I Should Have Been a Romance Writer By Jane Thornley
I should have been a romance writer. Really.
Long ago, I briefly considered it. When I spoke of my writing dreams, friends and colleagues alike teased me about the possibility of me writing "bodice-rippers", which was probably the only kind of romances most of them knew or read. Since I remained a covert writer, nobody knew what I was getting up to between the covers (of my books).
Regardless, the message was clear: in terms of intelligent genre writing, historical fiction was excellent, mystery was fine, science fiction even better, but romance hung outside the acceptability quadrant in some tawdry back alley. The fact that it was mostly written and read by women only contributed to its lowly status.
One of my professors stated that romance was merely the "masturbatory fantasies of middle-aged housewives." Ouch. Knee-deep in the classics at the time, I did not challenge his assessment of the genre so much as its chauvinism. As time went on, we became friends regardless. He, a historian, wrote historical novels recounting the minutiae of the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Romance, sex, or any human interactions that had not taken place without the deployment of weaponry, preferably with an entire legion, did not grace the pages of his weighty tomes. I read his manuscripts though refused to let him read mine in case he found my secondary plot lines too ... heated.
To me, his books were pedantic and lacked the glue that keeps the species and most readers, going. I suggested he stir in a little human interaction (male-female, male-male--who cares? The Romans did it all) to liven things up, enrich the characterizations and, if nothing else, provide a little break between battles. Apparently he tried but his attempts were so awkward, his wife and editor made him remove every scene.
If he'd read more romance, maybe he'd have gleaned the techniques. Not everyone can write romance or good sex scenes. It takes skill to compellingly craft the growing attraction between two complex characters, especially when there's a strong secondary plot line running concurrently. Written well, romance involves deep characterization, a profound knowledge of human nature coupled (puns intended) with an understanding of how men and women relate another across the centuries. Good romance is nuanced, intelligent, and, if done well, powerful. Very powerful. Considering that love literally perpetuates the species and makes the world go 'round, why is this genre be so universally undermined?
Because romance writing remains primarily the domain of women. If men had traditionally written sizzlingly love stories, maybe the genre would have been more respected. Culturally, we might have celebrated its study of human dynamics and pointed to the feel-good endings that generally end with a wedding. Is it enough that Jane Austen and the Brontes made it into the classic literature category?
Regardless, that doesn't change a thing for me. I am still not a romance writer. I wish I were. Providing I was any good at it, and providing I had started publishing way back when, maybe I'd have hoards of eager fans waiting for my next title right now, not to mention money in the bank. Romance is still the best-selling and most profitable genre of all and appeals to a huge swathe of passionate readers who don't care if the same old tropes play out book after book. Those tropes still work.
What's better still, instead of focusing on murder and destruction, romance writers get to delve into multiple versions of happily ever after time after time. In current the quagmire of global affairs, that alone sounds like a job worth doing.
* I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the books have ‘hoards of eager fans’ but the few who did get in touch made their needs pretty clear.
In terms of female vs male writing of 'romance', my favourite comparison is between 'War and Peace' and 'Gone with the Wind' - they're both weighty tomes, deal with very similar themes, have hefty descriptions of battles, charts the effects of war on those left behind - BUT the one written by a woman is so often dismissed as 'romance', 'chicklit', 'Mills&Boon' - at least by those who haven't read it.
I've read both twice. One loses a little in translation (I suspect - I hasten to add I didn't read it in the original, just felt the odd turn of phrase was clunky in one translation I read), the other does include attitudes that are rightly felt to be incorrect today (though an accurate record of views widely held at the time, and sadly by too many still today). They're both works of their time - and also compelling in their exploration of human nature - including how men and women relate to one another/perpetuate the species. Hmmm, time to re-read 'GWTW' to see whether I see if differently now, given it's about 20 years since I last read it.
As one of the few male members of the Romantic Novelists Association, I get right royally p.......ed off by the attitude of SOME people towards romantic fiction. This goes with an intense dislike of an authors works being classed as "Women's Fiction". It isn't. it's good fiction, or it isn't. You want to turn the page, or you don't!
I write what I describe as Historical Fiction with a strong romantic thread. Without that interaction of the sexes you have a history book, not a story.
People forget. If it wasn't for a spot of romance virtually NONE of us would be here!