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Responding to a Reader about (What Else?) Romance

My friend and fellow blogger, Becky Miller, left a comment yesterday on my now infamous (and what will surely be one of my most viewed posts of 2011) P.S. I Love You. Apparently, I’m still getting flak even when I make a concession. Sheesh! Anyway, I thought Becky’s question was important and felt it would be helpful to our conversation to post our exchange. (Plus, I know Becky likes the press. JK, Becky!). And for the record, Becky and I are critique partners, compatriots, fellow believers, Laker fans, and opinionated.

So Becky wrote,

Here’s the thing I found most interesting in your post: “I have never read a CBA romance novel — historical, contemporary, or otherwise.” You are one honest dude, and the email writer shouldn’t be mad at you or stop visiting your blog. But she should, in my opinion, call you on things like this. On what basis have you vociferously oppose the genre in the past since you haven’t read it? It would appear you have done so by hearsay. But who are you listening to and forming your opinion?

And finally, will reading one book in the genre put you in a position to make categorical statements about the entire group?

See, this is the very thing I chafe against when it comes to editors making categorical statements about speculative fiction. Which one represents them all?

Okay. These are some great points. Here’s my long-winded response:

That’s a great question, Becky and, frankly, one I find pretty easy to answer. First, it’s a mischaracterization to say I “vociferously oppose the genre” of Romance. I don’t. A world — and a bookstore — without romance would be a boring place. However, I think Christian authors and readers should bring a different set of values and expectations to the subject, just as we should to any genre we write and read in. Much of my objections / criticisms relate to this collision between the Romance genre and Christian culture and values. We should think deeply about this (as we should about the Horror genre, the Sci-fi genre, etc.). In fact, if you peruse my archives, you’ll find plenty of articles on Christianity and Spec-fic, Horror, Sci-fi, etc. So Romance is not the only target of my ongoing over-thinking. But I personally don’t consider myself “vociferously oppose[d to] the genre.”

Second, Do you withhold criticism and/or opinion from everything you have NOT actually seen or read (like R-rated movies, horror novels, chick flicks, Rob Bell’s books, etc.)? Answer: None of us do. Of course, without firsthand knowledge, some of our criticism / opinions may be skewed. But depending upon the info we’ve gathered about said genre, our criticism / opinions might be spot on.

So…

The issue is not whether I’ve read CBA romance novels, as much as Are my criticisms valid? The objection that we can’t criticize or form opinions about things we haven’t seen or read CAN BE a smokescreen. I mean, How many CBA romance novels must one read before they can start leveling “informed” criticism? Five, ten, twenty? And is the same true of horror, steampunk, erotica, vampire lit, urban fantasy, espionage, bio-thrillers, westerns, noir, New Age, etc., etc.? I haven’t read the Twilight series but know enough about it and its fans to be able to make some educated observations. Is this wrong? Some may think so. I don’t.

Much of my critique about Romance comes from what I know it to be: Written by women, for women, dealing with women’s issues, often light, sometimes snarky, occasionally heavy, and frequently containing “relational” elements. Am I wrong? All one needs to do is peruse the covers of the Women’s Fiction aisle to get an idea what they’re aiming for. Could this be stereotyping? Absolutely. Is it always? Not necessarily.

I don’t mind being told where I’m wrong about my observations / criticisms of CBA Romance (as I hope some of my recent posts have shown). However, I think some of the flak I get may be an indication that I’m hitting a nerve.

And, oh, by the way… Since I’m taking the Romance Challenge, maybe you should take the Horror Challenge. I’ve got several novels I can recommend. ;)

I appreciate Becky leaving that comment and, pretty much, know my response won’t satisfy everyone. That’s all right. I’m beginning to wonder if just having this conversation, and remaining civil, is a really good thing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read Redeeming Love

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Nicole April 5, 2011, 6:47 AM

    Good questions, good responses. I won’t read Amish fiction. Won’t. Unlike you, there’s probably nothing anyone can say to make me concede. It’s a huge NO WAY. I can testify that some of your “complaints” about the romance genre are absolutely accurate to the point where this romance/love story writer rarely reads the genre anymore. Weird but true.

    It would be cool if Redeeming Love gave you a real picture of the current romance genre, but it doesn’t. As others have said, it represents the gold standard not only in the love story category but in the overall representation of fine CBA literature. To tell you the truth, I’ve wondered if it would get published in today’s CBA climate (in the romance genre).

  • Jay April 5, 2011, 6:59 AM

    Mike, your dilemma a kind of a Sorites paradox, but in reverse. How many novels as “grains of sand” make one a “pile” of an expert?

    I don’t think there’s a satisfactory answer, but I will hijack Justice Potter’s comment and say that we don’t know how to define an expertise or authority on romance novels, but “we’ll know it when we see it.”

    PS- The wife and I (mostly the wife) just watched “PS – I Love You” over the weekend. It looked kind of cheesy.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 5, 2011, 10:07 AM

    If I’d realized you posted our exchange today I would have left my answer here. As it is, if anyone cares to see my rebuttal they can find it in the comments section of the original post.

    Suffice it to say, I think you made some valid comments, Mike. We can learn a lot by listening to others. I formed a strong opinion about such books as Twilight and Hunger Games by listening to what people I respect had to say. I simply question whether or not that method works for an entire genre. And I also question how you discern who is a reliable, trusted voice, given that there are as many fans of Christian romance as there are detractors. But now I’m starting to repeat myself. 😮

    Becky

  • Rachel April 5, 2011, 10:41 AM

    Well, I commend you for stepping out, Mike. I don’t want to sound stereo-typical here, but I think it’s more difficult for a man to broaden his reading than a woman. It would be weird for you to sit there with one of those books (some of the covers…oi) without feeling awkward (thank God for Kindle). Not to mention, mooshy content abounds, and what man wants to sit through that?

    I read a little of everything, have always read broadly. But I can enjoy tough and moosh. 🙂 Though, the moosh can get exhausting at times.

    I’ve kind of had stages in my life, with my reading. As a teen I read almost exclusively horror and poetry, mingling Yeats and MaCammon (weird combo, but I was a bit emo), then as a young woman I expanded into literary with Fahrenheit 451 and Pearl S. Buck. I devoured Shakespeare and Dickens I found Lewis and then The Hobbit.

    But then I got married and began having children. I was encouraged to stop filling my mind with the “garbage of the world” and focus on the Lord, so of course, I was supposed to read CBA fiction. For six years it’s all I read. And I read a LOT of it. Mostly woman’s fiction cause that’s where my life was at the time. But I found that a lot of the characters just made me frustrated and I couldn’t relate to most of them.

    I found solace in Dekker and Lawhead and eventually came to the conclusion that I didn’t like woman’s fiction. Rivers was the only one I could stomach.

    Then something wonderful happened–I became a youth pastor. And to connect with the kids I started reading what they were. Well, being a lover of books my whole life it didn’t take me long to find a huge amount of books I was sad to have missed as a young person (my parents were very protective–most of the books I read, I had to hide). It started me reading in ABA again and that’s when I came full circle. That’s when I decided to become a writer.

    I think it’s vital for all writers to read a LOT and read broadly. I write for teens but I don’t exclusively read YA (about 50% of the time). I also read adult speculative and historical and literary and horror. Though, I must say, I don’t read woman’s fiction in CBA anymore. It’s a stomach thing. 😉

  • Lyndie Blevins April 5, 2011, 2:53 PM

    I feel your pain. It is not easy to be transparent while growing. It does make others uncomfortable. If the book gets to be too much, you could always follow Rachel and Joey’s advice on Friends and put the book in the freezer for a while.

    • Rachel April 5, 2011, 3:02 PM

      LOL…I love that. Joey’s such a cutie.

  • Katherine Coble April 5, 2011, 10:00 PM

    Every time I speak against a sector of the CBA I get accused of not being able to hold an opinion about it because I haven’t read _Every single book_ ever published in the CBA market.

    I am generally egalitarian when it comes to reading. I know one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And I can attest that I’ve held wildly divergent opinions about the same book when I reread it at a different point in my own life.

    That being said I think both the crux and the horror of being a reader is that you have to CHOOSE WHAT BOOKS YOU CAN’T READ. There isn’t enough time in this lifetime to read everything that crosses my path, no matter how hard I try. And just as I don’t practice medicine or design buildings I know what books I will most likely pass up. And why I must.

    CBA romances written after 1985 and the Advent Of Oke generally top that list, although I occasionally dip my cup in the well to see if I like the taste of the water any better.

    I know everyone is partial to their own genre. But I think it’s kind of nice, actually, that there ARE different strokes for different folks. Of course I do feel a bit sorry for the CBA romance writers out ther because they take a lot of heat. But when you are 95% of what gets shelved in the already-slim Christian fiction section I think some swipes are to be expected.

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