Oh, hey, look, NPR does romance

Published February 13, 2014 by Shannon

I spent an hour of my life listening to the latest episode of On Point, an NPR show I’d never heard of before. I’m sure someone will invariably write a thoughtful and well-reasoned critique of the podcast, but it won’t be me because the romance blogosphere needs another article about how the general public doesn’t understand the genre like it needs a hole in the head. But I do have thoughts, which I present in a handy list format.

  1. One of the guests was Wendy the Super Librarian, whose blog I’ve read for years and whose speaking voice matches my mental picture of what it would sound like. So, um, go Wendy?

  2. I’ve never read anything by Angela Knight, but on the strength of that interview, I need to fix that. Holy wow, she’s a firecracker. Or maybe it’s just that any middle-aged Southern lady comes off that way when she talks. Either way, she was passionate and very well-reasoned and articulate.
  3. I started drinking the first time Tom Ashbrook mentioned The Twilight Fanfic That Shall Not Be Named. I know, I know, it’s revolutionized the genre. But blargh, we hates that book.
  4. I loved Wendy’s statement that a good library has something in it that will offend everybody. That is so very on point. (Ha, did you see what I did there?)
  5. Angela talked a lot about how romances are all about the girl power. I might have liked it if she hadn’t taken a dig at feminists, but I cannot have everything I want.
  6. The first half of the podcast was a nuanced and interesting conversation, with a lot of interesting points made about the genre. Then it was like the powers at NPR said to themselves, “Wait! I know what element this show is lacking! We need a white dude from the literary scene to give his very valuable and much-needed thoughts on yaoi.” So they found one. I’m so glad they did. My poor lady brain was trying to figure out what to think and it has such a huge problem forming its own opinions, so thank God there was a man there, finally.
  7. Speaking of men, a caller gave the lonely cry of the poor oppressed male romance reader and suggested romance writers should market books toward men. All these books with their lady feelings won’t possibly be considered legitimate and worthwhile until that happens, the billions of dollars readers spend notwithstanding. And we wouldn’t want the men to be left out, because it’s not like there are whole genres heavily marketed to them already.
  8. Angela Knight said that if it weren’t for romance readers, those white dudes in the literary elite couldn’t sustain the publishing market share by themselves. She got really passionate about that, too. I raised a fist in solidarity.
  9. Someone brought up the “Well, aren’t romance novels formulaic?” question. I took another drink, but had to give it to Angela and Wendy for both pointing out that (1) every genre has a formula, (2) The book is about the journey rather than the destination, and (3) If you are writing paint-by-numbers crap that is entirely predictable, you are doing it wrong.
  10. Harlequins and bodice rippers got brought up. So did the stupidity of romance titles. I have often ranted at length about the stupidity of romance titles, so I feel weird that when that bit happened near the end of the podcast, I was like, “This has nothing to do with anything! If you don’t have anything substantive to ask, just stop right now!”
  11. Wendy made predictions for the future. Yep, erotic romance and small-town contemporaries are where it’s at. Personally, I think there should be more books that combine the two.

For a puff piece about romance, this wasn’t the worst. I thought the conversation was, for the most part, lively and interesting, and both Angela and Wendy were class acts that did not once tell Tom Ashbrook he was being smug and condescending. That said, there was something painful about hearing said smug condescension for an hour that made the whole experience more rage-making than it ought to have been.

I’ll be curious to read other people’s takes on that show.

15 comments on “Oh, hey, look, NPR does romance

  • Well, of COURSE we all want more girl power! Just not in an icky feminist way!

    This sounds like overall a good discussion to have recorded, though I wish there were some tactful shorthand to let someone know they’re being condescending. (Or that it wouldn’t harm the careers of the interviewees/panelists if they were anything other than tactful.)

    … Would it be a opening a bigger can of worms than I really want to ask you what you think the difference is between the “romance” genre, and books that are love stories?

    • Oh yes. I wish there was some polite way of being like, “Hey. That is really dumb. Don’t go there.” I wanted to on Wendy’s behalf because the host also kept being all, “Oooh, can we see your superhero uniform?” Which struck me as less funny and more… incredibly skeezy.

      I think everybody else below has answered this question really well. I know that when we catalogue romances, it is by subject and often I have to just let my genre expectations go. I shove nicholas Sparks there because there’s no other place for him to go, even though I don’t think he writes genre romance.

  • I love reading Wendy. Her lemon-drop posts always make me smile.

    I followed Angela earlier in her career. Really forthright, strong woman. She talked about almost commiting suicide with a revolver, her weight loss surgery, etc. Amazingly honest brutal stuff. In her books, I don’t always like her version of “strong” women. I think our connotations of the phrase are very different. I fell away from her stories for some reason. Time to re-visit.

    Thanks for the link. I’ll listen it later today.

    • Oh, the Lemon Drop posts are delightful. Our taste in books really doesn’t seem to overlap much at all, but I love her way of looking at things.

      Hmm. Given the excerpt of the book Knight read on the podcast, I don’t actually know if her books would appeal. But it’s really hard to tell, because she’s clearly not the kind of writer who should read her own work. Of course, then the host totally called her prose “mockable”, so now I want to read her books on the theory that that constitutes a non-substantive douchebag review. :P

  • Haven’t listened, although I’ve heard about it. Yours is among the more positive responses I’ve heard. Honestly, I am SO VERY TIRED of Literary Menz explaining how if romance novels just provided more stories about middle-aged white literature professors in private Northeastern colleges having affairs with worshipful (and nubile) grad students, the genre would be much more respectable.

    @K Jans — I’m not Shannon, but I’d say that the difference is — in librarian-speak — that “romance” is a genre, while “love stories” is a subject heading. As I will soapbox at the drop of a catalog card (just ask my brilliant Tech Services staff), the “subject” is what the story is *about* : a love story, a gruesome murder, an intergalactic civil war. “Genre” is, roughly speaking, the *set of expectations* that the reader brings to the story: in a “romance”, there will be lots of Feels, concluding in a HappyEverAfter (or at least HappyForNow); in a “mystery”, there will be clues and some danger, the murder will be solved based on the clues provided, and justice, in some form, will be exacted; in a “space opera”, there will be battles and escapes and cunning plans and climactic confrontation that leads to victory and freedom and rainbows for the “good-guy” protagonists (whichever side they happen to be on).

    (To just round out the soapbox speech, a “format” is the physical manner in which the story is presented, be it textual words on paper or screen or audio recordings, or moving images on film, or sequential drawings, AND NO LIBRARY OF CONGRESS “COMICS” ARE *NOT* A SUBJECT HEADING OR GENRE)

    Anyways, savvy publishers will recognize genre expectations and cue them with titles, cover images, even fonts. That’s why it’s easy to “re-package” a literary classic “love story” like WUTHERING HEIGHTS (ptui, ptui), say, as a “romance” title by jiggering these elements; however, if those expectations are not meant, the reader may well feel “tricked” and resent the book for being something it wasn’t written to be.

    Sorry, Shannon, for bogarting your blog! You can tell why Tech Services hide when they see me coming…

    • @hapax Love your explanation!

      @ K Jans
      Here’s my nickel plus a dime to add to hapax said.

      I see “romance genre” as a marketing label in the US (it seems to mean something slightly different in the UK). The expectations of the spine label as opposed to something getting called a “romance” is that the story will typically involve a western civilization style courtship ritual which is essential to the central question of the story with a happy ever after / for now ending aka what RWA refers to as emotional justice.

      A love story does not have to have an uplifting ending. The couple doesn’t have to end up together (one or both can even die). etc. In fact, it might be considered a tragedy without any emotional justice.

      There is much variation in how publishers, readers, authors, libraries and even RWA itself use the label. Many, many arguments ensue. Unfortunately the terms romance genre, romance and love story tend to be used interchangably.which can add to the confusion. I suspect most people (as opposed to those within the online romance reading community) use one definition to cover all three.

      e.g., I wouldn’t categorize Gone with the Wind, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, JD Robb’s In Death series, Dirty by Megan Hart as “romance genre.” The publishers don’t label or market them that way. However, many readers do consider them to be romances. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series contains a central love story which is key to the central question of the series and the romance couple do get a happy ending but I don’t know one person who would consider it a romance. Laura Vivanco had someone comment on her blog that Louis L’Amour westerns were romantic thrillers from the male point of view.

      Now to add even more confusion to the mix. Books by authors like Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, and Nicholas Sparks aren’t labeled by publishers today as “romance genre,” romance readers don’t necessarily consider them to be romance genre, however, some publishing industry professionals count them toward total sales of romances.

      Finally, the same book can be categorized differently by different publishers doing formats. One publisher’s romance genre categorization is another publisher’s erotic fiction is another publisher’s gay / lesbian fiction is another publisher’s erotica, porn, inspirational fiction… Now throw in self-publishing to the mix.

      Even libraries don’t categorize “romance genre” books the same way even within their own collections. Actually the libraries I looked at were more likely to use subject categorization rather than genre categorization.

      As it stands now there is no way to track all of the “romance genre” books in my library’s online catalog.

      Still confused? Good, then I’m not the only one. LOL

      • Great points, as usual.

        I like that bit about Louis L’Amour westerns being romantic thrillers for men. They do seem to have a lot of the same elements.

        Nicholas Sparks is kind of the bane of my existence. Patrons love him, and as I wrote above we do classify his books as romance, because we’re doing so by subject rather than genre. But I don’t know what genre they fall into. They’re certainly not capital L literature, and I guess I’d say there was emotional justice in the one I read. Of course,it was so laden with treacle that I found it really hard going. And this coming from someone who adores fluff. In the end, I felt pandered to, and a little manipulated, and I haven’t really had that experience with genre romances.

        • One final thought on categorizing a book. See I was dreaming about what you and Hapax had said.

          man-woman relationship, love stories, etc. are library of congress subject codes which seem to have been developed with non-fiction in mind. then you have the dewey decimal. (absolutely no expertise here)

          Genres: or publisher provided codes via the BISAC system in the US and BISC system in the UK were developed by a committee to help booksellers know where to put a book on the shelf. The ONIX standard (another standards committee made up of publishers, booksellers, distributors, retailers, programmers, etc.) for the computer systems allowed a lot more data to be sent including genre,. bowker subject codes, library of congress subject codes, etc., etc., etc. It’s a huge a$$ thing but different than the MARC system. (again no expertise)

          The thing is that in the US as far as I can tell, the original bookseller catalogs with book listings were put together by Bowker and they were print volume and coded. I think in the UK it was Nielsen. I haven’t seen those books but being print volumes I suspect one line or a portion of a line says it all. Even smaller than those old library catalog cards.


          Oh, Shannon, if you have a chance read the February Harper’s Magazine article titled Bad Romance by the male NPR guest. I read it yesterday. I going to have to read it again.

          I found it kind of weird, disjointed and perhaps guilty of its own navel gazing. I have a feeling I probably should be insulted (What with the opening about the Amber alert and what not) but I’m still stuck on WTF. Admittedly there were some good tidbits thrown in now and again.

          • I do need to read that article… sometime when I can engage with the text without my snark meter on full blast. I’ve heard it’s… not very good, though he did seem to get it more on the podcast.

    • Oh no. Bogart on! That was a great comment!

      I didn’t think I was all that positive. I thought that, for what it was, it could have been worse. It does bother me that no other genre gets a raft of people saying dumb shit and presuming they know what romance readers are like. But the ladies on the podcast really were professional and much classier than I was being while Ilistened to it… thankfully alone. (The guy from Harper’s was interesting, but it bothered me that they had to have his perspective because I didn’t think it was necessary.)

      And yes. Deities everywhere save us from more navel gazing works of fiction about struggling middle-aged New York writers/professors/whatever. that is pretty much the opposite of what I think the romance genre needs. (Notleast because there *are* navel-gazing middle aged white men fawning over nubile office assistants or whatever… they’re just in M/M, and there’s usually a much-larger-than-necessary bucket of angst to go with them.)

      • I thought the guy made some really good points. Particularly that despite its reputation for not being taken seriously, the genre is taken very seriously by the people who read and write it. He did not come off as obnoxiously “literary” to me at all, but respectful and interested.

        • Oh, he did make great points. I think I just felt like he was put in there for, I don’t know, extra cache value? The host presented him by saying, “Hold on, ladies, we’re going to bring this guy in.” (Paraphrased, but that’s how I took it.) And that put me off because it did feel a bit like, “This can’t be a real conversation until we have the male perspective.”

  • Honestly, I’ve never been so nervous in my life – which probably came through loud and clear in the piece. This all came together very quickly. E-mail on Monday, talking to producer on the phone Tuesday, at the radio station at 8AM Wednesday. And we aired “live.” Which only added an extra layer of “OMGOMGOMG” to the whole affair. Well, that and not knowing what the hell he was going to ask me. I mean, NO preparation. Which is how I explain my MASSIVE brain fart for forgetting about “New Adult” when he asked me about trends. Like, duh.

    I was actually pleasantly surprised by Jesse Barron. I haven’t read the whole Harper’s piece, but the snippets I’ve seen didn’t impress me much (OK, at all). The interview was like night and day, and the bit Willaful already mentioned – I was so glad he said that. Because writers and readers of the genre DO take it seriously – bollocks on outsiders who don’t. That’s their problem, not ours.

    I have read a couple of books by Knight (back in the stone ages it feels like – earlier in her career) and did like the books I read. I remember I really liked Jane’s Warlord (sort of a Terminator plot – hero comes back from future to protect heroine from…..something. Can’t recall now.) and I know I read one of her Mageverse books (one of the really early ones). I remember thinking the concept was really neat. But then paranormal burn-out set in, and I haven’t really kept up with her career – other than seeing her at conferences every so often. And now of course I want to buy ALL OF HER BOOKS, only because she was great and I’m so, so, so glad she was on the show with me.

  • So I listened to the podcast. All of the guests were quite good. The host was nice but well lazy as there was so much material to talk about but he settled on the stereotypical cultural whispers as the primary avenue of his inquiry.

    I thought the Harper’s editor’s comments were better on the radio than in his article. I think I know what he was aiming for but I’m still stuck on what a trippy article. Need a few days before I re-read it to see if I can get beyond that.

    I hate questions like:

    Q: Why do women read romance?

    A: I don’t know, Tom, why does anyone read commercial fiction? If you know why people read commercial fiction then you already have an understanding of why people read romance genre labeled stories. I think the primary difference between what’s found in commercial fiction and romance genre books is that a courtship ritual sits right on top of the built-in reader expectations of those other genre labels.

    Q: Why does the romance genre appeal to women in particular?

    A: Well, a possibility, and it’s only one possibility since I can’t speak for 60 million plus readers, is that the female lead is either the protagonist or the character whose eyes the audience is supposed to relate to as it pertains to the central question of the story. So it’s a story where the female is guaranteed to have a central role in the story, assuming of course the story contains a heteronormative courtship.

    Q: Feminists claim, romance novels are bad for women… blah, blah, blah

    A: Romance genre novels, commercial fiction, tv shows, movies, video games are all part of popular culture. If you’d like to discuss how insidious popular culture has the power to instill cultural values and social mores into its audience without the audience giving the cultural messaging tends a lot of thought because they think of it as harmless escapism, then let’s go. If on the other hand, your question is really about telling women they don’t know their own minds, should be treated like children and protected from themselves then we have a problem and I’ll ask for examples from the romance novels you’ve read and that you tell me how they are different from the rest of pop culture and why women are especially susceptible to them.

    No, no… I’ll wait, you a$$hole. (Okay, I’d only think the last part and hope to dawg that I could streamline the above into a more concise sound bit.)

    Q: Men aren’t portrayed as realistic… blah, blah, blah

    A. Tom, it’s called fiction for a reason. Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, Tyrion Lannister, Harry Potter, Stephen of Gilead, Bilbo Baggins, Sherlock Holmes. When you boil it down, these men aren’t realistic either but that doesn’t in any way minimize their worth to the story or culture. So why is the romance genre’s portrayal of men so disconcerting?

    I’m not even angry about the interview. Overall, I found it to be positive but in many ways that makes it so much more insidious then a direct attack.

    What kills me is that the romance genre label is used for what 5,000 – 6,000 releases per year these days. None of us can know what that means in terms of patterns found in them character-, plot-, cultural-whisper -wise. Now throw in the rest of the love story subject codes. The stories genre labeled as Young Adult, New Adult, Mystery, Chick Lit, Women’s Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Horror, Western, Thriller, etc. which contain full-fledged courtship rituals or romantic subplots and it’s not just the dominant genre, it’s the dominant theme underlying US commercial fiction.

    Has anyone ever stopped to think about how integral western style love is to promotion of the individual as the top of the culture chain over community, environment, etc.? And yet, it’s also denigrated. Interesting push – pull there because you also have to look at the gender crap and power messages.

    In the end I find romance to extremely powerful and utterly fascinating.

    Now I’ve left at least a dollar and some change. Thanks for the space to rant, Shannon.

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