Monthly Archives: March 2010

In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, by Marika Cobbold

I first heard about this book on a blog – can’t remember which one, sadly – and thought it sounded interesting. Interesting enough, at least, to put on my amazon wishlist (which is what I use as a reminder of books that sound interesting. You know, in case I ever run out of books to read). So when it was on one of the display shelves at the newly refurbished local library, I couldn’t resist.

And it is an interesting concept, for sure. Romance novelist turns cynical, Aphrodite and Eros try to help, etc. And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more. I didn’t not enjoy it, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, given the glowing review that had made me put it on the wishlist in the first place.

I liked the main character perfectly well. I was incredibly happy when she walked out on her boyfriend, because he was emotionally abusive and icky. And I completely understand her cynicism about love and romance, since it’s something that I feel quite a lot (and I’m only 29).

But. The more I think about it, the less works.

The ending was absolutely the weakest part of the book. All of the character development, all of the story wrapped up in a “here’s what happened” epilogue. And the love story itself boils down to Cupid’s – sorry, Eros’s – arrow. Why do they love each other? Because Eros shot them at the right time. It’s the equivalent of the fairy godmother waving her wand, and it’s such a cop-out.

And the most frustrating part of the ending is that it doesn’t resolve any of the questions that the book poses, which are good, valid questions about the nature of romance and its place in modern life. The book is filled with valid cynicism about romance, the emphasis put on romance to the detriment of love and partnership, and the role and responsibility that romantic, escapist fiction plays in the world. These are perfectly good questions that deserve to be looked at. But all of the cynical doubts are resolved off-stage through a deus ex machine that’s not even seen, only reported.

It left me feeling hollow and disappointed. Yes, there was a happy ending in the traditional romance way (a wedding), but there was no resolution. And resolution is more important than a stock ending. The perfect ending is not the only reason that people (me) read romances. It’s nice, sure, but even more important than the perfect ending is the feeling that the happy ending is possible. That the problems will be overcome. And it’s not about the fact that there’s a wedding as much as the fact that there’s a relationship. There was no relationship in this book, at least not one to hope for. We weren’t given a picture of any relationship other than cynicism; we weren’t given any evidence to support the idea of “this time it will be different” at the end.

If the ending had been good, or at least satisfying, I could have overlooked some of my annoyances in the rest of the book. But since the ending didn’t resolve any of them, I have to wonder why they were there at all. Aphrodite’s behavior as a “therapist” completely mocked the seriousness of both main character’s mental conditions (he has OCD, she has hallucinations that worry and upset her). It may have been intended as comic relief, but it didn’t work. The mental problems of the characters were never resolved either. The hallucinations just sort of appear, probably as a shorthand for “my life is falling apart”, but since they’re neither taken seriously by anyone other than the main character who’s having them, nor resolved, they serve no purpose. (And why can’t a woman be dissatisfied with her romantic relationship and romance in general without seeming to go mad?) There’s also the ridiculous and unfair way that Rebecca is treated as the relationship guru, especially by her goddaughter. Seriously, this girl bases her cold feet on Rebecca’s attitude, and everyone backs her up on this. Since when did writing romances mean that you had to be the perfect romantic yourself? There’s also the previously mentioned lack of a redeeming love story. Every apparently happy couple is really unhappy and usually adulterous. Again, it’s not the ending that makes a romance worth reading, it’s the relationships that build up to that ending. And this book just didn’t have them.

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Defenestration (Word 1)

A while ago on facebook, I asked people to give me their favourite underused English words. I got a lot. My friends have large vocabularies. I’ve spent some time looking them up (I love the OED!) and putting them on index cards, with the intent of doing something literary and interesting with them. The original idea was to write something that incorporated all the words. I may still do that. But to warm myself up, I decided to write a poem around each of the words.

It is and will continue to be a slow process, but I will post them here when I write them (unless or until I feel like they need a space of their own). If you have your own ideas for words that you think are underused or underappreciated, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to my list.


Defenestration

In medieval Prague, religious fears

Fuelled politics. The Catholic councilors

Were defenestrated.

Saved by the angels, people said.

Today the falling, flailing bodies

Thud and splat when they land.

Camera angles, dummies, and makeup

Instead of Bohemian angels.

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The state of literature

I read this today.

I really just wanted to say that I agree with this article, and this perspective on literary trends. I would also like to say that contemporary best-seller status does not necessarily reflect long-term classic status. Books that sell incredibly well very quickly (which are the books that hit the best-seller list, whether they stay there or not is irrelevant) are not always remembered even a year after publication, and books that do not sell very well at first are sometimes the ones that are lauded and studied in generations to come (The Great Gatsby is a common example of this, but not the only one).  Literary history is just like any other form of history: the full impact of events cannot always be seen until years or decades later.

Just for example, take a look at the bestsellers from 1910-1919, and see how many of the titles or even the authors you’ve heard of.  I am fairly well-read, and I haven’t even heard of that many; and some of the authors I have heard of in other contexts (Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and Arnold Bennett). The only titles I know on the list – a ten-year list – are Pollyanna and In Flanders Fields.

So, while the state of modern literature in all its forms is wide-ranging and sometimes frustrating, this is not a new thing, and in fifty or a hundred years no one will remember the books that are complained about now, except perhaps as a footnote in a literary encyclopedia.

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Once Upon a Day, by Lisa Tucker

Just a few thoughts on this one. I really liked The Song Reader, so I thought I’d give it a try. I started it in an afternoon, put it down when I went out with some friends, and picked it up again when I went to bed. I expected to fall asleep at some point but I was so captivated by the story that I didn’t put it down until I finished it.  It was one of those books where it was a jolt to leave the world that had been created.

It didn’t strike me as quite as beautifully written as The Song Reader, but obviously I still enjoyed it quite a lot. It did the shifting point-of-view thing that is fairly fashionable, and did it successfully. I was fascinated by the basic idea of all of the stories – the single day that completely shifts your world. Not everyone, I think, has a day like that, but all of these characters did. They all had single , specific, traumatic days that completely altered the course of their lives. And talking about those days, or not talking about those days, was incredibly important to all of them.

I’m also fascinated by the way that Lisa Tucker writes people with (undiagnosed) mental disorders. Both The Song Reader and Once Upon a Day feature people with odd upbringings and, shall we say, interesting mental patterns. And they are fairly sympathetic and even if you don’t agree with the actions themselves, you can’t disagree with the motivations.

Like I told my sister, it’s not a book that you have to read now now now, but Lisa Tucker should be on your list somewhere.

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The Princes in the Tower, by Alison Weir

I finally finished The Princes in the Tower. It didn’t really get any better. I will admit that most of her conclusions were convincing, and I suppose I must admit that it is quite likely that the boys died in Richard III’s reign, but the absolutely overwhelming pro-Tudor, anti-Richard tone of the entire book turned me off so very much. She had no compunction about assigning emotional motivation to almost every event. For anything that Richard did, he was motivated by ambition, greed, and evil; for anything that someone opposed to Richard did, it was because of self-preservation, innocence, and fear of Richard. Even if they were doing essentially the same thing, Richard did it deceptively and anyone else did it innocently.

I still find it hard to believe that someone who was almost insanely loyal to his brother during that brother’s lifetime, even when it was not advantageous to be so, would turn so quickly into a villain blinded by ambition and determined to destroy his brother’s family. I also find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have foreseen the trouble caused by the disappearance of the bodies of the Princes. After all, Edward II was said to have been murdered, and his body was produced and given a royal burial(even if Weir herself doesn’t quite believe that he did actually die at that time). Why would Richard be so stupid as to think that he could get away with killing the princes and NOT producing their bodies?

But, like I said, Weir is fairly convincing. Even if her arguments generally come down to “See how reliable More and the other Tudor-era sources are? SEE???” and a general sense of “No smoke without fire” about London attitudes, gossip, and rumours. And for a book that claims to re-examine all the evidence, most of that came down to “Here’s all the evidence against Richard III. All the evidence against other people is stupid and wrong.”

I do still find Weir very readable. Unfortunately, after this book and some problems I have with her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I might have to hesitate before picking up another of hers.

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