Saturday, July 23, 2011

How to Handle A Romance Writer

The romance genre in commercial, popular fiction has been attracting considerable criticism in recent months. Most of that has been directed at the more risqu̩ end of the romance spectrum but the bad press filters through to all the many and varied categories. The book, Such Stuff as Dreams, sheds some light on how we benefit from fiction of all descriptions Рwell worth a look for the pundits who rage at romance.

Last month, at a writers association’s national conference, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Media Handling. This month, I had an opportunity to use what I had learned. The principle issue discussed in the workshop was how to handle adverse interviews.

This did make me wonder if crime writers, fantasy and science fiction authors, mystery and western storytellers ever have to fend off the attacks that romance authors are currently having to defend themselves against. Maybe some of you can answer that for me.

Until then, I’m assuming you don’t – or at least not in the way that romance is being kicked around the media. Because romance is predominately written by and read by women, there is an assumption that we don’t understand the difference between fiction and the ‘real’ world. Romance is considered a danger to women's psychological and emotional health. Do these pundits seriously think that a love story is more insidious than a gruesome, brutal description of a serial killer's activity?

Most of the people making this claim obviously have not read a romance novel or they would see the error of their thinking. Romance is no more outside the realm of reality than some of the novels written by Anne Rice, Ken Follett, James Patterson or Annie Proulx.

One of the pointers given at the workshop was to ask that the interviewer present the questions to be asked so that the interviewee could prepare. I asked for this when I was invited by a local radio station to participate in a weekly broadcast. For about three minutes, we stuck to the questions. From then on, it was a freewheeling conversation. But, from the workshop, I learned to self-edit my answers so they could not be twisted.

Do non-romance writers have to shield yourselves in this way? Do you have sage advice for those of us who are in the media’s claws right now?

Fortunately for me, the interviewer was sympathetic to the creative effort and had no bias against my art form. Many of my colleagues have not been given this respect. One of the things, I think, that contributes to the lack of appreciation for genre fiction in general and romance in particular is the practitioners’ and readers’ tendency to keep their preference under cover. So, at the workshop, I made a pledge, from that moment, I will practice the principles of Open Carry.

How frightening is a romance novel compared to a holstered gun?


Sandy Cody said...

Interesting post,Leigh. As someone who writes traditional (sometimes referred to as cozy) mysteries, I identify with what you are saying. Reviewers often criticize the traditional puzzle mystery as too light and fluffy to be taken seriously, saying that they are unrealistic. I agree to a point, but maintain that they are at least as true to real life as James Bond and others of that ilk. I like all kinds of books and love the fact that there is such a variety to choose from. I heard a jazz musician say, "There's just two kinds of music - good and bad." Well, that's the way I feel about books - I don't care what "kind" of book it is; I just want a good story, well written.

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

Well said, Sandy. My husband is a musician and he'd agree with your jazz musician. He also says 'don't be a (musical) snob'. Good music and good books come in all genres. Thank you.

Gina/Katherine said...

I'm so stealing that quote, Sandy! It's a perfect analogy, and Leigh, thanks for bringing up this subject. I also wonder if other genre writers receive the same level of contempt as romance writers. Definitely a thought-provoking post!

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

Thanks, Gina. The content of the workshop from media training brought the discrimination against romance writers into focus for me. While on my journey home from New York, I read one of the books I discovered at the conference with the cover and content in full view: my 'Open Carry Romance' campaign to come out of hiding. The negative stereotypes associated with romance fiction (and cozy mysteries among other genres in which women predominate) are detrimental to our self-esteem as artists and readers.

jeff7salter said...

Very interesting column, Leigh. Of course, I've been reading a lot these past five years about this topic ... but I have not had the experience of being interviewed by media about any publication. [None of the 7 ms. are published yet.] I expect I'll be in for a bit of extra grief as a man writing "women's fiction" (which four of these are).
But I have gotten the strange looks from friends/acquaintances who have just asked me the question, "What are you writing about?"
When I've said "romantic comedy" they seem okay, but "comedic romance" makes the eyes roll.

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

Good morning, Jeff. Comedic romance will get you some strange looks but romantic comedy (rom com as some call it) is totally acceptable - lots of men involved in that. The word 'romance' is the culprit.

Funny that Shakespearean romances, the romantic era, etc don't hold the same stigma. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "romance" as 'any long, fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events'. Therefore, most fiction is romance, by definition.

PS, Jeff: You write delightful 'women's' fiction.

Teresa said...

This IS an interesting subject Leigh, and I suspect one which has no definitive answer. One thing I wonder though, is does a person's attitude and receptiveness toward romance writing depend on their own life experiences? Wouldn't someone, for instance, who has had the stuffing knocked out of them by any type of mental, physical, or emotional abuse, approach a romance story with a rather hefty degree of cynicism?

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

That is yet another side of the issue, Teresa. From what I've read and seen, there are quite a few readers and writers who have had those kind of experiences and rely on the positive aspects of romance to help them mend. As you said, it does depend on the person's attitude.

If we look at romance in the broader sense of any long fictitious work and consider what Keith Oatley has found in his study of the psychology of fiction, we can learn from fiction in many ways. Most romantic novels are not unrealistic in terms of the emotional and physical relationships of the characters, although the circumstances/plot may be fantastical.

Sandy Cody said...

This is a fascinating discussion. Love it!

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

Sandy, I think it is an ongoing debate and one that has impact on the way women writers perceive themselves. Why should we feel we need to keep our preferred genre in the closet? Why do other writers dismiss our writing as drivel?

Denise Pattison said...

I don't remember a time I haven't read and when I first started reading, my parents didn't have much money. So, my parents and my grandparents would buy me books as cheap as they could.

I've read books by missionaries and books that had way-too-much-info sex scenes in them (no, not romance). My parents and grandparents would have had a heart attack if they'd known what was in the books they handed me, including the ones by the missionaries (about what happens during wars).

My reading material has never mattered to me. I've learned from all of it.

I always think the people who have a disdain for romance and any other genre (mystery, western, horror, paranormal), have no real grasp on life. They can't see the desires of the characters in any of those books and how they do relate to our real lives. They only see the covers and the genre--and they look down their long noses.

Just like the highest grossing movies rarely win awards, the highest grossing books are ignored. But the fact that they are the highest grossing movies and books tell me that we do have the upper hand--we are making the money. Our books do survive.

Take a look at the top series on HBO, STARZ, USA, & TNT right now--it's sure not anything highbrow. The two top shows on HBO are from books--yep, books. Books those highbrow, disdainful-to-romance-books people would never read.

Our genres (romance, horror, paranormal, mystery, western) endure and are endearing.

Answer me another question--how many people can name the Pulitzer Prize winners? Now, how many people know Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell, Zane Grey, J. R. R. Tolkein, & Nora Roberts? It doesn't matter what rock you're living under, you had to have heard of one of those writers. Even more--they are read and loved by multiple generations.