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Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

One Too Many Die Hard Movies

At our recent m/m roundtable, Sunita and I had a bit of a discussion in the comments about the Out for You and Gay for You tropes in m/m romance. That discussion and various others around the internetz got me thinking about Problems in Romance and the nature of them.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for the most part, the issue is not so much that a particular thing exists – it is more that there exists too much of it. That is, it is more the frequency of the thing which has a cumulative effect and that then becomes the problem.

Apparently in Regency England there were 27 real life dukes. (Earls were a lot more common).   (I think there must be at least one more now because William is Duke of Cambridge and I recall that title was newly created, but I stand to be corrected on that).   One historical romance story which is about one duke is not in itself a problem. Arguably, 27 stories (let’s be egalitarian and say they’re all from different authors but it probably doesn’t matter) featuring one duke would also not be a problem because the representation of dukes vis a vis the rest of the population was about right.   I haven’t done any empirical research but I expect that most historical romances don’t feature more than 27 dukes in any one book.   So, the representation in one example of a historical romance is probably not that big a problem.   That is to say, if one reader read one (or possibly up to 27) historical romance(s) featuring a duke she would probably not have a skewed version of reality (at least as it pertains to their number within the population).

But, as we all know, there are way more than 27 dukes in romance. A simple Amazon search on “duke” comes up with 29 pages of historical romances – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunita pointed out:

And I don’t think manufacturing hundreds of dukes never hurts anyone. Basically we’ve turned Georgian and Victorian England into a romance amusement park. We’ve erased the politically active working class, we’ve made Chartists and Luddites and agricultural workers into comic relief and/or people to be saved by the aristocracy. Sure, none of them are alive now, but their descendants are.

I think it is the same in Gay for You and Out for You. There are real life versions of these stories. They’re nowhere near as common as the representation of either trope in m/m romance would suggest however.

I could go further. How about the Alpha hero? Or the Billionaire? Infidelity in New Adult? The problem, it seems to me, lies not in one book, or even a handful. But at some point (and I don’t know what that point is exactly), one more romance tips over into too many and the accumulation of them as a group becomes the problem.

There is another side effect. Some may say that any Alpha is one too many but I think that the bigger issue is not so much that there are books which contain them, but that there are so many of them, they can make discoverability of other books more difficult.

The first person who ever wrote the “sassy gay friend” probably based that on a real person. I’m sure in the population, at least one exists somewhere. But a stereotype becomes a stereotype because it is copied and copied and copied. And, all of a sudden, the “sassy gay friend” is seemingly everywhere and appears to make up a large proportion of gay representation. (There is also the issue of the stereotype becoming a kind of “shortcut” and therefore being only shallowly drawn – it is almost as if authors expect readers to “import” characterisation from numerous other books to round out what is missing in the story at hand. But that is an issue for another day).

It is all well and good to say that fiction is fiction and readers are savvy enough to know what is not real – but, are we really? Or, are we always? If I read a book set in Africa – a place I’ve never been and know little about, I’m likely to suck that information up like a sponge and assume it to be true. When I read a book set in our world, my default is to assume what it says about the world is true. Unless I know it is not or unless what is incorrect is pointed out to me, I would never know.

When I saw the movie The Duchess, I was taken aback by how apparently heartless and awful the Duke of Devonshire was. I think I knew that not all dukes were romance heroes but I had to have a bit of a conversation with myself about Ralph Fiennes’ performance and what must have seeped into my consciousness from so many books about dukes who love passionately and with fidelity, dukes who would never dream of merely bending their new wife over the marriage bed (sans foreplay and afterglow) and just sticking it in to get the job done. And The Duchess was still a fictionalised version of events; I haven’t forgotten that either. Even so, Ralph’s portrayal is likely much closer to the truth than what is in most romance novels. I hadn’t realised I had taken so much of the romance genre mythology in.

And there can be an insidious effect from the problem of too many. Perhaps it is that a large portion of the LGBTQ community is under-represented or worse, absent, from the romance genre. Perhaps it is that the romantic, emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud are pushed aside in favour of a trope like Gay for You. Perhaps it is more subtle – maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites. Or those stories that do exist are hidden behind 150 dukes and so are hard to find. Perhaps an author, looking at the proliferation of dukes thinks her Chartist book won’t sell and therefore writes a book about a duke which may not be as good as the one she really wanted to write.

The discussion is difficult when it comes down to a particular book though. Because ONE book about ONE duke isn’t, in itself, wrong, is it? And why should book 254 (say) be the book that makes things problematic? Where is the tipping point? What if the very first duke book a reader reads contains fictional duke number 1543? For that reader, it is her first duke. How does the individual reader who is exposed to very little of each individual “problematic thing” fit into all of this?

And who’s to say that the 1468th book about a duke won’t be an absolute cracker which brings something new and fresh to the genre? Should a queer person whose own lived experience is “Gay for You” not be able to write a fictional book based on that experience? Should the straight person who writes an Out for You book which deals with the challenges of coming out and the risks and pitfalls that might present to a relationship be not allowed to write that? Is the woman who is married to an Alpha Carer not allowed to write an Alpha hero? Because there are already too many? Do we ban billionaires? That doesn’t seem right either.

Perhaps the challenge for a reviewer is to judge the book on its own as well as within the wider context of genre. But even that is difficult. My own experience of Motorcycle Club romance represents about .003% of my personal reading library. I know there are many, many more MC books out there but I haven’t read them. So how do I judge the wider context?

In a general sense, I think it is okay to like problematic things. But I also think that those things should be talked about and critically examined.

So, this is me, talking about a problem of accumulation. I’ve no answers, only a lot of questions and thoughts – but it’s at least the beginning of a conversation.

Dear Author

The “C” in ARC Does Not Stand for “Contract”

As more self-publishers enter the market, they are competing with traditional publishers for blogger and social media coverage. Which means they are looking for bigger, better ways to get reviews and positive buzz. And apparently that is translating into pressure on some bloggers and readers who accept review copies, and who feel like an ARC comes with an obligation to the publishing industry — whether that’s an individual author or a major conglomerate. And unfortunately, this pressure — whether direct or indirect — threatens to kill the spontaneous buzz that all this marketing is trying to jump start.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense to get a book out to as many book reviewers as possible, especially when the marketplace is so crowded with competition for readers’ limited time, attention, and money. I have always been very welcoming of the ARC provided ‘in exchange for an honest review,’ because I think it independently serves both authors/publishers and readers. Readers get the opportunity to read a book ahead of publication and offer their voice to the discussion early on, and authors/publishers get the opportunity to distribute promotional copies of their work in the hopes that it will catch fire among readers. Theoretically, this is an illustration of the kind of situation where the only sense of obligation the reader is under is to be honest, and readers will discover soon enough if an author/publisher is sincere in that expectation. If not, the author is essentially ‘breaking the contract’ and thus releasing the reader from his or her casual obligation.

But I’ve read several posts recently from bloggers who feel like accepting ARCs has forged some kind of contract with the author or publisher, and who are coming to the realization that reviewers should never feel like they owe a publisher anything other than the consideration of a review:

Many of the commenters weren’t keen on the idea of requesting books with the knowledge that you might not actually review them, but I think that that is the wrong emphasis. As Kim and others point out in the comments, it is rare that she doesn’t read and review a book she requested, but it is important to have the option if you realize in the time between the request going out and the book showing up that you don’t want to read it anymore.

Anya, the author of that quote, is referring to a blog post by Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness, who is responding to a new program from Crown Books called “Blogging for Books.” Crown apparently conditions the receipt of future books on reviews of current books:

By requiring a review for every book, Crown is, in essence, buying a blogger’s time and attention and the time and attention of a blogger’s readership for the cost of, at best, a hardcover book. As bloggers, it’s important to think about whether we should be bought for so little.

There’s also a little more at play in this comment, specifically the last sentence:

Just as there is an understanding that a blogger would review a book after requesting it, we are reflecting that arrangement through Blogging For Books.

This is not the arrangement for me and, frankly, I don’t think it should be the case for any blogger. It is not the relationship that publishers have with editorial media. In the comments to my last post, Teresa (Shelf Love) made a great comment that I think reflects this point:

I’d really love for all of us as bloggers to get away from using the language of exchange when we talk about review copies. It gives the impression that the review copy is “payment” for a review, which implies that a review is required upon receipt of a review copy. If a blogger wants to make that a personal policy, that’s fine, but because the exchange language is so widespread, I worry that it sets up unspoken assumptions and expectations

This is vitally important. We as bloggers have to stop talking about books in exchange for anything. We do not have exchange relationships with authors or publishers… and the sooner we make that point the better because the longer it continues the more we start to look like paid enthusiasts rather than critics.

The last sentence there is crucial, because it speaks to the reviewer’s motivation, and I think that’s something reviewers haven’t felt encouraged to focus on in a neutral way. There is a broad diversity of legitimate reasons for reviewing, from a desire to push books that a reader loves to a love of talking about books, positive or negative, to a sense of investment in particular authors or types of books, to engage critical examination of certain books and tropes, as professional modeling (for authors, either published or aspiring), or even because they are being regularly paid to give an independent opinion, just to name a few. For some readers, reviewing is almost a public service; for others, it’s a professional obligation or a personal undertaking. The more influence publishers try to exert on reviewers, the more muddied the reviewer’s process may become, and the less engaged and invested the reviewer is likely to be. And from the outside, ARCs will be viewed with more and more suspicion, even if the reviewer’s independence is not, in fact, compromised.

Part of the problem is that ARCs have historically been produced as promotional items — and sent by the thousands, completely unsolicited, to a variety of booksellers, media outlets, reviewers, and book bloggers — but still treated like something special. Remember when some publishers were up in arms about ARCs sold on eBay? I think there was talk then of making reviewers sign contracts, or at least treating the ARC itself like a contract. And what about this post from the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, where reviewers are admonished to “use your galley access for good,” as if there is a moral component to receiving the publishing industry’s equivalent of a free sample.

And part of the problem, I think, is that reviewers can over-personalize the receipt of an ARC, either because an author sends it directly or because the reader has requested it from a service like Edelweiss or NetGalley that overtly anticipates a review. When I first started reviewing I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I reviewed any ARC I received, especially if I requested it. Because I had never represented myself as someone inclined to give positive reviews, I never felt pressure to provide “good” reviews, but just the pressure to provide review started to get to me, and I stopped proactively seeking out ARCs.

But I also think there’s a somewhat illusory distinction and elevation of so-called “amateur” reviewing. And the reason I call it illusory is because I think it’s connected more to the idea of being unpaid than it is to either the quality of the reviews or the personal motivation for writing them. As if a review in RT or Publishers Weekly is automatically more suspect than one posted on Goodreads. Especially since ARCs, for some authors and publishers, represent informal compensation for a review, which is both skewing the idea of payment and importing an artificial weight of obligation onto something that should never be characterized in those terms. Being paid to write reviews is much different than being paid with a copy of a book for a review of that same book. The FTC did play a role in popularizing this terminology, but I don’t think those revised guidelines are as influential as other factors — like the investment some self-published authors, for example, put into marketing strategies like street teams and a critical mass of positive reviews.

Ultimately, the freedom to determine why and under what terms someone wants to write reviews must be left up to that reader. There will always be paid-for positive reviews; there will always be quid pro quo and family/friend/sockpuppet reviews. And there are also going to be readers who want their favorite authors to succeed, and who are happily going to write positive reviews of their books. Just as there are readers who will seek out opportunities to write paid reviews with no role in the selection of books to be reviewed. Not all readers will have the same goal for their reviewing, and that’s okay. What’s important is that the reviewer can make his/her choice independent of publisher pressure (self/indie and traditional) and then openly and honestly stand behind that choice.

And perhaps we also need to have an honest discussion as a community around what expectations other readers have of reviewers and reviews, as well. How do community expectations as a whole shape perceived obligations around ARCs and reviewing, and do we need to re-think some of those expectations and perceptions? Or do you think reviewers should feel obligated to provide reviews in exchange for ARCs, and if so, why?