The Girl and the Romance Novel, Part Two

By MAWP student Brittany Petersen

Read the first part of this topic in Brittany’s previous post: “The Girl and the Romance Novel, Part One.”

copyright Hayley_Wigginton @ flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hayley_wigginton/)

As I’ve discussed in my previous post, the romance genre has a simple formula that doesn’t necessarily include sex or an unflattering portrayal of women: An authentic love story (or at least lust story) with a happy ending. That’s all we ask.

Even if people are cool with the sex scenes and the perceived portrayal of women, the happy ending bit might still give pause, and for that we blame Aristotle. The idea that tragedy is of more weight and value than comedy―that the happy ending is inferior to the complex, likely woeful ending―goes all the way back to 350 BC Athens and remains incredibly pervasive in Western culture. Take a look at the list of Oscar Best Picture winners for all the evidence you need: With a delightful exception for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, the winners of the recent past run more in the vein of Titanic and Crash and No Country for Old Men―not exactly rays of cinematic sunshine.

Romance thus has to overcome an incredible number of obstacles, including deep-seated assumptions about the quality of stories with happy endings, to be considered “legitimate” literature. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, but Selinger almost had me convinced. I just had one more up my sleeve: Redundancy. Nora Roberts can’t be coming up with wildly different plot lines every time. Don’t romance novels become repetitive at a certain point? There must be a finite number of ways for two people to fall in love/lust. It’s got to get old after awhile.

Again, Eric Selinger points out what should be obvious: “From the outside, any genre looks repetitive.” A football game, the blues, a book of sonnets—we pretty much know what’s going to happen before it does. One team will win, an improv based on a six-note blues scale will last fifteen minutes, and words will rhyme. But to connoisseurs of the subject, the differences are obvious. “When there’s a clearly established set of expectations, conventions, a contract between author and reader, then you can notice the variations,” Selinger said. Once you understand the norm, you recognize when it’s fluctuating. So you can’t appreciate romance literature until you are a reader of romance literature. That makes sense.

There is one drawback to the genre that Selinger cannot deny, and it’s a product of the reinforcement of all these stereotypes: Writing romance novels marks you. As an author, once your name is tied to something—a political slant, a popular genre—you’re pretty much stuck. Just ask Keith Olbermann or even Nora Roberts, who felt trapped enough within her own subgenre that she created a pseudonym, J.D. Robbs, in order to branch out into a new territory of romance writing.

And of course there are the more base assumptions: That if you write something in a novel, it must have happened to you, or be something you want to happen to you. Pretty sure everyone from George Orwell to Stephen King would disagree with that basic principle of literature.

So…is it worth it? According to stats drummed up by romance novelist Brenda Hiatt, the payout for a romance novel is anywhere from a few hundred bucks to more than $100,000. Top-paying publishers are, not surprisingly, the giants Random House, Ballantine (a member of the Random House Publishing Group) and Grand Central Publishing (formerly owned by Time Warner, now a part of the Hachette Book Group). But a number of smaller publishers—notably Harlequin, Pocket, Silhouette and Berkley/Jove—provide a pay-out of at least $10,000-$20,000, which ain’t bad for something that probably does not need to be labored on for years (or even months) on end. Royalties tend to hover around 6-8% for print and 30-40% for electronic, which is standard in the publishing industry.

It should be noted that electronic publishing has completely revolutionized the romance genre. In fact, Selinger said, “Romance is what’s been driving the e-book revolution.” And for a reason that would leave Fabio distressed and likely less in the mood to rip off any clothes: No cover art. The anonymity of purchase and display is essential to convincing people to leave Tolstoy at home in favor of Jerry and Christine’s passionate love affair.

“Even today, I think there’s a tremendous bias against the genre and an assumption that if you connect yourself to the genre in some way, either as a reader or as an author, you really left the world of serious literature behind, the world of intelligent people,” Selinger said.

For his part, Selinger would love nothing more than to see more of his students take an interest in popular romance. “If you’re training people to be writers, that’s an enormous slice, the largest part of the marketplace,” Selinger said. “These are the books people like to read. They’re read by smart and sophisticated people, just like literary fiction.”

So where to start our romantic erudition? Selinger recommends reading this article by author Jenny Crusie, then start reading. Sites like Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author can be a guide for beginners or experienced travelers. And remember that as authors, we can and should be able to appreciate and speak fluently in any genre language—including one that celebrates the “smooth, milky skin” and “living moistness of the full, red mouth” that we all yearn for. Or maybe that’s just me.

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