I love this book title-- isn't it delicious? Just for fun I looked it up and it's by Suzanne Enoch-- a Scottish Highland Romance, and it looks wonderful.
But that's not why I mention it. (Although there you go, Suzanne, a free plug, via the nice lady at my gym.)
See, I was at aqua classes--plump middle-aged to elderly women getting breathless in the pool. Yeah, there is no way to make it sound sexy, but an interesting comradeship happens there. People talk about what they assume to be neutral topics--remodeling houses, cars that break down, medical bills, pets, husbands, children... because, see, you never know who's going to be in that pool. They could be incredibly liberal or they could be incredibly conservative. The other day I was talking about my books and a woman looked a little sheepish. "I don't read gay romance, mostly because I've, uh, seen, a lot of, well, kinds of romance up close in personal. You know. At Burning Man."
So, you never know who's been in orgies at Burning Man, either. It's a crapshoot.
But I always tell people what I write if it comes up. (Sometimes if it doesn't. Seriously, they get to talk about their subjects, sometimes I just want to talk about mine. Sue me.) So far, if anybody's been offended, they were so offended by my complete and total lack of shame that they haven't said a thing. Which is fine, because if what I write freaks them out, nothing else I say is going to make them like me--and I feel free to cast similar judgments. The woman who loathed animated features and thought Tangled was boring, for instance? That's all she needed to tell me. After that, she and I had nothing in common and would never be friends. (Okay--it's okay if you don't like Tangled--but if you hate the entire medium? No. We're through. We have nothing to talk about.)
So anyway, today, a sweet woman caught me as we were getting dressed after the shower. (No, don't try to picture it, you'll just break your brain and need to boil your inner eye in ammonia and bleach. As far as you're concerned it's all floating heads until we clear the door into the gym, and then it's a terrifying number of really built gym bunny guys who make me want to tear ass out of there because DUDE I have no busy hauling my fat ass between them and the mirrors.)
Anyway, this woman said she was reading a book called A Rogue With a Brogue, and--her words--the title was so delicious she wanted to share. But her friends on FaceBook all read highbrow stuff, and she kept her dirty romance secret to herself. But she'd heard me talking about writing romance and she thought she could share with me.
I agree--it's a delicious title. It looks like a marvelous book. Suzanne Enoch has some loyal fans and some lovely covers and I hope she's kicking ass and taking names.
But her poor fan. Stuck telling idiots who babble at the hot tub about her favorite flavor of book (that's me I'm referring to--I'm the idiot.) She was smart, charming, and beautiful. A lovely smile and an infectious laugh and she sort of lit up when she was talking about this guilty pleasure.
And my heart broke a little for her. I mean, I've been her. Nobody in my staff room at work read what I read--at the time, it was urban fantasy and PNR. My friends read my books because they were kind--but they had to answer the gauntlet about how trashy they must be. I mean, how good could they be? They were trashy vampire romance, and God knows, Amy wrote them. As far as the guys were concerned, they could be shit. I remember, one of my best friends in the staff room pulling me aside after I'd announced on the blog that I'd be posting the Jack and Teague shorts. "Gay werewolf romance?" he asked, in the same tone someone might reserve for, "Amateur BBW porn?"
"I like it," I remember saying. "The guys can be equal. The dynamic is really strong." (At least I hope that's what I said--Jebus, Jack and Teague were like, 2008. I mean, eight years--that's plenty of time to turn groveling me into strong woman me, that's only truth.)
I remember thinking it anyway. I remember having to defend what I was writing--to a group of guys who thought anything I was writing was trash because it was genre fiction.
There is such a bias against genre fiction. (And women, but that's another post.)
It's not fair. Genre fiction is popular because people need reassurance that something they read is going to end the way they need it to. If they read horror, they can expect gory deaths and not to get attached to any characters. If they read romance, mostly they can expect a happy ending. Or at least an ending in which the couple's efforts to get together matter, and it's proved that the individual efforts towards happiness are important against the grand scope of the world.
People love the calm hand on their shoulder that comes with genre expectations--but that doesn't make genre fiction crap. It doesn't stop genre fiction from enlarging vocabulary, enlarging world view, informing the reader on various topics and introducing themes that transcend any one genre and are present in all genres and literary fiction as a whole. Well written romance has prose that rivals what can be found in literary fiction and definitely transcends what's often found in autobiography and biography, and, like Wordsworth and Coleridge and Hawthorn and Poe all strove to do, genre fiction, romance in particular, strives to move the reader emotionally, make them feel and empathize for their fellow human beings, in what is becoming a rarer and rarer skill these days, and something that I believe we should always practice.
I've said these things before. "Romance is Important" is one of my favorite battle cries, and I'm sure folks who have followed this blog for a while are sick of it. "Yeah, yeah, romance is important, genre fiction doesn't suck, highbrow critics do, c'mon, Amy, when are you going to get another schtick?"
Well, probably never, I'm afraid. My son loves to try out highbrow fiction-- Big T, the one with the communication difficulties. He was telling me this morning that he tried to read Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and it was hard, so he used one of his monthly Audible credits to buy the book, and he finally read a Google article that told him to just sit back and let it wash over him, which was how he viewed artistic cinema and he'd found that worked.
And in the course of the following discussion, I was reminded--again--of how many people in this world actually read for pleasure. And of those numbers, how many actually read literary fiction. And of those numbers, how many would bother to read the book, listen to the book, and then read the critical theory on the book as they were slogging their way through it.
The answer was... very few would do what my learning impaired son did in order to find the secret key to unlock the literary holy grail.
But very, very very many would pick up a piece of genre fiction to pass the time.
So, while highbrow literary fiction has it's place--and it's a very good place and I'm not going to argue that--we need to acknowledge what genre fiction can do as well. If a thousand people pick up a book, that book might change a hundred lives. If fifty thousand people pick up a book, that book has changed a (very) small town. As the attitudes of society change about things like LGBTQ rights and social diversity, it is the genre fiction writers who are going to pass those ideas on. Of course other writers--literary fiction writers--have been talking about those things for years, but the genre fiction writers have heard.
And written with their own voices to add to the roar.
If an edict on social responsibility is printed on a computer, and 9/10ths of the country doesn't own a computer, does it make a sound?
But if a heroine in a popular genre fiction book makes the same discovery, and 100,000 print copies are sold, can you hear that song now?
If a hundred heroines in a hundred genre fiction books are singing to change hearts and minds, is that song taking shape and form?
Genre fiction has it's place-- and it shouldn't be a place of shame. It shouldn't be something you have to hide from your friends or your colleagues. You shouldn't have to wait to tell a stranger about a book as delicious as A Rogue with a Brogue.
I don't have a solution here--this is well covered territory. I think it's maybe like coming out in all things--it just takes many instances of small acts of bravery. Telling a stranger, then telling a friend. Then telling a group of friends. Then standing up and not apologizing. "I read romance--and I'm proud."
Sounds silly, right? But it's not. It's literally the proclamation that you won't let anyone else influence how you think and what you believe is important. It is, in fact, incredibly brave.
So maybe think about it that way. Telling friends about your reading material is incredibly brave. But the more people who tell their friends, the more romance heroines will be heard. And those heroines have something important to say.