You Go, Romance Writer: Changing Public Opinion

I have my vision statement around here somewhere, and while I can’t put my hands on it at the moment, I clearly remembering writing that my purpose this year would be to improve romance’s image and grow the market. Some people thought that was an over-reaction (my specialty) since we own half the market already, but these people clearly see the glass as half full; I see the market as half empty.

One of the reasons everybody and her sister isn’t reading romance is that it takes guts to do that these days. If people see a woman reading one, they assume she’s sexually frustrated, anti-feminist, and stupid. For some reason, “literate” never seems to be one of the adjectives that pops into mind. So my goal for RWA this year is to raise public consciousness about romance fiction as a viable narrative compromise between Thomas Pyncheon and Married with Children . I have any number of plans, some less hare-brained than others, but my first step is to offer some suggestions about responding to media who have in one way or other maligned romance. Who am I to tell you what to do, you ask? I’m your PAN Liaison. Feel free to impeach me. Really.

In the meantime, here’s what we need to do:

  1. We need to study the offending article or ad to make sure it’s an offense.
  2. We need to pick our fights intelligently.
  3. We need to figure out exactly what we want to happen because of our letters; that is, we need to choose one goal and drive toward it.
  4. We need to couch our replies carefully to establish a connection between us and the person we’re writing.
  5. We need to refrain from shrieking and other fun but counter-productive strategies.

1. We need to study the offending article or ad to make sure it’s an offense.

You know, just because they’re not saying romance is a cure for cancer does not mean they’re belittling the genre. The old “any ink is good ink” is true; every time romance is mentioned, it gathers more power. Even the derogatory stuff? Listen, nobody ever made fun of anything that didn’t make them mad or scare them. If they’re coming after us, it’s because we’re powerful.

And some times, they’re just piggy-backing on that power. For example, a jeans company has an ad right now that shows some very nice female legs encased in their jeans; running across the legs is the line “Burn your romance novels.” I saw that and laughed out loud and thought seriously about calling National to tell them to send somebody over to the jeans company to give the marketing director a big fat kiss right on the mouth.

Then I found out that some people were upset about it because it tells people not to read romance.

No, it doesn’t.

It says, “If you have legs like this, and if you put them in our jeans, you’ll have so many hot dates, you won’t need to read about romance, you’ll have the real thing.”

Now look at the assumptions this makes:

  1. Those legs have about twenty years on them tops. Which means this jeans company is making the assumption that twenty-somethings read romance novels. Thank you, thank you, thank you, this is a demographic devoutly to be hoped for. Why? Because they’re going to be reading them for the next sixty years. Those twenty-somethings are a great market and this ad just assumes we’ve got them. And it’s assuming it on a national level, planting the idea in the national subconscious. Two big kisses for the marketing director.
  2. Yes, but it tells people not to read romance. No, it doesn’t. It says if you have the choice between a hot date and a hot novel, take the date. Excellent advice. No matter how much we love our genre, real life takes precedence, unless it’s so bad we’d just as soon not, thanks, which brings me to the last point which is
  3. All those women who don’t have those legs, those jeans, that date? The ad clearly implies they’ll read a romance novel, that’s what everybody else in their peer group is doing. Now statistically speaking, how many women have those legs, those jeans, and that date as compared to the ones who don’t and who therefore might pick up a romance novel since the ad suggests it? Three big kisses on the mouth. This is great stuff.

Every media mention does not have to extol romance fiction. We have a lot of power; it’s a shame to spend it fighting stuff that doesn’t need fought. Which leads me to the next point:

2. We need to pick our fights intelligently.

Okay, some stuff is truly insulting and makes the blood boil. But if we fight every twit who makes a crack about romance, we’re not going to get anything done. Some fights are worth fighting, some aren’t. So even if the media mention is derogatory, we need to consider how much it matters in the vast scheme of things.

Example: A while back an East Coast journalist was invited to speak to a local romance writers’ group and wrote a condescending article about it. It was snide, it was inaccurate, it was the same old stuff dished out again with a sneer. And it was enraging. So I wrote a letter to her. Then I wished I hadn’t because the whole mess wasn’t worth my time and anger. Essentially, this was a third tier writer working for a second-rate paper expressing ideas so tired they yawned in print. Most people who read the paper skipped her article, those who didn’t either chuckled because it confirmed the ideas they already had or sighed because the woman was clueless. Nobody stopped buying romance because of it. It made no difference.

Still dozens of us wrote, which was probably the worst thing we could do because journalists thrive on dissent. “Look,” this woman probably told her editor, “I’m cutting edge; look how many frumpy romance writers I pissed off.” The only people who respond to massive letter writing campaigns are those who are afraid of public opinion. If anybody ever trashes romance fiction on the floor of the Senate, we will definitely write since congresspeople crawl on their bellies like reptiles at the thought of disapproval. But journalists? Nah. The only thing that makes them nuts is being shown they were factually incorrect. Opinions aren’t facts. (As a friend pointed out, they also hate being told their stuff is stale, last year’s news, so that approach might work, too.)

Another example: A year or so ago, two writers out in California got a major newspaper to print an article on their research which was based on the study of two romance novels and concluded that reading romances encouraged women to stay in abusive relationships. This was published as a pseudo-scientific and therefore factual study which meant that people would lead credence to it, and it was published in USA Today which has a circulation in the millions. This was a fight worth the effort, and several romance writers rose to the occasion with calm, carefully worded responses that pointed out how inaccurate and anti-feminist the article was. The result: national exposure to intelligent women explaining why romance fiction is important. Now that’s an outcome worth rolling up our sleeves for.

3. We need to figure out exactly what we want to happen because of our letters; that is, we need to choose one goal and drive toward it.

The outcome part of the response is probably the most important. Assuming we’ve analyzed the problem and decided that it’s an insult and a fight worth fighting, our next step is to figure out what we want to come of our letters. If we’re just mad and we want to tell somebody off, fine. We can write horrible, scathing, nasty letters that makes us feel tons better. And then we can burn them and concentrate on accomplishing something, preferably something that’s actually possible to accomplish.

Do we want the insulting ad pulled from print? Fat chance. The company spent millions of dollars to get that ad splashed all over; it’s not going to pull it because a couple hundred RWA members get huffy when somebody suggests not reading their books.

Do we want a retraction? If the article is factually untrue, we can probably get it if we make our points clearly and logically without namecalling or sneering at the original writer. If it’s an opinion piece, forget it.

Do we want our side of the story told? We’ll have to write it well. If it’s a clear, rational, entertaining letter, it’ll probably be printed (editors love debate in their pages). Or we could offer to do an article or column, describing what we’d say in such fascinating terms that the editor leaps to print our side. The key here is charm, wit, and tolerance.

Do we want to totally destroy the person who dared to make fun of or criticize romance fiction, to insult and demean her until she weeps helplessly and cries, “Enough, I can’t take it, I’ll never write again” or until she is so overcome with guilt for daring to express opinions that disagree with ours that she can only slink away speechlessly and hide under her bed? Well, shame on us. We’re writing to get even, not to change minds. The only worthwhile reason to write anything is to communicate with another person.

If we want to change minds, we have to write smart.

4. We need to couch our replies carefully to establish a connection between us and the person we’re writing.

Okay, we hate the dumb bitch who wrote the article/made the speech/designed the ad. Now we have to get over it and find a way to reach her.

First we have to establish a common ground. If we want to convince her we’re right, we have to first convince her we’re a lot like her, that there’s much about her we respect (telling the truth, even if it’s just that we respect her for writing her own mind or we think she does a nice semi-colon), but there’s just this one little thing we’d like to discuss with her that possibly might be open to another interpretation.

Oh, but we’re take-charge, upfront kind of people; we’re writers, damn it, we tell it like it is. Well, just this once, let’s try not to. I sometimes get letters from people who enjoy the humor in my books but are troubled by the language and graphic sex. The ones that start out, “Dear Jenny, I love your books and I buy every one as soon as it hits the shelf,” I read all the way through, often twice, even though they go on to tell me that some of my choices are upsetting. These are intelligent (they read my books, don’t they?) rational human beings, and I need to know what they think. Sometimes they even change my mind. On the other hand, the letters that start out “Dear Godless Blaspheming Whore of Babylon,” I generally don’t finish. As far as I can tell from anecdotal evidence and self-reporting, we’re writing a lot of Whore of Babylon letters to the media. No wonder they’re not listening to us.

Once we’ve established common ground as fellow writers, fellow thinkers, fellow women, fellow whatever, we can explain our point of view briefly (like one sentence) and then immediately move on to what we want, explaining it in a way that shows that what we want is good for her, too. In fact, it’s better for her than it is for us, this is a really good deal she’s getting, no, no, she doesn’t need to thank us, we’re glad to help a fellow writer/thinker/woman/whatever. This is not easy, but it accomplishes things, which is the point of writing the letter in the first place.

5. We need to refrain from shrieking and other fun but counter-productive strategies.

This part is so hard for me. I am a world-class shrieker. Indignation and moral outrage are two of the great reasons for living, as far as I’m concerned. And I write a killer letter when I’m mad. Then I call my critique partner, the MBA who knows how to get things done in the real world, and I say, “Boy, I really told her off.” And my CP says, “Oh, good. Uh, you didn’t send the letter yet, did you? Because I’d love to see it first.” So I send it to her, and she calls and says, “Well, I loved it, you really told her, you’re absolutely right as always, brilliant, just brilliant, but I’d make just a few suggestions. For example, I wouldn’t start ‘Dear Moronic Illiterate Flunky for the Repressive Right.’ That may be counter-productive.” (Listen, do what I say, not what I do, okay?)

There are other moves besides shrieking that are equally counter-productive such as claiming that all romance novels are (a) feminist, (b) promoters of family values, or (c) great literature because Austen wrote them. Here’s why these are bad moves: not all romance novels are feminist, not all romance novels promote family values, and not all romance novels are great literature; somebody finds just one romance that refutes our assertion and our argument is over. (Also, feminism and family values are two notoriously lousy criteria for judging literature; imagine saying “I couldn’t put it down, it was so politically correct!”) Another bad move: arguing that romance must be good because it commands 50% of the market. It really doesn’t matter how much of the market romance commands if we’re talking about good writing and worthwhile ideas; Bridges of Madison County held the bestseller list for an obscenely long time, Beavis and Butthead are nationally known, and people are still going to those Ernest movies. Popularity does not equal quality, and in some eyes actually precludes it. Yet another bad move: sending one of our own books to show how good romance fiction is. I don’t care if I’m the greatest writer in the world, as soon as I put my own book in the mix, I’m self-promoting and my credibility is gone. In fact, if we can hide the fact that we write romance, our credibility will be higher. As romance writers, we’re not exactly disinterested parties here.

Above all, we have to keep our balance, our humility, and our humor. People hate to be lectured and patronized (particularly at length so keep it short, no more than a page), but they love to be persuaded by somebody they’ve come to enjoy being with and listening to. How much we can accomplish with good humor and sensibility was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago by something that happened to a friend of mine. She’d gone to the local multiplex to see In and Out , the Paul Rudnick comedy that promotes tolerance of gays instead of self-righteously deploring gay bashing. A contingent of whitebread frat jocks took the seats behind her, and when the movie started, they made the requisite moans of disgust at the references to homosexuality. But then Rudnick’s screenplay–which is not only funny but warm and charming–caught them, and they laughed without editorial comment right up to the triumphant climax. That was when, in the midst of the clapping and laughter, she heard one of the boys yell, “You go, gay guy!”

She said it was the best line in the movie.

We need to do what Rudnick does. We need to keep our humor, our balance, and our brains about us; we need to look at the people we’re trying to reach as people who are essentially like us, good people, smart people, people we want to talk with (yes, even if they’re not); and we need to keep in mind at all times the goal we’re trying to accomplish while we’re being charming, intelligent, polite, understanding, and human. That’s not easy, but neither is writing romance novels and we do that beautifully. We can do this, too.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Vol. 18 Number 1, Jan. 1998: 45-37.