The romance genre is pretty well known for unmitigated dreck, I think. We've all seen the paperbacks by the checkout - you know, bosoms and fluffy shirts and handsome princes with long, flowing hair. I've tried reading some traditional romance novels, and most of the time I couldn't get through them without giggling, or couldn't get through them at all. I'm not trying to make light of any writer's work, of course - after four years of training in "literary fiction," and after realizing that in general, that's not what people wanted to read, I've come to the conclusion that every writer, as long as they are having fun writing, deserves the space and respect to practice their craft.
I admit, I have, in the past, said some pretty negative things about popular fiction. As much as I am grateful for the education I received from Hopkins, I also graduated with a healthy dose of snootiness, which I very much regret. I was unpleasant about a lot of books, and it took me a while to unclench my snobbery to realize the value of, a) reading for fun, and, b) writing for pleasure.
This is not to say that I had never read anything other than literary fiction. Far from it.
My teenage years were filled with fantasy novels, primarily, and (I'll come totally clean here) quite a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction.
Like, a lot. A lot.
I read and adored Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, which were filled with adventure and romance, the alternate-history heroine trekking the globe and saving the world. I pored over them multiple times - still do, in fact, because I read all nine books set in that universe at least once a year - and I wanted to be a part of that world of language and rescues and pretty solid chunks of naughty stuff.
What can I say? I was fifteen.
I regularly read what one might call, "transformative works," a fancy name for fanfiction, until four in the morning. Hermione Granger in Rome, Cairo, Paris; Severus Snape and his pet snake, Esmé; Draco Malfoy, polyjuiced into a rat with a penchant for dancing to the Beatles.
And not for one minute, when I was that age, did I stop myself and turn up my nose and think, ugh, what dreck.
That reaction I learned later.
As I said, I've been trying to break that habit. Slowly but surely I've turned back to genre fiction and honestly, I've been enjoying the heck out of it. Some series I return to again and again, some I drop (oh, Anita Blake, what happened to you?), some I start up because my husband gets into them.
I'm lucky to have a stepmom who loves genre fiction and has always wanted to share it with me. She bought me my first copy of The Golden Compass (long gone, now, which is what happens when you read in the bath) and let me borrow The Mists of Avalon (which I also should not have read in the bath).
I'm lucky to have a husband who has always read different kinds of books - some science fiction, some thriller, some espionage, some mystery - and who possesses not one bit of pretension. Without him, I never would have read the Camel Club series, or the Dresden novels.
But I never thought I could write genre. Part of that was the attitudes of the JHU writing program, and part of it was my own insecurity - I think that because I loved genre novels, really loved them, I was convinced that I would never be able to live up to Carey, Hamilton, Pullman, Bradley, Baldacci, Butcher.
So, you know, I fooled around with James Joyce's language. I tried to call upon Chekhov's understated pain and humor. And it just -
It wasn't fun.
I think I probably wrote sixty pages and more at Hopkins - but all different pieces, all shorts. I'd try to start a novel occasionally and ended up staring at my computer screen, stumped. I loved writing, but it wasn't something I could power through or a level of energy I could maintain; I think I wrote well, but I didn't write for myself. I couldn't get out of my own head - almost everything I wrote was semi-biographical, and if I thought I was being subtle I was, I'm sure, very naive and completely transparent.
That brings me to today. Because for the first time, I'm not writing about myself, and I'm not writing because I have to.
I'm writing for fun.
Writing is awesome.
So what I'm writing now - it could definitely be called "dreck." But I'm enjoying the hell out of it, and I'm starting to form a new relationship with my writing which is revealing what I want to write, want to share.
The books and fic I loved as a kid - they're about relationships. Yes, there's action and plot and drama in all of them, but even the Camel Club series is about friendship and the inter-connected emotional lives of fully fleshed out characters. A lot of the relationships I enjoyed reading about were - what's the word - unconventional? Whether through magic or sexuality, the people in my favorite books had complicated lives and complicated loves.
If you think 50 Shades is weird, you should look at some of the stuff on my bookshelf.
And, even, if all goes well, read my novel.
So yeah, I'm writing some pretty out there stuff, and if I were back at school and tried to turn it in, it would not go over well, to say the least. Part of me is a bit embarrassed about it - this is so not how I thought I would reach 16,000 words and counting - but another part is pretty happy because spending four hours a day or more on romance is a lot better than staring at a blank computer screen, trying to sound like Dostoyevsky. (Though my stuff has always leaned towards the Henry Miller side of things.)
Tomorrow, I will have been writing every day for an entire week. I'm hoping to hit 20,000 words before I head out for a night on the town with my best friend, raise a toast to myself for sticking with it.
And I'm hoping to just keep having fun.
And maybe, this time next year, I can turn this weird, out there, magical, genre, romance novel into a book by the checkout.