Monday, September 13, 2010

If Women Like It, It Must Be Stupid

Okay, now that the Zillionaire Vampire is well and truly launched, we’re back to the usual blog posts, or, in my case, blog rants.

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story on Eat, Pray, Love the movie, and they had a sidebar interview with the book’s author, Elizabeth Gilbert. In the course of the interview, Gilbert addressed the backlash against her book and its sequel, Committed, as being somewhat gender based. The attitude, she said, seemed to be “If women like it, it must be stupid.”

I have to admit, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love (hey, I’ve got a lot of Nora Roberts still to get through), but that statement really struck home with me because it’s so true of the general attitude toward romance. The overwhelming majority of romance readers and writers are women, and the overwhelming majority of romance critics seem to be men. The prevailing attitude always comes down to “You read that stuff? How can you stand it? It’s, well, stupid!”

So here we are, writing in the most popular genre of popular fiction, drawing millions of readers, maybe even inspiring people who hadn’t ever read anything for fun before to pick up a book, and somehow it’s a big embarrassment. If women like it, it must be stupid.

Male critics, and some female critics who want to show they’ve grown a pair, go after romance with open derision. An author on the RWA-PAN recounted a conversation she’d had with an independent bookstore owner who, when asked if she carried romance, replied, “No I only carry good fiction.” It’s lame, it’s dumb, it’s totally…female. If women like it, it must be stupid.

I keep pointing out that this attitude is both subjective and unfair. I tell people flatly that the best romance writers are as good as or better than the best mystery and thriller and sci fi writers. It doesn’t seem to matter. My local newspaper, the Denver Post, devotes one page of book reviews every month to new mysteries and thrillers, but they’ve never reviewed a romance so far as I know (and yes, I do check—compulsively). The editors in charge of the books page and the entertainment section are both men—my guess is they share the opinion of the independent bookseller. If women like it, it must be stupid.

The Romance Writers of America have a long-standing program that tries to raise the profile and increase the respectability of the genre, including grants for academic study. The Popular Culture Association has a romance stem in which scholars can share the results of their research. But when I used to go to PCA conventions myself, the romance sessions got a lot more snickers than, say, the sci fi and horror sessions. If women like it, it must be stupid.

Maybe RWA could fund an initiative to get men to try reading romance. We could even give them plain brown book covers to use if they found it too embarrassing to be seen with a romance novel in their hands. Maybe we could get them to admit the possibility that love and sex are at least as interesting as the aliens of Galaxy 23 or the latest in high tech warfare. If women like it, it must be stupid.

I wish I had an uplifting finish here. I mean, I’m a romance writer—I believe in HEA. But I don’t see it happening. We’re stuck with the perceptions that have been foisted on us from the outside, and they seem to be pervasive. Maybe the best we can do is to keep pounding away at this cliché by personal example. Yeah, I’m a woman. Yeah, I read and write romance. And I’ll match my IQ to yours any day of the week, boyo. If women like it, it must be stupid? Fuck that!


Tina said...

I totally agree with you!! When people ask me what I am reading and I show them most just laugh or shake their heads. I tell them I have learned alot from reading them than I ever did in a classroom. I have a lot more knowledge of history,geography and mythology just because I read romance!! I get so tired of everyone thinking it is just sex in romance books !!! There is so much more!! To me romance books are not about sex but about relationships and not just with the opposite sex but relationships with family and friends!! I tell people to read a romance before they judge them and that by the end of the book they usually realize that the book is so much more than just sex!! Okay my rant is now done !!

Skylar Kade said...

Tina and Meg, I'm with you on this! So tired of the genre-bashing... but I think until people realize romance has moved on from the Fabio-covered classics, it'll be a hard sell.

Maybe telling men that there's a strong correlation between women reading romance and having more sex would do the trick...maybe.

Kate Davies said...

Stamps *co-signed* all over this post. Well said.

PG Forte said...

Ah, the wonderful world of second class citizenry. I suspect it will still take a few more generations before women, not to mention our tastes in fiction, get the respect (and the HEAs) we deserve.

No worries, though. Romance is a vibrant, evolving genre that, despite its many rules, seems actually less resistant to change than many other types of popular fiction.

And its aficionados are both tough enough and self aware enough to withstand the criticism. Hell, as we're proving right here on this blog, we're big enough to poke gentle fun at ourselves and the genre we all love.

Those who criticize Romance, on the other hand, are often close-minded, prejudiced and content to form their opinions based on what they've read about the genre, rather than to read any of it themselves. All of which says precious little about their own level of intelligence, IMO.

Juniper Bell said...

I know just where you're coming from, Meg! I come from a family of serious-minded academics for whom becoming a romance writer was akin to worshipping the devil. So I'm used to that attitude of which you speak. My feeling is -- if someone can't enjoy the fun and joy and adventure of a romance, too bad for them. They're missing out on a whole lot of wonderful. Thanks for your ran -er, post! ;)

Kelly Jamieson said...

I love this post Meg! I've been thinking a lot about this lately, too, because of some stories in the news recently. I could comment at great length here, but maybe I'll save it and do my next blog post with my thoughts on this topic.

Debra St. John said...

Great post, Meg. THings like this really steam me. As do people who jump to the conclusion I write porn because I'm a romance author. Narrow minded, is what I have to say.

Meg Benjamin said...

Ah, ladies, doesn't it feel good to vent? Thanks for letting me sound off for a day.

welyon8 said...

The *really* sad/funny thing is that Westerns are in fact romance novels. They hit on all the technical features of a romance, and are typically shelved near that section in both libraries and bookstores. But if I pointed that out to my dad, you can bet your sweet bippy he'd be offended. Sigh.