The genre that dare not speak its name?

I attended a most interesting talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival the other day. It formed part of a strand named The Writing Business, and concerned romance fiction. Other talks in the strand focus on science fiction & fantasy, writing for children etc. The talk was given by Eileen Ramsay, a Scottish romance writer of whom I hadn’t previously heard, but then I read very little contemporary romance. She began by reading some extracts from a number of clearly romance novels and asked the audience if anyone could identify which books they were from. The quality of the writing varied, the purpleness of the prose varied, but they all involved a love story of some description. It turned out she had read us extracts from a modern literary novel, modern chicklit, great European literature (Anna Karenina), great English literature (Jane Austen), ‘classic fiction’ (DK Broster), and finished with some modern Mills & Boon. In simply listening to the extracts there was really no way of telling which was which. There are good books and bad books everywhere.

She made her point by showing us one of the new controversial covers that Headline are publishing Jane Austen in, and comparing it with the cover of a popular chicklit writer. Headline have taken a very calculated decision in using this style, in an attempt to make Austen appeal to readers who might never go anywhere near her. The packaging of a book is all about saying to readers, you like soppy love stories, then this book is suitable for you, you like serious fiction, then this book is suitable for you. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, provided the packaging does not exclude readers, which I think it does. For example, I look at the pink, girly covers of much chicklit and shudder, even though there could well be books in there that I might enjoy.

You can see what I mean here:

Ramsay then went on to ask why it was that unlike, say literary novels, which are judged on their own merits, romantic novels are judged as a group, by the worst representatives of that group. This Mills & Boon novel is poorly written crap, ergo, all romance novels are poorly written crap. It would be like saying, this literary novel is pretentious, incomprehensible drivel, ergo, all literary novels are pretentious, incomprehensible drivel. Not all genres are treated in this way; crime isn’t. Crime novels are judged on their own merits not as a category. Ramsay asserted that romance is the only genre that is treated in this way, but I think SF&F also suffers from this type of assessment, although perhaps not so much as formerly, and horror and westerns certainly do. I would agree, however, that romance fiction seems to be treated particularly badly in this regard.

It was an interesting discussion, although I fear, Ramsay was preaching largely to the converted as there were many romance writers in the audience. I think part of the problem is that much romance writing is very definitely written to a formula, and there seems to be an assumption among critics that this type of writing is, of necessity, bad. But I don’t that this is true; the underlying plot may be desperately formulaic, but the quality of writing can surely transcend this.

Although Ramsay never articulated the point, I did get the impression that there was an underlying assumption that this judgement of romance = bad, is because it is largely written by and for women. However if we look at the other genres I mentioned this argument becomes less easy to sustain.

I think I would come to the conclusion that while, in an ideal world, we should judge each book on its own merits, the stronger the formula about a way a book is written, the less easy it is to do this. And all books are, to some extent written to a formula. The way books are marketed does not help us make individual judgements, but I don’t see a way round that – we need labels to help us make a choice.


13 responses to “The genre that dare not speak its name?

  1. i’m a total sucker for chicklit-ish book covers, but that said i don’t foolishly buy such books just for vanity’s sake. labels need not be the only way to help readers make a choice with so many resources such as book reviews in the papers and the net. if you’re referring to labels being indication for impulsive book shopping, then i’d advise not to buy at all: covers and synopsis are designed to be as exaggeratedly persuasive and exciting than the real story itself.

  2. This raises an interesting question. Given a book without a title and an author’s name – without a cover even – how many readers would realize that the book was a much-maligned romance novel? Of course, one can tell the Mills and Boon Style, but would that hold for other, better books, such as Danielle Steele’s?

    On a related note, I also recall the disillusionment I felt when I found that (the hundred or more) Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels I had read were actually written by a syndicate of writers – more assembly-line products than works of art. I had never suspected it; I even felt rather pleased with myself when I discovered a few books in which the teen sleuths came together to solve mysteries. ;).

  3. Sulz.
    I’m not suggesting that the labels imposed by publishers/booksellers are the only way of choosing books, after all if you have a look at the books catalogued on Library Thing the tags people use to categorise their books are simply labels, although in many cases they differ from those publishers/booksellers would use. I would also respectfully disagree that the majority of readers (ie those who two or three books are year)would go anwhere near a newspaper book review, so for them genre and sub-genre labels are useful.

    It was interesting that at the event, when Ramsay read the book extracts, she did so from books she had wrapped in brown paper covers, so we couldn’t see what they were. As I said in my post, it was hard to decide what they were.

    Nancy Drew was written by a syndicate? Now you have shattered my illusions! Although, I suppose, the Sweet Valley High series and those dreadful Flowers in the Attic books continue the tradition.

  4. In Kinokuniya in Sydney a few years ago, I noticed that Nick Hornsby’s books were located in the Literature section, while Lisa Jewell’s books were under Romance. This infuriated me because to my mind Nick Hornsby and Lisa Jewell write in similar styles and in a similar genre. If anything, Nick Hornsby writes romance – and I would argue that Lisa Jewell is the better writer. But it seemed to me that because Nick Hornsby was male, he was the one writing “Literature”.

    I wish I hadn’t left Edinburgh just before the Book Festival! The talk you attended sounds like a cracker. I must admit I do judge a book by its cover. It used to be that when I heard the name Georgette Heyer, my Grandma’s pile of old library books came to mind. I didn’t feel encouraged to read anything by her. But a few years ago, the Arrow imprint at Random House republished Georgette Heyer’s novels with beautiful art on the covers. I bought one and have been a Georgette Heyer addict ever since. I think that art was probably flattering me in a subconscious way – “I know art! I’m reading something intelligent!” I hadn’t thought about that until now.

    I like Romance and am not embarrassed to say so, although I have heard people sneer about it. I overheard this funny conversation once when I was in the Romance section in Borders. A man and woman were walking past:

    Man: (disparaging tones) Romance!
    Woman: And what would you know about that?

  5. I’ve never read any Nick Hornby, but since everyone knows men don’t write romance (except under female psuedonyms (cue sniggering)) he must naturally write literature. /sarcasm. That is why some months ago I found a book such as Knight on Wheels such a revelation.

    I adore Georgette Heyer – she’s really the only romance writer I’ve much time for.

    Love the quote!

  6. I’m wondering whether content has a lot to do with it. After all, if it’s hard to tell the difference between Anna Karenina and Mills and Boon, then it’s not the quality of the author that’s in question here. I think that it requires a very fine literary sensitivity to write good romance (that’s to say, not about living a love, but about living the fantasy that precedes it) without falling into cliches and sentimentality. Modern chick lit is actually pretty fab in parts because it’s taken to using humour as a defusing device. Certainly the authors with witty voices like Anna Maxwell, appeal to me whereas others don’t. I like Georgette Heyer too because she works hard to develop character, has plots nicked from the adventure genre and also uses a great deal of humour. It’s possible that romance authors know the critical reception they’ll get (unlike crime, which as you rightly say is more receptive) and so they can follow formula knowing they don’t need critical approval to reach their target market.

  7. Obviously the extracts we listened to at the event were pretty carefully selected. But I think you’re probably right. Certainly the Mills & Boon didn’t seem to be your average doctor/nurse romance.

    I think it was the humour in Georgette Heyer that hooked me. Friday’s Child was the first one I read when I was about fourteen. I still think it’s one of the funniest, and the characters are wonderful.

  8. As an author of women’s light fiction (in this instance regional sagas) I’m certain I don’t write to formula. What is the formula anyway? The ‘girl-finds-boy-loses-boy-finds-boy-again’ is presumably the one that springs to mind when formula is discussed. But these days Romance is rarely what the women’s light fiction is about.
    Dealing with relationships (which remain the same no matter what era one writes about because of the unchanging way of human nature), heroine struggling to survive against the odds, against exploitation, poverty and finally making a life for herself, and OK finding true love if she’s lucky.
    I try to make the plot of each of my novels as different as possible. What is always the same, however, is that the main character is a woman. Is that writing to formula? Surely every novel written about human beings and how they interact to each other and to life could be seen as a formula.

    How is Dan Brown classed? Now that IS bad writing!

  9. emily pender

    Georgette Heyer often reminds me of Jane Austen, her characters are so well-observed and there is a dispassionate amusement and affection for annoying people that’s v. like Austen. I particularly like the ones set in sussex : The reluctant widow, which is a conscious takeoff of a gothic novel, is my favourite. i don’t know why there haven’t been any G Heyer movies? apparently she hated the only one they did make, of the Reluctant Widow, many years ago.
    i think eva ibbotson is another romance writer whose humour and insight into character move her into another stratosphere from M & B.

  10. Dodo
    Dan Brown is a textbook example of bad writing!

    Emily Pender
    I like The Reluctant Widow too – I like all of her ‘romantic crime’ ones – The Quiet Gentleman and the Tollgate spring to mind.

  11. emily pender

    Have you tried The Morning Gift by eva ibbotson? or A countess Below Stairs? Both really funny and charming -the first about a girl who is part of a family of austrian emigres in England during the second world war and the second about Russian aristocrats (in particular the Countess) working as a housemaid for an Earl just after the first world war. these books can cure the common cold or at least make you forget you’ve got it-
    ps you’d have to say that the duke of Avon is a prototype Colin Firth ? tho perhaps a tad more sinister. did you see the wonderful french and saunders parody of P & P where Mr darcy stomps into the family house and says “I’ve come for the next sister?”. The mother says, “Why? where is elizabeth?” and he says, “I’ve killed her. Where’s the next one?”

  12. emily pender

    pps re:men don’t write romance -did you know that peter o’donnell, the author of modesty blaise, actually wrote romances under the pen name Madeleine Brent -and won an award as the romance Writer of the Year (I think he didn’t go to the prize ceremony)

  13. Pingback: AustenBlog . . . she’s everywhere » Genre is just a word

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