Tuesday, August 12, 2008

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“QUIS CUSTODIET IPSOS CUSTODES,” Part III

Don Markstein of Toonopedia wrote that, “What The Maltese Falcon did for detective stories and Shane did for Westerns, Watchmen did for superheroes. It transcended its origins in what was previously considered a lowbrow form of fiction” [emphasis mine].

So how can a graphic novel tale—both the story and the cultural zeitgeist surrounding it—help the romance genre?

Part of the answer depends on how long people assume that romance is simply a way for women to enjoy guilt-free sex. Another part depends on how long marketing departments will rely on overtly sexy or “man titty” covers to sell books. The “sex sells” mentality is a daunting challenge to overcome. On one level, it works for some people; on another, it cheapens the genre and keeps potential fans away.

This is the problem romance faces now—one Comics confronted years ago. Rightly or wrongly, the industry as a whole has a bad rap. This public perception must change. By keeping the genre so inclusive, the industry is purposefully excluding everyone else. And that’s fewer fans, and millions of dollars pushed away every day.

People who crave respectability for the romance genre—readers, authors, and publishers—have to be willing to take risks and expand their horizons. Some already do, of course—I’m referring to the higher risk that means greenlighting projects on the scale of WATCHMEN.

So what can be done to overcome this? I have a few ideas:

* Diversify. Editors/publishers need to widen their parameters to what’s possible. Take more chances on romances with plots external to the relationship itself. Done well, many readers would welcome the change, so don’t underestimate your audience, either. They can always return to their romance “comfort” reads (the equivalent of SUPERMAN in comic books, for instance). Additionally, market these books outside of the usual venues.

* Get more serious about worldbuilding, particularly for SF/F romance. Invent something new in addition to building the relationship.

* Increase the word count once in a while. Sweeping stories like WATCHMEN can’t be crammed into a 298 or even a 320 page book. Readers coming from the SFF aisle won’t blink an eyelash at a book that runs upwards of 400 pages.

* WATCHMEN turned the entire genre of superheroes on its head. In this world, superheroes aren’t always nice. In fact, some of them are vicious anti-heroes. Most don’t even possess typical superpowers. WATCHMEN changed everything that people thought they knew about graphic novels.

What might be the counterpart for romance? It could be anything, really. That’s the one factor no one can predict. But the only way to avoid a reputation for cookie-cutter stories is to break a few molds.

Perhaps romances don’t always have to be super-ultra romantic. Maybe it’s time to shed that soft-focus effect for some stories. Regarding SF/F romances, they lend themselves nicely to gritty, edgy, or political storylines & elements. But that’s not to say that it couldn’t happen in other genres (and has already, in the case of romantic suspense).

* Give authors more creative freedom. Yes, Alan Moore’s situation was unique in that he had the freedom to write pretty much whatever he wanted (within reason) in SWAMP THING because DC felt the title had two swampy feet and one hand in the grave. From the company’s standpoint, they didn’t have much to lose.

Romance publishers, however, should act as though they *do* have readers/profits to lose if authors don’t feel as though they can journey into uncharted creative territory. After all, if your best authors leave out of frustration, who does that leave in the fold? (And please don’t tighten your belts by letting go editors with vision, either.)

* Publish more stories that make readers, regardless of gender, crave the heroines just as much as they crave heroes. In other words, beef up the heroine’s role. Or, consider more books without the ubiquitous Alpha-male. He’s the superhero in the cape (i.e., the bread and butter for your targeted audience, but expanding your horizons brings in more readers).

* Evaluate whether the reputation problem is the “bodice ripper” as a marketing issue or story issue. If it’s a marketing obstacle, don’t wait for someone else to define what you’re reading. Come up with a more appropriate, less derogatory tag line and start sowing the seeds. Repeat it relentlessly both online and through word of mouth.

If it’s a story issue as in there really are a bunch of bodice’s being ripped, then proceed as if it were just a marketing issue (see above). If you enjoy the bodice-ripper reputation, power to you. Flaunt it. But if the majority feels otherwise, then take charge. The loyalty of romance readers is its own built-in PR machine.

* Be prepared to wait. WATCHMEN may have been groundbreaking but that’s looking back 23 years after its release. Altering cultural perceptions takes a long time.

These ideas are just some of the possibilities. You may think of others and I hope you will. The main goal here is to keep the dialogue going. So what do you think?

Can romance ever transcend its tawdry “bodice ripper” reputation ever present in the general public's mind? We can’t deny it’s there for many. It is. (And declaring everyone who believes this to be ignorant isn’t going to gain desired respectability, either.)




So where’s our “WATCHMEN”? What kind of book will change the way everyone thinks about romances? Is the industry simply content to rest on its paperback laurels and enjoy the sales it has now, ignoring other readers? How badly do romance readers, authors and publishers want respect for the genre? (Unfortunately, the answer so far has been not badly enough.)

On the other hand, to end on a positive note, perhaps events will conspire toward a groundbreaking romance book(s) that will help shepherd a positive cultural perception shift toward romances as a whole. What thinkest thou?

Joyfully yours,

Heather