Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Here’s a link to a no-holds-barred negative review of a book I haven’t read, Samantha Young’s On Dublin Street.


At the risk of coming off like a heartless jerk and a shoddy member of the sisterhood of romance writers, I have to say I love this review. I’ll try to unpack why:

1. Let’s consider the basest motivation: spiteful jealousy. It’s possible that some part of me is thinking, “Ha, take that, writer whose book is way more commercially successful than any of mine!” I’m not aware of that being a factor, but it seems hubristic to claim I’m completely above that kind of pettiness, so I’ll put that out there and let it sit.

2. Writing quality: the review is articulate, well-organized, and funny as hell.

Over and over, each time there’s a bad-review kerfuffle, I’ve heard the assertion that negative reviewers are just jealous failed novelists, or, less specifically, people who engage in destruction because they’re incapable of creativity.

Hogwash. A well-argued, entertaining review–positive or negative–is a product of skill, hard work, and creative spark, and it deserves our respect. Even a single snarky zinger takes talent and inspiration to craft. (Seriously. I’m a novelist, and I put a lot of time and work into what I write, and I can guarantee you I will never come up with as substantive a contribution to our culture as Dorothy Parker’s “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.” Or Oscar Wilde’s  “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” Or Marion Adams’s observation that Henry James “chewed more than he bit off.” [Burn! Love that one.])

3. Catharsis. This is an example of the bad-review subset that I think of as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” review. I’m sure we’ve all had the discordant experience of reading a book and thinking “This made the best-seller lists / has three hundred five-star reviews / won a RITA / is what Salon.com bloggers deem worthy of praise? Are you kidding me??” When you’re feeling out of step with the majority (or prominent) opinion, there’s a visceral relief in finding a review that emphatically confirms your own perception of reality.

And like many cathartic reviews, this one derives much of its impact from…

4. Passion + outrage. What’s wonderful about the outraged review (see also Jenny Trout’s epic chapter-by-chapter gutting of the Fifty Shades books, for example) is that the outraged reviewer cares. The subtext of the outraged review isn’t “Oh, ha ha ha, let me exercise my wit at the expense of this subpar romance novel.” It’s “Dammit, romance novels need to be better than this. I expect more from romance.” There’s no way that’s not a good thing.

Demanding readers, whether they demand competent sentence mechanics, better representation of under-represented populations, more thorough world-building, or more progressive male-female power dynamics, are crucial to the continuing growth of any genre. The readers who step up and say “Not good enough. I expect more” are the readers who push us–however uncomfortably–to do better.

Being the embattled and frequently dismissed genre that we are, we’ve gotten pretty good at making eloquent cases for the value of romance. But sometimes these arguments go a little far in generalizing and flattening out the genre. “As long as people are reading, that’s all that matters” and “Quality is subjective anyway, so it’s really just a question of personal preference” are arguments I’ve seen more than once in these discussions.

I’m not crazy about those particular arguments because they seem to preclude real critical engagement. I’d rather work from the assumption that our genre is robust enough to withstand vigorous criticism of individual works. And “vigorous criticism” isn’t always going to come out tactful or constructive. Outrage and snark have a place in the big conversation.

So does this mean I’d enjoy reading a snarky takedown of one of my own books? Heck no; I’m not that thick-skinned. What it does mean is that I don’t begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of snark directed my way, and I don’t begrudge any reviewer’s right to write it. As long as you’re not emailing it to me (please don’t email it to me), it’s easy enough for me to stay ignorant of, anyway.

A couple (or four) things more–

1. If Samantha Young did see the review linked above, I think she’d have every right to feel hurt and angered by it. Not “butthurt;” not overly indulgent of her “precious fee-fees;” not any of those other terms we employ these days to de-legitimize someone’s emotional response. Presumably she invested a lot of herself into the writing of the book; it’s only natural that it would sting to see her work emphatically trashed.

It’s not reviewer Rachel (BAVR)’s job to consider Young’s feelings, but that’s not because Young’s feelings aren’t valid–it’s because that’s just the nature of the author/reviewer divide. I don’t think we need to look for evidence that Young (or E.L. James, or whoever) is a petty or malicious or otherwise undeserving person in order to justify the harshness of the review.

As long as she doesn’t air her grievances in a way that (intentionally or not) results in her fans harassing the reviewer, then I don’t think it’s my or any other reader’s place to suggest a poorly-reviewed author “pull up her big-girl panties” or “dry her tears with her royalty statements” (if she’s at the royalty-statement level of success) or anything of that sort.

1a. I think the whole “console yourself with your royalty statements” thing is a fallacy. If you’re the kind of writer who places a lot of stock in reviews, I don’t think there’s any level of commercial success that insulates you from the sting of the bad ones. Thus I don’t buy into the idea (which is maybe more common among authors who review than among readers who review) that it’s somehow ethically better to savage a wildly successful book than one by a little-known debut author.

Besides, if the reviewer’s goal (or at least one of them) is to warn readers away from bad books, then it shouldn’t matter who the book came from.

2. Is there such a thing as a “bullying” review? I don’t think so. I have a pretty stringent definition of bullying (one day, if your luck runs out, I’ll tell you the story of what grades 6 through 8 were like for me) and I don’t think a review, which the author has the option of not reading, rises to that level.

2a. Is there such a thing as a review that’s too mean, though? Yeah, I think there is, although I haven’t yet figured out how and where I draw that line. A while back I read a post by the author Sarah Rees Brennan in which she mentioned a YA author friend of hers whose first review on Goodreads–right at the top of the review list; the first one anybody browsing her book page encountered–said simply “Why are all YA authors fat?” I don’t think that’s bullying, specifically, but I do think it’s a BS usage of a review space, and I won’t weep for free speech if Goodreads takes a “review” like that down.

Similarly, that sneering New Republic Fifty Shades slam-fest of a few months back (which was technically a review of a book about Fifty Shades) crossed the line from fiery criticism to gratuitous nastiness in its generalizations about FSOG readers and its insistence on referring to E.L. James by her private-life name rather than the name under which she writes. It’s the New Republic’s right to print something like that, but doing so made me think a lot less of them.

On the other hand, a little while after reading the New Republic article I read a brutal NY Times review of the latest Adam Sandler film and didn’t find it objectionable at all, and I’m not sure how I’d make the distinction. It’s not just that the NR piece got into personal criticism, because there were some fairly personal jabs at Sandler in the NYT review too. So I don’t know. I may just be inconsistent in my positions.

And that’s enough out of me. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts. Do you enjoy bad reviews? Do you enjoy all bad reviews, or are there some that go too far–and if the latter, where do you draw that line? Do you think Adam Sandler is funny, and people should stop picking on him? Let me know.


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I’m at the Romance at Random blog today, talking about how a person who grows up without reading romance novels can wind up writing them.

There may be some mention of Shakespeare.

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A week ago today, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game.  For the non-baseball fans among us, a perfect game is when the pitcher not only doesn’t give up any hits, but doesn’t walk or bean anybody either.  It’s exceedingly difficult, and, as you may imagine, exceedingly rare.  Only 20 have been recorded in all of Major League baseball history.

Galarraga’s would have been number 21.  But he lost his perfect game on the very last batter, due to a wrong call by umpire Jim Joyce.  Joyce called the runner safe at first, when replays show beyond any doubt that the throw beat him there.  (Scroll a bit down this page if you want to see for yourself.)

Joyce has admitted he blew it, feels terrible, etc., but nothing can be done because baseball does not use instant replay to overturn umpires’ calls.  This one mistake, by this otherwise competent professional, has cost this other professional his place in the record books and the full measure of glory he would otherwise have enjoyed.

And it occurs to me that one of the things I find so compelling about sports is the potential for witnessing great big jaw-dropping mistakes, and the consequences that can ripple out from them.

We’ve gotten so imprecise lately in our use of the word mistake.  “I made a mistake by taking that bribe.”  “It was a mistake for me to say that really rude thing on tv about my colleague.”  And I wish we had another word, a word that specifically labeled an ethically/morally wrong choice that you knowingly made and now sincerely regret.

Because a mistake, to me, is something different, and something that crops up with such clarity in sports.  Steve Bartman reaching for that foul ball.  Chris Webber calling a timeout when there were no timeouts to be had.  An outfielder tossing the ball into the stands because he thought it was the third out when it was only the second.

And Jim Joyce, no doubt swearing he would not be swayed by the pressure to swing a close call in the pitcher’s favor, and stumbling in the other direction instead. It’s a well-intentioned person trying to succeed at something, and, through either a mental lapse or a general lack of competence, coming up short.

Now here’s where it gets to be about romance (and hang on; I’m kinda taking this corner on two wheels).  Historical romance heroes, by and large, do not make that kind of mistake.  They may make mistakes in their emotional lives (wrong assumptions about the heroine, irrational unforgiveness of a parent, etc.), but in general the historical romance hero is thoroughly, not to say relentlessly, competent in his “profession,” whatever that profession may be.  If he’s a spy, he’s a master spy (perhaps even a Spymaster).  If he’s a merchant, he’s the shrewdest wheeler-dealer on two continents.  If he’s an idle rake, the ladies all want him and other men all want to be him.

And I wish I’d see more heroes who screwed up sometimes, I mean not just said something that they later had to apologize for, but really truly screwed up and had to maybe experience a moment of humiliation – or worse – and then deal with the aftermath.

I know a lot of readers approach romance looking for a fantasy, and that’s an entirely valid approach.  But does fantasy necessarily rule out a man who’s not already self-actualized in the professional sphere?  Or a man who, while mostly capable, is also capable of failure?

And are there other readers out there who would like to see more fallibility in their heroes?  I have to hope so.  I’ve written one hero who struggles, and undergoes some humiliation, in the course of assuming his “professional” responsibilities, and I’m working on another who’s carrying around the consequences of having made a disastrous mistake.  (Like Jim Joyce, only not broadcast on national tv and rehashed on Sportscenter.)

I have some vague unformed thoughts on the reader/hero relationship, and how maybe the degree to which you’re willing to identify with the hero drives your tolerance for hero fallibility.  (Think of Luke Skywalker, who screws up a lot early on but that’s okay because we’re taking that journey with him; i.e. identifying with him; i.e. he’s not The Other.)  But I need to let those thoughts simmer a bit longer.

In the meantime, because I’ve read that you’re supposed to put pictures on your blog to make it snazzier, here’s Jim Joyce, fallible-hero inspiration:

Umpire Jim Joyce with a Shih Tzu

Doesn’t he look like a decent guy?  Holding a Shih Tzu and everything.  You can’t really stay mad at him, can you?

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Among my non-romance-reading family, I have the highest hopes for my sister-in-law.  She’s a sharp, poised, thoroughly modern woman who I believe might actually be able to get through my book without going, “Oh, my God, there’s sex in here!  And my sister-in-law wrote it!”

And indeed, she’s been the first in my family, since I announced I’d sold a book, to take it upon herself to read a romance novel and see what they’re all about.  Systematic person that she is, she went to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (through odd coincidence, it turns out my brother – her husband – is slightly acquainted with SB Candy) to look for a recommendation, and settled on Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me.

“It was okay,” was her assessment when I spoke to her the other week.  “It was funny and all.  But the ending was just so predictable.”

And I laughed, and told her if she was looking for unpredictability, she’d better look in some other genre.

But I’ve thought a lot, since that offhand exchange, about this whole question of predictability.  My SiL isn’t the only one who uses “predictable” as a pejorative.  I have a friend I go to movies with who’s always guessing the ending, or predicting plot revelations before they happen, and then thinking less of the movie because of it.  And of course, “predictable” is used in a derogatory way in book reviews all the time.  Readers, by and large, want to see something they haven’t seen.  Readers want to be surprised.

And I… don’t, necessarily.

I’ve got nothing against a good plot twist.  The bombshell that goes off a couple chapters into Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady floored me in the best possible way.  But I also get a deep, delicious satisfaction from that moment, very early in the average hero & heroine’s acquaintance, when I can think, “Boy, do these two need each other, and they don’t even see it at all! But they will.”

There’s a pleasure in inevitability, isn’t there?  And I don’t mean the comfort of an escapist happy ending, partly because I reject the idea that happy endings are necessarily escapist, and partly because even uncomfortable inevitability carries a certain satisfaction.  When I saw the movie Up in the Air (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled), I suspected from about the halfway point that Alex must be married.  Seeing my suspicion confirmed didn’t compromise my enjoyment of the movie at all.  It gave an extra weight of rightness to the ending:  Yes, this is the only way this could have ended.

I’d be curious to know whether impatience with predictability is a recent phenomenon.  People enjoyed the Greek tragedies, even though they must have known, going in, more or less how it would end for Oedipus.  Surely part of the enjoyment of watching Macbeth is that sense that he’s stepped on a conveyor belt of doom, drawing him closer and closer to his inevitable end.

Even as recently as the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein, audiences embraced Oklahoma! (not a second of real doubt that Curly and Laurey would have their HEA) and The Sound of Music (of course Maria was going to win over the children, capture the Captain’s heart, and escape from the Nazis) right alongside Carousel (Billy Bigelow dies!) and The King and I (the king dies and there isn’t even a romance!).

So I’m curious:  when did we make the decision that unpredictability > predictability?  And does anyone besides me still like both?

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