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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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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.

Like many writers, I’ve been following the recent news about Cassie Edwards, historical romance author whose works contain many passages that are strikingly similar to those in various published works. The list includes but is not limited to nonfiction books about Native Americans, an article about black-footed ferrets in Defenders of Wildlife magazine and the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. You can read a summary of the story at The New York Times or read in detail at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, the blog which originally identified the issue.

I don’t want to discuss the specifics of this case or whether these examples constitute plagiarism. You can read the side by side excerpts for yourself at Smart Bitches and join in the discussion there. (You can also read about the authors of Edwards’s sources at Dear Author.)

What I’d like to talk about here at the Riskies are some of the issues raised during the ensuing discussion.

A number of people have made statements to the effect that if only Cassie Edwards had acknowledged her sources, everything would be OK. I think they are missing the point. As historical novelists we are supposed to do the research then weave the things we’ve learned into our stories through our characters’ POV and in our own author voices. IN OUR OWN WORDS.

Some bloggers are suggesting novelists should include footnotes and bibliographies. I actually agree with Signet’s statement that such things are not required in popular fiction the way they are in academic works. The point, again, is that in popular fiction we shouldn’t be copying anything. At most we might use a brief quote (attributed) to establish the tone at the beginning of a chapter, or have a character quote some period poetry or read a headline (again, this can be attributed right within the text).

Footnotes in romance? I don’t know how well it works but I can’t help thinking it would yank me as a reader right out of the story. I can’t help picturing a sexy scene in which the hero is removing the heroine’s corset, with a footnote to the effect that “description of heroine’s undergarments based on THE HISTORY OF UNDERCLOTHES by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington”. 🙂

Actually, I’ve seen a footnote in a romance, just once. A Loretta Chase book had a footnote cross-referencing another of her books in the same series. I don’t doubt it was some marketing person’s idea. Loretta Chase writes so well I can’t imagine her wanting to distract the reader with such a thing.

I’ve also heard that Susan Johnson uses footnotes for historical information in her novels. I haven’t read any of her work so I can’t comment on how well those footnotes would work for me. Some of her fans say they enjoy them.

History Geek that I am, I do love Author’s Notes that clarify which parts of a book are based on historical fact and list sources for further reading. I wrote such an Author’s Note in LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, listing CORAM’S CHILDREN by Ruth K. McClure as my source for details of London’s Foundling Hospital. For my current mess-in-progress, I’m likely to credit some of my sources for the Napoleonic Wars and the history of ballooning.

But to list every reference I use to create my Regencies? Nah. I’ve read so many books on the Regency, many of which cover similar ground, that by now I couldn’t say whether I gleaned well-known facts about the Regency from Carolly Erickson’s OUR TEMPTESTUOUS DAY or THE AGE OF ELEGANCE by Sir Arthur Bryant or a number of other histories of the period.

Thinking about it further, I do give credit to all my references in one way. Within the Beau Monde (RWA’s Regency chapter) we share an annotated bibliography called the Regency Realm. By now it has over 1000 entries for books, magazines and other sources we all use to create our stories. I know this because I’m the one who maintains it.

Anyway, do you think novelists have an obligation to credit all their sources and how? What do you think of the idea of footnotes in fiction? Bibliographies? Author’s Notes?

And before we start discussing this, a gentle caution that we keep the discussion polite. On other blogs discussion has occasionally crossed the line into personal attacks on individuals involved. I know most (probably all) of us know better but just had to say it anyway.


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