I’ve had a number of Twitter conversations lately in which readers bemoan some of the narrow conventions of the Romance genre. There’s the lack of variety in settings: have another small-town contemporary or England-set Regency! There are the rules that limit who and what characters can be: rakish dukes, SEALs, and werewolves, alpha males all, often paired with less wordly, powerful women. Why wouldn’t publishers give us something different, we asked? Why did small e-publishers and self-publishers, too, often seem reluctant to depart from the tried and true?
The writers who joined our conversation (though they sympathized to some extent) reminded us that authors and publishers hope to make money. They give us what’s sold before, what they expect to sell again. If self-published authors aspire to make a living from their work, they’re going to do the same. Readers like who want something different are a minority, and a minority doesn’t make a best-seller.
I have mixed feelings about this. There are certainly a lot of readers who love alpha heroes, say, and a lot of romance readers with strong opinions about what they will and will not read. On the other hand, isn’t publishing notorious for its lack of market research? Do they really know who romance readers are and what we want? Might more variety draw new readers to the genre? I’m not sure. But it was with these conversations in mind that I read Sandy’s AAR blog post on “New York Publishing and 50 Shades” and the comment thread.
I’m already on record as agreeing with a lot of what Sandy says: romance readers say they find something fresh and different in 50; people who focus on “better hot books” in recommending follow-up reads are missing the point; it would be nice if the success of James’ books opened a space for some different things in romance.
But ironically, some of the very things that romance readers find fresh about 50 are elements many romance readers say they hate. They are the things that set the books apart from genre romance (because, let’s face it, we’ve seen alpha billionaires and naive virgins before, if not exactly like this): for instance, the first-person narration; the internal monologues; the fact that the romance isn’t complete in a single volume. I think if a romance editor had been offered this manuscript, she’d have been crazy to publish it. And she’d have been listening to her readers in saying no. There are romance readers who love this book, but they clearly aren’t the majority of buyers; it’s not even clear that they’re a majority of romance readers.
So yes, I think that New York (and other) romance publishing is offering us some stale, formulaic books. I think it is failing to grasp exactly what appeals to many readers about 50 because it’s grabbing onto the media’s “Moms like it hot” narrative. But I don’t think the fact that a 50-style success came from outside New York is a reason to bash New York as offering us only stale, day-old
doughnuts books. I’ve found some New York offerings that feel fresh to me lately: books by Ruthie Knox, Miranda Neville, and Cecilia Grant, for instance. Are they as different as 50 Shades? Well, no, not exactly. But that’s because they are genre romance, and 50 is not, really.
There’s also an aspect of E.L. James’ success that is not at all fresh or unique: it was unpredictable. Some books are pretty reliable best-sellers (hi, Nora Roberts and James Patterson!). But big, giant hits like the 50 Shades trilogy, The Da Vinci Code, the Harry Potter books, or Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy . . . it’s hard to say what made that particular book a hit. They all have things that are fresh-seeming, true, but they also all have familiar elements. They all have their vocal detractors among readers of their genre, too, because no book works for everyone, and some readers wonder why X book they think is way better didn’t break out instead. Because James’ books have *gasp* sex, and because of their fanfiction origins, the uproar is louder, sure. But it’s not entirely different in kind. Publishers have tried to copy the success of all those other books, too, which has meant the publication or rediscovery of some really great books, and also a lot of crappy knock-offs. We’re seeing those trends already in romance. I hope we get the better with the bitter.
I wasn’t going to comment on the other thing that struck me about this post, but the direction of the comment thread changed my mind. Lately, I’ve felt that in some on-line conversations, any criticism of 50 Shades has been received as “reader-shaming,” any dissenting opinion viewed as having a malicious or envious motivation. So I found it a bit of a double standard to dismiss “what to read after 50″ lists as uniformally stale, weak offerings. Some of those lists were generated by readers recommending books they love. They may have got the taste of 50-readers wrong, but why is bashing their beloved books just fine when bashing 50 is not allowed? (For the record, I think criticizing books, even saying “I hate this; it’s crap” is fine. Saying readers with different taste are idiots is not).
But then someone appeared on the discussion thread–a post on romance-readers’ site, remember–to say that the book “isn’t ‘fresh’ to anyone who knows romance novels” and that its readers are too dumb to make it through better, more complex books. Ya know, on second thought, fans are entitled to a little hostile defensiveness. Luckily, follow-up comments by smart, thoughful romance readers like Evangeline and pamelia, who eloquently explained what they love about James’ books, proved this commenter wrong without even mentioning her post. As my kids would say, pwned!