Tag Archives: vaguely uncomfortable

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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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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Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult

Warning: Handle with Care is a recently published book, and there are spoilers below.

It took me longer than I expected to get through Handle with Care.  I’ve enjoyed the other two books of hers that I’ve read (My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes), even if I couldn’t get through an audio book of The Tenth Circle.  Plus, my sister became almost instantly absorbed in Handle with Care, and any book that can hook my sister that quickly must be worth reading. And it was worth reading, I don’t want to say that it wasn’t. But as I told my sister, it was frustrating and sad – and since I’m also trying to read The Princes in the Tower, which makes me frustrated and angry, it was possibly more harrowing than it needed to be.

It was plenty harrowing, too. Another reason that I had a problem getting through it was because, for most of the story, I had very little sympathy with Charlotte. I understood the instinct behind Charlotte and Sean’s initial visit to the lawyer, and I understood to some extent why she followed through on the wrongful birth suit. But I found her incredibly unsympathetic for about two-thirds of the book.

She was so victimized, by herself. She focused so much on what couldn’t happen – what Willow couldn’t do, what she couldn’t do because of Willow, that she lost sight of what she could do. It is not a coincidence that she became a lot more likeable, and happier as a character even in the midst of the chaos that she created, when she started being proactive rather than reactive – when she started baking, and when they went to the conference in Omaha.

I don’t want to diminish the difficulty of raising a child with disabilities, either physical or mental. It is incredibly difficult and expensive, and of course no one knows how they will react to a situation until they are faced with it. But filing a lawsuit like that is not proactive, it’s reactive. It’s mercenary.

I almost think I would have liked her better if it had been a more clearly mercenary motivation. Of course, then she wouldn’t have had the revelation at the end that she was being totally selfish (something that everyone else, including me, had realized long ago). But if they had really exhausted all of their financial resources, if they’d done all of the fund-raising possible, if she’d been baking as much as possible and selling it and it still wasn’t enough, then I would have had more sympathy with the suit. But, as Charlotte realized near the end of the trial, she was doing it for herself. She was doing it to get some kind of recognition that her life was hard, harder than she’d expected and harder than she’d wanted. And that’s what I didn’t like about her for a lot of the book – that sense of victimization, of needing public acknowledgement of her victimization.  And, as I said above, I liked her a lot more when she wasn’t focused on that, and at the end when she was finally honest about her motivations.

She was just so miserable for the first part, and behaving miserably. She was self-isolated for so long, buried in her sense of “my life is hard” that she didn’t even consider seeking out support, and blew off the support that she did have. It is almost unforgivable that she didn’t discuss even the possibility of the suit with Piper, that she blindsided her like that. It is also almost unforgivable the way that she refused to listen to Sean and discuss the suit with him, and just continued on blindly, trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing. I can understand, given her behavior through the rest of the book, how she completely ignored all the signs of Amelia’s problems, but I don’t like her for it.  In fact, most of her behavior I can understand but just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you agree with it, approve of it, or like it.

But she is, of course, only one character. The major character, sure, but only one. And I really liked Piper, and Amelia (I had a lot of sympathy for Amelia) and Sean and Willow – although there wasn’t a whole lot of Willow until the horrifically sad ending; she was mostly there for the suit to revolve around. And Marin, as we got more involved in her story.  (How heartbreaking was her birth mother’s reveal?)

I think I felt the most for Amelia. She’s trapped by these events. She has no control over them and yet they have a profoundly negative impact on her in the way that only teenagers can be affected by these things. She’s intelligent and intuitive and exerts control over her life in the only way that she can. Most stroppy teenagers are tiresome, because there’s no rationale other than their being teenagers. With Amelia, there is a definite catalyst for these things beyond puberty – and she recognizes that but doesn’t have the self-control, or in some ways the desire, to stop it.  And then you add the element of “survivor’s guilt” – in this case, guilt about being healthy when Willow isn’t, and being upset about the things in her life when Willow has even less control and even more pain, and specific guilt about forgetting the letter at the beginning – to the chaos of puberty and the lawsuit and the ramifications from that, and it’s really no wonder that she acts out the way she does.

As a book, it’s really well done. Once I realized what it was that was upsetting me the most, and once I stopped reading it in short bursts, I raced through to the end – and was devastated, of course, by the ending that was horribly reminiscent of My Sister’s Keeper. There was one aspect, in retrospect, that was touched on but not really developed, and that was the abortion argument. There were a few hints that Charlotte, despite being a Catholic, wasn’t absolutely opposed to abortion, and that part of her mentality was not explored in as much depth as the social and emotional and familial ramifications of the lawsuit itself. But that’s my only quibble with the writing, and it’s entirely likely that if it had been included, it would have come across as preachy or made the book too emotionally busy and I’d be complaining about its inclusion instead.

It’s more My Sister’s Keeper than Nineteen Minutes, if that gives it any context. Those being the only other Jodi Picoult books that I’ve read so far, those are the only ones I can compare it to. She’s definitely an author that I will pick up again. Just not until I’ve recovered from this one.

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Update on The Princes in the Tower

I am having a very difficult time with The Princes in the Tower. I am trying to approach it with an open mind, but I have been a Richard apologist since I first read The Daughter of Time. Maybe my reservations will be swept away as the book continues and more evidence is explained, but at this point I am still not convinced that Richard had sufficient motivation to brutally murder his nephews. He’d been totally loyal to his brother, one of the few people who stayed loyal throughout. It is (or may be) true that he needed the Princes out of the way in order to become king, but a secret, unrevealed killing doesn’t really accomplish that. Their disappearance doesn’t benefit him as much as a lie about their death would have.

It also doesn’t help that Weir, for all her protestations of objectivity, is writing after she has been convinced of Richard’s guilt. The chapter on sources is little more than reasons why the pro-Tudor chronicles are really accurate and unbiased. No, really they are. I mean it.  Totally accurate and unbiased. And thoroughly convincing in their accuracy and objectivity. And she refers to any pro-Yorkist text as “revisionist” which despite any efforts has a connotation of “twisting or rewriting history to make our guy look good, even if it means resorting to bare-faced lies.” Maybe it’s just me, but a really impartial view doesn’t focus on one suspect exclusively and detail the parts of his upbringing that would create amorality. Seriously, is there nothing in Henry Tudor’s early life that would make him feel entitled to the throne and willing to, at the very least, fight a battle over it?

Maybe this imbalance will be redressed in further chapters. And maybe this is just my own personal Tudor exhaustion (how many books on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I do we really need?). I’m trying to keep an open mind. I will keep reading and see if she convinces me, but right now I’m very skeptical.

(I will, of course, post again when I have actually finished it. Update to come. Eventually.)

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How do we read?

There was an article in the New York Times about the way people read and the way they share (or not) their reading experiences. Basically it’s an argument between “social” readers who use book clubs and social networking, and private readers, who…don’t.  The article starts with a quotation from the latest Newbery book (which I don’t know anything about, really – I am intrigued) comparing someone else reading your favourite book to an invasion of privacy, and kind of continues that line through the rest of the article.

Reading is, of course, a solitary action for most of us. There are ways, of course, to make it less solitary, by reading out loud or listening to audiobooks, but mostly reading is a solitary activity. Experiencing books, on the other hand, is not a solitary activity. Even if you don’t want to share your reading experience, you form a connection with the characters, the storylines. Even non-fiction, unless it’s an encyclopaedia, has characters and storylines that the reader forms an emotional connection with.

And the books that we love help us to form connections with other people. We feel a sense of ownership of our favourite books, sure, so I can see where they are coming from, those people who don’t want to share their favourite books.  But I also know that humans are social creatures, who wither without some point of connection with others.  You can tell a lot about people because of their reaction to books: both their favourites (and least favourites) and what they think of your favourites. I knew that one of my colleagues and I weren’t going to have a lot in common when she said that her favourite book was Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook because it was so well-written, for example. And I became close to one of my friends in Slovakia because of our shared love of Jane Austen (and Jane Austen adaptations).

Anyway, experiencing books is not a solitary activity. Despite what the article may imply, reading has never been a purely private pursuit.  18th and 19th century novels are filled with people reading in company, or sharing books, or passing around letters. Today, there are organized ways of sharing the books – like book clubs and social networking and literature classes – and there are casual ways – like a friend recommending a book and enthusing about their favourite parts.

For me, at least, reading is – and should be – both a solitary and a social activity. I have intimate relationships with books – I defy anyone to say the contrary – but like most intimate relationships, I find it difficult to put that relationship into words. So when I talk about those books, I don’t necessarily talk about the emotions of it, except to close friends.  I talk about the comic relief, or the plot points, or the weaknesses.  Just like when I fall in love – I don’t usually talk about the depth of my feelings, except to close friends. I talk about what we do, or what is annoying me about him, or when I’m going to see him again.

And just because someone else enjoys the same books that you do, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – diminish your own relationship with the book. It’s still yours, as much as a book belongs to any reader (which is a philosophical question in and of itself). The laws of this universe, so far as we know, mean that you will not run into people from this world in your book. You read it again, and it’s your own private place just as much as it always was.

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Autism and adults….really?

Okay, granted, I have never studied autism. I don’t know much of the research and what I do know I get strictly from the news and conversations with people who have actually studied autism or deal with it on a regular basis (like my mom and my sister). I do know that one concern is over-diagnosis of autism and autism-spectrum disorders, which is why this article kind of disturbs me.

All that the article says is ‘new research funded by the Department of Health’ shows that 1 in 100 adults has autism. There is no link to the new research, no quotation from anyone who carried out the research, and no formal statement from the Department of Health. Just ‘new research’. What kind of research? What criteria are they using to diagnose? There are things that are part of responsible science reporting, and some of those things are missing in this article.

Also, ‘Mozart, Orwell, Einstein, Beethoven and Newton all had it’? Really? Again, by what criteria? When was this decided, and by whom? I’m pretty sure autism wasn’t recognized as a disorder when Mozart was alive, or Newton (anyone know when it was first diagnosed?). Posthumous diagnoses are tricky, because they are based on necessarily biased and incomplete accounts of a person’s behavior. My first instinct, when reading a statement like that lead, is to see it as nothing more than a publicity attempt, especially when there’s no further context for it. I’m not saying that the diagnoses are necessarily wrong, you understand. I just think it’s a troubling attempt to impose modern criteria on personalities of other eras, especially when it’s autism which is such a vaguely defined but highly public diagnosis anyway. I’d like to see whatever study came up with the idea that Mozart and Newton and especially Beethoven were autistic.

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Ain’t She Sweet, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

This is a re-read for me. I was scanning through my e-reader looking for Anna Karenina and saw this title and couldn’t remember which one it was. I knew I’d read it before, because I’ve read all the SEP books that I have, but I couldn’t remember which one it was.

 Once I started reading it, I remembered it but by that point I was back into the book and had to finish it.  It’s a book I enjoy, with good messages about not judging people by who they used to be, forgiveness, and the importance of family. And, of course, a fast-moving romance.

 The one thing that bothered me this time, more than I remember being bothered by it before, was the way the main couple got together. Obviously there was an attraction there, even though both of them were denying that there was one and that there had been one in their history, but the first time they kiss is while they’re fighting. Now I understand that fighting is foreplay for many people, but this particular incident sort of comes out of nowhere, and is quite aggressive on the guy’s side. It’s not rape, but he also doesn’t really give her a chance to say no, and this time through it made me quite uncomfortable.  Not uncomfortable enough to stop reading, of course, and the way that the relationship progressed was fine, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

 I do really enjoy the relationships in this book, though – Colin and Sugar Beth are the main one, but I also really enjoy Gigi and Winnie and Sugar Beth and the family triangle that they form as well. It’s fast, because it has to be contained within the length of the novel, but the transition from ‘I hate you’ to ‘We’re family’ is effective and organic.

 And the other thing that this book does for me is re-inspire me to write myself – to lock myself away for a week or so and just force myself through the mental pain until I get stuff done. Of course, I have learned through long experience that that technique doesn’t really work so well for me (at least, not when I am also going through romantic troubles of my own) but I still keep wanting to try it, hoping that this time, this idea, will be the one that fully feeds the obsession.  I’ll get there someday.

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