Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Personal thoughts on literacy

I've seen this in books already but as I was pouring over my notes for new thoughts and ideas from editors I was struck by a trend that was a bit disturbing. With the exception of a few publishers (and I will say I am not mentioning any throughout this post) many seem to be stressing the idea of quick and easy reads. There just seems to be little push to strengthen the readablity of the books.

As a prior teacher in the US Education system, and someone who holds a Masters in Literacy, I am disappointed. I am even more so disappointed when I see it in the romance genre.

Let me explain.

For years I have heard those involved in this genre complaining about the lack of resepect they get. They complain that writing romance is not any different than writing in other genres. They want respect. The romance genre doesn't want to be viewed as a group of people that produce that well known and often disliked style of writing "the bodice ripper."

Yet, with all of this, what do the writers continually produce? Writing that lacks literary merit and strong literacy building qualities! Just because it is a romance does not mean that it needs to be "dumbed down" for the readers. But it has!

Let me list some of the comments I have heard from editors, agents and writers about the writing they want or do:

Writing that is fast and quick. Keep those sentences and paragraphs short.
No semi-colons because they are a sign of literary fiction.
Dump the historical information. Focus only on the relationships.
Readers skip the narratives because it slows down their reading and is boring.


(O.K. Stand back I'm going to rant now!)

Good writing is good writing. We don't have to produce bad stories just because it is in this genre. We can improve literacy across the nation through romance and women's fiction while at the same time discussing issues that are important to this population.

As we see the nation struggle with literacy rates, and more and more youth moving to texting and emailing instead of reading, we have to do something and we can start with this genre.

I am not calling for a global change, but I am saying we can certainly push for some great writing that isn't just fluff. Let's work on making the romance genre something that makes the world stand up and take notice!


  1. Disappointed WriterJuly 16, 2008 at 9:29 AM

    Rant on! I am relieved to hear you're so upset over this because it's been on my mind for the past few months as well.

    I attended an online class that was taught by a group of romance authors, and was incredibly disappointed to have one of them say not to worry too much about the accuracy of my subject and to focus more on filling it lots of hot sex and sexual tension (this wasn't an erotica class, by the way, it was about researching history and myth in romance writing). I was dumbfounded. I even checked the title of the class again to see if I had accidentally wandered into the wrong link.

    To me, that's just not acceptable. I feel like her attitude--as well as the agreement from the other authors teaching this--provides a disservice to the romance genre. And I find it ironic that the class was geared to show us how to include history/myth in our books. You can bet I won't be buying anything by any of those authors again. Ever.

    Thanks for the great subject, Scott.

  2. Dear Scott,
    You've stepped on the third rail this time. I don't expect the situation to change. The rigid formula that the genre insists upon (read some of the "how to" romance writing guides) neatly ensures that the same three plots will be used over and over again. The demand that the writing be anchored primarily in the relationship between the two leads means that akmost no one can come up with anything new to say about a very brief human activity that allows little room for anatomical variation and has already been written about in every known language for millions of years. Therefore writers fall back on the most awful dreck. "Her head filled with spinning colors as she gazed upon his sword of manhood." Excuse me while I retch or giggle. Not sure which yet.
    There are two ther major problems loooming ever larger-the Ayla phenomenon-in which the female lead invents everything from the airplane to antibiotics in the first chapter, and the new demand for "ontemporary" historicals, in which one is assaulted with the weirdness of historical figues evincing contemporary thoughts and engaging in post-Masters and Johnson sex. PLESASE. Is this history or fantasy? Who can tell? It's paperdolls! Only the outfits change.
    I could go on and on. Nothing will improve here, but THANK You for speaking aloud the reasons many adults do not read in this genre. I'm not twelve anymore.
    I make an exception for Shana Abe, a wonderful writer who actually writes for adults. Would there were more.

  3. I'm glad I'm not alone on this one. I do have to say a couple of things though.

    My biggest issue was the lack of depth of story. I am not saying to deviate from the stylistic element of romance. This is what makes this genre. Romance is no different than any other style of writing we have studied in the past (Age of Reason, Romanticism, Naturalism and so forth). There is an element that makes it so. It is the language that makes romance what it is.

    With that said, I do not think it limits a writer from finding that "fresh new voice".

    My argument focused on simply the declining readability level we are seeing in the story.

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  5. sorry, the trouble with comments is you have to delete and rewrite if you want to edit.

    I agree and disagree. I agree that the sentences are getting shorter and choppier, and sometimes, people are not as focused on accuracy as they should be. But, a book that reads like a history lesson or a tech-manual is not a romance, because a romance is focused on the emotional bond between the leads. No, it doesn't need to be dumbed down, setting or merit wise, but that's a craft issue.

    A good writer can make a tome with good characterization and world-building flow fast. And I don't think I've seen sword of manhood since the seventies/eighties when Valeries ruled the earth.

    It's unfortunate that hot sex and sexual tension are the current styles in historicals, but they are the current styles, until a new trend setter breaks from the pack, with product people are willing to buy. This is a market driven business after all.

    ...romances in one form or another have been around for a very long time. Austen, Browning, Sir Walter Scott, Rafael Sabitini and yeah, even Clive Cussler and Robert Ludlum. The tale of Sinuhue from Dynastic Eygpt. Persephone from the classics. People read romances, even if they feel better about calling it action/adventure, literature or women's fiction.

    But yes, I see what you mean. It's like summer movies. The readability is finding a lower plateau, because of shorter attention spans. Romance evolves like any genre. O'connell is nothing like Raymond Chandler, like David Feintuch is nothing like Arthur Clarke. Within the boundaries--and all genres have boundaries--there is still room for innovation and voice. Sometimes, you get independent film-makers with incredible depth, and I don't think--despite what's "in" an agent or editor will turn down an incredible read.

    ...but, for a good example, I'd point to Lois Bujold--her Vorkosigan series is a marvel of world-building, she never dumbs down anything, she uses quotes and paraphrases from every military philosopher known to mankind, and she's written about everything from child abuse to genetic tinkering, but what comes across loud and clear is "damn, that was a good read".

    The field isn't dumbing down. The trouble is writers who don't have the weight of experience to see how they can fit within the guidelines while still producing quality work, and yes, I agree, that's best addressed at the craft level.