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.


Bill Kirton said…
Very interesting, Jane, and I read it with mixed feelings. The received wisdom is that, as a man, I have only a limited right to comment on things related to the romance genre and yet, in my two historical novels, I had to deal with it head on, not from my own choosing but because 2 characters imposed it on me. My editor even ‘complained’ that the first book had started out as a crime novel but become a romance. Also, the main energy of the second came from romance rather than crime because I only wrote it in response to readers asking for a follow-up to find out how the romance developed*. Love/desire/lust – whatever the genre’s driving force is – provokes powerful passions. So much so that, even though I thought I’d ‘resolved’ the romance issue in book two, a few readers are asking for a third book to find out whether the ‘resolution’ works. I have, however, steered well clear of heaving bosoms and ravaged bodices. There lie dragons.

* 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.
Jane said…
Ah, Bill, this just proves my point--love/lust is the driving force! I receive similar messages from my fans. Obviously, you write romance very well, indeed, as well as your main crime plot. Now, I want to read your books.
Alex Marchant said…
I think you make some very pertinent points here (not just about how much more money you'd make if you wrote for Mills & Boon, etc., though sadly that's probably very true!) In many ways, the world could do with a bit more 'happy ever after' - although the danger is when such things become a (however welcome) distraction from the less happy events.
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.
Alex Marchant said…
Your blog gave me a few thoughts for one of my own so I've linked to it here (couldn't see how to reblog on Wordpress otherwise)
https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/919/ Thanks!
Jane said…
Hi, Alex. You've reminded me that's time to read a couple of my old favorites to see them in a new persective. Gone With the Wind is a definite but I'm not sure I could muddle through War and Peace a second time. Thank you for commenting.
AntrimCycle said…
Very nice article. I admit, at first, I was all excited because I thought it pertained to Richard III (dedicated Ricardian here). But I agree with what you're saying about romance. And to throw in a little RIII/romance, a favorite book is We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman. 😉
John Jackson said…
Fascinating. Alex pointed your blog in my direction (for which, thank you, Alex)
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!
Alex Marchant said…
You're welcome Jane - perhaps we should have a joint 'Gone-with-the_Wind-Readathon'! And sorry NW Moors - but my own blog rarely strays from King Richard if you'd care to follow that (alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com - and no doubt, he'll get the odd mention on my regular AuthorsElectric slots!) And I totally agree John :)
The title of this post reminds me of that Beatles song "I wanna be a paperback writer"

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