Invasion of the Girl Cooties

At The Story Hub, Stuart Sharp offers his opinion about the increased popularity of science fiction romance. If you assume that he is worrying about romance writers somehow sullying the sacred halls of the SF genre, you got it in one.

Here are some choice quotes:

Except that the new authors coming into the field don’t necessarily get [the shared cultural references of the SF genre]. Their references are all to do with The Formula, grand gestures, love triangles, the tropes of romance or chick lit or YA. They don’t understand the reasoning behind some of the arguments that have been bubbling for years. They certainly don’t get that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep reference you made in chapter three.

Oh no, those romance writers dare to write SF without having read the past eighty years of SF writing and all Hugo and Nebula finalists since the 1953/1966. How can they possibly hope to understand the genre? And they obviously won’t get a Philip K. Dick reference, because it’s a well known fact that romance fans never read outside their genre (actually romance readers are some of the most voracious readers around and read plenty of things aside from romance). And they have obviously never set foot inside a cinema and never saw Blade Runner (which even has a romance subplot) or any other Philip K. Duick adaption. Bonus points for calling romance a formula genre.

Here’s some more:

The classic involves a romance author thinking they’re being stunningly original while in fact an idea has been given a pretty thorough going over by the sci-fi world already. There’s the part where they often don’t get the details right. And yes, you can be wrong about the details. Or at least, you can go against everything legions of sci-fi fans have decided over the decades. More importantly, there’s the sense in some cases that they don’t care about the details the way some people do. That the romantic story at the heart of the book trumps little things like whether the aliens would conveniently look like attractive humans and be able to speak English.

Right, because aliens who look like humans and can speak English have never appeared in traditional SF at all. I guess I must have imagined Spock and the Doctor and Dejah Thoris and Star Wars and countless others. Never mind that I obviously wasn’t invited to the big meeting where legions of SF fans came to a final and binding decision about all the important details such as how FTL really works or what the singularity is.

Even worse, those romance readers and writers don’t even care about what how FTL works (or can it work at all?) or what the singularity entails. They just care about such unimportant points as characterisation and story. Because it obviously makes for so much better literature if SF writers give us brilliantly imagine big ideas in stories with paper-thin characters and romantic relationships so unrealistic that I wonder whether the author has ever met an actual living, breathing human being before or whether he is secretly the first computer to have passed the Turing test.

Here’s a final quote, because that post really invites it. And BTW, anti-scraper plug-ins are fine, but disabling right-click and copy and paste altogether is a nuissance.

As several romance writers have shown in the case of fantasy already, they have no problems whatsoever trampling over the most beloved elements of the genre.

Those horrible romance writers. How dare they use the furniture of some other genre to write their own stories without consulting the genre consensus first? Never mind that way too many SFF authors, fans and pundits have no problems whatsoever trampling over the feelings of romance writers and readers by calling their works formulaic and just plain bad.

To be fair to Stuart Sharp, he does finish his post on a somewhat conciliatory note that it’s of course possible that romance writer’s perceived ignorance of the genre might lead to original work and that plenty of SF is derivative as hell. Plus, he claims to have written both real SF and romantic SF, plus he apparently used to work as a ghostwriter. At any rate, he has an Amazon author page under his own name here.

Nonetheless, those conciliatory closing remarks don’t mitigate the fact that this is a typical, “Eeww, girl cooties” post. Nor am I alone in interpreting it that way. At Tracing the Stars, SF romance writer C.E. Kilgore asks why SF romance is treated as a genre outcast and why the SF community feels so threatened, considering that SF and SF romance target different readerships. Now I don’t agree with the fact that SF romance or paranormal romance for that matter should be segregated on the romance shelves, so that SFF readers don’t have to see it, because this contributes to keeping crossgenre books invisible to SFF readers. Plus, it’s also a way to keep female writers of SFF, romantic or not, invisible, because if the books are segregated, they might as well not exist. Never mind that we have already seen this with urban fantasy, where books by men are shelves as SFF, while books by women, whether romantic or not, are shelves as paranormal romance and – in one notable case – erotica – for a book that didn’t have any romance, let alone sex scenes. Waterstone’s in the UK is particularly bad about this to the point that I actually once asked a Waterstone’s employee point blank why they were hiding SFF books by female authors in a corner of the crime fiction section.

At the Spacefreighters Lounge, a group blog by writers of romantic SF, Pippa Jay points out that plenty of time-honoured SF classics have important romantic subplots and that without romance, Dune would be just a book about worms. She also refers back to the recent controversy (exhaustively discussed in these pages) about the skewed gender balance with regard to reviews and points out that an SF novel with a strong romantic subplot would be classified as SF, albeit with a romantic subplot, if written by a man, and as SF romance, complete with “Eww, girl cooties”, when written by a woman. And of course, it’s pretty obvious that the SFF genre community does its best to marginalize female dominated subgenres such as urban fantasy, paranormal romancem SF romance and large swathes of YA as “Not part of our genre”, even though it obviously is.

Not inspired by the SF romance discussion (at least not as far as I can tell) but definitely related is this post by Joshua S. Hill at Amazing Stories, wherein he asks why female fantasy writers are immediately dismissed as “girly” for writing romantic plots, whereas men are not.

Meanwhile, another author of romantic SF, Greta van der Pol, asks how romance readers view the SF genre. She also points out that the science and worldbuilding occasionally really is weak in explicit SF romances. Finally, she also makes another interesting point:

I confess I don’t read romance much. I’m too interested in action and adventure to find a love story absorbing. Which probably tells you a fair bit about my writing.

I suspect that this is true for a lot of writers and readers in hybrid genres such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, SF romance and romantic suspense. These writers and readers are often longtime SFF fans (or suspense fans for romantic suspense) and they like action, adventure and worldbuilding, but they also want a bit more emotion and yes, romance, than “pure” SF/fantasy/suspense tend to offer. I certainly count myself among those readers/writers. I was increasingly unhappy with speculative fiction devolving into emotionless big idea fiction on the one hand and increasingly grimdark macho fantasy with unpleasant characters on the other hand. Then one day, I became aware that there was a whole slew of subgenres such as futuristic romance, paranormal romance, time travel romance and fantasy romance, full of books written mostly by women, which promised the action and worldbuilding I had come to enjoy about SFF, but with more female characters, hopefully less needless violence against said female characters and characters and relationships that rang true to the experience of actual human beings. And I’d never heard of those books and authors and neither had the rest of the SFF community.

Of course, I was overjoyed and began to seek out the books and writers whose names I heard mentioned (mostly among romance readers). And yes, my first attempt at reading SF romance – a book in the now defunct Dorchester LoveSpell line – really did skew too far towards the romance end of the spectrum and had worldbuilding issues. I picked this book and no other, because it had an Asian heroine, BTW. And for all its flaws, it was still a much more enjoyable read than the highly regarded big idea SF novel through which I forced my way at the same time. BTW, the author of said highly regarded SF novel has recently blogged some background information about his various older books, including the one I slogged through at around the same time I discovered futuristic romance. Here is even more. Note what’s missing? There’s hardly any discussion about the characters.

But SF romance has moved on since the early 2000s and the variety of books available now is much broader, just as the science and worldbuilding have become better on average. Indeed, Dorchester – which was the main publisher of SF romance and related subgenres such as time travel and fantasy romance in the early 2000s – used to caution against “long descriptions of science-fiction-type hardware, technology, etc…” and even had a “no time machines” request in the submission guidelines for their time travel romance line, which always confused me to no end, because how can you travel through time, if not by time machine? Nonetheless inventive writers have come up with all sorts of solutions from portals in stone circles (Diana Gabaldon) via magical spells (Theresa Medeiros), magical gemstones (Catherine Mulvany – really good book), magical shoes (Gwynn Cready), brain tumors (Tamara Leigh), malfunctioning electric chairs (Deb Stover – another really good book) to vigorous masturbation (Robin Schone). And coincidentally, Dorchester did publish some novels with technologically based time travel such as Time Transit by Kay Austin.

Indeed, the growing popularity of SF romance that Stuart Sharp remarks upon as well as the fact that the books are getting better with regards to worldbuilding and science than those from the 1990s or early 2000s is largely due to the digital revolution in the publishing industry, which makes niche works such as SF/romance hybrids a lot more viable than they used to be. And IMO this is a very good thing.

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13 Responses to Invasion of the Girl Cooties

  1. Eva Caye says:

    I offered an article I had had published before, called Science Fiction Romance, the Ultimate Fusion, to the G+ Sci Fi community and it was immediately transferred into the Paranormal category. I laughed and asked why; it then got transferred to the Books category.

    I did comment on the incident to Frank Elliot, who had referred the community to me. He and one other fellow managed to make a few comments on how odd the incident was, and one mentioned proudly that he had actually enjoyed a science fiction romance recently. I tried to get into a discussion about the genre, but they showed little interest.

    My current theory is that science fiction fought so hard in the ‘early years’ to be recognized as a ‘legitimate literature’, complete with awards and such, that the oldtimers hesitate to see the ‘traditions’ change at all, lest it be ‘brought down’ in some way. Total hogwash, but then again, you cannot change peoples’ deep opinions and feelings.

    We science fiction romance authors and readers must simply show them a better way, writing with talent and compassion for all of humanity. I’m simply grateful those who glorify unique ideas and expound upon them with so little human impact have a chance to look at our genre and admit they might be able to ditch cold logic as an insufficient bolster or pinnacle of manhood. It may take some doing, like offering them free books, but perhaps they will learn to value the emotional needs that make life worth living.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the links and the comment, Eva. And yes, it’s funny how SF romance automatically gets classified as paranormal, even if the science is harder than in many “pure” SF novels.

      You may be on to something there that longterm SF writers and readers are so desperate to be accepted as “legitimate literature” that they’ll do anything to distance themselves from a genre like romance they consider even lower than SF on the genre totem pole. And it often are the “SF is literature” people who most vehemently attack paranormal romance, SF romance and romance in general. Never mind that kicking at a genre that is even more derided than one’s own is not exactly a “nice” thing to do. Not that romance authors are completely immune from this either – there are a lot of romance writers who look down on erotica, for example.

  2. With the romance section, in the past years, being so dominated over Science Fiction section in the book store, I can see why some could see SF Romance as a threat to their corner of the universe.

    How funny it is that I never even thought Paranormal = Romance = Women Author. I automatically have that programmed in my mind and didn’t see a problem until now. I have never even THOUGHT to think “Male Author” in Paranormal. I have been conditioned (holding down head).

    I’m glad this has been written, and thanks for pointing that out. I’ll be more aware in the future.

    I think that authors forget that “SF and SF romance target different readerships.” But what they don’t want is for their books not to be seen because it’s swallowed up with other types of genre not equivalent to what they write. I can definitely understand that fear. If I go to the Science Fiction section and I see a ton of Romance stuff, I would be wondering, “Where the SF go?”

    Thus the power of Sub-categories is the key. On eBookStores, that’s now a possibility whereas in brick-and-mortar stores that wasn’t much of an option but to place SF Romance books in the Romance section.

    Overall though, readers figure out the system to try to find what they want to read. I always have.

    • Cora says:

      SF and fantasy sections in brick and mortar bookstore are pretty much a mess, often mixing science fiction, various subgenres of fantasy and horror all on the same shelf. And it is pretty frustrating to have to dig your way through umpteen volumes of Terry Brooks or Robert Jordan to find some actual SF. I don’t even mind booksellers trying to make some sense of that mess by separating the SFFH section into SF, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, other subgenres (e.g. the German Thalia chain calls romantic fantasy “Romantasy”, which is a really interesting term). But when a book is automatically shelved under “Romantasy” or romance, because the author is a woman, regardless of whether the book actually has any romance, then it becomes a problem. Never mind that SFF readers are often reluctant to leave their chosen genre section, whereas romance readers are more experimental.

      Online stores can make this easier, because of the unlimited shelf space and the ability to shelve a book in more than one category. Features like tags, keywords, etc… help as well.

      Otherwise, I agree that readers usually come up with a system to find something they enjoy to read. It can be cumbersome ocasionally, e.g. a stylized graphic cover can signal either chick lit or women’s fiction or even non-fiction aimed at women or a book with the Baen logo can promise either fun space opera or rightwing militaristic SF (or sometimes even fun space opera with problematic politics). But I’ve never lacked for reading material either.

  3. Pingback: Genre Wars – Why is SFR the outcast? | Tracing the Stars

  4. Estara says:

    Cora, with regards to the SFWA Bulletin gender fail, I’ve found some interesting links at DA in this post (I also linked to your link collection for the Sharp) – in the comments there’s even a link to a scan of the issue in question.

    • Estara says:

      Ooh, Jim Hines has huge amounts of links to this as well:
      And I have to agree with the criticism of Scalzi’s statement by Liz C. in the DA comments:

      Scalzi very clearly took responsibility for the situation, but also very clearly did not want to offend Resnick, Malzberg, and supporters.
      “We could spend a long time here discussing whether the offense was intentional or accidental, or whether it is due to a generational, ideological or perceptual schism. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, too many of our members have felt their contributions and their place in the industry and within the organization belittled…”
      Stating that members “felt” or “believed” that they were belittled plays right into the “overreacting” and “hysterical” sterotypes, and fails to clearly say that these things were wrong and shouldn’t have occured.

      • Cora says:

        Yeah, John Scalzi’s response struck me as a bit mealy-mouthed, too, especially considering how outspoken he usually is on both SFWA and feminist issues. I guess Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick have more clout behind the scenes than you’d think.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link. So that’s where all those referrals from Dear Author were coming from. 🙂

      I didn’t comment on the SFWA issue, because I’m not a member and I’ve only seen snippets of the problematic issues so far, since the SFWA Bulletin is a members only print mag (in 2013!). Though those scans at Radish Reviews look really, really bad.

      Anyway, I’ve got another post with more links on the whole issue coming up.

  5. Pingback: Revenge of the Girl Cooties or Do we need a different writers organisation? | Cora Buhlert

  6. Regis says:

    I’m pretty sure Dejah Thoris didn’t speak English – IIRC, John Carter learned to speak Martian with the Tharks early in the first book.

    None of which diminishes the GET OVER IT, MISOGYNISTS, IT’S THE FUCKING FUTURE ALREADY that needs to be engraved on a clue-by-four and wielded with great enthusiasm. But what’s fandom without nitpicking?

    • Cora says:

      Come to think of it, you’re right. But then I read A Princess of Mars at 16, i.e. many years ago. And to be completely nitpicky, the Doctor doesn’t speak English either – the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS translate for him.

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post.

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