It's long been said that the romance novel is just mindless "fodder" and not worth much.
Who says this and why do, "they," say it?
Well, after some careful pondering, I've begun to realize who, "they," were, at least initially - men. Yes, that's right, men.
For most of our previous generations, the woman has always taken a backseat to the males of society. It wasn't until WWII that things really started to change. During that war, all the men were across the sea, so there wasn't anyone to work the factories, well, no one except the wives. The manufacturers realized they had a way to continue to make product for the men to use overseas, and began hiring women. The problem was, when the men returned after the war, the women didn't want to stop working.
The women working the factories found a freedom they didn't know existed, and they liked it. Of course, many women were happy to go back to being homemakers whether it was because they really wanted to or because they felt it was their duty as good wives we may never really know, but there were still many that wanted to keep that freedom and began to fight for things to change. It's a fight that still goes on in some places, especially with the economy getting tighter.
Why is this fight still raging?
This is evident in how long it takes for a society to truly change. Not all, but some of the older generations are still threatened by a woman worker because, in the eyes of the society he grew up with/in, he would be less of a man.
It isn't just an ego thing here, even if it seems like it, it's about a sense of self worth. Many societies by nature raise the males to be the bread winner, the hunter, the gatherer and women to be the homemakers and bed warmers. So when their position in the hierarchy of society becomes threatened, they feel threatened. It then becomes more about self-worth than ego. We're always about making our kids feel good about themselves, but we forget the men in our lives have feelings too.
Because there are still those notions that the men in society must not show their emotions.
Yes, things are changing, but not for every society. So, before we get mad and upset about the literary world not taking romance writing seriously, we need instead to be working to change their literary minds about the quality of our work. I don't think they ever said that the stories weren't well-written, just not noteworthy.
Sure, some of the romance novels I've read did seem like mindless fodder, and some of the stuff that gets made even today falls into that category as well, however, not all romance writing does. Think about it. Let's look at some of the great romances and see what they have that some of today's romance novels don't.
Let's look at The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind for starters. It wasn't just that they were period/historical romance novels that made them great, but the fact that they really tried to bring those times to life, beyond just telling a story. The happy ending wasn't always in the picture either.
Think about it.
In The Thorn Birds (TTB), while Meggie and Ralph consummate their love from time to time, they aren't really together in the traditional sense, nor are they the "happy family." The ending is more sad than happy, even if it might be emotionally satisfying.
In Gone With the Wind (GWTW), the romance is volatile, the heroine is self-centered and the hero walks away from her to what has to be one of the greatest lines of all time, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!" Not a happy ending by any means, but it's enjoyable because you're so glad that Rhett decides to take that step because he's just too damn good for spoiled, self-centered Scarlet.
So why can these stories still stand the test of time and seem to gain quality with age?
These books with great romances in them do more than that. They talk about society and different aspects of it. GWTW uses Georgia as it's setting and the Civil War as it's time frame. It isn't just these two things that make it great, but the literary references to something much bigger. You can read on Wikipedia that the title came from a poem, and that the title itself could be a reference to the way of life in Georgia having "gone with the wind."
TTB also has some great references. For example, the title refers to a mythical bird that hunts it's entire life for the perfect thorn and then impales itself on it and sings a beautiful song as it dies. One could argue that Meggie and Ralph are thorn birds. Instead of going on with her life and finding a man who could love her for who she is, live with her on Drogheda, she finds Ralph and basically sticks to him. Sure, she tried with Luke, but gives up after that marriage falls short of her expectations. Same with Ralph, while he loves Meggie, he doesn't believe that he can live with her and still love god - he loved god more (as he put it), yet he still went to Meggie's bed later in his life while he was still a priest.
This isn't just reserved for books either. Look at some of the greatest sci-fi movies - Star Wars and Johnny Mnemonic. The clones in Star Wars represent Hitler's notion of the perfect society, and the fight it took for people to survive. If you look closely, arguments could be made comparing the resistance lead by Princess Leia to the French Resistance during WWII. Similarly, it might be argued that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, having such a strong impact on the outcome of the story, represent US and British troops. The blowing up of the Death Star can be compared to the atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On a different note, Johnny Mnemonic deals with the eventual impact the technological age has on a future society, and how the insurance companies eventually control what happens. This happens because they knew about the effects of certain "enhancements" or "upgrades" that could be obtained using implants and chemicals and had the cure, but did nothing about it, letting thousands become addicted and eventually die from using.
What do all these stories have in common? Substance. Yes, the books are longer, but there's a lot to digest there. Just like Steinbeck, London and others we've read for English classes, these stories have a lot of substance and imagery used to tell their stories.
That's what makes a romance novel more than literary fodder - having enough substance that, when picked apart, still has enough meat on it's literary bones to analyze. That's what literary critics are always looking for, something to analyze. The great, prize-winning romance novels offer a lot of substance for the reader to think about.
If you want to write a romance story that will be accepted and revered beyond the romance world, then put more substance to your stories. I know the trend is to write shorter stories for ePubs, but go that extra distance to cover more than just racial tensions, but all kinds of societal issues. Things that get people talking!
Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and many others do this. Classes supplied by RWA can improve your overall writing skills, but to really make your writing great, you need to learn from the best and the only way to do that is to read those works and see what themes you pick out.
Another, more recent example would be Paper Fish by Tina DeRosa. I read this for an English class, but it was still a good read.
I understand that not everyone wants to read this kind of book all the time. It just frustrates me when I "hear" some romance authors (published and unpublished) complain about rejection letters stating that their writing wasn't literary enough. While it can be frustrating to hear, literary greats are considered great for a reason. Your story (romance or not) will be mindless fodder if it doesn't have enough substance for a literary mind to chew on.
There are two ways to prevent this from happening and find more success when writing a story:
1. Make sure the company you sub to actually prints the kind of story you write
2. Fill your story with enough substance that, should they not regularly print that type of story, they'll sit up and take notice.
3. Read writers of all different types of fiction from many different eras, especially the classics. They're classics for a very good reason.
4. Remember, writing a story shouldn't always be about just the setting or the romance of the hero and heroine, but the entire society as a whole and its impact on your characters, even if you only focus on a few characters.
5. Consider your goal for your story and submit it to publishers according to the goal you wish the story to accomplish.
6. Do your research! Sometimes, publishing houses (electronic and print) have specific guidelines to follow when submitting and the stories they wish to see. Some companies have too many of one type of story and not enough of another. For example, if they're looking for sci-fi and time travel, don't submit to that publisher if your story isn't one of those types.
7. Take the time to hook up with other writers. Working with other writers through a blog like this one can really help get your name out there and get your writing noticed.
8. If your story gets rejected, don't be afraid to ask why. However, when you do ask, be sure to state that you want to know why it was rejected so that you can do better next time and hopefully not make the same mistakes.
I'm sure there are other reasons I've missed. If I have, feel free to share what you've learned with other writers!