Sunday, October 14, 2012

Romance Comes in Many Flavors

I spent all day yesterday at Wordstock. It is the premier literary event in Portland, Oregon.  I have to admit that in the past only a few romance writers opted to have a booth and meet readers.  Why? Because the focus of this festival has traditionally been on "literature" or as one reader told me when she happened by our romance booth "I only read serious books."  I'm not sure what all she considers "serious." I believe the topics I cover in my romance novels are frequently serious. I cover topics of freedom, finding personal power, overcoming both physical and psychological wounds, and determining how to tell the difference between right and wrong when it is very grey.

I'm a cross genre reader. I read both fiction and non-fiction--from prize winning works and NYT bestsellers to books that have very small distributions. I've read novels that are sold as "literary novels."  I also read mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, and romance.  For me, I read anything that looks interesting to me--anything that I believe will tell a compelling story and teach me something.  Sometimes I learn how a man came from poor roots and became President of the United States. Other times I learn how a woman overcame an abusive relationship, found her own power, and created a worldwide company.  Even in reading a good mystery or a thriller, I frequently learn things: how undercover military operations are conducted, how police catch a killer, and cautionary tales of how a world in the near future deteriorated and could be our world if we aren't careful. When I read romance I can also learn many of those things above, but I also learn how people navigate relationships and intimacy. It is those relationships that grab me every time.

Interestingly, many books have a story of love and commitment as part of them.  Let's face it without love in our life it is darn difficult to wake up in the morning and move forward.  Many bestselling novels and bestselling movies have a love relationship at the core. It is that relationship that gives the hero or heroine of the story the ability to be heroic, and it is that relationship that comforts them when things go wrong.  That is why I choose to write romance.

More than ever before, novels have become cross-genre.  Though publishers and marketers feel the need to classify our reading into nice neat categories, the reality is that books don't fit neatly all the time.  For example, within the romance genre there is science-fiction romance, fantasy romance, mystery romance, suspense/thriller romance, women's fiction with a romantic core, the traditional series romances that our mothers and grandmothers read, and yes even "literary" romance.  And many cross variations of each. A shape-shifter romance, with paranormal elements but written in contemporary Portland with a mystery to resolve is classified as what? It fits fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, mystery and romance. To steal an ad line, "It's not your mother's romance novel anymore."

The reason I was at Wordstock, along with other romance writers is that the committee had taken notice of the NYT bestseller 50 Shades of Gray by E.L. James. Like most press about the book, it has been described as Erotica and the committee decided to take advantage of its popularity and have a special "erotic" area set aside for authors of those novels.  That is where the Rose City Romance Writers also were housed.

Though I had a great time and each of us writers had the opportunity to educate lots of potential readers, there's a problem for me personally in being put in the "erotica" section.  That is that I don't want to see all romance categorized as erotica.  We already have the problem of overcoming terms like "bodice rippers" from the 60's and 70's, or "mommy porn" in the current era. Yes, some romance novels do fit the erotica category. On the other end of the romance spectrum, there are also inspirational romance novels which have no sex at all.  The vast majority of romance novels fit somewhere along that continuum from no sex to erotica, with most being right in the middle--sex between two consenting adults that are in a committed relationship and usually (but not always) end up married or on the way to the altar by the end of the book.  Oh, and the actual sex in the book is about 10% to 20% of all the pages and varies in description from implicit imagery to explicit language depending on the writer and the sub-genre.

The readers who came by our table were also on different ends of the spectrum. We had a number of readers who read erotica regularly and came to our table expecting all of our books to fit that genre.  We had some readers come by the table who don't read erotica and don't want to read it ever. The only reason they stopped at our table was because we lured them in with free Hershey chocolate bars and Hershey kisses. That gave us an opportunity to show the continuum of books available.  We also had an equal number of readers who stopped by the table (again to get free chocolate) and said they never read romance because they remember X book that their mother or grandmother read (usually a Harlequin romance from the 1970's involving a sheikh, a prince, or a millionaire ) and they didn't find it very realistic. Again we had an opportunity to show them the plethora of options available now.

Perhaps all genre fiction suffers from this "typecasting" problem. However, it seems that romance gets extra misunderstanding. Some feminists would say that's because it is a genre written by women and for women, and involves women's sexuality which has always been controlled by men. I think that is one part of it, but not all of it. After all, it was primarily women who stopped at our table, and it was those women who had misunderstandings about the genre. Young and old, middle-aged and professionals. A woman pastor came by the table and made a very astute observation. She said (I'm paraphrasing here) she wished there was a genre of romance that was erotic but also had a spiritual message--in other words Christian erotic romance.  She knew that "people in the pews" were reading hot, sexy books but no one ever talked about it. Her comment really made me think about why I don't have a more spiritual message in my books, or why Inspirational romance authors are not empowered to write any sex in their books.

Now that I have four books out, I know my personal message is similar in every book I write. It is that everyone is wounded in some way, everyone is looking for acceptance, and that love is the way to overcome woundedness and to find acceptance. Each book I write is about a character with a different type of wound--some physical, some psychological, but in the end they really are all spiritual wounds.  The wounds have impacted their spirit and caused them to make decisions in life that are not ones that are beneficial. It is in finding love or experiencing love and accepting it that the characters also find their wholeness and are able to do other things in their life that are important. Love is difficult. Love requires disassembling. Love requires commitment. But love DOES conquer all. I truly believe that.

I agree with the pastor. I think there is a market for spiritual erotic romance. I don't know if I can write it, but I know someone can. Maybe she can. Maybe some of the inspirational romance authors can take a stab at it.  I know I personally believe that the ability to love and to be loved is a spiritual journey.  The most difficult part of believing in a God or accepting God's love requires a similar journey as being in a committed intimate relationship. It requires disassembling. It requires commitment. It requires faith and trust. It requires belief that the love will always be there.Yup, very difficult. But worth it.

2 comments: said...

Hi Maggie! So glad you were at Wordstock, and thank you for sharing your experiences and the photos.

I think you're absolutely right when you said ". . .everyone is wounded in some way, everyone is looking for acceptance, and that love is the way to overcome woundedness and to find acceptance." Wow. I'd never thought about the world that way. It sure gives me a different perspective on the people I meet and interact with.

Thank you!


Maggie Jaimeson and Maggie Faire said...

Thanks for stopping by, Melia. I think romance writers intuitively know about the healing power of love, even if they haven't articulated it quite in the way I did. Perhaps because I come from a large family (I'm the oldest of 9 children) where often love was the only thing we could count on (through health issues, death of children, money problems, etc.) I think this belief was imprinted on my soul. Whenever I've encountered people who make decisions that are antithetical to life, I try to show them love. Unfortunately, I can't do it for everyone and have anything left for myself.

That's another difficult lesson--one I still struggle with--how to be loving and helpful to many people with problems and yet not burn out or feel used. If anyone's solved that one, I'd love to hear it.