Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In Defense of the Category Romance

I've recently been re-reading some of Suzanne Brockmann, Jennifer Crusie and Linda Lael Miller's category romances--the highlight reel if you will. (And yes, I know, you're probably sick of my book analyzing posts, but both Tavy and I are sick--talking about what I'm reading is the best I can do!). I've read pretty much the entire backlist for all three, so I feel comfortable saying that each had some of her best moments in the category books.

But, I also notice that category books are but a footnote in many authors' careers, something to be overcome, escaped from, and quickly forgotten. Until of course, they hit the NYT bestseller list, and their publisher sees dollar signs from reissuing category books with snazzy new covers and calling them "novellas." And the readers snatch them up, many for the first time. The same readers who wouldn't be caught dead with a category book in hand.

Why is category such a dirty word? Among writers there seems to be a hierarchy of e-publishing, category, and the golden ring, single-title. But, among readers, who don't know from publishers, category seems to rank only slightly higher than comic books. When asked what I write, I often notice a slight wince, a furrowing of the brow when I say, "Romance." If I add the disclaimer, but not, you know, category books, there's almost an audible sigh of relief. Good, good, they can keep acknowledging me on the streets.

I'm lying of course. I'd happily give up a non-vital organ to sell to category, and I most assuredly DO write category, especially if the category romances I've been re-reading are any judge. But, I can't stand the look of disappointment, especially in the eyes of those who don't read romance. Which brings me back to, what is the great stigma over the little red, white, and blue books? Is that you can purchase them along with laundry detergent and milk at the grocery? That they fit neatly in a handbag? That there are simply so many of them? That they have little resale value?

I've noticed that many writers (not naming names :)) of category--best-selling, award-winning--don't read category. In fact, it's rare to meet a fellow RWA member who fesses up to reading category. You'll have much better luck finding members who read hard erotica. THEY write in to proudly stand up for that sub-genre. But, who's standing up for category? If even many of those who write it have their eyes firmly fixed on the "real" goal of single title, it's no wonder that many good stories get lost until it's backlist time, and they become hot commodities.

But for every bestseller with reissues, there's twenty authors who make their entire career in category, many very happily. With this in mind, I went back to my TBR pile and looked at the unread category books (that I was re-reading books rather than tackling these says something in and of itself). I read each first chapter AS IF IT WERE A SINGLE TITLE. Lo, and behold, my mind shifted. I held the book to a different standard. And, I found several winners.

Long before I read single title, I spent years reading category. I followed the reading habits of my grandmother, much to my mother's chagrin. But, somewhere along the line, I too became judgmental, choosing category only as a "last resort." I'm realizing that my preconceptions have cost me many a good story.

And, I'm going to make a concerted effort to change that. And now, I have an exercise for you, if you dare. I KNOW you have unread category books hanging around. Pull back the cover. Look at the title page as if you were handed a bestselling single title. Read the first chapter. Does it make a difference in your opinion of the book?

Are there category writers whom you DO read (beyond our own amazing Alice, whom I assume you're all reading)? Whose work transcends category and is simply a great story?


Karen Duvall said...

What an interesting blog post, Wavy. I like category books a lot, I think mostly because I know before starting one what I'll be getting. That whole "promise to the reader" thing is so true, for each line.

There have been some books, some authors, I just can't read for whatever reason. I read a gothic Intrigue by... I forget her HQ name but her real name is Ruth Glick. It was all I could do to make it through the book and I finally put it down about a chapter or two from the end. I didn't care enough to know what was going to happen to those stupid people, that's how bad it was. To me. She's an award-winning, best selling author, so who am I to say what's good? I'm obviously an idiot. 8^)

My favorite category authors are: Karen Templeton (will read ANYTHING she writes), Cassie Miles, Suzanne Brockman, and Evelyn Vaughn. (Alice is a given) And I never go into reading a cat book thinking "oh, this is category fiction so it's different." I just think of them as shorter stories. They have all the elements I'm looking for in a ripping good tale.

I'm with you, Wavy. I'd LOVE to write category books. I've tried! Not to say I won't try again. I've been told my voice is too mainstream, but what the heck does that mean? I like reading short, snappy books with the pace of a roadrunner on speed. Sometimes that's what I'm in the mood for.

I have a collection of Silhouette Intimate Moments on my TBR shelf. They're really old and I haven't read them yet because I've been focused mostly on my genre of interest. So I just now flipped open CODE NAME FIANCEE by Susan Vaughan. It starts like this:

"You will return the money your brother stole from us, or we will take action."

"It's three in the morning. Who the hell is this?" Nick Markos slammed down his half-empty glass. Glenfiddich splashed onto the mahogany desk that dominated one end of the library.

Dam. A waste of single malt Scotch.

Now that's the start of a great book, cat or ST. I think I'll take it with me tomorrow to Les Schwab and read it while I wait for my brakes to get done. 8^)

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Wonderful post, Wavy! I'm sorry to hear you're sick though. :(

Okay, I'll admit it. I'd never read a category book until I joined RWA. To me it wasn't about status though. It was because I love big, long, meaty books. I'm a fast reader, and I was going through some of the shorter STs in a day or two. I like the longer ones that drag me in and dump me in the center of a world I don't ever want to end.

However, since joining RWA, I've read some great categories. And I've developed an appreciation for the shorter story. I'm blogging on Saturday at the Bradford Bunch about genres NY isn't publishing ( - little plug there), but one thing category has always done is publish my genre - more adventure type romances - within its RS line. Right now, in ST, very few publishing houses are publishing that lighter-style RS. Harlequin's been doing it for years though.

I have read some categories I wanted to roll my eyes at (stupid) and toss agains the wall (irritating characters), and I've wondered how on earth so-and-so author won that award or this one with a particular book. But as a writer friend of mine says, that's not a reflecton on category in general. Pick up five STs and read them and you'll have the same reaction. Some books resonate with you and some don't. And that's based more on writing style and voice than on anything else.

And I went and looked. I have a couple of category books I won in a drawing sitting on my shelf. This is the opening of Sweet Mercy, a SuperRomance, by Jean Brashear:

The bags of groceries hit the floor with a thud.
Gamble Smith launched himself from the mattress. Yanked on his jeans. Faced Kat Gerard's stricken eyes.

And you're right, Wavy. That's a great opening - ST or Category. :)

Genene Valleau said...

Ah, to actually read again -- that would be wonderful! Since my reading time has been so limited, ANYTHING I pick up has to immediately catch and hold my attention, whether it's packaged as category or single title or whatever. If I'm not quickly hooked on a book, I don't waste my time trying to slog through it.

Am I prejudiced? Sure. Some story lines I just don't like and I won't even bother to pick up the book. (By the way, these are the story lines that Harlequin/Silhouette say are some of their best sellers. Yeah, I've always been a bit out of step with most of the population.) Unless it's an author I know. Then I'll take a closer look.

Aside from being a good story, I choose what I'm going to read by the mood I'm in and how much time I have. If I'm really enjoying a book, I want to read it all at once, but I rarely have the time to do that with longer books.

I don't want to start naming specific authors whose books I enjoy because I will leave out someone. But there have been many Harlequin Superromances I really liked. I also remember a Regency that was absolutely delightful because the hero was so different. And there have been time travels, historicals...again, it's the story, not the packaging.

Good topic, Wavy! Hope you and Tavy feel better quickly!

wavybrains said...

Thanks for the good wishes, ladies!

Karen--I'll have to check those authors out! (Well you know I already read Brockmann, but the others. Speaking of, Suze just updated her website with a preview of her summer release.)

I actually think my voice may *be* category. I'm not sure.

Eli--I'll have to check your blog out.

Genene--For me, reading is like food. Some people can't eat when they get stressed. Others eat MORE. The busier I am, the MORE I read. I can't NOT read. I'm currently looking at Tavy's nose contemplating whether she's better enough for the library.

I hope you get more reading time soon!

Alice Sharpe said...

Wavy, sorry you and Tavy are under the weather.

Well, I don't know what to say as this is obviously where I live.

The whole ST/Category debacle eludes me. Frankly, I think the biggest difference is in title: Category puts their hooks in the titles, ST does not. That's a joke. Might be true...

Length. That's it. If you gave Eli a scene to write and me a scene to write I can guarantee you mine would be half as long. She has a "bigger voice." Writing my length would cramp her. Me writing her length isn't going to happen.

I wasn't aware there was such a stigma to writing category until a couple of years ago. I think of it this way: I'm published all over the world, my books make me a decent wage, and there are writers writing the same thing I write who write ST for other houses and yet write category, too, because sometimes the subject, the length, and yes, the money is better. I have a friend who writes Desire for Silhouette and also Mira, Harlequin's ST line. She loves the Desires and actually wanted to write more of them and fewer Mira. What's the big deal?

Btw, my dh is a huge John Steinbeck fan. Cannery Row is 207 pages long. Travels With Charlie is 237. My last book (same sized print and paper) was 240. My point: my dh has read each of these books umpteen times. He knows and loves the characters. He loves to revisit the scenes, he loves certain passages and looks forward to coming across them again. Steinbeck accomplished this is in a 201 page book and I am pretty sure this is why: that's how many pages it took for him to tell his story in his way. That's all any of us can do.

Category may have abused itself by getting so wrapped up in certain hooks that they became overused and a cliche. Sometimes the writing isn't great because of the volume. But these things are true across the romance board and well into popular fiction.

So, here I am, a category writer and fine with it.
Interesting blog. Thanks everyone for your kind words about my work.