Suck It, Janet Fitch. Romance Novels Saved My Life.

March 7, 2013



So I was wandering the dank catacombs of the internetz this morning and came across this 1999 Salon interview with Janet Fitch, the author of White Oleander.  I have neither read her book nor seen the 2002 movie of the same title.  The only reason this interview attracted me is that its subheading announces Fitch became "an overnight success after 20 years."  As someone who has recently begun to chase the dragon of writing novels, I found this charming phrase utterly terrifying.  Twenty years of rejection?  Man, oh, man.  To survive that, you gotta have heart.

The interview begins well.  Authors' journeys are always interesting to me.  But then Fitch goes on to talk about an important mentor she had.
[Kate Braverman] would put things in a way that seared on your brain. I remember I brought in an early work. I was a former journalist, so I had a very straightforward, pedestrian style. I was trying to really punch it up and I brought in a story and she said, “You know, you could make a really good living as a romance writer. It’s a good living, you could do that.” And I remember going outside and sitting in my car and crying.
What?  All I could think as I read this was, if someone told me I could make a really good living as a romance writer, I, too, would go outside, sit in my car, and cry.  With motherfucking joy.

I've always wondered why the romance genre inspires such popular scorn despite its enduring popularity.  Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon states in this 2008 Los Angeles Times article,
Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?  In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It's impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 -- Sturgeon's Law said that 90% of everything is crud.
So the line between highbrow literature and lowbrow literature can be quite murky, and on either side there is much more crappy writing than not.

In this 2005 New York Times article, literature professor and historic romance novelist Mary Bly writes,
My two worlds rarely come together because they are sharply demarcated by prejudice on both sides. Academics tend to deride romance; romance readers often ignore literary fiction altogether.
Bly's next bit really captures how I became addicted to reading romance novels. 
We all long for stories with narrative drive, stories that talk about relationships, and stories that aren't riddled with violence or death. Romances reflect no more than what most of us hope for in daily life - and that includes being lucky enough to experience shared desire.
When I first started reading romance novels, I was going through a difficult period in my life involving loss and recovery.  Romance novels helped me recover by giving me the headspace I needed to ease my own suffering.  I am convinced they were the mental palliative I needed to become stronger.  As I got better, I felt inspired to try and write my own.  And that's the writer's journey I'm on now.