The War on Women(‘s Fiction)
posted at 9:02 am on July 28, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
Over the past few days, hundreds of women gathered in Anaheim, California to celebrate thirty-two years of love. Or rather, writing about it. This is the week for the annual Romance Writers of America conference, a yearly gathering that brings together published and aspiring authors, as well as industry insiders—agents and editors.
Romance novels are a billion-dollar industry and make up a hefty share of the book market. (For statistics, see this handy page at the RWA site.) They range in tone from sweet and even “inspirational” — that is, with faith elements — to steamy and sexy. (I’ve linked to some of my favorite examples in those fields.) But, as Rodney Dangerfield might say, they don’t get no respect. Or very little of it, anyway, in the world of Lit-rah-chure.
This dearth of respect was brought to the forefront in a controversy several years ago when authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner spoke out against the lack of attention paid to women’s fiction in general. At the time, Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom had just received not one but several reviews in the New York Times, and he had landed on the cover of Time magazine. Such attention rarely gets paid to women writers, Picoult and Weiner pointed out in an interview with bestselling thriller writer Jason Pinter:
Weiner: I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.
They went on to stipulate that commercial fiction in general received scant attention from the Times or other review venues, but women writers within commercial fiction were at the bottom of the reviewing pile. Said Weiner:
… women are still getting the short end of the stick. If you write thrillers or mysteries or horror fiction or quote-unquote speculative fiction, men might read you, and the Times might notice you. If you write chick lit, and if you’re a New Yorker, and if your book becomes the topic of pop-culture fascination, the paper might make dismissive and ignorant mention of your book. If you write romance, forget about it. You’ll be lucky if they spell your name right on the bestseller list. I think I remember seeing one review of Nora Roberts once, whereas Lee Child can count on all of his books getting reviewed. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair.
Weiner makes a good point. It’s not that review venues ignore commercial fiction entirely. They just don’t devote a great deal of space within it to romance and women’s fiction, which, as pointed out above, make up a huge portion of the commercial fiction market.
Romance, of course, is formulaic. But its formula presents challenges to writers: when readers know what to expect, you have to find fresh ways to interest and intrigue them. I’ve given several talks to aspiring writers over the years, and one piece of advice I always present is this: no matter what you want to write eventually, start by writing romance. The discipline of the formula forces you to work harder at characterization and plotting.
What is the romance formula? Read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s classic. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, obstacles keep them apart, they finally express their affection, a Black Moment occurs that seems to divide them forever, until at last they make their way to the HEA (romance-speak for “happily ever after”).
Jane Austen’s novels often follow the same formula. Yet now these books are all part of the pantheon of Great Literature, a point that Jodi Picoult made in the above-cited interview:
Picoult: Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.
It’s a great discussion, and I highly recommend readers look at the whole thing.
Meanwhile, back in Anaheim, RWA members will gather to celebrate their achievements tonight, giving out Rita awards for the best romance novels of the past year. I’ll silently raise a glass in that direction, wishing them well. Even if big reviewers ignore their genre, the reading public doesn’t.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She’s written some romance herself, as well as a retelling of Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre.