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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oh no - It's bash romantic fiction week again!

So it’s bash romantic fiction week, as usual. Oh no, not again, I hear you cry. When will this end? Not in the near future, I fear, but we can but try to tackle these prejudices about OUR genre.

On Open Book on Radio 4 yesterday the BBC managed to be stereotypical and snide (in my opinion!) about Regency Romance as a fiction sub-genre. A reader had contacted the Open Book Reading Clinic to ask for help in breaking an addiction to Regencies, which she had developed during her studies for a PhD. Personally I can’t think of anything nicer than relaxing and being entertained by Georgette Heyer after a hard day’s study, but I can see that if you genuinely cannot pick up anything other than a Regency romance you might be looking for some advice on how to expand your reading. That’s fair enough. What is neither fair nor courteous, in my opinion, was the view put forward by the studio guest, a novelist and playwright, whose contention was that an intelligent, educated “grown up” woman had a “serious personality flaw” if she was addicted to Regency romance.

Normally I don’t let stuff like this get to me. Romantic fiction comes in for such a predictable bashing in the media that if I let it affect me every time someone made a cheap joke or ill informed remark I’d never get any books written. This time it did bother me, though, because I think it’s just plain rude. It’s rude to the people who write romance and it’s rude to the people who read romance, you, me, all of us.

There are some fiction genres that I don’t enjoy reading. That’s my personal opinion and I don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because I don’t enjoy something it has no intrinsic merit. And the one thing I would never do is criticise another author or genre publicly. To me that is both an insult to other people’s reading choices and a very discourteous thing to do to fellow authors.

Commercial fiction is here to entertain and to provide escapism and I do wonder how long it will be before the media realise that in general it does a damned (sorry, dashed, Regency fans!) job. To me, comparing literary and commercial fiction is pointless, irrelevant. The two different genres set out to do different things. You might as well compare a banana and a pomegranate. Gracious, the banana is shaped like a boomerang! It isn’t round! It must therefore be less valid as a fruit! Critics judge commercial fiction with the same criteria that they apply to literary fiction. Why? When I read the two different genres I’m looking for very different things from them. Some of the story telling conventions that the critics decry in romantic fiction, like the happy ever after ending, for example, can be amongst the best, the most fulfilling and most satisfying aspects of the Regency romance for me.

My bookshelves groan under the weight of books from (almost) every genre, Regency romance to biography, science fiction to historical non-fiction. I don’t make any judgements about which of them are “better” than the others. They serve different purposes. I pick different books up depending on my mood and what I want from them. I don’t make comparisons or judgements and I don’t appreciate other people inflicting their ill informed, poorly researched prejudices about romantic fiction on me either. So, BBC, how about an Open Book Reading Clinic to re-educate “grown-up intelligent people” to rein in their patronising tendencies towards romantic fiction? Now that really would be a public service…


Jan Jones said...

Oh, well said, Nicola!

I am so fed up with being put down, both as a reader and an author. I've just spent a very bad afternoon wrestling with what's wrong with my current book. Do these people think I'd do that if I didn't genuinely want to write the very best piece of entertainment I could manage?

Ooh, I get so cross!

Kate Hardy said...

Beautifully put, Nicola.

Personally, I think it's lazy journalism. I would never cheat my readers (fiction or nonfiction) by not doing my research properly; and in my ratrace days I was taught that "knocking copy" was bad form/only done by copywriters/journos who weren't good enough to put a positive spin on their product.

What a shame that this broadcast journalist either hasn't learned these lessons or doesn't care. (Or possibly both.)

Then again, it's much easier to knock something down than to create it...

Natasha Oakley said...

I'm always amazed when people knock M&B because, apart from anything else, it's so foolish. The sales figures are staggering which means there'll have been a lot of irritated people after that programme. Hardly the best PR exercise I'd have thought. vbg

I can think of few nicer pleasures than curling up with one of your regencies, Nicola.

Michelle Styles said...

Well said Nicola.

There are different forms of entertainment. If one judged some of the literary fiction on commercial fiction standard -- ie does it tell a page turning story that holds the reader glued and longing to come back for more -- many would fail. Sometimes the parameters are wrong. McKee makes a point about the shift in literary criticism in the 1950s/1960s leading towards a death of story.

And if you are doing a Phd or other job where you have to pay a lot of attention to minutae, then a book which flows can be a welcome release.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Jan! Yes, I'm fed up with it too. I think it's incredibly rude that people get off on criticising the reading (and writing) choices of others in such an indiscriminate way. And Kate, I totally agree that it's very lazy journalism. I know we all get tired of those people who trot out old prejudices about romantic fiction and then - surprise! - it turns out they haven't read a romance book for 40 years! Or they assume the books are all the same because they haven't done their research...

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Natasha! That's a very good point about the sales of M&B books. And when one also considers the popularity of Georgette Heyer and the Regency genre in general it does seem likely that a lot of people would have been offended by the comments.

Michelle, you are spot on. There are different forms of entertainment and they appeal to different people for different reasons. To generalise and compare seems foolish.

Laura Essendine said...

So if they're knocking Regency romance are they going to have a go at Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility, the original Regency romances?

In my opinion, Jane Austen didn't write to be high-minded and literary so that generations of schoolchildren could benefit from her observations on society. She wrote rattling good stories that translated into great film and TV and which have had us captivated ever since.

Personally I wouldn't pick up an action thriller or a sci-fi novel out of choice but, despite my fondness for historical romance, I'm intelligent enough not to criticise these genres blindly.

Anything popular that appeals to the masses is always a target but we can't all be academics reading dusty, worthy tomes. There just aren't enough ivory towers to go around.

(Gosh that's a thought. A Regency romance set in an ivory tower... Must go. I'm suddenly inspired to create something "unintelligent".)

Laura Essendine
Author – The Accidental Guru
The Accidental Guru Blog
The Books Limited Blog

Carol Townend said...

Hi Nicola,
Literary fiction can drop the thread of story if it likes, but for me the best book are ones that tell a story. And trying to weave a story that works is one of the most complex and satisfying things one can do. The picture must be balanced, with warp and weft and colour and texture working together to create (hopefully!) a picture that tells a story. It seems very odd to criticise romance because the critic does not find that nature of that story appealing.

Nicola, I don't know where the weaving imagery came from, I started off thinking about E.M. Forster!
Best wishes,

Anne Whitfield - author said...

Hear, hear!
I don't understand this whole issue of romance = trash.
Yes, there are bad romance novels out there, but that is the case for every genre.

For everyone who looks down on romance novels, I wish there was some law that makes them have to write a romantic book of publishing standard.
That'd soon sort them out.

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL I love the thought of the Regency romance in the ivory tower, Laura! And I agree with you, Carol, that weaving a complex story is incredibly satisfying. Anne, I think you've put your finger right on the point by querying the romance = trash issue. I think there's a lack of confidence in people who want to be perceived to be "intelligent" and so knock genre fiction.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you to everyone who has commented on this debate. I emailed the Open Book programme to express disappointment that the BBC had broadcast something that could be construed as patronising and discourteous to regency authors and readers. I was pleased that the producer of the programme acknowledged my concerns. Somewhat predictably, I suppose, the comments were explained away as tongue in cheek and a joke. Isn't it interesting how often one is tacitly accused of having no sense of humour just because you take issue with a "joke" that is made at the expense of a particular group of people? I dislike being portrayed as a humourless person simply because I stand up for what I believe in. Hopefully anyone who has read my books will know it isn't true. Anyway, that's enough of the rant from me - back to what is more important, writing, reading and a passion for history.

Anna Campbell said...

Nicola, as you know, this sort of patronising attitude makes my blood boil. And you know because I tell you often enough!

I wonder how many Regency romances the snide interviewer had actually read? Even if he'd only read one or two, it seems crazy to dismiss an entire genre on such a small sample.

And the joke comment makes me boil too. I wonder how funny they'd think a joke about race or disability would be! I know Regency romance is on a different plane to either of those but it all boils down to having respect for people and even more importantly, for differences between people. Grrrr!

Good on you for writing to them. I sometimes think we're our own worst enemies. I know way back when, I had been convinced by well-meaning friends that I should be ashamed of my reading choices, I used to say I read 'trashy' books. These days I stand up proudly and say what I do and what I read.

Michelle Styles said...

Nicola --

WHat passes for a joke at the moment on certain parts of the BBC shows that the BBC has no real sense of humour. I would far rather be out of step with their brand, than in step.

But good for you for writing and complaining.

Elizabeth Hanbury said...

Very well said, Nicola, and good for you for complaining to Open Book.

BBC Radio should compensate for their patronising attitude by commissioning some new Regency romance dramatizations ;0) I've e-mailed them several times in the past with this request and will do so again after reading your post; no doubt they will assume I have a serious personality flaw *g*

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL Elizabeth,I guess all of us here share that personality flaw! We can but try to make our point to the BBC and other media. Anna, I think you are absolutely right. It all boils down to respect for others (or lack of it) and respecting different tastes and views. I'm afraid that so-called jokes at the expense of any group of people are just cheap and tawdry. And Michelle, I agree - you would think that the BBC would be a little more sensitive to viewers' and listeners' tastes after recent events!
Phew! It's been quite a week. Think I need a nap...

Nebula said...

As a reader and librarian, I have encountered this prejudice against genre fiction before; children's books used to be considered throwaways, science fiction didn't gain any respect until the 70s and romances have always been considered "trashy." I don't understand this attitude; I've never looked down my nose at anyone's reading habits, which I consider each person's private business. Questioning someone else's reading choices is not only rude, but an invasion of privacy and a lack of respect for them as a person. You can be sure I don't let anyone question mine!

Nicola Cornick said...

Quite right, Nebula. Good for you! Yes, that's my stance too. It's very rude and disrespectful to put down other people's reading choices. Hopefully after the outcry the BBC (and the author concerned) might think twice before being so patronising again.