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 NYTUSA 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.

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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.

17 Comments on “Predictable Ignorance: LitFic Nitwits Once Again Snigger at Romance

  1. What’s at stake here is sexism. Woman are taught from birth to care about and nurture relationships but somehow writing about them is less worthy than a hundred and fifty fucking pages of military maneuvers designed to blow people into tiny bloody bits of flesh. And the men who write it? Traitors to the macho cause.

    Love is a universal human emotion – arguably THE universal craving of every one of us form the womb to the grave – yet it is unworthy of celebration. And sex? We all want/need physical closeness and pleasure but writing about it is crass and gross.

    Give me a break – these litfic snobs are all hot and bothered ’cause they can’t get it so they don’t “get it”.

  2. I did my high school, thesis on Jean Paul Sartre and existentialism. I read romance, mystery, and myriad others. I never understand why diversity of choice is not celebrated, rather than berated. I read to escape and escape to read. I never compare apples and oranges, why compare what I read. They need to go out into the world, do some charity work and leave me the fuck alone.

  3. I am SO FUCKING TIRED of these pretentious asshats. One of the reasons I’m likely never going back to college to finish my degree in Am. Lit. (Thank you, asshole ex husband.) is that while I’m not even midlist or NYT list, or fracking Popular Books 101 list, I STILL make more money writing than the average professor. (Yes, I look back and laugh when I think how I used to WANT to be a prof for my EDJ.) And I know that if I do go back to school, the first prof who tries to be snarky with me and say Theodore Dreiser is better than Debbie Macomber/Lorelei James/insert any rom author here, they’d get my fist up their snoot.

  4. I am a Ph.D.and a Golden Heart nominee in historical romance this year. As a professor, I regularly interface with young people of this age. There is a reason why they are still in college. They still have a lot to learn. I will happily do the work of teaching them the errors of their arguments during the day and wait patiently for their “lightbulb moment.” Meanwhile, I will spend my creative energy on my stories. Trust me, the energy is much better spent there. Check in with these intern folk in about 10 years time. The lightbulb moment will come in time.
    And not all of us are snarky asshats by the way….

  5. I have a high IQ … I have a university education … I have 5 children, 3 of them with special needs … I volunteer in my community … I don’t like watching TV … what I love to do is immerse myself in a good book … do not judge me for reading romance for my escape from the grind of daily life … if reading for relaxation were supposed to be hard work, Shakespeare would be more popular than Harry Potter … just because a book is a literary masterpiece, doesn’t make it fun reading … I hate people who judge like this … get off your high-horse & find something worthwhile to do with your time & leave me alone to read my bodice rippers *huff*

  6. Great post, Heidi. (I have one of those pesky lit degrees, too, and wrote a heavy academic thesis that I’m sure is collecting dust in the university library. I was mostly studying American women writers, which hey there, romance writers.)

    The talk I went to at RWA led by the sociologists that Sarah has mentioned on the Smart Bitches blog (she interviews them in the most recent podcast, which I highly recommend listening to) highlighted a lot of these themes, since the main topic of their research is romance writers and how/why the whole genre (and its readers and writers) are stigmatized. I found the presentation absolutely fascinating, and a lot of it resonated with me. (Happily, most of the writers I socialize with are genre-fiction writers who Get Me, but I have had people tell me things like, “You’re a good writer, why are you wasting your time on romance?” Blergh. That’s almost as annoying as, “But have you considered writing het romance?”)

  7. While I agree with you in content, I was a little surprised at the way that you phrased it. These 2 young women–interns, which makes them 19 or 20–are just taking their first steps into the world of writing and publishing. You list on your bio that you’re a parent, and I cannot imagine wanting my daughter’s first reader response to be “Shut. The fuck. Up.” I was very discouraged to find that you just told two young women publishing their opinions for the first time that silence is the best recourse and their opinion is not worthy of expression. These girls are wrong, but they’ve started a conversation–please don’t end that before they can change their mind.

  8. I have to disagree, Erica. If my daughter had written that article, I’d be the first in line to tell her, STFU. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching my children that while they are entitled to their opinions and likes/dislikes, it doesn’t entitle them to ridicule others for having different opinions or liking different things. I’ve also taught them that making fun of people, trying to make them look stupid is totally unacceptable. Finally, I’ve tried to teach them that their actions have consequences.

    To my mind, the way the young woman expressed her opinion was totally unacceptable. She expressed it publicly and ridiculed a woman whose work she has barely read, in an attempt to make herself look good. She dismissed a whole genre and, by implication, belittled all the women (and men) who enjoy that genre, both readers and authors.

    Given the tone of her article, I think that the responses she has received have been very reasonable. Yes, the tone has been cutting and sarcastic in some, but no worse than the tone of the original article. She could learn a lot from them, if she chooses to. At the end of the day, the consequences of her actions weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been.

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  14. First – any blogger who types “shut the fuck up” in her blog is getting my “follow” LOL. Second, and more important, I don’t read or write Romance. I wish I wrote it, because it actually gets fewer “literary” eye rolls than “horror,” which doesn’t even get a section in the book stores LOL. It does amaze me that we criticize any genre. Have you ever read a Clive Cussler Novel a formula of impossible heroes, or William Patterson’s wheel of production? The point is fans like what they like and that is why we have different genres. To criticize one as “less” than another just demonstrates ignorance. Faulkner is a literary genius and I’ve read his complete works…but at the end of the day, Stephen King’s It was just a better read than The Sound and the Fury.

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