I complained on Facebook today…And created a firestorm. That’s what I get for bitching about things on the Internet. You’d think at my age I’d have learned…but no.
Anyway, there was a ton of discussion that came out of it, relatively polite discourse for the most part, and people actually seemed to enjoy the topic, so here’s an analysis of sorts–some things that we can all agree on, some things to ponder for the future, and some things that I hope all of us will take a moment to consider.
I’ll start by saying that in case you somehow missed it (which would be pretty hard to have done if you know me at all): I’m pro-Indie. That doesn’t mean I think it’s the right thing for everyone all the time, or that I hate traditional publishing–I’ve flirted with the dude myself–but I do think that Indie has given publishing a well-needed kick in the ass, and I think that by-and-large the results are positive. But like most things in life, Indie publishing is a double-edged sword. In particular, while it has given creative license a place to explore, that creative license has resulted in a slew of books that have no logical home in the virtual shelving system of Amazon and other retailers. Let me very clear here: I am NOT saying these books are less worthy. There are a TON of great books out there that don’t fit the categories, and a ton of people who love reading them. BUT, it’s a problem. Because you end up with books shelved in places where they might not fit the norms that have been in place for those shelves (aka “genres”) for eons (yeah that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but for a long time in any case).
From the discussion on my Facebook page today, I think the vast majority of readers and writers agree that the retailers are failing in this regard. We’ve developed new genres and sub-genres and they aren’t responding fast enough. Let’s be clear: there will always be books that don’t fit and get shelved in awkward ways, just as there will always be writers who intentionally mis-shelve their books. You can’t develop a new genre/shelf for every quirky book that comes along, and you can’t control what opportunistic writers choose, but when you have a movement like “Dark Romance” that has lasted for several years and often defies the conventions of the genre where it’s categorized, it’s time to do something about it. Get it it’s own damn shelf. Give these writers and readers a true home on the virtual shelves.
Something that some newer Indie writers may not be aware of, is that the shelving systems–both virtual and bricks and mortar–that our books distribute through were created for a reason, and that was for readers to be able to find the types of books that they are looking for and know in the broadest sense what those books would be like in terms of story structure (mysteries have a mystery to solve, suspense will have people in danger, romance will have…a happy ending). If you think you don’t give a damn about the shelving system, or the genres and their conventions, or the categories on Amazon, you’re doing your business a disservice. Because while it might work for you to gain all of your readers via social media relationships today, there is no guarantee that it will work tomorrow.
Being on a shelf in a store (virtual or bricks and mortar) enables readers to find you–even if they don’t know you on social media. And if they do find you on that shelf, you stand a good chance that they will have some basic expectations that your book fits the conventions of the shelf it’s on. If you want to have a successful business long-term, you should care about the shelf, the conventions of that shelf, and how your book fits there. You should care about making your book visible to as many readers as possible, and view the genre-shelving system as one of many tools in that effort. If you’re writing solely because you want to put your stories into the world and whatever happens, happens, then disregard all of that and have at it. You’re not wrong, you’re just operating with a different set of goals than many of us.
Fiction, like most things in life is an evolving and changing beast, and “rules” will alter as time goes by. However, as with any big changes in culture, we don’t need to toss the baby out with the bathwater. The conventions of many genres, including romance, have been around for a very long time, and there is a history to how and why they developed. Generations of women have read romance novels for the “fairytale” aspect, the happily ever after, because goddammit, in real life even the happy endings are often really fucking difficult and short-lived. Spouses die, people fall out of love, children wreck your once active sex life, substance addictions steal the person we fell for, mental illness turns them into someone we no longer know, cancer carves up their bodies until we barely recognize them. And, for many women, particularly in past generations, marriage and children and all that came after resulted in crushed dreams, loss of freedom, and years of dissatisfaction. The happily ever after in romance novels literally helped generations of women survive oppression, stagnation, isolation, and lack of sexual agency. The happily ever after ending isn’t simply some dumb “rule” that places like Harlequin or the RWA dreamed up, this is what helped many women keep from going utterly fucking insane in a world that didn’t give a shit about them.
And today, the happily ever after ending provides escape for young mothers isolated at home with small children, it provides fantasies for single women who work fifty hours and week and come home to their cats and dogs, but still sometimes think they might like to come home to a lover. It provides joy for patients in hospital beds enduring post-surgical complications or chemotherapy treatments, and it gives hope to women who have endured domestic violence and emotional abuse and wonder if there really is something different ahead for them. The happily ever after convention in romance novels isn’t there to stifle indie writers, or impose some sort of draconian institutional norms. The happily ever after is there to change the days and the futures of readers who crave a little joy in a sometimes less than joyful existence.
So, when those of us who might be considered “old school” in the age of Indie, express frustration that books shelved in Romance don’t have a happily ever after ending, it’s not simply that we prefer our books with the “predictable” happy endings, or that we cow-tow so much to RWA and the traditional definitions of romance, it’s not that we are opposed to new books that are romantic and have romances but no happy endings. It’s that we have a gut sense of the significance of the happily ever after in the history of our genre, and indeed, in the history of women. Slave women told romances where the heroes and heroines escaped the bonds of slavery to be together and free. During reconstruction African-American women imagined Victorian marriage plots where they not only got a happily ever after with the men they loved, but happy endings in a new nation that gave them equality. In Regency Era England, Jane Austen wrote happy endings that gave women who had traditionally been expected to marry for wealth and prestige the added benefit of a man who loved them and whom they loved in return.
The happily ever after isn’t the be-all and end-all of romantic fiction, but it is immensely significant for the genre of Romance Novels. And it continues to be so for whole new groups even today. M/m and F/f romances now offer LGBTQ readers the opportunity for a happily ever after when even a few years ago that seemed very difficult indeed in the real world. The idea that LGBTQ couples could have a traditional happily ever after is something that is still settling into the culture at large, but in M/m and F/f romance novels we can write that happy ending, yet again giving a historically oppressed group the hope and escape that they might not get in real life.
I love that Indie writing has brought us so many new types of stories, and it’s obvious that readers love it as well. My hope is that we can continue to innovate and evolve our romantic fiction, and that somehow the retailers can find better ways of keeping up to give us more options for how to categorize and shelve our work. But I also hope that somewhere in there we can retain a core shelf, one that respects the history and significance of what the genre of Romance has been to so many readers for hundreds of years. My hope is that when I download a book that is classified as “Romance,” I can be confident that it will have a happy ending, not because RWA says it should, or publishers think it must, but because it serves a purpose, and has a role, and matters just as much as the offshoots it has nurtured.
**For a really fascinating look at the study of Romance Fiction, take a look at this site: http://www.lovebetweenthecovers.com/resource-guide-intro/