My Reading Habits Wallow in Shame, Apparently

bookmarks I normally adore Bookmarks magazine. While more than half my reading is romance, I read all kinds of other books as well and Bookmarks gives pretty good coverage of the non-romance world. They tend towards covering mainstream fiction without a lot of pretentious B.S., and their historical fiction articles by Sarah Johnson in particular have given me fantastic reading suggestions. However, when I saw their Guilty Pleasures article in the November/December 2009 issue, I was rather taken aback. The article (part I in a series) goes through types of books the author considers “guilty pleasures” and ranks them as Paradise (practically guilt-free, you could even be seen in public with these), Purgatory (nightstand reading) and Hell (books the author says “shame on you” for reading).

Though the entire article is written in a light tone and is somewhat tongue in cheek, one cannot help noticing two things: The writer (1)doesn’t know a whole lot about the romance genre and (2) feels completely free to insult it anyway. The article is divided into several sections, but for Romance, the Paradise reads are literary books such as Possession by A.S. Byatt or Gone With the Wind (though Love Story inexplicably makes the list). Even Georgette Heyer only makes it into Purgatory. And you can guess what’s in Hell. That’s right! Every genre romance mentioned in the piece goes right into that Hall of Shame.

From the genre romances mentioned, one can tell that this author does not know much about romance and doesn’t appear to have made much of an effort to research it. There are no paranormals on the list, category romances and inspirationals may as well not exist and forget about the new(and wonderful) authors of recent years! Instead, the author focuses on a small sample of Nora Roberts’ work, an Elizabeth Lowell series from the 90s, and some 80s vintage Judith McNaught, among a few others. The most recent release on the list is from 2000 (More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh) and descriptions of the books talk primarily about sex and sappiness. That’s right. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” holds a place higher on the respectability scale than the poignant mixture of humor and emotional insight of Julia Quinn at her best, Laura Kinsale’s literary flourishes, or the simple beauty of Carla Kelly’s writing. And what of Jennifer Cruisie, Linda Howard, Meredith Duran, Marsha Canham, Elizabeth Hoyt and…? The list goes on and on. As with any other genre, romance can boast some truly phenomenal writers.

And then there are the sly insults. Must everything be phrased in terms of cliche or sappiness? I can think of a lot of things to call books by Mary Balogh or Connie Brockway, but sappy and cliched?! No, not really. Things do tend to end in happy endings in romance, but that’s no more a sappy cliche than finding out who killed the dead person in one’s mystery novel. The infinite forms of light which can illuminate the infinite forms of darkness speak of art and imagination to me, and the triumph of good over evil strikes a chord far deeper than the author of this article gives credit for. Wallowing in unhappiness and gothic melancholy speaks no more profoundly of the human condition than does having the courage to join with someone, decide you love no one other than that person, and you want to build a future with him or her, come hell or high water. Negative emotions and unhappy endings are not the only things that can cut deeply in a person.

Of Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, the author mentions that it has sex scenes that may make readers cringe. Wow. If they think that book will make readers cringe, I can think of some good erotic romance novels that might make these folks break out in hives! And if one only thinks of explicit sex in negative terms, I hate to see how the impact of some of the well-written and luscious scenes I enjoy from the likes of Amanda McIntyre, Liz Carlyle or Judith Ivory would be lost on such a reader.

In the end, I have to say that I find it rather sad that this magazine has written very good guides to science fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, seafaring novels, you name it. However, when it comes to romance, they can only offer an out of date listing and mockery. Poorly done – and disappointing, coming from a publication that should be capable of better.

-Lynn Spencer

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35 Responses to “My Reading Habits Wallow in Shame, Apparently”

  1. RfP says:

    Thanks for posting. I read a variety of genres, and I’ve been curious about Bookmarks. It does sound like they have a limited and dated view of romance. Did you send this as a letter to the editor? That can be very effective in other areas, though perhaps less so in this case; literary publications sometimes cling to their romance snobbery.

  2. katyco says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Lynn. I believe people who put down romance novels (and this was a put down) either never read one or never read a good one. To me sex in a romance takes a back seat to character development and storyline. I read many different types of books and romance writers are the best. And as for HEA, I don’t read romance novels to be depressed. I think that readers who are true fans of the romance genre don’t pay any attention to these kinds of articles. If anything, I kind of feel sorry for them. Imagine never experiencing Flowers from the Storm, The Bridgerton Series, or Outlander. How sad.

  3. RobinB says:

    Like any other literary genre, there is great romance and there is really bad romance. Personally, I think that one of the reasons that there is still a stigma regarding romance fiction is the tendency by publishers to put covers on their books that, shall we say, perpetuate the stereotype! If I know I’m going to be in a waiting room for a period of time, and I bring a book (and my trusty iPod!) to pass the minutes, I feel uncomfortable bringing a book with a cover featuring someone who looks like he gobbles steroids morning, noon, and night! (That’s one of the reasons I’m considering buying an e-book reader!)

    Having said all that, I used to be one of those who put down romance novels, until I actually read one. Yes, it was “Outlander” (although now, most bookstores put the series in mainstream fiction), but since then, I’ve read wonderful novels by Mary Jo Putney, Karyn Monk, Marsha Canham, and others who really write enjoyable stories!

  4. Manda says:

    Lynn, I am SO glad you wrote about this! I’ve been getting Bookmarks for a couple of years as a gift subscription, but I’m not sure from whom. I do think it’s a fun magazine, but I’ve been steaming for a while now about the fact that they have sections on every other sort of genre fiction BUT romance. Mystery? Check. Science Fiction? Check. Romance? Not on your life.

    The Guilty Pleasures article was especially annoying for the reasons you point out. Love Story? Really? And the author’s choices were a clear indication that they had no idea what a rich and wonderfully diverse genre romance can be.

    But the “cringe inducing” comment about the love scenes in MY DEAREST ENEMY was what really set me off. I wonder, would the author have used that sort of language to describe the gruesome murders in the latest Jeffrey Deaver? I suspect not. Because what could possibly be more cringe inducing than two people who love each other giving physical expression of that love? Apparently nothing.

    Must we always be reduced to giggling teenagers when it comes to talking about sex and love? Why is it no big deal for the gazillion cop shows on television to go into every last graphic detail of how a rapist or murderer preyed upon his victim, but to describe lovemaking in detail is so horrible that the very act of reading it must be spoken of as a guilty pleasure? Only one of these descriptions is of a crime, and sadly the one that is not is the one that gets the most scorn from the general public.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love cop shows and forensic shows. And I’ve been through times when I felt every bit as embarrassed about my romance reading habit as this article-writer doubtless thought I should. But those days are gone.

    I’m a romance reader and writer, and proud of it. And articles like this one only serve to uphold old prejudices. I know the article was meant to be *fun* but it was anything but for me.

    Thanks for calling attention to the article, Lynn. It’s good to know I’m not the only one reading Bookmarks and wishing it were a little more genre inclusive.

  5. Lynn Spencer says:

    >>I think that one of the reasons that there is still a stigma regarding romance fiction is the tendency by publishers to put covers on their books that, shall we say, perpetuate the stereotype!

    @RobinB Amen to that. You just hit on my other big pet peeve with this! :-)

  6. Hi Lynn,
    I couldn’t agree more. I hope you pass along this blog post to the editors of the magazine. Probably won’t do any good, but they should know how some of their readers view that article. Thanks for sharing

  7. Lynn Spencer says:

    @RfP, Manda and Booklover1335 – Yes, I did send a link to the editor of Bookmarks. I’ll update if we hear anything.

  8. Allison says:

    Lynn, thank you for a well-said/well-written post. As others have suggested, I hope you will share it with the magazine. Their first step in acknowledging and promoting a more balanced view of the romance genre would be to share your article with their readers.

    I work in the book services, and I really try not to think badly of people I overhear making fun of romances, and referring to the genre as “candy floss” for the brain. I give an extra smile and effort to the customers I am assisting in the romance section! Some day I will be brave enough to say to everyone: Hey, I read romance and I love it! I also think I am reasonably bright and sociable and capable etc etc…

  9. Hi there folks,

    Lynn sent me an email to let me know about the discussion over here, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. I’m grateful for the straightforward feedback from all of you. I had already received an angry email from a subscriber, and we’ll be printing it in our upcoming Jan/Feb issue.

    We’re usually pretty dry and straightforward in our features and we thought we’d try and have a little fun with this one. Our tongue was planted somewhere near our cheek, but perhaps not firmly enough in it … or maybe it should have been nowhere near … and I can see why you’d be bothered and frustrated. We by no means meant to insult the genre … but I can absolutely see how it could come across that way. So I feel badly about that.

    At the same time, the point the article clearly makes it that these are fun, enjoyable, recommended books. We wouldn’t have mentioned them otherwise. It was not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the romance genre but rather a gateway for people looking for an alternative to the latest round of modern-unhappy-suburban-ennui novels.

    I am thinking long and hard about this, wondering if were disrespectful. It’s funny, when we covered science fiction — which we knew our readers had little interest in — we felt we had to defend the genre. Much in the same way I think some of you wish we had for romance. But with romance (only one third of the article) we were coming at it from the perspective of “these books are fun … satisfying … happiness inducing … enjoy!” But we’re not as exposed to the challenges the genre faces as you all are, so we’re not as sensitized to them. Thanks to you guys, that’s changing.

    Best,
    Jon

    Jon Phillips
    Editor & Publisher
    Bookmarks

  10. You know that saying, Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am?

    Well Lord, let me be as classy and thoughtful as Jon Phillips when I’m challenged.

  11. Margaret says:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jon. And thanks to Lynn for posting on this. I’m going to pick up a copy of Bookmarks and in the future it would be great to see some romance book reviews.

  12. Elaine S says:

    Oh dear, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? I read A S Byatt’s Possession (for a reading club that I have long since left) and it bored me to tears. Thank goodness the new Christmas anthology with Carla Kelly et al arrived today! She (and quite a few other romance writers) can knock the socks off A S Byatt IMO !!! I tend to think that these articles are written by those who actually DO read romance and are so ashamed of themselves that writing these nasty reviews/columns, etc, is a form of personal penance.

  13. AAR Lynn says:

    “Thanks to you guys, that’s changing.”

    @ Jon Phillips – And thank you. Very glad to hear from you!

    I found your mention of science fiction interesting. I know that in the past, sci-fi has not always gotten as much respect as it probably should have, and I think that’s the position romance is in now. There’s some dreck to be found in sci-fi, but also some treasures, and it’s the same with romance. My great big hope is that someday soon we’ll be able to get rid of some of the stereotypes that surround the romance genre just as fantasy, sci-fi and mysteries have been able to break free of some of theirs.

  14. Lynda X says:

    Although I respect Mr. Phillips’ gentle letter, I wonder at his apparent ignorance about the scorn to which romance is subject. It boggles the mind that an editor WOULDN’T know!

    The people who express their lofty disdain of this genre are EXACTLY the people who, decades ago, would have sniffed about the luridness of mysteries and the silliness of science fiction, and a couple of centuries before that, condemned novels as just lies, dangerous to the soul. May I suggest that Mr. Phillips publish an article about the glories of romance books and the injustice of its reputation, as his penance.

  15. CM says:

    Concur with Lynda X. I very much appreciate the spirit of Mr. Phillips’s response but am quite disappointed that once again it seems that an important individual (and of course the supporting staff) is ignorant of the basics of the top-selling fiction genre.

    I encourage Mr. Phillips to seek out a panel of romance fans to produce a replacement article – one which is up-to-date and open-minded, and might help romance readers and non-readers alike find new books to enjoy.

  16. Nikki H says:

    This is all very interesting, but don’t you have to wonder if other people’s perception of the romance genre will really ever change?

  17. Manda says:

    I, too, appreciate Mr. Phillips’s response. Its neglect of romance notwithstanding, I do enjoy Bookmarks.

    And while we have his ear (or eye, I suppose) might I suggest that he and his staff check out the website of The Romance Writers of America, where it states that: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.”

    That emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending is why I burst out laughing when I saw LOVE STORY was on the list as a romance. It might be a love story, but it is definitely NOT a romance.

    There are also some great stats available on the RWA site here.

    And last but not least, check out the list here on AAR of the Top 100 Romances: http://www.likesbooks.com/top1002007results.html

    I look forward to seeing Bookmarks address this problem in the future. Though I am already bracing for the scathing response from those who will inevitably view the introduction of romance as yet another sign of the decline of Western Civilization as we know it.

  18. Manda says:

    My RWA urls didn’t show up.

    Both the definition and the stats can be found in the About the Romance Genre section of the general RWA site here:
    http://www.rwanational.org/cs/the_romance_genre

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  20. Kate21 says:

    What..! My Dearest Enemy is one of my faves!!! The emotions are so great.. and FYI there is one single sex scene at the end. I am insulted.

  21. RfP says:

    I’m not entirely comfortable with an industry group (and only ONE industry group, at that) defining an entire genre. Granted, the unequivocally happy ending is the dominant mode in genre romance–but surely that’s a function of size. The American publishers of RWA-type romance put out an enormous volume of literature, so they look like the de facto standard-setter.

    My definition of romance is rather broader than RWA’s. That’s probably in part because I read a lot of literary fiction and non-romance genre fiction. But it’s also because I don’t think it does the genre any favors to snipe at its closely related cousins. Why claim Pride and Prejudice but disown Possession? Is including Gone With the Wind any more a violation of the romance definition than including a Nora Roberts In Death book in which the police procedural takes center stage and the romance is pretty much married life as usual?

  22. Kathy says:

    While I, too, commend Jon for reaching out to romance readers, it seems to me that a very important point is being glossed over: romance is denigrated primarily becasue it is written FOR and BY women.

    Books in other genres can include serial killers, violence, wars, politics and all sorts of things that “serious people” see as worthy subjects, but by definition, romance is about human relationships, which automatically makes these books lesser–in other words, FEMALE.

    The last “thriller” I picked up contained some of the most sickening violence directed toward women that I have EVER read. I ended up throwing it away–in the trash–it was so awful. And this was by a mainstream, very well known author.

    So, let’s not play games, here. Jon knows exactly the tone his publication was trying to convey. I mean, really, with the dopey covers still common in the industry, we’re an easy target. But it’s well known that these books generate BIG money, and in fact, pay for a lot of other “serious” books to be published. In fact, one could make the argument that the publishing industry stands on the shoulders of the romance novel genre. We should not only be demanding, but getting, more respect.

  23. Kathy says:

    One more thought, while I’m on a roll:

    I work as a registered nurse and every day, I see people who have had a terrible diagnois, are permanently physically impaired and/or dying (in months, weeks, days or hours). When I get home at night (or in the morning, since I work nights), I want to escape and read something positive, uplifting and that makes me HAPPY. Romance typically fills that need. And that is a really valuable thing in this world.

  24. marcella says:

    Hear hear, Kathy. On every point you make.

  25. Janine (LFL) says:

    RfP: I don’t think it does the genre any favors to snipe at its closely related cousins. Why claim Pride and Prejudice but disown Possession?Is including Gone With the Wind any more a violation of the romance definition than including a Nora Roberts In Death book in which the police procedural takes center stage and the romance is pretty much married life as usual?

    I couldn’t agree more. Possession is one of my favorite romances in any genre. Ditto Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory’s books. Why does it have to be a contest? If A.S. Byatt can give Georgette Heyer credit for being a good writer and one of her influences, why can’t we romance fans also give Byatt some credit?

    I’m very glad Lynn wrote this piece, though, and that Jon Phillips read it and responded with such consideration.

  26. AAR Lynn says:

    @RfP – Just to clarify, the intent of the piece was not to disown Possession or Gone With the Wind. My complaint was that only the literary fiction work fell under the article’s “acceptable” romance books while all the genre romances were placed in the lowest category. Not so much a snipe at Byatt or Mitchell, but more expressing frustration that some of the genre romance writers weren’t listed up there with them.

  27. RfP says:

    @AAR Lynn,
    Got it :) And I’m glad you wrote this piece.

  28. Lynda X says:

    Kathy, is ABSOLUTELY right that the major underlying cause of the prejudice against romance novels is sexism. If a MAN writes a romance, somehow, it is seem to “transcend” the genre. For example, why, oh, why is LOVE STORY cited as a classic? It’s about the only “modern” love story most people know and can, once again, laugh at a romance whose tagline (“love means you never have to say you’re sorry”–written by a man, who I bet has had many divorces!) is held in contempt.

    As to Kathy’s point that publishing stands on the shoulders of romance writers (99.99% female), what else is new? The WORLD stands on the shoulders of women–and almost universally holds their work in denigration and contempt–with occasional condescending lip service.

  29. Hi folks,

    I didn’t want you all to think that I replied and then went on about my business — I’ve been checking back in to read everyone’s ongoing comments. I won’t try to respond point by point, partially because it’s tough to do in written form while inserting all the appropriate caveats, asides, smiley faces, and all the rest.

    The tone of the intro to the piece was my direction, so that’s on me. There are few things more embarrassing than trying to write something that’s a bit humorous and then people not finding it funny at all. So, simply put, the genre’s quest for respect — its readers’ frustration that people don’t understand the range of quality at the top end but associate it all with the dreck — wasn’t even on my mind. So I appreciate being smacked upside the head about that. And in case I meet one of you in a darkened alley someday, I only mean that figuratively.

    Best,
    Jon

  30. Kathy says:

    Jon, your continued presence here is very appreciated, but if I may: the romance genre will never be taken seriously if publications such as yours continue to ghetto-ize it. These are REAL books, written by REAL authors for a REAL audience. And the industry makes REAL money that supports lesser selling books, many of which are taken much more seriously than the typical romance.

    If you really want to show that this conversation has changed your mind, have a regular feature reviewing new romance novels, by someone who appreciates the genre, and does not hold it in contempt. The reality is this: these are popular novels that sell well–the best ones will hold up over time and the stinkers will disappear very quickly, just as for every other type of fiction.

  31. Janine (LFL) says:

    @AAR Lynn. I understand. I was thinking of Elaine’s comment when I quoted RfP’s post. And to clarify, it’s okay with me that Possession isn’t everyone’s cuppa; I just don’t think that elevating romance at the expense of literary fiction is a winning proposition.

  32. Margaret says:

    I just don’t think that elevating romance at the expense of literary fiction is a winning proposition……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

    Or vice versa…which I think is the point.

  33. Janine (LFL) says:

    Margaret: I just don’t think that elevating romance at the expense of literary fiction is a winning proposition……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Or vice versa…which I think is the point.

    Exactly.

  34. Jeana says:

    What is more titillating than a guilty pleasure, pray tell?

    And another thing: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’
    Oh yes it does, I’m afraid. Say it first, mean it, and try not to do that thing again that meant you had to say sorry in the first place!

  35. NicoleD says:

    I don’t subscribe to, nor have ever read Bookmarks, but I can surely imagine the negative light the author put on the romance genre. Someone posting here said, yes there is good romance, and there is bad..that’s with every fictional genre out there, I believe.

    All the writer has to do is go to any major book seller and see how HUGE the romance section is…apparently there IS a market for all.

    And, happy endings are what we all like to see, to read a romance is to get away from the stress of real life…that’s why I read, and I’m a sucker for a happy ending, every time.

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