SYWTBAW: Sidebar–"It’s a Book About Nothing"

As writer of romantic fiction, one of the most often-heard falsehoods I hear is this:

"Romance novels aren't about anything."

I'm not sure where people got this idea that there are "books about nothing," or why the same people proceed to bash one genre or another for the apparent lack of value they have in society. Yes, we all have our preferences, some of them biased. But let's look at this statement carefully, shall we?

When Seinfeld's infamous episode "The Pitch" aired, it was a mind-boggling but hilarious summary of exactly what the show was about: Nothing. Or perhaps, more accurately, everything.

Life itself is a story. When people ask "How are you?" do you respond with "Fine, you?" or do you say, "Meh, the bus took a really long time today and there was a crazy person and..." etc. It all depends on who you are, what kind of situations you get into, what you'll openly share, and who your audience is.

Likewise with books, the value of the story is based on whether the reader can identify with the story's elements, characters, themes and so forth. That's part of what made Seinfeld such a successful show: it was about everything. And--whether we found the show funny or not--a great majority of us could all identify with the situations depicted: waiting for a table and a Chinese restaurant, or buying a dress that only looked good in the store, or dealing with a neurotic relative who can't stand you "double dipping." The humor was in the hyperbole.

Genre fiction (romance, mystery, science fiction, Westerns, horror, fantasy, suspense, etc.) isn't about nothing, just as the amorphous category of literary fiction isn't about nothing. In the former, we are treated with plot-based, page-turning stories that entertain us. That does not make it of any less value than a book that is character-based or has unique storytelling or literary devices. Indeed, some say literary fiction is simply another genre--how's that for overthinking it?

As a genre, romance already gets a lot of flack, but this is one point I must insist on making. Romance is valid and valuable. The sheer amount of it getting published isn't something to lament: it's a mark of just how popular (and viable) it is. Cynics would point to the fact that it is a business; what isn't these days? Forget about how much "bad" stuff there is out there--there's "bad" literary fiction, too. And "bad" mystery. And "bad" sci-fi, horror, inspirational, fantasy, YA fiction...

Why, you ask, are weepies and sensual "bodice rippers" and paranormal vampire tales and family romances and the like so strong as a market? Because romance--love and sex--is a basic need. We all crave relationships, whether they're with family, with friends, or with intimate partners. For those of us who have been lucky enough to find The One, who haven't been turned cynical by divorce stats and headlines, who still believe that happily ever after and always can exist, romantic fiction--no matter how corny, cheesy, fantastical, unrealistic, delusional, or otherwise--reflects the ideal journey we have taken/will take/would like to take/are taking in our own relationships with others.

Even if it appears that "nothing happens," romantic stories are still journeys for the characters. And readers and writers of romance follow them avidly because they're fun, because they're an escape, because there's something there that touches a part of them as profoundly as Coelho's The Alchemist, or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or Alcott's Little Women does for others.

Stories "about nothing" aren't worthless: it's what you read into them that gives them worth.

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