DON’T BE A SNOBBY READER (LIKE ME) or HOW ANDY GIBB MADE ME WANT TO READ A ROMANCE NOVEL

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been methodically importing my entire CD collection into iTunes, backed up by a external hard drive and now resident on my shiny new 160GB iPod Classic. So far, I have about 11½ days worth of music on there (plus two movies and the entire first season of Star Trek the Original Series) and I’m lovin’ it—every day I listen to it on shuffle mode on my way back and forth from work and every day I hear at least one song I have never heard before (that’s how many CDs I have) and at least one other song I haven’t heard in twenty years or more.

The other day, an Andy Gibb song came on, and I was just about to skip it when I stopped myself, and not only listened but sang along, amazed that I knew every single word. I was just as amazed that the song was on my iPod in the first place. Where did this come from? Turns out it was on the soundtrack to the movie version of Charlie’s Angels, a CD my wife bought for reasons unknown, and which I blindly copied into my iTunes library.

The Bee Gees' Little Brother

This whole exercise has been a real walk down memory lane for me, one that brings up mixed emotions. I used to take great joy in my huge CD collection then somewhere along the way they just ended up in boxes in the closet, more of a nuisance than anything. I’m surprising myself by how easy it is, emotionally, to let go of that format and fully embrace the music for its own sake.

But then there’s this Andy Gibb song. When I was in high school I watched that great SNL rip-off Fridaysthe show that gave us the comedy geniuses Larry David and Michael Richards—LA’s answer to the late-night comedy sketch show. Fridays also featured hipper bands than SNL showcased at the time, drawn from the LA New Wave scene. There I discovered DEVO, and from DEVO New Wave and from New Wave punk and from punk the beginnings of what would come to be known as “alternative.” I went straight from AC/DC and Journey to being a hyper-radicalized suburban punk and (I now have the maturity to understand) an insufferable music snob.

I remember railing against “corporate rock,” disco, and anything else that didn’t fit into my narrow margins of what was cool, though there was very little if anything about me that was “cool.” I rejected literally everything I used to like, ignored everything that wasn’t presented with that alt sensibility, and missed out on some good music along the way.

I guess it’s just a function of getting older, but I find that I’m no longer able to get stridently angry about the perceived coolness or relative significance of any particular music group. I still have some favorites, and some bands and styles of music I just cannot get behind (I will never like Jethro Tull. Ever.) but I’ve given myself permission to considerably widen my musical net. In some cases, I can’t see the edges. Just this morning my iPod randomly switched from The Brady Bunch to Julia Fordham to Bauhaus, and I just reveled in the transition.

But then there’s books.

This iTunes exercise came about the same time that my editor, Peter Archer, commented on passages in The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction that I seemed overly catty when I discussed romance. I was being dismissive. My first reaction was something along the lines of, “Of course I’m being dismissive—it’s romance!” Then that Andy Gibb song started playing in my mind again, and it got me thinking.

Okay, maybe, as with Jethro Tull, I will never like romance novels. After all, they do tend to be written and sold to a specific demographic that I am not a part of. Right age, wrong gender.

Fabio, and . . .

But so many times over the years I’ve seen SF and fantasy, and especially the tie-in fantasy I’ve made a career of writing and editing, dismissed off-hand by people who are readily willing to admit they’ve never read it, but assume it has to be bad—the same way I’ve never read a word of a single romance novel but am (or used to be) convinced they’re awful, pointless, pandering fluff for lonely housewives. But then isn’t sword & sorcery awful, pointless, pandering fluff for lonely nerds? I’m a nerd—I’m happy to identify myself as a nerd. Nerds win. Just ask Bill Gates. But I’m not lonely. I have a wife and children and extended family and friends, and coworkers, and other professional acquaintances. I lead a very full life, which includes reading and writing SF and fantasy. I am forced to recognize that the same will be true for romance readers, mystery readers, “chick-lit” readers, and so on. I’ve read lots of mysteries I really enjoyed, but don’t think of myself as a “mystery reader.” Could it be that I could read a romance novel and not become a “romance reader,” per se, but also not hate it? Could I enjoy a romance novel? Could I at least respect the passion, the storytelling, the clever turn of phrase in a well-crafted romance?

. . . Wulfgar, Separated at Birth?

I guess I have to find out the hard way.

If I can sing along to Andy Gibb, if my iPod can contain both Pablo Cruise and Butthole Surfers, surely I can widen my literary net the same way.

To that end, I set out on this quest: To find a romance novel people think is good, and read it.

And that’s where you come in. Please comment here and recommend a romance novel or two (or several) that you think I might like. It doesn’t have to be a “fantasy romance” or anything that somehow sits outside the confines of the genre. I want the romance version of R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard: a great example of the genre at its best, even while it’s being put down by snobby naysayers. I can’t promise I’ll like it, but I promise to read it, and discuss it here, soon.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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17 Responses to DON’T BE A SNOBBY READER (LIKE ME) or HOW ANDY GIBB MADE ME WANT TO READ A ROMANCE NOVEL

  1. Nina says:

    The Notebook
    Rebecca
    Bridges of Madison County
    Outlander
    Like Water for Chocolate
    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

    • Philip Athans says:

      But wait–I read and LOVED Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That’s not a romance novel in the strict sense of the term. Is it? If so, done, and done! I was thinking something with a bit more Fabio.

  2. Nina says:

    Probably not strictly . . . Maybe you need one that is pub’d by Harlequin

  3. Deanne says:

    Danielle Steel’s Zoya. That is a romance novel. It is not even chick lit. I read it twenty years ago, so I am not sure how great I would be to me now.

  4. Gwenda says:

    I recommend just about anything by Jennifer Crusie, but especially Bet Me, Welcome to Temptation or Faking It.

    On the more urban fantasy/paranormal tip, I love Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs stuff.

  5. Pamela Toler says:

    The Garden Trilogy by Nora Roberts–romance with a distinct fantasy element

    Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and a guy whose name I don’t remember (and since the cat is sitting on my shoulder, I’m not going to get up and find out) –romance with techno-thriller elements

  6. Mary Elizabeth Allen says:

    Hey Phil, if you want a modern romance novelist who actually knows how to use crime drama as well, try anything by Linda Howard. I recommend Dying to Please – it’s appropriately stalker-esque and has very *hot* …. romance… scenes. Howard is a serial romance writer who has multiple NYT bestsellers. Not saying they are gonna make you run right out and start reading every romance novel out there, but they’re a good example of the genre.

    ~M.E.

  7. amelia says:

    none of nina’s suggestions are strictly romance novels, though they all have wonderful elements of romance. for the *quintessential* romance novel experience, you should read _the flame and the flower_ by kathleen woodiwiss. it revolutionized the 20th century romance novel by detailing the physical relations between the protagonists. it also is a fantastic example of the rapist become lover plot (yes this is a common plot of romance novels). it has pretty much ever hallmark of the Romance Novel. a few others:

    for a novel with a slightly humorous quirky cast of characters, try one of mary balogh’s novels from the slightly series. i like slightly dangerous the best. or slightly scandalous.

    for a classic ‘brutally strong man who can deal with anything must be brought to heel by being forced to face up to the fact that he loves a woman and is therefore needy’ try something by stephanie laurens. i’d suggest either devil’s bride or the promise in a kiss.

    for a contemporary, i strongly recommend lisa kleypas’s sugar daddy series. any of the three (sugar daddy, blue-eyed devil, or smooth talking stranger) would be good. i also liked jennifer crusie’s welcome to temptation.

    so there are some options. all tried and true romance novels, rather than chick lit or pulpy fiction with a heavy romance element. and i’d steer clear of the big names like danielle steel, etc. they write so many that usually there’s no much in terms of story or quality at all (not that the ones i’ve recommended are what i call “quality” writing; they just tend not to be as trite as the big name ones).

  8. OK, you describe me to a “T” here. Though I went from top 40 to classic rock to… well, TMBG opening my doors and showing me that it didn’t have to be 20 years old to be worth a listen — which is good, because the music that others were listening to while I was in high school is now being played on classic rock stations (The Smiths, anyone?).

    I’ve suffered myself to try a romance. It was trash. But then, the one I tried was just one that had been left behind at a cube I was visiting. And, well, I end up liking a lot of Shoujo (if you’re open to new genres and have been above Shoujo or manga in general before, Gina Bigg’s _Red String_ is a good place to start. It’s available in print or online — and _Azumanga Daioh_, which is both a manga and an anime for more girly comedy and less girly angst,). It’s not the same as your picture of Fabio making love to some woman…’s shoulder? (Honestly, not sure what he’s doing there.)

    I have also read… uhm… well, I suppose it was really prose porn, but I think they call it “erotic fiction” in more hoity toity circles that indulge in it. The book was… interesting. A lot of … man things. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the target demographic by that alone. However, I found myself skimming the omnipresent sex scenes to find out how the plot was resolved. It wasn’t especially deep, and I had guessed it right (guessing right was the most disappointing bit, I think, the predictability of it.) I can honestly say that I don’t really have a big desire to read another erotic fiction, for a wide variety of reasons (running for not caring for porn in general, not caring for descriptions of nude men in particular, and an only a middling plot), but I’m willing to say that some of it could have some craft to it.

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  14. Romance needn’t be an exclusive genre, nor should we relegate it to the bowels of literary muck.. As a reading “snob” myself, I have indulged in powerfully written classic romances such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” to “Their Eyes were Watching God” to Anne Rice’s erotica. Some books are simply not worth reading because they have little literary substance (i.e. drugstore or pulp romance replete with cheesy phallic symbols and imagery.) Sorry, Fabio.

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