During the course of the last two years, I've been working hard on turning my writing hobby into a writing career. Last year, I began an MA program in British and American Literature. So, during the day I have Deep and Serious discussions about the greatest literature in the canon, and at night, I write erotic romance. Sometimes, it gets a bit weird.
Romance novels do come up in the occasional discussion, though they tend to be referred to as "bodice rippers" and "those books at the checkout aisle in supermarkets" (can you hear the disdainful tone?). Both of my pseudonyms are secrets at school, so nobody knows that when they're insulting the readers of romance novels, I tend to take it personally, because in a way, they're insulting my readers.
But after awhile, I realized something. They weren't insulting Romance novels and writers and readers. In their mind, Romance is the most accessible example of low culture. And, let's face it, by definition, romance books are low culture. It's not a very nice thing to say, but it's useful shorthand in the context of theory or literary discussion.
Which makes me wonder if there's any one thing romance novelists can do to change the perception and to gain a little respect. Does the swan hat help matters? Probably not. But you know, there are millions of people who never saw the swan hat, who probably don't know what the RWA is, and they will still have the sense that romance is "low culture" even if they don't know the term. Or why it bothers them.
But that relates back to the suggestion that the real problem is sexism. What's high culture? Often it's the art work and literary achievements revealing the culture of the ruling class---the elite. Women are not the ruling class, and the perception of romance is that it's by women, for women. We could all forgo swan hats and dress professionally--it won't change the fact that the majority of us are women, and the majority of our readers are women.
I'm not saying, "You can't change things, don't try." I am saying that this issue is more than just the lack of respect romance receives and broadening the market. The difference between high culture and low culture might have been named/articulated in the mid-19th century, but we're working with concepts as old as art and theory itself. Shoot, in a way, we could probably blame Plato for our problems. We're hamstrung by our genre. To give you an idea of HOW hamstrung, there are many novels from the Hellenistic period of Greece that are, for all intents and purposes, Romance novels. I could send one to a publisher today, and if its rejected, it won't be because it doesn't meet the standards and conventions of the genre. These are, for all intents and purposes, novels appearing 1400 years before the so-called novel was "invented."
Not many people have heard of the Greek romances. Any guess as to why?
We're struggling against centuries of preconceptions here. The issue encompasses sexual politics, literary theory, history, and more. The fact that it all gets focused on a swan hat is, well, nonsensical to me. Sure, the hat might be obnoxious, but it's not everything that's wrong with Romanceland, and it's sure as hell not the sort of thing that will keep romance authors from getting the respect they deserve. I don't keep my secret identities secret because somebody gets a little too rambunctious at a signing party, and if she had never worn the swan hat, I still wouldn't "come out of the closet" so-to-speak. Besides, struggling to be what you think people want you to be is a losing game.
Of course, Shakespeare was low culture, too. I'm not saying we're comparable to Shakespeare. I am saying norms and standards change--but there were a lot of different forces that brought about those changes, and none of them had anything to do with what sort of man Shakespeare was. Or his fashion sense. No matter how respectable you behave and dress in public, that doesn't mean it'll translate to how your books are viewed. You can respect the hell out of an author, but still have little to no regard for their writing. Struggling to make yourself palatable to all the folks who consider romance a "lesser" genre is fighting a losing game. In fact, I sorta suspect that if romance writers ever gain respect, it won't be because of anything romance writers did at all. And yeah, I guess I would say that since I'm also training to be an academic, and we have an awfully high view of ourselves, but in many ways, it's the academics/critics who give legitimacy to writing. The fact that there are currently only a handful of scholars working in Romance hurts your respectability far, far more than how authors comport themselves. It doesn't hurt your sales, and it doesn't hurt your views of yourselves, but critics are necessary to elevate work from "low" to "high" culture. Fortunately, that area of academia is slowly but surely growing, and I'm interested in participating there myself.
It would be very easy to throw myself completely into academia, and only write the sort of books my colleagues in the MFA program write. I'm not in the MFA program, but there's a lot of overlap in terms of classes and students between the MFA and the MA program. It would be easy to do, and that way, when I publish, I don't have to secretly squee to myself, but refrain from mentioning to the people I see and work with every day (especially galling because I think I have more books published than the entire MFA program combined). But I love my books. I love my characters. I love the people I've met in romance. I love to read it. I love who we are and what we do. The division between "low culture" and "high culture" doesn't bother me in the slightest. But it is there.