Monday, June 22, 2009

Stats of a Romance Novelist (Pass the Prozac)

nora-roberts.jpgRomance novelist Nora Roberts has written 182 novels, in addition to short stories and novellas.

Writes futuristic police procedurals under the pseudonym J.D. Robb.

Was born Eleanor Marie Robertson in 1950.

Publishes five new Noras, two installments for a paperback original trilogy, two J.D. Robb books, and a summer "Big Nora" stand alone hardcover, annually.

Twenty-seven Nora Roberts books are sold every minute.

There are enough copies of Nora Roberts books in print to fill Giants Stadium in New York four thousand times.

Wrote three of the ten best selling mass-market paperbacks in 2008.

Her publisher, Penguin, shipped 600,000 copies of her summer 2008 "Big Nora" hardcover.

Penguin shipped a total of eight million copies of her books in 2008.

Roberts sold five and a half million copies of backlist titles last year.

As J.D. Robb, Roberts sold four and a half million books in 2008.

Grossed $60 million in 2004, according to Forbes.

Roberts has spent more than seven hundred weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

She has been reviewed by the New York Times only once.

Nora Roberts' one key commandment of writing: "Ass in the chair."

Writes 6-8 hours a day.

It has been calculated that she completes a new novel every forty-five days.

Roberts is not a hugger or a crier.

Roberts has a dirty mouth, a smoker's voice, and a closet full of Armani.

Shopping is her main form of self-indulgence.

She once bought a Land Rover over a cell phone when her regular car stalled in the snow.

Has a sense of humor (see below).

Her ambition: "I hope to write the first romantic suspense time-travel paranormal thriller set in Mongolia dealing with Siamese twins who tragically fall in love with the same woman who may or may not be Annie Oakley."

Owns a small boutique hotel, called Inn BoonsBoro, in Booneboro, Maryland, near Keedysville where she has lived in the same home since 1972, long before her success. The hotel has seven themed rooms, each dedicated to pairs of literary lovers, i.e. Jane and Rochester, including a pair from one of her books.

Roberts has won nineteen RITA awards from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) since the award's inception in 1981.

Roberts has been inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame three times.

She inspires awe and envy amongst her peers. My cousin, the award-winning romance novelist and current president of the Romance Writers of America, Diane Pershing, says of Roberts, "You know that movie 'Amadeus,' where Salieri was jealous because Mozart seemed to be talking to God?"

Those expecting snarky commentary here on romance novels will be disappointed. While it is a genre that I never read nor plan to, it cannot be ignored: of people who read books, one in five read a romance novel. According to the RWA, romance novels generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2007, more than science-fiction and fantasy ($700 million), mystery ($650 million), and literary fiction ($466 million) combined.

According to the VJ Books website, "Having spent her life surrounded by men has given Ms. Roberts a fairly good view of the workings of the male mind, which is a constant delight to her readers. It was, she's been quoted as saying, 'a choice between figuring men out or running away screaming.'"

Since we men, for the obvious reason, rule out running away screaming from women except in the most extreme cases (knife-wielding, heat-packin' psychos), where is the male novelist who will devote his writing career to helping male slobs figure women out? (Sorry, Norman Mailer, it ain't you).

Is Nora Roberts a hack. Yes. Does she have talent? Her storytelling ability and knack for instantly engaging her readers are legendary. She creates characters that her readers understand and recognize. "Character is plot," she asserts. She's right; too many authors get it backwards. She's apparently broken many of the rules of the romance novel, provides snappy, witty dialogue, and plots that don't depend on the ripping of bodices. She changed the game and is the best romance novelist working in the genre today. She is not writing literary fiction, does not pretend to, and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments and huge audience for a genre that gets little respect.

All genre writing is critically dismissed until an author of such breaks through and all of a sudden the genre gains respectability as literature. Until Dashiell Hammett came along detective-murder mysteries were disdained by tastemakers. Same with Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and science-fiction. "Pauline Reage" aka Dominique Aury neé Ann Declos, The Story of O, and erotica (The Story of O the ultimate romance novel - with welts), etc.

Nora Roberts will never be confused with Jane Austen. She is as unpretentious as her readers who, contrary to popular belief, are not looking to escape but to identify with the female protagonist in romances. In this, the numbers demonstrate beyond doubt that Roberts has tapped into universals that resonate with her readers. Considering that that is the aim of all novelists and the reason that novels become lasting classics, hers is no mean achievement.

It is highly unlikely that any of Nora Roberts' novels will ever earn classic status, the fate of most popular authors. E.P. Roe, the best-selling American novelist of his generation (he outsold Twain), is now largely forgotten, despite his eighteen best-selling novels (including the first full-length American novel to feature drug use, Without A Home [1881]).

Her books, however, have become highly collectible, with paperback copies of her books, in merely good condition, fetching up to one hundred dollars.

Universities worldwide are now recognizing popular culture as a legitimate and worthy subject of inquiry. Some university libraries are devoting special collections to its study. Comic books, science-fiction, mystery and crime, and pulp literature in all it's forms - save one: the modern romance novel.

This should be rectified. The first romance novel in English is considered to be Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). Austen and Brontë follow. Even Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is, at heart, a romance novel with Jane trying to figure the big lug out and settle her dilemma: return to civilization, its stultifying roles for women, and boring, passionless men, or renounce her sterile but comfortable life to be literally carried off into the trees by a primitive bo-hunk and live a life of simplicity and hot, jungle sex. Want to understand what's going on in the heads of contemporary Western Civ women in general and American women in particular? Look no farther than the modern romance novel.

Pornographer Samuel Roth, the most prosecuted publisher in American history, once told his lawyer, Charles Rembar, that reading is itself a great good and that any kind of reading is better than no reading at all.*

It is better to read romance novels than not read at all, and any writer who can park "ass in the chair," apply themselves with iron discipline, and finish the exhaustive process of completing a book has my respect if not my dollar. While her success is surely depressing to writers with artistic aspirations, it is not reason for suicidal ideation in and of itself. Literary writing has always had a rough go of it in the popular marketplace but publishing is not a zero-sum game; there is room for all kinds of fiction, all kinds of books on bookstore shelves, and the success of one does not steal readers from another. Indeed, most novels that become classics never appear on best-selling lists.

No, if you want to slit your wrists because Nora Roberts is insanely popular while you continue to slave on the Great American Novel in your vermin-infested one-room walk-up or fulminate because Roberts sells better than [fill in your favorite non-mainstream writer] and life jus' ain't fair, do it because her only indulgence in her fame and fortune, beyond her affection for Armani, is a chartered private jet for traveling to her many appearances across the country. Yet, on her writing desk Nora Roberts has a bobble-head doll of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a pop-up nun.

Private jet mitigated by cool. irreverent, hip attitude.

Unless the earth shifts on its axis or I am offered a chartered private jet to take me to work and back (L.A. freeways growing too awful to bear) to do so, I will likely never read one of Nora Roberts' books. That may be my loss. The more I learn about this writer, the more I like her.

"For years," the New Yorker reports, "people have been telling her to hire a cook. She has no assistant or research aide.

"'Why would you want people in your house?' she said. 'Then you have to talk to them.'"

Nora Roberts, the Larry David of romance novelists.


*Rembar, Charles, Tropic of Cancer on Trial, p. 45.

Stats on Nora Roberts from Real Romance by Lauren Collins in the June 22, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

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