For someone who doesn’t even have a Twitter account, I’ve encountered a lot of interesting tweets lately. Last week it was the By Age 35 thread and this week it was the tweet to the left from Comedy Central writer Jake Weisman about Jane Austen’s writing.
The tweet, as he may or may not have expected, stirred up a bit of a storm. Not by people who disagreed with the fact that Austen combined satire with spot-on social commentary, but that Weisman had felt the need to disparage the fact that her stories also included . . .gasp! . . . love and romance. The consensus seemed to be that he had read her work, enjoyed it, and was appalled that he might be thought to be a fan of romance.
As one responder tweeted:
“What if I told you her novels are sarcastic, satirical, AND romantic? That they can be all of those things? Stop trying to distance Austen from the romance genre to justify your appreciation of her work. It’s very telling.” ~ Ally@inaneenglish
The article on Upworthy that covered the tweet-storm appropriately pointed out:
“Because — spoiler alert — literature can be more than one thing. It can be both satire and romance. It can be both mystery and adventure. It can be both comedy and science fiction. Books can even be all those things at the same time.”
It was what followed in the Upworthy article after the initial series of tweets that really caught my attention (and led to this post).
“Clearly, Weisman’s tweet struck a nerve, and it’s not surprising. Often certain genres of books, like romance, are largely written off or seen as less than. Why? Because the people who most often write and read those books are women. . . [and] the publishing industry, like so many others, tends to be very male centered.”
Attacks on the romance genre are nothing new and they have shown no sign of abating, despite the genre’s continued strong sales, growth, and recession-proof performance over the years. When I was in a graduate writing program years ago (not the McDaniel program; that came later), both the instructors and participants definitely looked down on genre fiction. Science fiction and fantasy were looked at with disdain, but nothing was deplored more than love stories.
I’ll admit I said I wrote “character focused historical fiction” to avoid their judgey-attitudes. They, of course, were serious writers. Apparently, I still feel a little bit of hostility over that.
Even further back, I still have a copy of my high school yearbook where a friend said she had enjoyed knowing me but was “disappointed that I never got you to stop reading those romance novels.” In her view, science fiction was the only genre worth reading. We were destined never to agree on that.
The local independent bookstore that I was in the other day had about 75% of its shelf-space dedicated to “fiction”, 10% to “science fiction and mystery”, and a single 24” column of shelving dedicated to “romance”, which was predominately filled with Nora Robert’s titles. Considering what prolific readers my romance-reading friends are, that seemed particularly baffling.
When I attended my first Romance Writers of America conference in New York six or seven years ago, I only remember seeing one lone male writer among the sea of female writers. He was wearing a cowboy hat so he was hard to miss. When I later attended the conference in Atlanta, there were a few more men, and last year in Orlando, there was a definite male presence. I’ve also started to see more male writers (or at least writers with male names) showing up in romance book recommendations, so perhaps the attitude toward romance fiction is changing, at least for some men.
We’ll have to wait and see about that.
The Upworthy article raised one question that I have been thinking about myself; perhaps you can answer it for me.
Why are books written by women are often labeled “women’s fiction” but books written by men are just “fiction”?