Here we are again.
I started to write an angry blog post on the latest harpoon launched at the Romance industry from novelist Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, and soon it will be yesterday’s news, until another daring soul takes her place.
I’m bored with this. I’m bored with the attacks, I’m bored with the people who make them, and I’m bored with making my defense. Criticism of romance, its authors and readers has become lazy. You’re not saying anything shocking. You’re not being brave. You’re doing what hundreds have done before you, and what hundreds will do after your remark loses its steam.
Yes, there are poorly written romance novels. No one denies this. There are poorly written novels, period. And true, no industry is without its swarmy, holier-than-thou naysayers, I would posit (and I’d love to conduct an actual study) that Romance is the easiest and most abused target.
Why? There are reasons. Romance is an industry for women. Most of its detractors are men. And most Romance detractors follow a pattern—loosely (and erroneously) define an already defined genre, fit books into that genre that don’t fit, then condemn the entire genre based on their own misconceptions. Or worse, read a few pages of a popular romance (say, Fifty Shades) and making a sweeping declaration that all romance is of the same caliber.
Been there. Read that. Can’t you come up with anything new?
To Sittenfeld’s credit, she claims she has sampled more than a small portion. I don’t doubt she was disappointed with what she read, but I do find it a little amusing how she waxes loftily about Austen’s superior writing, which no one can view outside the context of their modern environment. No matter if you’re a casual reader, a scholar, or an authority in Austen, you bring with you a certain set of experiences to every endeavor, all of them conditioned and informed by many factors, including the era in which you grew up. It is impossible to separate yourself from the present; you will never know how you would have responded to Austen if you’d read Austen when she was a relatively unknown author, rather than how we regard her today. All you can do is speculate, and there is no way to test that speculation, unless anyone has a working flux capacitor lying around. We apply what we know of the time, culture, and Austen herself when reading any of Austen’s novels. The use of language has evolved. No one writes like Austen anymore because no one lives as Austen lived.
Austen was, absolutely, a skilled storyteller, and I owe her tremendously for what her works have given me. But I find it telling when people look to the writers of years’ past as an example of “the good ole days”, not unlike those people who believe things were safer ten, twenty, fifty years prior. And Austen herself is not without her detractors—perhaps most famously Mark Twain. Because, as it turns out, fiction is very subjective.
There’s a reason this topic is boring. It fans the ire of those who know better with just the right amount of smug condescension, but, as I said, the comment itself will be forgotten, because these comments are made so frequently it’s hard to keep up.
And it’s not the comments themselves that annoy me. It’s the attitude in general, and its larger implications against an industry run by and intended for women. But this attitude isn’t going away. After all, you get your own headline if you are brave enough to boldly state that romance is poorly-written while pimping your own work, which happens to be derivative of a romance novel.
DISCLAIMER: I am writing my own modernization of P&P. It’s been outlined for more than a year, but I haven’t gotten to write much of it given Dad’s illness and recent passing. I just thought I’d be upfront, in case, whenever my book is released, someone remembers this post.
I also haven’t read Sittenfeld’s work (I think it released just today?) but I did pre-order it via Audible. Our mutual “reinventions” of Austen’s world are different from what I can tell (through Sittenfeld’s book blurb), though I anticipate some similarities, since we’re using the same source material. I might hold off on reading Sittenfeld’s story until mine is complete to avoid any conflict of interest, or return it altogether since she annoyed me with her anti-romance remarks. I haven’t decided; on one hand, I love P&P so much I’d love to see what another author does with a modernization. On the other, I don’t like people who disparage my genre.
All in all, this has me a little mopey because I was really looking forward to reading Sittenfeld’s book. Even if I don’t return it, it’ll be hard to divorce myself from my feelings regarding the author’s attitude toward the genre enough to enjoy the work.