A Portrait of the Artist as Romance Writer

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.

This entry was posted in genre musings. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Portrait of the Artist as Romance Writer

  1. Jessica says:

    I totally noticed that Banks comment, too! Your comments remind me strongly of the paper my friend Elizabeth and I are hoping to present this fall at the romance con (if it gets on the program, that is. But we plan to write something either way.). Look:

    “’Romantic’ authorship and contemporary romances: the construction of authorship in Minerva Press novels and contemporary romances”

    Critics of Minerva Press novels (1790-1820) and contemporary popular romance novels (1972-today) denigrate the novels’ formulaic nature and low quality, as well as the “promiscuous” tendencies they exemplify and beget in output, readership, and themes. This critique is grounded in a Romantic-era construct of authorship which privileges independence, originality, hierarchy, disinterestedness, and transcendence. … by focusing on specific novels (Minerva Press and contemporary romance) that feature author protagonists, we recognize authorial innovation and collaboration in terms other than the Romantic construct of authorship we have inherited, e.g. collaboration, community, fluidity, and formula.”

    Our idea is to argue that Minerva and romance represent a different model of authorship, but I love your point that this kind of authorship has been around (if I understand it) all along.

    I love your concluding remark, and completely agree.

    • lizmc2 says:

      That paper sounds fascinating!

      One thingrelated to the “Romantic” model of authorship I didn’t address was the difference between prose and poetry. Trollope, for instance, says that poets “of course” have to take more care over their words. When I did background reading to teach Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess (early 18th century amatory fiction) I found that prose was denigrated partly because it was so much easier to write quickly than poetry; but for that reason, if you wanted to make a living as a writer, prose was a better way to go. Today, when the novel has securely entered the realm of art and there’s basically no mass audience for verse, except in the form of song lyrics, it seems like a similar distinction is being made between literary and genre fiction. Literary writers take a “poet’s” agonized care over details of language, while genre writers just let the competent (or incompetent) sentences flow out. But of course many individual writers work in ways that belie this distinction.

  2. VacuousMinx says:

    I somehow missed this post when you wrote it, but am finally catching up.

    I think of Trollope frequently when these conversations arise. I love Trollope’s novels. I have not read anywhere near all of them (I’m not that old yet), but I’ve read the Parliamentary Novels and the Barsetshire novels more than once. I think the prose is better than workmanlike, but I’m not a lit critic.

    I found Banks’s comments to be a refreshing counterpoint to the discussions where authors talk about their muse. Argh. There is a huge pressure in romance to publish early and often, to the point where writing one book a year is considered unconscionably slow. I feel for authors for whom writing quickly is not easy or even possible. I don’t know how the rest of them avoid burnout.

    As for the Romantic Poets, they have a LOT to answer for. I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

    Great post!

  3. Robin says:

    I’ve had this post open on my computer since you published it, Liz, because I have so many conflicting feelings about this issue and I was hoping to sort them out before I commented. Alas, that did not happen, but I still want to comment because I love this topic and think it needs as much play in the genre fic communities as it can get.

    My first thought when I read Banks’s interview was of Sam Clemens/Mark Twain, handwriting at his desk, tossing finished pages to the floor as he scrawled frantically, page upon page upon page of text. I’m not sure how much he thought about “art” as he was composing, either, but I sure as hell know that some of his work is absolute genius.

    OTOH I agree with Sunita that it’s refreshing to hear a writer not take herself so seriously. Some of the ‘I’m an artiste’ or ‘I must follow my muse’ statements can come across as self-important and self-ironizing in a bad way. And in the end I’m not sure the craftsperson is the one who determines whether a work is art anyway, that such a decision is made at the point of consumption.

    Still, I agree with your concerns regarding the way in which we do or don’t take writing (especially by women) seriously, and I wonder if some of this ‘I don’t think about art’ talk is part of a larger defense mechanism that’s common both to women and to people creating within an environment that is not so culturally valued.

    For me, I think the problem is that the “I don’t think about art” statement of the artist has become wound up and conflated with the “x type of fiction isn’t art” complaints that are leveled from outside the genre community AND inside (in the form of “why do you take these books so seriously — it’s just ENTERTAINMENT”). And I’m not sure how to unwind these things or how, even, their winding has influenced their significance and influence. For example, does a writer feel safer saying that she doesn’t think about art in an community where many of the people actually consuming her work don’t want to see it as art?

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    I was thinking about the Banks comment about art that you quoted. I interpreted it differently. To me she was saying that she approaches her writing as she would her work in any profession, i.e., it’s something you do, not just who you are. John Cheever went to an office. J.D. Salinger supposedly wrote in a bunker. Who was it who said goodbye to his/her spouse & kids, went out of the house & came in another door to the writing office?

    Anyway, I’ve known a few artists (even some people have heard of) and they all work damn hard. They also work steadily. They don’t wait for the muse to strike. When the muse is busy, they work on something they don’t need her for. Or they slog on without her. And there are a lot of “literary” novelists who say similar things.

    • Robin says:

      And think about Wallace Stevens! (“Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,…”)

      Still, I do think there’s a perception of differential cultural capital among different types of writers, such that perhaps it’s a bit like a really rich, successful person saying that they don’t view money as the key to happiness. That is, it’s easier to be taken seriously as a craftsperson no matter what you do when your work already enjoys a certain level of respect. Kind of like the way SAHMs have often felt conditioned to view/refer to their work as not socially significant.

  5. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thanks, everyone, for continuing the conversation here and on Twitter. It’s such a rich topic, with so many byways. I’ve been thinking more about how the Romantics romanticized their own process of composition, as in the Shelley quote above. I believe manuscript evidence suggests that their poetic theory wasn’t always borne out in their practice.

    The most famous example is Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which he presented as inspired by an opium dream. As he rushed to get down the lines, he was interrupted, and only a fragment remains. Most scholars now see this note as a device for framing the poem and an at least partially mythologized account. The excellent wikipedia entry for Kubla Khan contains this acerbic comment from T. S. Eliot’s “essay “Origin and Uses of Poetry” from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933): ‘The way in which poetry is written is not, so far as our knowledge of these obscure matters as yet extends, any clue to its value … The faith in mystical inspiration is responsible for the exaggerated repute of Kubla Khan.'”

    I’d agree that the self-presentation of romance writers (whether as muse-inspired or as business woman) is often at least as artful and calculated–and I don’t mean that as a criticism.

Comments are closed.