This isn’t the post I intended to do today. It was going to be about movies and what they can teach novelists about their art, but that will have to wait, because the universe is prodding me to talk about something else. (I’ll have to crave your indulgence if it gets a bit long as I’m working this out as I go.)
First, Chuck Wendig started a conversation over at his blog about genre and whether we need it or whether it gets in the way of people telling the stories they want to tell. Chuck being Chuck, it was expressed a bit more explosively than that, but that was part of what it was about.
I basically agree with this. I think genre and naming it is a useful tool for marketing books but it doesn’t really have anything to do with whether a story is good or not or, and – this is the important part – whether there is an audience of readers who would like it. But publishing is a business and most businesses like ‘sure things’, or as close to sure as can be arranged. So, in the print-only past, many genre-bending stories, which readers would have loved, struggled to find publishing homes.
The digital revolution has already, and is continuing to, change that. Publishers are more willing to take risks, people have the option of self-publishing and books can stay on the virtual shelf forever and take time to build a readership. All of which means that we are now getting more books that don’t fit neatly into genre slots and some of them are doing very well thank you. People like me, who don’t care what a book is classified as, as long as I love the story, are very happy about this.
BUT… not all readers are the same. Had I responded to Chuck’s post (update: I have, now), I would have said, ‘but what about the romance readers’? Romance readers LOVE their genre and its mores and perhaps more than any other group of genre fans, can be very protective of them. Many romance readers do not want their genre bent or messed with, as its traditions are the very reasons they read it (and its multifarious sub-genres).
Before I go on, I need to make something very clear here. I am not criticising or patronising romance readers. I read romance. If you have read this blog at all, or looked around, you will know I also write romance (among other things). The romance community has been good to me and a smarter, kinder, nicer, more widely read bunch of people you would be hard pressed to find. PLEASE do not think for the tiniest fraction of a second that I am joining the brainless commenters who dismiss whole groups of people as stupid or weird based on what they like to read.
What I’m saying is that some readers of particular genres LIKE the predictable aspects of their favoured genre and do not like stories that bend them.
I bought this book at the recent Romance Writers of Australia conference. Eloisa was one of the speakers at the conference and it is my habit to buy a copy of at least one of each speaker’s books and have them signed while there. I hadn’t read anything else of hers although apparently lots of other people have, as she is a NYT bestseller.
I loved it. I found the characters sympathetic, the love scenes moving and the story charming. I especially loved Theo, the ugly duchess. I whizzed through it, hardly putting it down and enjoyed every page.
But apparently, this was not a universal experience.
Now, on the one hand, this is hardly surprising. There is, as they say, no argument about taste. But I must admit to being surprised by some of the criticisms. Not because they were expressed horridly. This was not a case of trolling. Indeed, many of the commenters went out of their way to say how much they normally liked James’ work, but that this novel hadn’t worked for them. And some of the criticisms, of things like pacing, are the sort of thing I would expect in a thoughtful review and although they weren’t problems for me, I could see their point.
The ones that surprised me were the objections that were rooted in genre expectations.
There were three big ones (from memory).
One was that the hero and heroine spend a significant chunk of the novel apart. This didn’t bother me as I enjoyed the way they developed and their separation was a necessary part of that. But at least one commenter described James’ decision to do this as violating a ‘rule’ of romance.
Another big stumbling block was that the hero slept with other people while they were apart. I don’t want to make this a defence of the book or the characters, so I won’t go into his reasons and possible justifications, except to say that it didn’t particularly bother me in the context of the story. But some of the reviewers found this an insuperable turn-off. I read several variations of ‘I know it happens in real life, but I turn to romance for fantasy and I don’t want to read it here’.
Another was the character of the Ugly Duchess herself. In response to the circumstances in the novel, Theo, the heroine, becomes regimented to the point of rigidity. Some commenters mentioned OCD and that’s not out of order. This didn’t bother me at all. I loved the characterisation and I found her hyper-organisation kind of endearing. But some people interpreted it very differently from me. In itself, that is not surprising, but where I was surprised was in the underlying assumption that all romance heroines must be likeable all the time, or the story is ruined.
They shouldn’t really have surprised me. I have come across these feelings before. But I just don’t feel this way about genre conventions, so it did surprise me that they could be SO important to other readers.
So, with this insight into the minds of a particular group of readers of a particular genre, where does this leave me?
As a reader, grateful for the 5 star reviewers, who shared my experience of the book, so that I don’t feel like a crazy person.
As a writer who is about to release a romance novel?
On the one hand, I’m terrified. This has shown me just how hard this room can be to work and if it is this hard for Eloisa, what is it going to be like for me? (And yet, I know that you can’t please all the people all of the time and if I couldn’t cope with that I wouldn’t be doing this. Still….)
On the other hand, there is a part of me that wants to go out and find every convention of the genre, tear it down and rebuild it in a new image of what a romantic story can be. (I am beginning to see why the pig-headed Duchess appealed to me.) I love a good romance, but I like ones that feel ‘real’ just as much as ones that are more fantasy-based. In fact, if I’m being honest, I like them more.
I like characters with good hearts but I like them even more when they’re good-hearted but also stubborn and difficult and do stupid things because then they feel more like the people I know and – let’s cut to the chase here – like me. When someone has to rise above their own failures and weaknesses to find happiness, that’s my favourite kind of story.
I should say here that I’m sure there are plenty of romances that do this and also fulfill the requirements of the die-hard romance fans. I’ve read ones that do it. But clearly, some fans want more fantasy in their romance than I need or even want. And clearly, some readers are more comfortable with stories that bend the ‘rules’ than others.
Here’s the thing. As a writer, I’m not sure where this leaves me in regard to genre. Can you play with the conventions of a genre and still be a proponent of the genre? Where does the line fall between playing with the conventions and being disrespectful of the devotees of the genre? I am sure (because I’ve heard her talking about the book) that for Eloisa, this novel was very much a book of her heart and absolutely a romance. And I and the four and five-star reviewers agree. But some of the readers – devoted fans of both the genre and Eloisa – feel let down.
What do you think? How much responsibility does a writer have to the expectations of readers? And does it differ by genre? Is it right to write with those things in mind, or wrong? Is it even possible? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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