An unnecessary defense

The romance genre does not need any defense from me. It's doing quite nicely on its own, thank you, with sales up 7.7 percent in 2009 over the previous year -- a rise that's particularly notable amid the decline of book publishing as a whole. I got that figure from a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. That's where the issue of defense comes in. Because this piece, while noting the success of the genre as a whole, then spent the rest of its time ridiculing the various microniches that have found particular recent success, including NASCAR, paranormal, Amish and (snicker) crafts! You might catch the tone of the piece from the headline -- "Getting Dirty in Dutch Country" -- though if you'd actually read any of them you'd probably figure out quickly that the Amish-set romances, unlike a lot in that genre, don't get dirty, and that's a big part of their appeal. It turns out there are, in fact, romance readers out there who aren't into ripped bodices and explicit sex. So some smart writers and publishers are catering to them. That's worthy of ridicule? There's another reason the romance genre doesn't need any defense from me. It already has far more prominent champions, notably the smart women of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, whose response to the Bloomberg piece* is what alerted me to its existence in the first place. Yep, I had good SAT scores, I have a master's degree, I read a lot, sometimes I read romances and I regularly read SBTB -- but I never read Bloomberg Businessweek. Even though a good friend of mine writes for it. What does that tell you?

If you're genuinely interested in the romance genre and/or the industry behind it, I can suggest a good source of information. Beyond Heaving Bosoms, the book written by the Smart Bitches themselves, is a fun and interesting analysis that reflects what's so cool about them. They're appreciative fans of the genre -- but also gimlet-eyed realists about its flaws and hilariously harsh critic of ridiculous narratives. Check out some of their low-graded reviews if you don't believe me.

And I agree with their conclusion about the Bloomberg Businessweek piece: that its take on the genre is, essentially, offensively sexist. The plots, characters and conventions of romance novels are certainly escapist, ridiculous and highly unrealistic. The prose is unlikely to wind up on the shortlist of Nobel contenders. Just like a whole lot of other popular genres, like thrillers, crime dramas and self-important psychobabble. You don't get romance? You think it's crap that people shouldn't waste their time or money on? I sympathize, believe me. I have had to learn to maintain a neutral expression, or even an enthusiastic helpful one, when a library patron comes in asking for the latest James Patterson or to be added to the 80-person list for The Lost Symbol. And you know what? I do it. Because 1) it's my job and 2) hey if that junk makes you happy, go for it.

It's the contempt in the Bloomberg Businessweek piece that got my blood boiling -- the sort of patronizing dismissal you rarely see displayed toward the hardboiled guys -- who may even wind up as critical favorites, reviewed in the New York Times! My personal favorite line in the piece was the snotty "Insiders insist that knitting is distinct from another ascendant microgenre: quilting." (Though I wonder if he's confusing mystery and romance -- haven't seen a lot of knitting or quilting romances. Or any, now that I think about it.) But my point is, um, yeah, they are different. Quite different in fact, which wouldn't be surprising or ridicule-worthy if you had the slightest firsthand knowledge of either. Which obviously, being an Important Male Newsguy, you wouldn't. I'll try to put it in terms he might understand: It's kind of like saying, Hey it turns out people think baseball and basketball are actually different games! Even though they both use a round thing and keep score in points! Those stupid people!

That's enough ranting from me and like I said, the SBTB website is the place to be if you're interested in the genre and have my kind of take on it. But just thought I'd blow some steam and add to the chorus. Especially since it is Romance Awareness Month.

* If you are offended by profanity or general abusive crudity, this website in general and this post in particular are not for you. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Aug. 27 update rant: Not the same issue but related is the recent flap over the lovefest Jonathan Franzen is experiencing from the New York Times and others (cover of Time mag???). I don't feel comfortable dissing Franzen without having read The Corrections or his new novel but I sympathize with Weiner and Picoult (whom I haven't read either and don't plan to). I will, however, take this occasion to express my irritation with his essay championing the novel "The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead. It wasn't his point I had a problem with -- it sounds like an interesting book, I'd never heard of it or its author and now it's going to be republished. Nice job! The problem I had was with his nostalgia for 1965, "when our country still took literature halfway seriously." Ah yes, the good old days of the 1960s. When it was still perfectly acceptable to be horrifically racist and sexist (just watch an episode of Mad Men! Or read a history book) and the literary culture could exist in its rarefied little trustfunded atmosphere, occasionally enlivened by an outsider like Kerouac for titillation's sake.

I'm sorry, but SHUT UP. Yep, the democratization of pop culture has its horrifying aspects, to be sure -- just about any reality TV show bears that out. But it also allows way more people to take part, and provides way more interesting views into other lives than the Good Old Days Franzen is mourning. True, it's not quite as good now as it was then for white guys. But should a guy who was chosen by Oprah (and I must admit I have been mildly irritated with him since that episode, in which I think he behaved like an elitist dick) and then put on the cover of Time really be bitching?