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.