15 August 2013

The Perception of Romance and Sexism

I read a great article today! You can find the link to it here. I applaud the writers. I hope they continue with their study. Ladies... You've hit the nail on the head but not gone far enough. Let me give you some examples.

When my first novel (a two-book serial novel) was released, I overhead one of my beta readers (a gent with degrees in foreign languages and English) tell a friend on the phone: "Yes, there is a romance IN it, but you just have to read this plot." When I entered a SF/F/H contest that had recently added a romance category, I found myself unable to enter in that category, though my book had a romance co-plot, because their definition of romance included: "There are two POV characters in the book. The characters are rather two-dimensional and are not changed significantly by the experiences they have in the book."


You see, there exists a series of gross misconceptions surrounding romance. To be specific...

1. "Romance has a standard plotline (the formula), chosen from a short list of popular formulas." People liken writing romance to tossing a bowling ball down a lane with bumpers. That's not true. A more accurate description of writing romance, just as when writing ANY genre of work, is that you have a football field worth of room and can move in any direction. The idea that romance will have a HEA/HFN and will involve a romantic couple is no more restrictive than the idea that a mystery will involve a crime that is successfully solved.

2. "Romance is lacking in characterization." Beyond the fact that any successful romance MUST have solid characterization and realistic goals and motivations, you're not even limited to two main characters (or one or two more if it's erotic romance with menage). With writers like myself, who write in heavily cross-genre worlds, you may find books that span the epic fantasy line and contain (as my first book did) in excess of 20 POV characters, only two of whom were in a romantic relationship (though they were the two of the four central characters in the book).

3. "Romance is fluffy, brainless tripe." Mind you, I had one reader (who clearly expected that sort of book) complain to me that my books made her think too much. I never thought it was possible to think too much. To over think a situation? Yes. To think too much? Not so much. As for fluffy? Also not true. I have written a novella that ended up with a review stating: "This is definitely not a "feel good" light kind of read. This story is filled with tortured souls, lost love, and the inhumanity of man. It explores the darker part of life; from torture, bought women, and the struggle for power, we gain an insight of how a favored warrior can become a beast." (Chere Gruver for Sensual Romance) Moreover, I met a professional reviewer who'd reviewed one of my non-HEA love stories (for RT Magazine) THREE YEARS earlier. She not only remembered the details of the book, but she said: "I cried at the drop of a hat for three weeks. The book was so good, I read it four times in those three weeks." (Not every romance genre reader is looking for escapist fiction, and darker romance does exist in the market.) I once wrote a novel in which every main character was dead at the end, and it was the happiest thing that could have happened to them...sort of an atypical HEA. The book was described by a reviewer as: "the story of love, honor and betrayal unfolding against the ruthless backdrop of the warriors’ lives, mortal risks and immortal souls being at the stake." (Daria for Romance Junkies- 4 Ribbons)

And it's not just me writing gritty, realistic romance. Sherrilyn Kenyon took grief for the amount of torture in ACHERON, from some quarters. It was over the top, but his life of suffering was supposed to be over the top. I compare the people who complain about that book to the ones shocked and horrified at "The Red Wedding" in Game of Thrones. Personally, I saw the rebound on Robb Stark coming a mile away and knew it would be ugly when it landed. Mind you, though most of my books are romance cross-genres, I consider myself a SF/F/H/P author first and romance author second, but my readers come primarily from the romance pool.

4. "Romance writers write it because they can't write other genres." This also includes the "it's easy" concept. That is clearly written by people who want to believe it. It's not true of every romance writer. I started off writing poetry and non-fiction articles. I moved from there into short stories, none of which were romance. Romance and novels are the two late-comers to a very long writing life for me. I have written plenty of work that was not romance in nature, including straight genre SF/F/H. In fact, the world building in my romance cross-genres is no less strenuous than it is in my straight-genre writing. I've written straight-genre stories in my romance cross-genre worlds, and I write in 24 series worlds (including an overarching universe that contains 3 of those worlds), 23 of which already have books out on them (12 releases out in the most populated one so far).

Now... Why do these things continue? They continue because some of the more-established genres (like SF/F/H) still have an "old guard" of well-known males dominating the airwaves. I'm not anti-men or anything like that, but when there are entire blogs dedicated to how female authors in the field are "ruining" their male institution of writing in "their" genre, a war of the sexes has the stage ready set. If you read the statistics kept by BroadUniverse, you will find that sexism in the genre continues today. Since those voices already have a ready-made audience hanging on their every word, it is easy for these persons to perpetuate old stereotypes. The latest SFWA blow-up about sexism is a good example. As a woman, I was not offended by the initial picture and comments in the bulletin (by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg), though some were. But when they responded to the flurry, they made it worse and instead of saying something as simple (and probably true) as: "We didn't realize what we said would be taken as offensive.", they used their popularity and platform to attack all women who WERE offended instead. That comes off as misogynistic and high-handed. dismissive of the feelings of others (and certainly of their work, seeing as how they worded their attack on writing women), and that's the way I see the issue of dismissing everything written by women and for women as well.

How can we stop it? We live in a rape culture, where women's rights to proper medical care are at stake, where women STILL do not earn equal pay for equal work, and we wonder why we can't stop demeaning statements about a woman's work in an established field? I don't see an end to it in the near future, sadly. Destroying these established stereotypes means destroying the mindset behind them, and bigotry is hard to burn out of a culture.

Quick additional edit: I know many MEN who write in the M/F romance field (and women who write M/M, as well), some with female pen names, some with male, and some with gender non-specific or leading initials, obscuring gender identification. Keep in mind that the backlash against romance is unilateral, whether the author is male, female, or undisclosed.


'gina said...

I love this post. I just discovered you through the SCA Author's group, which I just joined. Looking forward to reading more from you.

-Regina (Dulcinaya the 'Gypcian)

Gail said...

I just read your post and you have nailed the attitude right on. My mother (still!) derides my preference for romance, and while it might have been pretty fluffy reading 30 years ago (appropriate for a teenager) a lot of what I read now is complex and multifaceted, and the romance often is secondary to the storyline.

Keep writing - and write faster, darn it!:-D