Party guest: “Oh? You’re a writer? What do you write?”
Me: “I write fiction. SciFi and Fantasy. Fantasy mainly.”
Party guest: “For kids?”
Me: “I write Fantasy for adults.”
Party guest: “Oh, you write erotica about tramp-stamped detective chicks and vampires.”
Me: “Um. No. I’m writing about Irish myth and the Troubles.”
Party guest: “Oh, you write erotica about tramp-stamped Irish chicks and fairies with butterfly wings.”
I’ve never witnessed a conversation like the one above when the author in question is male. Writing for children is never brought up, let alone erotica. During my last signing at Barnes and Noble, I spent more than half my time explaining to customers that no, there aren’t any vampires in the book, the main character is male, and the only tattoos present on any character are prison tattoos. As much progress as has been made in SciFi and Fantasy circles* and in American society in general, we’ve still got a long way to go. So, let me get something off my chest here and now. As much as I’m okay with Romance’s interest in all things Fantasy, it can be, let’s just say, extremely frustrating for someone like me.
Because I don’t like Romance as a literary genre, and I never have.
Let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with Romance. It’s a perfectly legitimate and highly lucrative genre — more lucrative than SciFi/Fantasy ever has been and probably more so than it ever will be. Admittedly, I do have a seriously gooey center. One of my favorite things is cuddling up on the sofa with my husband and watching romantic comedies.** Plus, I cut my teeth on swashbuckling pirate films with Errol Flynn giving it his all for the beautiful and haughty Maureen O’Hara. But Romance (the literary genre) just isn’t my thing. No big deal. I’m repeating myself here, I know. Because for some reason, a female stating that she doesn’t like Romance as a genre is often treated as gender betrayal. Hell, I’ve seen men take abuse in public for not wanting Romance in their SciFi/Fantasy. When did not liking a genre become so… politically charged?
When I was a girl I was encouraged to like gender appropriate things, but like any geeky kid, I naturally gravitated toward SciFi/Fantasy and Horror. My sister was different. She liked Romance. Interestingly enough, she never got the chat with my mother about her reading material. I did.*** Repeatedly. In fact, at one point my parents consulted the family priest, Father Mulvihill, about their weirdo daughter. Bless him, he laughed. Then he informed them that J.R.R. Tolkien was a nice Catholic and asked if I’d read any C.S. Lewis? (Thus, Father Murray was destined to become a Jesuit.)
I’m a feminist. When I say that, I mean I believe that women are people. Just like men are people. Human beings are terribly beautiful and flawed creatures — all at the same time. That means I’m flawed too. It also means I’ve a right to my own likes and dislikes. However, just about everything about being female these days is sexualised. So, it’s really hard to remember that — even for me. It’s really complicated too.
Like most writers, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was small. I’ve also a lot of literary heroes — Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Charles de Lint, Holly Black, Madeleine L’Engle, Charlotte Brontë, and J.R.R. Tolkien to name a few — but I’ve always found it difficult to find an equal number of universally respected female writers. It’s still that way, unfortunately. I grew up in an era when the feminist war-cry was “In order to get half the respect for doing a good job a man does, a woman has to be twice as good.” Instead of being depressed by that statement, I took that as a challenge. So, when I decided I wanted to be a writer I set my goal as high as possible. I decided to be the best writer I could be. I wanted to be like Ray Bradbury when I grew up. So, I set to work to learn how.**** When I first started writing Of Blood and Honey the main character was an American female. The character that eventually evolved into Liam was her love interest. I had it in my head that I’d write something in the tradition of Emma Bull and Charles de Lint with some Fahrenheit 451 thrown in for good measure — only it wouldn’t be about censorship. It’d be about terrorism, revenge, and war. And then Romance entered the Urban Fantasy scene. It seemed like everyone forgot what Urban Fantasy was. Definitions got changed. The rules were altered. And I knew right then and there that I couldn’t write a female main character — with or without a tramp stamp — and get any degree of respect. It’s sad, isn’t it? But that’s the truth. Besides, the more I wrote about Liam and his back story, the more interesting he became. Whereas Tess (formerly the main character) became less so. By the time my then soon-to-be agent (Joe Monti) asked me if I’d rewrite Of Blood and Honey so that Liam’s back story was the main story I already knew in my heart that I’d have to ditch 66,000 words of my 112,000 word novel. So, I agreed without hesitation — which frightened the socks off of Joe, I have to say. But it was the right thing to do.
Was it ever.
To be honest, I don’t like being afraid to write about sex or romance or violence or anything I set my mind to write because I’m female. These things are all very real aspects of human life. But I am, and that’s the truth. One day I hope to write a female main character who kicks ass. I want her to be older and powerful and wonderful and fully-formed like Helen Mirren’s character in Red. But that time isn’t now. I want to be a good SciFi/Fantasy writer. I don’t want to be a Romance writer. So, I can’t. Not yet. Right now, I’m too busy swimming against the Romance tide. Oh, sure. The tide is shifting. However, my worry is how it’s shifting. I see an undertow forming. Resentment. I understand why, believe me, but I don’t see that as a good thing because that could ever so easily become a witch hunt, and there are so many really good female writers out there who could get yanked under and drowned.
So, what’s the answer? Hell if I know. As Indiana Jones says, I’m making this up as I go along.
** Of course, one of my favorite things about my husband is that this is one of his favorite things too.
*** My first official literary offence was The Stand by Stephen King.
**** For the record, I’m perfectly aware I’ll never be *that* good, but a girl can dream, you know?