Writing romance is:
a) an art
b) a craft
c) a business
d) depends on who’s doing it
e) all of the above
f) is this a trick question?
Several days ago, romance author Maya Banks did a Q & A at Dear Author on digital publishing and her writing career in general. This post provoked a lot of comment, much of it from authors who envy Banks’ writing speed. Banks reported that she’s written 8-10 books, ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 words, in each of the last couple of years; that she generally writes about 5,000 words a day; and that she doesn’t revise much. She also wrote that she developed a business plan for her writing career and that “I take my career very seriously and ‘art’ never enters the picture for me.”
There’s no doubt that this picture of the writing life provides fodder to those who see genre writers as churning out formulaic trash. That’s the view of a commenter on Roni Loren’s blog, who provoked this response from Loren, as well as a great literary taste-test from Megan Mulry.
What interests me most about the response to Banks’ post is what it reveals about our cultural image of “the artist.” The artist starves in a garret, waiting for inspiration to strike, suffering for years to produce a beautiful and valuable work which can be appreciated only by the tasteful elite. The genre writer, meanwhile, cranks out hastily-written, disposable entertainment for the masses. Depending on which audience you believe yourself to be, you’ll despise one or the other (some of us are caught uncomfortably in between, and mostly end up despising ourselves). Of course this sharp bifurcation doesn’t hold up on examination: most genre writers can’t afford to quit their day jobs, for instance, and writers of literary fiction generally hope to provide their readers with enjoyment.
Moreover, this is a portrait of the artist that belongs to a particular historical moment or to a particular view of art: ironically, it’s a Romantic view. The Romantic poets valued imagination and originality, and saw their writing as the product of inspiration. Shelley writes that “A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ . . . [T]he mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness . . . and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.” Not for him a business plan and 5,000 words a day!
This view of the poet, though, is in part a reaction against the Neo-Classical writers who came before. Alexander Pope urges the writer (he’s talking to critics, but the advice would apply to any poet) to study Classical writers such as Homer and Virgil to “learn for Ancient Rules a just esteem.” Poetry is governed by natural laws, and the poet must study and practice them in order to master his art. Pope acknowledges that there are “nameless Graces which no methods teach,” but only the “Master-hand” can attain these. In this view, the artist is at least as much a craftsman laboring to master a trade as an inspired genius.
The contrasting words of these two canonical poets should make clear that we can’t make assumptions about what constitutes “great art” based on the way the artist imagines her work or the methods by which she produces it.
We can’t even be sure what Maya Banks meant by saying “‘art’ never enters the picture,” since it’s a throwaway line in a discussion of the economics of her publishing choices. I suspect what she meant is that style at the sentence level, which we tend to associate with “high art,” isn’t important to her, but I don’t think she could be as successful as she is if she didn’t care about, and were not good at, the craft of telling a good story. (I’ve read one Maya Banks novel, a Silhouette Desire called The Tycoon’s Rebel Bride, and I enjoyed it).
The dead male writer Maya Banks most reminds me of is neither Shelley nor Pope, but Anthony Trollope (Rohan Maitzen has a good round-up of some recent Trollope posts). Trollope, like Banks, was prolific and highly disciplined; for much of his career he kept his day job and completed a set number of pages before work each morning. In his Autobiography he explains that “in work such as mine [writing novels, that is] the great secret consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound by rules of labour similar to those which an artizan or a mechanic is forced to obey.”
Trollope valued clear, straightforward prose, and thought a novelist should practice until such writing could simply flow out of him “as music comes from the rapid touch of the great performer’s fingers.” These lines suggest that he didn’t do much revising. But he took his writing seriously, aiming to portray realistic characters and to use his fiction as a “pulpit” from which he could express his social, political and moral views (in this he’s typically Victorian, and perhaps less like the modern romance writer).
Trollope hung around on the fringes of the canon through the course of the 20th century; most people probably wouldn’t rate him as highly as contemporaries like Dickens (routinely called a “genius”) and George Eliot. Nevertheless, his work appears on college syllabi, and more importantly it’s still enjoyed by readers outside the classroom. I’m not going to venture predictions on whether the same will be true of Maya Banks’ books in 100 years, as such predictions are harder to make than some people would like to believe. I’m confident in saying that the future interest of her books for readers or scholars doesn’t depend on the rate at which she produces them, the amount of time she spends revising, or the existence of her business plan.