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Confessions of a Romance Cynic

I have to preface this post with a request to not throw books and knives at the computer screen while shouting my name in anger. Are you prepared to not despise me? Good.

I don't get romances.


No seriously. I've never really  been able to read them - though I know a lot of folks do. I kind of skim the first couple pages and start laughing and abandon them. It's probably a character fault. (I can't watch pornos, either, for the record - I laugh a lot during them too - us Scorpios have interesting thoughts on love and sex).

But I'm a paranormal fiction ho and I see the words "paranormal romance" getting thrown around a lot; suddenly I'm tempted to pick up books with well-built guys painted on the front covers. But I just . . . can't. I'm afraid I'll pick it up and the Greater Plot will be subverted to the Amazing Love Conflict which will be built on formulaic, predictable lines.

So please, FFF readers and romance lovers, answer my two questions:

1) Why do you like romances? What mind set do I need to sit down and enjoy one? What do you not like about them?

2) As a romance cynic, can you recommend one or two that'll convince me the genre is amazing and that there are dozens of great paranormal books that I'm missing out on?


Sep. 17th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)
I agree wholeheartedly on the "happy ending" thing. I recall reading Defy the Eagle many years ago, at the behest of a partner at the time who enjoyed historical romances. All in all, it was a great book - a well-researched romance set during Bouddocia's revolt against Rome. The climax of the tale presented an emotionally devastating portrayal of Bouddocia's defeat - a slaughter in which most of the Celtic rebels were massacred by the Romans. The aftermath showed us the Roman heroine back in Rome, pining for her sweetheart and all the Celtic friends she's lost... and then, Lo And Behold! They're all reunited as slaves, whom the heroine immediately purchases and frees! Turns out that almost everyone who mattered in the book survived the battle and made his or her way down to Rome for the (somewhat) happy ending. I could see the hero surviving this way... but everybody? (The conceit of having them all live as conquered servants in Rome was... less than happy, I would think, but hey...) All in all, it was a forced, dishonest ending that spoiled an otherwise entertaining book - and all because the genre demands a happy ending.
Sep. 20th, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC)
"All in all, it was a forced, dishonest ending that spoiled an otherwise entertaining book - and all because the genre demands a happy ending."

It couldn't be because, say, the writer wrote a crappy happy ending, not because of the genre requirements? The way a mystery is solved at the end of a mystery novel can be well or poorly, but if you read to an end of a mystery book and it a had a crappy, illogical ending, would you blame the whole mystery genre for "forced, dishonest mystery solving"? Or would you maybe think that this particular author on this particular book did it badly.

I'm not saying there aren't a lot of romance novels with improbable, tacked on, forced happy endings, but as someone who has read good, bad and in between (of a variety of types of romance novels) that more often comes from the writing failing to write a good ending (or perhaps trying to shoehorn what never should have been a romance novel into the romance genre in order to capitalize on our huge buying base) than from some "forced" happy ending.

You're free to blame an entire genre for the actions of one writer who couldn't execute it effectively, but it seems pretty presumptuous to me.
Sep. 21st, 2007 12:56 am (UTC)
You're free to blame an entire genre for the actions of one writer who couldn't execute it effectively, but it seems pretty presumptuous to me.

Almost as presumptuous as virtually bitch-slapping someone you don't know in defense of a writer you may not have read? :)

It wasn't really the author's fault. She'd written a very good, well-pltoted totally enthralling book. The final battle was a kicker and I felt a true sense of dismay at the historically accurate ending. Then I could practically hear the editor telling her to get everybody back on stage for a curtain call just to show that no one who mattered had been killed. Y'know those films where the studio tacks on a new ending because they didn't like the one that the director had shot? It read like that. And while I don't totally absolve the author of blame (assuming that the editor didn't re-write the ending, that is - not always an accurate assumption!), it was clearly an ending that hadn't felt honest to her and was dictated by the demands of the genre, the editor and the audience.

I don't hate romances - kinda like some of 'em, myself. I hate genre conventions that strait-jacket honest storytelling and skillful authors... a situation that, judging by the complaint cited in this thread, is alive and well almost 20 years after I read Defy the Eagle.
Sep. 21st, 2007 02:25 am (UTC)
tl;dr response part one
"Almost as presumptuous as virtually bitch-slapping someone you don't know in defense of a writer you may not have read? :)"

Not really, no. One is indicting an entire genre and its conventions based on an ending of a freaking Harlequin you read twenty years ago that didn't meet your expectations, the other is pointing out that one poorly written, bad-fit-for-the-story happy ending on one book (from a publisher known in the industry for some of the more stringent "formula requirements") doesn't mean the whole genre is crap or that the concept of genre in general is "strait-jacketing honest storytelling."

She sold the book to Harlequin Historical. Chances are she wrote it for Harlequin Historical. No one selling to Harlequin is going to be under any illusion as to what sort of ending that line of books requires. You don't actually think that she wrote some gritty bleak ending, accidentally sold to Harlequin and went oops, I have to get them together in the end, do you?

And to be quite honest, if you're judging romance by the complaints in this thread, then you're getting not getting a very accurate sample, since a good portion of the "complaints" I've seen in this thread are along the lines of "I skimmed two romances once ten years ago and I can't stand them." You've got people who don't know there is a difference between category and single title. And I'd put money that most of the people who are complaining about romance haven't read one recently, or picked one up at random off a shelf.

Is there a lot of shitty, formulaic romance out there? Hell yes. Are authors "straight jacketed by the genre conventions"? If they want to sell well, maybe. There's simply a much, much bigger market for romance novels, and if you want to take your gritty, non-romance novel and slap on a happy ending and call it a romance, that's your perogative. But no one's out there reaching into the typewriters or "rewriting the ending" for the authors.

Romances have come a long way in twenty years, it's a WAY different beast than it was 20 years ago and if you're going to indict an entire genre based on some Harlequin (which, by the way, is one of the houses that puts out some of the more "straight-jacketed" formulaic romances out there, IMHO) you read in the eighties? Yeah, I am going to call that presumptuous.

Romance is much more, much more diverse and frankly, often much better than "Harlequin" yet virtually every non-romance-reader I know equates the genre with "Harlequin" and dismisses the genre as a whole based on some stack of categories they snuck from their mother's bookcase in eighth grade or some tacky clinch-cover historical where they giggled at the dirty parts.

It's too bad that non-romance, non-genre doesn't sell as well as ... well, every thing else, but that's just the way it is. And no one is forcing anyone to write to these requirements. If a writer does so because they'd like to sell and/or make a living at this crazy business... and if they're unable to find a way to make their own artistic vision work with the conventions of the genre in a way that produces an effective story? If they choose to "sell out" and don't manage to do it well? That's not the fault of the genre.

Sep. 21st, 2007 02:25 am (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one

Maybe that ending was tacked on and hokey and unbelievable and wince inducing. I don't know. I didn't read it. But to blame the genre conventions themselves rather than blame her for her inability to write effectively to those conventions (or stick to her guns and risk not getting published) ... seems silly to me. But don't try to tell me that someone writing for Harlequin Historical didn't know exactly what she was getting into or was "surprise" forced into tacking on a happy ending. And if you picked up a Harlequin Historical and expected a "gritty, realistic ending" and didn't get one... there's a good chance that had a lot more to do with your expectations than with the genre straightjacketing the author.

I'm the first to admit there's a TON of badly written paint-by-numbers fill-in-the-blank CRAP in romance, way more than in other genres. But first off, there's way more romance *period* than there is of all the other genres combined and secondly, the romance genre is first and foremost based on emotion, not on intellect. That doesn't mean it has to be stupid, but like horror, to be a good romance novel it has to evoke the intended emotion effectively. Plot, character, texture, literary merit, it's all in the service of that emotion. If you aren't reading for that emotion, it's a lot like going to a horror movie and bitching about the set design. Yes, but, was it scary?

Romance isn't for everyone. Hell, genre isn't for everyone, but way, WAY more than any other genre, Romance gets bitchslapped by uninformed readers (and non-readers) who judge without actually knowing what they're talking about. I'm not saying you're one of those people, you say you've read romances and I believe you. But I take issue with the idea that any publisher is "making" these writers compromise their artistic vision. Writing is an art and a craft, but publishing is a business, not a charity. They publish what sells, and genre fiction sells. Romance sells. Happily ever after sells.

Blame the author for selling out her vision, if you want. Blame the romance buying hoards for having low standards, because I certainly do, sometimes. Blame the publishers for being willing to put out tons of mediocre romance so they can keep up with the huge demand and their dirty little stepchild romance can fund their more literary, non-commercial ventures. But to blame the genre itself for the fact that a lot of people write it badly and a lot of people gobble up badly written examples of it or because people who maybe shouldn't be writing romance do so just to get the romance market's dollars?

I'm not virtually bitchslapping *you* for that. I don't know you. But I am virtually bitchslapping that argument.

Sep. 21st, 2007 03:13 am (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one
Hit a nerve, has this subject? :)

Valid arguments all. Clearly, the book was interesting enough for me to remember it more-or-less fondly after 20 years and the hundreds of other books I've read since then. The author, therefore, did something right, even if the ending wasn't up to the rest of the book.
Sep. 21st, 2007 03:31 am (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one
"Hit a nerve, has this subject? :)"

Oh dear, am I being a hysterical young lady? Do forgive me. *eyeroll*

Yes, it does hit a nerve, just like I'm sure it might if someone dismissed the genre you know and love as "that dungeons and dragons crap with elves and wizards that social retards with a dice fetish use because they can't get dates" based on half a role playing session they sat in on once because their boyfriend made them.

I would not call it that, because I have, a long time ago, enjoyed the odd RPGs, but I've flipped through enough RPG books to see laughable stereotypes, cliched storylines and depictions of women that make me wonder if the writer has ever met a real live one.

I'm sure yours aren't like that, I'm sure there are plenty of role playing games out there today that I'd enjoy. I'm sure that the RPGs of today are a far cry from the ones I dabbled in in the late eighties/early nineties. But I'm sure, even if I picked up one of your... (? books? I'm not entirely sure how one even writes an RPG) I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate it because it's not my genre and whatever people read/play RPGs for... that's not something that interests me. So whatever the heck you do well in them, I probably wouldn't notice, and I'd probably be able to pick out laughable bits and pieces and/or completely not get what you're going for, because I wasn't reading it for its intended purpose.

That historical romance you read? Maybe it failed as a historical novel, but it wasn't a historical novel, it was a historical romance novel, which means that whatever else it did, it's primary task was to tell an affecting love story in a historical. And if that's not your cup of tea, that's fine. If you're reading it, all, "Enough of this lovey dovey crap, let's get back to the gritty action," that's kind of on the same level as me, as a non-RPG afficionado picking through your RPG book-thing, not looking at it from a gaming perspective and getting pissed off over the gender politics. (again, this is just as an example, I know nothing about your RPG book-things, they are not my genre. Maybe you have outstanding gender politics and emotionally affecting love stories in your RPGs, but that's not their intended use (I'm guessing). But if I were to play your game and you were setting up the ... um, princess and the elf as an epic love story (can you even do that in RPGS?) and then at the end you kill the fucking princess? I would think your RPG sucked, even if the gameplay (or whatever) was award winning calibur.)

But that would be because I was reading it for something you never intended it to do.
Sep. 21st, 2007 07:17 pm (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one

I'm a lurker, but I had to come out and say this: I LOVE you! What you've said is so spot-on, you've taken the words right out of my mouth!

I work at Penguin and I'm always debating people on this subject. One woman recently told me, "I don't buy trash. I mean, how many times can you read about a man's member?"

When asked about the last time she'd actually read a romance novel, she replied, "Oh, I read one once. I think it was published in the eighties." Yeah, way to make an informed opinion.

Romance isn't for everyone; is it really necessary to denigrate such an expansive genre?
Sep. 21st, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one
*g* Thank you! :)

I think there're a lot of reasons people feel comfortable trashing romance when they wouldn't think of doing it with other genres. The fact that it's a genre preferred by women probably factors into it. I also think society in general tends to privilege intellect over emotion - and IMHO it's an emotion-based genre. I also think the fact that what most people equate with romance (category contemporaries or historicals with mantitty clinch covers) do tend to have pretty rigid formulas and are turned out at a pace that, perhaps, doesn't make for the best quality control has something to do with it as well.

I also think that a lot of people see reading as one of the more "high brow" forms of entertainment. Watch all the trashy reality shows you want and have your own guilty pleasure genre movie collections, but reading? That is for liter-ah-ture. That is for elevating the mind, you see, and how dare you sully the good name of prose by using that for enjoyable, time-passing, feel good entertainment. Why don't you read a "real book". Why don't you read something "worthy of your intelligence". To which I say, frankly, suck me. I don't need my reading choices to confirm my intelligence, thank you very much. I don't read to show people how smart I am. I read because I like to.

You don't (generally) see people hurling insults at men for flocking to improbable summer action blockbusters, implying that by enjoying them they're rotting their brains or getting all paternalistic about how if they watch too many action movies, they'll get a skewed idea of how much damage the human body can withstand or basic physics. But admit to being a fan of romance? Well, see some of the other threads.

Is most romance great literature? No. Neither is most genre or literary fiction. And for every Steinbeck or Asimov or whatever other "worthy and standing the test of time" fiction people want to hold up against your average romance novel, there were thousands and thousands of other boring, pretentious pieces of literary and other-genre crap that had one print run and sank into oblivion and got pulped. "Challenging" "Original" and "Unpredictable" doesn't equal good any more than meeting genre expectations equals bad.

But time and again and again and again, you admit to liking romance and sometimes wanting a guarantee of a HEA and you're labeled soft-minded, bad-taste-having so-and-so who wouldn't know a good plot if it bit you in the ass. Reading for entertainment and sometimes being entertained by, say, a love story and a guarantee your $6.99 and X reading hours won't end with you feeling gutted and depressed and betrayed a la the ending of City of Angels?

Well, if making fun or attacking or perpetuating myths about that and congratulating themselves about their ignorance makes some people feel better about themselves and their chosen forms of entertainment, most of the time I'm like, whatever. But sometimes, I stand up and say, no, liking Romance doesn't mean I'm a retarded, undersexed, tasteless ninny. I'm actually a pretty smart, reasonably sexed ninny with a variety of tastes, thank you very much.

Sep. 22nd, 2007 11:22 pm (UTC)
Re: tl;dr response part one
I remember the late John M. Ford (author of How Much for Just the Planet, The Dragon Waiting, and other fiction, talking about "kill porn" regarding men's action novels, with loving detailed descriptions of guns and detailed descriptions of bullets entering the character's bodies and the blood and guts and gore and body damage inflicted. "kill porn" is not a term of approval, particularly not 20+ years ago, when detailed explicit sex scenes in any genre except crass porn were a lot rarer than they are today


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