Tag Archive: Fifty Shades of Grey

Trashing Romance Novels: Why?

Heart ArrowLast week I wrote about the vitality that male crit partners bring to your writing process. I admitted to my prejudices, that I thought men were mostly into political thrillers, sports biographies, and the like, and hinted that I was shocked to discover how many men were avid readers of romance novels; and a significant amount actually write romance novels. According to Romance Writers of America, 9% of romance readers are men. The genre generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2012 and was the top-performing category on the bestseller list, and yet it never gets the same coverage or respect in media as literary books do.

It got me thinking. Exactly what is a romance novel? The generic definition might be something along the lines of a plot that revolves around two people falling in love with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending—a happily-ever-after? And the complete opposite of Gone Girl. (see my review)

However, consider stories like The Bourne Identity, The James Bond books, The Thomas Crown Affair: they meet a woman who goes along on their spy adventure and then wind up in some romantic setting that hints at a happily-ever-after. Interestingly, they are never marketed that way. Could this be about marketing?

I’ve been struggling to understand why romance novels are so universally disdained. Especially since it’s the most widely read genre. Why are people so reluctant to openly admit they love to read about love? It’s like a dirty little secret, and I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, which people unabashedly enjoyed, although I did hear the frequent comment about how it was convenient to read it on an eReader so no one could see that you were reading such trash. And yet, romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred.

Is a romance novel a guilty pleasure, something to be ashamed of? Like the chocolate you keep hidden and never admit to indulging in? I realize that these male characters are often a gross stereotype—wealthy, good looking, all-powerful, great in bed, intelligent, and well adept at saving the lady in distress. They take the hero model to the extreme, and yes, we love it. Do they defy reality? Yes. But it’s fiction, not reality, and we all like a little escape from reality now and again. In fact, that’s the main reason I read.

I get that nobody wants to admit they’re reading about Fabio. Although the stories might be okay, I haven’t really read anything of that ilk, but I don’t look down on people who enjoy books like that. Not playing psychotherapist, I do however wonder if reading a romance novel is therapy for men, who are often expected to keep their feelings buried. The romance novel gives them the right to explore how they might express themselves more fully. I don’t think it’s because men don’t feel emotion, it’s just that they’ve been taught to not let it show.

Love is universally considered to be one of the most powerful feelings of humankind, an instinct to mate—biology teacher speaking here. We feel it’s tender pull in elementary school with that first crush. Middle school drags Romantic couple in the morningus crying and screaming through the halls of misunderstood love cues and interfering classmates, often escalating to dramatic heights when our love is unrequited. In college, or at that first job, we act impulsively, stupidly, attracted sometimes to the wrong person, making irrational choices based on sexual trappings. We kill for love, empty our bank accounts, walk away from our families and friends, all for the one we love. Finding that soul mate (I do dislike that expression, but it sums up our desires well), a partner who sees us and understands us for who we are and is willing to travel the path of life at our side is…well—absolutely intoxicating. We all want that.

In general, I still believe that a great story will attract readers no matter the genre, and good writing is the draw for any book. Often, romance novels are subpar when it comes to writing expertise, overwrought with cliches and stereotypical expressions which does contribute to the bad reputation. Not to mention the cover art which often advertises the denigration of both men and women. I guess it brings me back to that same old broken record. (I’m old enough to hear that ancient record player hissing at me.) We like what we like, and we should be unashamed about what we want to read, or write! In essence, I think it amounts to literary snobbery. Some of us think we’re better than others. And…we’re not. I liken it to the elitism of some film critics, they hold us to a higher standard, and what I would consider an arbitrary one. Who makes the rules for literature, for storytelling? Other than books that are meant to expose corruption or enlighten us academically, I think reading a good old-fashioned love story enriches everyone’s life. A guilty pleasure. An escape. For sure. C’mon! Who can really argue with that?


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U for UnderCovers: Writing the Erotic Romance

UWhen Fifty Shades of Grey crashed into the publishing world, everyone was aghast. On so many levels. Talk shows brought in therapists and psychologists— specialists on sexual abuse and relationships, and quickly labeled it mommy porn. Stuck home with my first broken ankle and nearly dead from boredom, I couldn’t resist the idea of reading something so risqué in the privacy of my own home. And thanks to the instant gratification that Amazon provides I fired up my eReader and was reading in less than five minutes. I’d never read anything like it and can’t deny it ambushed my libido in about a nanosecond.

It soon became the hot topic of conversation among my reader and writer pals. We debated and confessed: we loved it, we hated it, wanted to hate it but didn’t, wanted to love it but didn’t. The quality of the writing came up, which always annoys me. If you don’t like the writing, then stop reading. I don’t criticize other people’s writing unless they ask me to. Just like you don’t comment on someone’s clothing or haircut unless they petition you for your opinion, and even then I tread lightly. It’s different if it’s a crit partner, then the need for complete honesty is paramount, although I always bench my comments with a reminder that it’s just one person’s opinion, and other than technical errors, it’s up to the author as to whether they should take the advice to heart or not.

Conversation among my writer pals and my editor heightened. “Someone should jump on the bandwagon and write an erotic romance novel!” they all agreed. “It’s a huge new market and a great opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.” Hmm…I thought. That sounds kind of cheesy, like rushing to write a dystopian novel because of the success of The Hunger Games, or getting on the Vampire and Zombie train, it’s just felt wrong. Writing to Market is a topic of many a pitch conference, but doing it intentionally just to follow a craze seemed well, again, just wrong. We write the stories inside us, the ones we want, not one designed to please others.

But my mind started to wander. I discovered there is a whole world of books that follow the BDSM lifestyle and I began to read them. Confined to my couch, I had nothing much else to do. I’d write for some part of the day, but I was pretty much limited to reading and TV to amuse myself for months, especially after I broke my other ankle. I read a lot. And my mind wandered some more. Using my usual What if…? prompt when I went to bed at night, a story took shape. I furthered my musings, day after endless day. The debate and near-hysteria among my friends continued until one day a writer pal said to my editor (who was desperately trying to convince one of us to write such a novel) “Caryn’s the one! She can do it!” Well, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Was I insulted or pleased that I came to mind?

I soon confessed that I thought I had such a story in me and decided to give it a shot. The story came easily enough, romance not too difficult to write, but the sex scenes? Well, they were rough, and I’m not just talking about the sex. One of the trickiest parts for me is the language. I’ve written before about writing a love scene and Jenn has tackled the mechanics of writing sex, but this was on a whole new level. One of the reasons I liked FSG so much was that her language didn’t make me cringe. Some people like to talk dirty, but it’s just not me. I do have quite a potty mouth, but it doesn’t seem to find it’s way into the bedroom. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s left over from my good-girl Catholic school days, or my mother’s indoctrination about being a lady. In seventh grade she told me not to dance the twist because the Blessed Virgin Mary wouldn’t do it. It made me angry then and of course I disobeyed her, now it makes me laugh. Okay, TMI, I’ll stop.SEX

Crafting a BDSM sex scene without going too far became my aim. And, of course, my female protagonist is never going to become a wimp or a true submissive, even if she’s involved in that world for some ulterior motive as an undercover FBI agent. And so UnderCovers is finished, and in the hands of my editor, who has been incredibly enthusiastic about it’s possibility for success. We’ll see. I had a blast writing it and even if it never sees the light of day, and it remains ‘undercovers’ forever, I had a ton of fun. The only thing that still makes me uncomfortable is: do I publish under my name or use a pen name? Not sure how my sons would feel about this endeavor… Yikes!


Next Up is Heather with “V” – Living Vicariously Through Fiction


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