Mar 5 2008
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.