You Write Romance Novels?

If you followed Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Wenier on Twitter this week you probably saw Jeffrey Eugenides name mentioned a lot. Mr. Eugenides is a Professor of creative writing at Princeton and the author of the Virgin Suicides and the The Marriage Plot.(Which I’m pretty sure is the name of a historical romance novel too.) He’s also the man who inadvertently started a lot of debates between writers by saying, “I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching.”

What’s he talking about? Literary vs. Commercial fiction. One is praised by critics the other is adored by fans. Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult are both NYT best-selling authors who have sold millions of books. That’s an achievement many writers would sell their mothers for a chance to receive but these two authors aren’t entirely happy. Their complaint is that they don’t get reviewed  in the New York Times or the same amount of serious coverage as some of their male counter parts.

Do they have a point? I’m sure they do. They may not get the serious street cred they deserve but what about us romance writers? We’re even lower on the literary totem pole. Snobby types would say we aren’t real writers at all because we write about love and happily ever afters.  That we aren’t artists. But we spend just as long agonizing over our books. We put just as much love and blood and sweat and tears into them as literary writers. Our writing is our life. And yet so many dismiss us because…  Why? I haven’t figured out the reason yet.

I’ve read literary books. I read classics and all the great works people say you must read before you die and the best book I’ve ever read was still a romance novel.  I’m probably not the only one who has had that experience. According to the 2011 ROMStat Report romance sales increased to $1.368 billion last year. And that’s with a struggling economy. In fact it remains the largest share of the consumer market at 14.3 percent.

I never expect to be reviewed by the Times. I don’t expect to be any one’s next book club selection but I refused to feel slighted or be embarassed because I write books that make people happy.

Romance novels sell. It’s a simple as that. And to all the haters who rather be caught dead than to be seen with one of our books in your hands… We’ll see you on the best- seller list.

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12 thoughts on “You Write Romance Novels?”

  1. Here, here, Jamie!
    I’ve never figured out why romance is so far down on the list that it’s below cozy mysteries, scifi, fantasies and thrillers–and they all have happy endings too.
    Except maybe you alluded to the key in the beginning of your article and it’s the same reason Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner don’t get the same respect as their male counterparts.
    I suspect gender bias in the book industry.
    I think since romance is the largest market segment for fiction, we should be getting the highest advances–makes sense, right? More likelihood of a sell through, right? But no. Even young adult authors with first time books get higher advances on average.
    Because romance is dominated by women authors, the publishing industry management feels they can dominate us–and apparently they have for many years.
    No wonder more romance authors are early adopters of self-publishing than any other genre–by far!
    Thanks for giving me a chance to rant my response on this topic!

  2. Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…what a great point you’ve made here. I agree with Stephanie Q – I think we get the short end of the stick because of gender bias…or maybe it’s jealousy. When I was in college getting a degree in Creative Writing, professors told me my writing was “too commercial” like a “trashy romance” and not “literary” enough. It’s not surprising – I’m not a fan of literary fiction. I want people to understand what my story without working to figure it out. And I love romance – it’s my favorite genre. It think it came down to my professors being frustrated poets who couldn’t get published. Jealousy. That’s why they denigrated authors who experienced financial success. Stephen King – awful as far as those prof were concerned. Great in pretty much everybody else’s mind, whether or not you like his stories.

    1. Why is commercial bad? I heard somebody say that the only people who teach creative writing at the college level are bitter writers who couldn’t get published.

  3. This is something that drives me nuts. I spent half my career…well, NOT, because I am surrounded by literary types who look on romance with a special kind of disdain. My MIL calls it “pornography” (though “graph” implies pictures, doesn’t it?), and of course my academic friends…I don’t want to talk about it. So I tried to write lit fic, and it turned into a romance story. Then I tried a deep YA “issues” book, and it turned into a romance. Historical fiction? Turned into romance. Every genre I’ve tried… So it’s not a question of quality, it’s just what I write!! But gosh, when I announced to people that I was writing romance, I had to be involved in these “discussions.” “Why would a highly educated woman like yourself write in a genre that is degrading to women?” was one of the more common questions. Ahem. Most of the time, I would just hand them a book and say, “How is this degrading?” I would share Eloisa James/Mary Bly’s article on how romance IS feminist fiction, etc. I found that if I treated romance academically (because, really, I am a nerd), it kind of forced other people to as well, which totally caught them off guard. They weren’t prepared for a serious discussion where I actually had arguments. Ten years ago, I would have muttered and have been embarrassed that I was writing “subpar” stories, and tried to be someone I was not. But you know, no one is going to take me seriously unless I do so myself.

    I find romance to be uplifting, satisfying, and inspiring. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the literary fiction I’ve read. Thanks for the post, Jamie!

    1. It’s sad but I keep my writing pretty much a secret from the outside world just so I don’t have to defend my beloved genre. My mother hates romance novels. She thinks they are stupid,

  4. Loved your blog, Jamie. I think many, many people read romance novels but will not admit to it. Is it that they feel people will somehow think less of them because they love being swept off their feet by a handsome hero, drawn into another world or time, pulled into the story and lulled into a happily ever after ending? People crave a happily ever after ending because in life, they rarely get one. Why keep that such a secret? Not that’s the real question. The sales figures speak for themselves. Yeah! You preach it, sista! We’ll keep writing those romance novels and we’ll also keep reading them because I, for one, love those happily ever after endings.

  5. Some terrific replies here, Jamie. My problem is just the opposite. My new novel THE MOUNTING STORM has been accused of being too literary when I’ve establshed a flame-haired Irish female protagonist named Kate Conway who has a jolly good time between the sheets while putting scumbag CEOs away in her job as an investigative reporter. It’s a thriller that’s riddled with romance. But the last thing I want it to be called is literary fiction.

  6. Some very interesting commentary here, Jamie. My feeling is that there is a reader for every great story. I love the classics, have enjoyed thrillers and mysteries, and I love romance for all the obvious reasons. I think it’s sad that people can’t be open-minded enough to accept that creative expression in all its forms has value and is subjectively defined by the individual.

    One of my editors is a literary professor who graduated from Brown University. She is a retired high school English teacher and still teaches literary workshops. One of the difficulties for both of us in having her edit my work is that she admittedly doesn’t “get” or “enjoy” genre fiction. It took her quite some time to reconcile herself to accepting that my writing was not meant to be literary fiction and that it was geared to YA readers, but I really like having her input because she makes me look at the deeper meaning in my stories and forces me to ask the hard questions of my characters. We’ve come to a mutual understanding and work together to find balance that best serves the book.

    Hopefully, somewhere along the line, this silly delineation between commercial and literary fiction will become less important as the genre lines are challenged by self-publishers and the literary world becomes less male dominated. Thought-provoking post!

    1. I’m not sure that the delineation will ever go away because there will always people who will be snobs and look down on commercial fiction but as time goes by I hope writers will stop looking solely to literary critics for validation and care more about what their fans like.

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