Friday, June 20, 2008

In Defense of Romance!

Hi, All.

My name is Jessica Barksdale Inclan, and I've been lucky enough to blog here a little today. I regularly blog at, but today I am very happy and honored to be here amongst romance readers, the readers near and dear to my heart.

I have been thinking a great deal about romance readers since I returned from BookExpo in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. When I was there and signing at the Romance Writers of America booth, there was a long line of very happy readers, all glad that RWA had sponsored a day of writers at their booth. One of the last people in line was a man who asked for my book in a paper bag. I was taken aback a bit, truly hoping that he was joking, maybe trying to emphasize how hot the cover of my latest novel, Being With Him, actually is. And yes, the cover does show very sultry embrace on the front.

But what I also found in his request was embarrassment. He was literally shifting his eyes back and forth, as if his best buddy from high school was about to come upon him and give him grief for reading a "girlie" book! To him, this was a book to hide from the “real” readers out there in the world. This was a book he didn’t want his friends or neighbors to see, not when they were reading War and Peace or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

As I writer and a reader, I have a feeling (when my self esteem is low) that other writers imagine that romance writers sit in their offices dictating stories into a microphone. I know, I know. Barbara Cartland did that and I think a very famous San Francisco writer supposedly does that. And maybe other writers do, but my feeling is that people have this idea that we just throw a story down, type it up, and send it in. That's it. No other work. There's this structure see--boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back--and all we have to do is fill in the spine. Nothing to it! Three or four books a year, presto! A career.

We're hacks, by god. It's almost criminal.

And then because it is so easy for us--we simple yarn spinners--we can be made fun of. Everything is formulaic. It's not art; it's not hard work. It's barely a story. It's something to be sold only in Wal Mart or at the airport. Somewhere, anywhere but a "good" bookstore. Please, keep that schlock out of there. And god forbid any of it should be reviewed in the newspaper or More or O magazines. No one really admits to reading that stuff, do they?

Now I know I'm being a bit defensive, but I feel I am in a good position to defend romance writers and readers because I've written around the genres. I started as a poet, worked my way into short stories, and then contemporary/literary novels. I've tried my hand at screenplays (and I will admit that they were not very good). I write essays--and I can pull a wicked synopsis out of my writing hat. I've taken classes, seminars, workshops on just about every writing topic you can imagine. I've sat with the serious folk who believe writing is the thing nearest to whatever god it is you might believe in. I've studied the "great writers" while finishing my graduate studies in English literature. I've taught in writer's workshops, read at many readings, worked in writing groups. And here's the truth: any writing that is good is good. The heavy lifting is the heavy lifting.

So--there is bad writing everywhere. It doesn't just pool up in the genre sections at Barnes and Noble like spilled oil. I have thrown many a "fine" 20 dollar hardback against the wall in frustration. I have rolled my eyeballs at phrases in mysteries, romances, and historical fiction. I have closed up the cover of Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly because I just couldn't read one more sentence of an essay.

And I have read a romance novel in one day because I couldn't put it down. In fact, romance novels got me through some hard times, one of the first--The Flame and the Flower--saving me from high school in general! I've re-read Pride and Prejudice (and yes, P and P is a romance. Sorry, lit folks. It's true. Read it closely) about 400 times. Other types of writing move me, too, of course. I think Beloved is the best novel ever written--that and The Great Gatsby. I finished Into the Forest by Jean Hegland in two days because I wanted to know what happened to the two girls and couldn't stop until I did. Sometimes, I can't believe that The New Yorker isn't read by everyone, each and every essay and article and poem and cartoon perfect. Juno is an amazing screenplay, sharp and mordant and funny.

All of it. The Flame and the Flower and Juno. Heavy lifting.

Romance fills a need, just as literary fiction such as Beloved fills a need. Certainly, you could say that Beloved is doing more heavy lifting than Nora Roberts' latest book, but I have a feeling there are Nora fans out there who would say that her latest has fulfilled something for them.

And why make fun of love, of the need to believe that it can be found? Has it touched a sore spot in you? Have you built up a shell around that need in yourself? Are you scared to read a story where love does happen because you aren't sure you will ever find it yourself?

It's not funny, this need we have, and we all have it. Romance just takes us there in 300 pages. Kind of handy, I think.

And along the way, you can have a blast. And you can be moved and maybe turned on. There are some wonderful practitioners of the language, too, working that old love story. So why not give it a go?

When I wanted to learn how to write a romance, I spent a summer reading romances. I think I read more than 100. I found writers I've never heard about--Christine Feehan and Sherilyn Kenyon, for two, writers who created amazing worlds in their books, and knew how to tell their tales.

Some of the 100 novels I read weren't all that great, but some were absolutely wonderful. As a reader, I'd forgotten how I could be surprised. Some writers created new worlds I hadn't imagined and wouldn't in a million years. Some nailed that chemistry thing, that thing we all are amazed at, no matter our age. Like all the stories I'd read in my literary lifetime, some were good, some were bad, some were amazing. Some were kind of ordinary.

But all weren't trash. All weren't a waste of bookshelf space.

And can I say this last thing? Romance is a huge business, bringing people into the stores, keeping them on, where they just might pick up Beloved on their way out the door. Like Harry Potter brought them in, so does Nora.

The women (mostly women) who read romance are also avid, critical, intense readers. They can spot a plot error a mile away. They can find the flaw in the chemistry by smell. After reading many romance writing blogs, I can tell you that I’d be more afraid of being excoriated by the reviewers on than The New York Times.

So thank you all, bestsellers out there! thank you romance writers who paved the way for me, who wrote the books that helped me get through hard times. Thank you Danielle and Stephen and Nora and John and Tom and J.K.! Keep writing! Keep bringing in the readers, who buy the books, who make it possible for me, the mid list girl, who just wants to write a story or two, a story about love.

I'm sure many of you have experienced someone question what you are reading or writing. What do you say to people who find out you like to read and/or write romance? What is your explanation (and I know you have to have one sometimes?)

Jessica Barksdale Inclan


Karen H in NC said...

When I'm sitting in a waiting room someplace and I pull out the book I brought, someone is bound to ask, 'What are you reading?'. I look at the cover, show it to them and say I'm reading the latest trashy romance novel. Usually she will say something like 'oh, I love those novels too!' I just met another comrad of trashy novels! I like that.

I don't ask others to explain what they read or why they read it so I don't feel the need to 'explain' what I'm reading.

jessica said...

Well, you make a pretty clear disclaimer! Do you really feel it is "trash" though? That's the point I think I'm making--we have to say a word like that that isn't really apt. We degrade what we are reading when there is no need to.

What if you said, "I am reading the latest from Writer X and it is absolutely fabulous!"

I guess that leaves you open to some of the people I've met who curl their lips and raise their eyebrows.

You are lucky to meet up with like minded folk in the waiting room though! And not a man carrying a paper bag around.


Pat Cochran said...

I start out with a very simple premise: what I read is my business
and mine alone. Secondary premise:
what you read is your business and
yours alone. I have never asked
what someone is reading, and never
been asked. I guess people pick
up on my third premise: reading time is precious time, don't bother me.

I love reading romances, suspense, historicals, non-fiction, most everything except paranormals ( I
tried, really I did.)

Thanks for blogging with us today!

Pat Cochran

Estella said...

I love reading romance novels!
If you haven't read it, don't knock it.

Aideen said...

Hi Jessica,

Absolutely brilliant post.
I'm sure you realise that in your quest to change how people view romance novels/writing that you're probably up against a huge brick wall. And that wall is made up of ignorant people.
I'm not here to offend anyone who does not read romance, everyone to their own I say.
But in all fairness, its the year 2008 and women the world over are sassy, smart, educated and well read. I read everything from classics to comics, biographies to the bible but romance is my one constant. I love it, I simply adore the feelings evoked in me when I read of two flawed people who find eachother and when love conquers all. Because it can happen and does happen in everyday life too.
I've met with the usual comments while buying my Mills & Boon;
oh, are you shopping for your grandmother? (I'm 31 years old, some assume the books couldn't possibly be for me).
Friends have responded when I tell em I'm reading the latest Modern Heat by saying 'But why? You've got a brain'.
Yes, I do and thats exactly why I read them. Because I know the books are a little escapism from a world gone crazy. And I utilise my brain by escaping through the wonderful writings of these wonderful women.
But on the other hand, I was choosing my selection at the book shop not long ago when a boy of about 17 seemed to hang around me. I turned, prepared for his knowing smirk and I got the surprise of my life when he told me 'you should try Penny Jordan, my mam loves her stuff'.
I think maybe we can change the world, but only one person at a time.

All the best,

jessica said...

Hi, Pat.

I like your way of thinking about this--let me read and I will do the same!

And I know--paranormals are not everyone's cup of tea. But the point is--we should all be able to drink whatever cup o' tea we want!


jessica said...


Thank you for your thoughts here. I think you nailed it for me--it's the feeling in the romances that I like. If that feeling doesn't arise, then the story doesn't work for me. And it's that feeling that is pretty much universal. Humans all want that feeling, and romances capture it.

On my blog at redroom, I offered to send a romance to anyone who wrote. Three did, though I have a pretty big readership there. One was a man, who ended up liking the story I sent (When You Believe) but wasn't really fond of the paranormal element. The other two did like the romance, and had never tried one before. So I am making converts, maybe "2" at a time!

Again, thanks for your story here.


jessica said...

Estalla! That simple comment is right on, if you ask me!


braible said...

Jessica, WOW what a great post! I love it. I don't worry too much anymore what people think of what I'm reading. I think you do what you need to in order to get by. These books fill a need in people, whatever it is for each individual. What right does anyone have to belittle that? And I agree with Aideen, I love the way these stories make me feel! Again, why should anyone have anything to say about that? We should all feel as good all the time as the stories make feel. As an aside, I have to laugh at the subject. I found myself out running errands last week with nor purse or anything, just my current book. I was out for an hour before I realized I was carrying "Sex Me" around town. But I'm not embarrassed. Everybody should feel so good!

Anna Campbell said...

Jessica, what a brilliant post! Thank you for putting so eloquently what I have often thought but never said with such panache! Long live, romance novels and readers!

jessica said...

Ana and Braible--Thank you for your comments! And I love the idea of carrying around "Sex Me" while doing errands. I mean, at least it's honest!