Romances and F&SF

Last week, a reader made the comment that “Most literature professors would dismiss Mr. Modesitt’s novels with the same contempt he probably reserves for Harlequin romances.” While I can’t argue with his evaluation of “most literature professors,” even though I spent several years teaching literature at the undergraduate level, I can and do dispute the assessment of my views on romances, Harlequin or otherwise. Having survived the adolescence and maturing of six daughters, who now tend to prefer F&SF, I have seen more than a handful of romances around the house over the years. I’ve even read a few of them, and I’m no stranger to including romance in at least some of my books.

Because of my own contempt for those literary types, whether professors or writers, who sniff down their noses at all forms of “genre” fiction, I’m not about to do the same to romances… or thrillers, or mysteries. I do allow myself some disgust at splatter-punk, and the pornography of violence and/or human plumbing, otherwise known as ultra-graphic sex, but that doesn’t mean some of it might not be technically well-written. Snobbery and blanket exclusion under the guise of “excellence” or “literary value” is just another form of bias, usually on the part of people who haven’t bothered to look deeply into genres or forms.

While more than a few “sophisticates” and others dismiss romances as formulaic, that’s just a cop-out. Just about every novel ever published is formulaic. If novels weren’t, they’d be unreadable. The only “formulaic” question about a work of fiction is which formula it follows.

Romances happen to have some redeeming features, features often lacking in mainstream “literary” fiction, such as a belief in love and romance, and optimistic endings, and often retribution of some sort for evil. There’s often a theme of self-improvement as well. Are these “realistic” in our world today? No, unhappily, they’re probably not, but paraphrasing one of the grumpy old uncles in Secondhand Lions, there are some things, which may not even be true, that people are better off for believing in, such as love, honor, duty… And if romances get readers to believe in the value of such traits, they’re doing a lot more for the readers and society than “realistic” novels about the greed on Wall Street or the narcissism of the wealthy or the depths of violence and degradation among the drug and criminal cultures.

From a practical point of view as an author, I also can’t help but note that romances are the largest selling category of fiction by a wide-selling margin. Nothing else comes close. As in every other form of writing, there are exceedingly well written and even “literary quality” romances, and there are abysmal examples of fiction, but as Theodore Sturgeon said decades ago, “ninety percent of everything written is crap.” That includes F&SF, romances, and even, or especially, mainstream “literary” fiction.

So… no, I don’t dismiss romances. Far from it. And I just write my romances as part of my science fiction and fantasy.