Thursday, February 19, 2015

Legitimate Fiction vs. "Genre" Fiction.

I write genre fiction. Sometimes. Mostly I write stories, they just happen to tackle certain themes that shove my books into one category or another. In my opinion, a great story defies genre. If a writer is passionate about the story, and the characters are fully developed, complex and unforgettable, I really don't really care on which shelf I find it. I'll read anything, and if I truly connect with it, I'll love it no matter who wrote it. Genre usually is, as it should be, an afterthought.

These are the stories I aspire to write. And I write whatever tickles my fancy, really, so I genre-hop when I get a wild hair. Some have said this is detrimental to my career. I'm muddying my brand by including those stories which might alienate my fan base. Granted... some of my titles sell way better than the others, but I guess I've always trusted my readers to come along on the ride, knowing they can trust me enough to give them a great story, no matter how it's packaged. Labeling a story has way more to do with marketing than with writing, certain genre expectations aside. When writing, I just want to tell a human story, using whatever plot helps me do that best. Sometimes it fits one specific genre, sometimes it doesn't.

Because I write primarily about love, sex and relationships, I have made my strongest mark in the romance genre. Part of it is because I write about love, sex and relationships, but quite a bit of it has to do with my name. I made the choice to write under my feminine name, rather than strip it of its gender identity. I'm a woman and you know it right away, which somehow makes my writing about love, sex and relationships inherently genre-specific.

Many female writers over the years opted to use initials to publish, particularly in male-dominated genres, so that they could entice those readers who might overlook their book knowing it was written by a woman. Losing that reader never mattered much to me. If you're that sexist and narrow-minded, my books will be lost on you anyway. I write as a woman, focusing on female characters and their issues because, well, that's what speaks to me and my life experience. But there's usually a substantial story tackling broad sociological themes in between all the love, sex and relationships. I'm not just writing about women. I'm writing about the ever-changing world in which we live. And get this: I write male characters all the time. Shocker, right? There's something in my books for you, even if you're an outie and not an innie. I write about both sexes, their challenges and their triumphs. Surprising, I know, given my obvious limitations as a woman. But I figured, you know, I actually know a few men. I married a couple. I've raised a couple. So it's not like the lives of men are lost upon me. A good novelist is a keen observer, able to filter what we see in the world onto the page. Believe it or not, I can do that despite all my lady parts.

It's kinda funny that I'm expected to READ both sexes, but only write to one gender just because of that, when men aren't usually subject to the same.

The romance genre is the one place where my being a woman isn't a liability, so I have made myself quite comfortable there. And I resist, soundly, the implication that I'm lesser than because of this. A man can write about two folks falling in love, or the inherent difficulty and challenges of relationships, and it still qualifies as mainstream fiction or literature. A woman writes about the same and it's usually subjugated to genre fiction/romance, "women's fiction" or (God forbid) "Chick Lit" - since we ALL know that what a woman wants to read and what a man wants is so completely different that we need our own fucking category. Separate and in no way considered equal (especially by male writers, publishers and readers, apparently.)

Even how the books are packaged often reduces powerful stories of the human condition to formulaic, fluffy brain candy to an outsider. "We're going to talk about death, rape, oppression and triumph... I know! Let's make the cover pink, put pretty flowers on it and use glitter! Why? Because that's how (publishers think) it sells.

In many ways, women's fiction is "dumbed down" by those who make quite a bit of money from it, which keeps us at the kids' table of literary conversation.

This issue once again reared its ugly head last week when a male author, Jonathan Franzen, directed his ire once again to a female (i.e. "genre") author, Jennifer Weiner, disparaging her criticism of the New York Times. Ms. Weiner challenged their unfair review process where they included male-dominated genre fiction (like science fiction,) while forsaking all those "fluffy" books noted above. Of course Franzen discredited Weiner instantly, even though he admitted he never had read her work. He believes, like many publishers believe, that "formulaic" fiction has no place among "serious" literary works. (This is despite the fact that many beloved, revered classics are romances, and that the romance genre itself rakes in more than a billion dollars annually, which is more than any other genre fiction, including male-dominated crime/mystery, science fiction/fantasy and horror.)

One cannot talk about the success of romance without mentioning Fifty Shades of Grey, which took an obscure writer of fanfic and made her one of the richest authors on the planet. This success parlayed to (male-dominated) film, where a female filmmakers took content written for women and packaged it into a movie that shattered records for its opening weekend. Of course, they call it an "erotic drama" now. Apparently success is its own form of legitimacy.

So women, typically, write the most popular genre of fiction and women, typically, spend the most on genre fiction BUT somehow we're still being disparaged by the likes of Franzen and his ilk as the naughty little children of the book world, who can be seen but should never be heard.

You want a review in the Times? What is wrong with you? Know your place, for God's sake.

(I should also point out that while Franzen acknowledged sexism in publishing, he offered no alternative to Weiner as a female author TO read in her stead - he just sneered down his pompous nose at the poster-girl for "Chick Lit" as a lesser writer based on his assumptions of her content alone, thus demonstrating why this sexism exists in the first place.)

Despite its success and popularity, women's fiction carries a stigma, romance in particular. On the face of it, the genre itself is woefully limited. Check out the definition:

The romance novel or romantic novel is a literary genre. Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."

If you say "romance novel," many immediately think of those little 50K-word stories that feature beautiful men and women on the covers in various, heated embraces, tiny nuggets of brain candy that can be consumed in a few hours, set aside for the next book one could consume like potato chips. They often include flowery prose that is routinely mocked by the masses, exhausting every known euphemism in the book for the human anatomy or the act of procreation. Despite this, they sell like hotcakes, enough for publishers to churn out dozens and dozens of titles a year. By the time I was eleven, I was inhaling these by the stack. My aunt had a subscription where she got four books a month, so I gobbled 'em up to fill all those lonely hours following my father's death. Of all the books I read, I only remember the plot details of a few. Franzen was right about that, at least. Most are formulaic. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl can't get together. They fight the odds and end on a HEA. Yay, romance. Fairy tales for grownups.

But if you think that's all that the romance genre entails, you're mistaken. Romance is more than a cute-meet and a happily ever after. Romance is simply a connection between two people, one that comes with the highest highs and the lowest lows, with all the creative possibilities that entails. Every story is another choice, how much to give, how much to ask, how much to change, to grow and evolve. Our relationships ultimately reveal us, which is why human connection is often at the heart of a great book. Despite how they're derided, romances can tap into this in painfully honest ways. They discard all the trappings to get to the heart of the matter. That's why they are so loved. Readers understand something that the critics miss. These stories often have no limits at all, except with the marketing. Most books written by women that feature any prominent relationship in the prose are delegated to the romance shelves, even if the story doesn't revolve around one particular relationship or have an "emotionally satisfying ending" (i.e., a Happily Ever After.) The genre is now cram-packed with stories big and small about nothing more than the human condition, and our endless journey to carve out our own destiny despite our circumstances.

By the time I hit my teens, I broadened my tastes to more than just a white-cover "romance." I discovered authors like Danielle Steel and VC Andrews. Both are routinely shoved into genre fiction (romance for Ms. Steel and horror - oddly enough - for Ms. Andrews, which is likely why she goes by her initials only.) Despite those obvious liabilities, these were stories that were richly detailed and exploded beyond the whole "will-they-won't-they" paradigm of traditional genre fiction. They talked about life. They talked about facing unfathomable losses and beating hopeless odds. They were stories about people... interesting, flawed, unforgettable people. When Steel was at her best, she wrote these amazing, sweeping sagas that took the reader all over the world and throughout history to tell her story. Whether it was the Titanic, Nazi-occupied Germany, the dawn of the Russian revolution or the segregated American south, you felt as though you were a part of these events, seeing them through the eyes of those who had lived them. She broke people apart and put them back together again, often in familiar settings that blended the past and the present. It brought stale history to life.

Of her books, I have three absolute favorites, and only one of those could be considered a true "romance" according to definition listed above. PALOMINO told the story of one couple, and whether or not they would finally get together drove the plot. The reason it is a favorite is because of the strength of the heroine, who suffers great injury and forces her to rise to the challenge of her own life, rather than depend on any one man for her HEA.

In other words, it was more than a love story. It was a human story.

In FULL CIRCLE, we get to know an amazing heroine whose entire upbringing is set against the turbulent 20th Century, tackling issues like racism and the Vietnam war. She was forged in fire and became a dynamo in the decades this story encompassed, falling in and out of love with several important men in her life. The most enduring relationship in that book is between the heroine and her best friend, as they were tested by the times in which they lived and the tragedies they suffered. This defies the limited genre rules, which is probably why I loved it so much.

FAMILY ALBUM told the story of - surprise, surprise - a family. It was about the heroine's life, not just about her relationship with her husband. It was about being knocked down and dragging yourself back up again, it was about family and parenthood and mistakes and regret. In ZOYA, Steel inserted her characters right into the Russian Revolution, giving us eighty years worth of one woman's struggle to conquer the endless challenges life threw at her in the most turbulent times possible (like several wars and the Great Depression.) John Jakes wrote a similar saga with his NORTH & SOUTH trilogy set against the backdrop of the Civil War, with romance and sex aplenty, yet only Steel's work gets stamped with the "genre" stigma. Mr. Jakes, while writing one hell of an angsty love story, can hold his head high with his "historical fiction" label.

In most of the romance books I truly love, that made the biggest impact on me as a reader and a writer, none of the stories could be condensed down to the simple, formulaic plot perfected and expected in traditional romance. Love and romance were always part of a much bigger story of the human condition - just like "legitimate" fiction. Sure I yearned for Orry and Madeline to get together, but I was also able to sink my teeth into the bigger story of war, conflict and family drama. It was more than a plot, it was a fully realized story of humanity and all that entails.

Every story, both literary and commercial, introduces characters that have particular goals, and the conflict to get what they want. That is the cornerstone of every single plot in existence, want vs. opposition. Boil it all the way down, and that's what it is. It should come as no surprise that love stories thrive on this. "Will-they-won't-they" keeps you flipping the pages because you have to know if that character will ultimately get what he or she wants. For many of us, this journey in particular hits home because most of us, probably even all of us, have wanted someone we couldn't have, so we can immediately empathize with those characters who have that conflict. That shared experience is fertile soil for storytellers, and it keeps the canvas wide open to tell all sorts of stories that can change the way people think. And just like every other story can have romance, a romance story should be free to include every type of story, and given the respect for such.

For readers of romance, this is a given. Only critics recognize any limitations. And they are usually the ones putting them there, by looking down on it as inferior fiction by virtue of the focus of the love story (and likely the female protagonist/female writer telling the story.)

Unlike Franzen, I have actually read Jennifer Weiner's books, and I was excited to do it. Back about ten years ago, there weren't a lot of women who looked like me in romance novels. We were spoon-fed some bullshit idea that since all romance fiction is fantasy, all heroines needed to be thin and beautiful - like all of us women are conditioned is the ideal. These heroines usually didn't know they were thin and beautiful, needing, of course, the valiant hero to sweep onto the scene and convince them, since this is apparently a common fantasy. We, as women, are expected to be humble about our physical gifts. Truly amazing women don't really know how amazing they are, only love can open their eyes - or so most stories would have you believe. Being loved is one of life's greatest achievements for women - it will give us the value that, without it, we simply wouldn't have. I wanted to see how that worked with someone who faced my particular challenges in our modern society, so I picked up GOOD IN BED, which was more of a journey of self-discovery than a true "formulaic" romance. Likewise IN HER SHOES was about the relationship between two sisters, and how they related to each other - and to life - after their mother's tragic death when they were kids. It had the element of romance, but the focus was much, much bigger than simply "genre" fiction.

And I like that. Give me more than I was expecting and I'll love you forever. Those are the books I want to read... and those are the books I want to write.

To be blunt, genre fiction - as it is defined - would bore the ever-loving crap out of me if I always had to paint within the lines. It's like eating the same meal night after night. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl can't be together. Blah blah blah HEA...YAWN. Eventually even the most diehard romance fan wants something more. I know I need something more. And I don't mind kicking at the walls to make that happen. I routinely resist steadfast "rules" and expectations of genre just to tell the story I want to tell. Romance may be fantasy, but my fantasies are dark and complicated and twisted as hell. I want that kernel of realism in the story, just enough to crack the glass and cut the reader right in the feels.

I'm the kind of gal who needs just enough realism to draw a little blood.

Romance figures prominently in these stories, no doubt about it. It carries weight. It means something. But it doesn't always mean everything. Who we are affects how we connect with others, and that's the story worth telling. How that character changes from start to finish, whether he or she gets their goal or not, that's the story. The sexism exists not because Jennifer Weiner says it does, or even that Jonathan Frazen acknowledges it does. It exists because in our culture, the way women are viewed has everything to do with finding and keeping a love interest, as if she is somehow incomplete without that relationship to define her, even if she's a character in a book. Despite our attributes and successes, our ability to attract a mate is considered of paramount importance to us by all who run the media. A man can talk about love, but still have room on his plate for a career, relationships and personal goals - his story can be bigger than how, or whom, he chooses to love. A woman can talk about love, and that is somehow shaded as the driving force of the narrative. (See ZOYA vs NORTH & SOUTH above.)

It's simplistic and unfair, but so far we haven't been able to get away from talking about women and love in the same breath when it comes to telling their stories. We're conditioned for this from the time we introduced Barbie to Ken, or binge-watched our favorite Disney princesses catch and chase their happily ever afters. Except for two, this meant catching a man.

(Bonus points if you can name the two.)

Sexual identity is an integral part of the human condition, which is why it is broached in some form or fashion in literary fiction by male and female authors alike. That it somehow reduces me to write about it in depth simply because I'm a woman only makes me want to write about it even more. This isn't just genre fiction anymore. This is a social statement. With every single title, where my heroines carve out who who they are and what they want by how they define their own worth as women, I chip away at the limits and the boundaries wherever and whenever I can. I could tell a dozen more stories (and likely will) that would blur the lines of genre fiction. My goal in life is to hand you a book that you will have to stop and think about where you'll put it, even if, like in Franzen's case, that's in the trash.

You don't have to like what I write. You don't even have to respect it. But put me in a box and watch how fast I decimate that fucker on the way back out again.

It boils down to this: I write genre fiction. Sometimes. But I write human stories every time. And they matter, even if they're written by, told through and read by women.

If you know women, beautiful, flawed, amazing, complicated and miraculous women, then you should know why I wouldn't have it any other way.

Or you could be Jonathan Franzen. Up to you.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Dangerous Curves Ahead

Sports Illustrated made headlines today when it was announced they would feature their first plus-sized model in a bikini photo shoot. They selected the luscious Ashley Graham, pictured below:

I was already familiar with Ashley. When I was researching size-16 girls for my GROUPIE novel to have a physical representation of the Every Woman, I found several gorgeous models who didn't fit in the size 0-4 media sweet spot. The average size American woman is size 12-14, though the models we are shown (in addition to being ridiculously photoshopped,) are much smaller than the average American woman, weighing 23% less.

As someone who has been considerably larger than "average," it really started to stick in my craw that most of the heavier chicks I read about in fiction were depicted as the funny comic relief, the sad sack wallflower, or worse - the eager virgin who has never been kissed. Since this was never my experience, I wanted to write stories that starred women who looked a little more like me and a little less like whoever is starring in the latest movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book. Some might consider this a niche market because thin women don't want to read about fat girls finding love. Not sure why, considering I've read hundreds of books about thin women finding love and it was perfectly fine.

It was particularly empowering though when I started reading books by those authors who dared to color outside the lines, casting atypical heroines in romance novels. It inspired me to cast all kinds of women in my books, with a focus on the plus-size perspective since, y'know, write what you know.

One of the reviews of GROUPIE came from an admitted plus-size woman who voiced her skepticism that a size-16 woman could have both a hot rock star and billionaire media mogul fighting over her. It made me sad. Sadder still when I realized that "Can a good man love a size-16 woman" was a major search criteria to bring people to my blog. My goal, from my very first "Rubenesque" romance, was to make every girl/woman who read my book believe that she was worthy of her very own Happily Ever After without changing one damn thing.

See, that's not a message that we hear day after day. Our media bombards us with this idea that we have to change who we are to gain love and acceptance. Gray hair? Dye it. Wrinkles? Botox it. Full hips? Spanx 'em. Tiny boobs? Here's a pushup bra. Blemishes? Here's some makeup. They will find anything, from rough feet to wimpy eyelashes, to sell you a a product/magazine or service. For women, maintaining their sexual desirability is part of their job. And we've just all kind of accepted it as the way things are, even when it fucks with our daughters enough to start dieting at age 8.

Yesterday I was going through some old photos with my son, and he saw this picture of me.

He didn't see a fat girl there, but I sure did. I was doing everything I could to change myself from the age of 14 on, often with disastrous, though typical, results. I virtually dieted myself into obesity simply because I could never accept that girl in that photo as being perfectly fine the way she was.

Tragic, that.

Some will couch this shaming bullshit under the heading of "health," pointing to the War on Obesity as reason enough to shame family and friends by reminding them they're too fat. For the most part, however, the level of disgust, disrespect and downright vitriol towards plus-size women is based on one universal message: You're-Just-Not-Fuckable-Enough.

In 2014, Meghan Trainor (size 12) released her song, "All About That Bass," which was essentially an anthem for any girl who felt lesser than because of her size.

You know I won't be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll/
So if that's what you're into then go ahead and move along

Y'know, no hard feelings. You're not into me so I would never be into you. It's not the end of the world. There are more fish in the sea - for both of us.

But if you want to see how people respond to a woman owning her curves and giving other women permission to think they're perfect "from the bottom to the top," then look at the comments for the video:

Some folks don't take kindly to the fact you're not doing everything you can to attract them to you, regardless if you know them, know anything about them, would be interested anyway.

So I fully anticipate that the Haterz will be out in full effect to rail on how showing a woman who isn't 23% underweight somehow promotes an unhealthy lifestyle, when no one gives a good goddamn what the health is of a woman who falls in the "normal" size range. It's all part of an overall system that works to keep us women divided and tearing each other down.

I realized this earlier when reading the comments on my Facebook Author page for the Sports Illustrated article. Everyone was so stunned that this beautiful curvy goddess was being treated as a plus-size. And why shouldn't they be surprised? At a size 16, that's an inch or two away from the average, which really doesn't make her "plus" at all.

That is, of course, unless you're listening to the fashion industry, who starts their plus-size models at size 6. To put this in perspective for you, here are some familiar faces that would quality as "plus-size" by this standard:

Christina Hendricks, who wears anywhere from a 10-14, putting her squarely in the "average" range, is continually praised for her courage to "flaunt" (i.e., not conceal) her ample curves.

In fact, the only thing more controversial than Sports Illustrated introducing a plus-size bikini model is deciding what plus-size actually means. From what I can tell judging it, like in life, rests in the eye of the beholder.

But it got me thinking, what is plus-size anyway? I mean, there's no minus-size, is there? We can be too big, we can be too small, but we're only isolated as a separate group when we're overweight. What is the purpose of separating "plus-size" from "average/normal," other than to divide and - in a subtle way - degrade the woman who just wants to buy a new shirt. They used to call us "queen-sized." Now we're just plus-size, and we're supposed to jump with joy that the closer you are to the more normal sizes you are, the better chance you have being featured as a progressive "plus-size" model for the industry.

Anything else encourages an unhealthy lifestyle, and that's just irresponsible. We have to homogenize the media with a certain standard of beauty to discourage those who might be tempted to gorge themselves and become a statistic.

As we all know, that approach has been working flawlessly so far.

OR... we could celebrate women in all their shapes and sizes for the sum of their attributes rather than condemn and isolate them over some arbitrary number on a label.

You can read GROUPIE free from Amazon, All Romance Ebooks, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iTunes and Kobo.