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From Jane: One reason that romance books comprise such a large portion of the book retail business is because of genre loyalty. Romance readers return to the genre because it gives a specific emotional experience at the end of the book. Wanting a specific emotional experience, time and again, should not be equated with not wanting quality literature.
I read two industry professionals posit that the readership of books that sell do not want a quality story.
In an interview with Reading in the Dark, Paula Guran, Editor of Juno Press, wrote the following in response to the idea that “‘women’s fiction’ is [perceived to be] of a lesser quality than that read by men.”
PG: I don’t think that perception exists anymore. Publishers do know that more women buy more books than men, so they want to sell to women.
There is the idea that “romance”, which is read primarily by women, is of a lesser literary quality, And it is true. Not *all* romance, of course, but a lot of it. Plus a sizable number of romance readers want the same formula over and over; they don’t want a higher quality. Before someone gets ticked off about me saying those things, let me point out that the same could be said of horror during its brief boom in the 80s. Most of it, but not all, was poor quality and, at the time, the public didn’t seem to mind.
Crime/Thriller writer, John Rickards, articulates a similar thesis only with nicer words.
The existing readership, one writer . . . said, wants us to be performing monkeys, doing the same trick time and time again. They want their preconceptions reinforced, not challenged. And fair enough; it's what most of us look for when we want to be entertained rather than stimulated. I'm no different and I'm sure you're not either. . . Audiences don't want anything original, as Fry says in Futurama, they want to see the same thing they've seen a thousand times before. Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.
Rickards essay is a charge to his fellow authors that they write something not to the genre mainstream, to the genre expectations but something risky, to carve out a new audience with new writing. It's an admirable charge but one that conflates, like Guran does, genre loyalty with genre contentment.
Devotion to the genre is not blind. However, in a fan culture, criticism is not acceptable, particularly if the criticism is focused on seemingly small details. Readers receive it from both both sides–for both perpetrating the poor quality and then complaining about it when we get it. After all, publishers only sell want the readers want. This argument assumes that readers have some control over the genre which we do not. At best, we buy the books we want to read, but voracious readers like myself need to have more than one book a month to read and therefore we buy and read books that are satisfactory, average and thereby perpetuate the myth that all we want is average.
When we do vocalize criticism, there are those who question a reader's loyalty and love for the genre, as if there is some right way to go about vocalizing complaints regarding a book. Oftentimes discussions devolve into small details, not because readers focus on small details but because those small details serve to represent a broad emotional scope. For example, in Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour, one detail is recounted more than any other and that is Madelyne’s warming of the feet of Duncan. The story is more than that one moment of selflessness but it is a detail that nearly everyone who has ever read that book remembers. By invoking that one scene, that one small detail, one can call up a host of emotions associated with reading that book. The converse is true. When reading a book that contains a number of details that are incorrect, a reader cannot recall each and every error. Instead one or two serve to standout in the memory of the reader and serve as the placeholder for all negative emotions.
There are a hundred and one reasons not to try something new whether it is time, money, past negative experiences, etc. Coupled with the ingrained genre loyalty, it is not surprising that the tried and true remains on top even if the tried and true isn’t as well written, ground breaking, etc. as the new and novel.
It’s spurious to think that the readers don’t want higher quality. For one thing, the majority of readers may not know that there are books of higher quality in the morass of books smushed together with their spines and covers all bleeding together to create one giant indistinguishable mosaic of pulp. Publicity can make or break a book. If Meljean Brook’s thoughtful, layered books were given the same publicity push as Jacquelyn Frank, I suspect Brooks would be the bestselling author that she deserves to be (and will one day be).
Authors, however, do need to strive to put out the best quality of book out there. Declaiming errors by saying that what is being written is “historical romance” not “historical fiction” seems to bely the idea that romance works deserve the same critical respect as any other piece of genre literature. If it does not, then the critics such as Guran and Rickards are justified in claiming that readers do not want high quality fiction.
From Robin: I was thinking this week about how both readers and authors feel on the defensive for things they shouldn't be. It seems so similar. Until I remember that authors are getting paid for their writing, while readers, well, we aren't. In many cases, we're actually paying, whether it be for books, bandwidth, or the like. And still we're characterized as indiscriminately lapping up "formulaic" fiction or told we're being mean to authors by reviewing their books with more than a drive by "best book evah." We're supposedly too stupid to recognize bad books when we read them, but then we're mean if we talk about the flaws we find in books.
First, as to the dismissal of genre readers as formula addicts, we're right back to the flawed logic of book sales = what readers want. We keep hearing that readers drive the market, but aren't we buying from a pre-sorted, unevenly marketed selection of books? So even under the best circumstances, readers are choosing from an already limited and selected supply of books. And as the market hones in on the latest trend, replicating and modeling to capitalize on past sales trends, it narrows further, until the next trend comes along and pushes the funnel in another direction. Sure I understand that authors and editors are caught, too, but sometimes I just want to be a selfish reader and want what I want without all those qualifications.
Anyway, genre readers buy genre books, as we're supposed to. Does it mean they give us what we want? That's the question I think needs to be asked. Do you have any idea how many books I buy that I am disappointed in? A lot. But who cares. My purchase makes me a statistic in that pile of numbers driving what will be published next, even if I didn't like some of those books. And even books I enjoy I find flaws with, from weak copyediting to awkward writing to inconsistent characterization or plotting. But the more books I read in the genre, the more I am able to fill in the blanks when a book is thin in a certain area. And I think this is a particular genius of the loyal genre reader –" the talent for fleshing out what isn't written and triggering an emotional connection by filling in what I call the "genre shorthand." Most readers do this without thinking, in my opinion. Which means they don't necessarily begrudge having to do it.
But should they have to? Obviously a reader has to do some work when reading a book; a book doesn't connect with a reader by itself. But how much of what readers connect with in books comes from the desire to have a certain reading experience and the ability to fill in on thin character traits, trite descriptions, or cliched writing?
Readers aren't stupid. We may buy some stupid books, but that doesn't mean we don't want more. We may even like some stupid books. But that doesn't mean we don't want more. All you have to do is read some of the "mean" reviews or online messageboards like AAR to see that readers are smart and savvy and often extremely well-read. They may not be able to express their critiques in standard critical language, but it doesn't mean they don't recognize weakness and feel disappointment. It doesn't mean they don't want more smart, well-written books. That doesn't necessarily mean that they want the Romance equivalent of Mt. Everest not every book has to be a conquest. Even speed bumps can grab your attention if you aren't expecting them. And isn't that what every reader is looking for — that attention-grabbing book?
Now it may be that a certain number of genre readers expect particular formalistic elements in their genre books, but that has nothing to do with the quality of books, in my opinion. It's true that genre entails formalistic boundaries. But formalistic does not equal formulaic. Tell me how stupid sonnets are because they require a certain number of lines. Or how about the stylistic and thematic limits in which the Renaissance artists had to work. If anything, I think writing well in any genre requires even more creativity and vision, because uniqueness is marked in content, style, and voice more than structure and genre theme. Maybe that's why I'm so fond of books by authors like Jo Goodman — no matter how many common elements she uses in her books, the outcome always strikes me as uncommon.
And thus begins the search for the next uncommon book. Which is ultimately what keeps the genre going, at least for the reader in me.