Down with love?

When I first started writing fiction some 10 years ago, what came out was fantasy; a magical world, with witches, spells, and battles between good and evil. It was a love affair that began in childhood, and is unlikely to ever disappear.

I still have these stories, which lie close to my heart, and one day I’ll finish them and unleash them into the world under another name.

What was interesting is that when I told people about what I was writing, it was invariably met with eager anticipation, admiration even. Yet, when I tell people that I’m writing romantic comedy here as Lily Graham, the reaction is very mixed. Some are supportive, some are excited, but a lot of people have wondered why I don’t just stick with the fantasy or try something a little more literary …

The thing is I like the genre, that’s all there is to it. My favourite films are often romantic comedies, written by brilliant writers like Richard Curtis, Nancy Meyers , Ronald Harwood and Marc Lawrence to name a very few, and they are excellent, funny and witty, and just brilliantly done.

Sure the genre doesn’t appeal to everyone. But is it more than that? I think so. Even when writing, I’d find myself censoring the story, feeling almost apologetic for the romance aspect of it, saying things like, “But there’s a mystery and drama …” as if that justified daring to write a romance.

It just made me think, why are we so down on love? As soon as a book has a love focus it gets labelled feminine as if being feminine is inherently a bad thing. It gets branded as ‘chick lit’ if there’s a hint of comedy (it in itself a denigrated genre, how many comedic films do you know that have won an Oscar? Not many I’ll bet), or women’s fiction, if it is not.

Sure, the fact is, that romance does appeal to women more, but then crime and action appeals to men most, so why aren’t they ‘men’s lit’? Perhaps because many women also like them, but then are we are making the assumption that no man ever would enjoy romance? Yet here’s the thing – don’t we all like love? Isn’t it a universal theme? Throughout the ages, some of our best beloved stories are at their heart, romances.

Perhaps it has to do with love being a focal point or not. It’s invariably okay if it’s a kind of background thing, but not if it’s the heart of the story. And its fine if a love story is not your thing … but why judge someone if it is theirs?

And before we start talking about love being the focus of women’s fiction, which it often is, it’s not always the focus of chick lit – the love interest in that genre is almost always the background issue to the struggle that the protagonist is facing. Sure there’s most often a female protagonist which may justify the label, but then there has (historically) almost always been a male protagonist in crime and action novels too, and it is not branded as male.

My point is that romance is seen as an inferior genre by most, especially ones written by women. It is not the genre that wins the awards, or gets the glory. There are very few prizes for romance, and they are not the big ones. Yet romance pays the most bills – the reading population is dominated by women, women writers make up the majority of published authors, and romance is the most popular genre enjoyed by and large.

Yet we put it down.

We praise people who write about crime and horror, but not someone who chooses to write about love. We don’t praise people for embracing the light when they are confronted with the dark, or someone who chooses to make us laugh, when all they would do is cry.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of detective novels, and drama, and magical realism, and literary fiction and when A Greek Vintage or Under Cretan Skies (still have not decided) is finally released you’ll see that at its heart it is a detective novel wrapped up in a romance.

My point is that love as a focus is seen as the lighter, inferior genre. And that’s a little sad to me. I’m not talking about quality – sure there are awful romances out there, some that are cringe-worthy, but there are some that are so brilliant and beautiful and funny too, but that’s true of every genre. Some crime novels are flat, predictable, and corny. Some literary novels are stilted and pretentious and written more to make the writer seem intelligent than anything else. There are good and bad books in every genre. That’s not my point. My point is that why is it assumed that inherently if it is a love story, that means it has a right to be put down, that it is, then by definition, inferior?

Like so many other writers, I have quoted Stephen King, who has been held up as some kind of literary godfather, when he himself states that there is nothing literary about his novels. I love Stephen King, and I think he’s wonderfully smart and creative. But a little something in me died when I read this quote of his, which of course in typical King style is wonderfully witty but is also a huge slap in the face for anyone who ever dares to write a romance. He said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

And it is funny. It really is. There is a dash of truth to it. But mostly it is unfair and condescending. I don’t want to get into a comparison between the two stories. I did prefer Harry Potter, as I said I’m a fantasy geek and Harry Potter is a straight up fantasy story. But Twilight is a beautiful story, it really is, it is a love story that is also a fantasy story, and therein lays the rub. Kings comment says a lot about what people think about the whole genre of romance and why it’s so hard for anyone writing in it to be taken seriously.

I’m not saying it is a serious genre, but why is it less so than horror? Or crime? Why do so many romance writers feel like they’ve got to take the servants entrance to the party? When they are the ones ensuring that the lights are on and the food is served. That’s all I’m saying. Why the shame about liking love?

Because when Twilight came out it captured the world’s imagination, its biggest theme was love, yet men and women flocked to read the stories and watch the films despite it being a romance because it was a fantasy story too.

Twilight got a whole new generation reading, in the same way Harry Potter did, and it spurred a whole new genre – paranormal romance. Sure things got silly. People become fanatics – but then that happens with every popular story. Yet few got judged as much.

Perhaps it’s this label itself that caused the backlash, because when Twilight got the label ‘paranormal romance’ (a feminine one of course) instead of fitting neatly into the category of fantasy, it allowed us all to label Twilight after the hype, where we all ticked a neat box, rewrote history, and denied that it ever crossed the border, and denied that just a moment, we all dared to give a love a chance.


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