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Monday, October 20, 2014

"Love, Sex & Money: A Billion-Dollar Affair": "Entertainment Weekly" Takes a Closer Look at Romance Fiction

Author: Karen Valby 
Article: "Love, Sex & Money: A Billion-Dollar Affair" 
Featured in:  Entertainment Weekly Magazine 
Date of Issue: October 24, 2014

This week's Entertainment Weekly contains a nine-page spread entitled "Love, Sex & Money: A Billion-Dollar Affair" and dedicated to an analysis of romance fiction  The author is Karen Valby, one of EW's senior writers. (Click HERE to read other articles Valby has contributed to EW.) 

If you are a romance reader, your first thought might be "Hooray! Romance is finally getting some recognition"—and that is true, since this is a major pop culture magazine with a national readership. But there's another side to the issueone that isn't so happy. 

Valby approaches the subject of romance novels as an uninformed novice, attending the Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention and listening to her dinner-table mates dish about romance writing. Valby takes notes as they enlighten her "on the endless variety of romance-novel subgenres and clued me in on the hot new trend: chiseled heroes who belong to mixed martial arts groups or motorcycle gangs." 

Valby then—inevitably—brings up the shame factor, that romance readers face supercilious sarcasm when they are caught reading "those" books. Although romance-novel shame is always mentioned in articles of this type, it really can't be avoided because it is still all too true. I was an associate at my local library for the past 10+ years and was in charge of selecting and purchasing romance novels. Believe me, I have listened to many snooty put-downs of the romance genre, by both library patrons and librarians. I got so frustrated with reactions to paranormal romance that I wrote a reader's advisory reference book on paranormal fiction (Fang-tastic Fiction) for the American Library Association. I included both paranormal romance and urban fantasy in my book because many librarians know so little about these genres that they are unable to direct readers to paranormal read-alikes. The general feeling among most librarians is that all paranormal fiction books are pretty much the same—that there is little difference between the novels of Patricia Briggs and Ilona Andrews or between the books of Kim Harrison and Nalini Singh; that reading Nina Bangs is the same as reading J. R. Ward; that Gena Showalter's IMPERIA series and her ALIEN HUNTRESS series are similar in tone and story line. All of these assumptions are unequivocally false. So...I'm glad that Valby brings up the "shame" element in her essay, but I wish that she had dipped more deeply into the "ignorance" element. (Click on any of the author's names or series titles above to read my reviews.)

Valby’s next topic is the requisite reference to E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey. Valby notes that many of the romance writers she talked with didn't think much of James's series and attributes that partially to "competitive sour grapes." Then she states that Fifty Shades "ignited a subgenre ember into a Burning Man blaze" and that "Fifty was a gateway drug to a heady new world, and sales for romance novels exploded in its wake." Unfortunately, Valby provides no back-up data to support this statement, and I doubt its accuracy. My experience in the library was that yes, Fifty attracted some new readers to that particular series, and yes, a few authors churned out knock-off erotic romances (even worse than Fifty) that attracted the same readers, but erotic romance is not a huge romance sub-genre, and I don't believe that there was much carryover to romance fiction in general. Regular readers of erotic romance continue to read erotic romances written by the pros, and the Fifty newbies…well either they are reading the new Fifty clones or have stepped up to the better stuff. Either way, I doubt that Fifty caused much more than a temporary, very slight bump-up in the already massive numbers of romance readers.

The article has several graphic-driven sections: 
"Not Your Mama's Book Covers" attempts—simplistically and inaccurately—to label each decade (from the 1950s through the 2010s) with a single cover type (e.g., 1980s—clinches; 2000s—landscapes). This misguided over-simplification results in a meaningless and misleading analysis. For example, the Kathleen Woodiwiss cover, which is supposed to represent the 1970's "solo men, solo women…" trope is actually the 2009 reprint cover. The original 1970s cover portrays a white-pillared house with an inset picture of a couple in a clinch.

"Top 10 Romance Authors" lists the "most prolific" romance novelists. The title is somewhat deceiving because "Top 10" usually means "best-selling," not "most prolific." If you want a more accurate "Top" list, click HERE to go to Goodread's "Best Top Romance Novels of All Time." Also, check out the RWA web site for their lists of Honor Roll and Hall of Fame authors, both based on appearances on various best-seller lists.

"Romance by the Numbers" uses industry statistics from the RWA web site to provide an overall picture of the romance genre. Click HERE to go to the RWA's Industry Statistics and Reader Statistics pages to check out the numbers for yourself.  

 “Vixens, Bad Boys, & Babies” begins like this: “Sure, they’re clichés, but no romance novel would be engrossing without one of these plots or characters.” This one briefly summarizes the most common romance fiction tropes, for example, the fiery vixen, the alpha hero, the one that got away, the damsel in distress, and the secret baby. These plot types fit both contemporary and historical romances, but not paranormal romance, where the plots generally focus on a pair of soul mates who must foil demented scientists experimenting on supernaturals (as in Lora Leigh's BREEDS series), power-mad villains who want to rule the world (just about any paranormal series), or ancient evil spirits that are awakened (frequently by one of the power-mad villains) and then wreak havoc.

“The Love Universe is a two-page spread that depicts the romance genres and sub-genres as stars in the night sky. It is a well-intentioned but failed attempt to graphically portray the sub-genres of Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, and Paranormal Romance. The failure is inevitable, because each of the big three genres encompasses ALL of the sub-genres listed. For example, in this graphic depiction, YA, comedy, gay, military, “mature,” multicultural, and new adult are shown ONLY as part of Contemporary Romance. NONE of them are shown as being part of Paranormal Romance, which must be a very big surprise to paranormal authors like Michele Bardsley, Nina Bangs, and Molly Harper (humorous paranormal romance); Cynthia Eden, Rebecca Zanetti, and Lora Leigh ("mature," aka erotic paranormal romance); J. D. Tyler, Lisa Renee Jones, and Angie Fox (military paranormal romance); and the numerous YA paranormal romance authors, who are completely ignored. (Click on any of the authors' names above to read my reviews of their series.)

Here are the few sub-genres that this graph depicts for Paranormal Romance: Sci-Fi (Steampunk, Aliens, Interplanetary); Fantasy (Time Travel); Other Entities (Centaurs, Vampires, Ghosts, Shape-Shifters, Werewolves, Witches, Monsters); and Gothic. 

Here are my questions: Why single out centaurs? Offhand, I can’t think of a single paranormal romance that features centaurs in key roles. Why list "Centaurs" and "Werewolves" separately from "Shape-Shifters" when both Centaurs and Werewolves are shape-shifters? What about mythological entities, like the gods and goddesses of Sherrilyn Kenyon's DARK-HUNTERS series (and others)? And where are the Demons, like the main characters in Larissa Ione's DEMONICA and LORDS OF DELIVERANCE series (and others). And what about the Angels, who are the leads in Nalini Singh's GUILD HUNTER series (and others)? Where are the Fae, like Cecily and her friends in Yasmine Galenorn's INDIGO COURT series and Shona Husk's fairies in her COURT OF ANNWYN series (and others)? And don't forget the Elementals, like the ones in Christine Feehan's SEA HAVEN series and Hanna Martine's THE ELEMENTALS (and others). The “Love Universe” graphic must have seemed like a great idea, but whoever put it together obviously doesn’t have a clue about what constitutes Paranormal Fiction. (Click on any of the series titles above to read my reviews.)

So…to sum it up, Valby’s article is welcome because it brings some much-appreciated attention to one of the top-grossing and most underrated fiction genres on the market today, but its inaccuracies take most of the shine off its slick surface.

Read it for yourself. It’s on the newsstands now. In a week or two, when the article is available on the EW website, I’ll post the link here. In the meantime, here are two opposing viewpoints on the article, one from U.S.A. Today and one from the website

Click HERE to read U.S.A. Today’s “6 Things We Love about EW’s Spread on Romance Novels.”

Click HERE to read a response to the article entitled “A Billion-Dollar Affair with Karen Valby,” posted by Meoskop on the blog site Love in the Margins.

NEW LINKS ADDED 10/23/2014: Here are links to two different audio interviews featuring Jesse Barron, who wrote an article on the romance novel industry for the February 2014 issue of Harper's magazine. Click HERE to hear his NPR interviewclick on the "Listen to the Story" arrow at the top of the page; and click HERE for his interviewjust wait a few seconds and it will play automatically. The WNYC interview includes remarks by Angela Knight, best-selling author of erotic romance fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I usually read Entertainment Weekly for news on tv shows and movies and I was pleasantly surprised by the romance books article. I've never read a romance book, but I found the article intriguing. I guess I should've known there were a handful of major inaccuracies.

    I think my favorite part of the spread was the constellation/map of genres and subgenres. Though, I must've instinctively known the map wasn't completely accurate, as my sole exposure to romance-novels are really the Twilight movie and the Vampire Diaries tv show. So I should've known the thing about YA crossing over into paranormal. And because of those two, and possibly other movies like Underworld, it has always been my impression that vampires and werewolves are mortal enemies in the same supernatural environment, as opposed to completely different subgenres.

    I was amused by the "cliches" graphic. I'm partial to the book nerd character. :) With the "book covers" graphic, I never realized that "cupped hands" was a thing but I think one of the Twilight covers featured an apple in cupped hands.

    A few months back, I wrote a Vampire Diaries fanfic novella that I think may have accidentally been thought of as a romance story at first. One of the reviewers wrote that it was more of a "guy story" (but hey, I'm a guy, what can I do?) and I felt a little bit bad because it definitely tended more toward an action adventure with just a tiny hint of romantic angst. But in the end, the reviewer seemed to enjoy the story enough and gave me an "A for effort" so I'm glad it kind of worked out.