Today’s guest is New York Times bestselling fantasy author Michelle Sagara! She has published novellas, short stories, and approximately 30 novels, including the books in the ongoing series The Chronicles of Elantra (beginning with Cast in Shadow), The Queen of the Dead (beginning with Silence), and The House War (beginning with The Hidden City). Oracle, the sixth book in The House War series she writes as Michelle West, will be released on May 5.
I don’t write romance.
Let me say that again.
I do not write romance.
Now I’d like you to pause and consider that statement, because I’ve seen it a lot. And I’ve come to understand the ways in which it can be considered undermining—even when that’s not my intent.
Whatever else you want to say about dearauthor.com and smartbitchestrashybooks.com, I think they’ve done two incredibly invaluable things for the romance reading community. The first: they’ve de-stigmatized romance reading. The second: they’ve recognized clearly—and stated unequivocally—that romance readers drive fiction sales. They always have. Even in the ’90s, when I was first submitting fantasy, that was true. But in the ’90s, romance reading was in general a dirty secret. It was considered hugely, intellectually downmarket. You could read romance, and obviously, given sales numbers, many, many readers did, but you didn’t publicly admit it. Because people would judge.
People outside of the internet environs still do.
I don’t read a lot of romance. Before I stumbled across these sites, I didn’t read romance at all.
You may ask how it is I stumbled across these sites, and why I read them, if that’s the case. I found them in my feeds, as discussions on their various posts were linked. But I stayed because: reviews.
I like book reviews. I always have. I like reading book reviews about books I will never read. I like the construction of opinion, and the sense of the reader behind it. I used to read Locus for the reviews, not the news, back before I actually attempted to sell my first novel. Well, that and the forthcoming books list.
I had not realized that dearauthor.com had reviewed some of my books until, in my semi-annual google search, I came across a review there for one of my books. The book had been published in October, I believe – I found the review in March of the following year. I had missed the initial review posting, although I was otherwise quietly lurking and reading. I was learning about a different reading community. I’d worked in a general bookstore for years, and then in a specialty SFF bookstore for more years.
I knew very, very little about the romance genre and its readership.
I didn’t realize, for instance, that Romance required an HEA (Happily Ever After). I didn’t realize that calling a book a romance essentially promised that, if it promised no other thing. I didn’t come to most books with a sense of rigid expectation, and I was not part of the general readership.
But I learned.
The thing that impressed me most was not about the actual writing, and not, in the end, about the reading; it was the growing realization that the Romance industry—its writers, its editors—was predominantly female. That women writing Romance were actually making a much better living than most of the midlist writers in any other genre. Here was a segment of industry in which women were leaders and captains and in control, economically, of their lives.
It was, and is, a profoundly feminist and feminine work space.
As such, it has been accorded—it is still accorded—very little respect in the general polity.
One of the things that I do not seem to be able to get my head around while writing is romantic love. I understand couples. I understand relationships. But the beginning of a relationship is so different for so many people I can’t quite get a sense of that into the books I write. I am aware that this makes my books no-goers for some readers. Because even in non-romantic fantasy there is almost always a central romance or a love story.
My first four books had a very strong, central romance. But…the story, in some ways, grew out of Beauty and the Beast. Not in a way that was obvious even to me; a reader pointed it out to me and I realized: Oh. They’re right.
So in theory I am capable of this. In practice, not so much.
There is nothing worse for readers than an unbelievable, unfelt, romance. It is the worst kind of paint-by-numbers, the worst kind of character-manipulation. Doing that will not help my books in any way.
So…I read and watch and try very hard to figure out what I’m missing.
For me, Romance is hard. I could write horror or hard SF far more convincingly. But honestly? Romance and sex and desire are human. The authors I have most admired in fantasy frequently have them as strong, central pillars in their novel structures.
And I often feel that I am staring at them through a thick glass window. Reading moves me. But when I write, when I reach for character while writing, I can’t grasp it. Political motivations, yes. Almost every other emotion and reaction, yes.
Research will not give you romance.
Nonfiction reading will not give you romance.
Outlining will not give you romance.
Or at least, it won’t give it to me.
When I was fifteen, it was frequently assumed that unless you could prove your intellectual credentials and you were female, you were reading romance. It was assumed that your high school life devolved around romance. It was assumed that your shopping choices, etc., devolved around—what else?—romance. Girls were boy-crazy.
If you were not boy-crazy, it felt a lot like pressure or dismissal.
It is easy to reach a point where you’d kind of like to scream in frustration; where you want to tell people I don’t read romance or I don’t care about romance as a declaration. It’s easy to hate the entire social dimension of that particular mode, because you don’t want to be part of it. You want to play D&D. You want to read SFF and discuss Frank Herbert or Ursula Le Guin. You want to discuss the comics you’ve been reading, or the computer game you’ve just discovered. You have a headful of books and daydreams and many of those daydreams are about being a superhero, not a girlfriend or a wife.
But in point of fact, it’s not the social paradigm itself that you hate. It’s the pressure to fit in where you don’t, where you can’t, belong.
As I got older, I realized this. Daydreaming about being a superhero is not, in fact, more virtuous or more intellectual than daydreaming about being a wife or a husband or a spouse. The entire world is frequently caught up in exactly that pursuit, that negotiation. Everyone wants to be loved.
Everyone has daydreams or fantasies. Mine are still about being a superhero, for what it’s worth.
When you are a woman writing in the SFF field, many people—some of them even women—will decide that you are de facto writing romance, or paranormal romance, or books that are whatever patina-of-genre over romance. And, as if they are still in that particular mode of “my interests good, your interests infantile”, they will outright dismiss the work without, you know, actually reading any of it.
In general, I don’t argue with this because there’s no point. What readers choose to read for entertainment—when their grades do not depend on it, or their job does not depend on it—they choose for their own reasons. If someone comes into the store and says they don’t read books by women, I don’t immediately launch into an argument about why this is foolish. (Well, okay, honesty makes me state that I mostly don’t do this >.>.)
But the truth is, women who are not writing romance or romance-tinged books are caught between rocks and hard places. The people who would probably best enjoy those books are often those who give the books the side-eye. If you’re writing urban fantasy, for instance, like Kat Richardson’s, people assume you are writing books like Ilona Andrews’ (and I love her books – this is not meant to be a slam).
But people who like Ilona Andrews’ work and pick up yours expecting it to be tonally similar…are often not going to like your books. So while the theoretical reading audience is larger, in practice, you’re not actually writing what that audience is looking for.
And when you are in this position you often make it clear that you are not writing those books. You are not writing Romance. And sometimes you’re not careful about it, because you’re not thinking of all the ways in which Romance and its many, many readers are already looked down on; you’re not thinking about the way in which you suggest that Romance has … girl cooties. You aren’t thinking of the way in in which an entire industry that is economically powerful is already dismissed because the industry has … girl cooties.
But, in fact, because of the culture and its varied reactions and its almost gendered sense of what constitutes valid or intellectual or even plain interesting, that’s almost implied.
I don’t write romance.
I don’t understand the heart of it well enough to have it sink into the blood and bone of my fiction.
And I think, in the end, that’s not a particular strength.
Michelle writes as both Michelle Sagara and Michelle West (and in one case Michelle Sagara West, don’t ask). Her newest novel, a West novel, is Oracle, the sixth book in the House War series. She can be found on the web at http://michellesagara.com, on twitter as @msagara, and on Facebook as Michelle Sagara.