Friday, October 20, 2006

Romance vs. Plato

An ad recently posted along Washington DC metro lines by the Greater Washington Initiative is gaining attention – and not of the positive sort. First brought to my attention by Amanda Brice at Romance Divas, it has been a heated topic on other forums and blogs across the Internet, including Smart Bitches. On one side the ad depicts a man in a business suit reading a romance book (an actual title currently in print), with a caption above that says, "Average subway reading." On the other side is this same man reading Plato with the caption, "Greater Washington subway reading." Below that is text that states that the most educated work force in the nation is in Washington DC, with 45% of the population having a bachelor's degree or higher.

There are several things about this ad that are bothersome. Though there are men who read and write romance, the primary readers and writers being female makes this ad condescending towards women, as well as sexist in nature. It implies that if you read romance, you are inferior, both intellectually and biologically, when in fact statistics show that 42% of romance readers have a bachelor of arts or higher. That means that, allowing for a 3% margin of error, romance readers are -- GASP! -- just as intelligent as someone who reads Plato. They’re just not as pompous.

Second, the fact that it targets romance as opposed to horror, science fiction or manga, is also insulting, though no surprise. Literary snobs seem to forget that the "classics" they hold in such high esteem were not deemed as such when they were written. In fact, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Charles Dickens all wrote what was considered "pulp fiction" in their day. What makes great reading is subjective, and a classic is something that holds a timeless appeal and speaks to the masses. One cannot write a “classic.” No matter the genre, one writes the best work one is capable of, and hopes that it finds an audience.

The truth is, no matter one's sex, or the genre for which one writes, writing is hard work. It is as difficult to pen a 300-page romance as it is horror, mystery or something more "literary." All must hone their craft. All must learn the basics of sentence structure, grammar, editing, and plotting. All must put in hours, weeks, months and even years of time in front of the notepad or keyboard. Just because one writes romance, doesn't mean one is a hack. There are hacks in all genres, yet romance is the only one to which this stigma remains attached.

To be fair, the romance industry can be its own worst enemy. Though not quite the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s and 80s, the clinch covers and trite titles that often grace these novels, particularly those of Harlequin/Silhouette, convey the message that romance readers are so dumb they need the entire book summed up for them by covers that read “The Tycoon Cowboy’s Secret Baby” or “His Runaway Amnesiac Virgin Bride.” Pu-lease! If the romance industry wants to rise above the stereotype, the first step is to abandon this practice. Give books real titles and it will go a long way in validating the genre.

Third, there is the obvious fact that the GWI failed to do their homework before initiating this ad campaign, or they would have known the statistic cited above regarding romance readers. Even if one is not familiar with Romance Writers of America, the facts are easily accessible by doing a Google search on "romance statistics." Such a search leads you directly to RWA’s facts on romance—who reads them, their level of education, and the fact that fifty percent of all paperbacks sold are romances. That’s right, half of all paperbacks! That means that horror, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, nonfiction and all other genres and subgenres combined equal the number of romances sold each year. How can that many readers be wrong or considered inferior? It has also been my observation that, more than readers of any other genres, romance readers are more likely to read outside their preferred genre.

Not only are the readers intelligent, but so too are the authors. Many are or have been teachers, lawyers, FBI agents, or computer programmers. One romance author I know was a Pushcart Prize finalist—one of the most prestigious awards for short fiction, poetry and essays. I personally have a BA in French and English with a writing emphasis. While I confess that I have not read Plato, I have read many other ancient dead guys: Molière, Sartres, Camus, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and many other French, British and American writers. Some I liked; some I did not. Some I found positively brilliant, while others the worst writing I'd ever been subjected to.

While the French has grown a bit rusty over the years, I am still fully capable of reading—and understanding—anything read in that language. Though I am partial to reading romantic suspense, authors such as Jimmy Carter, Mitch Albom, Carson McCullers, Lisa Scottoline and Joan Didion vie for space on my nightstand along side Toni Blake, Heather Rae Scott, Nora Roberts, Ann Voss Peterson and Rebecca York.

What bothers me most in all this—and judging by various blogs and discussions around the Internet, I’d say it is universal among the romance community—is the fact that the GWI would denigrate someone for reading anything at all. In an age when fewer books are sold, when reading skills in general are below average across the nation, and in a country that has one of the highest illiteracy rates among First World Nations—their ad criticizes people for their choice in reading material, when the fact that they read at all should be lauded.

People should not be made to feel inferior for their choice in reading material, be it romance, horror, manga, or even Plato. We need to encourage and promote reading in all its forms, not solely what is considered "classical" or "literary."

Just as a book shouldn't be judged by its cover, neither should someone be judged by what he or she chooses to read...or write.


Kate said...

Well said Heather!!!

Heather said...

Thanks, Kate! :)

Maggie Nash said...

Hey..where's my books?

LOL...Only joking!

A very well rounded and clear summary of the topic Heather...

Again I say...write and submit your articles!!!

Jana said...

Hear, hear! Excellent response, Trix.

Heather said...

Maggie~ LOL - Sorry, dear - the PC won't fit on my nightstand. Thank you for your support and encouragement!

Jana~ Thank you!

No big surprise either that, which had been linking to cow and cemetery posts the past four months did NOT link to this one. Typical....

Heather Rae Scott said...

I gave you a standing ovation. Wish you could've seen it. In my jammies too.

Very well said!

And I agree with Maggie. Write and SUBMIT. Don't make me walk over there and hurt you--of course by the time I walked over there, we'd both be dead...*snorts* but you know what I mean.

Heather said...

Now you're going to threaten me too?? Hmph! I wanna see you walk all the way here from PA, hehe.... (Thanks, Rae! *grin*)

Latesha said...

Excellent points, Heather. If more people thought and spoke out like you did, maybe romance wouldn't get such a bad reputation.

Heather said...

Thanks, L! We can only hope! :)

Zimmersgirl said...

Great blog, H!

We've been discussing these ads for a week or so in another group and it's disturbing. You have to wonder how many people have learned to read by reading "Plato's Republic" or how many hours and dollars the group has donated to literacy groups? I should do some research because I have a feeling it's not near the time and money romance novelists and the RWA donates to fight illiteracy. If it is, I apologize up front, though a part of me doubts they have. Why do I doubt? Because if they did believe in fighting illiteracy they would not be such snobs. Also, they would fire their ad agency and find one that promotes reading--period!

Here's some food for thought...

For some reason, this group (and others like it) feels threatened by Romance. Who knows why, but usually one feels threatened when one feels inferior. I think the people of that group might have some issues.

A little projection going on perhaps? Okay, a lot!


Heather said...

Thanks Tam!

I think you do raise a valid question, that of professional jealousy. Considering the fact that romance owns the corner on the paperback market with 50% of sales and almost as high a percent with trade size and hardcover books, I can't help but think it comes into play, to some degree.

I think that some literary and general fiction writers think that anyone who writes a romance can get published. However, those of us familiar with the industry know that there is no guaranty that will happen, and that it is just as difficult to break into the romance market as any other.

Romance readers and publishers have expectations same as those of mystery, science fiction or any other genre. They look for a good story as well as strong plot, characters and writing. As I mentioned in my post, writing is hard work, no matter what one's genre.