I’m not sure when “genre” became a dirty word in creative writing programs. I certainly didn’t want “genre.” I wanted Art (capital A important.) Every one of my fellow writers down in the trenches of great writing at USC's Master of Professional Writing Program imagined Sales (capital S important). Perhaps we pictured ourselves as Tom Wolfe in a white suit or Margaret Atwood in a white suite. For our Art, we wanted respect and high sales numbers--that’s all.
On the positive side, I never worried about following any genre model. I just wanted to write solid, involving, emotional stories. I wanted them to take the chaos swirling around me, imbue my lead characters with a bit of what I felt, and write as truthfully as possible about this crazy life.
I wanted to do what it turns out genre writer Amanda Hocking just said in her blog, to write “a book that many people enjoyed.” She explained that for her book, Switched, “I wrote a story I loved, readers fell in love with the same characters I did, and I love my readers. That's all there is to it.”
Until now, I hadn’t analyzed my fiction as simply as that. After all, the contemporary novels that I make my students read, such as Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (in my child lit class), don’t seem “genre” to me--just great stories that are not cliché.
In fact, that had been my notion of genre: cliché. After all, romance novel covers seem full of swooning bare-shouldered women and bare-chested men. Yet I didn’t give genre readers enough credit. They don’t like reading hackneyed material any more than I do.
The fact that I’m a romantic, well, I love that. That didn’t make me a Romance Writer. Or did it? I took stock this week. Two new reviews did it.
Reviews have been coming in for weeks for my new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, about a physicist using the tools of science to find his soul mate--in three days. At first the reviewers were all male--all positive and eager. I loved Top-Ten Amazon reviewer Grady Harp calling the book “a gift,” and Sam Sattler of Book Chase saying it’s impossible not to like protagonist Gunnar Gunderson. Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews called the book “a heartfelt study of the tension between the head and heart, science and emotion, calculation and chance”--everything I was after.
But where were the female reviewers? Because I published through my own independent company, White Whisker Books, I called up my book designer, Daniel Will-Harris, and said, “I think our cover is too ‘male.’ I don’t want to scare off women.” After all, I thought mostly women would read it. I said, “Soften the cover up somehow.”
His first version didn’t do it. He turned all the black lettering into pink lettering. Ugh. I suggested that in one of his early designs, he had put a red heart symbol onto an ice cube, and I liked the idea of a heart. “Can you play with a heart?” He came back with the cover we have now. It’s softer and more fun-looking. Women are reviewing the book--and they’ve been opening my eyes.
The one that surprised me was from reviewer Virginia Campbell. She’d sent me an email to her “spotlight” on my book at this link. When I clicked on the link, I saw prominently featured a stunning bare-shouldered woman and a couple of bare-chested men. Romance. “What!” was my first reaction, but then I read her review, which is also on Goodreads and Amazon. She said she knew she’d love the book from its premise, adding, “What I didn't know was that the author would blow me away with his skill as a storyteller.”
Well, hey! And then I read Linda Hitchcock’s review at BookTrib, which starts, “Three cheers for Christopher Meeks and his wildly entertaining picaresque novel about the gentle, bumbling hero Physicist Gunnar Gunderson’s quest for love and marriage. Meeks’ work is fresh, up-to-date, and frequently laugh out loud funny as my husband would attest in a grumble after being jostled anew.”
Maybe I’ve found my audience. I’ve received nearly two dozen reviews at this point, not counting the ones on Amazon, GoodReads, and LibraryThing, which may add another fifty. Most are by women and most are four- and five-star reviews. (You can read many here.)
What I haven’t done yet is go directly to large Romance sites, which I know are out there. Part of me is saying, “Yes, but I don’t use the usual conventions—maybe I’ll be raked over the coals for that.” Thus I researched by going to “How to Write Romance Novels” on WikiHow. I seem to have the conventions: going out dates, having heartbreaks, and giving an unusual setting (a physics lab and Denmark) and believable dialogue.
There’s one key difference. My book is from a man’s point of view. Can a man be a protagonist in a romance novel? It seems to me that’s what Nick Hornby does in such novels as High-Fidelity.
Oh, yes, there are a few other small differences between Love At Absolute Zero and your average romance. Quantum physics and what happens to matter near absolute zero plays in the background, both directly and metaphorically. Still, it's not intimidating, and it becomes rather fun.
Most romances don't start each chapter with a law of physics, such as Newton's First Law of Motion, or have drug use. (It's hashish in Denmark--a one time thing Gunnar falls prey to when he's feeling low.)
The reality is that my book has a lot of romance elements, but I can't stand in front of Romance readers and declare, “I’m a Romance Writer. I’ve been one for a while.” I'd be booed off the stage. Still, I wish for the daring romance reader to try my book.
I mentioned this to Steve Windwalker, who runs Kindle Nation Daily, as my book was sponsoring his site recently. He wrote, “Is [Meeks's book] romance from the man’s POV? Is it literature? We think it is both, and not in bad company as such.”
One reviewer on Goodreads gave my book a genre: Lab Lit. Whatever it is, sample it. You can read an excerpt here.
Meanwhile, as if playing with one genre isn't enough, I'm writing a mystery, Falling Down Mt. Washington. While there are murders, mystery, and a lot of tension, my protagonist is falling in love with the lead female FBI agent. I'm a romantic.
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
Associated Writing Programs