Today we’re gonna talk about a sub-genre of feedback I like to call ‘categorical backhanding,’ and by extension we’re gonna talk about that time I wrote romance novels for three years.
In order to help you understand categorical backhanding, I’ll provide three examples from my life:
“I don’t like high fantasy stuff, but I like this!”
-A writing workshop participant on a high fantasy story I turned in.
“I normally don’t like romance unless it’s done well, so it’s really big that I enjoyed this so much.”
-A friend’s glowing praise for my current book, which has only a blossoming romance subplot.
“This story made me want to punch this character in the face slightly less.”
-A different friend on fanfiction I shared which primarily concerns the character they want to punch.
The net effect of categorical backhanding, intentional or not, is a micro-scale compliment disguising a macro-scale insult. It says, on the surface, “This is exceptional. Bravo.” But what else does it say?
“Well, normally, this is beneath me.”
“The things you like, the reasons you made this? Those are fundamentally awful, but you elevate them.”
“I’m making an exception for you.”
“Your taste (which got you here) sucks, but your execution (which you honed through exploring your taste) is great, so you may have some of my valued respect, even though all the stuff holding you up is beneath my standards. Paradoxically, it’s not beneath your standards. Weird, right?”
Super weird, and really, really crappy to hear! I can’t speak for everyone, but when I create something it’s out of love for or interest in the thing I’m writing, not to disrupt some inferior paradigm with my fire-ass word skills. With that in mind, even assuming it doesn’t come from a place of insecurity on the speaker’s part (“I mean, I don’t LIKE this junk or anything, but-“) how am I supposed to respond? What am I supposed to do with that?
Okay, so, straying from that a bit, the impetus for my translating a page and a half of word barf in my notebook into something resembling an essay:
I’ve been thinking about a new story idea, but I’m super hesitant to dive in cause, like… is there any way to make romance feel not pulpy
— Gaby Lax (@puellaexmachina) December 7, 2015
like, even if you situate it in a strong and interesting external plot, I feel it’d be hard to make it unschlocky and that’s holding me back
— Gaby Lax (@puellaexmachina) December 7, 2015
Further down the chain, Gaby asks for my thoughts on this and I sorta softball the idea that my thoughts on the matter exceed Twitter’s bounds.
First of all, if you have a new story idea and you’re stuck for reasons beyond, “I don’t know if I’ll enjoy doing this,” or “I don’t know if I have the raw time to do this,” you’re probably stalling out of deference to your own ego. The likelihood that tons of judgmental people will see this story is remote. Hell, the likelihood you’ll finish it and show it to anyone is remote. People don’t just walk around vomiting up polished stories. It’s hard, and most people don’t try. That’s how people like me get away with asking for money to do it.
So, first off, please try to write your story. Will you abandon it? Maybe. Everybody has shit they don’t finish, will never finish. Everybody has shit they finished and never showed anybody. So if you’re stopping now, by which I mean not starting, all you’re doing is projecting your insecurities onto an outcome that might never, ever arrive.
Second off, when you do hypothetically finish your story, if it hypothetically is schlock, who… cares? Schlock is widespread, schlock is beloved. I’m here doing what I do primarily because of schlock. Some of it is schlock that was redeemed and elevated when people who loved it infiltrated gatekeeping creative circles as adults, but pretty much nothing that ever truly resonated with me lacked the earnest emotionality and dedication to satisfaction we associate with schlock. I cannot recall a time when I had the patience for a story dedicated to convincing me it didn’t care. It made undergrad writing courses a real slog.
Conversely, it was just about all that made my 3-year stint writing romance novels under assumed and assigned pseudonyms any fun. Back before Bad Times, I could make a decent living just making people feel stuff. Make them feel happy, make them scared for what could (but probably won’t, because that’s how this works) happen, make them roll around on their half-made beds and kick their feet when something pays off. The experience taught me things about setup, and manipulating reader expectations, and just plain old satisfaction that roughly twenty years of trying to learn how one writes Good Stories never, ever touched.
It also taught me a lot of frankly crappy things I didn’t want to acknowledge. About myself. See, before I’d been put in the empathetic position of writing romance novels in order to not starve to death, I professed a real strong hatred of them.
Rational Human: “What’s wrong with romance novels?”
Shitty Cai of the Past: “They’re stupid.”
RH: “OK, but why?”
SCP: “They’re base and disgusting and unoriginal and predictable.”
RH: “You just described a thousand things that you love.”
SCP: “Romance novels are stupider, though.”
RH: “Fine. But. Why.”
SCP: “They just are, God.”
RH: “Why, though?”
SCP: “BECAUSE THEY’RE FOR GIRLS, OKAY, GEEZ. …Oh, my god. I’m a misogynist.”
Yeah, it turns out that when you reduce the literary aversion to Icky Kissing Stuff down far enough, you get right down to the 2nd grade argument that love is for girls and girls are disgusting. As we all know intellectually – and I knew intellectually when I was thinking those dumb, shitty things – that is a dumb, shitty thing to think, but I was thinking it. I was thinking that dumb, shitty thing in the back closet of my brain because it’s drummed into all of us until it’s second nature and we don’t even question it. We hold romance to this absurd set of standards we just don’t reserve for stuff that’s For Everyone or For Boys. Boondock Saints is just as profound a failure to capture organic human emotion as Twilight is, but it’s not a perennial punchline because it’s not for icky girls.
It might be a more convincing love story, but that’s neither here nor there.
So write romance. Write the bejesus out of it. Fuck the patriarchy, fuck Past Me, write about smooching and butts and sex that’s fun, and never stop! I know I don’t want to stop!