Romance = Porn for Women? Fighting Words

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

You can say God is dead. You can say books are over. You can say bomb Iran. But when you say romance is the lowest form of literature, watch out.

Perhaps Maria Bustillos, writing in The Awl, doesn’t share the “widely reckoned” opinion that romance writing is “just a notch above the writing on Splenda packets”, but she doesn’t seem to be straining to rebut it, either.

Her critique, posted (intentionally we suspect) on Valentine’s Day, trivializes romance writers – and readers – in the guise of a serious analysis of the popularity of the genre. Though she purports to seriously delve into the psychology, philosophy and sociology of the phenomenon, she reveals her true hand when she writes “Everybody knows that they are written and read just for kicks.” The writers of romances “are in no way trying to win a Booker Prize,” Bustillos says. As for the readers, “One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.”

“I have often wondered whether romance novels mightn’t generally serve the same purpose for women that pornography does for so many men,” she reflects. Fighting words for writers and readers.

The canard that popular literature is written by hacks for low-minded readers goes back as far as Greek and Roman times, and wherever it turns up, including its latest propagation in the hands of Ms. Bustillos, writers and readers need to speak out.

Several years ago we did. “The belletristic establishment regards the world of popular literature as a subculture,” we wrote, “but one could seriously argue that it is really the other way around. Very few ‘serious’ writers make enough money from their writing to support themselves without having to moonlight. Their audiences are often modest in size and elitist in taste. Their work is frequently inaccessible, intellectual, experimental, and sometimes incomprehensible.

“The lives of professional genre writers differ in many significant ways from those of their more literary brothers and sisters,” we argued, citing that among many virtues they are businesslike, disciplined, and sensitively attuned to their readership.

“It is vital for the writing establishment to realize that literature is far more than a ladder with junk at the bottom and art at the top. Rather, it is an ecosystem in which the esoteric and the popular commingle, fertilize one another, and interdepend. Principally, if it were not for the immense revenues generated by science fiction, romance, male action-adventure, and other types of popular fiction at which so many literary authors and critics look down their noses, there would be no money for publishers to risk on first novels, experimental fiction, and other types of serious but commercially marginal literary enterprises. Furthermore, from the aspect of the writing craft itself, there are many extremely important lessons for literati to learn from their genre comrades in arms, if only the former would take the trouble to study them.” (See The Two World of Literature: What Serious Writers Can Learn from Genre Comrades in Arms.)

Huffington Post blogger Pauline Millard has another view of chick lit. It has evolved into a more thoughtful and better written form of mainstream women’s literature. “In the past year,” Millard writes, “a different breed of chick lit has appeared with smarter writing and characters. It’s notable not just for the content, but also for what it says about women, and what they are willing to read in their leisure time.” (See Chick Lit Grows Up)

Join the debate. Read Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing by Maria Bustillos.

Richard Curtis

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Richard Curtis

About Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is a leading New York literary agent (www.curtisagency.com) who foresaw the Digital Book Revolution and launched an e-book publishing company early in 2000. E-Reads (www.ereads.com) is one of the foremost independent e-book publishers in the industry, specializing in reprints of genre fiction by leading authors in their fields. Curtis is also a well-known authors advocate, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry, and prolific blogger – see his hundreds of other blog posts here.

3 thoughts on “Romance = Porn for Women? Fighting Words

  1. Wendy Reid

    This was a good post and brings a lot of questions to mind when it comes to Romance as a genre. First of all, we need to be clear on \Romance\ If the story is truly a story about love, with the odd sexual component, this (as far as I’m concerned) would be considered chick lit. When it comes to Erotica however, even when it includes a well written story and appeals to a small female audience, then maybe in can be considered porn. Porn has been given a bad name to date but what is it actually? It’s a means of exciting the reader/watcher sexually. My erotic stories (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006NTWZGE) turn my readers on. They are well written and so far, well received. I can’t tell you who is actually buying them (Amazon doesn’t offer up this information) but I know (through my friends and contacts) that both women and men are enjoying them. Porn? If it means that my writing is exciting my reads? Then so be it.

    Reply
  2. Ursula

    Thanks Richard for calling this out. It’s the literary equivalent of ‘mean girl’ syndrome. I normally dismiss this kind of ‘poke’ but once in a while stop to wonder – what exactly is all the fuss about? Is it because Romance corners the lion’s share of the popular fiction market despite it’s lack of acceptance? It it because the masses who read genre fiction in general make an easy target? It is rather sad at it’s roots, no matter how such attacks are ‘couched’, because as you say – the revnue generated supports publishing of less popular (more literary/esoteric) books. And don’t we as authors, support mass literacy? I know I do. Does it matter so much if supporting litteracy is done via a genre source vs. the erudite-approved sources? If that’s the case, then it’s an even sadder state of affairs. Bottom line – market shows people enjoy genre fiction. It’s a hard world out there, let us get enjoyment from where we might – without the mocking.

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  3. Vicky

    Why can’t romantic books be both, literature and porn? I love to read urban romance. They tend to be darker, grittier and have heroes that are men that have fatal flaws that they must overcome. Authors like J.R. Wards’ Black Dagger Brotherhood is the best example that comes to mind. Does it have erotic elements? You betcha, some of the erotic elements are very, very graphic. But it also has a good story line and one that had me on the edge of my seat at times wondering how it would end.

    I create porn sites for women, and have done so for over 10 years. Some of them I write exclusive short stories. Others, like my 3dfantasiesforwomen.com have exclusive 3D erotica my husband and I create. I take a lot of the elements I like in romantic fiction, and put them in 30 picture sets for the site because it is what turns me on.

    I know a lot of people look down at the entire “romance” genre, and porn too for that matter. Frankly I don’t care, I enjoy both, and will continue to read the books that authors produce in this field.

    Reply

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