Positive Press for Romance Novels & Elitism

by Sarah on July 8, 2009 · 15 comments


Romance authors Eloisa James and Julia Quinn were among those interviewed for an article in USA Today entitled Scholarly Writers Empower the Romance Genre. Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of the blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books were also quoted.

While I’m delighted to see romance novels finally receiving positive recognition in the media, I fear there’s a danger we’re going to the opposite extreme by focusing exclusively on smart (read: highly educated) authors and readers. With the exception of the interview with Nora Roberts in The New Yorker, all the recent articles I’ve read on the topic have stressed the education and intelligence of the romance authors and readers profiled.

In the USA Today article, much is made of Mary Bly/Eloisa James’s academic credentials and her struggle for acceptance as a romance novelist in a scholarly environment. The piece even mentions Julia Quinn and Sarah Wendell’s respective husbands’ education, although how this is relevant is beyond me (no offense to either gentleman, but the article is about their wives).

I don’t know why people who read romance are traditionally considered less educated than readers of other genres. Statistics say otherwise. Romance novels appeal to a wide demographic, encompassing women (and men) from a variety of backgrounds. It is wonderful that the stereotypes which surround the romance genre are being challenged, but I think authors and readers can justify their preferred genre without resorting to the same élitism they’ve been a victim of for decades.

Edited to Add:

I just saw that Jane from Dear Author has touched on this topic in her Daily Links Round Up

Katiebabs has a post up on ‘I Am a Scholar, So I Can Write Romance (And Not Be Ridiculed)’

Jessica of Racy Romance Reviews has written her thoughts on the Nora Roberts profile in The New Yorker


Jane July 8, 2009 at 21:43

I admit to being taken aback by the Julia Quinn quote and hoped it was taken out of context or that I was reading it out of context. While on the one hand I appreciate the growing legitimacy of romance, on the other the focus on degrees and education to base that legitimacy is frustrating.

Sarah July 8, 2009 at 21:54

@Jane Yeah, that was an odd comment from Julia Quinn. Candy’s quote was great! I am in total agreement with you that the legitimacy of romance should not be solely based on education. The emphasis should be on readers stemming from a wide variety of backgrounds, including educated ones. I think Sarah and Candy managed to get this point across in their book, but the press surrounding its release has focused primarily on the intelligence factor.

katiebabs July 9, 2009 at 00:21

I found it strange the USA Today article would mention their husbands also. Why? Because Quinn’s husband is a doctor?

Why such the focus on the degrees and what high institution an author went to? Just as Jane said, they are trying to legitimize these already wonderful authors.

Kat July 9, 2009 at 00:54

Eh, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. The article was all about the idea that romance empowers women and that old feminist critiques of the genre are seen as passe. It’s a much more impressive argument if you can support it with strong academic credentials for the people whose quotes you use.

I didn’t find Quinn’s quote odd at all in the context. It talks about her dropping out of medical school, and then she says her husband’s a doctor and she thinks she has it easier. It’s a slight aside, but not irrelevant, at least from a reader interest perspective.

Magdalen July 9, 2009 at 06:01

I’ll keep it short. (For once.)

1. I went to law school because I wasn’t good enough as a romance author back in my 20s and 30s. Getting into an Ivy League law school was WAY easier than getting published, and I suspect that’s still the case today.

2. There’s a romance with an Amish virgin heroine? No seriously — it’s in the USA Today article. Or is the author just thinking of “Witness,” the movie with Harrison Ford? Anyone know?

Edie July 9, 2009 at 12:10

I think my big problem with this, is that I don’t really see any other genre fiction getting the same treatment that romance does. No-one seems to feel the need to justify James Pattersons, Sue Grafton’s books and their writing etc.

Sarah July 9, 2009 at 13:14

@katiebabs I don’t think other genre writers feel the need to legitimize themselves in quite the same way. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of surprise attached to, say, John Grisham having a law degree.

@Kat Mentioning academic credentials was the whole purpose of the article, and I don’t have an issue with that. I would have liked some reference to the diverse readership and I find it frustrating that almost all recent articles on romance authors and readers focus primarily on their educational background. Particularly somewhere like the US where university fees are extremely expensive, higher education is a privilege and lack thereof doesn’t necessarily mean a person is not smart. (I didn’t have to pay for my university education, thank goodness. That would not have been pretty!)

On reflection, I agree with you about the Quinn quote. It’s just unfortunate that the first part reads: “Any regrets? “I’m married to a physician,” says Quinn,” and the rest of the quote appears a couple of lines further down: “I have a way better deal as a romance writer.”

Sarah July 9, 2009 at 13:24

Magdalen :

I’ll keep it short. (For once.)

1. I went to law school because I wasn’t good enough as a romance author back in my 20s and 30s. Getting into an Ivy League law school was WAY easier than getting published, and I suspect that’s still the case today.


As for the Amish virgin heroine: this is probably no joke. I can’t give you an author or title, but I can imagine a book like this being published by one of the inspirational romance imprints such as Harlequin’s Steeple Hill.

@Edie I agree with a comment Kat made on Twitter where she pointed out that many crime authors do reference their relevant backgrounds (e.g.: Michael Connelly is a former police reporter). However, a degree in Art History does not automatically qualify one to write good romance novels. I believe Laura Kinsale is – or was – a geologist. I doubt that had much impact on her ability to write excellent historicals.

Kat July 9, 2009 at 16:01

@Magdalen: Here’s a link to the Time article on Amish romance books. (One of the books mentioned debuted at #10 in the NYT paperback bestseller list.)

In terms of authors having academic backgrounds in fields unrelated to literature, I think it’s a marker for craftsmanship. And I do think it’s particularly important when writing an article about romance books for non-romance readers, because it’s likely that the people who read the article have a preconception that romances are formulaic and require very little skill to write.

And finally, did anyone notice that “bodice-ripper” didn’t get a mention? I quite like “frothy fiction” even if it doesn’t really describe the darker romances.

Sarah July 9, 2009 at 16:52

No, I didn’t notice the lack of “bodice-ripper”. I’d be willing to bet Eloisa James insisted on this. When she did an op ed for The New York Times a few years ago, they promised her never to use the “bodice-ripper” term again. Later, they went back on their word.

Leontine July 9, 2009 at 19:55

It irritates the crap out of me and I seriously wonder WTH they are thinking with this line of interviewing. A woman who has basic education can have a divine imagination with a natural feel for writing and deliver a spectacular novel. Jeez, Nora Roberts a “self-taught” author.(I read this at Katiebabs I think) What does “self taught” mean? Does this mean he/she develops as a writer, as a person, that he/she gains in experience? Heck isn’t that what every author does?

Both authors and readers of the romance genre come from every layer of the society, are based all over the world and diverse in personalities. I’m all for reaching your potential and aim for the best education you can get but whether or not an author delivers a best selling novel depends on the imagination, writingstyle and so on, not the degree hanging on the wall.

Sarah July 9, 2009 at 22:01

Leontine :

I’m all for reaching your potential and aim for the best education you can get but whether or not an author delivers a best selling novel depends on the imagination, writingstyle and so on, not the degree hanging on the wall.

Exactly. A well-written book is what matters. I’m indifferent to an author’s academic background. What concerns me is whether or not she can write. As I know from my own experience in the land of academia, a degree doesn’t mean a person can write coherently. Much depends on the subject they specialized in, and even then, a person can excel at non-fiction writing but not be in the least creative.

heidenkind July 10, 2009 at 02:22

I’ve got to agree with Magdalene–getting a degree is way easier than writing a romance novel. And one has nothing to do with the other, so why even go there in the first place? Because there’s a stereotype of romance novelists being a dumb version of Joy from My Name’s Earl or what? Who cares?!

It’s just odd.

Magdalen July 10, 2009 at 05:14

Thanks, Kat. I had no idea. I go to Lancaster occasionally (quilt shows, mostly) and the sense of the Amish that I (a complete outsider) get is that it’s a deliberately closed community. Hard to imagine what a romance in that setting would be like. But you have to love American commerce: someone saw a niche market and decided to satisfy it.

Sarah July 12, 2009 at 20:10

@heidenkind I have two degrees and I write romance. My thesis was a piece of cake in comparison to finishing a book.

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