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(Created page with "<pre> This story first appeared in Whole Earth Review, #78, Winter 1993. Copyright is held by the author. E-mail to [email protected] for info ---------------------------...")
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This story first appeared in Whole Earth Review, #78, Winter 1993. Copyright is held by the author. E-mail to [email protected] for info ----------------------------------------------------------------- Augusta Wynde is a part-time ski instructor who -discovered romance novels when she was snowed in at a friend's cabin in Vermont. She is an avid cyclist and a collector of old postcards and turn-of-century bric-a-brac. She spends winters in Aspen and summers in Mill Valley. ----------------------------------------------------------------- LOVE'S QUIVERING ROSE In Defense of Romance Novels; by Augusta Wynde Three years ago I was a bright and cocky college student who had just gotten engaged. In this blissful state, I decided that writing a romance novel would be an amusing and lucrative project. How hard could it be? I'd read Barbara Cartland novels by the cartload when I was twelve, and I remembered them as engaging but simpleminded little formula pieces. I was a good writer - all my professors said so. The fact that I had never written so much as an adequate short story didnÕt slow me down for a minute; surely it would be no trouble to throw together four hundred pages of purple prose and heaving bodices. I gave myself six months. Three years later, just as blissful but slightly less cocky, I am married and have just finished the third or fourth rewrite of that first romance novel. Along the way, I met several hundred romance writers, ran thousands of pages past my critique group, and discovered there was more to romance than purple prose and heaving bodices. The most common misperception about romance is that it's about sex. What it's really about is conflict between the hero and heroine. The conflict may be external (she's Norman, he's Saxon), internal (he craves security, she risks her life every fifty pages), or a mix of both. The hairier the conflict, the more satisfying the bond between the lovers once they finally work it out. Whether the romance is a "short contemporary" (250-page novels set in the present) or a longer historical (they can run to 400 pages or more), the writer's goal is to make the reader feel, "If they could go through that, they can survive anything." Most romance writers pull this trick off without much formal training. Although many have some college education, I've never met a romance writer who had a degree in creative writing, or who had spent much time receiving the wisdom of literary elders at summer writing conferences. Romance writers place stories in True Confessions, not in "little magazines." Like most romance writers, I taught myself to write fiction with the help of critique groups, a handful of books on "how to write romance," and the monthly workshops or lectures put on by my local chapter of the RWA (Romance Writers of America). The RWA has mounted a campaign against what I had found the most embarrassing aspect of romance fiction: cliched, purple or just plain leaden prose. RWA holds contests and workshops to train writers to use modifiers sparingly, avoid the passive voice, and banish the cliche. The quality of writing in most romances now roughly equals that of commercial fiction in general - which is to say it still needs work, but it's come a long way. Most romance authors now write at least as well as (and often considerably better than) Dean R. Koontz, Tom Clancy, or David Brin. Despite this improvement, romance is still the smutty joke of the publishing industry, even when compared with other genres. This fact makes most romance writers a little defensive - there are only so many times you can hear what you write described as "that crap" before getting testy about it. Reading bad detective novels is considered mildly eccentric; reading romance novels is evidence of irreversible vapidity. The New York Times Book Review regularly reviews mysteries, and occasionally reviews science fiction, but never reviews romance; the very idea seems almost embarrassing in its silliness. Many people I meet are surprised that a "supposedly intelligent woman" could consider writing romance. There are several reasons romance is so widely and deeply scorned. Sexism is an important one; the fact that romance is read, written, and edited primarily by women makes it easier for people to find the genre frivolous and unintellectual. Romance is also denigrated for being unrealistic, formulaic, morally simplistic, and sexist. None of these makes much sense when examined carefully, because the real reason lies in something far more fundamental: what romance is about in the first place. Romance shares its lack of realism and its moral simplicity with all other genres. Spy novels and westerns typically show far less moral ambiguity or respect for realism than romance does. Romances are no more formulaic than most thrillers. And the notion that romance is sexist, considering the invisibility or flatness of women characters in much genre fiction, is laughable. The charge of sexism springs partly from the prevalence in the 1970s of lurid historical romances "bodice-rippers" in which a woman is raped by a hyper-dominant male, with whom she then falls in love. Bodice-rippers marked the point at which the sexual revolution hit the mainstream for women, and they show the usual frenzy and distortion that come after the lifting of long-term repression. Historical novels of the nineties treat violence against women very differently. (Sexual violence is virtually taboo in the short contemporary, although it can occasionally be included, always offstage, in what's known as a "social problem" book.) We still write about a few testosterone- addled heroes, and occasionally, especially in a novel set in a particularly violent period, they do rape our heroines. When they do so, they are typically driven by cultural and historical context. Invading conquerors rape; it is part of the job description, and such a fictional hero will usually find the matter distasteful but necessary. It's not politically correct, but it's not historically inaccurate, either. Whatever the plotline, rape in romance novels is not romantic; it is part of the seemingly irresolvable conflict. Romances that include rape form a small fraction (my guess would be well under 10 percent) of the total number of romances now published. The "bodice-ripper" still exists, and a few of them are quite popular, but they are no longer typical. In fact, a few romances have begun to treat sexual violence with something like the full weight it deserves, and the genre has seen both heroines and heroes who have been victims of sexual abuse. Romance's quest for respect has spurred a recent publicity campaign mounted by Romantic Times, or RT as it is usually called. RT is both a significant trade journal for writers and the most important fan magazine for romance readers. Its editors often take the position - to my mind a doomed and foolish one - that romance is "just as good" as "literary" fiction, and that Johanna Lindsay and Nora Roberts are the natural successors to Jane Austen and the Bront‘s. (I'd prefer to see romance considered an acceptable option for light reading, as is the rest of genre fiction, rather than as incontrovertible evidence of the reader's brainlessness.) As might be expected from a magazine that considers Wuthering Heights equivalent to Sweet Savage Lies, RT suffers from a lack of taste. They can be, in fact, downright tacky. They conduct an annual "writers' conference" (actually a kind of carnival for writers and fans, something like a science- fiction convention) at which authors dress like Scarlett O'Hara, or fleshier versions of Joan Collins. Male cover models smile obligingly and pose for hundreds of photos, often cuddling (or in a clinch with) fans and writers. Despite RT's misinformed literary pretensions, it does have a certain trailer-park charm. But that pink-flamingo sensibility triggers an intense class bias in the very people RT is trying, with a strange reverse success, to reach. Flaunting a male cover model named Fabio as their poster boy, RT has given interviews not just to People but also to Forbes and The Wall Street Journal. Predictably enough, these middlebrow publications, anxious not to be seen empathizing with such proletarian types, sneer at romance with considerable vigor. These articles, rooted in disdain and class insecurity, don't understand what romance is about and can't explain why it's important. But a single tacky PR campaign doesn't explain why romance is undeniably less respectable even than horror or science fiction, its most-disdained cousins. The chief reason lies, I think, at the heart of the genre. All genre fiction focuses on larger-than-life situations, but romance uses heightened emotion-al intensity, not action, to grip the reader. Quotes pulled out of context from romances (Forbes used: "I'm hungry . . . but not for food") strike the casual reader as being luridly overheated. And yet "I'm hungry but not for food" is exactly the sort of banal thing people say to one another while courting. Reading a romance quote out of context is like seeing a naked person on the subway - an awkward and inappropriate intimacy with a stranger. If the naked person has some cellulite and a few blemishes (as does most of the prose in genre fiction), the experience is that much more embarrassing. This intimacy and emotional intensity make romance fundamentally different from other genres. Romance as a rule pays better attention to character development than any other genre - you need to know a character pretty well before you'll accept "I'm hungry but not for food." It's true that a great deal of romance is sentimental in the worst sense Ñ it uses cheap, unfair tactics to wring emotional involvement from the reader. But a few writers go deeply and honestly enough into their characters to create a genuine spark of empathy. Romance is often described by readers as addictive; I think it's the potential for this powerful tug of empathy that forms the addictive core of romance. Genre fiction is something you "get" or you don't. But romantic fiction plays a major and satisfying role in the lives of millions of working women. Before you write these women off as shallow consumerists or victims of Cheez Whiz Culture, I hope you'll remember your brainy ex-girlfriend who devours true crime novels, or your brother who loves Dostoevsky and Stephen King, or even that slightly lumpy naked lady on the subway.