Sarah MacLean talks about romance, the New York Times, and upending tropes



Sarah, this fall the New York Times Book Review published a “Sex” issue that lacked any coverage of the romance or erotica genre. (I read it and steam came out of my ears.) You sent a lovely letter to the editors taking them to task which they published. In it, you wrote:

“I was dismayed to see that of the 15 authors asked to discuss writing about sex in the “Naughty Bits” roundup, none write romance novels —the genre best known for its naughty bits.

“Romance holds a huge share of the consumer market, with more than $1.4 billion in sales in 2012*, so the omission is surprising. The lack of romance authors is especially glaring when one considers that each week, the mass-market, e-book and combined best-seller lists compiled by The New York Times include dozens of books from this far-reaching genre: historical, contemporary, paranormal, erotic and new adult.”

Why did you decide to write the Times? What has been the response to your letter?

I was working at my local coffee shop and I saw a link to the “Sex issue” of the Times Book Review and a mention of “writers talking about writing sex” fly by in my twitter feed…and I thought “Oooh, I wonder which romance writers they spoke to?” I was shocked when I saw that they hadn’t spoken to any of us. Not one. So, I didn’t hesitate.

I opened up an email and wrote a letter. I didn’t expect it to be run…I didn’t really expect it to be read! But two weeks later…there it was in the Book Review! 

The response has been terrific. Romance writers and readers alike have been tremendously supportive of it…and I hope that I did us all justice. Possibly the best response is that I heard from two Times readers who had never read romance, but bought their first after reading my letter. That feels pretty great.

What do you think romance writers and readers can do to garner more mainstream acknowledgement? Do we need to do so in order for the genre to thrive?

Love is the oldest of stories, right? That’s the problem. We write about something that, at first blush, is fairly ordinary. What’s more, happily ever afters are too often considered pedestrian. Or simple.It’s a silly way of thinking about it, really, as love is also (when you really think about it), the thing that we all live for. We desire it, we aim for it, we chase it. It gives us purpose. Sadly, it falls to us as readers and writers to stand up to resist the label of simple…and promote this genre that is so far reaching and, frankly, so fulfilling for so many of us. 

That all said, Romance has always been slightly subversive by virtue of being written and read primarily by women…so there’s no real reason for us to work to get mainstream acknowledgement…I feel acknowledged every time I hear from a reader who loves my books. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to stand up for this genre that I love so much when I see it left out of…say…a commentary on writing sex.

In your letter, you also defined how you see sex as it is presented in the romance genre. You wrote:

“As for what makes a good sex scene, a romance novelist would have told you that when done well and with a skilled hand, the best sex scenes can at once arouse and empower. Sex on the page gives readers the freedom to explore their own sexuality, their own pleasures, their own identities. With hope. And without judgment.”

I liked that you added “without judgment.” Why did you include that?

Every romance reader has at one point or another felt like she had to be embarrassed by what she reads. Every romance writer has at one point or another had to field the snickers and snide comments about “real books” vs. “trashy novels.” But we keep reading and writing. Why? Because we know what those who judge don’t — that inside these books, and inside this tribe of romance writers and readers, we find kindred spirits who understand what it is we read for, and what it is we want from our books, and who we are, ultimately. And I don’t judge you for your favorite trope, and you don’t judge me for my favorite kink, and ultimately, we all read and write in service to hope. So that’s why I added without judgement. Because it’s the most important part.

Your series The Rule of Scoundrels has been a critical success. Readers love it as well. In it you turn the tables on several well-established tropes. The hero of the second book has been celibate for years and it is the heroine who pursues him rather than the other way around. In the epilogue of your latest, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, you completely upend the stereotype of a typical Regency scoundrel. Can you share your motivation for challenging (cleverly) reader expectations?

I love tropes. I’m a romance reader. I can’t help myself. But when I’m writing, I’m always thinking about how I can make my books somehow both the same and different enough to keep readers (and myself) happy. This series is about scoundrels. Fallen aristocrats. And it’s all about appearances — what we think we see vs. what we are really witnessing. So I wanted to play with that across the board…from the very beginning. I wanted to build a series of heroines who save the day, and heroes who don’t always know themselves, and…yes…masks and layers. I guess I wanted my novels to read like the genre — not quite what they seem.

One of my favorite characters in the Scoundrels series is West, the newspaper publisher. Is he based on a real person? If not, where did you come up with the idea for him?

I’m thrilled you like West, Dabney — as you’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the final book in the series, Never Judge a Lady by her Cover. He’s a combination of lots of people, modern and historical. He’s part William Randolph Hearst, part Charles Dickens (reporter Dickens, not novelist Dickens), and part classic hero who pulls himself up by his bootstraps. He’s not a gentleman, but he chameleons in…and he’s very very brilliant. All things that I admire. He’s also a character who I pulled from my Love By Numbers series, and it’s always fun to develop a character over multiple books.

Your books, like Sherry Thomas’s, often feature characters like West, people who show up in bit roles in earlier books before becoming a main character. How do you keep track of all those story lines? Do you use spreadsheets? Keep it all in your head? Do the characters create your plots or are your plots a product of your characters?

For the most part, I keep stuff in my head — but smart readers have started catching little things that I’ve missed…so a spreadsheet is in the works! I did learn very quickly not to commit too much to the page about secondary characters unless I was absolutely sure I knew my plans for them — that way lies a great deal of plot pitfall!

Characters create my plots, 100%. I am amazed by writers who can start with a great plot idea and then create a character to fit it. That sounds like witchcraft to me!

When will the fourth (and last?) book in the Scoundrels series be out? What in it are you most excited about?

I’m working on Chase’s book, Never Judge a Lady by her Cover, right now…readers can expect it in late 2014 (I’m about to have my first child, so there’s going to be a tiny delay in this book’s release!). I’m most excited to share Chase’s story — one I’ve been noodling for (literally) years. This book is really about appearances and layers…and it’s both fun and challenging for me. But if you’re not challenged while you’re writing, I think you might be doing it wrong. At least, that’s what I tell myself!

Thanks, for talking to AAR, Sarah. And good luck with your latest work! (Sarah’s baby is due today!)

Thanks so much, Dabney, and to everyone at AAR for all you do for romance!

This entry was posted in Authors, Dabney AAR, Defining Romance, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Sarah MacLean talks about romance, the New York Times, and upending tropes

  1. mari says:

    I always find it strange when people talk of lack of judgement for sex and sexuailty in the romance genre. Really? The fact that romance is overwhelmingly heterosexual, one man and one woman=marriage, and kids eventually, implies no judgement? Kinda think there is a huge (and obvious) statement beong made here about what the overwhelmingly female readership of the romance genre finds acceptable. If romance were not one man and one woman (or mostly so, m/m is popular too, but I doubt it will ever be more popular than hetero romance) and marriage (if not explicitly, implicitly implied), then, it probably wouldn’t be so popular. It doesn’t matter how crazy the sexy times get, readers read romance because plain ‘ol marriage and boring family building are almost always the end goal. The journey may be X-rated, but the endings are brought to you by Disney. So I disagree that romances are not judgemental.

    • Blackjack1 says:

      I think this is absolutely true and predictably dull and uninspiring at times in the romance genre as a whole. I think different conceptions of happiness can be very rewarding and even romantic. Marriage is a questionable institution, as is the notion that children are for everyone, or that one man/one/woman/children are equated with “family.” What about inter-ethnic or inter-racial story lines? I know that I’ve watched films that interrogate how we conceive of romance and would love to see this more in romance genre writing. Of course there is judgment in all writing!

  2. Joane says:

    I like what Sarah did. I think all of us, writers and readers of romance, should do the same when we see something like that. It’s amazing – books and sex,… and nobody thought about romance novels?
    I’d like to know what did the Times Book Review, if they had any response to the letter.
    When she talked about judgement, I inmediately thought of this idea of simply enjoying love and sex, and the exploration of female sexuality with no regrets.

  3. LeeF says:

    I think all types of writing, fiction and non-fiction, regardless of genre are by nature”judgemental”. That is the nature of the beast when an individual is writing, whether from imagination or from cholarly research.

    That said, I have been amazed how much broader in scope romance has become in a fairly short amount of time. I have read more inter-racial, intergalactic, childless by choice, LGBT books recently than I would have dreamed could be available even 5 years ago. I don’t think the lack of diversity shows that romances are judgemental. I think the increase in diversity shows that romance is evolving and developing much like the general population.

    Thanks, Sarah MacLean for saying what needed to be said. Time to find one of your books!

    • Blackjack1 says:

      Hi LeeF – I read primarily historical romances and in nearly all that I can recall, the hegemony of marriage and children as a byproduct are firmly upheld. Much of this can be attributed to the historical periods in which these books are set, for sure. But even in the contemporary romances I’ve read, I can’t really recall any that don’t subscribe to the notion that the couple are heading for marriage. I would love to read romances that tackle these huge societal expectations though!

  4. LeeF says:

    Oops, can’t edit- should be scholarly.

  5. At least some of the situation described emanates from the situation that authors of romance are not considered artists in their own right. Instead they are considered merely clones of each other who access a large market for HEAs. I don’t know who the writers were who did speak, but I suspect they were endorsed ‘literary’ writers. I just got through reading a blog about the different kind of writers who write from the ‘edge’. There are those who truly write from the edge and those who can only hope to mimic this because they spend their time attending book launches, sipping champagne and discussing post-structuralist theory. It would be ridiculous to exclude crime novelists from discussions about violence in fiction or some such thing. Clearly, romance is entertainment. It is not meant to be heavy reading. A good writer knows which rules to break to write romance honestly without alienating their audience. Gay romance is being written and read – and it isn’t new. The romance genre is growing to break with the typical white, professional or educated woman who is and always will be heterosexual. There isn’t anything wrong with a protagonist in a romance like this, but it isn’t the only type of romance heroine out there. This perception that all romances are alike is damaging and not only insults romance writers but also romance readers.

  6. Holly Bush says:

    Thank you Sarah for responding to the nincompoop who talked to writers about sex and didn’t talk to a romance writer. (Although I doubt you’re reading this because from what I’ve read above, you are probably very busy with a new addition to your family.) I missed the NYT article but am happy that I did because it would have just raised my blood pressure and you responded admirably for us all. And I’m with you about those folks that plot a book and add characters as the story unfolds – I can’t figure it out! Characters lodge themselves in my brain and won’t leave and the plot is what happens to them or what they initiate. Each to their own!

    • Elizabeth Rolls says:

      Everyone plots differently. Everyone writes differently. I find that no matter how much I note down about characters, or think I know about them, before I start the actual writing, I really only start to know and understand my characters as I see and hear them in action. You could say they evolve with the story, but my take is that I get to know them better as the story develops. This works for me, but it won’t necessarily work for someone else. The trick is to know what works for you as a writer. Of course you have to pay attention to what other writers do, because there might be something you can incorporate into your own process. And you might have to tweak things for a different type of book, say a murder mystery because it’s a great deal more efficient to know what’s going on BEFORE you kill anyone.

  7. Gypsy says:

    I love the concept of tribe in the interview. The connectedness, the support, the purpose…….yes, I am a proud member of this tribe of romance readers. Thanks to AAR for bringing us together around the fire.

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