Monday, November 9, 2009

Welcome to The Word Place, Author Alan Elsner

Why is it so hard to write about love?
By Alan Elsner Author of Romance Language

        When I told my agent I wanted to write an old-fashioned love story that also explored serious historical themes, he was appalled. “There’s no market for that; stick to thrillers,” he told me. He explained that publishers were reluctant to bring out love stories that were not part of the “romance novel” genre – a category with its own strict rules of procedure. In fact, publishing nowadays is as strictly divided into “genres” as the old Indian caste system. There are so-called “literary novels” usually about unhappy people becoming more unhappy, there’s science fiction and fantasy, there are thrillers and mysteries, westerns and romance, gay lit, chick lit, mommy lit and of course innumerable memoirs about unhappy, abusive childhoods. Readers seem to want to know before buying a book what they’re getting. They don’t want to be confused.
        Author Carol Shields writes in her novel, Republic of Love (Penguin 1993): "Love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It's not respected. It's the one thing that everyone in the world wants but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish. Work is important. Living arrangements are important. Wars and good sex and race relations and the environment are important, and so are health and fitness. Even minor shifts of faith or political intention are given a weight that is not accorded love. We turn our heads and pretend it's not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. Moon and June and spoon and soon ... It's womanish, it's embarrassing, something jeer at, something for jerks."
       Rachel Kadish, in her novel Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) bravely declared her aim of writing a book that takes happiness and love seriously. Her heroine, Tracy Farber, speaks for the author: "It's as if our whole literary tradition, which has been unsparing on the subjects of death, war, poverty, et cetera, has agreed to keep the gloves on where happiness is concerned. And no-one has addressed it. I mean, shame on us all -- readers, critics, writers. Anyone who tries to take happiness seriously is belittled. The writers who pen happy endings risk getting labeled 'regionalists' which is like a paternal pat on the head and a nudge back to the children's table. Or worse, they're called 'romance writers' -- the literary world's worst insult."
       I’m proud to be following these two courageous women and others like Audrey Niffenegger with my novel Romance Language. But my literary inspiration goes back even further to books I loved as a youth like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades. In these great novels, and in my modest offering, brave, intelligent and sympathetic protagonists struggle to sustain their great loves against the crushing weight of historical events they cannot control. In the case of my novel, it is the tumultuous revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989. I try to explore different kinds of love and its overwhelming power – but also its limitations in the real world. Surely my agent was wrong. Surely there is a market for that.

Tomorrow: The Joys and Pain of Publishing


Mary Ricksen said...

I think there is!!

nlindabrit said...

Thank you for a most interesting post, Mr. Elsner and I am absolutely of the same mind. I would love to learn more about your new novel, Romance Language.

Donna Alice said...

There is absolutely a place for romance in today's novel. I look forward to reading Mr. Elsner's book. Perhaps he's paving the way for the rest of us to write the books of our heart and not just what's selling.

K9friend said...

I believe there's always a market for a good story, regardless the genre.

And what I've read about Romance Language has certainly piqued my interest!

Teresa Slack said...

So true. No one can answer the age old question: Why do fools fall in love? And writers are afraid to try. Thanks for the post.

KatieBee said...

As a writer who aspires to have her LOVE stories published, this was a very interesting read. As a reader---it is SO difficult to find a romance---a historical romance especially---that is truly a love story and not a graphic display of all the cool sex words one can think of. There are so few novels that I really love---it's just hard to find what I want in this genre. It was interesting to read your take on the problem.

PattyK said...

If the novel is written even half as well as this blog post, I want to read it! Sometimes we just have to break the mold and let the pieces fall where they will.

Jana Richards said...

Well said, Mr. Elsner! Romance and love get no respect, yet everyone in the world craves both. People don't admit to reading romance novels, yet they outsell almost all other book sales put together. Go figure!

Thank you for quoting Carol Shields, one of my favorite writers. She lived for many years in my city, Winnipeg, and is much loved here.

Jana Richards

joanna aislinn said...

Hi, Alan,

My most recently completed ms doesn't necessarily fall under the same category as yours but I am dealing with similar challenges in eventually finding it a home.

What stood out most about your post was your favorite classic reads that seem to have inspired you to write a particular type of story. How were those novels originally received and why do they stand out today?

Your comment about people glossing over or not wanting to believe in love being 'real' also hit home, especially after having recently read Ekaterina Gordeeva's MY SERGEI, A LOVE STORY. This lovely woman's tribute to her husband proves love is real and does exist in today's very cynical world. It inspires me to continue writing stories about couples who choose to make and then honor their commitment to each other, no matter what life hands them.

Keep the faith--there ARE those whose vision can be in line with ours!

Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press Jan 15, 2010

Janny said...

Long ago, after one of my rejections, a wise fellow author said, "Well, maybe you don't write romances. Maybe you write love stories. And there's a difference."

There IS. And except for a tiny handful of authors who get away with being positive, uplifting, and the like--most of which end up being put on the inspirational shelves--this post is spot-on. You have a happy ending? You're a sappy idealist with your head in the sand. You have dysfunction upon dysfunction, death, dark secrets, and reprehensible language and behavior? Oh, YOU're the realist.

It's poppycock, all of it. But how to persuade the publishers that both writers of this stuff and, more importantly, READERS of good old-fashioned positive love stories, the triumph of the positive, the happy side of life, are out there?

It takes a few brave authors selling like hotcakes. We need to buy these books and let our dollars speak for our tastes!