Romance’s Detractors and Benefactors…Who’s Right?

Are romance novels badly written? The debate seemingly never ends.

Romance is the (old-school reference alert) Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction. A month seldom passes when a noted writer doesn’t (at least seemingly) disparage romance novels and/or authors, inevitably sparking a spirited defense of the genre from its writers and fans. This happened again a few days ago when Curtis Sittenfeld, in a piece promoting Eligible, her modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, stated that “most romances are badly written.” After reading two days worth of social media comments on the dust-up, I feel the need to offer my own defense of the genre…and Sittenfeld, too.

There is a school of thought that says writers should nurture other writers, and never criticize them. After all, anyone who has ever written a book knows how hard it is. Maybe not digging a ditch in a drought hard, but sometimes it feels like the mental equivalent. So we writers should support one another. And anyway, criticism is what readers are for, right? But most writers, however renowned, are still readers first. So naturally, we have opinions on what we read, whether we share them or not.

I’ve been an obsessive reader all my life—I devour biographies, cookbooks, classics and literary fiction. But I can say without hesitation or embarrassment that I love romance novels best. Ask me my desert island genre and that’s it. Anything else is not. Even. Close. So…do I think most romances are badly written? Reading is an inherently subjective experience; we each apply our own tastes and life experiences to every story we consume, so no two of us will ever look at a book exactly the same way. How then do we quantify “good” or “bad”? One way is to look at certain technical aspects of a work, like dialogue tags or punctuation. Any introductory MFA class or fiction how-to blog will tell aspiring writers to keep dialogue tags simple: Use “said” and “asked” and nothing else. Avoid tags entirely whenever you can. Also, adverbs are the devil. Exclamation points? More than one or two per 100,000 words is probably too many. Many writers in many genres follow these rules. Very few romance writers do. There are romance authors who routinely have characters giggle, breathe, laugh and sigh dialogue, or exclaim repeatedly. Personally, I dislike dialogue tags that are not variations of “said,” and I don’t use them. (How on earth does one giggle dialogue, anyway?) That said, characters in my novel routinely “reply,” “mutter,” etc. As a reader, I enjoy this sort of variety, so I write that way, too, even though it would set an MFA professor’s teeth on edge. I think it’s worth noting that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen routinely uses dialogue tags like “cried” and “exclaimed,” and she shows some big love for adverbs. So, if romance writers use more dialogue tags than some deem acceptable, and we sprinkle those adverbs around liberally, I don’t think it automatically indicates “bad” writing. Maybe we just learned from the master.

Another way we can try to quantify what’s “good” or “bad” is by examining a book’s editing, or lack thereof. Using this yardstick, a lot of romance novels—especially those that are self-published, but also many that are traditionally published—come up short. A good book takes time. To quote Phyllis A. Whitney, “a good book isn’t written—it’s rewritten.” When I finished the first draft of my debut romance, Heaven in the Dark, I laid it aside for weeks and came back to it with fresh eyes. Since I am also a professional editor, I gave it a structural edit (whether, like a lawyer, I had a fool for a client, is another subject) and multiple rounds of revisions before sharing it with beta readers. With their feedback, I made more revisions and then had another round of beta reading. Finally, I copy edited and proofread the manuscript within an inch of its life. That process—from writing the first word to self-publication—took me nearly a year. After all of that, I still found a typo in the published book. I am fortunate that I am not relying on my income as a novelist to make a living, because a self-published romance author who produces only one book per year will probably not grow rich from her words. The formula for self-published romance success is to produce as many books as you can, as quickly as you can—that’s why so many self-published authors release partial books, serials or cliffhangers. If they want to survive and thrive financially, they have to rush to publish. So, even if they have the funds for and access to a good editor (and many don’t), their manuscripts are often hastened through the editing process. The end result is wildly uneven quality: I’ve read many self-published romance novels that needed major structural editing; I’ve read others that are full of distracting plot inconsistencies and/or typos; and I’ve read some that are beautifully written and masterfully edited. While there are certainly authors out there who are in it for a money grab, I firmly believe that most romance writers write because they have to. They are producing the best book they can, because they want to contribute to a genre they love. That’s how I feel, anyway.

So, if poor editing makes a book bad, then there are some bad romances—and not just the self-published variety. When I was a child, I used to marvel at how books never had typos. Mistakes were scarce as hen’s teeth, as my grandma would say. Now, I can’t remember the last time I read a book with no typos. In fact, I routinely see dozens of errors in books put out by the “Big Five” publishers—in all genres. The big corporations are feeling the same rush to publish, the same financial pressure, as indie authors.

Writing style. Editing. Maybe we can try to rate a book based on those criteria, but ultimately a novel is about characters. Plot. And I don’t think those things can ever be evaluated objectively. I recently visited Amazon and Goodreads to peruse reviews of some of my all-time favorite novels, from a Pulitzer Prize winner like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to a critical darling like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins to a beloved romance classic like Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love. I adore all three of these love stories. Yet, if you read any review site, there are readers who hated them. Whitney, My Love, a historical romance, features a hero who at one point takes the heroine by force. For me, in the story’s setting and context, it made sense, and didn’t detract from their love. Some readers, however, saw the hero as a brutal rapist. I respect their opinions. One reader’s “badly written romance” is another’s five-star experience, and both are right.

Like most genres, romance has its conventions. Some critics feel that makes the stories stale or limited. As a reader, I have my favorite tropes, and seeing how an author will tackle a trope—what new twists she’ll bring to it—is one of the things I love best about the genre. Within its confines, romance is constantly being reinvented and reinvigorated—I feel like right now the genre is absolutely bursting with talent and creativity. Does the increase in the volume of romance novels mean that there is more dreck? Probably. But it means that there are more great books, too! These days, there is truly something for everyone; it just may take a little longer to find exactly what you want. We’ve all read books that we knew were perfectly well written, but they didn’t hold that spark for us. Other times, we find books that we want to climb inside and live forever. I discovered Tessa Bailey a few months ago—if you haven’t read her work, she is the absolute queen of dirty talking alpha heroes—and if I could, I would crawl inside her Line of Duty series and become one of her heroines. That’s how vivid and engaging those stories and characters are—her books take me to another world and make me sorry I can’t stay there. Ditto Kresley Cole’s The Game Maker series, a trio of erotic masterpieces with genius plotting and banter so clever it would give the Gilmore Girls envy.

In summary, even though I bristle when anyone derides romance, I can also admit that—as with every genre—not every novel is a Darcy. Some of them are Wickhams. And often my Darcy is your Wickham, and vice versa. I admire Sittenfeld’s work and think her comments are an opportunity for all of us who write romance to keep striving to better our own craft and lift up the genre as much as we can. What I would really love to see are more writers like Alyssa Rosenberg, journalists who truly love and appreciate the genre and write about it critically but also respectfully (and even passionately). Mainstream publications (I’m looking at you, New York Times) are still largely unwilling to regularly review romance, despite its immense popularity and profitability. That needs to change. Rodney Dangerfield understood.

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