Romance

Four books walk into a bar.

 

“Tell me something about yourself.” The bartender queries.

 

“I am a detective novel. A murder has been committed, and I must piece together a jigsaw puzzle.” The first book announces matter-of-fact, systematically arranging the toothpicks and lining up the peanuts.

 

“I am a romance novel. There are two protagonists, a central story about emotions and a guaranteed HEA.” The second book whispers. “Also, I am rich. I’ll pay everyone’s bill.”

 

“I am a suspense novel. No, I do not have a twin called Crime or Mystery.” The third book looks around covertly for its doppelganger.

 

“This is a literary book. It is everything the other three are not.” Curiously, a pre-recorded voice of a literary critic announces on behalf of the fourth book.

 

The bartender thinks a while and then promptly places a bottle of tequila in front of his patrons. “You guys have issues. You need a drink.”

 

Hell yes.

 

What is the identity of a book? It’s a loaded question and can be argued on many levels. From the book’s tangibility, to its cerebral presence, a book can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Classification of books is primarily done to establish a standardised supply chain between the author and the reader. It’s simply a means to make sure that a book reaches its actively seeking and passively unaware readers. Anyone wanting to read about World War, or about parenting, or a romance,  or about art history, will be able to identify the most probable place to look for such a book. It’s the first clue a reader has while seeking a certain book. So, for an author, it’s important to be in the right place to be found. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn’t know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn’t know where to shelve it (Vivian 2011). A category is the address where the author and the reader meet; their first point of contact. Two very distinctive addresses being literary and genre. The former is more revered, while the latter is more popular.

 

Genre fiction, which includes books like crime, suspense, mystery, romance, science-fiction, is generally considered formulaic. What is formulaic fiction? It’s the type of fiction that adheres to the pre-set parameters of a genre. Books in each category follow a certain trope and build a plot that is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t venture too far out of the prescribed lines.

 

Why do people read what they read? There are abundant of reasons, some of them better or worse than the others and many of them mutually contradictory. Some people read to pass time. Some read to savor the existence of time; sometimes to escape into someone else’s world; or to find themselves in another’s world; at times to flee from need for rational explanations; or to exercise their critical capabilities (Lesser 2014). Every reader that picks a book has some form of motivation for doing so. A book, no matter how well written, will be nothing without its reader.

 

The reader, while making a choice of reading a book, is effectively entering a contract with the author. A book is chosen based on the author’s profile, the genre, cover, description, review, possibly a sample page and sometimes serendipity. Novice readers might sometimes miss the available cues but experienced readers have developed an intuition and broad familiarity with the books and authors (Ross, Before Reading 2014).

 

The genre selected by the reader sets the benchmark for reader’s expectations. What started as a means to facilitate trade logistics – the categories, now defines the content that gets written. The publishing world self-regulates itself over a period.

 

What are these genre specific expectations?

 

Mystery readers know what to expect when they pick up a detective story. A murder has been committed, the reader is involved, along with the detective (and a possible side-kick), in sifting through clues to uncover a hidden, anterior story that happened off the pages, before the detective arrived. The writer needs to provide all evidence concerning the truth in early pages and yet, keep the reader guessing until the last page. In 1920s this genre was consolidated and rules were set. These rules specify the role of the detective and an introduction of criminal as a character. The writer needs to play fair with reader when presenting clues and use logic to solve the mystery. Supernatural agents, love interest, solving crime by accident, by intuition or by Ouija board are excluded (Ross, Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction 2014).

 

A Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. It can be female or male centric. This category has been the parent to detective, ghost, horror and romantic suspense. The plot is all about uncovering a secret that has happened before the story began; a missing family tome or opening of a taboo chamber in the house? The narrative is nested in layers to create distance between the reader and the reality (Ross, Gothic 2014).

 

The love story has a long history, with happy outcomes such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. In today’s publishing scenario, the definition of a romance novel is much narrower. The consensus seems to be that a romance novel is something broad enough to include Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, but narrow enough to exclude The Bridges of Madison County. A romance can have various elements from other genres – a historical, kidnap and espionage plots, sports theme settings, vampires, werewolves, aliens, and so on. But the central theme is always between the hero and heroine, as they move from misunderstanding, oftentimes dislike at the onset of the book, to declared love at the end. Everything else is secondary. A happily-ever-after (HEA) is a part of the contract between the reader and the author. The key is to achieve right balance of fantasy and realism, with a fairy-tale narrative trajectory placed into a recognizable world (Ross, Romance Fiction 2014).

 

Horror readers expect to be scared. This genre sees a lot of overlap from other genres like crime and science fiction as scariness is subjective. What might be horror for some, might not be for others. Horror is a fantasy that touches the reader’s deepest fears, where the universe is fundamentally malevolent and a reflection of the society as it exists today. The horror reader simply wants to confront his/her fears. Horror books give their readers the permission to explore their darker fantasies (Ross, Horror 2014).

 

Considering the expectations that are pre-established by the publishing industry, is it fair to call out the genre books for being formulaic? What is a formula anyway? In this case, a formula is a product of reader’s expectations and publishing standards. Literary fiction is quietly distanced from genre and its restricting parameters by simply being whatever genre fiction is not. The authors that do not follow these rules, do not find their audience and those who follow these rules are relegated to sub-par writing retention room (Mcgrath 2017). It doesn’t seem right.

 

The society that we live in today is a result of rules and regulations. Work and worship, family and love, celebration and death, everything is defined by rules. We know rules. We follow rules. We occasionally break rules. Rules exist to eliminate confusion and establish a way of life.

 

To go beyond the boundaries, one must identify them first. The tabla – a membranophone percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical and folk music in India is played with Taals – one of them being a combination of sixteen beats called the “Teental”. A tabla player creates music with these sixteen beats, using pressure, placement, momentum and speed. These beats can be played in various permutations and combinations to produce music. It’s amazing, the variations in rendition of a tabla, considering its limited sound repertoire. But then, music isn’t just about the sounds that you hear, but also about the silence between two notes, that adds to the depth of the music itself. This pause, or nothingness, between two notes is called Naad. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “primordial sound” in English. The sound which exists and is not produced by striking two objects. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. The entire world of music is defined by the rules. The guitar has six strings, the piano has 88 keys and the flute has eight air holes. The form of the musical instruments is just a point of departure, rather than the defining quality of music it can produce. What music it makes, in the hands of the right musician, is what counts.

 

Similarly, a book is not merely the permutation and combination of words strung together to form a story, but also what the reader reads between the lines; what they experience; what they remember when the book is finished. Genre fiction is all about the Naad. It plays within the genre rules, yet reinvents itself every time, to deliver a different plot and experience to its reader.

 

The art world mimics these boundaries too. Every painter starts with a canvas and a set of colors. But great art is not defined by the size of its canvas or the amount of colors. What defines great art is the use of the canvas, the symphony between the colors applied, the emotion conveyed, the treatment of chiaroscuro and how the overall painting interacts with the observer. The Late M.F. Hussain, a modern cubist painter of Indian decent, who gathered lot of critical acclaim internationally, was well-known for not painting the face and limbs of the subjects in his paintings. His rationale was that his work was at a higher level of abstraction and didn’t require conventional forms.

 

Similarly, genre fiction takes its point of departure from the basic understanding of its readership and the author then paints the canvas with myriad shades, to be enjoyed by the right reader, at the right time. The contract between the author and reader needs to be fulfilled. Yes, these boundaries are supposed to be pushed and it happens every once in a while. It’s a continuous process. Lines get blurred as one genre mixes with another; a romance is mixed with suspense, a sci-fi book pairs with mystery, a horror meets Gothic. In the digital age of today, where feedback is seamless and instant, an author has a fair idea about what the reader wants.

 

To say that literary writers are superior to genre writers would be unfair. Yes, literary writing showcases the beauty of the language more adeptly when compared to genre writing, but then, that’s the part of the contract between the literary writer and reader. The prose must shine. There is no such expectation in genre writing, which isn’t to say that genre readers don’t appreciate well written words. But for them, reading is more about the sound between the words, rather than the words themselves. Ultimately, various styles of writing exist because the readers read at different levels.

 

Ask anyone what their favorite song is? Or who their favorite painter is? Or which is their favorite book? The answer would always be a function of your perception, mood, awareness and consciousness. The answer would always be what resonates the most in that moment.

 

The so called ‘formula’ of genre writing is a part of the equation between the reader and the author. It should be kept away from generalization because it’s between the genre writer and the reader. An outsider will never understand the language of a romance or mystery book. Only a genre fan can do it. Like pattern is necessary to produce a rhythm, like a color story is necessary to produce art, genre fiction needs to follow certain rules to be able to deliver what it promises. Call it formulaic or label it something else, but it is exactly what the readers want.

 

Every sunset is beautiful. Is the sun just a round ball of fire with burnished hues? It comes up and goes down every day. So, what makes it so beautiful? You need the observer’s eyes to appreciate the beauty of a sunset. It’s personal.

 

Like the choices of a reader. They are personal too.

 

Anumeha Gokhale
Mpub

 

Bibliography

Jodie Archer, Matthew L.Jockers. 2016. The Bestseller Code. New York: St. Martin Press.

Lesser, Wendy. 2014. “Why I Read.” 3-10. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Lisa Adams, John Heath. 2007. Why We Read What We Read. Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Mcgrath, Taylor. 2017. “The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction.” https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/. 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-head-and-the-heart-a-call-for-literary-standards-in-genre-fiction/.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Before Reading.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 16-22. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 37-49. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Gothic.” In The Pleasure Of Reading, 65-74. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Horror.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 75-81. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Romance Fiction.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 166-80. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 2011. On Reading. London: The Belknap Press.

Vivian. 2011. Kvetch of the Day. 09 30. Accessed 11 22, 2017. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.

 

 

The Head and the Heart:

A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction

By: Taylor McGrath

               It is in the nature of humankind to be compelled by emotions. As Aristotle spoke of while outlining the available means of persuasion and creating the standard guidelines for rhetoric that have been used, dissected, analyzed, and used again for centuries, there are three main strategies for making a point: ethos, logos, and pathos. With an ethos-based approach, the arguer relies on the credibility of his or her sources to convince the audience. Logos relies on the clear logic of the argument – if x equals y and y equals z, then x must equal z. Lastly, the use of pathos relies on an appeal to the emotions of the audience. It is what makes those ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan crooning in the background so memorable and guilt-inducing. Every book is an argument, and thus every book relies on one of these three basic tenets of persuasion. Genre fiction is known for its reliance on the appeal to emotions. Romance novels tug on the heartstrings and inspire desire, thrillers instill fear, and mystery novels engender anticipation. Bets hedged, most readers do not begin Fifty Shades of Grey with the intention of being wowed by the literary excellence of E.L. James’ sex scenes. The serialized thousands of romance novels produced every year all fall into the same formulaic pattern — but they also make serious money and account for a huge chunk of annual book sales. Likewise, literary fiction is known for its appeal to logic. The reason literary fiction is compelling is because it challenges the reader’s thoughts and preconceptions; it enchants the mind. While overlap certainly exists between genre and literary fiction, the two subsects of literature are and continue to become evermore stratified. What this results in is a preclusion of categorized “genre” fiction from the status of “literary excellence.” Publishers produce books a certain way for a certain audience, and then readers get accustomed to the books they want to read being produced that way, so publishers have to continue to make sure their books are marketed, designed, and written in the way that everyone is used to. It has become a constant feedback loop, a standard that perpetually reinforces itself and makes the gap between “genre” and “literary” fiction wider and wider. The stratification of literary and genre fiction is as ingrained today and it ever has been, and the arbitrary division of the two prevents either from meeting its full potential. It is time that the gatekeepers of both literary novels and genre novels start to scrutinize their own intentions and make changes to a system that continually reinforces a false dichotomy.

It is important to pay attention to what factors in history played a part in the separation of genre and literary novels: sexism. Today, Jane Austen’s novels are considered well within the realm of the literary classic canon. However, they weren’t in their own day and age (Vivanco 200). They were considered romance — novels written by and for women. In Austen’s era, this wasn’t uncommon; it was the rule, rather than the exception. Austen definitely played a large part in blazing the trails for women writers. Her contemporaries, namely the three Bronte sisters, were well aware of the standard practices of literature as a men’s stomping ground, and to counteract that automatic prejudice chose to publish their own works under male nom de plumes (“Bronte”). Over time, of course, it was universally recognized that the “romance novels” that these women produced were nothing short of brilliant. High literature was, without contention, “an old boy’s club,” with male writers in the 1800s and beyond typically not shying away from voicing their opinions on women entering the literary scene. A woman simply committing the act of writing was often enough to be deemed “radical,” and men decried the existence of these “bluestocking” feminists that pushed such a progressive agenda. Women were, in fact, often relegated into certain types of writing — domestic life and (you guessed it) romance being some of the few subjects that women had the right to write about. Women who could not fund the publishing of their own work often went without being published at all; Austen herself searched for fifteen years before finding a publisher willing to take on her work (“Austen”). It goes without saying that the times have changed; the highest paid and most famous living author of current day is a woman, women consistently win literary awards of high prestige, and Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre have all the recognition of excellence that they are due. However, the lingering sexism inherent in the days of old helped shape the practices that preclude romance novels from being subject to the same editorial scrutiny as “literary” novels. Romance is still recognized as a genre intended to be written by women, for women, and often falls on weak, formulaic tropes as a result.

The fact of the matter is that romance novels and other genre fiction make money like no other category of writing out there. Though we laud Yann Martel and George Saunders as critically acclaimed and masters of the pen, these authors’ titles rake in only a fraction of what the romance genre does. In an analysis conducted by Thomas Stewart for The Richest, it was found that romance novels, as of 2014, bring in nearly $1.5 billion USD, or around $1.925 billion CAD (Stewart). The next biggest genre in terms of profit is crime, standing at $728.2 million — a figure that is notably half as large as the romance genre. The genres of religion, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror round out the top five types of books that make the most money. Stewart didn’t limit his analysis to just genre, which makes the discovery that the most lucrative books to publish have one thing in common so much more significant — they are (with, perhaps, the exception of religious books) genre fiction. As Stewart writes,

“They all come from widely varying backgrounds, their novels are incomparable, and their styles disparate. However, each of these writers have one area of common ground; their successful novels are specifically ‘genre’ works. These authors are known, respectively, for fantasy, romance and mystery – and if the statistics show us anything it’s that genre books sell better than your average literary piece, short story collection or poetry.” (Stewart)

So, if genre fiction novels make money, why are they pigeon-holed as books written by “certain writers” for “certain presses” that publish that kind of thing? We must come back to the idea of the “mission to civilize.” Each press has a drive to publish the works the wish to be associated with: What works are we putting into the world? What are we known for? Literary presses publish literary works, and genre presses publish genre works. No one expects a Harlequin romance or vampire thriller novel to land on the Giller Prize longlist – and for good reason. Your standard Harlequin romance reads  like the formula for making carbon dioxide into oxygen: well-known and acknowledged by just about everyone who has ever bothered to look into it. The issue needs to be addressed by both sides, then. It is on literary presses to scrutinize why they don’t publish romance novels, and it is on genre presses to scrutinize whether reliance on formulaic undercuts the value of the entire genre. The incentive is clearly there for both: genre fiction makes money, and no press is going to deny what an important factor that is.

A fair argument would be that sexism isn’t the only thing that divides genre fiction (and romance novels in particular) from literary fiction. This is noticeable in the reliance on formulaic plot in genre fiction that is innately absent from literary works. As Laura Vivanco argues, however, it is not that genre fiction cannot be beautifully crafted, but rather that it has been allowed to not be for so long. Vivanco’s For Love and Money The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance analyzes the mimetics and mythoi of romantic novels. As she states, “Many of the mythoi, intertextual references, and metaphors they use draw on literary tradition” (Vivanco 203). The potential for literary excellence is there; there is nothing about the essence of “genre” that makes it impossible for it to also be “literary.” As others have noted, the term “literary” does not, in fact,” have much denotative meaning. It carries heavy connotations — high standards, excellence, interest, intrigue, beauty —  but in most cases, “literary” as a genre is defined only in negation of other genres. Claire Squires, in Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, notes that “‘Literary’ is then an assurance of quality, a guarantee that what is to be approached here is ‘good’ writing” (Squires 4). She goes on: “Any subject, or plot line, could potentially pertain to a literary novel” (5). There is nothing inherent in the term “literary” that should bar the inclusion of a genre novel’s plot, she acknowledges, though she goes on to explain the many ways they are. Steven Connor, in The English Novel in History: 1950 – 1995, explains: “Literary fiction is usually defined by negation — it is not formula fiction or genre fiction, not mass-market or best-selling fiction — and, by subtraction, it is what is left once most of the conditions that obtain in contemporary publishing are removed” (Connor 19). It is a false dichotomy; this definition by negation imagines literary novels and genre novels as on two opposite sides of some spectrum, when in reality it is entirely possible for a work to be both. Ask Jane Austen — she’d tell you.

To go back to Aristotle and his lessons in ethos, pathos, and logos — there are three main strategies used to persuade an audience, yes, but the argument is always going to be stronger when one uses more than one of these available means of persuasion. As Squires states, “The cultural assumptions that give rise to genre hierarchies are naturally open to question — why, after all, should a work of art be regarded more highly because it appeals to the head rather than the heart?” (79 Squires). Perhaps the answer is to appeal to both the head and the heart. To be fair, the overlap of genre and literary fiction already exists in the published works of today; it is sitting there, waiting to be acknowledged. Perhaps then can the books of tomorrow be crafted a different way.

Works Cited

“Austen, Jane.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New

World Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Behrendt, Stephen C. British Women Poets And The Romantic Writing Community. Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Accessed 29

Oct. 2017.

“Brontë.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New

World Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Connor, Steven. The English Novel In History: 1950 – 1995. Routledge, 1996.

Franklin, Caroline. ““The Colour Of A Riband”: Patriotism, History And The Role Of Women In

Helen Maria Williams’s Sketches Of Manners And Opinions In The French Republic

(1801).” Women’s Writing 13.3 (2006): 495-508. Historical Abstracts. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Makala, Melissa Edmunson. Women’s Ghost Literature In Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cardiff:

University of Wales Press, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Squires, Claire. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, Palgrave

Macmillan, 2007.

Stewart, Thomas. “Which 5 Book Genres Make the Most Money?” The Richest, 31 January

2014, http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/which-5-book-genres-make-the-most-money/

Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money : The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon

Romance, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,

https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/lib/sfu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=33

06112.

Who are romance readers?

 

A romance reader is often adjudged as being a single, cat lady in need of a man, or they’re someone who lacks romance in real life, or they are nice people, reading stupid books. Maya Rodale debunks these myths in her article, ‘Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?’ Contrary to the popular belief, the romance readers are educated, working women, averaging between ages 30-55, earning about $55,000 a year, successfully manage career and households and are usually in a relationship (Rodale 2016).

 

According to survey results from Romance Writers of America, 84 percent of romance readers are women and 16 percent are men — up from 9 percent a few years ago. The romance industry is large — more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the U.S. are romance — and its readership is vast as well (RWA 2015). Romance fiction is the most read genre, with the industry drawing $1.44 billion in sales in 2012, and sales are estimated to be $1.35 billion in 2013 (Patel 2014).

 

Romance is often considered a ‘lowbrow’ form of writing & readership. Who coined it first? No one knows. Maybe to understand this disdain attached to romance books and its readership, one must reflect on the last 200 years and the evolution of women’s fiction. I remember reading romances as a teenager, often covered in non-decrepit brown paper, to avoid being labeled as the ludicrous ‘romance reader’ or worse—an escapist. Even though it dawned on me that my reading material supposedly lacked in literary value and was colloquially termed as trash; I had no qualms in pursuing my happily ever after foraging.

 

Critic and literary historians have rationally subscribed to the view that readers are either highbrow or lowbrow. It’s usually believed that trained and untrained minds do not share the same taste when it comes to reading habits. The literary elite question the purpose of reading and the effect of lowbrow literature on ignorant minds.

 

Victor Nell, in his book, Lost In A Book, refutes this belief and labels it ‘The Elitist Fallacy’. According to him, the two groups of readers—highbrow or lowbrow, do not exist. He argues that a sophisticated reader will often enjoy deeply felt and delicately wrought literature; the same person is likely to lose themselves in a Harlequin romance during a long airplane journey (Nell, The Elitist Fallacy 1988).

 

As a child, when one first starts reading, the focus is on language and stringing the words correctly to form coherent meaning. A mature reader attains fluency in language and gains higher level of emotional engagement with the text. This is usually the tipping point where a young reader moves beyond the encouragement of parents and teachers and takes up reading as a voluntary habit (M. Wolf 2007). For me, this tipping point happened while reading Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The plot revolved around a regular sized woman, Min Dobbs, and her quest to avoid doughnuts & men pretending to be doughnuts. Min was smart, funny and real. This is when I fell in love with the idea of love. My point being, everyone has a tipping point when venturing into the magical world of books. What they end up reading depends a lot on who’s guiding them or where their natural affinity lies.

 

To better understand the romance reader, we must first understand the concept of ludic reading. Why romance readers read, what they read.

 

‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is often identified as a state in which readers become oblivious to the world around them, usually willingly. Some readers read like this, others can’t. For readers with the ability to become so absorbed in a book, aesthetic quality has little to do with enjoyment. The word Ludic comes from Latin Ludo, meaning ‘I play’. Ludic reading corresponds to the pleasure reading, reminding us that reading is a playful activity, is intrinsically motivated and usually engaged in for its own sake (Nell, The Insatiable Appetite 1988). It would be safe to say that romance readers are ludic readers to highlight the engagement and trance like absorption that can result during reading a great novel. This pleasure derives, in part, from novels’ intense components of emotion and fantasy, such that readers’ imaginative engagement with the story shapes who they understand themselves to be (Roach 2016).

 

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

 

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

 

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading (M. Wolf 2007).

 

Similarly, a romance reader has the ability of ‘Passing over’, a term used by theologian John Duane, describing a reader’s ability to step into the shoes of the character; be it a knight readying for battle, or how a heroine behaves, how an evildoer can regret a wrongdoing. The moment this happens; the reader is no longer limited by the confines of their own thinking.

 

When you read the above paragraph from Proust’s book, you engaged an array of cognitive processes like attention, memory, visuals, auditory and linguistic processes (M. Wolf 2007). Romance readers go through this process quite seamlessly. Even though, it is argued that romance fiction is repetitive and formulaic, but the reader simply wants the rush of familiar, yet elusive, euphoria that comes with finishing a great love story.

 

The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. These core romance fans are avid readers who stay very loyal to the genre. Moreover, 25% of buyers read romance more than once a week, and nearly half do so at least once a week; only 20% read romance less than once a month (Nielsen 2015). Where an average American reads 12 books a year, a genre reader reads as many 20 titles in a single month (Ha 2016).

 

Considering the sheer volume of consumption of romance, why don’t more readers admit to reading them?

 

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the history of mass culture. Mass culture is a term that plays on the wide self-belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of culture. It has been deemed as being incorrect by G.H. Lewis who argues that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that mass culture harms its consumers. (Lewis 1978). Since the sixteenth century, Western views of correct use of time and sinfulness of worldly pleasures have been powerfully influenced by religion, especially, Puritanism. The use of time and money, on anything not related to God-ly pursuits, was frowned upon and squandering away money for profane works of fiction was against the religious ethics. This belief has trickled down through centuries (Nell, Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System 1978). Women fiction was, and to an extent still is, given a cursory brush off.

 

These issues do affect the social and personal determinants of the romance reader’s choice of reading material and how they feel about this choice. Most romance readers see themselves as book addicts, like cigarette smokers, and feel compelled to justify their choices. Often believing that admitting to reading such books would alter how people perceive them, and run the risk of being tagged as ‘frivolous’. This is quite unfortunate because the idea of what is highbrow and lowbrow is skewed. Romance books are often labeled as trash, on the basis of being unoriginal, predictive, depraved or formulaic. While at the same time the same aesthetic is applauded as art, be it Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, where sexuality is celebrated or the repetitive reproduction of ‘Madonna & Child’ that held generations of artists in rapture. The interest or arousal boost one gets from such art is similar to what a romance reader derives from reading a novel. Yet, they are world apart as far as perceived literary value goes.

 

The fact that romance readers read really fast tends to suggest that they merely skim the text and do not sink between the lines, as a non-fiction reader would. To ascertain the credibility of this assumption, we must examine the relationship between reading speed and ludic reading. Reading speed is a function of text and comprehension. In a lab experiment, Nell engaged a group of readers to read three paragraphs of increasing difficulty, while pressing a buzzer at regular intervals. It would be an obvious assumption that readers pressed the buzzer more promptly while reading easier text, considering that it requires lesser attention. It would be a wrong assumption. The experiment threw light on the fact that as the difficulty of the text increased, the reader’s speed decreased and they became more susceptible to outside disturbances. This happened because comprehension failed to take hold of the reader’s attention and left them somewhat akin to a tourist who is listening to a news broadcast in a foreign language (Nell, Reading ability and reading habits 1978). Romance readers usually read fast because they understand the language of romance narrative, and not because the reading material is sub-par or lowbrow.

 

So, if the constraints of religious ethics were removed and a highbrow reader was marooned on a deserted island with bundles of romance novels, their covers stripped off, would the highbrow reader succumb to reading for pleasure, relaxation and reading trance? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

In my opinion, romance readers do themselves disservice by relegating their reading choices to trashy or lowbrow. Reading is a gift and an acquired skill. It should be able to serve us in a spectrum of ways. A reader can oscillate between complex, beautifully written literary works and just as well-written, poignant tales of love, without having to justify their choices. The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature has been raging for centuries. The lines between the two have been blurring as the middlebrow literature is emerging. The romance reader, meanwhile, is lost in their kindle, away from all judgment and is enjoying a thrilling, imaginary ride.

 

William Faulkner once famously said, “Perhaps they were right putting love into books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.”

 

Perhaps he was right.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

MPub 2017

Works Cited

Ha, Thu-Huong. Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process. 07 22, 2016. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/ (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Lewis, G. H. “The Sociology of Popular Culture George H. Lewis.” Sage Publications, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System.” In Lost in a Book, by Victor Nell, 26-30. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Reading ability and reading habits.” In Lost in a book, by Victor Nell, 84-97. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “The Elitist Fallacy.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 4-6. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nell, Victor. “The Insatiable Appetite.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 2. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nielsen. LITERARY LIAISONS: WHO’S READING ROMANCE BOOKS? 10 08, 2015. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/literary-liaisons-whos-reading-romance-books.html (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Patel, Sital S. Read lowbrow fiction in public: Novels like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ spark sales on e-readers. 07 22, 2014. http://blogs.marketwatch.com/themargin/2014/07/25/romance-novels-like-fifty-shades-of-grey-ignite-sales-on-e-readers/?link=instory (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Roach, Catherine M. ” Going Native: When the Academic Is (Also) the Fan.” In Happily Ever After – The Romance Story in Popular Culture, by Catherine M. Roach, 28-32. Indiana University Press, 2016.

Rodale, Maya. Who Is the Romance Novel Reader? 05 07, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/maya-rodale/who-is-the-the-romance-novel-reader_b_7192588.html (accessed 10 24, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Wolf, Marryanne. “The ‘Natural History’ of Reading Development.” In Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf, 108-33. HarperCollins, 2007.

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.

 

As I am writing this essay, Katy Evan’s Racer went live on Amazon. I have been following the author’s social media promotion from the conception of the book; right from announcing the book, revealing the cover, teasing excerpts, pre-ordering and finally, the release day. She has a burgeoning group of close 70,000 followers on Facebook and close to 18,000 on Instagram. It’s been two days since the release of the book. It has already got close to 200 reviews on Amazon and just as many on goodreads. Her Facebook group, run by her fans, has close to 5000 members, including scores of bloggers, who are sharing and hyping about her book. The book is close to reaching ‘Top 100 paid’ in Kindle store and is already at #6 in Romance/Sports sub genre, which means she is selling high numbers. There is one detail though; Katy Evans is a self-published author.

 

Katy isn’t the only one riding this thrilling wave of digital publishing. Hundreds of self-published romance authors have managed to break into the market and establish a popular brand identity. Who are these authors?

 

Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree (Brown 2014).

 

These authors—men and women, come from all walks of life and life experiences but have one thing in come—they have successfully bypassed the traditional publishing channels and incumbent middle men, after being turned down everywhere else in most cases, to reach their target audience. That is, kind of, priceless. Self-publishing has created a brand new, level playing field where romance authors are blooming unchecked. It’s a romantic wilderness.

 

Romance publishing, for long, has been a highly lucrative, but moderated genre of publishing. Romance has evolved. It has been the money-maker, albeit underrated, for the publishing industry. If we look at the romance publishing life-cycle to date, we’ll be able to ascertain that the innovation and content, in romance publishing, has been driven from the reader’s side. The publishing industry has been forever playing catch-up to the market demands. It could be the move from traditional ‘sweet romances’ produced by Harlequin for decades, to the uproar of spicier historical romances termed as the ‘bodice-rippers’, to the tsunami of 50 Shades of Grey, which singlehandedly revived the bookstore sales across the spectrum. The audience has been ahead of the publishers (Markert 1985). The content has reflected the path of self-awareness in women. According to best-selling author Jenny Crusie, ‘‘the romance industry is more responsive to reader feedback than any other genre … Romance novels do not determine what readers think; readers determine what romance novels get published” (Crusie 2007).

 

An editor is a hunter-gatherer—a person who scrounges through the slush piles, networks with agents, actively looks for writers and ultimately gives the publishers the actual content to publish. This is a vital role. The editors are the gatekeepers. They keep track of the market’s wants and needs and calibrate their searches accordingly (Williams 1993). One of the reasons that romance has remained relevant in the era of globalization is that romance publishers have shown a unique willingness to diversify their offerings, along with a stalwart refusal to flinch away from social, cultural and demographic change (Tapper 2014).

 

The romance market is a different ball-game altogether; unlike other genres of publishing. It’s a demand driven market. Where an average American reads about 12 books a year, a romance reader devours about 15 books a month. That figure alone, should give you a pause. To put things into perspective, according to the Romance Writers of America’s annual report, the estimated total annual romance sales amount to $1.08 billion. Romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market is 34%, of which, eBooks is 61%, Mass-market paperback is 26%, Trade paperback is 11% and Hardcover is 1.4% of the pie. The readership constitutes 84% female and 16% male (RWA 2015).

 

You can love self-publishing or doubt it, but you cannot ignore it. The numbers speak for themselves. Kim & Mauborgne conducted a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries and argue that companies can succeed by creating blue oceans of uncontested market space, as opposed to red oceans where competitors fight for dominance, the analogy being that an ocean full of vicious competition turns red with blood (W. Chan Kim 2005). Traditional publishing has been a red ocean for long, primarily because of the checked flow of content and the restriction on volume.

 

Digital publishing, by the way of its business model, has opened the doors to blue oceans, where independent writers could get their books to the intended audience without having to go through the traditional distribution network. Considering the behemoth size of the romance field and the new wave of self-published or indie authors, the editors today have a new avenue to find their next big find. These relatively unknown authors, who do respectable amount of business and have a ready-made following are the perfect candidates for the traditional model of romance publishing.

 

The hunter-gatherers in the romance publishing have finally caught up the insurgence of self-published contemporary romance, YA romance and adult fiction. Scores of self-published authors have been signed up by publishers to capitalize on the ready-made market. To find the next best-seller, maybe the editors need to analyze Amazon’s sales data (how much ever it is). The publishers have been cognizant of the changes. Harlequin Mills and Boon (HMB) ventured into a self-publishing imprint in 2009, but received severe flack from the publishing world for exploiting unsuspecting writers, as they charged ‘for services’. It was argued that what HMB were offering was NOT self-publishing but vanity publishing (Friedman 2009). Following the furor, HMB changed the name of the venture from Harlequin Horizons to DellArte press (Gardner 2009). But that too died a slow death over the following 4-5 years.

 

Jane Friedman argued, “Harlequin is clearly at an advanced stage of considering how it will evolve—or devolve, considering on your perspective. But most writers and writer organizations (and publishers) have NOT grappled with these questions yet. Publishing has often been slowest to change and adapt of all industries. Some argue Harlequin should’ve been better prepared and planned more strategically to respond to the criticisms that would arise. But when you’ve already moved on, like Harlequin—and are seeking solutions—it’s tough to backtrack to the mindset of those people who are stunned, angry, and indignant, and can’t even conceive of adaptation” (Friedman 2009).

 

Friedman also quoted Shatzkin in her blog post.

 

A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm. (Shatzkin 2009)

 

This is tricky. Because the market is flooded with self-publishing options for budding writers. Author Solutions is well-known for this. But the publishing industry is not quite ready to give their stamp of validation to the party crashers—the self-publishing authors. HMB tried to bridge the gap between the two forms publishing, but weren’t successful. They have, since then, launched Carina Press, a digital-first publishing platform, where they publish new authors in digital format and later go into print.

 

It ought to be simple; this amalgamation between print and digital platforms; this meeting of hunter-gatherers and the romantic wilderness. It isn’t.

 

Even though the scenario is well laid out, the integration between the two isn’t as simple. Consider this: Author Marie Force has 50 titles in her backlist—30 titles self-published and 20 titles with traditional publishers. She took her early works to numerous publishers, got published in 2008 (very small release) and made no waves. Around 2010, she took the plunge into the self-publishing and has been swimming strong, since. She prices her books between $4.99 and $6.99. She is consistently ranked in the Top 100 best-selling authors on Amazon and does decent business in print. But nothing compares to her returns on Amazon. She is digitally present in a market that primarily reads eBooks. Also, Author Kristen Ashley, who routinely tops the Amazon charts. She has the attention of her audience and even managed to get her books into Wal-Mart, which is no small feat. She has small team handling her editing, design and PR. Her focus is solely on writing. These authors also have presence on Kobo, iBooks and Createspace. (Observer and Dale 2016)

 

Now consider the pricing model of these self-published books. Most self-published works are priced between $2.99 and $6.99, with most authors pricing the earlier books low and progressively going higher as a series evolves. Collectively, these authors are looking at a $30 proposition in each customer (assuming it’s a 5 book series). It makes sense to reel in the reader early on with lower prices. Romance readers are extremely price sensitive, so the authors can only play around so much.

 

Now consider the traditional publishing pricing. Hard covers are priced at $25, paperbacks at $14 and eBooks at $9.99 (averages). There has been a raging discussion about publishers increasing the rates of the eBooks, which in turn has hampered them from making any headway into the digital market, although it has led to the resurgence in print sales. Even if successful self-published authors wanted to go through traditional publisher, there is no room for potential agreement when it comes to pricing. The readers will not pay $9.99, if they know they can get comparable books for less. This has been a key deciding factor for many authors, who don’t see merit in publishing only through traditional methods.

 

Also, the traditional model of publishing allows for maximum 15% royalties for the author, as opposed to 70% they earn when publishing with Amazon. That is a big chasm to fill. So what does it mean for the hunter-gatherers and the blooming romantics?

 

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are not mutually exclusive. It would be erroneous to think that in the current market you can do either-or. Publishing is transforming organically, hence, everything is changing. Digital and print publishing, as we know it, are transmogrifying. The market is turning a new leaf. Although, the market is more dynamic and price sensitive; the good news is—there is plenty of demand.

 

Publishers have an incentive for hunting in the self-publishing field, for newer, yet tried and tested content to meet the high demand of the romance readers. It would be wise to skim the top, but  focus on the next tier of writers who are on the verge of breaking out in the market. On the other hand, the self-publishing segment can gain more ground with print sales. Even though it is a digital market, 30% of readers still read print, and only print. There is no other way of reaching these people, but through traditional publishing.

 

Ultimately, publishing industry needs new talent and the authors need the validation that can be achieved only through traditional forms of publishing. It could be a win-win situation, but only if the wheels of publishing can align. As is the nature of business, in due time, it always re-calibrates itself. It would be interesting to see how this unfolds.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

Master of Publishing, Fall 2017

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Works Cited

Brown, Maggie. The Guardian. 11 9, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/09/fifty-shades-of-grey-women-dominate-self-publishing (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Crusie, Jenny. http://arghink.com. 04 14, 2007. http://arghink.com/2007/04/please-remove-your-assumptions-theyre-sitting-on-my-genre/ (accessed 09 25, 2017).

Friedman, Jane. Writer’s Digest. 11 03, 2009. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/digitization-new-technology/harlequins-self-publishing-venture-is-it-the-future-of-publishing (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Gardner, Suzzane. Quill & Quire. 11 26, 2009. https://quillandquire.com/omni/harlequin-bows-to-pressure-changes-name-of-self-publishing-imprint/ (accessed 09 23, 2017).

Markert, John. “Romance Publishing And The Production Of culture.” Poetics Vol.14(1), 1985: 69-93.

Observer, The, and Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Shatzkin, Mike. The Idea Logical Company. 06 29, 2009. http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-evolving-role-of-agents/ (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Tapper, Olivia. “Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century.” Publishing Research Quarterly 30, no. 2 , 2014: 249-59.

The Observer, Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture. New York: Penguin, 2012.

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Williams, Alan D. “Who is an Editor?” In Editors on Editing, by Gerald Gross, 3-9. New York: Grove Press, 1993.