Writers’ Feuds? Not in the Romance World

By Poison Ivy,

A month ago, the NY Times had an essay in the book review section by Rachel Donadio (“Art of the Feud”) repining about the lack of robust literary feuds today. (Norman Mailer evidently would be happy to, but nobody wants to play.) Donadio cited with nostalgia the exciting blood feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman that was the result of McCarthy calling Hellman a liar on nationwide TV. Of course, Donadio downplayed the consequences, mentioning that the feud continued until death, but not that Hellman’s libel lawsuit also hectored McCarthy all the way. If anything, the McCarthy/Hellman feud was a modern example of why open feuding does not pay. McCarthy wasted years defending herself against litigation because she let the pleasure of publicly insulting Hellman overcome her common sense.

A writer quoted in the essay, Thomas Mallon, unhappily reports that literary novelists now “subscribe to the ‘if you can’t say something nice…’ school of thought.” And here I was under the impression that it was just the overly proper matrons of the romance novel world who do this!

You can’t say anything in the romance world without someone taking you to task just as a mother would talk to a recalcitrant five-year-old. Romance writers are prissy and patronizing. They’re always telling other people how to behave. This is true on blogs, on RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter e-mail links, in romance newsletters and magazines, and everywhere else.

Part of the romance novelists’ prevailing attitude is rooted in their fear of appearing unladylike, I’m sure. They want to be seen as good girls: modest yet talented, not evil, ambitious women: scrappy and sometimes jealous. And then there is fear of the publishers. Until recently, too few romance writers had significant clout with publishers. These women got used to being treated like they weren’t very important. So they made sure never to voice an opinion other than praise: praise of each other, praise of the publishers, praise. They were and are extremely politic.

And they police each other ferociously. Recently, a well-respected romance writer, Anne Stuart, commented publicly that she did not think her publisher, MIRA, was doing a whole lot for her. The result? Her editors at MIRA mocked her on the blog of high-ranking Harlequin editor Isabel Swift. Maybe this was gentle mockery, all in fun. The photo of the ladies in their crowns and boas looks funny. But maybe it wasn’t. Doesn’t matter. Other romance writers responded by taking Anne to task publicly. They told her she behaved badly and was unprofessional. But is anybody feuding about this? Unlikely.

I’ve attended a lot of romance writers’ conferences and it is rare to hear anything at all negative about any writer’s work there. Nobody even dares say, “I read her latest book, and I don’t think it’s very good.” Even this mild criticism isn’t allowed, because romance writers’ conferences, like their organizations and their chapter magazines and e-mail links, are boosterism. You dare not rain on anybody else’s parade, because it’s all meant to garner good publicity or a better contract, or whatever.

I’m not into feuding, mind you. But somewhere between absolute wimpdom and stupidly pugnacious would be better than what we have. There’s simply no dialog happening. Reader’s comments found on websites are either uncritical praise or hostile vulgarities. Review zines are into praise. Reviews posted on Amazon actually tend to have more meat, but I don’t think the author is allowed to respond. I’ve never seen any responses. And heaven forbid there should be an extended debate!

How can you have a good old-fashioned writers’ feud without a debate? Or a drunken fistfight? (Okay, it’s women: hair-pulling.) Well, you aren’t going to have a feud, because romance writers are too obscure to be personally interesting to the general public. Maybe if Nora Roberts went off the rails and suddenly wrote a stinging indictment of Jennifer Crusie’s latest book, we’d get a fight. But it won’t happen. We’re all the best of buddies here in the romance world.

Another reason it won’t happen is that romance novels do not get reviewed in the mainstream publications where literary feuds fester. Checked out any piercing comments on the latest Debbie Macomber in the New York Times Book Review? Of course not. She’s not getting any ink from them, regardless of her fan base or her sales figures. What about Sandra Brown, arguably the perfect example of a romance writer turned mainstream thriller writer? Nah. When these writers hit the bestseller lists, as they regularly do, the Times lists their books and that’s it. To start a feud, actual prose opinion is required. Preferably by a jealous writer.

Anything newsworthy today gets put on the web instantly, so nobody builds up a big head of steam and lets loose with a mean review as a method of replying to another writer’s agenda. Instead, either people send hostile e-mails, or, as mistresses of their own websites, they pontificate. It’s PR, and everything is good, in this the most commercial of all worlds.

I can’t believe that romance writers never get angry, never dislike each other’s work or just each other, and never get a little plastered in the conference hotel bar and mouth off about some other writer. But you won’t hear about such things in print.