A Song Only You Can Hear

by Rob Gregory Browne

"You’d better take a can of mace," my friend said, and he was only partly joking.

You see, he knows several romance writers and he warned me that, being one of the few men to attend the annual RWA conference was akin to volunteering to be the bait at a greyhound race.

But when I looked in the mirror, I thought, don’t worry, Rob, you’ll be safe.  They only chase small animals and you’re anything but small.  Especially since you packed on those extra 20 lbs.

So, as you read this, I’m driving up the coast to windy San Francisco, facing uncertainty and possible doom.  I will, however, not be in the company of a pack of dogs, but a lot of writers and readers and genuinely wonderful people who happen to be mostly female — some of whom are my friends.

Which is fine with me.  All my life I’ve felt more comfortable in the company of women.  To be perfectly honest — and I don’t want to insult any of the men in the crowd — I find the conversation among females to be far more interesting and stimulating. 

And it doesn’t hurt that they’re a lot easier to look at.

When I tell friends here at home that I’m going to the conference, I usually get a blank stare. 

"But why?" they say.  "You don’t even write romances."

Oh, but I do.  In my first book, KISS HER GOODBYE, there is a definite romance in the making — my hero and his assistant, who have been eying each other for quite awhile.  In WHISPER IN THE DARK there are two romances:  a man struggling with his love for his dead wife as he starts a new relationship, while another — a cop — rekindles his feelings for his ex-partner.

These relationships don’t dominate the books, but I can’t imagine the stories without them.  Every book I write has at least a touch of romance.  Partly because I’m a romantic at the core, and partly because I strongly feel that the best stories are about emotion — big emotions — and romantic love certainly qualifies in that regard.

Romance writers and, especially, readers often get a bad rap.  The stuff they write and read, some say, is pure pablum.  Silly little love stories that feed on the fantasies of middle-aged housewives.

And to this I say, bullshit.

What surprises me most is that some of the people I’ve heard express this sentiment are mystery and thriller writers.   And if anyone should understand literary snobbery and all of its pettiness, it’s mystery and thriller writers.

The truth is, the quality of any book comes down to one thing:  how it connects with an individual reader.

Our tastes vary from person to person — and sometimes, in fact, from day to day, within ourselves.   So, to my mind, it’s the individual who must decide the worth of a particular book or genre he or she has chosen to read.  One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.

I myself have read several romances over the years and while I can’t claim that I loved them all, I certainly fell for quite a few and found them no different than any other book I’ve enjoyed.  When an author’s voice speaks to me in that certain way, I’ll follow her wherever she wants to take me.

There’s an anonymous quote I came across recently that I think sums it all up:  "You don’t love someone for their looks or their clothes or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear."

Perhaps this is something we should remember when we feel the urge to insult someone’s reading preferences — and I don’t pretend to be a saint in that regard. 

The phrase, "to each his own," works quite well here.

Beyond all that, of course, there’s also a practical reason for going to RWA: 

Connecting with readers.  Most readers in this country are women, and the majority of those women read romances.  I would be crazy not to attend a conference that caters to the largest audience this industry has.  And while it’s true that it’s generally a writer’s conference, let’s not forget that writers are readers, too.

So I’m now heading up to San Francisco, certain I’ll have a blast, but still hearing echoes of my friend’s warning in the deepest recesses of my brain.

Thankfully, however, I won’t need that can of mace to fend off the hordes of adoring females.  I’ve got something even stronger:

Barry Eisler will be there, too.

14 thoughts on “A Song Only You Can Hear

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Have fun in SF. Barry is but a shadow compared to you – and that’s not supposed to be any kind of a comment about those extra 20lbs you claim to have acquired!

    Was it Marcus Sakey who replied to a post here a while ago on literary versus genre fiction – there’s good writing and there’s bad writing, and everything else is just a flavour. I’ll read anything if it’s a good story, well told and I like the sound of a writer’s voice. Romance, sci-fi, horror, western, whatever.

    Just one observation though. I’ve generally found that, while nobody expects that I must have actually killed people in any of the ways described in any of my books, in order to write about them, they all believe absolutely that the sex scenes are entirely autobiographical … ;-]

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    I occasionally describe my books as “romances where stuff blows up.” I’ve always felt that the relationship between Jack and Marie is what drives the Keller books. I agree that you have to have some degree of romance, even if tragic, in even the darkest mystery novel to fully humanize the characters. It’s much much harder to relate to someone who can’t feel love.

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Great blog, Rob. My good friend, “Queen of Western Romance” Bobbi Smith showed me some pictures of past RWA conferences. The ladies oftentimes bring their own chiseled, rippled playtoys. If they do that this year, you’ll be safe. If not, well, bring lots of chocolate and enjoy the attention.

    I’ve read a couple of romances. There’s an art there that we can all learn from.

  4. Naomi

    Have a great time, Rob! And there’s a certain undeniable RGB magnetism, so you’re not safe by a longshot. Don’t break too many hearts in S.F.

  5. Louise Ure

    “Chiseled, rippled playtoys,” Wilfred? That brings to mind something made of plastic rather than flesh and blood.

    Have a great time in The City, as we snobbishly refer to it, rob. Sorry it’s such crappy, gray weather right now, but you probably won’t even notice that.

  6. JT Ellison

    I wish I was in the car with you! You’re going to have a blast.

    I’ve never understood how some people can look down on others because of their preferred genre. It’s all reading, it’s all book sales, and it’s all propelling our industry. Who cares what label is on the cover? Rob and Dusty (and Brett, and Barry Eisler, and Lee Child, and John Connolly, and Stephen King, and Steve Berry, and Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy, and Daniel Silva… and… and…) all men, all writing about relationships. No one scoffs and says oh, they’re writing silly little romances. There’s no estrogen at the typewriter, so it’s okay. Not to pull out the gender flag, but there’s another double standard happening there.

    But Rob’s exactly right — love is a catalyst that drives us all, so why shouldn’t it be reflected in our writing? Especially the dark thrillers — love is what keeps my characters together through the horrors they experience. I don’t call them romance, but there’s a huge romantic element. What good book doesn’t have that kind of conflict at its core?

  7. Josephine Damian

    RGB and Eisler at RWA? Now THAT’S a happening conference! You’ll have to post some Twitter updates as you two run the gauntlet of cougars and sex kittens.

    Great post about writing – it’s all about an emotional connection with the reader – it’s not about the writing itself.

    Since romance is the biggest selling genre, they must be doing something right.

  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Rob,When I used to write a literary column for a local newspaper, I decided to really explore why romances were so incredibly popular.

    My final conclusion: They sell predictable happiness — the happy ending — and it’s something we all want and need in our lives.

    My article was incredibly positive, chiding litsnobs, and pointing out how powerful the message of hope can be.

    That article was also, by far, the most popular — most commented on — piece I wrote for the paper.

    Have a blast in SF.

  9. Becky LeJeune

    I’m a recent convert to romance reading (meaning browsing the actual romance sections for books). I agree with you all here and as a bookseller in a town that prides itself on being so “literary” I saw how many people avoided it like the plague! It’s a shame. There are so many great authors there and the actual label is only really up to marketing folks at publishing companies and bookstores alike – they put it where they think it’s most likely to sell. It’s not rocket science, there’s no equivalent of the MPAA saying it’s got this, this, and this and therefore it’s a romance. Plus, it’s as diverse a genre as mystery is, lending itself very easily to multi-faceted (and “genre-d” stories. Plus, from what I understand, all the fans really know how to have fun!

  10. Fiona

    Rob, I’m in SF and will be attending the RWA convention.

    As an unpublished writer, I want to thank you for your description of romance. We don’t all write the same thing and many of the mysteries I love I am drawn to because of the strong romantic elements.

    I hope I’ll see you In SF and thank you in person.

    Will you be at the signing tonight?

  11. ArkansasCyndi

    Oh damn. I am so jealous. I had to miss the RWA conference this year!

    Thank you for your support of the romance genre. Just a tip about RWA – find a good place in the bar and stay there! Wait…that tip is probably good for just about any writers conference, isn’t it?

    As many critics of romance say that it’s stories about women being “rescued” but a rich or handsome man (or both!) but that isn’t it. It’s finding love without someone who is so special that looks and money don’t matter… they help though! 🙂

    Have fun and please give us a blog report

  12. Suzan


    Thanks for the wonderful comments about RWA. A local chapter I used to belong to had four male members, including a PI and a retired homicide detective. Their resons for joining? RWA has some of the best writer education programs.

  13. Toni Anderson

    This is a great post, Rob. I was surprised to discover a certain condescension for romance writers among certain crime/mystery writers. You sum up my thoughts on the subject perfectly.

    I hope you had a great conference, I believe you met some of my friends there 🙂 Not raving slathering beasts after all, as I’m sure you were aware 🙂


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