Monday, May 25, 2015

Love Stories for All: Challenging Gendered Assumptions About Romanc

Today’s guest post was written by  Elizabeth Hirst.  Elizabeth is a writer, editor and 3D animator from Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of ’06, and a student of life.  You can check out her Pop Seagull Publishing site here.

            Hi, my name is Liz, and I own a small Canadian genre press. One thing that I've learned in my short time on the scene is that when you're small, customer relationships are everything. Without our loyal friends in fandom, and their willingness to keep betting on our new products, we would swiftly cease to be. Although our mandate is all about reader-friendliness and celebrating the joy of a good book, the definition of a 'good book' can vary among our core customer base. At times, it can be a fine balancing act to blend fan-pleasing fun with innovation and risk-taking.
            One such challenge recently presented itself when I was putting out feelers among our core customers, trying to decide what the theme of our next anthology should be. Many of our women customers were looking for romance stories set in science fiction and fantasy universes. This suggestion seemed to be the strongest idea for the next anthology. However, our customer base is almost evenly split between women and men. Their interests tend to meet at paranormal themes, action/adventure, and strong female characters, but I was unsure if our male customers would follow us into full-blown romance territory.
            So, I found myself facing the challenge of making a romance anthology accessible for all of our readers, while at the same time confronting my own gendered expectations of the way people buy and read. The whole concept fascinated me, as I am always interested in the way that gender roles, and expectations of gendered behavior, shape our actions and the ways in which we see the world. Growing up, I was always a bit of a tomboy, in love with action movies, video games (which, in the 90's, were considered a 'boy thing'), outdoor pursuits and woodworking. Having never fit into gendered behavior norms very well myself, I'm always ready to challenge the status quo.
            In order to deconstruct my own assumptions about romance stories, I had to first examine my own associations with the genre, and what objections it might bring up for male readers. Although I know that there are many different permutations of romance, from more traditional bodice-rippers to straight-up erotica, I also know that most of these books are mass-produced and explicitly marketed to women.
            First, I had to tackle the mass-produced angle. As a small independent press, I saw the opportunity to create something unique, a one-time offering of very special stories rather than a variation on a theme in an imprint. In my opinion, collectibility and experimentation are what indies do best, so why not play that up? I decided that, while mass-market paperbacks are very good at targeting a large audience with a lot in common (in this case, usually straight women and their desires) an indie romance offering might be better off representing a range of sexual orientations, and stories of love in all of its permutations, be it consummated, courtly or even unrequited. When I called for submissions, I deliberately left the door open for these non-traditional romances.
            The next intellectual hurdle I had to jump was in deciding how to craft a book that identifies as romance, but modifies the gendered marketing for which the genre is so famous. While there is, in fact, something wonderful about a genre that is largely produced by women, marketing to other women, I wanted to see if I could open up the pleasures of romance to the men who browse my books. I have never seen any man, even the enlightened English majors I've met, un-ironically reading a romance novel with a stereotypical cover. Most men would probably feel a bit embarrassed to be seen with the stereotypical romance cover, complete with cuddling naked people staring intently at camera or a sexy, flowing-haired Fabio on a pirate ship.
            It was with these thoughts in mind that I went about designing the cover for Love, Time, Space, Magic. I wanted it to have a sense of the fanciful, the historical, the feminine, with just a hint of self-awareness and irony. In the end, I designed a cover inspired by renaissance medical drawings on parchment, complete with an anatomically-correct heart.

            The cover foregrounds both the realistic heart, and the heart symbol, representing both the tropes of romance and the meta-fictive awareness that they do not fully represent reality. The interior design reflects this tension as well, with the juxtaposition of flowing script and faded retro graphics.
            Some people might call these considerations pandering to a male audience, but that was far from my intent. In re-orienting my design assumptions, I aimed instead to allow men access to the rich and varied world of romance stories, because women should not have a monopoly on stories of vulnerability, love and tenderness. By aiming to draw male readers in, without betraying the core of romance as a literature of passion, feeling and vulnerability, I believe that Love, Time, Space, Magic challenges the cultural discourse that men don't want romance, and would prefer hard-core action or very technical science fiction.
            And, who's to say that romance can't incorporate more 'serious' and scientific elements? I believe that many of the stories which made it into Love, Time, Space, Magic combine romance and thought-provoking speculation in a most delicious way. Gustavo Bondoni's piece, “Modern Love,” is a thoughtful examination of dating and relating mediated by internet and cybernetic implant technologies. Melinda Selmys's “The Dying Place” interrogates the bittersweet conjunction of the birth of a new love, and the literal death of an old one. “Her Vampire Lover” by Tim McDaniel is a riotously funny flash piece which uses paranormal romance fiction as a satirical lens through which to comment on the recession and the economic bailout. These stories, like so many others before them, prove that romance can be subversive as well as sexy.

            I've presented a lot of big thoughts here, but I've left the best for last. Love, Time, Space, Magic was our most successful launch ever, selling out in two days at Ad Astra 2015. We had a packed launch party, wonderful readings, tons of cake, and tons of sales. And yes, all of our regulars showed up. That, for us, was happily ever after.


Unknown said...

A fascinating, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post. I don't normally read romance as a genre, and to be honest the covers invariably put me off. But a delightfully neutral cover, and such an insightful discussion and deconstruction of the genre? Yes, I think that's enough to make me want to try this collection. I shall add it to my list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, thanks so much for this wonderful post. I think the term "romance" suffers a lot from the stereotypes of the genre. It's great to see editors and authors reach across the dividing lines with original projects like this one.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both! It was a lot of fun to do a genre blending like this. I would definitely do another romance crossover anthology again. It's been great to be able to share my process as well. I hope it encourages others to do the same.

Terri-Lynne said...

This post thrills me to no end. As a writer of romantic fantasy, as well as straight up small-town romance, I can't help feeling a bit proud and vindicated.

There is a huge romance market, but it is hardly a respected one. It is often looked down on as trite, fluffy, forgettable and unimaginative. Is there some of that? Of course. There is across the board in any genre, but those who do see all romance as only those things are pretty steadfast in their views on it. To open it up as you have--and I don't see it as opening up to men so much as opening up to those who view romance as stated above--is insanely wonderful, and smart.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

And thank you, Terri-Lynne. I agree that romance deserves much more respect than many people are willing to give it, and I believe it's especially important to open it up because it is a literature historically associated with women. It's important for pop culture producers to fight the assumption that the feminine and things that deal with high emotion should not be taken seriously as artistic products.

And yeah, I think it's just good business too. :)