In Praise of Romance

Can a man write a romance novel?

I remember one of my college English professors talking of wanting to “pick up a little spare change” as a graduate student.  He decided to write short stories using a female pseudonym and submit them to women’s magazines (this was back in the early 60’s, when magazines published a lot more short fiction).  His comeuppance was almost immediate: several editors sent him personal rejection letters, telling him to stop trying to write as a woman.

His words came back to me in the summer of 2007 while I was competing in the Gather.com romance novel contest.  The first chapter of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday was getting a lot of kind feedback, much of it from other authors and almost all of them women.  Then Starr Toth, the fine romance author whose story Lie to Me took second place in the contest, read and commented on my entry: “This feels like a mainstream novel with romantic elements, rather than a straight romance.”  Busted!  Starr had figured out in one brief chapter that the book wasn’t a “true” romance.  “Oh, she’s just prejudiced because I’m a guy,” I thought.  This was just an insidious prejudice against men writing romances, I assured myself,.

I have to say that a lot of people liked Lacey, including the Second Wind Publishing people, and I guess the book had enough good stuff in it to make it into print (although I still get comments that the book is not really a romance).  The great thing about the Gather contest and being published along with other romance authors is that I have been give the opportunity to learn a lot about romance—books, I mean.  In fact, I think I’m on firm footing when I say I’ve learned things about romance novels that most guys never understand.  So here are some of the really important things I’ve learned about romance novels:

Fine romance novels are quality works of literature.  Well-written romance is the prose equivalent of fine poetry.  Face it, Jane Austen was a romance author.  If she were living today, some dippy reviewer would be criticizing her for trying to make social commentary in romance novels.  For sheer descriptive power and lyrical beauty that simultaneously deals with the consequences of human actions, you owe it to yourself to read Dellani Oakes captivating Indian Summer or Sherrie Hansen’s poignant Night and Day.  Oakes story deals with Florida in the 18th century, while Hansen’s is a post-modern story of a love affair that starts on the internet—but the social consciousness is a gripping element in each.

In ways other fiction genres cannot match, well-written romance captures and suborns a setting and makes it a compelling servant of the story being told.  How I wish more people would read Juliet Waldron’s magnificent Hand Me Down BrideIt captures precisely what rural life was like in the days immediately following the Civil War (and her characterizations are perfect).  Suzette Vaughn does double duty in her Badeaux Knights.  She depicts small town, Generation X life along the sleepy Gulf Coast, while giving a wonderfully detailed account of Renaissance enactors.  Stormy Weather, Sherrie Hansen’s heartland romance, absolutely captures the essence of a Midwestern small town—gossip and all.

Romance has a unique ability to make the supernatural and the spiritual plausible and accessible.  It’s probably impossible to find two more disparate examples of this than Amy De Trempe’s Loving Lydia and Mairead Walpole’s A Love Out of Time.  De Trempe blends 17th century Catholicism and passionate human love into a tale that is as full of aching and longing as it is of faith.  Walpole takes an equally ancient set of religious beliefs—that are also startlingly contemporary—and twines them into a marvelously intricate story of lovers and a group of sisters who are, well, more than human.  The charming, devilish romance Nora’s Soul, by Margay Leah Justice, manages to spin two tales simultaneously: while a beautiful human couple find themselves drawn inexorably back to their childhood love, a pair of angels vie for a young woman’s soul.  Janette Rochelle Lewie and Suzette Vaughn in very different ways take on the pantheon of the ancient gods.  Lewie skillfully unpacks an ancient myth in a steamy, modern way in Sonya Recovered.  Vaughn, in Mortals, Gods and a Muse, does a magnificent job of demonstrating for modern readers the ancient conceit of what happens when the gods start messing with your love life.

A well-written romance can be every bit as thrilling and suspenseful as the best crime novel—and a lot more emotive.  Safe Harbor, Sherilyn Winrose’s first novel, is a tremendously intense, breathtaking roller coaster that just incidentally is really all about a sweet, compelling love story of a young woman and man trying to right wrongs.  Life and death, virtue and vice, love and deceit all hang in the balance in both of Claire Collins first two novels—that in truth are remarkably distinct.  In Fate and Destiny—a Gather contest semi-finalist—Collins wows readers with a tale at turns frightening, heart-warming and hilarious.  Her second novel, Images of Betrayal, seems to be a paranormal thriller, yet turns on profound psychological insights, all the while describing pure first love.

The truest, grandest form of romance novels, the regency, is among the most exacting and rewarding types of literature.  Back in the days of my ignorance, I referred to these as “lords and ladies books.”  I had no idea the level of historical and geographical knowledge it takes to write these novels.  I had mentioned Amy De Trempe above and I should note that, like Loving Lydia, her second regency title, Pure is the Heart, is seamless in its accuracy—and delightful in the poignant story it tells.  Tart, funny and ultimately joyful is the best way to describe Lucy Balch’s romp of a regency novel Love Trumps Logic (and, brother, she’s right about that!).  Then there is Jerrica Knight-Catania’s first offering, a tender novel of justice and duty (here we are back at Jane Austen again) called A Gentleman Never Tells.

How very distinct from one another these titles are.  Indeed about the only thing they have in common is that they were all written by outstanding women authors.  It’s more than a little ironic that my first published novel falls into the genre of romance.  At least my romance colleagues at Second Wind are kind and accepting.  Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to try a second romance novel—just to prove that a man can do it.  —Lazarus Barnhill, author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People

Check out the Second Wind Romance Sampler. It includes the first chapters of all these romances, and it’s free! Click here: to get your free download.

12 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, Lazarus Barnhill, life, writing

12 responses to “In Praise of Romance

  1. Thanks for an excellent post and a good read. You’ve given us all plenty to think about. Romance is far too frequently dismissed but a good romance will stay around for a long time.

  2. Thanks for singing romance’s praises, Laz. I had someone refer to romance as “those trashy novels” just a few days ago at the Blue Belle. Obviously, this person has not read Night and Day, or any other of the wonderful woven romances on the market. I know reading Night and Day has changed several people’s minds about the genre, and love it that their perceptions have been altered after reading my book.

  3. What a great post, Laz! People so often want to turn their noses up at the romance genre…I should know — I did for years! Then I finally READ one and realized that I had missed my calling. It’s good to see people — especially men — defending the genre!

  4. christinehusom

    You are certainly right in the descriptions of the wonderful books the Second Wind authors have produced. I am looking forward to reading all of them!

  5. Denise

    Thanks for the post. When submitting my novel it was very hard to list the genre. I was told it was a Romance by some yet when I submitted to Romance Publishers it was too “sweet” I like to think of it as a true love story but unfortunately there is no genre for that.

  6. Lots of food for thought there concerning genres. And lots of food for reading in the sampler. Thanks.

  7. Lacey Took a Holiday many not be category romance, but it is definitely a romance, and it is definitely romantic. To answer your question, you’ve proved that men can definitely write romance.

  8. Laz, What a great post and thank you for the recognition. I think most people who don’t like romances haven’t read a good one 😉

  9. I don’t usually read books that are categorized as Romance (in fact, I think I’ve read only one), but after reading the blog I am inclined to try a few.

  10. Thank you so much for the list of romantic novels. I like romantic adventure novels and romantic thriller novels. I see here some that I may like. I like to read romantic novels because you can be part of the story unlike TV shows. Who doesn’t like to be in a romantic experience

  11. Mairead

    Hi Laz,
    Thank you for the praise on my novel, “A Love Out of Time”, and I have to tell you – I think “LaceyTook a Holiday” is a beautiful love story, maybe not a traditional romance but a love story and one that made me cry. Loved it and you are welcome to hang out with us “romance writers” any day!

  12. I never thought my novel Backstop: A Love Story In Nine Innings as a romance novel, despite the title. The love story in the subtitle denotes more than romance (a man’s love of the game). But that is exactly the genre under which Second Wind is publishing it. After some initial discomfort, I’ve come to accept this; after all, romance is a very popular genre, and if it should help generate sales, so much the better.

    As for the topic here, I suspect men are capable of writing romance. However, it is the concept of opposite gender writing with which both genders sometimes fall short. In Backstop, I write from the male perspective. But in novels I’ve read over the years, those in which females write from the male perspective and vice versa, I’ve found most fall short. It’s hard to put my finger on the why, other than to say a certain element in realism lacks. For example, a male writing of pregnancy and childbirth is unable to write from personal experience, and so his text lacks in authenticity. Or maybe the blame is mine in that, if he were to write under a female pseudonym, I might find the writing believable.

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