So in thinking of today's post; and given the number of red-blooded American males who've mentioned dabbling in romance writing of late (for which I give two fist-bumps and a snap) and those faithful blog readers whom I love with all my heart but think romance is trash, I'm pulling out my soapbox. I can picture Wells-y tugging on his lapels, saying, "Here, here, now, let the lady speak! Quiet your grumblings. She will not be speaking on the subject of Fabio, though he would look good on my time machine, no?" Ahem...
I am a fairly recent romance novel convert. I was a good little Catholic girl who did everything I was told, grew up oblivious to the birds and the bees (I had nun leaflets, people), and treasured books, just not the ones near the Safeway check-out line. You remember those, right? The nurse with the phallic hypodermic needle and the man running away from her on the cover? Whew! Those Harlequin Medicals had some covers that would put King to shame, but I digress. I grew up a sheltered optimist who believed everyone knew and witnessed love as I did.
When the writing bug bit, I hadn't considered romance. I started with middle-grade fiction and mysteries but my critique partner noticed I kept hooking people up in the literary sense.
CP: What about a romance?
Me: Pshaw. Right. I don't think so.
CP: No, really. Have you ever read one?
Me: Those trashy novels? Not for me.
CP: Just read one. Then you'll know.
My dear, sweet critique partner must have known the secret. Start someone with the right romance novel and they're hooked for life. Kathleen Woodiwiss was like the first hit on a Geiger. From that book on, I was forever calibrated to writing romance.
Let's get some basics out of the way. Romances are not written to a formula, though they do have one thing in common: a happy ending. Nicholas Sparks and Robert James Waller do not write romance. They write love stories. There is a difference. Tragic endings are not inversely proportional to how awesome the characters' love is. This seems to be a guy-writer thing, like they don't trust themselves to dig in and get their nails dirty with the innards of a relationship conflict, so they inject death. Any writer can write death, decay and destruction. Those are the easy roads. And please don't stand behind the "real life" placard. My grandparents and parents have seen their share of tragedy, but they all found their happily ever after. That's "life", too, baby.
And, just as any genre in publishing has boundary-pushing tomes, romance has fringe exceptions to the one-man, one-woman monogamous relationship. Some romance novels contain more sex or more explicit sex than others. I liken this to a candy store. One customer might go for the old-fashioned lemon drops. Another, licorice whips. But in the end, they all leave satisfied customers. Yes, the term bodice-rippers had its much-deserved genesis in the 70's, but last time I looked that was nearly forty years ago. Show me a science-fiction book written back then and I'll show you a cover even more egregious than a woman's bodice clutched by a man in tight breeches and a bad mullet. All genres evolve, though I'll be the first to defend those early works responsible for my love of romance.
I crack as many Fabio jokes as those silver-tongued lashers in the Safeway check-out line. But when I'm asked what I write, I no longer shy away from saying it. "Romance." Sometimes the lashers look at me as if I broke wind, but it feels good to own it now. I write stories that remind our ever-pessimistic society that there is hope. Love can and does endure. My readers' lives may be filled with tragedy, but I can think of no greater gift to give them than four hours of remembering the heroism and love we are all capable of. Are romance novels escapist? Yes. Is Jim Butcher or Dan Brown's work escapist? Hell, yes. Escapism is intrinsic to fiction.
Romance novels consistently out-sell every other fiction genre in the publishing industry. It is fertile ground open to many, but tread lightly. Successful romance authors know they cannot chase numbers without a healthy respect for the genre and its readers. Our reader might be a mother in line at the Safeway check-out. She might be a soldier in the Army or a brain surgeon looking to restore her hope after she lost a patient. Our readers are different races, creeds and stations, but they all open our pages seeking that one thread of humanity that can overcome anything: love. (And if that doesn't work, a mental picture of Fabio on a time machine might.)
So continue to make bump and grind jokes or strike a righteous pose when you open Oprah's latest pick. I might even laugh along with you at the line that compares a Ford F-150 to a black stallion, but make no mistake: your disdain for romance novels is more an indiction of your ignorance of the genre than any story on the page. Read one. A recent one. Ask me or a dozen others on this blog for a recommendation. Then, and only then, will I respect your informed opinion.
It's Soapbox Thursday, apparently. I'm stepping down. Anyone else Wells-y can help onto the soapbox? Air your biggest injustices. Discuss how wrong it is Fabio chose to endorse butter instead of, say, hair products. Tell us your favorite romance novel so that we may fight the good fight. Or just pop up and say hello.