On Writing/Reading Romance

This past week there has been some dust-ups online concerning authors making statements on their genre. And by dust-ups, we’re talking Battle of the Five Armies. Which has led me to post my feelings on the issue. This may be shooting myself in the foot, but I already have a limp and own a cane.

For those unaware of what I am speaking of, a male author (JA Konrath) made a statement about erotica that offended the current groups of romance and erotic romance authors – the vast majority of which is female. His continued defense of his offensive comments is just fanning the flames. It is being likened to when Nicholas Sparks made the comment about how he wrote “love stories” not “romances.” Two well known authors both marginalizing the genres in which they write. Ones that are notably female-led genres.

Why do I have any opinion at all? Keep in mind I review books on a site known for paranormal romance and urban fantasy titles. I started doing so as a result of comments the owner had on lack of male authors in the genre as well as male reviewers. This has lead to me reading more in the paranormal romance and other romance genres than I had before. So I am an anomaly amid our peers there.

Additionally (as a lesser known characteristic of me), the majority of my writing group writes romance or erotica of some form. One of them almost exclusively contemporary romance. A genre I still don’t read unless it is an assignment for group, but I will dive into that more later. So, my critique comes for a combination of authors writing romance or novels with strong romantic elements in them.

Finally, there’s the “sins” of my youth I still feel as if I am paying for. Out of college I worked two full time jobs – for many years. Typically, around the holidays, one of those would be at the local mall in the Waldenbooks location. I know, I’m dating myself. Spoiler Alert: I’m old.

While working in the book store, we fit into a routine. I spent a lot of time on register, because the long lines didn’t stress me, I was fast on the register and my sleep-deprived brain did well at it. We even had our “sections”. Which almost exclusively meant these were the tasks we would negotiate with other workers. In my instance I had made a vow (that I have since broken) to never touch Magic cards. So, one of the other workers would restock the Magic if I stocked reference titles.

The person who was our science fiction section person was also a romance author. She co-wrote titles with her husband. And (as I now know to be commonplace), they didn’t sell enough to be a full time job for either of them. But she preferred to read scifi, so she was our scifi section person. She couldn’t bring herself to stock the “sophisticates.” At that time that was the euphemism used to describe the nudey mags. While I wasn’t a connoisseur of them, I had not issue popping a bunch in the upper section of the magazine rack. (It helped I am 6’2″.) In exchange, she would stock the romance novels for me.

This isn’t to say that it was my section, but I had no interest in them and couldn’t hold a conversation on them. I was a 22 year old guy who read mostly literature books in college and science ficiton/horror for fun. I held the same prejudices against the genre that the authors above were displaying. Not really that they were “lesser”, but at the very least they were something there was no way I could identify with. They were stories for other people, like the grandmotherly types that came in once a month for what equated to a grocery bag full of Harlequin romances, most in the thin novella sized prints.

What I did right: Though I petitioned to not have to stock the shelves, as the register monkey I dealt with the regulars coming in to get their “pull list.” Note the relation to that with the comic book fan (who have a similar pull list). They were our version of Norm from Cheers. I helped them with a smile and chatted while I rang them up. I listened when they would tell me about passing along the books to their daughters when they were done with them… or at least when they filled up their shelves to overflowing. I would intone that you give gifts to those you care about, you give books to the ones you love.

What I did wrong: I assumed these were stories I wouldn’t get. Somehow I saw them as something that wasn’t for me. The only time I sold those titles to a man was when they were picking them up for their wife/mother. The only time I bought them were as a gift… Nora Roberts for my grandmother, because my mother told me she liked her. I also assumed titles like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series were scifi or horror, not erotica.

What I have learned: There is more to Heaven and Earth than what can be explained in your science fiction novels, Zombie Joe. I have come to know that romance authors are some of the hardest working craftspeople you could be lucky to study under. They take their craft, and the business, very seriously. And it shows in their work. At the same time I have come to realize that all believable stories have romantic relationships in them. If you want to write them realistically, talk to the professionals.

The women I have studied under in these years (sometimes at the instance of male mentors in the field), are professional and generally smarter than I am. So I listen when they’re talking about the craft of writing. Or the business of it. Furthermore, were I lucky enough to be publishing a romance novel (though paranormal would likely be the only field I could manage) or an erotica novel, I wouldn’t tarnish the event by diminishing the group of peers that I have just joined.

While Konrath’s faux pas doesn’t put him in the same category as Orson Scott Card with me (of which I will never purchase a book, movie, or even watch/read it for free), I do hold onto the story of it for future use. The memory of it serves as a “what not to do” reminder for me.

To the authors who follow me, read my reviews, chat with me at cons… (especially the majority of which who are ladies) I appreciate every bit of insight you offer me. Even more so when you just hang out and talk books and other such geekly endeavors with me. It almost makes me feel normal. Almost. I may be the middle-aged, white straight dude in the crowd, but I am still an old school gamer from the 70’s. Traditionally we are the socially awkward among the socially awkward.

So thank you.

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