The A Word
That, kids, is the cover of A Devilish Dilemma one of the best romance novels in existence (shut your mouth good romance novels do exist, okay?). But what do YOU, the kind soul reading this post, and a virtually unknown Regency romance novel from the late nineties have in common?
Adequacy. Which is the subject of today’s post.
[Also, let me just say that I know I haven’t really be posting lately. I’m sorry; I’ve been re-writing a book. Can I just say it’s gotten drastically better in the last month. Like, my characters have depth, you guys. Which is kind of a big deal to me. Whatever. Moving on!]
Okay. So. Let’s just put it out there: romance novels are, typically, the butt of everyone’s literary-themed jokes. They’re second-class citizens at the bookstore, and frankly, it’s no surprise why they’re treated as such: long-haired pirates with breakaway shirts? Equally long-haired maidens looking like they’re about to bust out of their corsets? Titles like Charade of Hearts and The Dragon Emperor’s Feminist Slave Girl? It’s a recipe for endless satire. And I’m not even gonna lie: I’ve written stories in which a parent of my main character wrote romance novels, precisely so I could make fun of those books.
In a way, though, you could argue that that humor comes from…well, from scorn. As you scour the shelves at the bookstore, you might think to yourself, “Look at that awkward cover of an Elizabeth Bennet-esque girl strolling along a lanai with a weird-looking dude making a pass at her with his eyes. How does that stuff get published? Who had the patience to edit that manuscript without throwing up?” And as you move on, and head over to the shelf of Raymond Chandler books (which is where I usually go), you regard that romance novel with disdain (sometimes accompanied with a nose high in the air), like it’s not good enough. You are underestimating how good that book might be.
In my junior year of high school, I became friends with this girl; let’s call her Allison. Allison was a cool cat: she was smart and intelligent (no, those aren’t the same thing), and she liked music. Also, she liked to write, and our friendship was, I guess, pretty writing-centric. We read each other’s work and gave each other constructive criticism of sorts. But no matter how often I complimented Allison’s work, or told her I was jealous of certain writing skills she possesed that I did not (like her ability to be dramatic without veering into melodrama), she refused to believe me. She’d always belittle herself, and when I suggested she send her work out to be published, she said no over and over. It was sad, really, and when I discussed the situation with my other writer friends they were sad, too. It was a shame that Allison was too busy underestimating her talent to see just how amazing her work actually was. It was like she kept comparing herself to other people–to me, even–and kept coming back to the same upsetting conclusion: that she wasn’t good enough. That she wasn’t adequate.
She treated herself like a second-class citizen, basically; like the way we treat romance novels.
And the reason why it upsets me so much (enough to write a whole blog post about it anyway) is because whenever I look back on that period of junior year, I keep wondering what would have happened if she’d actually submitted her stories to contests, or if she’d read her work at school Poetry Club readings, or if she’d bothered to share her work with anyone other than me. Most likely, she would have gotten published, and she would have gotten really positive feedback, and maybe that would have helped her gain the self-respect she deserved, and the respect her work deserved. She deserved better, kids. And so do romance novels.
And so do you. (Yes, you, with the manuscript hidden at the bottom of your sweater drawer. Yes, you who likes to delete all your work right after you write it. I’m talking to you.)
Every book, no matter how much you might despise it, took real live work. Your stories take real live work. Even romance novels take real live work. And while there are bad books out there (ohh boy, are there bad books out there), it is unfair to judge a book merely by the reputation that precedes its genre. Imagine if someone did that to your book. Imagine if someone just walked right past your book sitting on the shelf at the bookstore because that person is against romance novels, or urban fantasy, or whatever genre your book is. Imagine if readers treated your book as a second-class citizen. [This makes me really angry, especially when well-known, respected authors do this; like when Jennifer Egan, fresh off her Pulitzer Prize win–for ‘literary’ fiction–basically bashed ‘chick-lit’ and claimed that that’s not ‘real fiction.’ Naturally I could argue that NO FICTION IS REAL IN THE FIRST PLACE, but since that’s not the point of this post, Imma let it slide.] How would you feel?
Maybe you’d feel like it was disrespectful of your brand of creativity. Or maybe you’d be sad because that potential reader might have loved your book had they just given it a chance. I don’t know. What I do know is that while I’m not encouraging you to read every single genre under the sun, I am encouraging you to try and give other books a chance. Don’t be such a snot (not that I’m accusing you of being a snot, but I gotta say: it takes one to know one. I have been there. I probably still am there. For realz.). That’s not what reading is about anyway: reading is about exactly the opposite, about broadening your horizons and your sense of self. I mean good gracious, imagine if we all took Jennifer Egan’s advice and relegated chick-lit to the same spot on the literary totem pole as romance novels. Where would Sophie Kinsella be? Where would–I shudder at the thought–Megan McCafferty be? [Before you bibliophiles give me guff about the McCafferty reference, I have to tell you: the Jessica Darling series is not, I repeat not, usually in the YA section of the bookstore. It’s in the general fiction section, just like Sophie Kinsella. So, clearly, someone considers it chick-lit. It’s not, but whatever. I digress.]
On the other hand, though, imagine if Allison had actually believed me when I gave her compliments about her work. Maybe she’d have several published stories to her name. Maybe she’d even have the cojones to write a novel, or a book of poems, or something. Honestly I have no idea how she’s doing with her writing, since we grew apart after a while and basically stopped talking to each other. But I always wonder. And I always wish I could still cheer her on and/or give her a kick in the pants to get her to keep writing. I mean shoot, maybe she stopped writing altogether (another thought at which I shudder).
Artists of any kind–Imma focus on writers, but all of them count–have periods of self-doubt. They go through spaces where they feel like a romance novel: nobody’s going to care about what I have to say, because my book is bad, and my ideas aren’t original, and I’m not funny, and it’s all been doing before, and yadda yadda yadda…the list goes on and on. It’s easy to make yourself feel like a romance novel. But it’s not healthy. After a while you might get so locked into that vicious cycle that you become Allison, churning out beautifully written stories while still convinced they’re all crap. Her stories weren’t crap, but even if she’d won the freaking National Book Award she probably still would have said so.
So: there are two types of artists, I think: people who treat themselves like a romance novel, and people who are more like A Devilish Dilemma: exceeding people’s expectations, one story, one poem, one book at a time. You can be the latter. Not to get all Deepak Chopra on you kids, but it’s totally doable. You just have to exit the vicious cycle and start to believe in your work and in your ideas and in what you have to say. Because it matters. It all matters, and it all deserves to be given attention, and that is what makes the book industry so exciting: there’s always room for new ideas, and new stories, and new adventures. [Some people say the publishing industry is in the toilet. I disagree. Completely.] There is always room for you, as a writer and as a reader, no matter what your taste is. And the more you remind yourself of that, the more you can be like A Devilish Dilemma: a pleasantly AWESOME surprise.
Screw the people who say your book isn’t ‘what the market is looking for.’ Screw the people who tell you, after reading your book, ‘It was good, but could you throw a vampire in there? Just to keep it fresh?’ Believe in your ideas exactly as they are; keep reading and writing and learning as much as you can about all kinds of things; and keep submitting your work. Someone’ll bite; you just have to trust the process. (Or you could, you know, self-publish. That works too. But the point still applies: you still have to believe in your work, and you still have to trust the process.)
The best reward is gaining readers you might not have gained had you not put yourself out there. The best part is when you exceed people’s expectations of you and your work. It just starts with YOU. With underestimating yourself no longer. Treat yourself and your work with the respect it deserves, and write with the knowledge that there is someone (a total stranger, I mean; not just your family and friends) who will be open to reading your book and will end up loving it and recommending it to everyone they know (which is what happened to me with Twenty Boy Summer. Can’t recommend that book enough). But it all starts with you. Respect your work as well as everyone else’s. Read a romance novel (preferable A Devilish Dilemma). Get off your literary high horse once in a while. You don’t have to love every book you read (I certainly don’t), but you just need to try something different once in a while. You could end up loving it.
And, hey, Allison, if you’re reading this: I hope you’re still writing. And I hope you’re starting to appreciate your work as much as I did.
Two kickass examples of books that defy the genre they’re in are Violet Midnight, by Allie Burke (an awesome paranormal series; and I have issues with most paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi books); and Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins (finally, a smartly written young adult romance that takes teenagers seriously). And, of course, the aforementioned A Devilish Dilemma.
Also you can check out Allie Burke’s blog/site here. (She’s an indie author. How cool is that?)
And in a day or two I’ll be posting a list of other genre-defying books: books busting out their genres like romance novel maidens out of their corsets–okay, I’ll stop now.