Romance, Literary Fiction, or Sex in the West: What kind of novel did I write, anyway?

This piece is about finding your niche by seeing what other people think it is.

stevensons-treasure-300I love the old movie, “Romancing the Stone.”  The action-comedy starred Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito, but it was Kathleen Turner as the klutzy but determined romance novelist Joan Wilder who steals the show.  In the opening scene we are inside Joan Wilder’s head, imagining that her romance novel’s heroine is about to be ravished by a bad guy, Grogan:

Grogan: What’s it gonna be, Angelina?
Joan Wilder: [voiceover] It was Grogan: the filthiest, dirtiest, dumbest excuse for a man west of the Missouri River.
Grogan: So, you can die two ways, angel: quick like the tongue of a snake, or slower than the molasses in January.
Joan Wilder: [voiceover] But it was October.
Grogan: I’ll kill you if it’s the Fourth of July! Where is it? Get over there!
Joan Wilder: [voiceover] I told him to get out, now that he had what he came for.
Grogan: Not quite, angel.
[spits]
Grogan: Take ’em off. Do it! Come on!
[Angelina kills Grogan by throwing a concealed knife]
Joan Wilder: [voiceover] That was the end of Grogan… the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!

Soon after that opening sequence we are in Columbia, where down-on-his-luck adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) learns that Joan Wilder is the target of an ACTUAL bad guy:

Jack Colton: Wait a minute, he’s after you. Who the hell are you?
Joan Wilder: Well, I’m a romance novelist.
Jack Colton: You’re what? What are you doing here?

After seeing a sales analysis for my novel, Stevenson’s Treasure, I found myself asking the same questions.  The stats show how my book is selling compared with books in the categories of:

 

  • All Books
  • General Fiction and Literature
  • Literary Fiction
  • Romance

Compared with sales of All Books, Stevenson’s Treasure is selling at a rate that is, ahem, down there on the chart.  Understandable — I didn’t set out to compete with books about how to fix a car, lose a hundred pounds, conquer shyness or make a killing in hedge funds. 

Within the category of General Fiction and Literature, sales of my print-baby were better,  holding steady in several-thousandth-place.  Which, if I remember from my summers on the Barnes Park swim team, doesn’t win a medal.

Who cares, say I, my tome is about Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer of the 19th century that not too many people read anymore.  I’m going for the geek factor, yes, I’m a Literary Novelist!  For certain, I thought, hopefully,  I’ve wowed ‘em in that category.

Sure enough, the sales ranking of Stevenson’s Treasure among books of Literary Fiction was higher on the chart than in General Fiction.  

Finally, I looked at the rate at which my book is selling within the category of Historical Romance.

INSERT DRUM ROLL…

Wow.  The story I hatched about an eccentric Scottish writer and his affection for a married American is selling twice as well as a Romance Novel than it is selling as literary fiction.

I am what I am.  Here I stand.  I have found myself.  Proudly I proclaim with Joan Wilder, “I’M A ROMANCE NOVELIST!”  In the movie, Jack Colton asks Joan a second question: “What are you doing here?” 

My answer, Jack, is I have no idea.  My tastes in reading are all over the map.  I cut my teeth on Boy’s Life magazines, graduated to Westerns, then cracked mystery novels and finally, in college, began to like Steinbeck, Papa Hem and those other gritty white guys.  I’m not sure if I’ve read a romance novel unless For Whom the Bell Tolls qualifies.  The ripped bodices and longing expressions on the covers of romance novels do catch my eye because surely, somewhere between those covers (ha ha) lurks LUST. 

Which brings me to the funny things readers have said about the lovemaking scenes in Stevenson’s Treasure.  One guy apologized for taking so long to finish the book because he slowed way down when he hit the sex scenes so he could savor them fully.  A woman told me she liked the scene where Fanny “tears off all those Victorian clothes” to join her lover where he preferred to sleep, not in a bed but on the floor.  One of my sisters said she was shocked and amused that her Little Brother had such a creative imagination, because Mom never taught us this stuff.

Then there was a nerdy guy who cornered me at a reading and expressed his doubts that a man with lungs as bad as Stevenson’s could have sex at all.  All I could think of in the way of a reply was to point out that although we use them to yell and sing, we don’t have sex with our lungs.  I found a better reply in a 1951 biography of RLS by J.C. Furnace, who ventured that “due to mysterious effects of the infection,” sufferers of consumption have increased libido.  To which I say, wow.

How to write sex scenes is a popular topic at writers’ conference.  Speakers tackle questions like, Does sex wreck a good story?  At what age, within a writer’s target audience, is it safe for an author to include descriptions of lovemaking?  And, my personal favorite, how much sex is too much? 

I included some sex scenes in Stevenson’s Treasure because I couldn’t imagine a book about lovers that left out all mention of what they did with all that passion for each other. 

Call it Romance. 


2 Comments

  1. Well done, Mark! I have noticed a similar ‘grading’ in the nested niches of Fiction—>Literary Fiction—>Historical Fiction for my own book. I enjoyed this post, especially the sex scene parts – i’ve generally shyed away from anything close to explicit in sex scenes, but as I recall, the ones in Stevenson’s Treasure were pretty hot!

    • markwiederanders

      Thanks, Mary. Interesting, how even vague references to sex were considered too graphic to include in mainstream Victorian novels — RLS himself was forced to take out some really tame love scenes at the insistence of his editors — even though the Victorians were probably as sexual, in practice, as humans in any era!

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