How much should we care?

Last week, in a new installment to the Cassie Edwards saga, Paul Tolme spoke out at Newsweek about the experience of having words from his Defenders of Wildlife article on black-footed ferrets used as dialogue in a romance novel. He’s clearly delighted that the resulting publicity has caused a spike in donations and ferret adoptions. However, he’s also upset some romance readers and writers by his use of terms like “trashy romance novel” and “standard romance-novel schlock”, for which he has since apologized.

It brings up the question of how much should we care when people mock the romance genre.

I certainly understand those who feel upset about it. Yet I can’t personally blame Paul Tolme. How could he resist such material? And he hasn’t exactly had a good introduction to the genre, has he? There are just too many people who share this view of romance (some of them even my relatives and friends). I just don’t have the energy to be angry with all of them.

What I do think is that too much righteous indignation can make us look foolish. Maybe we should just enjoy what we read and write and not worry about what people think.

But on the other hand, I’ve met too many women who might enjoy romance and won’t even try one, perhaps for fear of being thought foolish or frivolous. Especially if one of them admits to loving Jane Austen and/or the Brontes, I suspect there are romance novels that might appeal to her. If we managed to somehow tap into that market, it could lead to more sales of the sort of books I want to read and write.

So anyway, I do care and have always paid attention to advice coming through RWA and elsewhere on how to improve the image of the romance genre.

Sometimes we are advised to quote statistics (the ones like romance accounts for 50% of mass market fiction sales). Some people will be impressed by the size of the business even if they don’t think they’d care for the product. On the other hand, that can be like telling people they should be impressed with McDonald’s food because of the X brazillion burgers sold.

The problem is I don’t really feel comfortable trying to defend the entire romance genre. Some books are pretty indefensible. The covers are sometimes cheesy. Sometimes the contents are, too. (There are also some pretty cheesy covers on some wonderful books and vice versa, but that’s a whole different blog post.) There is usually some truth to any stereotype.

Anyway, I don’t think indignation or a blanket endorsement of the genre are the right responses. If someone is rude (like the teen who walked up to me at a bookstore signing and said “Eeeewwww, romance!”) I smile and tell her she is entitled to her opinion. If someone is more polite and seems open-minded, I talk about the variety that exists within the romance genre.

I have occasionally tried to “convert” friends to romance. Not that that is the right word, actually. I wouldn’t want someone to try to convert me to reading horror, for instance. (Nothing against horror, I enjoyed the one Stephen King novel I read. But it’s just not my favorite flavor.) What I’d really like to do is to get more people to try romance.

Last year, I got Julia Ross’s THE WICKED LOVER onto my book group’s reading list. I thought her use of language and her characterizations would appeal to them. However, most members didn’t read it. It could be in part because it was the December book and everyone was busy (no one read the previous December book either and we’ve since decided to skip the month). But I don’t know if it would have flown in any other month.

I’m at peace with that. I can’t change the world and I did get one member into romance. She started out with Julia Ross but has moved on to many new authors. I’m happy about that small gain and I’ll continue recommending good romance novels–especially those by the Riskies. 🙂

So how do you feel when people diss romance? Do you think it matters? What do you do about it?


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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I have mixed feelings about it. I had a friend who once dismissed the books that I read as those ‘crap books.’ Of course, ironically, since then she’s had two romances published. She still refers to romance as trashy even though I’m sure many of her readers from her earlier books now read her mainstream fiction. I’ve given up defending what I read. I know that I read more than romance, and I have no qualms about sitting on the train reading my Eloisa James, or Julia Quinn. And yes, the industry does itself no favors with the titles and covers they sometimes use, but then again, marketing tells them that women love those covers and those Harlequin Presents titles. The best thing that we can do is keep writing great books. Of course, it would help if we could get Oprah on the bandwagon but I can’t see that happening anytime soon, although I don’t know if she’s ever actually read one.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Nora Roberts surely feels like the first wave of the feminism movement. To paraphrase software companies and why they go after even the tiniest infringment of its copyright in the poorest countries: If you don’t make a big public song-n-dance about it, then you’re saying that your rights aren’t worth anything and as a result, bigger and bigger groups will copy/steal, and it’s the latter the companies are most worried about.

We can afford to not care much about the political juggernaut, because come November we’re going to go to the polls if we want to. A few decades ago, it wasn’t so.

We’re able to read and what whatever we care about and not have to worry what the goverment thinks, it rarely censors and bans books and tells us what is right and proper.

In other words, yes, it matter what Paul Tolme says about the romance novel.

…he hasn’t exactly had a good introduction to the genre…

How can he bruit about something he knows nothing about? And if he’s going to do it, he should be prepared to be held accountable for his opinions.

Cara King
14 years ago

There is usually some truth to any stereotype.

Elena, I do see that you qualified your statement above by saying “usually,” but I guess the way I see it, this sort of reasoning is kind of heading in the wrong direction.

For example:

I know some folks whose response to the ferret guy’s extremely sarcastic diss was “as long as there are romance novels that are bad/trashy/cheesy/poorly written/whatever, we really have no right to complain when people insult the genre.”

But think of it this way. If someone wrote an editorial in Newsweek talking about how stupid, lazy and shallow women are, that they’re ignorant publicity sluts who think they’re above the law, we wouldn’t all say “well, as long as Paris Hilton continues to act the way she does, we have no right to complain when someone says all women are stupid.”

No, we think folks should be smart enough to realize that not all women are the same, and fair enough not to pretend they don’t realize it just to get a laugh.

(Obviously, there are certain comedians and radio DJs who do just that, but Newsweek isn’t running their editorials.)

Or, how about this: for almost every racial or ethnic stereotype, one can come up with at least one member of that group who is or has done whatever the charge is. But we don’t think that makes it okay to stereotype the whole group whenever we read about one member of the group doing whatever it is…

So though I agree that, in person, a low-key approach is often best, I don’t think letting the matter drop is for the best, whatever the forum.

And I think that the concerted efforts of RWA and some other people & groups to counteract misconceptions and stereotypes, and to challenge certain statements, has clearly changed how many journalists talk about romance.


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Cara, I understand what you’re saying but I do think the analogy breaks down a bit (as all analogies do).

I know lots of people who would never stereotype people based on race/religion/sexual persuasion, etc…, but who will believe the stereotypes about romance novels.

The way I see it (and yes it is sad) the concept that romance novels are all trashy is so ingrained in the culture that many people don’t question that assumption. And well intentioned people who will try to unlearn early prejudices when dealing with people of all different sorts are *not* necessarily going to make the same sort of effort with respect to a fiction genre by say, going to the library and checking out a proper sampling of books.

Which is why I can’t be angry with individuals. All I can do is to try to present romance in a better light and suggest books they may wish to try.

I think it’s better to focus our energies on the culture in general, by getting as much positive press for romance as possible but not in a defensive manner. Nora Roberts does this beautifully and she has done more to advance the image of the genre than any other person I can think of.

I just don’t exactly have that sort of clout, though, so I do what I can on an individual level. 🙂

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

Like Elizabeth, my feelings are mixed. However, for everything loved by one group there is always another group who hates it. Everyone can’t be pleased so in the end we have to please ourselves and our readers. We have to continue writing quality stories and not allow our stories to become part of the “trashy novel” stereotype.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Oh hey, I forgot to mention this here, but yesterday was Byron’s 220th birthday (had he been alive).

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

One thing that I’ve learned the hard way is not to tear down the tastes of others in order to build my own up. I’ve seen this a lot with romance vs. litfic, and I have to confess I used to do it myself. I’m exaggerating, but it goes something like this: “Oh, yeah? Well the books I read are HAPPY and HOPEFUL, not all dark and depressing, and, besides, they have a way larger market share, so there!”

After butting heads with enough friends who are primarily litfic readers, I eventually decided that they’re not really looking for the same experience that I am when they open a book, so we’re never going to like the same stories. And that’s fine, and it’s wonderful that the publishing world is varied enough to provide plenty of reading material for all of us. So I’ve stopped running down litfic.

I do, however, stand up for my own tastes. I’ll let the occasional “trashy romance novel” comment slide, especially if it’s tongue-in-cheek. (And I love the Smart Bitches blog.) But if someone is mocking romance or any other genre I read, questioning the taste or intelligence of its readers, etc., I always speak up and ask them if their comments apply to me, because I read (and write) “those books.”

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

After I sold and word got out around work that I wrote romance novels, one of my coworkers said, “You write trash??” I smiled and said, “I write Romance.” She apologized. (Several of my work friends were surprised that they liked my books.)

I think it is important that we not be defensive, that we write the very best books we can, and that we be proud of what we do.

Cara King
14 years ago

“Defending” romance in one-on-one situations and doing so in a more public sphere (such as newspapers) are, I think, mostly similar, though with a few differences…

In face-to-face situations, I tend to choose my behavior (and emotion) mostly based on what I perceive is the intent of the person insulting the genre.

The way I see it, someone who says something demeaning could be doing it (if you’ll allow me to number things in obsessive fashion):

1) with malice
2) in a teasing manner (they may or may not think badly of romance, but their intent is not to wound); or
3) out of total ignorance (i.e. they assume all romance authors call their own work “trash” and write a novel a week purely for the money…)

Now, I admit that I’m a bit of an argumentative type. (What? That’s not news?) Indeed, friends of the family have made many remarks about the entertainment value of watching the Kings engage in hours of passionate debate.

So I admit that with type #1 (i.e. someone speaking with malice) I may end up getting in a debate with them. But, FWIW, I am quite articulate when I’m angry, and quite a decent arguer, so I don’t feel I do our genre any harm by seeming defensive or overly emotional. (Actually, I think I argue more like a guy. Todd, correct me if I’m wrong!)

Luckily, I have rarely met people who’ve said rude things with malice.

For those who are teasing (#2) — I find that most of them will back off if one shows that one doesn’t laugh at such jokes. These folks don’t bother me. If the conversation is such that I can work in a fact or two that may make them rethink their assumptions, then I do, but in a friendly manner.

Occasionally one meets a teasing person who won’t back off — I haven’t met this in a long time, but when I was in my mid 20’s I’d sometimes encounter it (some guys just think they’re so funny, and their chosen script is for them to tease young women about their silliness until the young women giggle or get cutely mad. Sorry, not me.) These folks I try to engage in *rational* (nonemotional) debate. Eventually, not getting the reaction they want, they’ll at least go away.

If I meet folks who say things in total ignorance, I like to challenge their assumptions, in a very open and friendly manner. I find these folks don’t take it at all amiss, and I feel I’m spreading knowledge through the world, bit by bit…

Okay, wow, I *do* like to talk at length, don’t I? Sorry… 🙂


Cara King
14 years ago

BTW, here’s what I think is a nice, non-defensive response to one kind of remark:

Snob: “Aren’t you embarrassed about your book?” or “Don’t you feel bad about about writing such trash?” or the like.

Author: (interested, smiling expression, like someone looking forward to a good discussion): “what aspect of my book didn’t work for you?”

To which I think the response that immediately jumps into the snob’s mind is “I didn’t read your book.” And then, whether they say it or not, it should make them wonder at least for a moment whether they should be criticizing a book they haven’t read…

Plus, the author has not given any sign that she’s either (a) defensive (no, she’d love to hear what part of her book didn’t work for you!) or (b) full of shame about her genre.


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Cara, that last was a really good example. I’ll have to remember it. I wish I could argue well on the spot. I usually think of the clever comeback a day after I need it. So like Mr. Collins, I prepare lines ahead of time for such eventualities. 🙂

Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

I’m not a very mainstream romance writer and I’ve had extraordinarily lovely covers so far (fwiw, and I suspect it’s worth quite a lot). That said, I have to tell you that I’ve never had romance dissed to my face. My friends outside the romance-writing community aren’t romance readers, but the assumption is that we all take our guilty pleasures somewhere — mystery, reality TV, porn, sci-fi, obsessive Buffy-izing; most of my friends read my books and enjoy the voice and the sex.

I did have a bookseller give me the fish-eye about it once, but that’s one out of dozens of booksellers I know (since my husband is one). Maybe it’s because I’m so clearly a hyper-intellected nerd that no one gives me a hard time on this… Or maybe it’s because so many people I know would kill to finish a novel, no less publish one.

I guess my theory is that romance doesn’t threaten people who are secure in their intellects and their tastes — who are likely to be people who love to read whatever it is they read. A minority, alas…

Cara King
14 years ago

I wish I could argue well on the spot.

I totally agree, it’s easier to come up with great responses ahead of time! (Or after the fact.) 🙂

One so-so response I gave once, a couple years ago, after I mentioned to a guy I was in a play with that I had a romance coming out:

Him: [snicker] aren’t those the books that have, like, [snicker] fifty euphemisms for the male genitalia? [guffaw]

Me [rather startled, for some reason not having expected that particular response]: “My book doesn’t have any sex in it.” (Said without heat.)

IMHO it wasn’t a great response, in that it may be taken to mean “lots of other books are like that, but not mine”; but not a bad response, in that it’s one way of saying “you have no idea what you’re talking about.”



Elena Greene
14 years ago

I guess my theory is that romance doesn’t threaten people who are secure in their intellects and their tastes — who are likely to be people who love to read whatever it is they read. A minority, alas…

I suspect so, at least based on my experiences. I’ve had romance dissed by random passersby at booksignings, my relatives and even a few friends.

The one that amazes me is the friend who is an English teacher, who has bought and read all my books and recommended them to her friends, who always says things like, “But Elena, your books are not like those other romance novels.”

I’ve tried telling her that if she likes my books, she’d love books by X,Y and Z, but it never works.

Maybe this is why I’ve had to become philosophical about this issue.

14 years ago

Yes, but Elena, that last bit about your friend getting people to read your books and their reaction to them is exactly how we erase the stereotype of romance novels as trash – one reader at a time, one novel at a time. I know. It is really slow, but hey, so is evolution!

I know Oprah said she would never interview a romance writer or put a romance novel on her bookclub list. She said she thought they gave women unrealistic expectations. Gee, I am sorry her expectations are so low AND that she thinks we are all that stupid. We KNOW the books are fiction, that is why we read them! AND, why shouldn’t we set our expectations high? Don’t we deserve that?? I did! I got it and if my DH had not died I would be living my HEA in spades. I won’t settle for less than what I had because I deserve the knight in shining armor!

When I was singing overseas, my cousin would come to hear my concerts when I popped back across the pond for a trip home. He always made fun of opera and one night said “I know you are having fun, but when are you going to get a REAL job?” I said “Well, gee, they pay me real money so I think I HAVE a real job!”

I am insulted when people demean the romance genre but I usually consider the source. Nine times out of ten those remarks are born of “

Or just plain meanness

The only one of those I can work to change is ignorance. Every good novel, well crafted and moving is a step in that direction!

14 years ago

Cara wrote:

Actually, I think I argue more like a guy. Todd, correct me if I’m wrong!

You are right, as always, dear!


Elena Greene
14 years ago

I know Oprah said she would never interview a romance writer or put a romance novel on her bookclub list. She said she thought they gave women unrealistic expectations. Gee, I am sorry her expectations are so low AND that she thinks we are all that stupid.

Doglady, a possible defense for Oprah here. I don’t know her reasoning for what she said, but maybe the unrealistic expectations part comes from the fact that many (most?) romance heroes are not only brave and loving but also tall, handsome, athletic and wealthy. Maybe Oprah was saying that in real life the good men aren’t always the handsomest or richest. But OTOH she should give us credit for being intelligent enough to recognize the fantasy elements as the frosting not the cake.

14 years ago

As fans, we obviously care when someone disses the genre, but in the end, no matter what you’re a fan, it happens. There will always be people who love something, people who hate that something, and people who will never actually try it to see it for themselves. It’s a sad state, but it’s for just about anything out there, not just romances. Pooh.


Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

I figure that no writer anywhere is as undervalued as Joss Whedon, and if he doesn’t waste time trying to get the respect he deserves, I’m sure not gonna.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I’ve always thought the argument that if you enjoy Bronte and/or Austen you’ll enjoy romance rather dubious. Why? Other than superficialities of setting and the fact that all of the above have a love story at the core?

What romance lacks in comparison is the subversiveness and daring that’s also at the core of Bronte and Austen. Possibly we need more dissing from within, because as long as romance includes prose as bad as Ms. Edward’s, then we have every right to be embarrassed by being classed as romance writers.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I’ve always thought the argument that if you enjoy Bronte and/or Austen you’ll enjoy romance rather dubious. Why? Other than superficialities of setting and the fact that all of the above have a love story at the core?

I think the last element–the love story–is very important. Often the same women won’t express the same excitement about other period literature. Or I see that they gravitate toward mainstream fiction with romantic elements. That’s when I suspect they enjoy romance but will indulge only when it’s packaged inside something more “respectable.”

Of course I don’t expect these more intelligent readers to go for just any romance; I’m very careful with recommendations.

Re dissing from within, I think there’s too much generic dissing from without already. Unless by that you mean intelligent criticism, which I’d agree there could be more of.

Cara King
14 years ago

Janet wrote:

as long as romance includes prose as bad as Ms. Edward’s, then we have every right to be embarrassed by being classed as romance writers.

Well, I’m afraid I feel the exact opposite, and strongly. To me, that’s like saying “as long as McDonalds exists, it makes sense to be ashamed of being classed as a restaurateur.” The two really have nothing to do with each other, and people see that…I just wish they saw it with books!

And I don’t think Meryl Streep should be embarrassed to call herself an actor just because Britney Spears and Madonna have done really bad acting jobs in the past. (Why should a genre or field be judged by its worst members, rather than its best?)


14 years ago

Pam Rosenthal wrote:

I figure that no writer anywhere is as undervalued as Joss Whedon, and if he doesn’t waste time trying to get the respect he deserves, I’m sure not gonna.

Huge Joss Whedon fan, here! But I’m not sure he feels undervalued–I saw a clip from a speech he gave at ComicCon, which consisted almost entirely of cheering from the audience.

Of course, if you mean undervalued by literary critics and suchlike, you may be right. Romance is not the only genre to be unthinkingly bashed by people who know nothing about it. But Romance does seem to come it for more of it than any other genre.


Elena Greene
14 years ago

The way I read it, Cara and Janet are both right. Yes, it’s wrong that people judge the romance genre by one bad example. But that is the way it is.

At least I think we’re in agreement that writing, reading and recommending good books it the best defense.

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