perpetual state of feeling like one of those Chinese plate-spinners.
Mulry palpably struggles with her own appreciation for Romance:
Around that time, a kind friend gave me a couple of romance novels. The little bag sat accusingly on my front hall bench for a couple of weeks, and I finally realized I was a terrible literary snob. The least I could do was skim one or two of the books. Insert LOL here. More like one or two…thousand. I was hooked. I used all sorts of internal-rationalizations to allow myself this new addiction: Julia Quinn went to Harvard! Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor! But eventually I just copped to it: I love romance novels.
And even when she seems to come to terms with her own love of the genre, there is still a conditional acceptance for the idea that Romance has literary value: “I now realize they are great books in their way” [emphasis mine].
I don’t believe that it’s Mulry’s intent to denigrate Romance or to contribute in any way to its literary marginalization. But her ambivalence about actually being a Romance fan and author still permeates her prose, and I think it reflects the broader conflict that Romance always seems to be caught in: it’s the most financially profitable and powerful genre, but the least respected. Indeed, many of those “I’ll laugh all the way to the bank” comments seem to confirm the idea that it’s always going to be a choice between respect and profit.
In theory, that’s a false dichotomy. In practice, though, there are ways in which the genre is marketed to its readers (covers and titles, for example) that might be said to undermine an earnest bid for literary respectability. What currently makes books recognizable to us as Romance (the clinch cover, the stereotypically sexy or outrageous title), may read as “trashy” to those who have never read Romance. Not to mention the broader questions about whether Romance should be shooting for broader recognition as a valid literary genre.
Part of the problem, I think, is that even genre readers have been conditioned to see romantic fiction as good ‘in its way,’ regarding excellence as an internal measure, not as a scale on which a Romance could compete with a work of literary fiction or another genre book. And it is true that we read different kinds of books for different kinds of experiences. Still, the persistent devaluation of emotion, especially woman-centric emotion, has, I think, infiltrated the Romance community, resulting in those phrases like it’s just entertainment or it’s just a fantasy/escape. As if these elements are not common to all genres and all experiences of reading fiction.
Another issue, though, is the lack of a widely respected award for outstanding romantic fiction, despite the longevity and size of RWA’s RITA competition. Even as a Romance reader I don’t pay much heed to that RITA stamp on a book, because while the competition has certainly recognized many outstanding books and authors, there have been enough misses for me that I don’t trust it to be a consistent measure of excellence in the genre as I would define it.
Still, when RWA recently decided — apparently pursuant to the recommendations of an external consultant – to change the guidelines for both the RITA and the Golden Heart (for unpublished manuscripts), the move provoked larger discussions about the the RITA’s status inside and outside the genre, as well as questions about RWA’s broader goals as the genre’s most recognized professional organization. Two of the most notable changes are the elimination of the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category and a scoring rubric that potentially awards the “romance” element twice as many points as any other category.
Unlike many other genre fiction awards (e.g. the Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar) the RITA does not seem to have much mainstream traction in bringing new readers to the genre. In other words, it does not have a broad prestige factor that characterizes other awards. And in changing the RITA in these ways, RWA seems to be narrowing the award even further to have a pure Romance focus. Some have lauded this move as purposeful branding, while others have criticized it, especially for the exclusion of the NSRE. As Lauren Willig said:
Those SRE books have the power to be the gateway drug by which readers who claim they don’t and won’t read romance are drawn into the field. It’s a short hop from women’s fiction to contemporary romance, from Karen White to SEP, or from historical mystery to historical romance, from Deanna Raybourn to Meredith Duran. By closing off this category, by telling these authors that what they’re writing doesn’t count as romance, we’re also sending a message to their readers and creating barriers that don’t need to exist.
For those of us who write cross-genre books, we can gather readers from lots of different places, but fitting into the communities can be challenging. We aren’t just historical novels; we aren’t quite mysteries. We weren’t entirely romances either, but that was the community that never seemed to mind. They welcomed us anyway, with a generosity of spirit that embodied what is best about romance writers. They understood that our books might be shelved with general fiction, they might be mysteries, but they also were deeply tied to the heart of any romance–the connection between two people.
In other words, by focusing more on “romance” than on “writing,” for example, in the RITA scoring, and by eliminating the NSRE, RWA seems to be privileging the concept of romance over both objective craft elements and crossover readership. In conversations on Twitter, I got the impression that RWA was aiming to increase the prestige of the award, but I don’t really understand that goal in light of the changes. If they wanted to make the RITA more prestigious, wouldn’t the focus be on finding ways to recognize excellence in the genre in a fashion that was more easily translatable to readers outside the genre?
A number of years ago, author Barbara Samuel made a case on Romancing the Blog for why Romance readers should be invested in the RITA. As RtB is no longer extant, but at the time I disagreed with Samuel because I never understood some basic elements of the RITA. Is it aimed at authors recognizing other authors, or at readers? How can a contest, in which authors enter their own books (and at that time it was print only), fully measure excellence across the entirety of a genre? On what basis are books scored and on what basis are categories decided and books identified? As a reader, RITA has always seemed like a peer award to me – entered by authors, judged by authors, presented by authors – which is absolutely valid, but not necessarily relevant to me in the same way.
But here’s the thing: I want an award that recognizes excellence in the genre to matter to me, the reader. I want to be able to point to an example of exemplary Romance and tell my non-reading friends, Look, this book was nominated for/won X award; even though you don’t read Romance, try just this one. I want more mainstream recognition for Romance, not because it’s the most profitable genre, but because there are many, many books that are outstanding as books, not just in their way as Romances. The genre deserves respect, and as much as I admire those who just don’t care, I don’t think it’s wrong to want the creative energy of (primarily) women, focused on the fictional project of romantic love, to be valued artistically, emotionally, and socially. As far as I’m concerned, it’s past time.
Because it’s not just about Romance as a genre. It’s also about (primarily) women writing about the inner lives of other women. It’s about validating books that take as their subject matter the emotional journey to love, even and especially when that love comes in a form that challenges the social status quo (e.g. m/m or f/f Romance). It’s about legitimating the domestic elements of fiction and appreciating the reality that for many people in the world, love was and is still a revolutionary concept (e.g.multiracial/multicultural Romance).
I know that many long-ago gave up on the idea of mainstream acceptance, but I still this it’s possible (and would take nothing away from those who just don’t care whether or not anyone else respects their reading choices). And I do think some kind of Romance-focused organization has a key role to play. When I first started reading the genre, I remember RWA advertising itself as the key interface with the public about Romance. Is that still the case, and if not, why not? I rarely see RWA mentioned beyond coverage of the convention. Do they still produce statistical profiles of the genre and its readers? I know that many authors find the organization valuable, especially their local chapters, but if RWA still considers itself the alleged public face of the genre, I can’t discern what’s been done to promote mainstream recognition of the genre. Who is representing the genre beyond the professional aspirations of authors, and what should that look like?
Part of branding is public relations, and part of public relations is placing and identifying your brand. So what is RWA’s brand and how are they placing and publicizing it in the cultural and literary mainstream? Do the RITA and Golden Heart have any role in that branding, and if so, what is it? Some literary prizes –the Booker Prize, for example – start with a diverse selection and advisory committee, so that it’s less a contest and more a judging process that is not dependent on whether the author spends money to submit her own book. As the main professional writer’s organization for the genre, RWA’s resistance to change in a genre that is most dynamically responsive to new opportunities continues to baffle me. Wouldn’t the professional success of authors be supported by having an organization that plays a prominent public role in promoting the genre?
But if RWA no longer wants to be the public face of Romance, that doesn’t mean the genre must be without representation and recognition. That doesn’t mean there can’t be an award of excellence that is ultimately recognized as valuable by retailers and by the reading public. All awards provoke controversy over their winners, but other literary awards are recognized as accepted markers of outstanding craft, inclusive of writing, story, and theme. Romance can and should have that, whether or not we have it in the form of the RITA, which, with the elimination of NSRE and the increased focus on the romance element, seems to be moving away from, rather than closer to, broad-based acceptance of exemplary craftsmanship in romantic fiction.
But certainly publishers can help, too, by supporting the strongest editorial processes for their books, because professional production values do matter, especially in a literary culture that still tends to fetishize the physical book. Authors like Megan Mulry have an important role to play, as well, in utilizing their inbetween position to support more crossover readers and writers without ambivalence or shame. And I also don’t think it helps when we as readers mock or dismiss other genres, while complaining that Romance is still a literary pariah.
Romance has started to receive more positive, respectful press of late, and I think that’s largely attributable to the stronger sense of ownership readers and authors have demonstrated online. But I’d definitely like to see more. I’d like to see the day when a writer for The New Yorker or The New York Times thinks nothing of writing or writing about Romance fiction, embracing the literary and culture power of women’s writing for its own sake, because it’s valuable by any measure.