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I’ve had a bad review. I know, I know, authors aren’t supposed to talk about this one. But I want to talk about this one, because it flags up for me some interesting issues around the kind of thing I write, and the kind of attitude in general our society has to it.

(There’s recently been a very good article on ‘girly’ book covers by Maureen Johnson at the guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/09/coverflip-maureen-johnson-gender-book)

This Amazon reviewer was disappointed that my novel, The Warrior Queen wasn’t what they expected. Despite the naked woman on the cover. Despite it being listed under ‘romance’ on Amazon.

Why were they disappointed?

Because they had googled my bio (I know they googled it, because the details of my education aren’t on Amazon, because I removed them, because I thought it would lead to just this kind of assumption) and they didn’t think that this was the sort of thing a woman like me should have written.

There were two points of objection for them:

I am Oxford-educated

I did my undergraduate degree at Oxford. I deleted this from my Amazon profile, because people are such twats about it. It’s annoying enough when you’re there and people assume that you’re all posh, super-intellectual snobs with nothing better to do than quote Keats at each other all day because that’s what the students do in Lewis. We’re normal people, with normal lives, dreams, hopes, sexualities etc. You know that bit in Legally Blonde where Elle’s parents tell her not to go to Harvard because it’s only for people who are boring, and ugly and serious? Yeah. It’s basically the same thing.

So because I went to Oxford I’m not supposed to enjoy romance fiction? A light read? It’s probably OK for me to read stuff like that, I mean, in an ironic way, right? But y’know only as a sociological study, yeah? And only, like, in protest? I’m secretly reading To the Lighthouse, but with the cover of this romance novel on, but as a social experiment, yeah, cos I’m like so intellectual? But writing it? Oh no.

This review expressed doubt that I really was Oxford-educated because I had written a piece of genre fiction. Sex fiction. Sexy sexy historical sex fiction that I enjoyed writing because I am a human, just like you. (Maybe not JUST like you, but pretty like you). What did he expect? What, so because I’m educated I can only write po-faced pseudo-intellectual literary fiction? Unreal Camelot! Unreal Camelot! Yeah, no thanks. I wrote it for fun, for entertainment, for sexy kicks. I had no illusions that I was writing the new Finnegan’s Wake. It’s listed under romance. It’s romance. My personal history has nothing to do with it. But, y’know, thanks for googling.

I am a Feminist

The reviewer also expressed disbelief in my feminism, because Guinevere, my main character, is not the perfect paradigm of empowered female behaviour at all times. Therefore I am not a feminist. I represent a medieval woman with limited powers of influence – not a feminist. I represent a woman who likes to have sexy sex with sexy men – I’m not a feminist. I write a romance novel – I’m not a feminist. According to him.

I would just like to say at this point, what a boring and dishonest thing literature would be if everyone who was a feminist had to represent a perfect world with women who were empowered, who never absorbed the patriarchal cultures around them, who never showed weakness, or vulnerability, or love. I would also like to say: my characters are not me. I did not write them to hang some kind of feminist lesson on about how women should behave.*

Here’s the Problem

There’s this strange idea that romance fiction isn’t empowering. But it’s written by women (often), for women (often), and it’s one of the few genres that often focuses on a female viewpoint. Any surprise that it’s the most vilified? The most often called ‘trash’, or ‘fluff’? Because women’s viewpoint narratives can only be less momentous, less interesting, less significant than men’s. If it’s ‘romance’, it’s trash, and it’s not the business of an Oxford-educated feminist to write it. If that’s not some industrial-strength bullshit, I don’t know what is.

I want to say, I’m smart, I’m educated, I’m a feminist, and I like a good romance story. I like things that are light and fun, as well as things that are serious. I have a healthy sexuality. I’m sick of this idea that “women’s interest” is some kind of code for “stupid”. That something fun and female-centric is something unworthy of the thinking woman. That if women are smart, they should be like men.

I’ve already deleted my education from my bio because of this stupid attitude. Maybe I’ll put it back.

Romance is great! I’m ready to fight for it. We’ve taken back the night. Let’s take back the bookshelves.

*(Just as a side note, the reviewer takes “feminist” issue with a point in the text where Guinevere faints. Perhaps this was too much of a medieval in-joke, but just FYI anyone out there worrying about my feminism, this was actually a nerdy reference to the fact that in the original, men faint all the time, because in medieval literature fainting is a kind of literary shorthand for when people are overcome with emotion in situations where they would not be able to verbalise their emotions. There’s been a lot of critical literature on the ‘swoun’ in medieval romance. But still, even though it is a nerdy reference, surely women should be allowed to faint without having their ‘feminist’ badge taken away??)

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