"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.