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Women Are Dumb Post Leads to Romance Bashing on Noted Political...

In my morning blogrolling, I read the post at the Smart Bitches site about a discussion that erupted on the political blog, Obsidian Wings, about romance novels.

The starting point for the discussion was the part of the post where Hilzoy, the poster, said the following:

Second, romance novels* (update below the fold) are not “books”, as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that’s probably because I’m just a dumb woman.

An industry wonk by the name of Gary Farber came out with guns blazing in support of the genre.

What Hilzoy said is, I regret to say, a load of class-based, ignorant, anti-genre, elitist, crap.

It’s the identical kind of crap dumped ono genre writers of every sort, be they mystery writers, sf or fantasy writers, children’s books writers, romance book writers, or what have you.

Hilzoy attempts to rehabilitate herself with an update by saying that romance novels are the female equivalent of male porn. (As one commenter noted, the female equivalent of male porn is female porn).

If you want to make some sort of stupid generalization about women, then it matters what the male analog of a romance novel is. If, for instance, many women read genre romances for some of the same reasons that lead many men to read/watch/look at porn, then it would be silly to draw any conclusion at all about men and women from a comparison of romance novels to novels generally. It’s not the right comparison. I stand by this point.

Because Hilzoy hasn’t quite got her foot down her throat, she pulls out the old saw that romance is not real literature because there are constraints (dismissing the fact that other genre fiction has constraints as not relevant to her position).

Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints. There are plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints. I don’t really know enough about science fiction to make a comparison, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that the strictures on romance novels are much more stringent than those that govern SF. They are certainly more stringent than those that govern fiction generally. . . .
When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.

To which, our new BFF Gary replies:

You’re arguing that writing within any constraints is inherently inferior to writing without constraints, and is inherently of less quality.

Whereas the commonplace within genres is to note that a) there are always constraints; and b) constraints just give you a structure to go around, beyond, turn inside out, and see how they can be successfully violated.

All fiction is constrained within limits, starting with comprehensibility and points of common reference. There are merely faint differences of degree for every work.

Quality comes from what you do within and beyond those always-existing constraints.

Beyond that, that’s where it’s necessary to talk specifics.

But Hilzoy can’t stop defending herself:

I mean, I said: they aren’t books. This implies “they are not as good” only if you assume that anything that is not a book is worse for that fact. That would be absurd. A sunset is not a book. My cats are not books. I am not a book. Whoopee.

As an aside, I think the more ridiculous one’s defenses get, the more indefensible the original position.

Gary rebuts with the obvious:

Books, however, are books, and novels are novels.

Let me add that books are not cats, sunsets, or walks on the beach.

Hilzoy displays the same elitism that always rises by asserting her own importance and that of other literature (be it genre fiction or other fiction in which I am now including memoirs). She is, on the one hand, dismissive of romance books as a genre because of these so-called “constraints.” On the other, she claims that to be insulting the genre would be insulting herself implying, of course, that she reads within the genre. It seems that she is embarrassed by it, but the reason that she is embarrassed is because the ignorance of the genre drives the misconceptions that romance genre is nothing more than female porn. Essentially, Hilzoy participates in the denigration and thereby fosters the attitudes that underpin the embarrassment.

Otherwise, she is not a reader of the genre and her claim otherwise is akin to the dentist on Seinfeld who becomes Jewish simply so he can tell offensive racist jokes. One or the other.

As SB Sarah said, if you’ve got an hour, there are some stalwart defenses of the romance genre that are a pleasure to read.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

61 Comments

  1. MaryKate
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:14:33

    I’m seriously thinking of asking Gary Farber to be my boyfriend. As you said, he’s firing on all cylinders and does a fantastic job of rebutting every single “argument/defense” anyone can come up with.

  2. Karmyn
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:30:26

    Who is this person and where can I send my cluebat? Shouldn’t we be past this by now? Romance novels have been around practically forever. People of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientation, religion, creed, economic status, etc, read romance. It’s one of the few things in life where you’re almost certainly guarenteed that two people will find happiness and happily ever after in the end. What’s wrong with that?
    There’s a big difference between a romance novel and porn. If I want a romance novel, I read a romance novel. If I want porn, I watch or read porn. I know the difference. Why doesn’t this person?

  3. Jane
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:32:33

    According to The Supremes (or the more hipper SCOTUS), you know porn when you see it. Therefore, it is possible that she has seen only one or the other and not both.

  4. Stephanie Z.
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:40:25

    I’m getting to dislike the supposed void between ‘genre’ and ‘non-genre’ more day by day. What is it that makes ‘romance’ a genre but ‘literary fiction’ not one? Seems there’s an awful lot of litfic stories that are more closely related than, say, a paranormal and a series Regency.

    Also, Jane, you win. :)

  5. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:40:40

    I don’t have an hour, but I think Gary is now my new BFF, too.

  6. Nora Roberts
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:46:30

    Wasn’t Gary wonderful? Wish I could buy him a drink.

  7. Anji
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:48:17

    This is a huge thread, I’m still stuck in it. But I do wonder how much hilzoy has read in the romance genre. I do notice in that in the update to her post, where she talks about the constraints about romance, she says that she thinks that romance has more constraints than SF/F but she doesn’t know because she hasn’t read enough SF/F to make a comparison.

    Sigh.

    So she can dismiss romance for its strictures, but can’t actually speak to that effect, because she’s not widely read in e.g. SF/F? Mysteries, SF/F etc. all deal with the constraints of their genre – this is not limited to romance, as Gary says.

    Btw, I saw Atonement last month (haven’t read the book, though), and I kept thinking, if this story had been released within the romance genre (but ending somewhat earlier – trying not to give away spoilers), it would not have gotten the respect that it has. Wouldn’t have made it a less beautiful story, though.

    Is it just me or does there seem to be condescension towards HEAs? Does it become literature if it ends badly/sadly? Sheesh…

  8. Ann Aguirre
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:52:27

    I couldn’t resist; I had to wade in too.

    It amuses me when people use bigotry to try and make themselves look more cultured or intellectually elite. The argument has been derailed by people who clearly haven’t even read romances. They assume they already know it all without cracking a book, which is patently ridiculous.

  9. Writers At Play » Romance Is Everywhere, Get Used To It
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 11:57:48

    [...] Allen in the Washington Post.  (A link roundup of blogosphere reaction follows this post, and Dear Author has a good summary of the Obsidian Wings [...]

  10. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:08:39

    Is it just me or does there seem to be condescension towards HEAs? Does it become literature if it ends badly/sadly? Sheesh…

    My take on it? Yes. The way too many people view a HEA is that it’s for silly, simple-minded saps. Seems to me that many of the anti-romance folks think TRAGEDY is important. ANGUISH. MISERY. That’s the sign of a ‘true’ writer… But forget a HEA.

  11. B
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:09:29

    *blink* Romances aren’t books!? WTF are they, Folgers Crystals? They look like books…Covers with art on them. Pages with text on them. All of it bound together in a rather book-like shape…

    I know there are a lot of definitions for the word “book” but I’m still not sure semantics stretch that far. Romance novels, whether you respect the genre or not, are undeniably books. Hence why you can generally find them at a bookstore. On a bookshelf.

    Maybe I’m being too literal here, but that just strikes me as the dumb icing on the really dumb cake.

  12. Jackie L.
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:40:50

    A propos of nothing, like hilzoy, my cousin has a Ph.D. in philo. He used to teach on the university level (well known kind of university at that). Then he wrote movie reviews for Vogue. Guess which paid better?

    Hilzoy is an expert on romance ’cause she read a few as a teenager. So that makes me an expert on French medieval philosophy because I read a few of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais when I was a kid. In the original medieval French.
    (Ok renaissance French.)

    But guilty confession time, I lurrve Kakuro, which is Sudoku plus addition. So, I’ve heard did Benjamin Franklin and he was considered a philosopher is his day.

    Hey, I am just about as qualified as hilzoy to shoot off my mouth.

  13. Tracy
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:45:40

    Seems to me that many of the anti-romance folks think TRAGEDY is important. ANGUISH. MISERY. That's the sign of a ‘true' writer… But forget a HEA.

    IMHO, a tragic ending is easier to write than a true, believable happy one.

  14. Ann Aguirre
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:53:46

    An interesting phenomenon… highly educated people who scorn romance novels always seem nonplussed when romance readers / writers annihilate their stance using logic and carefully reasoned arguments. Are we not supposed to be able to do that?

  15. Lisa
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:55:41

    Charlotte Allen is going to be online at a WaPo live chat today EST 2pm. Here’s the link. It’s a moderated discussion I’m told.

  16. Jackie L.
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 12:56:29

    A propos of nothing, like hilzoy, my cousin has a Ph.D. in philo. He used to teach on the university level (well known kind of university at that). Then he wrote movie reviews for Vogue. Guess which paid better?

    Hilzoy is an expert on romance ’cause she read a few as a teenager. So that makes me an expert on French medieval philosophy because I read a few of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais when I was a kid. In the original medieval French. (Okay, okay, Renaissance French.)

    But guilty confession time, I lurrve Kakuro, which is Sudoku plus addition. So, I’ve heard, did Benjamin Franklin and he was considered a philosopher is his day.

    Hey, I am just about as qualified as hilzoy to shoot off my mouth.

  17. GrowlyCub
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:00:31

    Ann,

    no, we are not supposed to be able to do that, because as everybody knows, women who read romance novels are fat lazy housewives without any working brain cells, who eat bonbons in between getting themselves off with those pornographic ‘non-books’.

    /rant over

  18. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:06:28

    Oh, Ann, I so loved to see ‘intellectuals’ nonplussed.

    Did this happen at Obsidian Wings or elsewhere?

  19. MoJo
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:08:29

    What I found interesting was that her post was initially a rant against XX self-loathing.

    Then she turned around and self-loathed.

    Still scratching my head about that.

  20. Sheryl Nantus
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:15:17

    too funny.

    someone send that man a bouquet of flowers!

    :D

  21. Devon
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:53:19

    Undoubtedly, I will now spend hours reading every thread, but my first reaction–How can someone who says that romance novels are not books be taken seriously? Perhaps I am too literal as well, but please…

  22. heather (errantdreams)
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 13:58:18

    Romances aren’t books?!

    *splutter*

    That one’s so utterly preposterous as to not deserve anything other than an astounded look of sheer shock and incomprehension.

    The only reason I’ve had any embarrassment connected with the idea of reading romances and/or erotica is because they have such a girly reputation, and I’m an exceedingly non-girly woman. I’ve come to love me a good romance novel, though. And the quality of a romance is judged the same as it is for any other BOOK: through the quality of the characterization, plotting, word-smithing, etc.

  23. stephanie feagan
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:14:01

    I have an attorney friend who agreed to visit her new husband’s CPA and consider allowing him to prepare their joint tax return, instead of the CPA she used for many years. Her husband is a dentist, so makes good money. My friend, however, makes a shit-ton of money, is hugely successful, and uber professional. The CPA, an older man who can claim he’s a Good Ol’ Boy from west Texas, y’all, asked her what she does.
    “I’m an attorney.”
    “Well,” he says, “isn’t that nice how you li’l gals like to get into business? My wife, she sells things out of the spare bedroom.”
    She got up and walked out. I asked why she didn’t give him a righteous set-down, which she’s more than capable of. She said, “You know, Stef, there are some people in this world who are just too ignorant to teach. It would be like teaching quantum physics to a 2 year old – pointless.”

    This is like that – awesomely, monumentally ignorant. I have no problem engaging in dialogue about our genre – but not when I have to start with the ABCs. Go learn how to f’ing read, then come and talk to me about why romance is like a Hustler magazine.

    Jesus.

  24. Nora Roberts
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:30:47

    ~Go learn how to f'ing read, then come and talk to me about why romance is like a Hustler magazine.~

    You know what, you’re absolutely right. We end up giving this type of person too much time and attention.

  25. Sarah Frantz
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:32:53

    Candy posted this over at SBTB one day lo these many years ago:

    Cat and Girl Go to the Movies.

    It is made of awesome and so brilliantly, perfectly true. And apropos today.

  26. Jane
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:40:41

    I think it is important to respond, particularly when we have the opportunity on a high profile site because the more that we educate people about romance as a genre, the more that we challenge existing stereotypes, the better the romance genre is and by extension, its readers. And half the time, or maybe even more than half the time, you are posting for the benefit of those who lurk and don’t post.

  27. Ann Bruce
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:47:57

    I mean, I said: they aren't books. This implies “they are not as good” only if you assume that anything that is not a book is worse for that fact. That would be absurd. A sunset is not a book. My cats are not books. I am not a book. Whoopee.

    I still can’t wrap my little romance-genre-loving brain around this one. I’d go to the thread and read it, but I’m afraid Hilzoy’s deliberate ignorance might be virulent enough to be catching.

  28. stephanie feagan
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 14:53:14

    I suspect an argument could be made for either way of thinking, Jane. To my mind, there are those who are open to learning, who are not dogmatic, who have a natural curiosity of things about which they know very little.

    Then there are those who have made up their mind – don’t bother them with facts. I believe this is the latter.

    That said, it’s a free country – and I’m hot damn glad there’s someone over there throwing it back as fast as she can dish it. Thank God for people like Gary Farber. Even if I believe he’s fighting a losing battle.

  29. Nora Roberts
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:11:08

    Jane, I hope you’re right. I really do. Because I get sucked in. I can’t seem to help it a good deal of the time. Then I ask myself why I spent all that time and energy debating with people who want to say I write porn or trash or the entire genre is porn or trash.

    It is the first time I’ve come across Romance novels aren’t actually books.

    That was worth the time, I guess.

  30. B
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:17:10

    You know Nora, I like to see you jumping into the fray, so to speak. Because you have very intelligent things to say and you say them well.

    There are plenty of writers who are terrified to express an opinion on anything, let alone come out and honestly tell a person when they’re just full of it. This isn’t really behavior that sits well with me in anyone but…when it comes to things like sticking up for the genre you love, I don’t think anyone should just sit and twiddle their thumbs because they’re terrified that someone might disapprove of them having an opinion.

    Of course, there are those who don’t make a good showing of expressing their opinion, but I think I’m probably not the only one here who’s been impressed with the way Nora does it.

  31. Jane
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:20:59

    I think, Nora, that you have been a stalwart defender of our genre and that yours is a voice that people listen to but I don’t think you should have to respond particularly if it is sapping your creativity (this would be true for anyone). I was just saying that is how I felt and why I responded. Like Stephanie said, each position has its own arguments and neither one is a better position than another.

    I felt that we set Hilzoy back on her heels, frankly. And remember Paul Tolme? I bet him and the Defenders Wildlife organization would think twice before ever bashing a romance novel.

  32. PJ
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:22:41

    This attitude is so pervasive and so annoying. My local B&N used to have the genre books right up front in the store because that’s what most people wanted to buy. They got a new manager, however, who thought that was shameful and has brought the “quality” books to the front of the store, pushing all genre into the extreme back end of the space. When I pointed out that he’d ghettoized his best-selling books, he pursed his lips and said, “This arrangement made more sense to me.”

  33. Imogen Howson
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:23:36

    From reading the whole thread, it seems to me that the original poster was operating under a complete mis-assumption about what women read romance for. Quoted from one of her later comments:

    I think that romance novels generally are where many women go for what I guess you might call romantic, and sometimes erotic, daydreaming.

    Which means I can see why she would categorise them as a type of soft porn or mindless escapism.

    I disagree with her, and have posted on the thread. And actually it’s nice to be able to introduce the idea that romance is respect-worthy literature to people for whom it’s a new idea.

    The original poster is now, btw, ‘kick[ing her} self’. She said so on the thread, and I hope she’s been encouraged to take a fresh look at why people might read romance.

  34. Ciar Cullen
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:36:42

    Hi Imogen. I wonder what the hell would be wrong with romantic daydreaming? What is wrong with escapism? I am not saying that there is not more merit to many/most romance novels. Not saying that. But sometimes I read a romance to escape. Not to be intellectually elevated, although that can happen. Or to be spiritually moved, or psychologically healed, or whatever.

    I think many romance readers buy books (no doubt that they are books) to escape. Why isn’t that okay? Why does everyone get their pants in a bundle when someone says romance is escapism? It takes a lot of work by a clever hand to fully take you out of your worries and daily life to another place. To absorb you in others’ lives, or a locale, rich with details and laced with drama.

    This endless apologia to folks who will never ever respect genre fiction seems really pointless. But you and I have “talked” on this topic before.

  35. Nora Roberts
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 15:47:35

    I’m not sure I’m understanding what she’s saying anymore. It’s gotten convoluted, and the statements and explanations criss-cross over each other–at least in my mind.

    She shouldn’t have said ‘real books’ but used the term non-genre fiction. This is still saying Romance is less, isn’t it? She’s kicking herself, but not really admitting she swept insults over an entire area of fiction, it’s readers, writers, editors and so forth.

    It’s porn. Then it’s for wish fulfillment or daydreams.

    It had too many constraints, but she misses completely when listing what she believes are the constraints of the genre.

    So I don’t get what she’s trying to say anymore.

  36. azteclady
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 16:06:53

    I think she’s trying not to say that she was a total ass.

    But I could be wrong.

  37. stephanie feagan
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 16:10:13

    This endless apologia to folks who will never ever respect genre fiction seems really pointless.

    Very well said, Ciar. I’m still compelled to do it, to defend the genre to the ignorant and uneducated, but maybe I’ve gotten more adept at picking my fights. It seems to me that some people post the kind of BS spouted by Hilzoy for the sake of just this kind of controversy. They provoke polarization and anger. But they can’t get into it if no one pays attention. We’ll all be down at Starbucks, discussing the actual merits of romance and literary novels, making comparative notes and having an educated discourse. Hilzoy can stick around the dung heap and shout at the wind.

  38. Jane
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 16:12:38

    While lengthy, the rebuttal by commenter nadezha is so amazing, I am in awe.

  39. azteclady
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 16:13:53

    I think that it’s the silent audience who benefits when intelligent people engage the idiots in these discussions.

  40. Ann Aguirre
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 16:32:48

    Holy crap. What nadezha wrote is freakin’ amazing. He / she said everything I would’ve liked to, if I were that articulate.

    As regards discussing romance with its detractors, I think it’s always a good idea to engage, if only to prove our minds are every bit as whip-quick and tensile as they’re supposed not to be. Challenging someone’s preconceptions might wind up with interesting results.

  41. Bev(BB)
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 17:53:59

    Gawd. I can’t decide whether to go over there and wade in or literally sit back and laugh my ass off. That’s the most fascinating thread I’ve seen in a long time and that’s saying a lot. I so want to ask why so many regular commenters keep maintaining how brilliant she is when she herself says she just a dumb woman, though–

    Le sigh. Yeah, I do recognize sarcasm when I see it but, still, the temptation. ;)

    At least I think it’s sarcasm. (eye-rolling)

  42. Christine Merrill
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 21:49:26

    “I wonder what the hell would be wrong with romantic daydreaming? What is wrong with escapism?”

    Absolutely nothing. As long as someone doesn’t trot this out as the blanket reason that all romance readers choose the genre. Or tack on any comments that imply daydreaming romantics are braindead and unable to handle ‘real’ books.

    And poor Hilzoy seemed to be doing just that, along with a lot of other weird-ass things. I especially liked the ‘a cat is not a book’ part of the thread.

    Of course not. Cats are furry, and sit on the bookshelves. Books are paper and sit on the floor.

  43. nadezhda
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 22:12:33

    Hi folks! nadezhda here.

    Thanks so much for the kind remarks about my comments on Obsidian Wings. Romance isn’t my main area of reading, and within the genre I limit myself mosty to “historical” since contemporary and paranormal etc doesn’t usually float my boat. But I am a big reader of genres generally, and “Dear Author” is a regular stop in my RSS reader. So I’m especially pleased that some of you thought I handled “your” genre appropriately.

    As for hilzoy, she is indeed brilliant, and a terrific writer on policy, politics and foreign relations. And usually she’s got a great radar for elitist or sexist BS. But she got out of her comfort zone on this one without recognizing it. I think I understand what she’s groping for, but she doesn’t have the “subject-matter expertise” in either reading or publishing to refine the distinctions she senses without creating unrealistic and unfortunate generalizations.

    And FYI, I’m a “she”.

  44. GrowlyCub
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 22:33:18

    Hi Nadezhda!

    Great essay on Obsidian Wings. When folks post very long comments my eyes usually start glazing over even if I want to read them. Yours just flowed and kept my interest right through to the end. And what lovely well-phrased points you made!

    This discussion was my first exposure to hilzoy and I cannot say I see much of what you describe of her abilities, but it may well be that she went outside her comfort zone.

    Unfortunately, I have to say, it’s statements like the following which make me think rather less of her.

    From Obsidian Wings tonight after many refutations by romance readers and writers on why readers read romance, Hilzoy wrote:
    “I do think that many people read romance for different reasons, and in different ways, than they read other kinds of fiction.”

    She may think that. That’s her right and it may even be true for her person, but multiple readers and writers in the genre have told her multiple times, in multiple ways that she’s plain wrong about this for them and still she persists.

    I’m really curious what those distinctions may be. If you see what she’s getting at, please share, because I’m baffled and getting just a tad annoyed because she refuses to admit that she just may be wrong in telling regular romance readers why and how they read in their genre.

  45. stephanie feagan
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 22:33:23

    Thanks for the clarification, nadezhda, or at least the attempted clarification. I’m afraid I still believe Hilzoy to be an asshat. Brilliant or not, one cannot escape the necessity of education when mouthing off about a subject. She is clearly uneducated about the romance genre, and until she knows of what she speaks, making broad generalizations that are rude, condescending and based on nothing more than tired perceptions doesn’t speak to her “brilliance”.

    You the other hand, are well-spoken and perfectly succinct in your observations. Thank you. I wish others would follow your example.

  46. Emily
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 22:52:51

    FYI, Gary Farber has a blog at
    http://amygdalagf.blogspot.com/

    Seems an interesting amusing sort.

  47. Ravyn
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 23:36:16

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment, it may not be entirely Hilzoy’s fault. The problem’s more of a universal than you might think, and it’s not limited to readers, or publishers. It’s gotten into people who want to write genre fiction as well.

    Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no romance reader, so it’s harder for me to provide concrete examples of writer-side disrespect there. Fantasy, though–that I can rant about.

    I had a bit of a discussion on the subject with one of my professors the other day. The problem is, people can’t tell their definitions about. Literary fiction, as far as the English professors seem to be concerned, isn’t “It doesn’t fit in a genre”, though a lot of literary fiction doesn’t. The academic definition is that it’s the stories in which the artistic/technical elements, particularly setting, characterization, and word use, are more important than the plot. But then we get people who decide that genre fiction and literary fiction are mutually exclusive, and take that as license to skate when they’re writing in genre.

    People like that were the reason why this professor required us to get to advanced fiction before she’d accept anything in genre; they seemed to think that just because they were writing fantasy, science fiction or romance, they could take it easy. If anything, I’d say the true readers of genre fiction are harder to please–the SBs regularly pick apart things I would never have noticed, and the fantasy neophyte reader’s truly ageless and thereby fascinating character is the old reader’s Immortal #947.

    Our problem isn’t just the people who can’t tell the difference. It’s the people within the genres who write cliche and call it the epitome of said genre–and worse, when they’re the ones who suddenly become phenomena for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their writing. I’m sure you all have your own examples; we fantasy-types have the ones who equate Paolini with Tolkien, or an amateur dark mindtwist with Lovecraft; mystery has its offenders, science fiction’s full of them. The question isn’t just what to do about the clueless outsiders. It’s what to do about our own.

  48. Gary Farber
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 23:37:08

    Speak the name, and….

    “My local B&N used to have the genre books right up front in the store because that's what most people wanted to buy. They got a new manager, however, who thought that was shameful and has brought the ‘quality’ books to the front of the store, pushing all genre into the extreme back end of the space. When I pointed out that he'd ghettoized his best-selling books, he pursed his lips and said, ‘This arrangement made more sense to me.’”

    It’s actually not entirely loony for a manager to hope that, on the way towards the back to buy the popular books they’re there to buy, customers might pick up or investigate, or best of all, purchase, some of the less popular stuff they pass on the way to it.

    The aim of bookstores is to sell books, after all.

    Whether this theory works, or to what degree, or doesn’t, is another question, but someone might certainly believe this, without judgments about “shame” coming into play. But perhaps he made a direct statement to that effect that you didn’t mention.

    Um, thanks for all the compliments, everyone. And second Nadezhda’s — a long time extremely smart writer at various political and other blogs, herself — comments about Hilzoy. This is an extremely rare and uncharacteristic event of Hilzoy going off the rails this far, honest, and it’s only because, as others have said, she went way out of her element without realizing it.

    As a rule, she really is a brilliant and spot on writer, on matters of politics, philosophy, current events, and a variety of topics.

    Pop culture, not so much. But she’s never said something remotely so regrettably thought-free before, in the couple of years I’ve read an accumulated maybe-close-to-a-hundred-thousand-words-or-more by her, for whatever that’s worth.

    Also, while I’m posting tragically infrequently at my own blog these days — and thus instead have been posting a lot in comments at ObWi, and occasionally other blogs — I do hope to get back to more frequent blogging sooner, rather than later, so do feel free to drop by in future, and to browse the rather eclectic, and downright moody, archives, definitely skipping past the topics that bore you, if you like.

    There’s no one I expect would share all my interests, and thus not be bored by at least some of my topics, but if you use your scroll buttons wisely, who knows, maybe I said something else amusing that wasn’t completely emphemeral?

    Along with all the, you know, crap.

  49. Janine
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 23:57:00

    Great discussion over there. My very favorite part of the thread was Julianna’s eloquent defense of writing within literary constraints, using a William Wordsworth sonnet:

    On the subject of constraint in literary forms:

    Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
    And hermits are contented with their cells;
    And students with their pensive citadels;
    Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
    Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
    High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
    Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
    In truth the prison, unto which we doom
    Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
    In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
    Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
    Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
    Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
    Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

    -Wm. Wordsworth

    Posted by: Julianna | March 05, 2008 at 10:40 AM

  50. Robin
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 00:01:32

    But she got out of her comfort zone on this one without recognizing it. I think I understand what she's groping for, but she doesn't have the “subject-matter expertise” in either reading or publishing to refine the distinctions she senses without creating unrealistic and unfortunate generalizations.

    Yup, and by the time it became evident that she had taken a mis-step, she fumbled for some way to save herself, digging deeper in. Had she come at the issue from an “inside the genre” perspective, I don’t think her statement about reader expectations in Romance would have been so fraught with problems. But by the time she tried to recast her original comments in that way, she couldn’t sell the assertion as anything approaching neutral.

    But you know, even as I kept wanting her to just admit she took a wrong step, I appreciated the opportunity to keep the debate going, because I think it’s a good thing to demonstrate that Romance readers are smart, savvy, and educated, especially to those folks who may not be commenting but who have a view of Romance as truly inferior. And despite the wrong-headedness of Hilzoy’s position, IMO, she remained composed, which was very admirable.

  51. K. Z. Snow
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 00:36:00

    This endless apologia to folks who will never ever respect genre fiction seems really pointless.

    Let me just add my own period to that sentence, Ciar. Oh, and a footnote: All fiction is a form of escapist entertainment, no? If it weren’t, to one degree or another, it would be nonfiction.

  52. stephanie feagan
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 00:44:30

    Was it truly a debate? A debate involves opinions based upon fact, yes? If one party’s opinion is based on bullshit, does it warrant the title of debate? Or merely an argument that boils down to a ridiculous commentary on whether books are cats or sunsets?

    I mean, seriously?

    And I’d like to publicly apologize for calling Hilzoy an asshat. It was badly done and out of character. I can only blame my nicotine cravings. Or perhaps I’m cranky because it is tax season and I’m a CPA who’s too busy to ‘escape’ into the mindless porn drivel of a romance novel. If only Nora wrote short stories – I could get off in between 1040s.

  53. heather (errantdreams)
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 07:11:50

    Of course not. Cats are furry, and sit on the bookshelves. Books are paper and sit on the floor.

    Thank you for the reminder of the photo of one of my cats trying to be a bookend when he was a kitten. I’d forgotten all about that.

    And I have to say, it’s been fascinating to follow this. It looks like the original discussion actually evolved into a fascinating thing rather than devolving horribly the way most internet discussions do. That’s an accomplishment.

  54. Sherry Thomas
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 09:55:17

    I HEART Gary Farber.

  55. LeslieDicken.com
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 10:49:53

    [...] My Newest Cover 2. Today’s Will Write for Chocolate 3. The latest in Romance Bashing 4. Can anyone learn to taste wine? 5. Can a machine see what we’re thinking? (ACK!!) 6. More [...]

  56. Radish
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 11:51:29

    Hilzoy suffers from lastworditis, or has mistaken her lower jaw for a shovel — with each subsequent comment she just dug that hole deeper and deeper. Doesn’t she know you can’t win using the same tactics that made you lose in the first place?

    Sad to see someone with a track record like hers go that way.

  57. Leslie Dicken
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 13:39:42

    Quoteth Gary Farber:

    I’m told this makes their work, no matter how award-winning, no matter how well-written, no matter how thoughtful, no matter how smart, no matter how insightful, no matter the depth of the character and themes, no matter how enjoyable, no matter how powerful, nothing more than “novels [which] are not ‘books’, as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold.”

    Works that people invest years of their life in creating are not to be allowed to be compared to Real Novels, but to “Hustler centerfolds.”

    WOW. He’s SO right. Maybe instead of struggling to write conflicted characters, realistic settings, compelling plots and yet still find a happy ending — I should just paste an image of a naked man between a bookcover and call it a day!

  58. Diana Peterfreund
    Mar 06, 2008 @ 17:29:01

    Why do people think women read romance novels one-handed? The comparison to porn makes no sense to me. Compare to Ludlum, or L’amour, or Clancy. Prolific genre writers of novels written primarily for men.

    In my generation, I see women reading while men play video games, but these days, video games have EPIC storylines that are almost like movies. (And they all read like Tolkien or Clancy, to boot!)

  59. former B. Dalton employee
    Mar 08, 2008 @ 20:35:39

    Those of you who appreciate Gary Farber’s impassioned and fervent defense of romance novels might consider showing Gary some love via his blog Amygdala. Gary’s up against it, financially, so anything you could do to help him out would be much appreciated, I’m sure.

    Disclaimer: I’m not Gary, nor even a friend of his; we might have emailed each other once or twice a few years ago, but I don’t think so. I just “know” him via his blog and from his comments at Obsidian Wings.

  60. Virginia DeMarce
    Mar 08, 2008 @ 21:27:06

    On the issue of whether or not all fiction is escapist . . . That was certainly the opinion of many critics of the novel as a literary form in the 19th century. In the 1850s, one of my great-grandfathers in his diary categorized one of his cousins as “a novel reader” — underlined and with an exclamation point.

    For him, this meant “a time waster.” It wasn’t the type of novel or genre of novel — it was reading fiction at all that he disapproved of.

  61. Kay S
    Mar 12, 2008 @ 17:49:59

    I just don’t understand how people can criticize reading romance when they spend all their time watching TV evening “soap operas” like CSI & Grey’s Anatomy (both of which I also like) and so-called “reality” shows (which I think are stupid). And what do you call James Bond novels/movies except for male sexist/escapist fiction? And should I bring up all those Travis McGee novels by John MacDonald? McGee sleeps with 2 or 3 women in each book! (I love them, BTW. The plots are fascinating -grin :)

    And I need those HEAs to counteract all the not-so-HEAs of the real world. I don’t understand how people who watch network and cable news all the time are not all suicidal!

    BTW – Nora does write short stories, as part of multi-author anthologies.

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