Romancing the Genres

We have a tradition with our crit group. Every Tuesday night, we gather to critique each other’s work and then a bunch of us will slip off to a local bar for our after party.

It’s not what you think. We’re the most unlikely bar patrons. You’d think as writers, we’d all be raging alcoholics, suffering from clinical depression or so wrapped up in the stories in our head that socializing was difficult.

No. Most of the group doesn’t even drink. We sit in the non-smoking section, and manage to be the loudest, most obnoxious and foul-mouthed group in the joint.

Sometimes though, we manage to have substantive conversations about writing. Usually it’s by accident. This week, we had a pretty in-depth discussion about the Romance genre and our local Romance Guru, Regina, took everyone to school on the topic.

Romance isn’t my thing. I mean, I’ve read some excellent books with romantic elements, but “romance” as a genre never made sense to me. We threw a definition back and forth for a bit that seemed a bit muddy, but I remembered I have read a story that absolutely fits that definition.

The absolute best pure romance I’ve ever read was For White Hill by Joe Haldeman. Yeah, it’s a sci-fi short story but by the definitions we discussed, the story wouldn’t exist without the romantic element. It’s about a couple of distant future artists that return to a shattered and wasted Earth in order to build monuments to an ancient civilization. An amazing story that’s wrapped in so many imaginative cultural details and little bits of (well, little complex bits) of science – it is really hard to explain, but well worth the read.

As a result of all this, I’m going to resolve to read a romance novel this year. I still think the genre gets attacked because it has been so successful and frankly, that success has attracted a lot of second-rate stuff that publishers toss out there hoping to cash in. But, that isn’t to stay great literature can’t be romance, far from it. Genre fiction as a whole has always bene maligned. Only recently are sci-fi and fantasy getting the critical acclaim they deserve.

Still, it sort of reinforces the ideas I’ve been hearing lately that genre is really just a marketing tool and that’s it. Truly good literature transcends labels.

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5 replies

  1. Well YOU guys are loud and obnoxious, I’m rather embarrassed to be around you folks sometimes, and I feel especially bad for Waiter Trent for putting up with you guys week after week.

    That being said, genre isn’t ONLY a marketing tool – we stuff all kinds of things into genres so that we as readers can figure out what to read and what to stay away from. For instance most of us don’t regularly read textbooks or children’s books unless it’s for a class or a kid.

    My point of contention was when she said there’s an author who doesn’t read anymore, just writes. I don’t think there’s ever a time when I want to stop reading, because if I ever feel like I’ve mastered something that perfectly, I should either punch myself in the balls for being egotistical or (the less painful option) move on to something new. No doubt people can draw inspiration from multiple sources, but I find it usually helps to draw heavily from one’s craft (or genre) so that you 1) know what the conventions of the genre are and 2) know how to break them without totally alienating readers of that genre.

    • I still think its marketing. Here’s the deal – if you sit down and say “I’m writing a fantasy novel” you’re thinking of how that book fits in the market prior to writing it. You’re aiming for certain established conventions setup by publishers that wanted to organize their offerings and sell books. True, it’s setup to help us differentiate what we like and what we don’t like, but that’s mainly to corral customers to certain sections. In the digital age, I suspect “genre” will matter less. Like at Amazon, I don’t have to walk to the “fantasy” section and look for books I like. They have a suggested reading which is sort of a meta-genre; it’s based on all the books I have read (fantasy or not) AND based on products people with similar tastes have enjoyed. The algorithms aren’t perfect, but it’s possibly the beginning of the end for genre marketing IMO.

      Yeah, I agree on the writer that doesn’t read. Frankly, I haven’t read as much as I should, but I still feel I’m a habitual reader. I read road signs and cereal boxes if there’s nothing else. For the longest time, I mainly read news, magazines and non-fiction stuff that related to my job. Every so often I pick up a non-fiction book on theoretical physics, religion or something way out there just to stimulate the synapses. My fiction during that time was mainly RPG gaming materials. Re-discovering -reading- fiction has been instructive and inspirational.

  2. Dang, sounds like a pretty fascinating conversation. I’m sorry I missed it. 😦

  3. Hey, Ben. It is so great that Waiter Trent has you to cup his ears with your hands when the foul-language starts flying.

    As to the NYC Best-Selling Romance author who once said she no longer reads in her genre for fear she might be accused of making off with someone’s ideas, she did clarify that she continues to read extensively in other genres. If I failed to make that point clear, my bad.

    But *getting up on my musch used soapbox again* I want to reiterate that Romance is not only simple tales of mushy kisses or bodice-ripping-romps that some people believe it is. There are certainly those sorts of tales (not my favorites), but the genre is much more diverse than non-readers sometimes think.

    Great post, Russ.

    • Trent is awesome for putting up with our crap 🙂 So is the guy that we keep booting from the table every week. I need to start tipping him as well…

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