My yearly rant and more of the same…

One of our best-known newspapers wants to do a story for St. Valentine’s Day on romance writers’ bedrooms. Now it is for the Home section, but even so…read the whole entertaining mess at Smart Bitches.

Why do romance writers (and by implication their readers) suffer so in the media? Why are these stereotypes still around? Can we really keep blaming this pink old lady and her dogs? [insert mental pic of Barbara Cartland and her Pekinese here, because Blogger will not let me do the real thing. Thanks]

Here’s my theory. It’s the cult of the storyteller. This is why I find the Cassie Edwards/plagiarism case is so richly ironic. It didn’t matter that Ms. Edwards’s style left something to be desired (to put it mildly) because she was a storyteller. She could spin a tale, tell a story–actually that was debatable–but a lot of people thought so. Somewhere, somehow, a divide developed between those who cared about words and language and those who thought the story mattered the most, when in fact one carries the other.

And now suddenly the words do matter in romance. Unfortunately, they matter because the words in question belonged to someone else.

[mentally insert a fab fairy story illustration here.] The honorable, pre-literate craft of the storyteller relies on the linking catch-phrases–

a year and a day
once upon a time
as I walked out one midsummer morning

they lived happily ever after–

that blend the familiar to the new and unexpected. The mass-market storyteller is allowed, if not encouraged by the industry, to rely on a certain amount of repetition and same-ness; but because storytelling is not a special gather round the fire and eat some more of the mammoth Ug caught occasion, that may result in cliche, staleness, sameness.

So what does this have to do with the lady in pink with the fluffy dogs and diamonds? Why doesn’t romance get respect? It’s not because romance writers are storytellers vs. wordsmiths, or whatever terms you want to use, it’s that romance keeps the divide wide and deep by its insistence that the story is the most important thing, and the only important thing. It is in fact rather like this post where I can’t put the pix in because Blogger is having a bad hair day or something. You know they should be there but they’re not. We know that romance is such a huge market that you can have all sorts of romances and all sorts of writing, but sadly the cliches about the genre and its creators prevail.

It’s a pity it took a drastic case of plagiarism for us to be reminded that the words are important too.

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Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

you go, Janet.

Nor am I fond of the throbby chorus of “but we NEED stories” (crescendo-ing up on the NEED). Even when it’s true, this argument is overused, sometimes to provide a free pass for bad prose.

Still, I think you need to be more precise. What exactly is the link between “repetition and sameness” and bad prose? Perhaps the mindset encourages lazy prose, a kind of tuneless humming of familiar old themes…

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Interesting theory, Janet.

If I think of myself and other romance authors I know, I’d say you’re wrong. Most of us are both storytellers and wordsmiths and appreciate both aspects. I personally think story comes first but it’s definitely not the only thing. FWIW I don’t think I’ve ever read a good story in clunky prose. A competent storyteller learns her craft enough to write cleanly if not as beautifully as a Julia Ross or Judith Ivory.

And all our words matter.

But when I think of readers in general, maybe you’re right. They are reading romance for a certain type of story, a certain type of emotional experience, and some of them can (apparently) tolerate some pretty clunky prose.

However, I think there are bigger reasons why romance gets dissed.

Many people are disturbed by the power of love and sexual attraction. A good way to cover that up is to joke about it.

The other thing is there have been too many romances published with horrifically tasteless covers and yes, sometimes the contents have been just as bad.

Then again, maybe it’s the pink lady and her pugs.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Personally, I can’t bear clunky prose. It’s the literary equivalent of driving over a road full of potholes. OTOH, I don’t like overly showy, “literary” prose, either. Either one distracts me from immersion in the story.

That said, I do appreciate an elegantly turned phrase. The joy of some of my favorite authors–e.g. Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, CS Lewis–is that I’m simultaneously lost in the stories and dazzled by the smooth perfection of their voices.

(I’m about to ramble a bit here, since your post reminded me in a tangential way about some of my thoughts on the Cassie Edwards controversy.)

My WIP isn’t a romance; it’s an alternate history Napoleonic-era adventure story with obvious kinship to Sharpe, Aubrey/Maturin, Temeraire, and the like. Writing it, I feel a tension between wanting to create something unique that no other writer could’ve thought of and being part of a tradition, paying homage to those who’ve gone before me and writing stories that will remind readers of other books they already know and love.

And I had a realization: I’m writing star quilts. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.) Though I can’t sew to save my life, I’m the daughter and granddaughter of expert quilters, and star quilts are my favorite pattern family. My mom made us one for my wedding, and it’s on our bed right now. I don’t have an online photo of it handy, but here are some images of star quilts:




Those quilts are more beautiful because they’re following an old tradition, not less. And the fact that they’re not 100% unique doesn’t make them less artistic or less beautiful. And somehow that analogy made me realize it’s not either/or, and that I shouldn’t worry so much about being too derivative just because no matter how I try I can’t make my plots and character types 100% unique and new. Following a traditional art form is both/and–you show your uniqueness WHILE you honor the pattern.

Cara King
14 years ago

Well, as someone who’s belonged to RWA for years, been a member of seven different chapters, and spent a good amount of time being a contest strumpet and judge and critique group participant, I think I can say that RWA members are very into the words. (I don’t know any of the romance writers who are outside RWA, so I have no idea if they are too!)

Judges and critiquers and craft article writers and seminar speakers in RWA of course don’t always agree on what defines good vs bad prose (or, indeed, anything else), but believe me, there’s a deafening chorus of “make your prose more active” and “use the five senses more” and “avoid such cliches” and “too purple” and “tighten it up” and “use fewer adverbs and adjectives” and “use stronger verbs” and “try a closer POV” and “use shorter/longer/more varied/less complex sentences.”

And putting that together with editors’ constantly stated desire for authors with distinctive voices, I think occasionally the stress is too much on the prose, and too little on creating great characters. (E.g. the manuscript that’s been workshopped to death, is very clean and tight and lifeless.)

I do think, however, that romance (along with all other popular fiction) works best with prose that doesn’t stop one cold, that doesn’t send one to a dictionary or literary encyclopedia twice a page to decipher words and allusions that can’t be understood by most readers even from context, that doesn’t dance and sing and scream “look at me!” instead of telling the story.

For instance, I once read a novel in which no one ever opened a door. Oh no. Too easy. Too cliche. No, everyone “peeled back” the dang doors. Every time. And each time I read the phrase, I was pulled out of the story, and reminded “here’s a clever author.”

Not that I think one can’t write entertaining popular fiction and also be a stylist! IMHO, Barbara Metzger and Neal Stephenson are two genre authors who make words dance, but whose dancing words never interfere with the story.

And as for why romance is so often sneered at? I think the answer is simple. Any popular entertainment created by women and for women has always been looked down upon.

Add that to the fact that a few feminist scholars in the 70’s and 80’s declared romance fiction to be a tool of the establishment to keep women down, and for years few educated women wanted to admit they read romance. (Or, if they did admit it, they often denigrated it at the same time, e.g. “sure, when I’m too tired to read a good book, I’ll read trashy romances.”)

There are horribly-written books in any genre, but it’s always romance that has to defend itself against one out-of-context passage read out loud on a talk show and giggled at by illiterates who haven’t read anything since the Grapes of Wrath Cliff Notes in twelfth grade.

And yes, Elena, I agree that the covers don’t help…but science fiction isn’t constantly ridiculed for its decades of covers featuring busty babes in chain-mail bikinis menaced by giant bugs (covers which usually had nothing to do with the story, just like some of romance’s worst covers.)


Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

Okay, I just read the letter on SBTB from the Post and have to say–huh? They don’t want “steretypes” but they DO want heart-shaped beds and boas? AND decluttering? I’m lucky if I get my bed made and the dirty laundry picked up in the morning. Not to mention the hair-covered cat beds, and teetering piles of research books. Oh, and the Hello Kitty fuzzy slippers. Soooo romantic.

As for the old prose vs story thing–I think you are completely right, Janet, in saying one drives the other. I just put aside a novel that Shall Not Be Named, it had a great premise and story set-up and I could not stand the writing style. It constantly pulled me out of the narrative. I need both! And they should not be mutually exclusive.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Cara said what I wanted to say (only better).

We’ve all read sci fi, fantasy, mystery, suspense, and — yes– literary fiction that is poorly written, and we’ve all read romance that has prose that sings.

Nobody judges other genres by their worst writers. Why are we doing this to Romance?

I agree with Cara that it is because we are mainly women writing stories for women about love. Not only that, but the stories end up happy.

And we contribute to the stereotypes by naming our blogs things like, “Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books.” I mean, we-who-love-romance get the joke, but obviously the major media folks take the name at face value.

One more thing…when I play Freerice.com, there are many words I know merely because I have read tons and tons of Regency romances.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

A couple more things that occurred to me…

The emphasis on story over words is prevalant within most genre fiction, not just romance. I think it’s part of why serious literary types won’t read science fiction or horror, for instance. (I think they’ll slum it with a mystery, maybe because mysteries focus more on cleverness than emotion). But other genres don’t get the wholesale abuse that romance does. I think it goes back to the emphasis on love.

The other thought I had is that part of romance’s bad rap could stem from an over-emphasis on words, writers trying to be too clever and crossing over into the absurd. Using things like “snowy mounds” rather than a simple perfectly good word like “breasts”.

14 years ago

I really like Susan’s quilt analogy. Quilting is a time-honored art handed down from mother to daughter. In the culture of my ancestors (Cherokee and Creek) storytelling is another art that is passed down from one generation to another. Many of these stories are the same ones told over and over. It is the ability of the storyteller to draw each individual listener into the story, to immerse them in it, to make them want to live in it and never leave that is the real gift. As in all arts, some people are more gifted than others.

Frankly there have been some popular mainstream fiction books that everyone told me I was supposed to like that just did not speak to me at all. No matter how compelling the story if the words don’t sing there is no magic, no connection between the storyteller and the listener.

I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said she would never have a romance novel as he book club selection because she felt they made women set impossibly high standards for love in the real world. I hate to tell her, but we women are pretty smart. We know the difference between fantasy and reality. And you know what? What’s wrong with setting impossibly high standards? I’m worth impossibly high standards. I was so lucky when I married my husband. He was a gentleman of honor who loved me like a romance novel hero. I was only 35 when he died and 14 years later I have not remarried because I refuse to settle for anything less than what I had.

In reading romance novels I have learned a great deal about history, geography, a thousand other topics. I have been enlightened, provoked, made to think, inspired, entertained and had my heart lightened when it was very, very heavy.

I offer those who disparage romance novels a challenge. Go into any house in America and see how many have a copy of War and Peace (insert any great and worthy work here) and how many have at least one romance novel in them. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Oh, doglady, you were only 35 when your hero-husband died? that is terrible!!!! Such a tragedy.

14 years ago

Yes, Diane. We buried him on his 33rd birthday. But I had 14 fabulous years with him, so I count myself lucky in many, many ways. My life is richer for having known him.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

big hugs, doglady.

Cara King
14 years ago

Oh, Pam, that’s so sad. I’m so sorry. But how wonderful that you had fourteen lovely years together.

And I totally agree with you about high standards. I’ve known women who like to complain about their husbands, and men in general, saying lots of things like “men always do such and such” and “you’ll never see a man do this or that,” tutting and shaking their heads. And if one ever mentions that one’s husband or boyfriend does do whatever it is (clean the litterbox, talk about feelings, put the toilet seat down), they don’t want to hear it, because then they couldn’t castigate all men, and where’s the fun in that?

But there’s as much variety in men as in women, which is an enormous amount. Romance does exist, and good, loving, noble men exist, and some of us are fortunate enough to know some of them.


14 years ago

Janet, you are provocative as always. But basically, I disagree with almost everything you said. 🙂 (Would it make any difference, though, if I said I’ll defend to the death your right to say it?? 🙂

I was a science fiction fan before I ever read a romance. Science Fiction comes in for its share of bashing for putting neat ideas above story and story above writing. And it’s easy to find examples of SF with horribly clunky prose. But it’s not hard at all to find SF with prose as good as most mainstream fiction, and not even hard to find prose that can stand up with the best that is written today.

Then I started dating a romance writer, and starting reading romance–steered by her towards authors with good stories and good writing. I enjoyed them, and I’ve been reading romance ever since. But I’ll tell you, if you are a man who reads romance, you sometimes need a pretty thick skin. Lots of men unthinkingly dismiss all romance as trash in spite of having never read a single one. But the worst is that many women do the same. And even some women who do read romance act as if they are ashamed of it.

The one thing that you said that I did agree with is that good writing is important, not just a good story. Of course! But I don’t know many serious readers who would disagree with that. It seems a bit of a straw man. As a genre, we should celebrate our best, not focus exclusively on our worst.


Keira Soleore
14 years ago

I had such a laugh over that very pink heart-shaped bed with a canopy. Say, cheese.

To use SusanW’s metaphor, I don’t mind driving over the potholes of clunky prose if the scenery (story) is jaw-dropping gorgeous. Then again, there are authors like Salman Rushdie who create vast crevases with their “cleverness.” Um, no to that, no matter the awesome scenery.

In other news, I’m back from my trip.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

A big giant hug to doglady for her wonderful story of her husband and the tragedy that struck them much too quickly.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“I’ve known women who like to complain about their husbands, and men in general,”

I know a woman who complains constantly about her husband, then she turns right around and asks me why I’m not married! I have to answer, “I know–how can I resist when you make it sound like so much fun?” 🙂 I refuse to date or marry someone just to BE married. Your story, Doglady, shows how important it is to have standards. I’m so sorry for your loss.

Cara King
14 years ago

In other news, I’m back from my trip.

Yay, Keira! We missed you!


Georgie Lee
14 years ago

Have you seen the “Little Britain” romance writer spoof “Dame Sally Markum”? It has all the cliches including the bon-bons and the fluffy white dog. You Tube has clips.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Perhaps the mindset encourages lazy prose, a kind of tuneless humming of familiar old themes… I think part of it has to be the sheer volume of stuff out there, and the debasement of storytelling from something specialized and magic and slightly dangerous to something that’s just part of everyday life. And the normalization of storytelling isn’t all bad–literacy is a side effect, and a very important one–but I think we’ve lost something, too: The sense of adventure and of going into dark, exciting places of the mind and emotions and experiencing transformation.
Did that answer it?

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