Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Romance Thrives Amid Economic Gloom

According to NYT article, romance novels are the strongest selling category of fiction, surpassing other fantasy genres such as Sci-Fi. The reason--readers want a happy ending and a story in which fantasies come true.

Romance buyers are not only the most loyal, they are willing to sacrifice other things in order to buy their fix of happiness. And Romance also does well in nontraditional formats.

Romance novels have also captured a larger proportion of the electronic book market than other categories. Whereas most publishers say that about 1 percent of sales come from e-books, Harlequin says that digital editions make up about 3.4 percent of its sales.

At Fictionwise, the e-book seller recently acquired by Barnes & Noble, about 50 percent of sales are romance books, said Steve Pendergrast, chief technology officer. “Romance readers tend to be voracious readers,” Mr. Pendergrast said. “The ability to instantly download and start reading is potentially more important to that audience than any other audience.”

The growing market for digital romance novels has attracted several newcomers, including tiny independent publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Samhain Publishing and Ravenous Romance.


Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Doesn't surprise me at all, Podler. Romance stories are as varied as the people falling in love in them. They are not all fluff and bodice rippers. Romance is versatile. Natural Born Killers for instance. Yes, scathing satire, and the romance was between two sociopathic mass murderers, but it was a romance nonetheless. Fight Club, same thing, Tyler and Marla holding hands in the end. How about True Romance, one of the most violent and exciting films I have ever seen. What about Dracula and his unrelenting desire to posses Mina. Romances can be oddball, thrilling, action packed, disturbing, historical, social satire, and some explore the very darkness of humanity. Romances can explore sexual desire and obsession in ways other genres cannot, for they can't always compensate for the depth needed. In those cases, the romances have to take a backseat to the plotting. I think this is why readers love the romance genre. They love its humanity and its versatility. Its literary lineage is long and mighty. Even deSade wrote some of the most heartwrenching romances ever written.

Henry said...

Cheryl, I think your definition of romance is a little bit liberal. Romance isn't anything with a love story - because that might account for 90% of books.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Not really. Romance is generally defined as a story where the romance between two characters is either the pronounced element of the story or the sub-plot that motivates the characters, usually with a HEA. Romance has many sub-genres which really encompass all of the mainstream genres, and some romance is listed as just plain old literature/fiction. In an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, in the back of the book, he said what disturbed him the most was that readers missed the romance between Tyler and Marla, which he thought was an extremely important part of the plot. Without the connection to Marla, the story would have ended much differently.

So, no I am not liberal; I am just not inclined to use old dogma to define Romance, or to define any genre, for that matter. I think the Romance genre has been pigeon holed as soft-core porn for women for far too long. Its merits, in some cases, are well beyond mere titillation and an HEA. Not all romance is escapist, either.

But humans have a need to use hard and fast rules to categorise things, at the detriment to us all, I think.

Steven Reynolds said...

Sorry, Cheryl. I’m with Henry on this one. Chuck Palahniuk pointing out that his book has a neglected romantic subplot doesn’t make it a "romance" in the conventional sense. You might, at a stretch, say Fight Club fits the arcane literary definition of the Romance: an adventure, a hunt, a quest or chase, with elements of love, fantasy and improbability. But that’s not romance as most people understand it today, and certainly not the sense in which the NYT article was using the term. They’re talking Harlequin, not Chaucer.

Humans do love to categorize things with hard and fast rules, and that’s a really useful skill. It allows us to differentiate. Defining “romance” to encompass most of literature – presumably to legitimize a scorned genre – only drains the word of meaning and shuts down a meaningful discussion. And that would be a shame. I don’t think we need to broaden the definition of romance at all to make it credible or interesting. I’ve read probably a dozen or more romance novels over 20 years (yes, Harlequin, Silhouette, etc), I know one romance writer personally, and I even briefly studied the genre as part of my Literature degree at university. It has zero value beyond being escapist entertainment for women, and that’s fine. Escapist entertainment is a big part of life. Just ask any guy with a Playstation. I don't enjoy these books as novels, but I do think Harlequin-style romance is a fascinating genre given the infinite variety authors are required to provide within extremely strict publishing parameters around characterization, story arc, voice, vision, length, language density, etc. Every aspect of the poetics is pre-defined to achieve a particular effect. It’s amazing. I think the genre also raises some fascinating sociological questions about reading habits, gender roles and the intersection between literature and politics. Janice Radway wrote a pioneering text in the Cultural Studies field, Reading the Romance (1984), which explores these issues. Some of her research methods have been challenged, but her analysis of the genre is sharp. And it's not just a feminist critique, she does very close reading and lays bare the way the genre works. For anyone interested in writing, it's a worthy read - not because you want your novel to be mistaken for a two-dollar romance, but because every writer needs to understand how literature works and how particular effects are achieved.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

"It has zero value beyond being escapist entertainment for women, and that’s fine."

No, I, personally, don't think that's fine, and I know a few romance writers, who write deep psychological, philosophical, and existential character studies who would be offended by that as well. Not all literature is Romance, and not all Romance is literature; we are agreed on that, but not all romance is escapist, either. And it's poignant that you point out: "As most people understand it today." Which is because of a stereotype that modern culture developed.

I understand that NYT was speaking specifically about Harlequin styled romances, but, my point was to say that Romance should not and cannot be defined in toto by that one style. It is much broader than people today give it credit for being.

Moreover, I am not saying this because I write romance, I don't. But in some cases I have to sub-genre into the romance category, simply because the underlying sub-plot of most of my novellas happens to be understanding the human psyche's need for love: god's love, self-love, whatever.

I just think, like in all other genres, we should look beyond the stereotypes and see that there is literary merit in Romance, just as there is in Sci-Fi and Horror, as well. It’s all literature in the long run, some good and some bad.

We can agree to disagree, your points being just as valid as mine.

Steven Reynolds said...

Okay, Cheryl, I see what’s going on here. Your books don’t fit any recognised category, so they get marketed under the conventional “romance” banner because that’s the best-fit sub-genre. Stuck with that label, you now want to broaden readers’ perspective on what romance means so they’ll take your books seriously. Fair enough, but you’re going about it the wrong way. You don’t need to broaden the romance genre. You and the authors of similar fiction need to come up with a new name for whatever it is you think you’re doing, and then work hard to promote it as a genre in its own right. Calling your imprint something other than “Twisted Knickers” might be a good start. For me, that immediately conjures up images of dark (or darkly comic) soft-core erotica. Is that what you write? Is that what you want the world to think?

A serious question: can you please post here the titles of some of these “deep psychological, philosophical, and existential character studies” produced by “a few romance writers”? I’d really like to explore this kind of work. I like George Bataille’s fiction, and there is an Australian writer named Rod Jones who has written several superb short literary novels with philosophical themes and dark, erotic undercurrents. See Julia Paradise, in particular.

My comment that romance “has zero value beyond being escapist entertainment for women” was not intended to offend. Just because it has no value beyond that doesn’t mean it has no value at all. As I went on to say, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. I like entertainment. Most of what is written and read in the world today is entertainment. And if I could write like the very entertaining Nora Roberts (or her team of book packagers, at least) or Dan Brown, then I’d probably be doing so right now rather than posting comments on a blog. I’m not anti-romance or anti-genre fiction at all. I like crime fiction, for instance, and count some thrillers amongst my all-time favourite novels. But we all know that genre fiction operates at a different level of complexity to literary fiction, uses different techniques, has different goals, and attracts readers with different needs. If we want to talk meaningfully about books, we can’t pretend those differences don’t exist.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thought I would combine all my posts so it would be easier to read.

Not exactly Steven; yes, I have a hard time classifying by own books, some of the romantic elements are more pronounced than others, some of the existential qualities are more pronounced, depends on the story really. I even had a reviewer consider one Horror, to my astonishment, but I can market my books any way I like. I am the publisher, and I can classify them any way I like in Bowkers, as well.

My point is that I am loathe to assign labels, not just to romance but to any work of art really. So I am not "stuck" with a label, nor am I trying to get anyone to take me seriously. I don’t take myself that seriously. I have no personal interest invested in the genre, either, but every author, no matter what they write, should be taken seriously, romance writers included. So I don’t think coming up with yet a new genre is the best way to approach the issue. The genre is broad enough in its own right.

Attitudes about Romance weren’t always as they are. The clerics from the high Middle Ages changed that when they declared romances to be harmful worldly distractions, poisoning the piety of their idealized society, and by 1600 romance was deemed trite and childish -- a harsh verdict that still exists today. While I agree that some stylistic romances are in the vein of burlesque humour, and some are meant solely to titillate, some are not. No, I don’t write dark erotica either, though some may consider my latest in that vein even though I don’t write graphic sex. I find graphic sex not to my taste. Actually, I write novellas, which is a genre all of its own with very specific elements to consider. But really, this has nothing to do with me at all, it’s about shifting an outworn attitude to something more positive. A little less condemnation, perhaps.

Yes, the term "romance," as used today, usually refers to stories in which the plot primarily focuses on the relationship and romantic love between two people; and yes, these works must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." But other works are still, occasionally, referred to as romances because the elements used are directly descended from the medieval romance or from the Romantic movement. Shakespeare's later comedies, such as The Tempest or The Winter's Tale are sometimes called his romances, but more importantly, what about Romeo and Juliet, a tragic romance yes, but a romance nonetheless. What about Wuthering Heights; or Gone with the Wind; maybe Venus in Furs, although it’s rather overt; A Knight’s Tale; Pride and Prejudice; Cold Mountain; Jane Eyre; the tragic love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere; Brokeback Mountain; and many of the novellas by the Marquis deSade are tragic love stories. Not to mention some more of my favourites in literary romance: Love in the Time of Cholera, or Like Water for Chocolate, or how bout The English Patient, or Unbearable Lightness of Being. Literature yes, definitely; Romance, yes, yes, whoohoo yes. :)

Just because, by modern definition, the classics are no longer labelled as such doesn’t mean they are not still romances, not to mention romances of the highest literary standards. I have never read Nora Roberts; I like my romances a bit more twisted.
I do recognize the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction; I was not attempting to ignore them, but those differences only exist because we need to categorize and rank things. I am not anti-genre either or anti-entertainment -- I am anti-label, because while labels are very helpful in marketing, they really only project a facade, oftentimes an inaccurate one. Right now, Amazon is currently de-ranking books labelled as adult: Brokeback Mountain; much of Georges Bataille’s work; de Sade’s work, of course; and many others will de-ranked and stripped of some of the search visibility, yet American Psycho still has its rank, and it has some of the most vomitous pornography I have ever read in my life. Is it because it is labelled Literature???? I wonder, and that is the only point I am trying to make. We should be careful how we throw around our useful labels and the often biased opinions that come with them.

Here is the link speaking to the latest “label” glitch with Amazon.

Thanks, I will look up Rod Jones, I am always up for broadening my own horizons. I never ask of others that which I won’t endeavour myself.

Steven Reynolds said...

Thanks for the clarification, Cheryl. I'm familiar with the long history of romance in English Lit and I agree with you, we can certainly see surviving elements of it in many new works today. I still wouldn't classify them as "romances" in any sense of the term. But given you're not really interested in categories or labels, I guess there's little point in further arguing about their boundaries.

If you're interested in the history of romance writing, you might like to read (if you haven't already) A.S. Byatt's 1991 novel, Possession. It's one of the few contemporary novels that sets out to be a traditional Romance as well as a literary commentary on the topic.

Did you see my question about those "deep psychological, philosophical, and existential character studies" produced by a few contemporary romance writers? Can you please refer me to these titles.

Finally, for someone who is loathe to assign labels, you're certainly pretty quick to slap one on American Psycho. Please define "pornography".

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I rattled off an entire list of Romance books with just such complex literary elements??? I didn't say "contemporary" romance writers, nor did I say I know them personally. I simply said Romance writers. I think Marquez would be offended if “Love in the Time of Cholera” was labelled "escapist for women" since, even though the plot fit the romance genre formula to perfection, he was writing about love as an emotional and physical disease, not to mention the seductive nature of his narrative, and the complexity of his characters.

No, there is no point discussing boundaries, never was, since art is all about removing boundaries, not putting more in place, and if I am correct, on your bio you mention: "Genre fiction can be wonderful - I refuse to accept a definition of literature that excludes a great deal of what is written and read in the world." Wow: Refuse to Accept a Definition. Strong words. So, I am confused Steven: Are you for or against definitions/labels??? Labels do nothing more than constrain. For marketing and demographics, they serve a purpose, but beyond that, they are too broad based, and that makes them dangerous. Anyone who has studied literature, art, sociology, philosophy, and or psychology, for that matter, knows this. So while the banter back and forth is rather engaging, I will go back to my original statement: your opinion is as valid as my own -- opinions are what they are -- though I am not quite sure what your opinion actually is.

Onto the "pornography" of American Psycho: In the scene I am referring to, the one with the lengthy bit of graphic sex, Patrick Bateman was making a pornographic video of himself with two prostitutes. It was written as pornography because that was what the scene was about -- the intent. He was making a homemade film for the sole purpose of sexual arousal. The scene in the story was pornographic by definition, and Mr. Ellis' writing of it was very deliberate. Ellis knows what he is doing.

When we label something, we make it too easy to cast aspersions. I like anything written in the dark romanticism style, genre doesn't matter. I read Anne Rice's Beauty trilogy, and while the writing was erotic, gratuitously graphic, tedious, and repetitive to the point of boredom, her characters are always sharply defined; the dichotomy of the human condition is always apparent in her work.

So, I thank you kindly for the rousing debate, and I hope you enjoy the long list of Literary Romances I left in my last post, per your request, if you have not already read them.

Steven Reynolds said...

I'm all for definitions, Cheryl. Nothing I said in my bio contradicts that. "Literature" does include genre fiction, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, drama, graphic novels, etc.

But each of those, too, can be defined because each has its own set of conventions, preoccupations, dominant styles, techniques and readerships. I don’t think these constrain at all: I think they actually open up different creative possibilities for writers; they allow them to have their work received and understood within a particular tradition and that can be empowering. For example, Booker-winner and ultra-high-literary novelist John Banville has, in recent years, published a series of crime novels under the name Benjamin Black. He chose to move into genre fiction because it's a tradition that offered new creative challenges for him; it allowed him to tell a different kind of story, in a different kind of way, and have it received by readers who were receptive to that mode. Moreover, I think some of the most interesting work is so for the very reason that it tries to cross those boundaries or combine conventions, e.g. revisionist mythologising has been used to good effect by feminist writers. That very transgression can become part of the book’s meaning. But those lines need to exist in the first place in order to be crossed and confounded and used.

So the comment you quote from my bio was only intended to convey to the blog's readers that I’m not solely interested in the "literary fiction" category – not that I refuse to accept the very idea of categories or lables or definitions at all.

Thanks for the list, almost all of which I’ve read. I didn’t realize that was your answer to my question. I did think you were referring to writers you knew because you seemed to be speaking on behalf of them.

FYI, if you enjoyed (or even if you hated) American Psycho, Julian Murphet has written an insightful analysis of it which you might find interesting - presuming you're willing to shop at Amazon ever again :). There’s a great section in there on the sexual violence. I agree, the part you refer to sees Bateman making pornography, but I hope you don’t think Ellis’s intent was, itself, pornographic, i.e. that his sole objective there was to arouse his readers.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Of course it does, I said that in an earlier post, "It's all literature in the long run."
My argument is that of a cautionary one, where useful labels lead to biased opinions and then to conventions and then to rules, "which must not be broken."
Me, I love breaking the rules. Transgression is like sex and chocolate. I advocate it and do it often -- metaphorically and artistically speaking of course. I replied with a kudos to Bonnie's post yesterday for that very reason. I want to write what I want write. I don’t want to be limited by conventions or marketability or subject matter or some arbitrary stereotype. I think I can safely say most artists feel that way. If Bonnie wants to take on deep philosophical issues and she wants to do it hard-boiled, Brava to her. Can’t wait to read it. I thought Bukowski’s Pulp was genius.
I don't know how many times I have heard: It's not romance because it has a sad ending or I don't read horror because I don't like monster stories or Sci-fi is all just fantasy fluff. Labels invoke stereotypes, it's human nature, and stereotypes are limiting. That's all I am saying. Art is fluid and ever-changing; let's allow it to do that. Let’s allow the lines to blur and merge, change their orientation. Lines on the highway are fine, but some lines are not meant to be etched in stone. Nothing artistic is ever clearly delineated, that’s what makes art so captivating -- its constant state of flux. Every time we look, it means something different.
And being an artists myself, not just a writer but a painter, sculpture, and an illustrator at one time or another, I can say that no artist wants their work to be typecast. I may be presumptuous speaking for others, but artists want freedom to grow, whether that means shifting genres or styles or saying fuck-all to the so-called rules. I struggle every day with can I or can’t I, should I or shouldn’t I.
Of course I will shop Amazon. I remember placing my first order when they went live. Sometimes the bully just needs a smack-down every once and a while, and I am extremely happy with how Amazon treats me as a reader and as an author who uses their printing and distribution services. So, Glitch or did they try to do something on the sly, no one will ever know unless someone inside leaks. But at least, intentionally or not, the censorship boundary was pushed, so hopefully no one will deliberately try a stunt like that in the future. The outcome is what is important in this case, not who is to blame. It was a lesson in the damage that labels can do.
I loved American Psycho, love Ellis. No, I agree, Ellis needed to accurately portray the pornography. If he had softened the edges, we would have missed an integral part of Bateman's psyche, no matter how disturbing it was to read. No one has ever called me squeamish -- deSade relieved me of all my naiveté a long time ago. I think I am in the minority when I say that he actually loved women. So yes, I would love to read that analysis as much of my own work deals with the subject of sexual violence. Bataille’s Essays on Eroticism, death and sensuality are also a great read.
I wasn’t being sarcastic when I thanked you for the rousing debate. Debate is good for the soul. It’s how we ground ourselves, and it’s how we test the courage of our convictions -- a little intellectual swordplay keeps the mind sharp.

Steven Reynolds said...

Oh my God, Cheryl. It sounds like we actually agree on a few things. Who knew? Thanks for the swordplay.