Genre romance: expressing our values, sharing our myth

28 Jan

Earlier this month, the podcast Fated Mates, by Sarah Maclean and Jen Prokop, had an episode with genre romance legend Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle, she of the many pseudonyms, queen of “reinventing herself under a new pen name as circumstances warranted”, as part of a series of Romance Trailblazers interviews.

I have been thinking about it a lot, just…not very happy thoughts.

I want to say upfront that I own a lot of Ms Krentz’ books 1; that her medieval-set historicals are among my favorite keepers, that her writing voice invariably sucks me in within a couple of sentences, and that it is clear that Ms Krentz is very kind to those around her and to her readers; I’ve seen many an anecdote recounting her kindness and generosity.

This is not an exercise in sharpening my hate-blade.

This is me thinking about what I read, examining why I enjoy what I do, how my privilege lets me ignore things that are a virtual slap in the face to others, and why I am not okay with unqualified praise for those who benefit from immense privilege while denying the need to open the door to those with little-to-none.

It is worth noting that Ms Krentz is the force behind the book Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women (1992), which sought to destigmatize genre romance for academia. 2

That collection of essays by the biggest names of the day in genre romance, was very formative for me as a reader. It prompted me to move beyond the unthinking consumption of the books I read; I started to think about what I read because I had read that book (back in 1997). 3

* * * *

In the Fated Mates interview, which was taped in August 2021, somewhere around the half-hour mark Ms Krentz says something to the effect that genre fiction’s function is to express a society’s values, to articulate and, in a way, codify the myth of that society’s core values for posterity. 4

Ms Krentz also talks about genre writing as embodying the core values of the author, under and through the trappings of plot, setting and character. In her case, the core value of her work, is that relationships hinge on trust. She further says that genre, especially genre romance, calls upon the characters to do “the right thing”.

Later on in the interview, Ms Krentz says that genre authors should not tie their stories too much to historical events, that they should limit the story to the ‘myth’ rather than the ‘surface’, such as “social problems”; that the more you focus on social problems, the more you are focusing on ‘the superficial’–and then mentions women’s suffrage as an example of those ‘surface’ details.

She asserts that, for stories to last, to remain in the social consciousness, you have to focus on relationships, not ‘surface’. Sure, Ms Krentz says, writing about the struggle for (white) women’s right to vote in the early 20th Century would be interesting, but a story revolving around it cannot be genre, let alone genre romance.

Too much reality-to-myth ratio, apparently.

* * * *

Leaving aside oh, say, all of Dickens, as an example of genre fiction addressing social problems that lasts, I am flabbergasted at the idea that writing a story around the social problems of the day automatically means it cannot also be centered on the relationship between the protagonists.

I mean, think about it: the societal values that come through in many white cishet people’s work, over and over, are that only a very narrow slice of society deserves happiness, that only that very narrow slice of society can see themselves represented fully; for my money, the ‘myth’ that genre is supposed to preserve through their novels is the same lie that led us to MAGA in 2016, and a face down with fascism in 2022.

Meanwhile, the stories that have stayed with me over the decades are the stories about the outsider, the downtrodden, the one who has suffered, who then triumphs and thrives, including in love and relationships. 5

I want more stories that do not ignore the ‘surface social problems’ that everyone who is not white cishet Christian (and, in this context, U.S.-born) face just to survive, let alone thrive and triumph.

* * * *

In November 2021, I tweeted this: 6

First three tweets, dated November 10, 2021: Reading JAK speech on romance at Bowling Green, nodding along until she got to the part where she spewed her tired line about how "political correctness" is why genre romance is derided in public, and how romance readers are tired of "politically correct, strident feminism." There's something so especially insidious about white women claiming that they want equality, that they're against sexism, while snidely decrying the "strident political correctness" that has given them so much of the privilege they enjoy. They want equality, sure, only don't point out how much farther we still have to go, how their lived experience of it is miles ahead of entire classes of people, because that's "strident" and "extreme" and "politically correct", and therefore, you know, bad.
Last two tweets in the thread: They know that sexism is bad, of course, but do not point out how rigidly heteronormative so much of the genre still is, let alone how white, because that's *definitely* radially "politically correct". So many white women, particularly straight white cis women, are the very picture of, "I got mine, you can piss of now", as they pull up the rope ladder and sneer at the rest of us, who helped them get on the damn ladder to begin with.

It bothers me, immensely, that many white cishet women authors rail against sexism and the patriarchy while upholding it. That they often sneer at social justice and diss “political correctness”, in the same breath they bemoan that genre romance does not get respect from academics or the media. 7

I’m writing this to rebuke that thinking.

Abled white cishet women in the USA would not have many of the privileges they enjoy today if it weren’t for the support of the same marginalized groups they are happy to erase from the ‘cultural record’ that is genre.

* * * *

Wendy the Super Librarian has been known to say that successful genre “rights the universe” for the characters (and the reader); 8 the mystery is solved, the villain is punished, the world is saved, the protagonists find their HEA/HFN and triumph and thrive.

As a reader, nothing is more satisfying that this ‘righting of the universe’, but it only works if I can buy into the universe the author has created.

I’ve read and enjoyed many an all-white, all-wealthy genre romance, by consciously suspending my knowledge of the world and history. Sure, let’s pretend you have a family with seven British Dukes, all single, fit, handsome, and in their early 30s. I’ll buy that, while I’m reading it, unless there are some rather blatant blunders pulling me out of the world the author is either writing themselves, or writing in. There are even cases where that’s what I need, the only way I can enjoy a story. 9

What offends me is the idea that stories that center marginalized groups, without erasing the difficulties they face everyday, will not last; that those stories are ‘lesser’, because they do not exist within the ‘cultural myth’ of a white cishet-only privilege.

It’s the willful erasure of the fact that marginalized people manage to find lasting joy and to thrive despite discrimination, violence, poverty, and more, and the tacit denial that their stories should be part of the culture that genre preserves and passes on to the future.

I have just reviewed a most wonderful, sweet, fluffy genre romance about a white trans woman and a straight Black man, that faces all these things head-on. Their relationship very much revolves around everything they are and how the world they live in constrains, then pushes (and punishes) them for *being*. Their story could not be told well without addressing all of those factors, aside from their individual personal background and emotional baggage.

I want many more stories like this one, at least as many as white cishet Christian stories, because I want the cultural myth, the societal snapshot, that genre today preserves for the future, to be better, more inclusive, more equitable, more welcoming, than the one from the past that we have right now.

* * * * *

Update: just a note to say that I was already writing this in January 22 (and had to ask for help with some of the links herein), well before the latest twitter Romancelandia to-do. The more nothing changes.

* * * *

1 I have reviewed a few of her books in this blog, and hope to review more of her older titles in the future.

2 There is still value in that book, but honestly, it has not aged well. As Steve Ammidown said, there’s a lot in it that’s very essentialist, leaving so little room for anyone, and anything, else.

3 It’s a process, and I have much work to do here, as one can see by looking at the most frequently used tags on the sidebar.

4 Please note that at the time I’m writing this, there’s no transcript of the episode available on their site; I am not transcribing Ms Krentz’s words myself, I am paraphrasing my understanding of them after listening to the interview about three times in a row.

5 While I have come to see some of the problems with the book since I wrote this review, such as the vilification of the ‘loose woman’, Morning Glory is one of these stories, and gee, it’s about an ex-convict and a woman everyone around considers crazy, and set in Georgia during WWII. Talk about dealing with social problems and current events in genre, huh.

6 Here’s the link to the speech I mention in the thread: “Are we there yet? Mainstreaming the romance”; please note that the speech is from 2020.

7 This is, in fact, one of the things that makes reading some of Ms Krentz’ novels so hard for me, as I note near the top of this review.

8 Paraphrasing from memory; I cannot for the life of me, find the exact comment where she first said this, or any of its iterations. UPDATE: Wendy has kindly provided the link in the comments below.

9 There’s a concept in literary theory called chronotope that encapsulates one of the most commonly used pre-built worlds in historical genre romance, and there’s a great discussion of why that is exactly what marginalized readers may prefer, if not need, from genre romance, in Kat Mayo’s review of Ms Haddock’s Under the Sugar Sun, and in the comments, between Kat and the lovely Merriam Weymouth.

6 Responses to “Genre romance: expressing our values, sharing our myth”

  1. willaful 28/01/2022 at 3:33 PM #

    It seems very contradictory and downright horrifying to both believe that romance expresses society’s values and not to want any questioning of the values found in romance.

  2. twooldfartstalkingromance 28/01/2022 at 4:23 PM #

    Bravo! Ms. Krentz is honestly the author that started my reading romance. And as a cis het white woman I was well represented in what she wrote.

    I tried to reread some of her older books a while ago and simply could not. For me there is a question of consent that I found was skirted unfortunately quite a bit. Also, her heroes sometimes stood on the edge of the envelope toward abusive.

    It’s a true shame the successful authors don’t quite move with the times. Nobody is asking anybody to change who they were, but rather to go forward with a more inclusive and excepting stance. A refusal to grow and to except a changing world, a changing face to our world, and acceptance that not all faces look like yours, makes me sad when that’s refuted. It makes me sad to read what you’ve read, although I understand. She has always been somewhat admirable to me but this diminishes her a bit and that makes me sad too.

    • azteclady 28/01/2022 at 4:33 PM #

      I do wish that, if they chose to continue writing the same in terms of characteriation/consent/diversity/etc, at least they would not speak against other people’s needs and desires to see themselves represented more widely.

      Marginalized writers have been writing diverse characters on many axes, often intersecting; but when the big sellers in the genre speak against inclusivity, professionally and within their texts (by having their protagonists mock “political correctness”), that is a big problem.

  3. SuperWendy 05/02/2022 at 2:12 PM #

    So the reason you can’t find my “righting the universe” comment is because it’s buried in an old review – an m/m romance where a dead wife got royally hosed: Midlife Crisis

    Anyway, Krentz’s view that genre reinforces societal “core values” is one I agree with. Although it’s easy to lose sight of this given ::wildly hand-waving:: the last several years. We want justice to be served, we want to fall in love, yada yada yada. But yeah, she tends to lose me after that – especially in this idea that somehow Alpha heroes have been neutered by political correctness run amok. No, no they have not. The rape-her-til-she-falls-in-love-with-you bodice rippers of old were operating in a time period that reflected the lives of women very differently. And as women came to embrace their sexuality and some of us realized we weren’t “dirty” the idea of “forced seduction” started to go by the wayside. As readers we still LOVE Alpha heroes – what we hate are assholes. It boils down to this – does the Alpha hero respect the heroine? If the answer is no? Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Women expecting respect from men is not a bridge too far IMHO.

    (The rest of it I can’t articulate well past “Um, no – WTH?!” Like you the books that seem to resonant with me the most are couples finding joy and overcoming various obstacles – and sometimes that’s some pretty ugly history, bigotry, and various -isms.)

    • azteclady 05/02/2022 at 3:09 PM #

      All of this.

      Assholes need not apply, thank you.

      (and thank you for the link!)

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