This month’s hints & tips is about verbal self-defence, about what to do when someone asks what you do and you tell them the truth (‘I write romance’), which can take nerve since we all know the kind of looks that can get, and they ask arguably the MOST IRRITATING QUESTION IN THE WORLD: When are you going to write a proper book?
Most romance writers have been asked this question or suffered similar jibes/put-downs/insinuations at some point. Most of us have been insulted, often by family and friends who seem to have no idea that they’ve said anything remotely soul-destroying or offensive. And in all fairness, they probably don’t mean to be. Ignorance isn’t much of a defence, but that’s usually all it is. Historically, romance has been dismissed as ‘lesser’, as being too easy, too unrealistic, too clichéd, too unsophisticated. In other words, it’s okay as a starting-block to bigger, better books (you know, ones that deal with important themes, not superficial ones like love), but it’s not LITERATURE!!!
So how should we respond to such un-constructive criticism?
Some people choose sarcasm. ‘Yes, you’re right, thank you for opening my eyes to my own inadequacies. I’ll start writing that seminal work of art next week and you know what, the plot will revolve around a man!’ Unfortunately, this can be mistaken for a genuine response so be sure to throw in an eye-roll or two.
Another way is to make them feel prudish. Suggest that love and sex are two of the dominant themes both of literature and of life itself. Then ask them why they think that people are so afraid to admit and explore this. Use words like intimacy. If they’re really prudish, they’ll run. If not, you can discuss it and hopefully change their minds about the genre.
Alternatively, you could respond in kind. Be blunt and tell them that it’s a genre that means a lot to you, that you enjoy reading and writing it, that you find their comments just a teensy-bit judgemental and that your books are proper books that involve as much blood, sweat and tears as any other. If they have any kind of intelligence, they’ll apologise, but even if they don’t at least you’ll have made your feelings clear. They’ll either never mention your writing again or they might actually give romance a try.
Finally, you could just ignore them. Some people (me included) don’t like confrontation and sometimes it’s not worth an argument. So walk away, but don’t let the negativity make you feel bad. Romance books are proper books. They’re just as emotionally and intellectually engaging and thought-provoking as any other genre and their very popularity makes them relevant. If that’s not ‘literary’ enough for some people (and challenge them to define what that means btw) then that’s just their opinion.
Romance novels are wonderful! The RNA obviously thinks so and a lot of readers agree. We shouldn’t have to keep defending ourselves, but we do. So next time you hear that question, hopefully you’ll have a few ideas about what to say.
Jenni Fletcher writes Historical Romances for Mills & Boon and teaches creative writing in the north of England. Her ninth book, An Unconventional Countess, is out now.