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Feb 04 2013

Guest post by Susan on genre and stereotypes

Susan wrote this as a comment on The romance novelist and the guy with a truck from last month.

This post is especially  relevant to me.  I am a feminist, and here is the great irony in my own life … I have been writing romance novels for 20 years. And I have resisted  the stereotypes almost every step of the way. When I began,  when “strong” female characters were becoming as common as “damsel” characters, I began with women who dressed in jeans and boots and such.  I think I must have had “heroines” who wore skirts and heels, but of course I was basically writing some avatar of myself in both male and female characters, and I stopped wearing skirts and high heels after college (and only wore them before them to special events such as weddings, or to job interviews).

After the first few novels, I increasingly tried to write women who were fully equal to the men, but even in the 90’s there was (and still remains) the expectation that the man will ultimately be the protector/dominant. That expectation became increasingly frustrating to me, to the point that that (along with the expectation of frequent sex scenes) led me to hate the genre. ( I was constantly thinking …. oh, is the heroine “too” strong? Is the hero not strong enough for the readers and my editor?)

I  continued to write in it because I am good at love stories and because it’s my sole way of earning money, but trying to buck the system ultimately led to my being let go and losing 3/4 of my income.  (I might add that my disinterest in loves scenes is not prudishness; I actually enjoy writing “bondage” type sex–which is only appropriate in some novel settings–but I find average sex scenes rather boring compared to other aspects of building a relationship.  And I’ve literally written hundreds of “love” scenes, as they have always been euphemistically called in the genre … though perhaps not now that erotica is so hot.)

Now I have realized that writing romance has almost destroyed my writing soul, and though we will be very tight financially, I will not be writing another romance novel. Instead, I am writing fantasy—my first urban fantasy (based on Norse mythology, set in San Francisco) will be out in July from TOR books.  I loved being able to make the woman protagonist earthy and “masculine” in the way I am, not interested in conforming to gender expectations, and as much or more likely to rescue the male protagonist/love interest as the other way around.  I loved writing my version of mythical Loki as a pansexual trickster who prefers to embody himself as a man but can as easily appear as a woman, who loves sex, and who messes with everyone sexually and emotionally while not being quite the villain he seems to be.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I have had constant conflicts in my mind and heart over writing in a genre I know most fellow feminists probably despise, trying to hit the right buttons for the readers, and keeping my writer’s soul from withering.  It’s been a balancing act that ultimately, after 20 years, hasn’t worked.  And yet though I’m not ashamed of most of what I’ve written, I’ve felt ashamed among feminists to admit what I’ve done for a living.

This is all a rambling way of saying (as I finish what I hope will be my last romance novel forever) that I’m sick of boxes, and of feeling ashamed, and yet not fulfilling/able to fulfill genre expectations well enough to continue a career in the field. I have felt bizarrely alone in this way since I began my career and knew I didn’t fit in with most of the other romance novelists I know. Your post , though not specifically on the subject of romance novels in general, just got me going on things I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.

It has been a very strange, sometimes rewarding, often painful and confusing way of making a living.  I hope I can make enough money writing fantasy so that I can continue, since that is what my heart truly loves, and where I don’t have to worry if the main female character is often “stronger” in some way or other than the male. And that the men don’t have to be stereotypically “masculine” or the women “feminine” and the characters can be who they are. (And even so, I know I still fall into gender traps without realizing it. All I can do is try!)

21 comments

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  1. 1
    sueinnm

    Thank you, Ophelia, for letting me share my thoughts

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Thank you for sharing them!

    I’m very interested in this kind of thing. Always have been, and recent developments have made it all even more salient.

  3. 3
    Brisvegan

    I wish your editors etc had let you write the romance novels you wanted. Genre romances used to be my secret vice, but I got increasingly disenchanted for all the same reasons as you. I would have read anything you wrote if they let you write the romances you wanted. I especially loathe the dominant man thing where he would ignore the woman’s preferences ‘for her own good’. It always looked creepy.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    As a lifelong professional nonfiction writer, I find this fascinating.

    I was always under the impression the difference between a romance novel and a “standard” novel (if there is such a thing) was the strict adherence to “normative” gender roles in the romance genre. So it’s no wonder you got push back. But wouldn’t such ‘nonstandard’ material be worth putting out — if only just a shelf over at the Barnes and Noble? Or are you writing in the name of someone else, so your identity wouldn’t follow?

    I tried writing fiction and it always turned out porn. Now that the 50 Shades drek (and it’s all just as awful as the original) is flooding the shelves, I may revisit some of my old stuff.

    But maybe not. It’s pretty embarrassing stuff.

    I’m much better off writing about herpes zoster and post-operative emesis…not at the same time, of course.

  5. 5
    sheila

    Good luck with the fantasy, Susan. I suspect you’ll be very good at it, since you’ve practised your craft for so many years on what you didn’t like.

    I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself for writing genre romance whilst feminist. We all wind up making compromises to survive in this messed-up world. As Greta said about high heels:

    The reality is that, in a sexist culture, there is no way for women to win. It’s wrong if we dress too slutty; it’s wrong if we dress too prudishly. It’s wrong if we’re too feminine; it’s wrong if we’re too masculine. It’s wrong if we’re too pretty, we’ll get seen as trivial bimbos; it’s wrong if we’re too ugly, we’ll get dismissed on the spot. Navigating these impossible shoals, trying to express or even find your true self among all this noise, is baffling and exhausting.

    I hope fantasy makes you happy and solvent, if not rich. You can pay too much for money.

  6. 6
    sceptinurse

    Good luck with new genre. And let us know when it’s out and the title. I for one would like to read it.

  7. 7
    sueinnm

    Brisvegan,

    I did write what I wanted … to some extent. At the beginning. I was able to push some boundaries. I was able to write “paranormal” romance back when almost no one did it (I wrote what I think was the first non-cursed werewolf/shapeshifter protagonists.) I even wrote a few novels in which the male protagonist didn’t have too much to prove, and was a gentler, less domineering type with no “masculinity” issues. . I tried to vary both heroes and heroines because doing the same pattern over and over again made me crazy.

    But I think this is why my numbers were virtually stale throughout my career in spite of initial enthusiasm by my three publishers (Random House, Penguin, Harlequin/Silhouette). I was not being “consistent.” I wrote contemporary and Western and Victorian. My male characters were not always “alphas” (though more were than weren’t.) When i started, only the male characters could have “problems” or dark sides, and I made the most of that by calling on my “masculine” self and my own inner darkness. (Since the female characters were supposed to be vessels for the readers, they couldn’t really have problems or be much less than totally admirable. That has now changed to large extent, though many things haven’t.)

    But except for perhaps my first couple of novels, I continued to resist the “strong woman, stronger man” idea found even in more progressive romances. Sometimes I just caved. Others I fought. But in the long run, I didn’t push enough of the right buttons for most romance readers. I wrote romance like SF/Fantasy, my true love, and that just wasn’t acceptable … too much worldbuilding, too much character, too much complexity, demanding more of readers than many were willing to give.

  8. 8
    Lyanna

    Susan–like Sheila, I don’t think you should be hard on yourself. In fact, I think dismissing romance novels is as anti-feminist as many romance novel tropes. It smacks of condemning women’s interests and pursuits simply because they are “girly.”

    I would note that, for anyone involved in geek culture and its associated pastimes (like fanfiction), there’s plenty of romance available online that doesn’t hew so closely to traditional gender roles. Though it’s more likely to be male/male pairings than male/female with a non-traditional woman. That shows that there is a demand…and the demand might be lucrative for those who write original works, rather than fanfiction. I have no clue how to realize that demand, however.

    Best of luck with the fantasy novel!

  9. 9
    sueinnm

    Kevin, you wrote:

    “I was always under the impression the difference between a romance novel and a “standard” novel (if there is such a thing) was the strict adherence to “normative” gender roles in the romance genre. So it’s no wonder you got push back. But wouldn’t such ‘nonstandard’ material be worth putting out — if only just a shelf over at the Barnes and Noble? Or are you writing in the name of someone else, so your identity wouldn’t follow?”

    Yes, there are very strict rules for romance. Perhaps not as bad as they used to be but, as I said, there is still a strong prejudice in favor of alpha males and strong, but not-quite-as -strong, heroines. And there is a demand for frequent sex scenes, and I was never able to meet that demand because I had to base those scenes on what was right for the setting, characters, and story. With the rise of erotica, it is almost expected now that every romance novel have 10 sex scenes, and I resented being forced to include them just to satisfy the readership. If they fit, fine, but I couldn’t write them to order. Thus, again, my ultimate failure to maintain a viable career after 20 years.

    Then there’s setting. Romance publishers will generally only buy books set in various historical settings in England; Victorian, western or contemporary US; historical Ireland or Scotland. They will almost never consider any other country or period in history. This was also unbearably frustrating, but it is what the readers want. Books outside this area tend to fail.

    Rather than writing nonstandard romance (which could only be self-published) I want to focus on fantasy, where I can turn those tropes on their heads, but still include love stories (which I do enjoy … but I like making them drag out, which you can’t do in a romance novel.)

  10. 10
    sueinnm

    Thank you Sheila, Skeptinurse and Lyanna. Yes, you can break lots of rules with e-pubbing, but until I lost my good living to a very poor one, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of dumping a comfortable income. Now, earning 1/4 of what I did, which is quite pitiful, I have little to lose. I’m going to write a book I want to write and then try to sell it. It will at least salve my soul, if not fill my pocketbook.

    I am also to some extent a geek in that I have always been involved in SF/fantasy conventions both as reader and writer. I have written very intense fanfiction about movie characters, which is loads of fun. But it’s only for fun, and I also need to make money …

  11. 11
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    Best of luck, Susan! We need to know your SF pen-name so we can buy your book!

  12. 12
    Argle Bargle

    I wrote romance like SF/Fantasy, my true love, and that just wasn’t acceptable … too much worldbuilding, too much character, too much complexity, demanding more of readers than many were willing to give.

    It sounds like you tried to fit SF/Fantasy tropes into your romances, which made the books “too hard” for what your publishers considered the readership to be.

    I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, which is a Western set in a Fantasy world. Instead of gunslingers there’s swordslingers (the shoot-out in the saloon becomes a stab-out). The book has been well received, so fantasy should let you expand your writing horizons quite a bit.

  13. 13
    Martha

    Thanks, Susan, for this very interesting post!

    One of the comments you made, when you mentioned using guys with no masculinity issues, struck me. Why is it that we perceive guys who need the security of knowing that they are alpha to their partners as stronger than those who are secure enough not to need artificial control? It’s never made any sense to me. I want a partner who can stand up to me when necessary, but not one who needs to feel superior to me to boost his self-esteem.

    This isn’t an issue just with romance novels; indeed, I’d say the novels reflect something much more deeply engrained in our society. It’s interesting that you have to imagine other worlds to get around it.

  14. 14
    Bjarni

    While I can’t really comment usefully on the romance novel element (never really read them), I do/have read a lot of fantasy, and yours sounds really interesting. It probably helps that I’m a sucker for anything using Norse mythology, perhaps especially in a modern setting.

    I’ll look out for your book :)

  15. 15
    jimbaerg

    Has anyone following this thread read _Shards of Honor_ by Lois McMaster Bujold? (Lately republished as the 1st half of _Cordelia’s Honor_.) It’s a Science Fiction novel with a major part of the plot being the romance between the 2 main characters. I mention it partly because both the male & female in the romance are strong characters & the action/adventure parts of the story end up with each rescuing the other at different times.

  16. 16
    Sage Arenskaya

    Trying to figure out why your post immediately put my hackles up. Maybe because suggesting a woman wearing jeans and boots is some kind of revolutionary act seems ridiculous. Maybe it’s because I get a very strong sense that you equate feminine with weak and masculine with strong and that a woman in a skirt and heels can’t possibly be strong.

    But then in the comments you said this: demanding more of my readers then they were willing to give.

    Yes, because romance readers have such tiny little brains. Those little women can’t handle my writing. I’m too smart for them. I am so damn tired of “feminists” claiming an entire genre that is largely written by and read by women as being somehow less, less complex, less literary, pretty much less everything. than every other genre of literature. It’s just incredibly frustrating. Scifi and Fantasy have managed to grab some measure of literary respectability, but romance remains completely shut out. It’s girly therefore it’s bad, amiright?

    Good luck in your new genre. Hopefully, you’ll do better in a one you respect. But, BTW, in terms of misogyny, fantasy has a fuckton more to answer for then romance.

  17. 17
    Cam

    I’m glad you mentioned Bujold – I was just about to. She’s a great fan of Georgette Heyer, and you can see the influence in her novels, especially A Civil Campaign. Lady Alys is a nice example of the kind of benignly terrifying old lady character that plays so well in a Regency romance. (Come to think of it, so is Cordelia, in her own way.)

  18. 18
    Christopher Stephens

    … that sounds like a really cool book. I’ll add my vote for calling for a notice when the book is out, a title, and the pen-name, if appropriate.

  19. 19
    'dirigible

    “Yes, because romance readers have such tiny little brains.”

    As opposed to the swollen crania of their white knights.

    (This is missing the point day, right?)

  20. 20
    daniellavine

    Keep writing strong, assertive female characters rescuing cute, slinky male characters and I will read all your books. Maybe it’s not a huge market but we’re out there. And yes, please give us your pen name or a title or something when you can so I can buy your books.

  21. 21
    Cara

    I have a complicated history with romance novels. When I was a young teenager, I realized that I liked fantasy with romance elements—think Anne McCaffrey or Mercedes Lackey. Paranormal romance didn’t really exist as a genre back then, otherwise I’m sure I would either have vacuumed it up or been too ashamed to touch it; I didn’t allow myself to read any “pure” romance novels. I felt bad for liking romance-y fiction for three crosscutting reasons: it was girly which meant I shouldn’t like it because I was supposed to be a boy, some of the stuff I found wasn’t very egalitarian and that made me uncomfortable, and I had a lot of unresolved issues about having a sexual orientation. It took awhile to untie those knots. When I read my first lesbian romance (in the form of bad online fan fiction), it was a revelation, one that I didn’t fully understand at the time.

    I’m in a different position because I’m mostly interested in lesbian romance, but I did feel a bit ambivalent about liking something so stereotypically girly until I decided that the only way to be a bad feminist was to criticize other women for their compromises, not for making my own. I dislike alpha-male and stereotypical-female heterosexual romances, though I occasionally read YA and paranormal romance that isn’t quite so bad about those elements—I, personally, would like to see heterosexual romances with a much wider variety of characters. Good luck with your genre switch, Susan, and there are readers out there who want different things.

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