When Fiction Opens Minds, Thinking Follows

July 19th, 2005 · 12 Comments
by Booksquare

Last week, someone suggested that women’s fiction doesn’t get reviewed because it’s about characters (or perhaps character studies), while men’s fiction is about ideas. While we don’t want to get into a discussion on the importance of characters in fiction (we take the position that they are a key element), we also don’t want to get into an discussion about what constitutes an “idea”. We’ve had enough bad ones to know the pitfalls there.

There has also been discussion about the domestic nature of women’s fiction. Again, without specific definitions, it’s hard to say for sure why this is such a bad thing. However, it lead us to think about how fiction allows people to explore complex social issues. Almost as if she could read our mind, our good friend (and prospective research assistant) Susan Gable sent us an essay about exploring life-altering decisions through her stories.

Some of themes that Susan explores, such as organ transplants and surrogacy, are not readily discussed in most fiction. Yet these issues are part of our lives, and her fiction allows her to explore the various viewpoints and emotional challenges facing life-altering decisions.

Susan also, as an afterthought (like, oh, four or five emails later, buried at the bottom of an email like we don’t read all the way through), mentions that her latest book The Pregnancy Test is a top ten bestseller at Waldenbooks.

No Respect, No Respect for Romance Novels

We are the Rodney Dangerfield of the writing genres. We get dissed on all
the time. When people hear what we write, they often turn their noses up
and sneer. “Oh, you write those books. I don’t read those books.” Or we
get asked, “When are you going to right a real book?”

A real book. Is that as opposed to the obviously fake ones we write?
Exactly what constitutes a fake book? One with no words on the page?

I actually had a woman say this to me: “You’re too good of a writer to just
write romance.”

Thanks. I think.

The NY Times considers romance to be invisible, nonexistent. Lauren
Baratz-Logsted recently did a great piece here on BookSquare about the review
section of the NY Times and its disregard for romance and women writers in
general. (Did you know that according to them, women just don’t write as
many books as men do? Huh? That was a newsflash to me, too.)

Category romance gets hit even harder. I don’t know if it’s because we have
a limited shelf-life for our books, or simply because the numbers released
each year are so large (i.e. anything mass produced like that just can’t be
good.). I know that the sometimes silly titles don’t help, and that the
tendency to stick with what’s sold in the past (cowboys, brides or babies,
anyone? I actually like all three, done right) doesn’t help our image.
(Although show me a publisher who doesn’t like to stick with what’s sold in
the past, or what the latest thing is, and I’ll show you a publisher about
to go out of business – or else be flooded with submissions from hopeful
authors who are also tired of writing the same old thing.) I will also
confess that yes, there are some bad category (or single title, too)
romances out there.

But I’ve also got news for you: romances, not even category romances,
aren’t all just fluff. If you look, you can find romances with plenty of
substance to the plot, with wonderfully multi-dimensional characters.

There have been category romances that feature a heroine with breast cancer,
a hero who’s a paraplegic and in a wheelchair, a heroine who’s a recovering
alcoholic, a hero with a speech impediment. Even the beloved marketing
hooks can be spun in a new direction. I wrote a secret baby story (secret
baby being another well-loved hook) but the twist was that the heroine’s
entire town believed she was the baby’s mother — she arrived in town
pregnant and gave birth there. But the baby wasn’t hers.

That book (Whose Child?) let me explore some of the complications that can
arise from our modern assisted-reproduction technologies. Talk about a
treasure chest of emotion! What’s more primal than a (good) mother’s
devotion to a child? What rights does she have when she’s carried, borne,
and then raised the child for four years, but the child isn’t genetically
hers? Despite the romance in the center of this mixture, you’ve got a
story that I think is anything but fluffy. (Admittedly, I’m biased, since
it’s my baby we’re talking about.) Which isn’t to say that it’s all serious
– one of the reasons I like writing kids is you just never know what they’re
going to say or do. And they can create comedic relief to balance the more
serious aspects of a story.

What about a book with a man raising a little girl who’s had a heart
transplant, and pairing him with a woman who lost her only child but donated
his organs? Two parents in two very different places. And when the idea
occurred to me, and I began to think about all the obstacles they’d have to
overcome to earn their happily-ever-after, there was no way I could deny
that story. I had to write it. (The Mommy Plan)

I like to believe that my writing is making people think about things they
might not otherwise. I don’t see a whole lot of mainstream fiction out
there addressing what it’s like to be a family member of an organ donor.
Nor showing what it’s like to sit at the hospital bedside of a loved one,
praying for a miracle, and knowing that your miracle will cost someone else
the life of their loved one. I haven’t seen a lot that speaks to the
emotional repercussions of using assisted-reproduction technologies. By
creating a set of characters that the reader can care about, they identify
with this situation, learn to look at it in a whole new way.

That’s how books enrich us. They let us experience things we otherwise
wouldn’t and develop empathy for those in that situation. My books reach
readers who might not pick up a non-fiction book on the same topic.

My books definitely reach people who are willing to take a risk with me in
exploring a deeper issue because they know that I’m promising them a happy
ending. My romances always have that uplifting ending. No need to worry
that I’m going to kill off the hero or heroine. The little child is not
going to die in my romance. It’s a safe way for a reader to explore this
issue. I’m not promising no tears, because I happen to be big on tears
along the way – they’re part of the human experience. A child obviously did
die in the backstory of my book, The Mommy Plan. The heroine’s entire
character arc involved her recovering from that loss. And it was extremely
satisfying for me to be able to take her through that arc and give her the
happy ending that she’d more than earned by the end of the book. That makes
the reader willing to risk it with me. Am I 100% certain that I always meet
everyone’s exact definition of a happy ending? No. As with anything else
in books, that’s subjective.

My latest book, The Pregnancy Test, is about a man who finds himself in the
position of dealing with his pregnant teenage daughter and a pregnant
girlfriend at the same time. (No, he didn’t knock them BOTH up! This is a
romance novel, not an Oprah pick.) Without the romance, it becomes just
the story about a single dad and his teenage daughter. With the romance,
the hero found himself having to eat the very words he’d hurled at his
teenager when she told him she was pregnant. She got to throw them back
right at him. He found himself facing the heroine’s father with a whole new
level of understanding for exactly what that man was feeling. It made the
hero face a choice that tore him apart. In other words, the romance really
made the story work much better on so many levels – or at least, in my
opinion it did.

I believe the search for love is something hard-wired into human beings;
it’s just as primal as the mother love I spoke of earlier. I don’t think we
were made to be solitary creatures. (Despite what my husband may believe
when I disappear behind my office door yet again!) I think we have a deep
need to be loved, to share our existence with a significant other.

For me, all the other stuff is the actual plot of the book, but it’s the
romance that’s at the heart of the story, pun fully intended. How can these
two people come together, overcome all the obstacles life throws in their
path, and create something lasting in the end?

No matter what the topic of the book, just the act of writing an entire book
well enough to get published is a task that deserves respect. (Hey, just
completing a book is an act worthy of celebration. How many people want to
write a book, plan to write a book someday, but never do?) The movie
critics often disagree with the movie-viewing public on what constitutes a
worthwhile movie. The critically acclaimed movies play to a limited crowd,
while the blockbusters often get sneered at. So at least romances are in
good company.

Why are the critics so disconnected from what the people want? (It’s the
same with politicians, but that’s another article and another blog.) The
people want to be entertained. We want to escape into a movie or book and
forget about our own lives/problems for a while. We don’t want someone to
lord over our heads how damn intelligent they are and how feeble-minded we
must be because we don’t “get” their work. We don’t want to be preached at
or lectured to.

Entertain me. Make me feel something. That’s what I want out of my books
and movies. And that’s what I want to do with my books when I write. If I
can make someone in my audience stop for a moment and go, “Hmm, I never
thought of it that way,” then all the better. If I can make my reader laugh
or cry, make them feel for my characters, then I’ve done my job.

Rodney Dangerfield never got “no respect” either. But he made me laugh.
For that, I consider him a success.

Maybe, when it comes right down to it, respect from the people who don’t
matter (the critics/bashers, the naysayers, the scoffers), doesn’t matter.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

12 responses so far ↓

  • Diana Peterfreund // Jul 20, 2005 at 7:00 am

    Interesting. I don’t think all the critics are so disconnected from all of the work. In fact, in my experience I’ve found that the people who are the most prejudiced towards romance are the ones who have never read it and know the least about it. Once you get a good roamnce in their hands, most critics of intelligence and insight realize its value.

  • C // Jul 20, 2005 at 12:14 pm

    — Once you get a good roamnce in their hands, most critics of intelligence and insight realize its value.

    Sure it has value. All entertainment has value. The OC has value. It deals with difficult issues like sexual politics and the difficulties of marriage. However, any person of intelligence notes that the skilled script writers of the OC (talented and skilled as they are) are unlikely to be remembered as the next crop of Tennesee Williamses. And certainly not for the OC. What they do is neither artisitically important nor all that interesting except to themselves and the cluster of people who would like to be them.

    Why all this need to puff up what romance writers do? It takes skill to write a whole book but that doesn’t mean it every novel is interesting. They are paid to entertain and they do just that. We can have standards beyond just saying ‘that was quality entertainment’. Can’t readers and critics read with the expectation of confronting attempts at great literature? Or is that too elitist for the uncritical age to even expect that books be great rather than simply diverting an compitent?

  • Susan Gable // Jul 20, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    I’m not trying to “puff up” what romance novelists do. That’s the point. As far as you’re concerned, there is no value to a romance novel beyond the entertainment value. I contend there is, or at least, there can be, depending on the romance novel.

    The point is that most of the time, it’s people looking down on romance novels – or genre fiction in general. Oh, yes, let’s have some new “great” literature – in general today, that means something boring and badly written, not extremely well-written and riviting.

    Bring on the great literature that’s well-written (to my standards – I take craft issues quite seriously) and that holds my interest by telling me a compelling story, and I’m all in favor of it. I love good books of all sorts.

    It’s interesting that Shakespeare and Twain were looked down upon in their time – it wasn’t until much later that they were considered to be great writers.

    I make no claims to be an “artist.” I’m a storyteller. I’m not in love with my golden words, I’m using them as tools to tell my story.

    I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Anyone/everyone is free to not like and not read genre fiction. Be my guest. But don’t dismiss all of it as mere “entertainment” with no redeeming value unless you’re intimately familiar with all of it.

  • Tod Goldberg // Jul 20, 2005 at 11:05 pm

    The fact that you point out how great it is that some romances you’ve read have had “a heroine with breast cancer, a hero who’s a paraplegic and in a wheelchair, a heroine who’s a recovering alcoholic, a hero with a speech impediment” perhaps goes a long way towards understanding why traditional book reviews don’t typically cover romance fiction and why there is the perception that literary snobs such as myself look down upon it. Those aren’t what I would consider fascinating character issues — rather, they come off as rather cliched and with the fore knoweledge that the story will end happily, a critic requires a large suspension of disbelief to get through it and provide cunning insight on the work. I don’t say this because I hate romance — I happen to have a romance writer for a wife — but because I find the conventions being the thing that stops it from being taken as seriously as that boring old literary fiction. Critics aren’t disconnected from what people want: The Lovely Bones sold a gazillion copies. The Kite Runner sold a gazillion copies. The Historian is selling gazillions of copies. Confessions of Max Tivoli was a huge bestseller. The Time Travelers Wife was a huge bestseller and what they all happen to have in common is that critics loved them, most major papers reviewed them, and the public loved them, too. And while I’m sure your books are lovely, the plots you’ve discussed here don’t seem to rise above what I might find on Lifetime. I don’t mean to say that in a mean spirited way, simply that the issues you’re writing about that are meant to show the great depth of romance seems familiar to me and, at the same time, purely fantastic. You say you want books to make you feel something and that the critics should take that into consideration. I agree. But because the happy ending isn’t an organic part of life, nor, indeed, an organic part of drama, it’s hard for me as a writer, reader and often-times critic to buy into the world when I know on page one how it ends.

    The fact is, until the same person who happens to share my bed began writing reviews of romance that actually go beyond “Oh my god, I really liked this!” I’d never read a critical review of romance online or in print that was the least bit critical in the way the best literary criticism is. If you want to be taken seriously as literature, you have to write literature that can be taken seriously.

  • ding // Jul 20, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    a gay friend of mine i’ve known since grad school told me about a woman he read while procrastinating about his dissertation – eloisa james. he said, she’s like jane austen but wicked and with sex. you have to read her.

    i was skeptical, but i read her. and loved loved loved her. the detail, the finely drawn character, the wit (oh, for romance novels with real wit), the gradual dissolution of generic expectation with each novel. in my thinking james (and her academic background) transformed the romance genre. are her romances literature? she’d be the first person to say no; and that’s ok that it’s not. there are female authors i’ve studied who were hacks when they were first published. it doesn’t matter. as cultural artifacts all writing says something about the culture surrounding them and, eventually, they become interesting.

    time, and literary distance, dictate how valuable we find a novel. (i never thought i’d echo harold bloom.) so, like maria edgeworth, perhaps romance novelists just need a century or so to pass…

  • C. // Jul 21, 2005 at 7:53 am

    >>>It’s interesting that Shakespeare and Twain were looked down upon in their time – it wasn’t until much later that they were considered to be great writers

    This is simply a distortion of the truth.

    It is true that he was not considered his age’s greatest playwright. But there are many reasons for this. One is that Shakespeare was in may ways creating new conventions – ones that highly influenced our current literary and entertainment culture. So it is natural that he is our hero over others. But his work was very popular with a wide variety of people, even in his day. And everyone has critics. Some are probably justified.

    It seems impossible to tell whose work will be declared eternal and whose will disappear from our literary landscape. But what is clear to me, is that is that we choose our masters very rationally. It is not something that happens out of nowhere, even it it seems mysterious. Shakespeare’s work changed theatre and literature. Can we say the same of romance novels? I doubt it.

    To sum up. You’re not Shakespeare. When category romance produces a Huckleberry Finn or a Hamlet, I’m sure it will sell AND be well regarded.

    As for Twain, I have no idea what you are talking about. Twain was very successful with both literary circles and the public. As a man opposed to much of the politics of his day, he was bound to have his ditractors.

    I just don’t think we are talking about the same thing here. This is simply equivocation.

    I still have yet to see a romance novelists gain the attention of the reviewing public where every other genre seems to have been given an good shake -if not more. So this is not just about genre fiction of which romance happens to be one of many ignored genres. Times have changed. With everything from comics and historical fiction winning Pulitzers and Bookers and, the literary community seems very open to quality genre fiction.

    I don’t know why category romance isn’t getting the same treatment, but I’m not inclined to think it is based purely on snobbery. That’s just an excuse. The literary community has no interest in ignoring a whole genre. It’s not some elitist plot. There is no literary overloard, except perhaps Michiko, and she liked the new Harry Potter novel. That is hardly a sign of unwillingness to enjoy mass literary entertainment.

    >>>I make no claims to be an “artist.” I’m a storyteller. I’m not in love with my golden words, I’m using them as tools to tell my story.

    Then don’t expect to be treated like we treat artists. Romances are written sold and enjoyed. They do what they were written to do – entertain.

    Every writer works with the same tools. There are no golden words, at least not as far as I’ve ever read.

    There are craftsmen whose tools are used to build a very functional and even attractive furniture. (Nothing wrong with a good carpenter plying his trade. A nice well made peice of furniture is a delight.) But there are also the John George and Leopold Stickleys of the world whose work was not only skillfully crafted and attractive, but also contributed to the body American design and design all over the world. They used the same tools as many contemporaries with very different results.

    The idea that literary writers are simply conserned with pretty words is misguided and untrue. Though many literary writers (to their detriment in my opinion) overly focus on prose at the expense of their plots, others are constructing very moving and exciting stories. A truly great novel is both well written and a great story. The Odyssey was written by a master storyteller.

    A quality (but common) carpenter doesn’t expect to win design awards and there is no reason why a skilled romance writer need be noticed by the major forces within the fiction community.

    Awards and rave reviews are for people whose work stands out as beyond the ordinary for either their immense skill or innovation. And of course sometimes we can’t all agree on what is innovative and what is just plain garbage. I think there is still some disagreement over James Joyce. But all this doesn’t come out of nowhere. I don’t always agree with the Pulitzer committee but I enjoy the discussion it generates. Is there going to be the same level of dicussion around category romance. Can it sustain such an interest?

  • Susan Gable // Jul 21, 2005 at 7:58 am

    Ding, congrats on being open-minded enough to give EJ a try – I’m glad you actually enjoyed the experience!

    Tod, the happy ending isn’t organic in life? Because, in the end, we all die? That would make a great ending for a book. “But, none of it mattered, because eventually, they all died. The End.” LOL. Actually, I guess that’s how Shakespeare ending R&J. So sometimes that might be the right ending for a story. (g)

    I guess it depends on how you define happy ending. See, the mom who was my resource for researching heart transplants kids – well, she’s still married, and her child is still doing well, so I consider that a happy “ending.” Am I wrong?

    We romance readers all know that there’s going to be “stuff” for the characters after you close the books. Marriage is never a bed of roses all the time.

    A mystery novel that doesn’t solve the crime is going to tick off the reader – and yet, in “real life” many crimes go unsolved. Makes for an unsatisfying ending, IMO, for fiction.

    You said: “a heroine with breast cancer, a hero who’s a paraplegic and in a wheelchair, a heroine who’s a recovering alcoholic, a hero with a speech impediment” perhaps goes a long way towards understanding why traditional book reviews don’t typically cover romance fiction and why there is the perception that literary snobs such as myself look down upon it. Those aren’t what I would consider fascinating character issues — ”

    Okay, so what are fascinating character issues? You don’t think people facing adversities are fascinating? You prefer navel contemplation? And that our characters manage to overcome their adversities (which, many people DO in real life, I’m happy to say) is actually a bad thing? You’d prefer the hero in a wheelchair who just can’t deal, so he rolls himself into a river and drowns himself?

    Again, I’m not asking for my books to be considered “great literature.” Not my goal, not what I’m after. They’re not. Reread the last part of my essay. Tod, from what I understand, you’re a very talented writer. But your approval of what I do isn’t important to me. (No offense. (G) ) My readers’ approval of what I’m writing is what’s important to me. You’re never going to be one of my readers. That’s OKAY. 🙂

  • Booksquare // Jul 21, 2005 at 8:18 am

    Tod, I have in the past two weeks started and not finished several reviews of Wendy and HelenKay’s site (Paperback Reader) because I think they’re doing exactly what needs to be done for the genre. I’ve been remiss in pointing out that there’s a site taking a serious, non-insider (and this is important) look at the genre. I know from experience how hard it is to look critically at something you have an affinity for. They’re doing something I’ve wanted for a long time, and need to acknowledge this more publicly.

    But Susan’s point about issues and happy endings is important. Like other genre fiction, romance offers an implicit contract to readers. A lot might be thrown at the characters, but at the end, they’ve changed in some manner (this is why I found The Corrections to be so unsatisfying — after wallowing in so much misery with those people, I wanted someone to take charge of his or her happiness, and never felt that happened). In the case of romance, it’s finding love (though good romance doesn’t make that the end all and be all of character change; a good story shows personal, inherent growth). Just as fiction is exploring the emotional impact of 9/11, it can explore more personal devastation, such as losing a breast in a society where breasts are fetishisized. Though there are some truly solitary humans, many of us spend our lives trying to establish and maintain relationships. Fiction should offer challenges to belief systems big and small.

    Readers have different needs at different points — why do we reread certain books, despite knowing the outcome plus every plot twist? That story reaffirms something or offers comfort or challenges your worldview. You know how it ends, but you’re trusting the author to give you something despite this.

  • C. // Jul 21, 2005 at 9:04 am

    >>> But your approval of what I do isn’t important to me. (No offense. (G) )

    Of course approval is important to you. Don’t be silly. Everyone wants to find approval in their profession. Even people who work in fast food restaurants want to think they perform their job well.

    Approval of the NYT may not be important. But approval in terms of success with your readership is.

    But my point is that if you really only care about pleasing yourself and readers and doing the best job you can, then it shouldn’t matter if you or your genre are ignored by critics. The only thing that should matter is if you are reaching your target audience. However, your remarks harbour some frustration over the fact that critics do not look lovingly upon you genre.

    >>> Why are the critics so disconnected from what the people want?

    They aren’t really. Many of the critics are able to pick out the literary novels that will appeal to broad audiences and review them favourably. Of course popularity is not the only standard. But neither is it irrelevant. It is a critic’s job to look at work with a certain thoughtful perspective. This means sometimes making negative comments on what is popular. But not always.

    But fact is that the people often don’t want great books. Nothing wrong with that. They want to be entertained and if your books are successful in reaching readers good for you. And if you really believe that is all that matters, there was no reason to write the piece. Unless it was merely to point out the obvious to people who already like your work or at least the genre you work in.

  • tod goldberg // Jul 22, 2005 at 3:37 am

    I understand that you’re not seeking my approval — but understand that if you’re seeking the approval of mainstream media criticism, you are seeking the approval of people just like me who both write books and write reviews. You can’t bemoan the exclusion of your genre and then pretend not to care about it and only what your fans think. Do you want notice in the media or not?

    As to your other question about character, just because a character has an illness, a baby or a wheelchair doesn’t in and of itself make them interesting. How they deal with it might be, though hitting the bottle doesn’t scream of great originality. The adversity you speak of isn’t new or interesting adversity, to me as I said before. It seems somewhat trite because of its familiarity. Great, you’re sick, pregant and have no use of your legs. Now what? I suppose it boils down to execution and perhaps your books are perfectly executed, my point simply being that I hope you don’t start your next book thinking, “Shoot, I gotta find me a new illness to write about…let’s see how this flesh eating virus shakes out…maybe this weird chicken flu…”

    And to confirm, yes, I want people only admiring their belly-button and I believe all books should include a wheel chair bound character hurling themselves into a river, but only if they’re holding a baby and quoting Proust as they reach for the last tethers of this mortal coil. That would be sweet.

  • ding // Jul 23, 2005 at 1:47 am


    i told a friend, another writer, about this discussion and she had a question: ‘who cares – the romance industry is raking in the bucks so why think about respect and whether critics like you? the market likes you.’

    harold bloomian questions value aside, isn’t this what’s important?

    (susan, i’ve been reading romances since i was ten. how else was i going to learn about sex?)

  • Susan Gable // Jul 23, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    LOL, Ding. Hey, I read a lot of books that couldn’t be considered romance, but that had sex: John Jake’s books, Judy Blume’s books…