Last week I began a conversation here with author Jayne Ann Krentz, aka Amanda Quick, aka Jayne Castle.
Jayne and I knew we’d be gabby. Writers always are when they’re talking to other writers about their books, careers, and writing styles. So we knew right away we’d need to extend our conversation to this week. Last week I only had a chance to introduce my new friend and tell you how we met before we began a discussion of popular fiction and the bias against it.
Our thanks to everyone who took time to respond and comment. Let’s continue.
As a sign that bias exists, this week while listening to a suspense novel, I noticed that the author referred to “trashy novels.” She did it at least twice. That’s particularly interesting since I suspect that many writers of “literary fiction” would sequester this author’s work in the “trashy novel” section of their own libraries.
So does a bias exist against works of popular fiction? Let’s talk to Jayne.
Emilie: “When I think about your large and successful body of work, I can’t help but also think about Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, a book from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, which you edited, conceived and helped compile. The articles by well-known romance writers including people still writing today like Sandra Brown, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Mary Jo Putney and moved the discussion about “those little trashy bodice rippers” to an entirely new level. You helped channel and focus the discussion on why genre fiction appeals to readers, and the need for heroic stories with satisfying endings. You also made sure that readers understood that in the romance novel, women triumph, something academics hadn’t caught on to.
Suddenly we were no longer little housewives penning silly fantasies, we were legitimate storytellers, part of a chain extending back to the beginning of human interaction. This really resonated with me. Earlier that year I’d participated on an academic panel that was nothing more than a hatchet job against the romance novel, so I saw the need for clarification and exploration. Popular fiction messages are both an affirmation of culture and sometimes, a beacon leading the way.
So it was so heartening to me to read Dangerous Men, something I’ve always wanted to tell you. It felt personal. I’m sure it felt personal to other writers, too.
Jayne: Thank you so much for the kind words on Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women. The concept was borne out of the sheer frustration brought on by the realization that not only did the books get little respect — the readers didn’t get any respect, either. And that’s what really pissed me off. It’s one thing to criticize the author — that is something of a tradition in literature — but as far as I’m concerned it’s another thing altogether to criticize the readers. I mean, the readers I knew were adult, educated, responsible women who were working in a wide variety of careers. They were raising families, attending school board meetings and donating time to charity. They had networks of friends and professional colleagues. They were active members of their community. So, yep, it annoyed me that people felt free to make fun of their choice of reading matter.
That said, I had absolutely no idea where to take a book about the appeal of the romance. The reason that book got published and is still in print (!) was because we got lucky in our editor. I met Patricia Reynolds Smith when she was working as a romance editor at a major New York publishing house. She had moved to a prestigious academic press, the University of Pennsylvania Press, to be precise, but we kept in touch. I knew she had always loved the romance genre and she had published some of the most popular authors in it. So I called her and asked her where my friends and I could take a book on the appeal of the romance and she said, “right here.” She literally jumped on the concept. She also explained that this sort of book would only make an impact if it was published by a respected academic press. When it comes to matters of art and culture the sort of change we were hoping to make had to start at the academic level and trickle down into the mass media.
Our wonderful editor guided us through the very different world of academic publishing. She said it was absolutely necessary to focus on a single issue We decided that issue would be the appeal of the books. I rounded up a group of authors who were willing to take time out of their busy and successful writing schedules. I gave them one task: write an essay on the appeal of the romance novel. Don’t waste time defending the genre. Critics love to argue. Just spell out the appeal and let the chips fall where they may. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women is the result. It is very gratifying to know that not only is it still in print, it is usually on every reading list in academic classes that focus on popular fiction.
Emilie: Just a side note? Pat Smith was the first editor to buy my work. She left my publisher at the end of the week she called to congratulate me, but she managed to slip me in before she did. I’ve always been sorry I didn’t have the chance to know her better.
So on a personal level for you? Can you tell us how negativity about romance novels, and popular fiction in general, affected you at the beginning of your career? Were you able to write what you wanted, or did you feel you had to tread carefully? And do you see a change in attitude today, or do you feel the negativity is still as strong? When you write, what messages do you most want your own readers to receive?
Jayne: Back at the start of my career there were more editorial conventions than there are today but I never had a problem finding space for my stories. This genre has always been far more open to new ideas and experimentation than other genres such as mystery and suspense. I was very fortunate in that, from the start of my career, my family and my husband were extremely supportive of my writing. I have since discovered that a lot of authors did not get that kind of support from their relatives. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for them. However I frequently run into that common social situation that every author encounters on a regular basis. You know what I’m talking about. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Person with drink in hand: “I hear you are a writer.”
Person with drink in hand: “What do you write?”
Me: “romance and romantic suspense.”
Person with drink in hand: “Oh. I don’t read those kinds of books but I’m thinking of writing a book, myself. How do I go about finding an agent or an editor?”
Me: “Excuse me. I think I need another glass of wine.”
Emilie: We’ve all been there.
I’m so glad you could join us for a while. It’s been wonderful to have you here and to explore this subject a bit. Thank you so much for your willingness to visit.
Jayne: Wow! So much stuff to talk about. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you for inviting me to drop in here on your blog. I appreciate all of the readers who took the time to read this discussion. Wishing you all the best.
Readers: As a reader have you had those conversations, too? When you’ve explained to an acquaintance what you’re reading, have they been dismissive? Do you have a favorite response? Or maybe an explanation that helps them reconsider their attitudes? Last week many of you talked about all the things you’ve learned from your reading choices. My very favorite response to my work from a reader?
A woman came up to me at a signing and said, “Until I read Wedding Ring, I didn’t understand my mother. Now I do, and it’s helped me find peace with my childhood and with her.” Whenever I consider my life and what I’m doing with it, that springs to mind. It was a special moment.
Tell us about your own conversations and thoughts if you have time and inclination. And once more, my thanks to Jayne Ann Krentz for visiting Southern Exposure.