I just finished writing a three-part series for Seattle Woman on local women writers. As requested, I interviewed two sets of writers in the area of genre fiction — romance and mystery — and one in literary fiction.
Skeptical at first about the genre fiction, but willing to question my own snobbish predilections, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found to be strong arguments in both romance and mystery's favor.
In case you missed all those rows of paperbacks at Fred Meyer, let me enlighten you: One out of every five readers chooses to read romance novels. As print reading declines generally, the romance business is booming. As I explain in the first article in the series, here's why:Romance writers always put a woman at the center of the story. By contrast, there's no guarantee you'll get a leading female character in literary fiction. A quantitative study of The New Yorker's fiction picks conducted in 2004 revealed that the magazine more often published works written by men, and these authors were more likely to feature male protagonists with supporting female characters. The romance novel's main character isn't just a woman — she's a strong woman. While the bodice-rippers of the past may have rendered male fantasy in female garb, what you'll find in contemporary romance is a story driven by the modern ideal of a loving relationship that is also an equal partnership.
"Romancing the Tome" features New York Times best-selling author Jayne Ann Krentz, who calls this a "perfect storm of a romance market" for her paranormal treatments. Julia Quinn, crowned "our contemporary Jane Austen" by critics, illustrates an intellect behind romance writing, with degrees from both Harvard and Radcliffe. Susan Andersen defends the romance novel's penchant for happy endings: "I read Ethan Fromme and want to open a vein."
Focus on a strong female protagonist carries over into the mystery genre as well. But the mystery genre's power for anyone whose adult taste has been shaped by university literary reading lists is its ability to return readers to their earliest reading experiences, as I explain in "Murder, They Wrote," "I remembered what drew me to the page as a young reader: the opportunity to fully inhabit another world, so carefully crafted by the writer; to come to know the characters as if they are real people; and, most of all, to be captured by questions of crime and motive."
It was a treat to talk with Whidbey Island's Elizabeth George, whose mysteries have received a worldwide audience through the BBC's Inspector Lynley series, and to the effervescent Seattleite Mary Daheim. J.A. Jance surprised me by bursting into tears in response to a question about the origin of the scholarship story in Hand of Evil, and with her permission, I revealed a secret that Jance has carried for 35 years. I believed fans would fully understand and want to know her story.
For the final article in the series, due out in April, I interviewed literary writers Kathleen Alcalá, Stephanie Kallos, and Nancy Rawles.