Editor’s note: The Spokesman-Review reached out to local author Chris Crutcher this weekend to talk about the popularity of the romance novel and how it compared to his genre, young adult fiction. Crutcher wrote back to share his thoughts on the two genres, and why authors who work within them aren’t as well-known as in other fiction styles. His writing has been lightly edited to appear in this newspaper.
One reason it’s interesting to me that there are romance writers right here in town who have likely outsold most of the authors whose names we’re familiar with, is my history writing so-called young adult fiction.
When I was being published in the early 1980s, young adult fiction was pretty much considered the red-headed stepchild of “real” fiction. Librarians hadn’t figured out where to place it in their libraries, and if it was to be found in bookstores at all, it was likely to be placed in a corner of children’s literature, where no teenager would ever be caught dead.
Publishing dates differed from “popular fiction;” most were scheduled to reflect school year schedules rather than Christmas holiday releases and pre-summer blockbusters (hopefully). That all made sense because our reading public was teachers and librarians first, then, through them, middle- and high schoolers. So you could write a very popular YA book and no one would know your name.
For the most part you didn’t have huge sales coming out of the block, but the thing about any YA book that’s used in school curriculum or voluntary reading lists is, they have a new audience every year. So a lot of YA books stay in print much longer than the more popular fare.
That’s a long way of saying, “We don’t get no respect.”
“Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and notable others changed that for YA over the years, though the stories that get the greatest benefit from that change are those that cross over into the so-called mainstream. The greatest number of YA authors operate in relative anonymity among the “reading public.”
If you see me on a panel with Jess Walters and Sherman Alexie, you’ll know two of us. To a great degree, that’s how it should be. Jess and Sherman are two of our country’s best storytellers and best writers, and that’s not hyperbole.
But to aspiring writers, it’s important to know that a lot of writing goes on below the radar, which brings me to my point regarding romance writers.
If my understanding is correct, there’s a specific formula to writing a good romance novel and the publishers require fairly close adherence to it. Romance readers like to know what to expect in terms of that plot formula.
But there’s a reason those books are as popular as they are. They connect to the reader’s imagination, and in that regard are no different than any other kind of fiction. If you don’t relate to my characters, you’re not going to read my book. If you can’t feel the desperation, the hope, the disappointment, the anger, the humor of my writing, you’re not going to stay with me.
Every time a writer of any genre sits down to write, she or he has to consider that, and they have to bring it off, formula or no formula. Story, at any level, is about connection, and there are a lot of ways to connect with human beings.
Writing a novel of any kind is hard work. It’s as structural as it is creative. Different readers read them for different reasons, and there’s no reason in the world not to provide those readers with imaginative escape. Finding fun and hope and escape and possibility in a story can be just as important as finding great insight.
It depends on what the reader is looking for.
Chris Crutcher is an award-winning young adult author whose first work, “Running Loose,” was published in 1983. He has earned the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors. A graduate of Eastern Washington State College, Crutcher talks frequently to students nationwide and worked as a family therapist before dedicating his professional time to writing in the mid-1990s. He has published 11 books, including five that appeared on the ALA’s list of 100 Best Books for Teens of the Twentieth Century.
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