This weekend a Salon article caught my eye. “Summer Reads,” it was called, and I clicked on the link, expectations charged, thinking, there’s got to be some Romance in this bunch. After all, everyone knows that summer reading is beach reading, and if fall sweeps in the more “serious” reading, summer is always about fun, about “light” reading &emdash; a seasonal celebration of mainstream and genre fiction. Disregarding the question of what constitutes “light” or “heavy” books, and whether they can so easily be spotted by the label on the spine, Salon boldly announced its recommendations of &emdash; in its own words &emdash;thrillers, “chic lit,” memoirs, mysteries, and science fiction. The series, which culminated this weekend with the mystery and sci fi recommendations, included nary a mention of genre Romance, despite the romantic overtones of some of the chick lit offerings, which, tellingly, they renamed “chic lit” perhaps trying to cover self-consciousness at the idea of recommending books that include “a comedy about a bumbling mommy flirting with adultery, . . . close encounters between New York dog lovers, . . . [and] a sexy British melodrama featuring an abandoned baby and three now-successful women who may be the mother.” Nowhere in Salon’s “Summer Reading” book fest can genre Romance be found, and even chick lit got a bit of a PR makeover.
I love Salon, in part because it seems to comfortably straddle pop culture and high art, offering pieces on “The Sopranos” finale as easily as reviews of the political Right’s infatuation with Plato’s Republic. So it was difficult to register my disappointment with their steadfast ignorance of Romance &emdash; and I purposely use the word “ignorance,” because I can only believe that those making the recommendations are not schooled in genre Romance, else they would find at least one book to recommend among the more than 2,000 Romances published each year.
I know that the online Romance community has gone ’round and ’round on the hows and whys of this exclusion. There’s the whole “blogs are born of the uncultivated masses argument” that continues to play, most recently by Adam Kirsch, arguing that despite the democratizing influence of bloggers, that they are still largely marginalized, victims of their own resentment over being excluded from a certain literary culture. First let me say that I think Kirsch’s argument there is wrongheaded and illogical, but at the same time I understand what he’s saying about the negative implications of feeling stuck on the margins, the anger that can create a simultaneous response of defiant pride and resentful envy, a vain hope that one will gain recognition from whoever’s “in” and then respond with a not so polite “no thanks.” In relationship terms, it’s that fantasy of having the guy who dumped you come crawling back, giving you the opportunity to dig your four-inch stiletto heel deep into his back as you push his sorry ass out your door.
Unfortunately, I think Kirsch is chewing on a grain of truth when he says that some bloggers “tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world.” Ugly as it is, over-generalized as it is, circumstantially inaccurate as it is, Kirsch’s statement might also be a little bit true. Take, for example, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s response to the brief exchange Jennifer Weiner and Dwight Garner had on Garner’s New York Times blog Paper Cuts . Mitchard’s opinion is that “when it comes to garnering reviews, my observation is that it does indeed help to be male and important.” And thus she goes on:
Being male is self-explanatory.
There are a few inescapable traits that comprise being important.
It is best to be of exotic parentage &emdash; although you may reside here, and even have a New Jersey accent.
It is best to write character-driven novels laconic to the point of eschewing punctuation, and featuring a plot that has, at most, one event, and that one not too harum-scarum. A blink will suffice. A letter is pushing it.
If you cannot be male and important, and still wish to be important, and thus reviewed, do this: Be a reclusive MFA with delicate wrists, great, woeful eyes, and be no more than 26 years of age.
Write a novel of no more than 200 widely-space pages concentrated mostly on the arranged marriage of a London-born Pakistani (Ghanaian, Iranian, Taiwanese) girl.
If you cannot be exotic, and still wish to be important, try at least to have delicate wrists, perhaps a PhD from a very small and absurdly serious university, and at least, a famous father.
If you have a famous mother, don’t expect so much.
Mitchard is hardly the first to come through a list and reasons like this before. And they’ve always struck me as both wrong somehow and deeply insulting. But I never investigated the why of those feelings until I read Mitchard’s list.
Beyond the standard lit fic bashing, Mitchard’s list also takes aim at women writers under 30 with MFA’s, small wrists, PhD’s from “serious” schools, famous fathers, and who write about non-white characters. The sarcasm in Mitchard’s list is seething, and it feels like it’s aimed at much at individual authors as it is certain print review publications. In fact, it feels very much aimed at women authors who dare to seek advanced education in creative writing and have a certain cultural interest in their writing that reflects a non-Western perspective. Basically, Mitchard’s list feels uncomfortably focused on other women authors, not on whatever institutional or industrial forces might value certain types of fiction above others. It reminded me of that moment during virtually every season of “Survivor” when the women have to choose between trusting each other or putting their faith in the dynamic but completely untrustworthy guy who rides those women right to the finale, turning on each and every one of them with a winning smile and an unconvincing lie. Who’s to blame for that, the lying guy or the women who trust him rather than each other (and keep in mind that this is a game that promotes dishonesty as a survival skill)? If men get mentioned simply because they’re men, then what does lashing out at the women who also get recognized accomplish?
Then there’s the whole “literary fiction is a pretentious bag of bile” argument, which never ceases to frustrate me because it seems to validate some of the resentful self-disenfranchisement to which Kirsch refers. Beyond that, though, it seems to me that the Romance community is not so much different when it comes to erecting hierarchies of specialness, something that emerges very clearly whenever authors post on well-known messageboards and blogs. There are certain authors who seem to be untouchable when it comes to critique &emdash;with any poster who dares to say something unpopular about their work torn to bits by the author’s biggest fans. Then there are those lesser-known authors who get nailed for not being famous &emdash; and untouchable &emdash;enough. While there are many wonderful things about the online Romance community, it possesses its own form of snobbishness and exclusivity, even if the basis for those rules might be a bit different than in other literary communities. I know that it seems counter-intuitive to say that the idea that “Romance is just entertainment and shouldn’t be read and critiqued too closely” is snobbish, but in its own way, I think it is, because it claims a certain insider/outsider dynamic that Romance readers complain about in lit fic circles.
None of this eclipses what I think is the befuddling injustice that media outlets like the New York Times perpetuate by ignoring Romance. To alienate such a substantial element of book buyers &emdash;loyal book buyers, in fact &emdash;seems short-sided from both a business and a cultural perspective. If Nicholas Sparks can get a respectful mention in the Times Book Review, for example (which he did in January of 2006, in a mini-review for At First Sight), then so should no small few genre Romances receive equal treatment by the Times. I don’t for one minute dismiss the idea that it’s simply easier for men to garner respect and recognition by the Times. But I’m not convinced that gender alone continues to drive that preference. And I also wonder, while we’re still arguing over whether the genre actually deserves or warrants close critical attention, whether Romance authors and readers are really aiming at recognition by the NY Times and its brethren. Because the whole point of Romance moving into those venues is that it will, inevitably and inexorably (aside: why is this word so popular in Romance novels?) become part of the larger critical cultural discourse. A NY Times book review is, if nothing else, an invitation to talk about the reviewed book as something important, something worthy of dialogue, evaluation, and deconstruction. It will move the genre into a much larger cultural space, an open field of uncomfortable inquiries and divergent comments and naíe mishandlings by all sorts of readers, some of who may not be automatically friendly to the genre.
From my perspective, all of that would be a wonderful thing, both for the Times and for the genre, because it will open up Romance to an even more diverse readership and acknowledge the equivalent value of women’s fiction to manly mysteries and macho thrillers. Whether or not such acknowledgement counts is not the core issue for me; as I see it, there is not one reason why genre Romance should remain unrecognized by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, et al, and its lack of inclusion is a bald injustice. And I believe that the day will come when these print venues lurch forward and recognize Romance, in part because despite the current suspicions directed at bloggers, there are some powerful voices in these online venues, too, and cross-pollination is a natural process, after all. My bigger questions have more to do with whether Romance readers and authors really want that kind of inclusion –" whether it will be welcome and whether there will be enough of a sense of security within the community to embrace the attention and let go of beliefs about how the genre should be read and appreciated. Because I honestly worry about the ease with which we tend to go after each other, readers and authors alike, and the extent of protectiveness within the genre from what is seen as unfair criticism. I am concerned about the state of copyediting in the genre, too, although I would hope that broader review coverage might inspire a little more attentiveness to certain production values. Mostly what I’m wondering about now is the extent to which readers and authors are willing to let go of the genre, to set it free long enough to lose track of its critical trajectory. Are we ready? I’m not sure.
The stubborn exclusion of Romance speaks to the questionable wisdom of those snubbing media outlets, but how we seek and what we make of inclusion will speak to the wisdom of the Romance community, and to those virtues and values we claim to embrace. Since Romance loves a happy ending, what do we want it to be in this case? Do we want the NY Times to be riddled with stiletto-induced bruises? Would we rather lose that million survival dollars to Brutus rather than to Brenda? Or are we looking for a real relationship with other literary communities, a relationship that requires a long-term commitment, respectful communication, periodic deconstruction, and perhaps a little couples counseling every once in a while? Is our happy ending one that we continue to guard within the genre, or can it include a frail-boned literary fiction author with an MFA and a fascination with the Far East?