On romance and the quality of books
I haven’t been to Powell’s in a while, but when I went a few weeks ago with my sister, I was pleased to see Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series was no longer shelved in romance.
It never really bothered me that her books were considered romance to begin with — I wrote a whole piece about how a book’s genre doesn’t make a difference to its contents about two years ago — but it was a simple juxtaposition that really made Outlander’s location stand out and it continued to annoy me for a very long time.
My sister is a big romance fan, and she’s usually the person I go to Powell’s with (our favorite Japanese restaurant also happens to be just down the street). When we first enter Powell’s, our itinerary is usually as follows: straight to the romance section (Keely’s favorite), back through science fiction and fantasy (my favorite), and then to the literature section (where we both can usually find something we’ll enjoy). After that, we sometimes wander to other sections in the store if we still haven’t managed to find $40 worth of books each.
The Outlander series has been in the romance section for as long as I can remember (and probably for as long as the books have been around, but don’t quote me on that). I would argue that Galbaldon’s books aren’t even really romance, and would probably be better suited in the sci-fi section, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to get at.
The fact is, her books (just like almost every other book out there) incorporate elements of a lot of different genres: science fiction, historical fiction, and yes, romance. Yet, Nicholas Sparks, a well-known male romance writer (his books being much more firmly romance) was always in the literature section. And that really bothered me.
I might not have even noticed that Galbaldon was in romance and Sparks was in literature if it wasn’t for the fact that I passed those shelves almost every time I visited Powell’s with Keely. The first time I thought about it, I could feel myself frowning, but I quickly put the concept from my mind. I don’t claim to know much about bookselling and I figured they probably had a good reason to put them there. It didn’t seem worth thinking about any longer than that.
But each time I returned to that stupid shelf, I found myself thinking about it more and more. Romance is a genre that has struggled to gain validation for years. It’s often considered smut, or beach reading (which is not a good thing) or simply as women’s writing, something that men automatically assume is not for them. It is almost never considered “literature.”
Except as it seemed, when a man was writing it.
I stand by the piece I wrote two years ago that asserts the genre of a book has little to do with its quality or contents, but that’s not a widespread concept. Many people still consider literature to be of higher quality than other niche genres like horror, thriller, and romance.
So the fact that one sort-of romance by a woman and one almost-definitely-a-romance by a man could be shelved in counterintuitive sections makes me believe there is an inherent gender bias at play. And I still believe that, but I’m happy to see Outlander is now in literature as well.
Despite the fact that labeling a book as romance or science fiction does not change what’s between its pages, it does contribute to how consumers view it. People are going to view a book much differently if it’s marketed as romance than if it’s marketed as science fiction or historical fiction.
And while that shouldn’t make a difference to how a book is received, it does. Lots of readers out there tend to stick to one or two of their favorite genres, and are not very likely to branch out, even if they might enjoy pieces that are classified differently. And other times, whether writers and booksellers want to admit it, a book’s genre often speaks to its perceived quality in society.
Which is very frustrating to me, especially as a writer. I want my words to speak for themselves, and not to have to worry if my work is going to be classified by others as romance, or even worse, as YA* (another genre that is considered not very good). *I’m not dissing YA, by the way.
But when I see really good books, like Galbaldon’s Outlander series, which spans dozens of books and inspired a critically acclaimed TV show on Starz, get pushed out of the way for “better” romance written by a man, I get mad.
And I’m not saying men shouldn’t write romance. Nicholas Sparks is a well-known and prolific romance writer, and I commend him for that. If anything more men should be writing romance, in order to diversify the genre. But it’s not fair that his books get bestowed with the seal of “literature” and other less romance-oriented books by women do not.
Genre shouldn’t matter, but it does, and Nicholas Sparks should definitely be in romance.