Bowling Green State University Conference on Romance
By Jayne Ann Krentz
ARE WE THERE YET? MAINSTREAMING THE ROMANCE
I used to be a paranoid romance writer. I am proud to say that I have evolved. I am now a paranoid writer of popular fiction. What’s the difference? Not much. Just a slightly broader view of the publishing universe.
During the twenty-odd (sometimes very odd) years that I have been writing romance and romantic-suspense, I have watched my genre take its rightful place alongside the other genres of popular fiction such as mystery and suspense, thrillers, science fiction, etc. The answer to the question, “Are We There Yet” for romance is, YES. It has, as they say in the marketing business, been mainstreamed.
How do I know this? By the same evidence that tells me that the other genres have been mainstreamed:
The books at the bestselling end of the market have moved from paperback into hardcover. The cover art at the bestselling end has become sophisticated and stylish. The books are now regularly reviewed in several newspapers and in such forums as Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, People Magazine and USA TODAY.
Thanks to the legacy of librarian Alison Scott, the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University collects romance with an eye toward serious future scholarly research. Around the nation public libraries now buy and catalog romance fiction for their popular fiction collections. (Never underestimate the importance of having your book in the public library, by the way. In our culture when it comes to legitimizing your writing there is no substitute for having a copy in the local library. Everyone knows that if a book is in the library, it is somehow a real book).
And, just as telling an indicator of success, the bestselling romance novels routinely appear on all the influential bestseller lists such as the New York Times, USA Today, Library Journal, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post Lists.
Folks, it doesn’t get any more mainstream.
No, not everyone likes romance and not everyone approves of it. People still feel free to make disparaging remarks about it in my presence. The genre still takes a lot of flak in the media.
But I had a bunch of epiphanies a while back. And like everyone else who’s ever had an epiphany, I can’t resist telling you about mine. The first occurred when I overheard a conversation in the mystery section of a major downtown Seattle bookstore, a conversation that changed my life. Two women whom I did not know were standing there in front of the new hardcover mysteries, discussing whether or not to buy one of the books.
“I read these once in a while when I want to relax,” one of them said to the other in an apologetic tone. “I know what you mean,” the second woman said. “I usually prefer to read something more substantial, of course, the sort of books that we discuss in my readers’ club or the latest Oprah pick. But there are times when I just haven’t got the energy to read that kind of thing. Times when I just want to read something light and entertaining.”
They hovered there in the mystery section for a while but in the end, neither of them had the courage to buy a mystery in front of the other. Both of them read mysteries but neither one wanted the other to think that she read them very often or that she did not understand that they were not significant books.
My next epiphany occurred when I fell into a conversation with some fellow Seattle authors at a book fair. Actually, it wasn’t so much a professional discussion as a whine-fest. Let me assure you that when it comes to whining, no one does it better than an author. As it happens, I was the only romance author in this particular group. The others wrote mysteries, science fiction and horror – very successfully, I might add.
But you know what? Everyone in the group had the same kind of stories to tell – classic autographing horror tales- stories about the people who come through the autograph line, buy a book, and then, in a voice pitched loud enough to carry to the end of the line, assure you, the author, that they don’t read this sort of book; they are buying it for elderly Aunt Mabel who just loves them.
Those same successful genre authors went on to tell other familiar horror stories, as well, stories about how their own relatives, their own mothers, in some cases who, when told that the author had just published a mystery or science fiction or horror novel uttered those immortal words: “Well, that’s nice, dear, but when are you going to write a real book?”
My third major epiphany occurred when I was asked to give a graduate seminar on romance fiction at the university from which I graduated. The seminar went wonderfully well – popular fiction being such a big thing in the academy these days. Afterward I went out to dinner with some of the professors and librarians and, after a couple of glasses of wine, everyone started talking about the books he or she really loved to read. Names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz and Robert Parker and Dick Francis and Tom Clancy and Ann Rice and Anne Perry and Patricia Cornwell were dropped freely around the table. All of these academics, it turns out, read popular fiction just like the rest of us. But every single one of them referred to those books not as GOOD READS but as GUILTY PLEASURES.
The truth is that the prejudice against romance fiction, while strong and virulent for generations and arguably exacerbated by the fact that the books are traditionally written by women for women — that prejudice is actually nothing more than a particularly sharp extension of our culture’s overall prejudice against the whole of popular fiction.
This bias begins in so-called creative writing classes taught in high school and college. Classes in which the instructors go to great lengths to insist that the only good fiction, the only kind of fiction worth writing, is the type that fits into the conventions and standards of modern literary fiction – conventions and standards that have been largely molded by modern psychological theory, existential philosophy, political correctness and a masculine style of writing that abhors sentiment and strong emotions – not by the ancient heroic traditions which shape and define the genres of popular fiction.
This prejudice extends throughout the academy and has trickled down, as things tend to do from the academy, into the media.
A major national business magazine recently profiled several successful bestselling authors from a variety of genres. And I can assure you that the tone of the article was just as sarcastic and snide about the well-known mystery and horror authors it featured as it was about the women’s fiction and romance authors. The theme of all the profiles was the same: Look how much these folks make writing trash fiction.
The criticism of popular fiction — romance in particular, has a long and extremely lurid history which I will not go into here. Suffice it to say that most of it takes the traditional view that anything that has a broad appeal is highly suspect from a literary point of view and anything that appeals mostly to women is even more suspicious.
But popular fiction — romance, mystery, suspense, fantasy science fiction, horror and all the rest of the good stuff — survives and flourishes in spite of all the negative press.
This is extremely fortuitous for the many folks who make careers out of criticizing it. Literary critics who don’t understand the true significance of popular fiction face the same problematic future as dogs that like to chase cars. It’s a great hobby as long as you don’t actually catch one. Because in a one-on-one contest between cars and dogs, it’s the car that wins every time. And I can assure you that in the eternal contest between critics and popular fiction, popular fiction wins every time.
This is especially true in romance fiction. Every romance reader knows what the critics and the media think of the books. As I have observed elsewhere it takes enormous courage to open a romance novel on an airplane.
But you know what? Women do it all the time.
Romance readers have guts. They have proved themselves to be astonishingly impervious to critics, feminist lectures on the evils of patriarchal societies and the scorn of the media. In recent years they have come out of the closet in the matter of their preferred reading material — another indication of mainstreaming, by the way.
Interestingly enough, the vast majority of the readers and the writers call themselves feminists — while making a clear distinction between their view of feminism and what they perceive as the politically correct, more strident, academic view.
Popular fiction has been around forever but rarely has it been viewed as important in and of itself. Rarely have we acknowledged that it has a crucial place in culture. Rarely have we come to terms with the fact that popular fiction is not simply a degraded form of literary fiction, meant only for light entertainment and not to be taken seriously.
The truth is, popular fiction – mysteries, science fiction, sword and sorcery, fantasy, glitz, romance, historical saga, horror, tecno-thrillers, legal thrillers, forensic medical thrillers, serial killer thrillers, westerns, etc. – popular fiction is its own thing. It stands on its own. It draws its power from the ancient heroic traditions of storytelling – not modern angst.
It is important, even if it is entertaining.
It has its own tasks and those tasks are separate from and different from the tasks of modern literary fiction. Furthermore, it is wrong to use the standards of one to judge the other. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Every genre of fiction, popular or literary, is defined, not by its backgrounds, its settings or the trendy issues that are dealt with in the stories, but by the fundamental focus of those stories – the one driving storytelling element that you could not remove from the book and still have a viable story left that would be acceptable to the majority of the readers and the informed critics of that particular type of fiction.
In mysteries, there must be a mystery to be solved. No matter how convoluted the plot, no matter how much psychodrama in the tale, no matter how alienated or dysfunctional the protagonist, a successful mystery story must solve the crime. Justice must be done to maintain the all-important illusion of order and balance in the universe.
Fantasy, horror and the hot new genre of Christian apocalyptic novels that fail to pit good against evil in stark, larger-than-life terms, are pretty much guaranteed to bomb in the marketplace. Science fiction that fails to deal with the big question of whether or not humans will make it in this universe at least as long as the dinosaurs did, will crash and burn.
The romance novel that fails to bring about a positive resolution to the conflicts and problems inherent in the formation of a strong bond between the hero and heroine and then use that bond to establish a solid family foundation for the next generation of humans will disappoint readers.
Romance novels are, at their core, WOMEN’S VALUES BOOKS. Among other things, they celebrate those ancient nurturing values so long associated with our gender. That is, of course, one of the things that makes them so dang politically incorrect.
But it is important to note that romance fiction celebrates the masculine as well as the feminine and, perhaps more importantly, it demands respect for the heroic aspects of both genders. Future scholars will discover that romance was the one area of women’s fiction that did not sink into a quagmire of endless and ultimately pointless male-bashing during the feminist-influenced years of the seventies and eighties — the days when the theme of most of the critically approved novels in the field of women’s fiction was in sync with that infamous slogan, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
In romance novels women understand perfectly that they CAN exist without men. They know very well that they don’t need a man to take care of them. That is never the issue in a romance novel. It is not the point of the books. Romance novels that try to make that statement in a loud way never do well in the genre because that is not why the reader comes to this kind of fiction.
What is important to the reader in a romance novel is a recognition on the part of both the hero and the heroine that the possibilities that can be realized when they take the emotional risk of forging an enduring bond transcend what either can achieve alone.
At least some partial resolution to the natural problems and conflicts between men and women is necessary, not only for the happy ending in the books, but for the continuation of the species and the survival of civilization.
A romance novel that ends with the hero and heroine going their separate ways or in death and destruction has failed as a romance. It might be an excellent book in another genre, but it will not satisfy the expectations of the romance genre. It would be the equivalent of writing a mystery in which the mystery was not solved. It can be done but it is another kind of novel when it is finished.
My friend, Ann Maxwell, who writes as Elizabeth Lowell has observed that genres can be understood by an examination not just of what is allowed into them, but, perhaps even more significantly, of what is not allowed into them. The modern literary genre – and, yes, literary fiction is a genre – you know it when you see it (heck, it even has its own cover art) – has its own rules and conventions, just as the other categories of fiction do.
Much of what is not acceptable in the literary genre – the heroic, the mythic, the romantic, the larger-than-life elements, the character who uses the classic heroic virtues to overcome his or her own flaws in order to do what must be done – those are precisely the elements that lie at the very heart of the popular fiction genres.
Concepts like HONOR matter in popular fiction. Courage matters. Determination matters. These are ancient, heroic virtues. They do not derive from modern psychological theory or the social dictates of political correctness. What’s more, they are infused with enormous survival value for individuals, families and communities.
The literary genre, on the other hand, tends to focus on an intimate examination of characters who are victims, either of their own flaws or their dysfunctional childhoods. It dissects and explores in often painful detail neuroses, psychoses, obsessions, depression, sexual dysfunction and other frequently destructive aspects of the human condition.
Popular fiction gets involved in this stuff, too, of course.
You’ve got your classic hard-boiled private eye who is fighting a never ending battle with alcoholism, a tradition that goes back to Sherlock Holmes and his famous flirtation with cocaine.
You’ve got your traditional half-human-half-alien or maybe half-human-half-machine science fiction character who must struggle with the part of himself that does not exactly fit in with the crowd and all of the very human sense of alienation and angst that involves.
And then there’s the ever popular ex-cop who accidentally killed a child on the job and who has quit the force and vowed never to take up his guns again but who must confront his own past when he is forced to vanquish the evil villain who must be destroyed in order to protect – yes – another innocent child.
You’ve got your hugely popular character who, while busily coping with a history of child abuse or a traumatic divorce, must outwit a serial killer.
There is the decent character of shaky or non-existent religious faith who suddenly finds himself confronting genuine evil — and the possibility of genuine good.
There is the classic female character whose dysfunctional childhood makes it difficult for her to trust a man or to take the risk of falling in love.
There is the male character who lost his wife and child and will not take the chance of making himself emotionally vulnerable again to a woman’s love.
And so it goes, generation after generation of flawed, emotionally vulnerable heroes and heroines who are the heart and soul of both popular and literary fiction.
But the difference is that in popular fiction, these characters must triumph. They must find a positive resolution to their problems. When the chips are down, they must do the right thing. The mystery must get solved, justice must be done, good must win the battle with evil. Men and women must find a way to deal with their natural conflicts so that a new family can be founded and civilization will be saved.
Call me a naïve dupe of those wack jobs who are busily irritating everyone with their new theories of evolutionary biology and psychology, but my brain and my feminine intuition both tell me that these values survive and endure because they are core survival values for our species. They live and breathe and thrive and get affirmed anew for each generation in popular fiction.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, does not concern itself with seeking positive resolutions to these problems. It does not usually take that as its task. The job of modern literary fiction is to illuminate and examine these things, not to resolve them or to affirm the possibility of triumph over them. That is the primary reason why a happy ending is so darn rare in literary fiction.
In the course of our lives we all need both kinds of fiction, popular and literary, but most of us, readers and writers, alike, tend to develop a preference for one over the other. Our choices say more about our own personal philosophies and world views, our sense of optimism and hope and our belief in the future than they do about either our intelligence or our education.
We are attracted to a particular type of fiction, popular or literary, because something in it affirms our core values and our most fundamental, deeply held convictions.
There is nothing right or wrong about either popular or literary fiction. They do have different goals, however, and if you would truly appreciate popular fiction, not just as entertainment, you must understand its unique tasks.
Literary critics often criticize popular fiction — romance in particular — because it is not “realistic”. But that is a ludicrous criticism which completely misses the point. It is not the task of popular fiction to be realistic. It may feel realistic on occasion. The settings or emotions and psychological motivations of the characters may feel very real, especially in a contemporary story. And the best writers are good at invoking that feeling of realism. But that is not the same things as being real.
I’d like to mention that this critical emphasis on the importance of realism is a very new phenomenon in the arts – and you will note that critics usually apply it only to books. Realism is certainly not considered an important asset in the visual arts such as paintings, sculpture or — as anyone who has ever posed for a photo for the back cover of her book can tell you — photography. Nor is it considered important in the other arts such as film, opera, theater or dance.
The point is, all fiction is based on fantasy. That’s why it’s called fiction, folks.
And just as the average reader of Robert Parker’s hardboiled private eye novels does not finish a book and rush out to apply for a private investigator’s license, the average romance reader does not confuse fantasy and reality, either. Romance readers and readers of popular fiction in general are experienced readers in every sense of the word. They understand intuitively how fiction works.
Not everyone does, you know. When Bridges of Madison County came out a few years back it was a media sensation and as such it attracted a lot of folks who were not experienced fiction readers. As a result the National Geographic Magazine was inundated with requests for copies of the issue that had the cover that the hero of the novel had supposedly photographed for the magazine. These inexperienced readers did not understand that the book was a work of pure fiction.
Romance readers and others who read popular fiction regularly did not make that mistake.
Another criticism of the romance novel is that the stories are deemed to be similar, even repetitious in terms of theme and plot and character.
For some odd reason this common criticism is usually limited to the romance novel. It fails to take into account that familiar fantasy worlds that can be reentered again and again are the mainstay of all popular fiction. Why do you think so many mystery, suspense and fantasy science fiction authors have managed to build such enduring careers on series characters and series worlds?
The truth is, when people read for pleasure, they tend to read along narrow lines. So narrow, in fact, that well established genres usually have dozens of sub-genres. And the audience for those sub-genres is often not terribly adventurous. When people are reading for personal pleasure, they tend to stick to their preferred fictional landscapes.
Fans of hard-boiled American private eye novels, for example, often won’t read what are termed “cozies” — those books characterized by small town settings, quirky characters and a detective who does not come out of traditional law enforcement milieus.
Readers of cozies, on the other hand, often have no interest in reading police procedurals — which are, in turn, broken down into American style police procedurals and British style police procedurals. Fans of one type of procedural often won’t touch the other.
Writers often get trapped in a successful series and will try anything to escape. Why do you think Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes? If you read Robert Parker’s mysteries, you want his archetypal hero, Spenser. If you read Clive Cussler, you want his archetypal hero, Dirk Pitt. If you read Robert Jordan you want the next adventure in his Wheel of Time series. If you read Ann Rice you want vampires. If you read Patricia Cornwell you want Kay Scarpetta.
The desire on the part of readers to revisit familiar landscapes has another element. Each genre and sub-genre develops its own core language and core landscapes. Readers and writers alike become fluent in that language and that landscape.
This is not to say that each writer does not create his or her own version and variations of the language and landscape but if you are a writer, you soon learn that if you would write successfully for readers who love a particular genre or sub-genre, you need to know the shared elements that are its heart and soul. You need to respect those elements and the readers, as well. The one unbreakable rule for a writer of popular fiction is that you must respect your chosen genre and the readers in it. You must write your stories with absolute conviction or you will never have a successful career.
By the way, those of you out there who are still searching for a topic for a paper or a dissertation — you know who you are — pay attention. I think there’s a good one here in this business of genre language and landscapes.
Fans of sword and sorcery fantasy books, for example, have developed a language and landscape that borrows heavily from the medieval and the Celtic traditions. The books are often infused with strong elements of Arthurian mythology and the imagery of the medieval church. The larger-than-life clashes between good and evil are often told in quasi-religious language and images. As a writer you must know this language and landscape or you will come across as an outsider.
Fans of serial killer thrillers — a huge sub-genre in the suspense category — have developed a very sophisticated knowledge of the language and landscape of that world, too. They know the difference between organized and disorganized killers. They know about FBI profiling. They know about the link between serial killing and childhood sexual abuse and they know why prostitutes are so often victims of these monsters. They’ve picked up a lot of cop lingo. Writers must know and respect that knowledge.
Those who write romance know that the genre, blessed as it is with a vast universe full of sub-genres, has developed a host of highly descriptive languages and a wide variety of landscapes.
The language of the romance is rich in its ability to describe intense emotion, strong sensual attraction, and acute physical awareness. In addition, readers love the language of communication between hero and heroine. They love the repartee and the word play. They enjoy watching the bonding process take place on the verbal and psychic planes as well as in the physical realm.
Communication is key to the success of a romance novel. That is one of the elements that the American writer has brought to the books in recent years in my opinion — a more entertaining, more modern, more sophisticated kind of communication between hero and heroine. Readers love it. (Another academic paper or dissertation topic here, I think).
The landscapes of the romance novel are more varied than those of most of the other genres and, unlike the other genres, readers tend to move quite readily between sub-genres. The settings range from small towns to big cities. From ranches to corporate boardrooms. Popular time periods include Medieval, Regency, Western, Victorian and the distant future with all of the highly descriptive trappings and mythology that go with those periods. Other worlds, alternate universes, time-travel, magic, gothic horror and New Age metaphysics abound.
The romance reader not only moves more easily between sub-genres than readers in other genres do, she also tends to read widely outside the genre. Start a conversation about books with a romance reader and you’re likely to end up talking about the latest titles in mystery, suspense, fantasy and horror. This versatility is one of the reasons why several writers who got their start in the romance genre were able to move so successfully into the suspense and thriller genres. Sandra Brown, Tami Hoag, Kay Hooper and Iris Johanson are just a few examples. They were able to take huge chunks of their romance audience with them when they made the move.
Writers in other genres are rarely so fortunate. Just ask some who have tried to shift gears to write in another genre. More often than not, their audiences have not followed them.
This is one of the many things I love about the romance reader. She is an adventurous reader; an expert reader.
If you write a New York city police procedural story and throw a vampire into the novel, your average big city police procedural fan will return the book to the bookstore and demand that his money be returned. The reader who cut her teeth in the romance genre, will keep reading.
The stories in popular fiction offer warnings about wrong choices and support the concept of doing the right thing. They are morality plays. They offer hope for the future. They give us a sense of transcendence by illustrating the ancient heroic qualities of honor, courage and determination, and by reminding us that we can and should use these qualities to overcome our very human flaws and weaknesses. They teach us that we need not be victims of those flaws and weaknesses.
Being a victim has no survival value. The courage to overcome one’s victim-hood, on the other hand, has enormous survival value. Popular fiction keeps alive the goal of overcoming the past and the belief that the future can be changed for the better. And in the romance novel, it celebrates the ancient, heroic feminine values and the possibilities that emerge when a man and a woman bond together to create a new family.
As a writer, I see the genres as a circle of deep well springs which together fill a vast pool. The pool, itself, is the whole of fiction, both popular and literary. In the past, many things have disturbed the surface waters of this great pond. Contemporary trends and problems, issues of political correctness, new theories in psychology and science and various social agendas. These disturbances have created ripples which spread out but which do not sink deep. They do not affect the great rushing waters of the wellsprings at the bottom of the pool.
These ripples, however, serve to refresh and renew the power of the genres for readers and writers alike on a regular basis.
As an example of this, consider the mystery genre. Over the years we’ve had mysteries that feature private investigators who were ex-alcoholics and burned out war veterans. Detectives of various ethnic background, lesbian and gay detectives. Detectives who are blind. Detectives who are cloistered nuns or eleventh century Benedictine monks. Politically correct detectives, fiercely feminist detectives, etc.,etc.
But the detectives who survive in popular fiction are the ones with heart; those who use the heroic virtues — courage, honor, determination — to get at the truth and who do not stop until justice is done. The rest go by the wayside in a hurry — or else find their way into the literary genre.
We’ve had several ripples in the surface waters above the deep wellspring of romance, too. Political correctness and feminism have created lots of splashes. In the years that I have been writing we’ve seen a host of books in which the heroines confront serious social issues such as alcoholism, child abuse, rape and dysfunctional families.
New settings and venues have also been added. There are books in which the characters travel back and forth in time. Books in which the heroines have paranormal powers. Books in which they know karate and pack a gun and hate to wear dresses.
But the romance heroines who survive are those who have heart: the ones who use the heroic virtues — courage, honor, determination — to achieve their goals.
The ripples on the surface of the great pool of fiction come and go. As I said they’re useful and important because they serve to refresh and renew the various genres, romance included. But at their heart, the genres do not change very much because the ancient, heroic traditions and archetypes that give them their power do not change.
And in the modern world where everything is routinely explained in terms of dysfunctional families and private neurosis, readers come to popular fiction for stories that celebrate the ancient, heroic virtues, the larger-than-life characters and a belief in the healing power of love.
Krentz BOWLING GREEN ROMANCE CONFERENCE August 2000