Aspirational taste

by Henry Farrell on March 5, 2008

“Scott”: had a delightful column over at _IHE_ last week, demonstrating to tyroes like “Matt Seligman”: and “Ezra Klein”: how you _really_ show off your bookish erudition to the world (by affecting, of course not to be at all interested in what the world thinks of your erudition; see further “Chris”: on the cultural politics of ironic gnomes) .

Klein and Seligman seem to share a belief that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself. They signify either what you already know or whom you would like to be — and (this is the major point) they do so for someone else. By this logic, bookshelves are a medium of social interaction. … All of which makes perfect sense if and only if you are not a total nerd. Which, all things considered, is a pretty big “if.” A very different set of principles is in effect if you are someone for whom reading itself actually counts as one of the primary forms of social interaction. It’s not that you don’t have “aspirational taste,” of a kind. But the aspiration plays itself out in a very different manner — with different consequences for how your living space is organized.

My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves. A few years back, for example, Slavoj Zizek started to insist that I had to be familiar with the work of Alain Badiou – a French poststructuralist philosopher whose work I had never heard of, let alone read. Well, OK, sure. Thanks to some busy translators, Badiou volumes started crowding in, next to all the Zizek titles.

The online conversation generated by Seligman’s and Klein’s remarks has at times reflected a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel. For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. …Likewise for bookshelves. Many items there are staples. Others are ingredients that, like salt, are only good in combination with something else. Some things you keep around are healthy, if not very tasty, while a few might count as junk food. (A couple of scholarly presses are indeed known for their Pop-Tarts.) And it’s hardly a decent pantry if you don’t have a few impulse purchases you later regret, or gourmandizing experiments that didn’t quite pan out. No formal rule can determine what belongs on the shelf and what doesn’t. It is, finally, a matter of taste.

That po-faced (or perhaps given the game in play, I should use the term _pince-sans-rire_ instead) final sentence in particular is a very nicely judged piece of symbolic violence. But it also seems a nice segueway to the “trouble”: that Hilzoy got into at _Obsidian Wings_ the other day when she suggested that

romance novels* (update below the fold) are not “books”, as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that’s probably because I’m just a dumb woman.

and got walloped in comments for her purported arrant elitism. Without getting into the _actual_ merits of romance novels (I understand that Georgette Heyer, for example, is very good, but have never gotten around to reading her), I think there is an interesting secondary question here. Why is it that romance novels _in particular_ have little cultural capital – that is, why are they more or less valueless as symbolic tokens in the display games that people play with their bookshelves? As a soi-disant ‘cultured’ person, you can get away with shelves full of science fiction or fantasy quite easily now – indeed, they have so little bad-boy chic these days that they’ve become somewhat devalued on the market (those who buy f/sf books these days may, horror of horrors, _actually do so because they want to read them_). Comic books are better value if you want your bookshelves to give off that slight whiff of transgressivity. But romance novels, for some reason, are still _de trop._ Indeed, their presence on your bookshelves suggests that you’re guilty of active bad taste. Tellingly, in his not-very-good _Cryptonomicon_, Neal Stephenson has his cliched hipper-than-thou female po-mo academic meet her final downfall when her ex discovers that she has been hoarding romance paperbacks in the basement.

Romance novels aren’t quite at the bottom layer of the hierarchy of culture – that place is surely reserved for detective novels in which the cat solves the mystery. But they’re not too far up from there. This can’t be because they’re formulaic; plenty of formulaic novels have high cultural value. P.G. Wodehouse, indeed is positively respectable. Nor can it be because they’re simply bad – there are surely many good authors of romance novels, just as there are of other genres. There has to be some other reason. What is it?

Update: True synchronicity – as soon as I finish writing the post, I click over via Brad DeLong to Clive Crook’s blog where he “argues that”: :

Obama, he suggests, is the Barbara Cartland of American politics. (I have to wonder how many people have been _inspired_ by Barbara Cartland, but let that pass.) Gideon’s tastes are more refined than that–as are mine, needless to say. But Obama’s speeches impress a surprisingly wide demographic, if this point is correct. In fact, Obama seems especially liked by the kind of metropolitan intellectuals who share Gideon’s and my disdain for brainless romantic fiction. Something about him, whatever it is, clicks with poor urban blacks and with Harvard academics.

Update 2: “and Matt Yglesias opines”: immediately afterwards on how readers of Tom Clancy spin-offs can’t hold their heads up high. Must be someone put something in the DC water supply this morning …

{ 2 trackbacks }

Diary of a Mad Natural Historian » Mixed media
03.06.08 at 10:51 am
Crooked Timber » » Timber, Bookshelves, World Domination, Etc.
03.11.08 at 12:42 am



Mrs Tilton 03.05.08 at 4:31 pm

Romance novels aren’t quite the bottom layer of the hierarchy of culture – that place is surely reserved for detective novels in which the cat solves the mystery.

Clearly Henry needs to acquaint himself with the fine product that rolls off the assembly lines of the Bastei-Lübbe and Pabel-Moewig publishing houses.


A 03.05.08 at 4:58 pm

…in his not-very-good Cryptonomicon

I loved Cryptonomicon! Surely that must make it objectively “good,” right?


John M 03.05.08 at 5:01 pm

It’s because ‘romance’ isn’t really a genre the way Sci-Fi and detective fiction are. Traditional novels in general tend to be romances of one kind or another so the designation ‘romantic fiction’ really just means ‘traditional fiction which isn’t very good’.


Andy 03.05.08 at 5:03 pm

Westerns must be close to the bottom of the pile.


Z 03.05.08 at 5:05 pm

Romance is feel good literature for single women with service jobs, sf/fantasy is feel good literature for single men with engineering jobs. The latter tend to have more efficient means to assert their own value than the former, in particular with respect to cultural norms.

Is that a reasonnable explanation?


LizardBreath 03.05.08 at 5:09 pm

There has to be some other reason. What is it?

Um, this is sarcasm, right? You’re just leaving the obvious answer unstated?

Romance novels are low status because they’re genre tripe for women, spy novels and SF are higher status because they’re genre tripe for men.

(And of course, there are examples of all genres that aren’t tripe at all.)


nigelgomm 03.05.08 at 5:11 pm

…book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself.
The late George Melly once said something to the effect that looking through someone else’s record collection is the human equivalent of dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms….


Jared 03.05.08 at 5:12 pm

The answer to your question is in the Celine Dion book. Just thinking about what that would signify on a bookshelf is making me dizzy, but I think part of the problem is that it’s so much smaller than my other books. Maybe I should stick it with the CDs.


john m. (not the other guy who has appeared recently) 03.05.08 at 5:21 pm

Worth noting given the post, that I was listening to a US (woman) book critic on the radio the other day here in Ireland going to enormous lengths to refute the mild suggestion that Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” could be described as science fiction. I was struck by how stupid she made herself sound as she exposed clear and personal predjudices on her part …


Delicious Pundit 03.05.08 at 6:07 pm

Stephen Potter, thou shouldst be living at this hour…

Also, I had a friend in New York who wanted to start an Airport Novel book club, which would disband once it was written about in The New Yorker or The New York Observer.


Ken C. 03.05.08 at 6:14 pm

As Le Guinn notes, Cormac McCarthy is a serious writer and so by definition incapable of lowering himself to commit genre.


grackle 03.05.08 at 6:20 pm

I believe it’s Matt Selman, not Seligman. Scott’s mistake, carried over here, as in Scott’s observation, “A scholar’s seemingly authoritative citations will sometimes turn out to have been pilfered directly from someone else’s seemingly authoritative citations — without any actual reading of the texts involved, since given that the mistakes are preserved intact.”

I guess it’s deja vue all over again.


Kenny Easwaran 03.05.08 at 6:33 pm

I was going to point out the Selman/Seligman mistake as well – especially since I went to undergrad and grad school (for at least some amount of time) with a Matt Seligman.


MissLaura 03.05.08 at 6:34 pm

I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on the low status of romance novels. First, yes, they are a distinct genre. That someone fall in love in a book does not make it a romance.

But it’s as others have said, it’s that they’re a genre read overwhelmingly by women, and as such are held in much lower esteem even than women-oriented sub-genres of genres read by men. My thesis compared romances with sci-fi/fantasy and found that there’s a hell of a lot of the latter that shares many of the characteristics of romance, but doesn’t come in for nearly the trashing. Trashing, by the way, that tends to operate from a set of stereotypes culled from at least 3 distinct periods of the romance genre, applying the worst of each period to the stereotype and pretending it says anything about romances as they actually are.

Pisses me off. I challenge people to read some romances. Not the little category ones – not Silhouette or Harlequin, etc, but the single-title books. Read some historical romance by Amanda Quick or Mary Jo Putney or Jude Deveraux and think about the use of anachronism to depict women’s defiance of gender conventions as a positive. You want to talk about aspirational taste? Read Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick) for her string of librarians, art dealers, and boutique owners in the Pacific Northwest living and eating like the very people looking down their noses at romance novels.

Argh. This stuff pisses me off so much.


Tracy W 03.05.08 at 6:46 pm

On the other hand, were romance novels to be considered high-status, it would be so much more difficult to really annoy the literature snobs.


Righteous Bubba 03.05.08 at 6:49 pm

I challenge people to read some romances. Not the little category ones – not Silhouette or Harlequin, etc, but the single-title books.

Oh you snob.


Henry 03.05.08 at 6:53 pm

I believe it’s Matt Selman, not Seligman. Scott’s mistake, carried over here, as in Scott’s observation, “A scholar’s seemingly authoritative citations will sometimes turn out to have been pilfered directly from someone else’s seemingly authoritative citations — without any actual reading of the texts involved, since given that the mistakes are preserved intact.”

This is of course quite wonderful in a rather embarrassing way (in my defence, I’ll say that I _did_ read Seligman/Selman’s post when Ezra Klein first linked to it).

On the question of why – my personal take is indeed that part of it is a women’s indulgence vs. men’s indulgence thing. But it is also a little more complicated than that. Megan of From the Archives wrote an “extraordinary post”:, last year where she talks about the ways in which single heterosexual women who would like to have kids with a guy they love aren’t allowed to say that, without being typecast as being weird and needy. I wonder whether the unpleasant social complex that leads people harshly to criticize women in Megan’s position also helps explain why books which sort-of cater to that set of desires are regarded as declasse.


Keith M Ellis 03.05.08 at 6:59 pm

Personally, I think that book snobbery is indicative of how marginal an activity it is to read. People talk about books as if by mere virtue of being of a certain size and shape with a sufficient number of words, they are more alike than different.

But books serve an enormous variety of purposes. Some lofty and some not-lofty. I think the only people I’m willing to label “degenerate” are those for whom their experience of reading books is exclusively lofty or exclusively not-lofty. Both types of people are, at the very least, incredibly boring.


MissLaura 03.05.08 at 7:09 pm

Different romance novels foreground different parts of the fantasy, of course, and a significant number of them are about babies, either overtly or more subtextually. But as many or more of their readers are women who have kids and husbands with whom their relationships are maybe a little too real-world everyday, so that’s a reality the books are providing escape from as well.

The overarching basic fantasy of the romance genre, I would argue (and have, using for that purpose the more standardized category books), is that the heroine is regarded as ordinary, or perhaps a little weird. She’s pretty enough but not beautiful, she’s not rich, if it’s a contemporary setting she’s probably got an interesting job that doesn’t make her a whole lot of money. And the hero is gorgeous and rich and everyone is in awe of him and he goes for her, for the ordinary woman, and she through the force of the personality that other people see as weird is able not just to win over but to tame this incredibly dominant figure.

Babies come in the epilogue most of the time.


Brad Holden 03.05.08 at 7:20 pm

Romance novels sell the lion’s share of books, they are like 30-40% of the books sold. Media tie-ins used to be very high (this has changed recently(.

All of the snobbishness I have seen relates to those two categories. I put in the usual bin of commercial success versus artistic integrity, anything that sells well must sell by selling out.


Matthew 03.05.08 at 7:53 pm


—1,000,000 credibility points for this error.


Kathleen 03.05.08 at 8:09 pm

One of the greatest comments I ever heard about genre novels was someone in an English department who said there was not a prof there who had not, at some point, harbored an ambition to get rich quick by churning out formulaic genre fiction and rake in the proceeds — romance novels were specifically assumed to be the “easiest” kind, being SO formulaic — and then found it impossible to pull off. Easy to read =/ easy to write.


Rich B. 03.05.08 at 8:17 pm

Comic books are better value if you want your bookshelves to give off that slight whiff of transgressivity. But romance novels, for some reason, are still de trop.

Combining the genres, I believe that a prominently displayed complete set of Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise” could leave a positive impression.


Righteous Bubba 03.05.08 at 8:19 pm

Easy to read =/ easy to write.

I read a romance novel a few months ago and although I imagined I could see all the machinery used to make it go I couldn’t imagine summoning up the will necessary to write it.


Crystal 03.05.08 at 9:11 pm

What Lizardbreath, and Miss Laura, and Henry in his comment, said. Romance novels are devalued because they are a specifically female frivolity. Oprah, “chick flicks,” aromatherapy, cat ownership, and Sephora are just some of the other things that suffer the deadly double whammy of being associated with the feminine and considered “frivolous.” Women who shop for clothes, jewelry and makeup are shallow consumers who are ruining the planet – whereas men who buy “big boy toys” are given a free pass (never mind that consumerism is consumerism, and an Iphone isn’t any less destructive of the planet than a new dress, if saving the planet is your main point).

And yanno, it cheeses me off to absolutely no end to see people who ought to know better rush to distance themselves from the feminine + frivolous as if there was something wrong with it. As far as I am concerned, there is NOTHING wrong with femininity or frivolity, and those who try to distance themselves from it are merely reinforcing sexism.

Meanwhile, why yes I do read romance novels, and I especially love the fairly new occult/romance crossovers. Aaaand I have a whole shelf of “The Cat Who” cozy mysteries.

Gaaah. Can you tell this whole thing Pisses. Me. Off.?


Great Zamfir 03.05.08 at 9:32 pm

What I missed in the whole bookshelf discussion is that books are simply very nice wall decoration. They have a nice vertical rhythm and structure that keeps the eye relaxed, but with so much variation that no part of your shelves really looks the same. Because they are never perfectly aligned, there is texture that creates depth.

And of course books are both carriers and symbols of meaning and ideas. They just work perfectly as poor man’s paintings.


Great Zamfir 03.05.08 at 9:38 pm

On another note, are “the cat who” books the ones about the guy with siamese cats who inherits money to move to some village? Are those really seen as the lowest of the low? I liked them, although they did get a bit repetitive after a while.


magistra 03.05.08 at 9:39 pm

I admit to being an academic who has had a book turned down by Mills & Boon; it is easier sometimes to get an article published in Gender & History (the sex scenes are less hard to do, for one thing).

Romance hasn’t just suffered from being a female genre: it’s suffered from being a female genre that second-wave feminism despised. So I think a lot of liberal women are put off by the stereotype of it, rather than actually exploring which romantic authors are any good. The loose boundaries of the genre also make it trickier to discuss sensibly what you’re including: I like Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, for example, who I would say is on the boundary of romance and thriller.


Picador 03.05.08 at 9:53 pm

Romance novels aren’t quite at the bottom layer of the hierarchy of culture – that place is surely reserved for detective novels in which the cat solves the mystery.

Perhaps, if you want to answer the question of why romance novels are afforded such low status, you should instead examine the genres that are at the bottom of the totem pole: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m not familiar with the cat-detective genre (Is this a genre of children’s literature? Because I feel like might shed some interesting light on your question), but I might suggest another entrant outranked by romance novels: the genre of film novelizations.

Here, it seems to me, the novel(ization)’s low status stems at least in part from its association with a media franchise: it is explicitly non-original; it is associated with an overtly commercial enterprise; it is written at the behest of figures who do not operate primarily in the world of literature and publishing. Indeed, some of this taint rubs off even on novels that have been turned into films: if I read a copy of The English Patient on the subway in 1998, its status is diminished; doubly so if it has a photo of Ralph Fiennes and the text “Now a Major Motion Picture” on the cover.

Romance novels are also sometimes part of a media franchise, for example in the case of series with individual volumes written by various authors under a common pen name. The genre shares this trait with what I would propose, contra your assertion about f/sf’s cool factor, are its rough equals in status: the sci-fi, fantasy, techno-thriller, and “street life” genres. I don’t think the causality here is straightforward — are romance novels treated fungible units because they are low-status, or does their low status derive in part from their history of publication as fungible units? — but I think it’s fair to say that the practice of marketing novels in a genre as commodity products rather than unique works meant to be evaluated idependently is a marker of low status.

The film novelization is perhaps the most extreme example of a work that is not meant to be evaluated independently; it is positioned in the market as a product whose value depends entirely on the value of its precedent. But this fails to explain its low status; after all, the same could be said of a work of literary criticism, but somehow Leiter on Nietzsche looks more impressive on the shelf than Transformers: The Movie: The Novelization. So what is it? Something about the lack of creativity involved, the faithfulness of the novel to the film’s narrative? Is the film novelizer closer to a translator than an author? If so, why do people treasure their translations of Neruda but turn their noses up at novelizations of even movies they enjoyed on the screen? And why do film adaptations of novels not suffer from the same devaluation?

I submit that this is not something inherent in the medium itself, but a consequence of where this genre fits into the actual facts of the publishing industry. I don’t see why, apart from licensing restrictions, it should be impossible to write a decent, interesting novelization of a film. The economics of book publishing versus film production are the are only reason this hasn’t happened. But even if it did happen, do you think that the film novelization genre would rise out of its literary ghetto? Of course not.

Similarly, I suspect that the historical realities of the romance novel industry, not anything inherent in the genre itself, is what saddles the genre with its low status. As with its peer genres (f/sf, Tom Clancy, black gangster novels), it is ghettoized, and borderline works have to actively distinguish themselves from the genre if they want to be considered serious. Hence the previously-cited anecdotes about McCarthy writing sci-fi-but-not-sci-fi and westerns-but-not-westerns, etc. The distinction being made here is between the literary markers of the genre (its content) and its market markers (its positioning as a product). Romance novels (and Tom Clancy novels) are sold as commodity products in grocery stores; not so with other genres. I suspect, to answer my question above, that the genre’s low status is actually caused primarily by this type of marketing, and that this creates a ghetto effect that perpetuates its low status.


Linkmeister 03.05.08 at 9:57 pm

Laying oneself as publicly bare as that post of Megan’s does is almost beyond my comprehension. Wow.


Great Zamfir 03.05.08 at 10:15 pm

I am very surprised by the sentiments that books get low status when they are associated with female readers. It might be true for all I know, but I thought that almost every genre of fiction has 70 or 80 percent female readers. The exceptions are genres like techno-thrillers and science fiction, hardly the most prestigious genres around.


lemmy caution 03.06.08 at 1:03 am

>The exceptions are genres like techno-thrillers and science fiction, hardly the most prestigious genres around.

More prestigious than romance novels.


Righteous Bubba 03.06.08 at 1:17 am

More prestigious than romance novels.

To who?


Henry 03.06.08 at 1:24 am

misslaura – a very fair point.

magistra – would love to hear more about this. What were their guidelines etc etc?

picador – would like to answer but have to put 2 year old to bed …


Nabakov 03.06.08 at 1:43 am

“that place is surely reserved for detective novels in which the cat solves the mystery.”

Oh the Felidae books weren’t tbat bad.

“…believe that a prominently displayed complete set of Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise” could leave a positive impression.”

Certainly more positive in some circles than a prominently displayed complete set of Sven Hassell’s works.


Bruce Baugh 03.06.08 at 2:14 am

Righteous Bubba: More prestigious to critics and reviewers in general, and in general social interactions among avid readers, and among book buyers and sellers.


Righteous Bubba 03.06.08 at 2:37 am

More prestigious to critics and reviewers in general, and in general social interactions among avid readers, and among book buyers and sellers.

I guess my anecdotes involve more eye-rolling at a Tekwar novel than a Harlequin.


ROG 03.06.08 at 3:37 am

Never mind the genre, feel the quality!
As a teenager in a boys’ school the class revolted at being forced to read Jane Austin. It’s crap romance for girls, we sneered. The English teacher suggested we read a Mills and Boone pulp romance title and a Georgette Heyer novel then get back to him. Those of us who took up the testosterone-sapping challenge were agreed. The pulp was a quick read but not a good one – too stereotypical by far. Heyer was stereotypical but frequently rose above that to become, almost, a good read. Austin, by now, read like quality. I could just imagine the teacher saying to himself, “My work here is done.”
The genre disdain is not so much about genre per se as about the mode of production. Harlequin romances and their like are written too fast and in too great a quantity to be in any way original or groundbreaking. People buy them because they like small variations on a theme and like to know, roughly, what they’re getting – after all to read a novel is a serious ‘investment’ of time.
With non-pulp there’s a chance you’ll get to the end and feel like you want your life back. Not so with pulp – romance, sci-fi, western, crime, whatever – if you know you won’t like it, you can safely avoid reading it in the first place. The issue for me really is about quality – the hand-crafted versus the mass-produced. How long did it take for that novel to be written, two years or two months? There’s a difference. Other considerations of the status of genre are just a form of ill-informed snobbery. It’s clear in an age of mass-production and consumption that quality is not necessarily an issue for many people, but it is for me.
One more thought: Is it possible that, as real estate agents sometimes say, there’s no such thing as ‘the’ market? In other words, perhaps there are a series of only partly overlapping fiction/genre economies, each of which have to be assessed in their own terms, within their own communities of reference?


harold 03.06.08 at 6:41 am

In my period of reading genre fiction I found that I would start a new one and when I got more than halfway through I would suddenly realize that I had read that particular one before but had totally forgotten it because it was so unmemorable and lacking in characterization or incident. I would then suddenly remember how it ended, spoiling it totally for me. The books are interchangeable.

A “good” book, on the other hand, lends itself to being read over and over, always yielding new satisfactions. The so-called classic canons in books and music got to be that way in many cases because teachers didn’t mind having to teach them over and over to their students.

I realize, however, that some very ambitious authors have lent a hand to genre fiction — for obvious economic reasons. It’s very possible that they can create something of value out of them. Look at, for example, The Name of the Rose.


Tracy W 03.06.08 at 9:58 am

Picador – when it comes to film novelisations, I’ve read a few, and even when they have been written by authors whom I like otherwise I’ve found them very poor. The plot always seems thin, I think because they are expanding a two hour movie to novel-length, rather than starting with something that is a novel-length idea.

Plus they keep writing scenes that were really good in the movie, but don’t work in a book.


Zora 03.06.08 at 12:04 pm

At last! Someone familiar with the works of Jane Austin, that under-appreciated American authoress.

Those of you who don’t know her works may be interested in the bibliography at


chris y 03.06.08 at 1:33 pm

the sex scenes are less hard to do, for one thing

I believe this. A mainstream novelist once told me of a friend whose publisher had proposed to her that she write a bestseller. Part of this process was that a certain number of sex scenes were identified in the early stages, and these were given to a professional writer of sex scenes to draft, as the nominal author was not expected to be capable of doing it right.


Picador 03.06.08 at 3:18 pm

tracy w:

Yes, of course they’re poor. I’m surprised that you’ve read novelizations by authors you admire; I didn’t realize anyone would be willing to put his or her real name on a film novelization.

One of the problems, of course, is what you point out: expanding a 2-hour film into a novel leaves it threadbare, and literal transcription of scenes designed for the screen onto the page leaves them flat. The reason there’s no corresponding problsm for film adaptations of novels is, I think, a consequence of the asymmetry I pointed out in my post: many books can be written for the price on one film, so books tend to be longer, and filmmakers can pick and choose among the best (or most popular) bits of literature for their inspiration. Good film adaptations of novels often take extensive liberties with the text; something like “No Country For Old Men” is exceptional in that it is a fairly faithful adaptation while still being quite a good film (significantly better than the book, IMO, although I do like McCarthy in general).

So why don’t novelizers (is that the right word?) take more liberties in their adaptations? Why not expand on the material in the film, riff on it, make it more complex and engaging in the specific ways that literature can be and that film cannot? Because, as I said in my first post, that’s not what they’re being paid to do. It’s not a function of the art form itself, but of where it is positioned in the industry. Nobody picks up a film novelization looking for a complex novel that uses the film as a jumping-off point; anyone who picks one of these books up wants a faithful retelling of the film, one that recaptures the feeling they had while watching it, or, in the case of readers who missed the film in the theater (and before the VCR), they want to imagine what it must have been like to watch the film. I remember that, as a boy, my brothers and I used to spend hours telling each other about movies we’d seen, scene-by-scene. Film novelizations are close to an oral art form in that way, I think: they are an attempt at pure narrative, a faithful retelling of a story the author had heard once.


4jkb4ia 03.06.08 at 4:57 pm

I have to defer to MissLaura who has actually read a romance novel in the last 20 years.
IMHO F/SF is stronger in terms of the raw imagination needed from the writers. When F/SF overlaps with romance in terms of such writers as Catherine Asaro or Laurell K. Hamilton the result can be very good in terms of story.
An F/SF novel is actually readable without bringing up any issues of tznius although Regency romances don’t have this problem either. I never finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons” because I wanted to be able to go to bed with my husband after having read it.


4jkb4ia 03.06.08 at 4:59 pm

Romance novels are simply not escapist for me. I rejected that sort of male figure when I married my husband.


Righteous Bubba 03.06.08 at 5:35 pm

IMHO F/SF is stronger in terms of the raw imagination needed from the writers.

Well, to write a “good” book, sure, but generally speaking I don’t think many F/SF books are actually imaginative.


RS 03.06.08 at 5:37 pm

I’d like to propose a genre of fiction that could compete quite credibly (at least among readers of this blog) for lowest status of them all:

hyper-Evangelical post-apocalyptic/rapture dreck…

I’d (and I’d wager many CR readers would) gladly display a shelf of dog-eared and well-loved Harlequin paperbacks before allowing a single hardcover volume of LaHaye & Jenkins to touch my bookshelves.


floopmeister 03.06.08 at 11:22 pm

Funny – just going through this whole SF vs literature thing at the moment with the draft of my first novel.

Sent it to a SF publisher (why not, I thought) then realised it might be too ‘literary’ for that genre.

Still, would a ‘standard literary’ imprint (does that category even make any sense?) handle a near future novel dealing with violence, unrequited love, the nature of memory and the intersection of religion and technology?

I mean, there’s not a ray gun, spandex bodysuit or hyperintelligent alien overlord race in sight – so it can’t be ‘genre’, right?

I’ve had friends (working in IT too!) offer to proofread it because they ‘love sci fi’, but I haven’t wanted to. I know the sci fi they read – would they even get the references to Poe, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche? Let alone the religious ruminations…

And then I think even I’m caught up in genre snobbery myself…

BTW I haven’t read ‘The Road’ yet – how was it marketed? Literary or Sci Fi?


Keir 03.07.08 at 4:13 am

Consider Phlebas, floopmeister.


floopmeister 03.07.08 at 4:59 am

Yeah, I thought about Iain Banks – maybe that’s the closest (and most positive!) analogy for the sort of crossover that it’s turned out to be…

Not that I’m putting myself in his league, mind you.


clew 03.09.08 at 1:16 am

floopmeister — like Ryman’s _Air_? I bought it in a SF bookshop, but it looks to me as though it was also marketed as lit’ry. (And did well, as it should have.)

Have I missed a reference to Jennifer Crusie, who IIRC wrote a thesis on the structure of the ‘women’s romance novel’ and was so *right* in her deductions that she has since published a string of bestsellers? (misslaura may have been summarizing Crusie’s argument differently than I would). Crusie is currently co-writing books with a male writer of thrillers; they are intentionally trying to have both action and romance. I didn’t think the first one totally jelled, but their joint blog is a charming performance of contrary styles.

Comments on this entry are closed.