Sunday, May 24, 2009

Smut is a Fungus or Don't Call Your Mama's Romance Novels Smut


As I booted up my computer yesterday morning, a shudder ran through me. You know the sort I mean. That chill your mother or grandmother told you meant someone had just walked across your grave. As my e-mail account opened, I knew I had reason to worry. Sarah had had a brainstorm and my name was associated with it. Me. The one who likes to hide in the shadows, the darkness relieved only by the glow from my computer monitor. Alas, that is what brought about her brainstorm. She knows I am constantly trawling that vast information highway known as the Internet in an attempt to find that one pearl of wisdom, or the golden ticket, that will finally make those query letters easy to write and irresistable to agents and editors. And, since I hadn't yet had enough coffee -- is there such a thing as ever having enough coffee? -- I agreed to do this post.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can find just about anything if you look hard enough. That's especially true when it comes to writing. Everyone has a blog these days. Or they tweet. Or they post on Facebook. Or all of the above. It's a wonderful way to promote yourself and your work, network with others in the profession and find out what agents and editors are looking for. It is also a time sink of monumental proportions if you allow it to become one.

That said, for the writer, the Internet can be an invaluable tool. Miss Snark still lurks in archive heaven to swill her gin and regale us with tales from the world of publishing while admiring her newest pair of Manolos. We can learn all about the latest "Preditors and Editors" and hopefully not fall victim to their scams. We can connect with other writers of all levels of proficiency. Welcome to the digital world of writers on the Internet.

This week, Dave, Sarah and Rowena have been discussing characterization. A comment I made in response to one of Dave's posts led me to think about genre fiction and how we tend to characterize it and, therefore, its characters. In particular, I started thinking about Romance. You know, those bodice-rippers with the long-haired, bare-chested men on the covers. The books no "real man" would be caught reading in public. The books that have been denigrated and made fun of from day one because they aren't "real literature".

One of the blogs I follow is "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books", a fun and informative blog focusing on romance novels. Today's entry is about an interview "about Bosoms, feminism, and defending our love of romance novels." When following the link to Flavorwire.com where the entire interview is posted, I knew this was NOT going to be your normal soft soap interview. I assume the writer thought she was being funny when she wrote, "After years of sifting through smut books in order to find the ones that are worth the $4.99 you’ll pay for it, these two ladies have created a humorous guidebook for the discerning smut reader." However, any romance reader worth her salt will be quick to tell you that Romance Novels are not, and never have been, smut. And, while the reader might enjoy a good bit of smut from time to time, you won't get that from a good romance novel. The line between romance and smut might be thinner than it used to be, but the sex in a Romance Novel is an essential part of the plot and not there just to satisfy the prurient interest of the reader -- or the writer who, of course, had to do lots of research before writing those particular scenes.

What Kate's Reading, picking up on the "smut" references in the interview, had the following to say: "Now, really, if you're posting an interview that's all about misconceptions in the genre and why feminists should read romance, should you make a point of referring to said genre not once but twice as smut? Or is this some sort of post-feminist way of reclaiming and becoming empowered by negative words - much as the magazine is called Bitch? Whichever, it just seemed counterproductive to try to talk intelligent and progressive about the genre when you're also calling it names."

Now, to pull this back around to characterization, What Kate's Reading ended the post with the following comment: "...it is a little annoying that you tried hard and had a really good interview, but you lost me in disgust at your first paragraph. One step forward, one step back." As writers, we can make the same mistake. We can try hard and have a really good story in mind but, if we fail to have a voice that appeals to our readers and we fail to have a hook that makes them want to read on, we will lose them.

Take a few minutes and look around Smart Bitches. Even if you aren't a romance reader, you'll find something there that will make you think and then something that will make you laugh.

10 comments:

Dave Freer said...

Q: How do you tell if a man is self-confident and not too worried about anyone doubting his masculinity or lack of it?
A: He can read Georgette Heyer in public. :-)

I always have to chuckle about the stereotypes on this subject. Romance(which BTW is the most sexist and discriminatory area of publishing, but somehow that's Okay) is for women only, although RWA admits there is quite a substantial male readership. Because men are only interested in sex see, which allows one sneer at them, conveniently somehow forgetting that only being interested in sex actually isn't an exclusive male preserve either. Let's bravely venture onto physiology here (dangerous area to do so). Men are bigger than women. Stronger and generally more practiced at violence. And actually, despite generations of searching - there is no evidence of them being stupider. If they really wanted to crush women and destroy romance... they could have. But they don't. Because quite a lot of them are a hopeless soppy bunch who wouldn't put up with that, and, added to quite a lot of women being a hopeless soppy bunch too, they outnumber the other disapproving outliers on both sides - whose disparaging comments range from 'smut' to 'girly'.

As a social species at least 2/3 of what we think about and are interested in involves human relationships - which, duh, includes romance as a substantial element. It's not an exclusive female area. It only LEADS to childbirth, and not even that all the time. Most cowboy books and a surprising number of military fiction novels have an element of romance in them, despite readership being fairly male dominated. Now why, if men have no interest, would that be?

If you're going to attract buckets of readers - study writing romantic elements. Only, if you're male, don't call it romance. 1)you aren't allowed to publish it, 2)men won't read it. ;-)

Amanda Green said...

I remember when people said "Harlequin" as if it was a bad word. Now I walk through a bookstore and there are more "romance" books on the shelves than any other single genre.

But you are right, Dave. It is probably one of the most sexist and discriminatory areas of publishing today. At RWA last year, there were a number of male authors. But most of them were quick to tell you they wrote suspense with romance, or action with romance, never straight romance. Even though, if you took their books and compared them with many of those written by women, you'd not be able to tell any difference.

It is all a matter of perception. If you're male, you can't write romance. If you're female, you can write romance better than any male.

WRONG! Some of the most romantic people I know are men. Some of the most adventurous are female. For me, I don't care who writes a book, no matter what the genre, as long as it is entertaining and well-written.

But then, I'm a convert to romance, having been one of those who for years turned my nose up at it. And I have you to thank for that because you infected Sarah with Heyer and she, in turn, infected me. So, thank you, Dave, for that.

Dave Freer said...

I am a bad man. And I have tassels on my boots. What else can I say. It'll sort out eventually. I have no qualms a femenym, myself.

Amanda Green said...

And the tassels are so cute. [VBG]

Actually, I appreciate you infecting Sarah with Heyer so she could then infect me.

John Lambshead said...

I have a confession.
I like Jane Austen but dont tell anyone.
John

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

EVERYONE likes Jane Austen!

And Dave, I don't think I've ever thanked you for passing Heyer on. Without you I'd have missed hours and hours of happy reading.

Amanda Green said...

Uh, Sarah, the only Austen I like is P&P. Don't hurt me for it. I LOVE Heyer. That has to count for something, right?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, no -- P & P is the best. I like S & S too. But Mansfield Park makes me want to kill things. And Emma annoys me. I think she'd be better off dead. Both book and movie. Another proof -- and topic for discussion -- that a writer's favorite work is not always the best.

kesalemma said...

Pride and Prejudice being my favourite book ever, I rue the day my dad made up the rule that since our surname is so long, the children's names could be no longer than 5 letters and 2 syllables.
My mother then named me after her second favourite Austen character - and the one I most want to strangle...the first being my favourite, Elizabeth.
It's funny how I started out reading my mum's romance books long before I started on the fantasy...and then the fantasy I was reading was Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover) which have very strong romance influences. But I've had to defend the love of SFF much more than that of romance. Before I was confident enough to deal with explaining to people that I am a SFF fan, I would try to explain that most SFF fits another genre, just isn't called that because it has a magic or futuristic element.
I have managed to 'turn' most of the romance readers to fantasy ;)
But the stereotypes and discrimination go the other way too - a good proportion of the men I work with are ex-military - it's amazing how many of them are shocked - and I truly mean shocked - to discover I read military sci-fi, and can discuss the military elements intelligently, despite never having been in the military (being a 30yo woman doesn't help either). When they get over that, I find that I tend to get lots of free books - they put them on my desk when they are finished with them ;) And I teach the how to use e-books, and we're all happy.

Amanda Green said...

Kesalemma, you brought up having to defend reading SFF. It's still something I find myself having to do, especially if I'm reading military SF. Do you think it is because SFF, and mil sf in particular, are looked at as the bastard step-child of "good books" or is it a sort of sexism, or is there another explanation?

For myself, I find that I have to justify why I'm reading SFF just as often as I do the romances, and in much the same way. I don't get questioned as much if I read Heyer or Austen or the recognized "classics". But put a Nora Roberts book in my hands and there is alway someone who will look down his or her nose and sneer.

It's the same with SFF. If I read Tolkien, that's fine. It's "classic". But get caught reading Weber or Dave or Sarah or any of the others on this blog and I have to explain why I like them and why I recommend them.

So, any thoughts on why romance and SFF in particular, and most genre fiction in general, get treated this way?