Predictable Ignorance: LitFic Nitwits Once Again Snigger at Romance
Today I am blithely reading my Twitter feed and see that Sarah Wendell is fuming. This of course is Heidi candy, and so I click. Jesus Fucking Christ.
There are two players in this dance—Descriptive Language: Nora Roberts vs. Vladimir Nabokov and In Defense of Nora Roberts. I actually hate the “defense” more because it’s not a defense at all but a further belittling of not only a genre but a groaning horde of readers. Here we are, once again, with literary fiction people glancing knowingly at each other over romance novels.
There has to be some kind of subliminal programming going on, because every so many months someone writes this post. Maybe there’s a forum with stock insults and instructions on the formula. Read one book. Make rash assumptions. Reach deep into your asshole and pull out the hardest, oldest piece of bitterness you’ve been holding about why your books/your favorite books aren’t the most popular on the planet. Make sweeping generalizations about readers, novelists, and academics. Grab a few lurid romance covers and arrange them carefully next to those of your favorite litfic counterparts. By all means do no research. Don’t bother to look for anything that might unhinge your argument, like a professional organization devoted to the academic study of romance, or an online community of discussion between academics and people who are simply smart and thoughtful about discussions of their favorite books.
The grossness in the two articles is beyond belief. Let’s start with the original. The point of the article is ostensibly a comparison of descriptive styles, but essentially it is a sneer at romances, because their description is so bad. The germ for this ill-conceived wank came from tittering over how “absurd” is the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and since the author, intern Kelly Bohan accidentally stumbled over a Roberts novel, the one romance she has ever read, she totally had a great idea for an article. Since she read it at twelve, I’m sure that’s where she got the idea to compare it to Lolita, also a romance about a twelve year old.
Or, you know, a haunting, disturbing novel about riding inside the mind of a pedophile. Same diff.
Whatever. It’s so funny! Roberts’s descriptions are so bad, they’re like, volcanoes, ohmygod. And totally, let’s put in a pic of a volcano. And let’s do another graphic about “Traditional Romance Novels and Their Hilarious Titles” because damn it, Roberts’s title didn’t have any heaving bosoms, which is what lead her to trip over it in the first place.
My favorite part about Bohan’s article is the incredible lack of care, depth, or thought she took in an article whose point was meant to be showing how Lolita is superior to Dance Upon the Air. But these articles ever are the same tired, churned out bullshit whine about how unfair it is that romances are popular and Great Werks are not.
Literary fiction isn’t a sacred cow. It’s a genre, a subset type of fiction defined by trends and type, and it gets is pants beaten to shredded, nasty pieces by the romance industry simply walking by. Romance Writers of America as always has the facts:
- Romance fiction generated $1.438 billion in sales in 2012.
- Romance was the top-performing category on the best-seller lists in 2012 (across the NYT, USA Today, and PW best-seller lists).
- 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. (source: RWA Reader Survey)
And as for how romance stacks up against other genres?
- Romance fiction: $1.438 billion in estimated revenue for 2012
- Religion/inspirational: $717.9 million
- Mystery: $728.2 million
- Science fiction/fantasy: $590.2 million
- Classic literary fiction: $470.5 million
I’m so sorry, litfic. Did we spray mud on you when we whizzed by? Let us by you a new coat. And lunch.
This animosity, this need to snigger and insult comes from feeling left out of the party. If you write it, you quickly learn you’ll never make money at it, not like Nora Roberts, not even like a midlist author, and if you read it, you realize you’re never going to see a sexy display of litfic anywhere but on your literary journal blogs which won’t get heavy traffic until you insult romances. They feel left out, and the only way to survive being alone is to try and tear down the party.
I’m sorry, you can’t. You don’t have the chops, you don’t have the intelligence, and you don’t have the argument. We don’t just have all the money and all of the readers. We actually enjoy the campiness that can come from our genre, and we celebrate the clichés. We have a ball with cover accidents and catastrophes. What we also have, though, are a hell of a lot of smart people. Yes, I’m biased because these are all people from my feed, but it turns out we read more than cereal boxes and volcano porn. We can even form sentences too, under 140 characters and everything. One of the discussion leaders is eighteen years old (and male OH MY GOD) and has owned a review blog for years, with enough clout to garner many showers of books from NYC publishers and an internship at a publishing company before he’s even taken his first undergraduate course.
The defense by Grace McNamee isn’t any better than Bohan. It’s just a remix, made more offensive because this is supposed to be a rebuttal, like a “liberal” giving the opposing viewpoint on Fox News. Same covers (exactly the same!), same “I know it’s not literature” horse shit, but golly, at least the kids are reading. No, they’ll never be classics, but they sure are fun and happy. Maybe, if we’re really lucky, one day they’ll read real literature.
Shut. The fuck. Up.
I’ve read a lot of literature. A fuck ton of it, before, during and after college, which included graduate school, thank you very much. I taught it to my seventh graders, I share it with my daughter and enjoy it with my husband. Unlike some people, though, I don’t have a plug up my ass about what Real Books are, and I consider literature to be anything that moves me deeply, makes me think, gets me coming back again and again because it is so rich and powerful it can change lives. I love Tom Jones and A Knight in Shining Armor. I love American Gods and A Civil Campaign and Welcome to Temptation and The Mysteries of Pittsburg. I re-read Austen and Nietzsche as part of research for my upcoming release, a romance novel. I know enough about literary criticism to choke an intern. I can apply it to Roberts as well as Nabokov, because I can think wider than my laptop case.
I know other people who can too. I’ve had four hour phone conversations about how to create an Inn at Upton moment in a novel with another romance author, one who is so well-read he’d make Bohan and McNamee look like toddlers. (He’s a boy too. It’s like an epidemic.) I’ve discussed Wide Sargasso Sea with passionate hand gestures at hotel bars at reader cons, and I’ve debated the post-colonial effect of historical romances in online forums. At the Romantic Times Convention in particular I’ve had some of the most intense academic conversations of my life, but I don’t expect anyone to know about that outside of the romance community, because the media does nothing but giggle while they eavesdrop on panels about sex scenes and make cover models take off their shirts and flex for photos.
It’s so inconvenient that romance doesn’t fit the stereotype everyone wants us to be: frumpy, uneducated housewives who have trouble programming their DVRs but really need a little something easy to read to get off. That we’re highly educated men and women from all walks of life isn’t very fun.
As it always is, what’s really at issue here is that genre is all about camps, about outcasts finding a flag and camping out beneath it. Bohan, McNamee, I’m sorry that our flag is bigger, brighter, varietal, smart, sexy, and savy when yours is just snotty, but seriously, just go back to your Serious Story and pretend we’re not here. If you’re going to try and belittle us, at least bring it. If you could maybe read more than one book before you make sweeping statements, if you actually made comparisons that seventh graders could, if you could use your degree to think and extrapolate and actually do your job instead of masturbate to your own brilliance, you might find something here you liked. If you could imagine a world where we didn’t have to rate books as more and less than by ancient measuring tables designed to advance patriarchy and preserve the ivory tower, maybe you could understand what it is we find so compelling about these works to make it an industry that single-handedly holds up every major publishing house in the world.
Romance. There’s a hell of a lot of it, and the best part is it always ends happily. It might even make you happy, so much so you don’t need to tear down paper genres to make yourself feel better.