So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems: A Plea for Category Romance

So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems: A Plea for Category Romance

Every now and then, well-meaning friends congratulate me on having broken out of category romance. I love the image this evokes–the sirens, the lights raking the sky, my desperate plunge toward the wall, Birgit and Malle holding onto my ankles–but the truth is, I didn’t break out of category, I was evicted. I love category romance. I think it’s an outstanding although very difficult form of fiction. “Oh, come on,” I can hear some of you saying. “Those little books?”

Imagine, if you will, a cocktail party at the height of the English Renaissance. The mulled wine is flowing copiously, a harpsichord is playing “Greensleeves,” and over by the swan pate and crackers, a courtier has cornered William Shakespeare.

“So, Bill,” he says. “I hear you write those little poems.”

“Sonnets,” Shakespeare says. “They’re called sonnets.”

“I’ve always thought about taking a weekend and cranking out one of those suckers,” the courtier says. “There’s a formula for those, isn’t there?”

“I wouldn’t call it a formula, exactly,” Shakespeare says. “You need fourteen lines and iambic pentameter, and then you’re probably going to have to choose either an octave and sestet or three quatrains and a couplet, and of course you’ll need a rhyme scheme, but other than that–”

“Right, a formula,” the courtier says. “They pay well, do they?”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘well,’” Shakespeare says. “They do all right.”

“Yeah, not like those epics, boy,” the courtier says. “I hear Spenser’s just raking it in hand over fist on that Faerie Queene thing.”

“It’s a different form,” Shakespeare says mildly.

“Yeah, sure,” the courtier says. “So, Bill–”

And Shakespeare braces himself, having been here before–

“–when are you going to write a real poem?”

And then Shakespeare smacks him with a halberd and feeds him to the moat ducks.

Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and we’re still surrounded by moronic courtiers only this time they’re feeling superior about category romances. Clearly this is illogical; you can’t critique a fiction by its form any more than you can by its subject matter; that is, saying “Category romance is a lesser form of romance fiction,” makes as much sense as saying “Romance is a lesser form of fiction in general.” And yet there’s the perception, running amok throughout the industry (and outside it, too), that category fiction is a form all writers should try to break out of. How did this happen? And who are we going to blame?

There are three culprits.

THE PUBLISHERS DID IT

This is not exactly news: category publishers treat the form as if they were selling soup, and it’s hard to get respect for soup. Even so, the soup approach to romance is not intrinsically bad as long as it stays in marketing where it belongs. When a publisher does a good job of marketing, he sells a lot of books, and his writers make money, and everybody’s happy.

The problem comes when the publisher starts to think he really is selling soup. “All soup is alike,” he reasons. “There’s a recipe, right? Big deal. And there are a million soup-makers in the naked city. So I can put some stuff in this contract that’s good for me, and even if some of the authors throw a fit, it doesn’t matter because I can always get somebody else to stir the pot.” So we get lousy book club percentages, and the moral rights clause, and flat rate payments instead of royalty contracts because we’re not really writers, we’re soupmakers.

Over-reacting, you say? Nope. Look at what the flat rate says about the author/publisher relationship. Under the standard contract, the author and the publisher are partners: she has something she wants printed so she can sell it, and he wants to print something so he can sell it. They come to an agreement, each taking a percentage of the profits. Partners. But what does the flat rate do? It makes the author an employee. People respect their partners, but they direct their employees. Then there’s the moral rights clause. It says the publisher won’t mess with our stories, but that he can change our words, the way we wrote them. If there’s one clause that completely illustrates the soup concept, it’s this one because any writer knows that the story is secondary, it’s the way it’s the words are chosen and fit together that makes the book. How many times has Romeo and Juliet been written? It certainly wasn’t original to Shakespeare–he borrowed all his stories, and it’s been done at least a hundred times since–but his version is the one we go back to because of the writing. Yet, under the terms of the moral rights clause, a publisher could change “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” to “I don’t care who your daddy is” and still be within the terms of the contract because the story doesn’t change. It’s still soup.

Until publishers treat category fiction like works of art instead of cans of soup and writers like artists instead of cooks, we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. My fantasy is that a non-category publisher will recognize that short novels are an extremely marketable form, enter the field with respectable contracts and a promise to keep the books on the shelf for longer than thirty days, give them decent promotional back-up, and make a fortune for all of us. The pool of writers for such a line is huge and excellent and just waiting for a publisher who understands the difference between fiction and soup. This is a hint. Thank you.

THE EDITORS DID IT.

I have a great deal of sympathy for editors because they’re caught in the middle. On the one hand, they have publishers checking sales figures and asking why they bought that beautifully written but otherwise unsaleable story about the lesbian terrorist nun. On the other hand, they have authors writing beautiful stories about lesbian terrorist nuns and telling them that if they try to change even one word, the author will hold her breath until she turns blue and blame the resulting brain damage on the editor (some of my editors may recognize me in that last description). And they do all of this for a pitiful amount of money and a lot of invitations to writers’ conferences where people slip manuscripts into their toilet stalls.

Having said that, they’re still responsible. Editors should edit. They should not dictate content and they should never, ever rewrite words. And yet both of these sins are rife in the world of category because it’s the category editor’s job to transform art into soup; that is, make a work of fiction marketable. This is to everybody’s benefit as long as it doesn’t violate the writer’s work. But all too often it does. An editor who says, “This scene is brilliant, and it’s integral to the book, but readers don’t like dinner scenes so take it out,” is violating the author’s work. An editor who says, “This would be a really good book if you added a baby and a cowboy,” is violating an author’s work. An editor who says, “I thought this part where you wrote ‘Ralph came’ was too gross so I rewrote it as ‘Ralph reached his release’” is violating the author’s work.

Does this happen outside of category? Yes. But it happens more often in category because some editors are leery of the category audience–a group too many of them see as brain-dead polyester wearers–and they edit in order to second guess this audience rather than to produce a good book. I had an excellent and very intelligent editor who told me she was changing my heroine’s appetizer of potstickers to egg rolls because “people in Kansas don’t know what potstickers are.” After I assured her that Chinese food had made it to the midwest, she changed it back, but that gave me a good idea of the philosophy of many category editors: when in doubt, assume a category reader won’t get it. And if anything hasn’t sold well before, assume that it’s the subject that’s Death to Sales, and not the cover or the writing or the treatment of the subject. I once proposed an older-woman-younger-man book to a category editor, one I respect a lot, and she said, “Those don’t sell. We did a great book with that theme and it didn’t do well at all.” I went back and read the earlier book and it was terrific. I have no idea why it didn’t sell. But I did mine anyway and to this day it’s the most popular book I’ve ever done. I don’t know why mine worked and the other didn’t since they were both of equal quality. Maybe it was the cover, maybe it was the back copy, maybe the moon was full. What I know for sure is that it wasn’t the subject.

Having said all that, I repeat that I have great sympathy for the editors who are caught in the middle of the publisher/author struggle. But since there are many category editors who are in that position and who can still see beyond babies and cowboys, who protect their authors’ work and edit it to make it better instead of inoffensive, and who are willing to take a chance on really good but different books because they believe in both their authors and their readers, it is clearly possible to be both a category editor and a good editor. I’ve had four who were both, so I know they’re out there. We just need more of them.

THE WRITERS DID IT.

Okay, the publishers are treating us like hacks and the editors are butchering our work, so it’s not our fault, right?

Well, no, actually, it’s all our fault. Because the stuff I’ve talked about above only happened because we said, “Okay.”

We signed those lousy contracts because writing is just a job or because we needed the money or because we wanted to be published or because we didn’t know any better (I signed away all rights to my first book including the copyright for fifteen hundred dollars, so I’m leading the pack on that last one). We can’t blame the publishers for trying to get the best deal they can; they’re businesspeople, that’s what they do. We can only blame ourselves for selling ourselves short, for not taking our writing seriously enough to demand respectable contracts. If we don’t honor ourselves, why should our publishers?

Then we let our editors mutilate our books because we wanted to be published more than we wanted our books to be the best they could be. I’m guilty here, too. I have one book that breaks my heart every time I look at it because I let an editor I trusted tell me how to rewrite it to make it more popular. Is she to blame? No, she was honestly trying to make a better book. I’m to blame because I knowingly weakened my book to improve my sales. I sold out. Nobody gets the blame for that but me.

In the same way, we let the market cloud our vision when we write cowboy/baby/bride books because that’s what sells even though we really, really want to write books about baseball players/musicians/artists or any of the other so-called non-sellers. (Please note: if you want to write cowboy/baby/bride books, this is not about you. This is about writing something you’re not interested in because you think it will sell.) We reason that we can always write the books we want later when we’re famous, except that people who don’t write the books they really want and need to write generally have a harder time getting famous. Readers can usually tell the books that have their writers’ souls behind them. Even worse, if we keep putting off those books of our hearts, the ones we really, really want to write, they’ll fade away along with all our passion for writing, the love of words and story that drove us to the page in the first place. We’ll forget that every book we write has to have magic in it because after all, we’re just writing category. It’s only soup.

It’s this attitude that has let to the most toxic of all the ideas associated with category: that quality doesn’t matter as much as quantity. “You have to get three or four books out there a year,” I hear people say in articles, on the links, at conferences. “Don’t worry about writing the perfect book, just get your name out there.” And every time I hear that, I want to grab the published author who said it by the neck and snarl, “Don’t recruit any more hacks to this genre, you’re doing enough damage on your own.” Quality always matters. It matters more than anything else, more than decent contracts, more than money, more being published. We live and die by the quality of our books. If you can write four books a year that are wonderful, new, exciting, and different, that touch the reader and transform her–and many of our writers can–then this paragraph is not for you and you have my undying envy. But if you’re writing four pretty good books a year, books you know could be better if you just had more time, you can stop looking around for somebody else to blame for category’s bad rep. It’s no sin to write a book that fails because we’re reaching beyond what we can do, because we’re trying something hard, because we’re taking chances. We only go to Writer’s Hell for phoning it in. And while category doesn’t own all the phones, it’s the only place where writers regularly do AT&T commercials.

Write this on the top of your computer in permanent marker: EVERY BOOK I WRITE WILL BE THE FIRST BOOK OF MINE SOMEBODY READS. If a book has your name on the cover, readers are going to assume that when they’ve finished the book, they will know who you are as a writer. The decision to buy you again and recommend you to their friends is going to depend on That One Book. Sobering, huh? What scares me even more is that every book of mine may be the first romance somebody reads. There I am, responsible for the genre. And so are you. We all are.

Category is an elegant, exacting, exciting form of fiction. It requires precise pacing, tight plotting, and exquisitely brief characterizations. It is truly as fine a form for fiction as the sonnet is for poetry. It deserves publishers who treat it as if it were fiction and not soup (and it really deserves publishers who keep it on the shelves longer than a month and who give it decent marketing support). It deserves editors who recognize that category readers are not stupid and that category writers should be left to discover their own visions within the constraints of the line (and the constraints should not include subject matter). But most of all it deserves writers who respect their readers, who honor and protect their work, and who write the very best books they can every time.

Anything less, and we deserve the moat ducks.


Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Vol. 18 Number 5, May. 1998: 42-44.