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If the NY Times is ever ready for Romance, will Romance...

This weekend a Salon article caught my eye. “Summer Reads,” it was called, and I clicked on the link, expectations charged, thinking, there’s got to be some Romance in this bunch. After all, everyone knows that summer reading is beach reading, and if fall sweeps in the more “serious” reading, summer is always about fun, about “light” reading &emdash; a seasonal celebration of mainstream and genre fiction. Disregarding the question of what constitutes “light” or “heavy” books, and whether they can so easily be spotted by the label on the spine, Salon boldly announced its recommendations of &emdash; in its own words &emdash;thrillers, “chic lit,” memoirs, mysteries, and science fiction. The series, which culminated this weekend with the mystery and sci fi recommendations, included nary a mention of genre Romance, despite the romantic overtones of some of the chick lit offerings, which, tellingly, they renamed “chic lit” perhaps trying to cover self-consciousness at the idea of recommending books that include “a comedy about a bumbling mommy flirting with adultery, . . . close encounters between New York dog lovers, . . . [and] a sexy British melodrama featuring an abandoned baby and three now-successful women who may be the mother.” Nowhere in Salon’s “Summer Reading” book fest can genre Romance be found, and even chick lit got a bit of a PR makeover.

I love Salon, in part because it seems to comfortably straddle pop culture and high art, offering pieces on “The Sopranos” finale as easily as reviews of the political Right’s infatuation with Plato’s Republic. So it was difficult to register my disappointment with their steadfast ignorance of Romance &emdash; and I purposely use the word “ignorance,” because I can only believe that those making the recommendations are not schooled in genre Romance, else they would find at least one book to recommend among the more than 2,000 Romances published each year.

I know that the online Romance community has gone ’round and ’round on the hows and whys of this exclusion. There’s the whole “blogs are born of the uncultivated masses argument” that continues to play, most recently by Adam Kirsch, arguing that despite the democratizing influence of bloggers, that they are still largely marginalized, victims of their own resentment over being excluded from a certain literary culture. First let me say that I think Kirsch’s argument there is wrongheaded and illogical, but at the same time I understand what he’s saying about the negative implications of feeling stuck on the margins, the anger that can create a simultaneous response of defiant pride and resentful envy, a vain hope that one will gain recognition from whoever’s “in” and then respond with a not so polite “no thanks.” In relationship terms, it’s that fantasy of having the guy who dumped you come crawling back, giving you the opportunity to dig your four-inch stiletto heel deep into his back as you push his sorry ass out your door.

Unfortunately, I think Kirsch is chewing on a grain of truth when he says that some bloggers “tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world.” Ugly as it is, over-generalized as it is, circumstantially inaccurate as it is, Kirsch’s statement might also be a little bit true. Take, for example, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s response to the brief exchange Jennifer Weiner and Dwight Garner had on Garner’s New York Times blog Paper Cuts . Mitchard’s opinion is that “when it comes to garnering reviews, my observation is that it does indeed help to be male and important.” And thus she goes on:

Being male is self-explanatory.

There are a few inescapable traits that comprise being important.

It is best to be of exotic parentage &emdash; although you may reside here, and even have a New Jersey accent.

It is best to write character-driven novels laconic to the point of eschewing punctuation, and featuring a plot that has, at most, one event, and that one not too harum-scarum. A blink will suffice. A letter is pushing it.

If you cannot be male and important, and still wish to be important, and thus reviewed, do this: Be a reclusive MFA with delicate wrists, great, woeful eyes, and be no more than 26 years of age.

Write a novel of no more than 200 widely-space pages concentrated mostly on the arranged marriage of a London-born Pakistani (Ghanaian, Iranian, Taiwanese) girl.

If you cannot be exotic, and still wish to be important, try at least to have delicate wrists, perhaps a PhD from a very small and absurdly serious university, and at least, a famous father.

If you have a famous mother, don’t expect so much.

Mitchard is hardly the first to come through a list and reasons like this before. And they’ve always struck me as both wrong somehow and deeply insulting. But I never investigated the why of those feelings until I read Mitchard’s list.

Beyond the standard lit fic bashing, Mitchard’s list also takes aim at women writers under 30 with MFA’s, small wrists, PhD’s from “serious” schools, famous fathers, and who write about non-white characters. The sarcasm in Mitchard’s list is seething, and it feels like it’s aimed at much at individual authors as it is certain print review publications. In fact, it feels very much aimed at women authors who dare to seek advanced education in creative writing and have a certain cultural interest in their writing that reflects a non-Western perspective. Basically, Mitchard’s list feels uncomfortably focused on other women authors, not on whatever institutional or industrial forces might value certain types of fiction above others. It reminded me of that moment during virtually every season of “Survivor” when the women have to choose between trusting each other or putting their faith in the dynamic but completely untrustworthy guy who rides those women right to the finale, turning on each and every one of them with a winning smile and an unconvincing lie. Who’s to blame for that, the lying guy or the women who trust him rather than each other (and keep in mind that this is a game that promotes dishonesty as a survival skill)? If men get mentioned simply because they’re men, then what does lashing out at the women who also get recognized accomplish?

Then there’s the whole “literary fiction is a pretentious bag of bile” argument, which never ceases to frustrate me because it seems to validate some of the resentful self-disenfranchisement to which Kirsch refers. Beyond that, though, it seems to me that the Romance community is not so much different when it comes to erecting hierarchies of specialness, something that emerges very clearly whenever authors post on well-known messageboards and blogs. There are certain authors who seem to be untouchable when it comes to critique &emdash;with any poster who dares to say something unpopular about their work torn to bits by the author’s biggest fans. Then there are those lesser-known authors who get nailed for not being famous &emdash; and untouchable &emdash;enough. While there are many wonderful things about the online Romance community, it possesses its own form of snobbishness and exclusivity, even if the basis for those rules might be a bit different than in other literary communities. I know that it seems counter-intuitive to say that the idea that “Romance is just entertainment and shouldn’t be read and critiqued too closely” is snobbish, but in its own way, I think it is, because it claims a certain insider/outsider dynamic that Romance readers complain about in lit fic circles.

None of this eclipses what I think is the befuddling injustice that media outlets like the New York Times perpetuate by ignoring Romance. To alienate such a substantial element of book buyers &emdash;loyal book buyers, in fact &emdash;seems short-sided from both a business and a cultural perspective. If Nicholas Sparks can get a respectful mention in the Times Book Review, for example (which he did in January of 2006, in a mini-review for At First Sight), then so should no small few genre Romances receive equal treatment by the Times. I don’t for one minute dismiss the idea that it’s simply easier for men to garner respect and recognition by the Times. But I’m not convinced that gender alone continues to drive that preference. And I also wonder, while we’re still arguing over whether the genre actually deserves or warrants close critical attention, whether Romance authors and readers are really aiming at recognition by the NY Times and its brethren. Because the whole point of Romance moving into those venues is that it will, inevitably and inexorably (aside: why is this word so popular in Romance novels?) become part of the larger critical cultural discourse. A NY Times book review is, if nothing else, an invitation to talk about the reviewed book as something important, something worthy of dialogue, evaluation, and deconstruction. It will move the genre into a much larger cultural space, an open field of uncomfortable inquiries and divergent comments and naíe mishandlings by all sorts of readers, some of who may not be automatically friendly to the genre.

From my perspective, all of that would be a wonderful thing, both for the Times and for the genre, because it will open up Romance to an even more diverse readership and acknowledge the equivalent value of women’s fiction to manly mysteries and macho thrillers. Whether or not such acknowledgement counts is not the core issue for me; as I see it, there is not one reason why genre Romance should remain unrecognized by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, et al, and its lack of inclusion is a bald injustice. And I believe that the day will come when these print venues lurch forward and recognize Romance, in part because despite the current suspicions directed at bloggers, there are some powerful voices in these online venues, too, and cross-pollination is a natural process, after all. My bigger questions have more to do with whether Romance readers and authors really want that kind of inclusion –" whether it will be welcome and whether there will be enough of a sense of security within the community to embrace the attention and let go of beliefs about how the genre should be read and appreciated. Because I honestly worry about the ease with which we tend to go after each other, readers and authors alike, and the extent of protectiveness within the genre from what is seen as unfair criticism. I am concerned about the state of copyediting in the genre, too, although I would hope that broader review coverage might inspire a little more attentiveness to certain production values. Mostly what I’m wondering about now is the extent to which readers and authors are willing to let go of the genre, to set it free long enough to lose track of its critical trajectory. Are we ready? I’m not sure.

The stubborn exclusion of Romance speaks to the questionable wisdom of those snubbing media outlets, but how we seek and what we make of inclusion will speak to the wisdom of the Romance community, and to those virtues and values we claim to embrace. Since Romance loves a happy ending, what do we want it to be in this case? Do we want the NY Times to be riddled with stiletto-induced bruises? Would we rather lose that million survival dollars to Brutus rather than to Brenda? Or are we looking for a real relationship with other literary communities, a relationship that requires a long-term commitment, respectful communication, periodic deconstruction, and perhaps a little couples counseling every once in a while? Is our happy ending one that we continue to guard within the genre, or can it include a frail-boned literary fiction author with an MFA and a fascination with the Far East?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

60 Comments

  1. Emma Wayne Porter
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 05:15:57

    *scratching head*

    While part of me understands why inclusion in literary circles is important to us, another part of me wonders if it might not be wiser to win graciously, and let it go.

    It seems we so often forget the bottom line. Reviews wouldn’t be included in the NY Times, et al, if those venues weren’t getting something out of it, and stripped of all the bells and whistles, their goal is to drive sales of their own product.

    Meanwhile, romance pretty well owns the sales race. So going after those hallowed review sections could — from a certain point of view — be viewed as if we’re demanding the silver and bronze medals after winning the gold.

    Win graciously or be reviewed begrudedly. Hmm…

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  2. Belinda
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 05:29:05

    The Atlanta Journal Constitution sacked its book editor back in April, so don’t hold your breath for recognition there.

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  3. Kerry Allen
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 05:55:38

    This whole issue reminds me of those people in high school who were always trying to be friends with the popular kids who treated them like garbage. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now.

    But “it's that fantasy of having the guy who dumped you come crawling back, giving you the opportunity to dig your four-inch stiletto heel deep into his back as you push his sorry ass out your door” was a beautiful turn of phrase.

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  4. sherry thomas
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 06:51:33

    I think places like NYT don’t review romance because they simply and deeply believe that their readers don’t read romance. And this becomes a chicken-or-egg issue of epic proportions. Would they cover romance when all the powerful women who love romance are no longer ashamed to admit it? Or are there not enough powerful women even at that to make a difference yet?

    Also, have the book editors at those places ever read a romance that would knock the socks off someone who’s been steeped in literary fiction? I would recommend a conversion kit of Ivory’s BEAST, Kinsale’s FOR MY LADY’S HEART (something tells me your book review editor would go ga ga over middle english), and Gaffney’s TO HAVE AND TO HOLD.

    How’s that? A community project, a dare from the online romance community, to the book review editors at major publications: read them and tell us these books aren’t important and profound while being a heck of a great ride.

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  5. Jane
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 07:10:16

    One of the problems that I see is that there are so many romance books published and only a certain percentage of them are quality. Many are just fluff. So that a person like Dwight Garner, picking and choosing at random could very well choose a book that fulfills his every negatively preconceived notion about romance.

    How many books are to the quality of gaffney’s To Have and To Hold? In the 200 books that are released a month, only a few of them, and maybe not even that.

    While I don’t think that the percentage of crap to gold in romance is any different than other genres, I do think it appears to be higher because of the sheer numbers of books released. The chance of a newbie picking up a book that highlights the best in romance is low in my opinion. There are simply too many books being released without enough time being spent on polishing the ones that are going out.

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  6. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 08:22:43

    We have been down this sorry road before in terms of romance reviews. But I agree–it would be nice to see a slim column in my local paper (SF Chronicle) set aside for romance (as it often is for mystery and fantasy and children’s literature). The SF Chron summer reading list likewsie made nary a mention to romance.

    I’m not trying to get in with the popular crowd at school, but it would be very nice to be on the same playground.

    Jessica Inclan

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  7. Jane
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 08:40:10

    What I hear Robin (Janet) asking is whether romance community would be ready for the type of criticism leveled by the NY Times or SF Chronicle. What would our response be if the critics were derisive of a contrived HEA? I’ve read comments by fans of writers saying, so and so was reviewed by the NYTimes but it was a dismissive review. (I’ve read that about both Jennifer Crusie and Nora Roberts books). So not only do romance readers/writers want inclusion, but they want the books to be loved. Negative/dismissive reviews are viewed with disdain and discarded because the reviewer didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate.

    That’s a sign, to me, that perhaps the romance community just isn’t ready for the big time.

    I’ve read some authors refuse to read negative reviews. If that is so, why should their books be reviewed by the NY Times or SF Chronicle if they are not open to discourse about their books?

    If there is greater discourse, as Robin suggests, with a forum like NY Times Book Review, then we, as a romance community, have to be prepared for the criticism and not simply dismiss a review because it doesn’t reflect our personal viewpoint of a book’s wondrousness.

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  8. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 09:20:54

    The specific genre criticism in the Chron does take into account the genre–mystery, for one. I think that a romance critic hired by a paper to review romances, would understand the HEA, for instance. The HEA is part of the literature being reviewed. There could be the ridiculous HEA and the well crafted HEA or the boring HEA–but the fact that there was an HEA at all would not be up too much disucssion. Unless the critic wanted to really discuss why there was one at all.

    In terms of reading bad reviews–in a Poets and Writers of earlier this year (and no, there were no romances mentioned in the latest PW’s summer reading section) Martin Amis talked about how hard it was for him to read reviews. I don’t think the reticience to read reviews (bad or good) is simply the territory of romance writers. I think that many writers have thin review skins. And what I have found as a writer of women’s fiction as well is that any review brings attention, and that’s the point of all of this at the base level.

    Now, I simply must get some writing done. This is very interesting. I’ve read almost all the links in Janet’s essay, and this madness must stop.

    Jessica Inclan

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  9. Jorrie Spencer
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 09:52:21

    I've read some authors refuse to read negative reviews. If that is so, why should their books be reviewed by the NY Times or SF Chronicle if they are not open to discourse about their books?

    I’ve heard this about authors in all genres. I don’t really think these reviews are for the authors.

    Though I certainly agree with your bigger point that the romance community has to be prepared for criticism. I’m also not a fan of lit fic bashing. I don’t read that much of it these days, but I do read it. I read a lot of it in my 20s before I moved onto genre reading which I ultimately found more satisfying.

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  10. Stephanie
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 09:57:20

    I made – or tried to make – this argument over at the Bitches blogs when it came up. I’ll try to be more succinct and less rambling this time.

    1. To be excluded as a genre by the literary community is to dismiss both the writers and readers of romance.
    2. To read a book and deconstruct it – you must believe that the author has added layers within the novel – many believe that romance authors do not do this. Romance = Fluff. Peroid. The end. Why would an NYT reviewer pick up a romance believing this to be true.
    3. I do agree there are more BAD romance books out there than other genres – but only because there are MORE.
    4. In a mystery novel the bad guy should get caught, the mystery solved. In a romance there should be an HEA. Both formulaic, but only romance is criticized for this.

    They ignore us because we’re women writing for women. Sorry – I don’t mean to be reactionary – but I just don’t see it any other way. They believe our books are fluff and unworthy of literary criticism.

    I don’t want to play with popular kids – I just want them to admit the truth about why they’re dismissing us. And then I want them to think about that.

    Personally I think Jane Austen had the last word. I think in 100 years Nora will too.

    Amazing essay by the way.

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  11. Jane
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 10:07:45

    Stephanie – I completely agree with you that to exclude romance, particularly when other genres are included, is a bald affront to both authors AND readers. I don’t like it at all.

    But what I find most compelling about Robin’s argument is that there is a great segment of romance readers who are not ready for criticism. It can be seen here on this blog. Recent commenters to the Me and Mr. Darcy review where it was stated “Everyone is taking this SO seriously! If you are into “realâ€? literature and not “chick litâ€? then why are you reading this book?? It's a light hearted novel NOT a rewrite of a classic!!!
    Lighten up!”

    Now I don’t mean to place this blog at the same level of the New York Times although I think Janine and Robin’s reviews may be of that quality but those comments are symptomatic of the overall “niceness” disease that is championed throughout romance.

    Jessica Inclan – I know you have gone away to write, but I wonder about the need for the “romance expert” to review. Does that mean that there are not romances that could stand up to standard literary fiction scrutiny?

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  12. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 10:30:10

    Ah, I had to check back.

    No, I didn’t mean to imply that there would be the lackey reviewer pulled from the obit research section to critique the paltry romances.

    I meant that likely, a paper would hire someone “expert” or at least familiar with the genre to review such. The Chron has specific reviewers for the genre fiction, writers who know well the genres they are writing about.

    I think that when romances are reviewed in a general review section and because review sections so infrequently reviews romances, the writer is not familiar with the genre.

    For instance, give this column written about romances and my contemporary (not romance, but this reviewer didn’t even see that) novel The Instant When Everything is Perfect. The biography of the reviewer does not immediately show that she has any knowledge of romance writing and her reviews were just flat out dismissive:

    Barbara Feinman Todd teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

    Here’s the link:

    So that’s my point. If a reviewer knows the romance reading audience, knows the genre, and can be honest and critical and knowledgable about romance, then we would have some usefula reviews on our hands.

    All right. This is getting ridiculous! I could be here all day.

    Jessica Inclan

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  13. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 10:32:31

    So I have some tech issues. Here’s the link in the comment:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/09/AR2006020901740.html

    Jessica Inclan

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  14. hornblower
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 10:56:04

    I think we’d have a very hard time getting any agreement on the ‘best’ books to use in that challenge to reviewers. I intensely dislike that Gaffney book.

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  15. Janine
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 11:02:33

    Janet, what a terrific piece. Funnily enough, I looked over Salon’s summer reading list too, and had a similar reaction. Salon is a great publication when it comes to television shows, but when it comes to romance I’m disappointed in them.

    What I sometimes think about is how mainstream acceptance of romance might affect the writing in the various genres. Would it lead authors in other genres to read more romance and romance authors to read more in other genres? (I’m not saying they don’t already, I’m just asking if there would be more of it). And if so, would we see more cross-pollination in the writing? More science fiction romances? More fantasy authors like Sharon Shinn, who writes extraordinarily romantic books? More mysteries in which couples solve mysteries together? And would the mystery element in romantic suspense books become more compelling? Would some romance authors become more interested in experimenting with language and structure? Would more literary fiction authors consider giving their books happy endings?

    Maybe not everybody wants that, but I would be happy if that happened.

    I think readers in any genre can get tired of the same-old, same-old, which is why we have seen genres like chick lit and paranormal romance emerge in the past decade. So I’m all for more cross-pollination as a way to rejuvenate various genres.

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  16. Janine
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 11:34:32

    But what I find most compelling about Robin's argument is that there is a great segment of romance readers who are not ready for criticism. It can be seen here on this blog. Recent commenters to the Me and Mr. Darcy review where it was stated “Everyone is taking this SO seriously! If you are into “real� literature and not “chick lit� then why are you reading this book?? It's a light hearted novel NOT a rewrite of a classic!!!
    Lighten up!�

    Now I don't mean to place this blog at the same level of the New York Times… but those comments are symptomatic of the overall “nicenessâ€? disease that is championed throughout romance.

    Hear, hear. (And thanks for the compliment that has me blushing). I too would like to see the romance community embrace criticism more wholeheartedly. I know that for authors, reviews are sometimes painful to read but I would like to see more authors writing reviews. My hat is off to HelenKay Dimon and Alison Kent for doing that.

    I think the argument we’ve heard online that reader reviews are invalid because readers don’t write and therefore don’t know what they are talking about is not only ridiculous, it is also easy to spout when there are so few authors writing reviews. That’s another type of comment that goes hand in hand with “say something nice or don’t say anything at all” and “why are you taking this so seriously, it’s just a romance” comments that we see on blogs and message boards. All of these are aimed at shutting down thoughtful criticism.

    I’m sure there are many authors and readers who don’t share those sentiments but the ones who do are vocal and don’t always seem to realize that reviews serve some important purposes like providing publicity, creating buzz about books that might otherwise be overlooked, helping people spend their money wisely, and maybe even strengthening the genre in the process. Speaking as a reviewer who doesn’t get paid, it can be frustrating at times to feel that others are trying to silence you when you are essentially a volunteer trying to provide a service to the community.

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  17. DS
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 12:20:42

    14

    I think we'd have a very hard time getting any agreement on the ‘best' books to use in that challenge to reviewers. I intensely dislike that Gaffney book.

    Yes, I really don’t like the Gaffney book and I don’t think Beast is the best Ivory. How would they stand up to general critical scrutiny though?

    Also the term “conversion kit” makes me cringe because I start to think cults and religion.

    (No offense intended because I know on AAR it used to be– is still? used to denote books that are thought to be useful to lure nonromance readers into the genre.)

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  18. Stephanie
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 12:45:14

    Yep on the review issue. Like I said romance books are primarily written by women for women. Women are conditioned to be “nice.” And I think a lot of women like it that way. Nothing really wrong with nice.

    I love great reviews. But I like bad reviews too… as long as they are thoughtful. The idea that someone spent time to think about what they read and comment on it – is important. Whether or not it’s positive or negative. And when I receive a negative comment I look toward improving.

    In some ways I understand where authors are coming from. Let’s not upset the apple cart. Everyone wants to play nice – so fine we’ll all place nice.

    But without criticism… real criticism… there is no drive to improve. If an editor didn’t give me revisions – I wouldn’t know what was wrong with my stories and fix it.

    In a way it oustands me that we can be so tough in the face of harsh rejections, but we crumble at the idea of bad review. Yes, taste is absolutely subjective. But I think things like plot holes are obvious. Cliches are obvious. Shallow chacterization – obvious.

    I don’t like all classic literature – don’t get my started on Crime and Punishment – but I can at least recognize that it has qualities that make it stand out.

    Nobody is willing to recognize those qualities in romance – because no one is even looking for them. That’s what’s so disheartening.

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  19. Janet
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 12:57:10

    Reviews wouldn't be included in the NY Times, et al, if those venues weren't getting something out of it, and stripped of all the bells and whistles, their goal is to drive sales of their own product.

    Which makes it even more curious to me that they don’t include Romance, especially given the market share of the genre.

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sacked its book editor back in April, so don't hold your breath for recognition there.

    Which is, perversely, why I included it, after reading this post from the NBCC blog.

    Kerry: thanks; I thought the relationship analogy was appropriate.

    Sherry: I was “converted” by a combination of Ivory, Kinsale, Laura London, and Patricia Gaffney. And in many ways, it was a sort of conversion experience, or at least a paradigm shift. I had never read Romance, and I had lots of those preconceptions about the genre that I imagine the NY Times does, and that many of my non-Romance reading friends still do, I fear. My first or second Romance was Judith Ivory’s Black Silk, and it transfixed me. I also read Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, and my first time through the book, I disliked Leda intensely and felt she represented exactly what I expected to find in the genre: a weak and helpless virgin. See what I mean about a paradigm shift? It wasn’t until I had read close to 100 Romance novels that I felt I understood the genre more from the inside than the outside, so I really think there’s something to the idea that readers who have been steeped in a lit fic tradition (which I have been) need to read more than one Romance novel to understand the difference between genre formula and formulaic inanity. OTOH, I don’t think only Romance lovers should be free to read and comment on the genre. And sometimes I think it’s good for us to hear the views of people who aren’t steeped in the genre — to see what certain things look like to someone who hasn’t been conditioned to accept some genre elements without question.

    One of the problems that I see is that there are so many romance books published and only a certain percentage of them are quality.

    I worry sometimes that my own standards have diminished over the few years I’ve been reading Romance, in that I am more tolerant to some things than I think I should be (e.g. gross historical misuses, crappy copyediting, sloppy inconsistencies). And even most of the books I really, really, like could, IMO, be even stronger through more proactive editing.

    I don’t think the reticience to read reviews (bad or good) is simply the territory of romance writers. I think that many writers have thin review skins.

    I like this point, but perhaps not for the reasons you advanced it. Sometimes I feel a need for a reminder that Romance authors ARE like other authors — they’re not necessarily more sensitive or more special or more of a community or whatever. As a reader, there are moments I just want to say to some authors, “hey, it’s not all about you.” Because really, it’s all about — or should be all about — the books, and perhaps because of the fan-based history of the Romance genre, I think it’s easy to forget that sometimes.

    I don't really think these reviews are for the authors.

    Exactly!

    They ignore us because we're women writing for women. Sorry – I don't mean to be reactionary – but I just don't see it any other way. They believe our books are fluff and unworthy of literary criticism.

    But so do we, sometimes, which is one of the reasons I don’t think it’s entirely about gender. I think it’s partly about marketing and about the way publishers themselves pitch the books. I also think it’s partly about production values — how can we expect the NY Times to respect Romance when books aren’t well-edited for grammatical and typographical errors, when quantity is pushed over quality, when sales is more important than positive reviews, etc.?

    Hornblower: I agree with your point that we won’t ever agree on the “best” books, but I can’t help but hope that the more people involved in the reviewing process, the more books will be out there for discussion, and perhaps, the faster we can move away from the handful of books that get glommed in any particular year because they’re the ones that get all the attention. I love it when a book comes to my attention because someone else loved it rather than because some marketing department has crushed me with publicity.

    Speaking as a reviewer who doesn't get paid, it can be frustrating at times to feel that others are trying to silence you when you are essentially a volunteer trying to provide a service to the community.

    Reading this point, Janine, makes me acutely aware of the fact that one of the reasons I love to write reviews is because it gives me a chance to figure out what I think of a book myself. At core, it’s a conversation with myself, and only later does it become a conversation with others. But I think this has to do with the fact that I’m so used to doing scholarship in an initially very isolated context, so the “service” aspect of reviewing is really kind of an afterthought to me. Although writing some reviews specifically for public circulation has slowly been making me more conscious of others reading them, and that’s an interesting thing.

    Also, I agree with your points about cross-pollination; that is my hope, too.

    Also the term “conversion kit� makes me cringe because I start to think cults and religion.

    As I said in my response to Sherry, my experience was a sort of conversion, although more properly I’d say it was a paradigm shift. I understand what you’re saying, though, especially because we already seem to steeped in a cult-like atmosphere in this genre sometimes.

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  20. Zoe Archer
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 13:04:39

    Hmm…I’m actually a somewhat thin-boned MFA graduate with large eyes, but I’m over 26. Do I still count?

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  21. Janet
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 13:05:04

    I love great reviews. But I like bad reviews too… as long as they are thoughtful. The idea that someone spent time to think about what they read and comment on it – is important. Whether or not it's positive or negative. And when I receive a negative comment I look toward improving.

    I think it’s often easier to write a review of a book you disliked than a book you loved, but I think it’s most difficult to write a really “good” review of a book you thought was bad. Which is one more reason I think we need more, not fewer, reviews. One of my favorite review sites is Paperback Reader, because the more Romance novel reviews I read, the more I learn about my own process of reviewing.

    As to your point about objective v. subjective qualities of books, I so agree, and I think one of the difficulties has been that success in the genre is often measured by whether a book is “romantic,” not so much by how strong its craft is. While I understand that many readers would rather sacrifice craft for a compelling story, IMO we shouldn’t have to be making that choice as often as we do, and if people aren’t focusing on those elements of books in their response, I don’t think it’s because they don’t have an effect on the reading experience. I think it’s because not all readers have been conditioned or trained to distinguish those craft elements in their articulated reactions. So we don’t really have a strong vocabulary for those elements in reader response/reviewing.

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  22. Janet
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 13:07:15

    Hmm…I'm actually I somewhat thin-boned MFA graduate with large eyes, but I'm over 26. Do I still count?

    Well, now, I don’t know. Mitchard didn’t provide any rules to cover you. Maybe you should ask her. She might need to write a primer.

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  23. Jackie L.
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 13:39:16

    I am a professional, advanced degree, small business owner, employer of 11 people who support their families because of me. My BA is in French Lang and Lit, I have read widely German, Spanish, French Lit in the native tongue. I adore history and read it a lot. I read mysteries, Sci/Fi (the few dwindly bits that are left), philosophy, all the books my kids are assigned in their AP classes, and the back of cereal boxes. But the only genre I am expected to APOLOGIZE for reading is romance. My daughter’s favorite teacher chewed my ass for reading romance for 30 mins last week. And we are caretaking for her classroom a bunch of boa constrictors. I love romance, have read it since I was 12, and I don’t care what authors, publishers, reviewers have to do to make it so I don’t have to hang my head in shame for reading “that disgusting tripe.” So stop yakking and do whatever it would take. Because I couldn’t really defend myself well from the attack. And I know I am overall more widely read than the teacher taking me down. Give me some defense for my love of the genre. Please.

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  24. Phyl
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 13:49:30

    While I understand that many readers would rather sacrifice craft for a compelling story, IMO we shouldn't have to be making that choice as often as we do, and if people aren't focusing on those elements of books in their response, I don't think it's because they don't have an effect on the reading experience. I think it's because not all readers have been conditioned or trained to distinguish those craft elements in their articulated reactions. So we don't really have a strong vocabulary for those elements in reader response/reviewing.

    Janet, what you’ve said describes me. I have what I thought was a fairly well-rounded education, but I do not have the tools I wish I had to define clearly what I do or do not like about a book I’ve read. By spending time reading reviews on sites like this one, though, I’m learning to put into words what I instinctively recognize as well-honed craft. Lately I’ve even begun writing my own reviews, more for practice than for public consumption. But the exercise of thinking my way through a book has, I think, given me a greater appreciation for the genre and the ability to make better reading choices. In the end I would hope that’s what all of us gain out of the review process.

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  25. Wendy
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 14:36:56

    Jackie L:
    You should have just told that teacher that you read romance because you like it. End of discussion. It’s been my experience that when someone chews you out that vehemently, Abraham Lincoln rising from the grave to debate the merits of romance novels wouldn’t change the naysayers mind.

    Or better yet – you should have just told the teacher to “get bent.” But then maybe your daughter would get a failing grade….

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  26. Jane
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 14:48:12

    I think part of the problem is that we are discoursing with ourselves. We aren’t getting a broader opinion here as to why a prejudice exists against romances. Is it the covers? the back blurbs? A perceived lack of market?

    We can only surmise what the issues are, but can we ever know for certain?

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  27. Angela
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 15:12:53

    While I understand that many readers would rather sacrifice craft for a compelling story, IMO we shouldn't have to be making that choice as often as we do, and if people aren't focusing on those elements of books in their response, I don't think it's because they don't have an effect on the reading experience. I think it's because not all readers have been conditioned or trained to distinguish those craft elements in their articulated reactions. So we don't really have a strong vocabulary for those elements in reader response/reviewing.

    Co-sign! As someone who has built a vocabulary for critique due to my voracious reading habits and quest for knowledge, I find myself frustrated when attempting to engage in a serious dissection of romance novels because others shut me down or cannot engage in the conversation due to this lack of conditioning. And I don’t see it changing anytime soon due to authors and readers. I don’t think it’s a “woman” thing that causes this genre to be so “nice”, but the way this genre has become constructed. IMO, because of this exclusion from the mainstream, the genre did a slapdash patch job of erecting a wall to keep the overwhelming negativity out and create a safe space for its readers and writers to come together. Except a wall goes both ways: it keeps things out, but it also boxes things in. And that’s what has happened to the romance genre and why the community has stagnated and remained “emotionally”, where it was 10, 15 years ago.

    I don’t think one can blame the quantity of romance novels as contributing to the stagnation of the craft because in most bookstores I’ve visited, sf/f and mystery sections are much larger than romance sections–it just appears as though romance novels are released in huge quantities because the genre tends to skewer towards trends instead of authors.

    And that is another thing that has strangled the genre: trend-hopping. It puts me in mind of a herd of piglets(readers) forced to feed from a few troughs(trend) until they become so accustomed to eating that way, it’s become ingrained. And don’t get me started on the “cult of fear” that seems to hang over the heads of romance writers…

    Also, have the book editors at those places ever read a romance that would knock the socks off someone who's been steeped in literary fiction? I would recommend a conversion kit of Ivory's BEAST, Kinsale's FOR MY LADY'S HEART (something tells me your book review editor would go ga ga over middle english), and Gaffney's TO HAVE AND TO HOLD.

    As someone else said, you can’t truly appreciate the romance genre until you’re inside of it, so having a book editor/etc read those romance novels isn’t going to help–particularly since they are from the mid-90s, no other authors have stepped into their “shoes”, and those who had the makings haven’t mimicked their success, and the genre has swung from featuring a good-sized portion of deep, introspective romances to the majority of frothy, wallpaper romps from which authors shot to the type of success Gaffney, Ivory and Kinsale garnered. For the most part, authors who have been around for a while (Beverly, Chase, Putney, Balogh, etc) have their old releases talked about much more than their recent releases!

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  28. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 16:25:16

    Give me some defense for my love of the genre. Please.

    Jackie, you could get a copy of Professor Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel and lend it to her. That might help.

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  29. Karen Scott
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 16:37:57

    I still don’t really get why we put so much stock into being accepted by the literary community. Seriously.

    That's a sign, to me, that perhaps the romance community just isn't ready for the big time.

    I agree Jane.

    Some authors just about go crazy when they read a negative/harsh review of their book, here in Blogland, I can only imagine that the pharmaceutical companies would run out of Prozac, if these harsh reviews started appearing in the NY Times.

    IMO, the reason why reviewing is such an inflammatory subject, is because midlist Romanceland Authors still haven’t come to terms with perfect strangers telling them that the book they sweated blood and guts over, sucks great big hairy donkey balls.

    And let’s not even get into the most sensitive of the bunch, the e-book author. Can you imagine the carnage?

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  30. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 16:46:09

    Romanceland Authors still haven't come to terms with perfect strangers telling them that the book they sweated blood and guts over, sucks great big hairy donkey balls.

    Again, I think that most writers haven’t. I know readers tell us to get over it and it’s not really about us (and I agree), but it can hurt. However, I agree with the idea above that all reviews are good. Reader reviews, media reviews, TV reviews. Reviews! Helps the genre, helps the reader, helps the writer.

    Jessica Inclan

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  31. Maude
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 17:21:17

    I think part of the problem is that we are discoursing with ourselves. We aren't getting a broader opinion here as to why a prejudice exists against romances.

    Craft. Techniques. Romance authors do not want to really discuss this. In fact, no one in the romance community wants to discuss craft, so in a sense you are speaking with yourself. Because there are so many books published each month, and authors produce sometimes four a year, romance is just not an option for deconstruction.

    Personally I like a good romance and come here for reviews. However I think this is a difficult discussion for romance readers and writers. Look how emotional it is, Smiling. And no outsider has said anything. Don’t worry over those missing reviews. Who cares?

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  32. Jessica Inclan
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 17:44:09

    Craft. Techniques. Romance authors do not want to really discuss this. In fact, no one in the romance community wants to discuss craft, so in a sense you are speaking with yourself.

    Gosh, strangely, I’ve been teaching a class at UCLA Extension on romance and we talk (romance writers all) about craft endlessly. There are books out on the same. I love the Idiot’s Guide to Writing Erotic Romance and The Romance Writer’s Handbook. Both very craft and market and reader savvy.

    Jessica Inclan

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  33. Wendy
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 17:47:47

    I can’t be the only reader who has little to no interest in nitty-gritty discussions on craft. I read a book wanting to enjoy it. When I do, I’ll dissect “why” – but I’m not really looking at the nuts and bolts of writing. Frankly I got more than enough craft discussion slogging through my required college English courses – I don’t want to deal with it when it comes to my leisure reading. But that’s me. I can tell when writing is “bad” and I can tell when it’s “good” – but beyond that? I think it’s a matter of taste and opinion. Many, many romance readers think Kinsale is the end all be all when it comes to craft and personally when I try to read her writing it makes my eyes bleed. Does that make me ignorant? Probably. But gather 100 English professors in the same room and none of them will agree completely on what is or isn’t good writing.

    Should authors be concerned about craft? Well yeah, it’s their job to be concerned. Is this discussion taking place in critique groups or on writer’s loop? That I wouldn’t know. I hope it is – but that’s really a question for authors to weigh in on.

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  34. Kristie(J)
    Jun 26, 2007 @ 19:02:18

    I think someone should copy all these comments and others like it and somehow get it into the hands of reviewers or publishers. By reading through these, it’s obvious that we are a highly well read, quite intelligent group of people. And if we all agree that romance can be read and enjoyed by such a wide and diverse group, then we are onto something that ‘they’ are missing.

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  35. Janet
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 01:19:49

    re. the points about craft and who does/doesn’t, should/shouldn’t talk about it, I think there’s a world of difference between authors talking about craft for the purpose of their own writing and readers (and authors) talking about craft in the larger context of particular books and the genre as a whole (or parts of it, at least). One has to do with the process of writing and the other has to do with the effect of the writing product on the reader. I think it’s that type of craft-talk we lack in Romance. And IMO it’s also that type of craft-talk that’s part of the larger critical discourse that some of us are inclined toward having about genre Romance.

    I absolutely respect that some readers (and perhaps some authors, too) have no interest in that critical discourse, but I think there’s a difference between not wanting to engage in that level of analysis or discussion and not having the opportunity or feeling pressure to refrain from engaging the genre in a certain level of critical attention. In the same way that I don’t think reluctant readers should feel pressured to critically analyze the genre, I also don’t think that readers who enjoy such critique should be pressured NOT to.

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  36. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 02:27:41

    I think there's a world of difference between authors talking about craft for the purpose of their own writing and readers (and authors) talking about craft in the larger context of particular books and the genre as a whole (or parts of it, at least). One has to do with the process of writing and the other has to do with the effect of the writing product on the reader. I think it's that type of craft-talk we lack in Romance.

    I’m still not sure exactly what’s being meant by ‘craft’ in this discussion. When I’ve been round romance author blogs/websites they have a lot about writing and they discuss things like character arc, head-hopping, POV, sagging middles, how many ‘beats’ are needed to create tension in a scene etc. Those aren’t the things that I was taught to look for when doing a literary analysis of a novel. I’m looking for theme, metaphor, imagery, symbolism, social context etc. It’s not that there isn’t some overlap, because there is, but it seems to me that as a reader I just expect the writers to have succeeded at all the craft stuff they discuss and if they have, I won’t notice it. I’ll be looking for very different things when I analyse a novel, and they’re possibly not the sort of things that a lot of writers discuss when they talk about craft, though some do. Some romance authors spend a lot of time trying to create subtle layers of meaning, motifs etc and I appreciate it when I find it (which I quite often do) but it doesn’t seem to be something that’s discussed as frequently in terms of ‘craft’ by romance authors on their blogs/websites.

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  37. Angela
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 04:09:45

    I'm looking for theme, metaphor, imagery, symbolism, social context etc…Some romance authors spend a lot of time trying to create subtle layers of meaning, motifs etc and I appreciate it when I find it (which I quite often do) but it doesn't seem to be something that's discussed as frequently in terms of ‘craft' by romance authors on their blogs/websites.

    Those are the types of things I refer to when I talk about “craft” because I would like to understand more about motifs,theme, etc in literature than the superficial issues of craft (ones that you can see: head-hopping, POV,etc). I’m curious: do the authors who read this blog include those aspects of the craft in their writing? Does the RWA, or any other writing workshops you’ve taken, instruct you on the inclusion of motifs and the like in your novels?

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  38. Kerry Allen
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 06:59:48

    If you want a forum in which to undertake thoughtful criticism of romance, you should create one. The initiation of such discussion should not be dependent upon the participation of the NYT or any other party.

    Think of it as an online book club. You select a book that you feel is worthy of critical analysis, announce your selection and give those interested in participating some time to read it, then open up the discussion, making it clear the purpose is for thoughtful critique, not “this book sucked donkey balls” or “this was teh best book evah” type of commentary.

    A reader of romance first has to take the genre seriously enough to set up a forum for the kind of critique everyone keeps talking about. Prove it can stand up to literary criticism and maybe, just maybe, “the big boys” will start taking it seriously, too.

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  39. Jane
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 07:24:58

    I received a notice of a discussion going on at gathers.com. Link here. The article isn’t really saying anything new, but the comments are interesting. Readers complaints about romance include “formulaic” with “big misunderstandings” and “the most beautiful girl in France stories” with a lack of “deep characterizations.”

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  40. Jane
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 07:39:08

    I actually look for themes alot because that is what my business is all about -theming issues. Jennifer Crusie talks alot about theming, motifs and layering.

    I think Karen Rose does a good job of writing themes into her stories as did EC Sheedy in her book, Without a Word. To me, an author does a good job with theming/motifs when each character’s arc mirrors the theme, whatever it is.

    Symbolism is one element that probably flies over my head. Unlike Laura or Robin or Janine, it’s not something I’ve been trained to see.

    While I never intend to be a writer, Jennifer Crusie’s articles about writing have helped me be a better reader in some senses. I remember when I was on her yahoo list, in the early days when they actually talked about Crusie books, and the depth and scope of the discussion was really fascinating. With Crusie’s help, we would deconstruct the book, the characters, their relation to the overall whole of the novel. It made me appreciate her work more. She was not offended by negative comments about her work, ie., if it was your intent in showing x, y, z through character B, I didn’t get it.

    I think it would be great if an author were to help in leading that discussion as Crusie used to do on her yahoo list (and maybe does in other places). Or have someone else moderate that discussion who has the knowledge to delve into those things because it is interesting and there are romance books that can handle that type of introspection.

    But there are also books that seemingly have no layering that do address larger societal issues. I thought Kathleen O’Reilly’s Beyond Breathless, a category romance, touched on a very real issue for modern women and that was the losing of self, or the failure of accomplishment by tying her wagon to a more powerful man. There didn’t seem to be alot of theming in that book, but the choices that Jamie had to make about her future – weighing her love versus her desire for achievement – is a modern feminist issue.

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  41. Rebecca Goings
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 09:39:25

    Jane,

    I came over here this morning to tell you about my article on Gather, only to find out you already knew… Okay, who’s watching me? lol

    I began that conversation *because* of this one. :) I wanted to see what people who didn’t already read romance thought of the genre.

    The basic jist is that people believe there are no layers, the books are too formulaic, why read it if they’re just going to get together in the end? These same people would be the ones who’d bitch if the H/h *didn’t* get together, you know. :P

    Someone at Gather mentioned no creativity in romance and I almost spewed my coffee. They obviously don’t read the books I read. If anyone wants to come on over and join the fun, you’re more than welcome. I’m currently the only romance author on the discussion.

    ~~Becka

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  42. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 10:25:09

    A reader of romance first has to take the genre seriously enough to set up a forum for the kind of critique everyone keeps talking about. Prove it can stand up to literary criticism and maybe, just maybe, “the big boys� will start taking it seriously, too.

    That’s what we’re doing at Teach Me Tonight, at least some of the time. And there are the volumes of essays we’re working on. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean by ‘forum’ but the TMT blog is a location where analysis takes place and where comments from other romance readers and from romance authors or, in fact, anyone else with something constructive to say, are welcomed.

    I think it would be great if an author were to help in leading that discussion as Crusie used to do on her yahoo list (and maybe does in other places). Or have someone else moderate that discussion who has the knowledge to delve into those things because it is interesting and there are romance books that can handle that type of introspection.

    The Crusie-Mayer writing workshop‘s going to be looking at metaphors, symbols, motifs and themes in September/October and Kate Moore of the Fog City Divas posted questions about Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels to get people started and then led a discussion about the book. The links are here. It’s a time-consuming thing to do, though, rather like preparing a lecture, setting essay questions and leading a seminar and I would imagine that most authors are already rather busy trying to fit in writing, promotion and their existing online activities. It’s also only something worth doing if there are enough people who’ve also got a copy of the book and are prepared to put in time to read it and analyse it in detail.

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  43. Janet
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 12:51:50

    If you want a forum in which to undertake thoughtful criticism of romance, you should create one. The initiation of such discussion should not be dependent upon the participation of the NYT or any other party.

    Laura beat me to pointing out that Teach Me Tonight is doing this type of work, as are — less formally — other blogs, IMO, too, including here and the Smart Bitches. But as to your point about the NY Times, I totally agree. My view is that Romance should not have to seek legitimation because the genre is *already* legitimate, and inclusion in a pub like the NY Times is simply equitable treatment with other genres, not a badge of validity.

    My concerns are more related to what do people want vis a vis that wider inclusion. Do authors, for example, really want the critical attention that will come to the genre if it’s regularly reviewed in certain print media, or will they resent it, fight it, circle the wagons? I have no doubt that the *genre* is ready for that kind of attention, but I’m not so sure about the *community,* thus my questions.

    Laura: I think the distinctions you draw regarding different elements of craft reflect exactly what I was trying to say about craft-talk among writers working on books and craft-talk among readers (perhaps including authors) about a published work. Sometimes those elements overlap, but I also think that the *way* they’re talked about is different. For example, writers may exchange ideas about how to use POV to achieve a certain effect, and readers may then comment on how well a certain POV worked for them in the story. An author may intend to communicate a certain theme, and readers may find things totally different from that in the work. In one case, craft-talk is part of the writing process, and in the other it’s part of the reading process. And in terms of reading, it’s also about how a certain work fits into the genre, how it relates to other works, how it comments on the genre, how it adds to a certain discussion about the genre, etc.

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  44. Elle
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 13:35:41

    Some romance authors spend a lot of time trying to create subtle layers of meaning, motifs etc and I appreciate it when I find it (which I quite often do) but it doesn't seem to be something that's discussed as frequently in terms of ‘craft' by romance authors on their blogs/websites.

    Laura, I would love a list of the romance authors who meet your above criteria. I really appreciate it when I find metaphor, symbolism, imagery, etc. in a romance genre novel as well (it’s like the best of both worlds for me!), but I know that others may find such books “too wordy”.

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  45. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 14:28:14

    Elle, I’ve done quite a few posts on specific books, and some of them focus more on theme or a specific issue so I’ll just list a few books I’ve blogged about where I’ve focused on symbolism/metaphor:

    Ashley, Phillipa, 2006. Decent Exposure (London: Little Black Dress).

    Cohen, Julie, 2006. Being a Bad Girl (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

    Joyce, Lydia, 2005. The Veil of Night (New York: Signet Eclipse).

    McClone, Melissa, 2006. Blueprint for a Wedding (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

    Neels, Betty, 1999. Discovering Daisy (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

    I’ve also found symbolism/metaphor in books by Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Marion Lennox, Nora Roberts, Claire Thornton and there are probably lots more who aren’t springing instantly to mind right at the moment and there are also so many authors whose work I’ve not yet read. Even for the ones I have listed, I haven’t read every single book by them (well, that would be a lot of books ;-) ), and when I have, I’ve often found symbolism/imagery in some books by a particular author and not in other of their works. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, though, because sometimes things spring out at me and at other times I only notice the symbolism/metaphor after a period of reflection. And in some novels it’s more complex, and in others it’s less so.

    Colour symbolism (e.g. the colour of the hero’s hair, or the heroine’s dress tells us something about his or her personality), is really, really common in romance novels and one can often deduce things about the characters from their furniture/décor. Romances also sometimes use time of year/the weather to express something about the characters or the state of their emotions.

    Not so long ago Janine wrote about romance authors with lyrical styles, which is slightly different, but that might be a starting point if you’re looking for lyrical prose (obviously) and rich descriptions.

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  46. Maude
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 15:36:15

    [I think there's a world of difference between authors talking about craft for the purpose of their own writing and readers (and authors) talking about craft in the larger context of particular books and the genre as a whole (or parts of it, at least). One has to do with the process of writing and the other has to do with the effect of the writing product on the reader.]

    Agree, but I’d add that there has never been any established references in which to discuss romance writing as a skill and style. For example, *how the story is written* is just as important as *the story told–* I just don’t see that happening within the romance community. But it would be interesting to see. I haven’t seen it anywhere.

    Literature, on the other hand, has a long history of reference points where there are general associations as to what is good writing and what is not. In some ways, the Internet is providing this discussion, but how well it works, I do not know. Example: Author Graham Joyce offered a review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke in the Washington Post. Here is the link to Amazon. (I chose this because I am reading Susanna Clarke’s work.)

    Review Link Here

    What author in romance would do this to another romance author in a major magazine? No one chastized Joyce for this review. Not even Clarke. This kind of reviewing goes on all the time in the literary world.

    I think in the romance community, this kind of detailed criticism would be chaotic. And does the genre need it? I don’t think so.

    Good discussion. Great comments.

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  47. RfP
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 18:31:47

    Maude, thanks for the Amazon link. That gives a nice point of comparison.

    I saw nothing wrong with Graham Joyce’s review, nothing overly personal or vitriolic. It’s the kind of review I find useful as a reader, and would love to see more of for romance novels. I should hope no one chastised him for it! He was critical in a reasoned way. He even prefaced the review with the caveat that a newly successful author is under crazy pressures to publish anything they have ready, ASAP, etc, etc.

    I don’t see a (reasonable) negative review as something done “to” an author; it’s a service to readers, not a personal attack on the author. That’s the kind of critique that can really be helpful to a career, once the author gets over the natural sting.

    It also confuses the issue that Amazon isn’t very discriminating in what they call “reviews”. Sometimes their “reviews” are just the cover copy; sometimes they’re taken from press releases. I understand why it happens: Amazon needs something about the book. And Amazon’s busy gnomes can’t even be sure that writings that are called reviews are really reviews.

    (Benjamin Schwartz, literary editor at The Atlantic, pointed out recently that some types of “review” are more an essay or collection of cultural reflections on the book. This type of riffing on a novel may not be intended as a definitive thumbs up/down, though fragments of the essay may be quoted as reviews on Amazon or on the book jacket.)

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  48. Janet
    Jun 27, 2007 @ 22:47:20

    Example: Author Graham Joyce offered a review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke in the Washington Post.

    What a WONDERFUL review! Beautifully written itself, mindful of the strengths of Clarke’s writing but incisively focused on why TLOGA didn’t work for him. I actually thought it was a very positive review despite the less than glowing recommendation for the book at hand. And what I really loved was the fact that Clarke’s work has both literary and genre status and is part of both worlds (e.g. won the Hugo and was long listed for the Booker). OMG would I adore seeing more reviews like that for genre Romance, although I think we’re still far from seeing Romance authors review each other like this (despite the valiant efforts of a few to break that taboo).

    I think in the romance community, this kind of detailed criticism would be chaotic. And does the genre need it? I don't think so.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Are you talking about how authors would respond to such reviews? I am not so optimistic that the separation between authors and books in genre Romance is going to be fortified until MORE critical reviewing is done. In other words, IMO the reader community has to become so strong in its willingness to talk critically about Romance that no longer can authors reasonably see reviews and commentary as about, for, directed at, or in response to them.

    Lately I've even begun writing my own reviews, more for practice than for public consumption. But the exercise of thinking my way through a book has, I think, given me a greater appreciation for the genre and the ability to make better reading choices.

    Keep writing those reviews, Phyl! I can totally relate to your point about being more appreciative of the genre by reading the books more critically because that has been my experience, as well.

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  49. Maude
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 14:10:46

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by this. Are you talking about how authors would respond to such reviews?

    Yes. Or their friends. Maybe their friends? Laughing. Flame Wars. Personal Attacks. The Internet can be a brutal place. I like the reviews here, but I don’t always agree with them, but I’d never attack the two Ja(y)nes. I figure they are doing the romance community a valuable service.

    Maybe at the forum mentioned up posts, someone could create a way for readers and writers to AGREE to DISAGREE.

    But still, how much value would good criticism be, and think how time consuming? For example, I really liked Eloisa James latest work. I thought it was excellent, in many ways. Maybe she failed in *some ways* to maintain the needed focus on the main couple, but look at what else she achieved. It was a highly mannered piece of fiction. Written well. It’s a piece of romance fiction that could go mainstream.

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  50. Jane
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 14:14:31

    I think the main problem with the authors isn’t so much that they have to embrace the review for the book or the reviewers, but they need to embrace criticism as a concept. I.e., authors many times control the discourse surrounding romance. They are the ones with the biggest platforms, the loudest voices. So when comments about reviews that have qualifiers, the authors encourage only the most positive of reviews. They do not, in any way, foster a community of reviews that are critical. And by doing that, they are essentially saying, these reviews that are critical have no value in our romance community.

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  51. Janet
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 14:27:55

    But still, how much value would good criticism be, and think how time consuming?

    Well, I think it would be of great value, for many of the same reasons Romance as a genre has value. Take that Joyce review of Clarke’s book, for example. IMO that’s an incredibly powerful and GOOD review — a statement of profound respect for Clarke, an acknowledgment of her talent as a writer, and an honest reaction to her latest work. IMO it adds something to discussion of the Fantasy genre merely by reflecting on Clarke’s contributions to the genre and positioning her work within a larger literary and cultural context. But I wonder: how many Romance authors would see that as a positive review? This is not a rhetorical question — I really don’t know the answer.

    Your comment and Jane’s remind me of how important it is to stress the notion that reviews are NOT FOR AUTHORS. If authors want to use reviews for promotional purposes — as they often do — then they will likely never use anything but so-called positive reviews. And what will the criteria be? How would reviews that might, from a reader’s perspective, be the most informative and the most persuasive compete against sweepingly positive generalizations? Again, not a rhetorical question.

    I am very, very wary of pushing the idea that the primary purpose of reviewing is for authors, publishers, or marketing departments, because that simply leads us right back into the “if you can’t say anything nice” trap. Reviews DO promote a book, but I don’t think that is or should be their primary purpose. I think they should 1) offer a perspective on a book relative to the genre as a whole (although I don’t think they need to directly address the general level), and 2) provide a forum for discussion of a book. Anything that is aimed ONLY at selling a book is marketing, plain and simple.

    Although it might be unfashionable these days, I think critical discourse on any genre is good for its own sake. If people don’t want to engage in it, that’s fine with me. But I think the genre has already suffered under the weight of the utilitarian directives of factory editing and publishing practices. Authors may or may not write to those directives, but I don’t ever want to get to the point where I submit to them, as well, because as a reader, they too often seem incompatible with my interest in reading the best damn books I can get my hands on.

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  52. Janine
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 15:18:39

    I think the main problem with the authors isn't so much that they have to embrace the review for the book or the reviewers, but they need to embrace criticism as a concept. I.e., authors many times control the discourse surrounding romance. They are the ones with the biggest platforms, the loudest voices. So when comments about reviews that have qualifiers, the authors encourage only the most positive of reviews. They do not, in any way, foster a community of reviews that are critical. And by doing that, they are essentially saying, these reviews that are critical have no value in our romance community.

    But… to play devil’s advocate, I see a lot of authors posting here and at other review blogs like Smart Bitches. And I’m not cynical enough to think that these authors are participating in the discussion solely for self-promotion. That may be a part of it, but many of them also seem genuinely interested in the discussions we have here. And I think their participation helps those review blogs where they post. I do see it as a show of support for us, and I appreciate it.

    My sense is that the current culture of the romance industry makes it difficult for authors to review books or to come out more strongly in favor of criticism, because they are afraid of backlash from fellow authors (And who knows? Perhaps from editors as well). I could be wrong about that — I hope I’m wrong about that — but that’s the sense I have. And if that’s so, who knows how many authors might wish for a different atmosphere that would make them feel more free to participate in critical discussions.

    That’s why I applaud so strongly those authors who are reviewing. I know it’s not something every author can do but I see them as the ones who will make it possible for things to change for the better.

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  53. Jane
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 15:24:00

    Of course, I am generalizing too much. I should have qualified and said “some authors” but doesn’t there seem to be a culture of fear that permeates much of the romance community such that authors who dare say something critical fear backlash?

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  54. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 15:25:57

    Maybe at the forum mentioned up posts, someone could create a way for readers and writers to AGREE to DISAGREE.

    Was that a reference to TMT? We have had disagreements, and they’ve stayed fairly amicable and polite but we haven’t had many (if any) disagreements with authors. I suspect that we’re not very likely to get disagreements with authors because we tend to pick out aspects of books which we can comment on and analyse. That means that when we refer to individual novels we’re saying we found them interesting in some way. Of course it might get a little bit nasty if we started analysing individual texts and saying that they were interesting because they were sexist/racist/homophobic…

    Reviewers, though, have to comment on lots of books, from ones they love to ones they hate, and they have to assess the value of the whole book, not just particular aspects of it, so I think it’s likely that reviews will generate controversy more often.

    they need to embrace criticism as a concept. I.e., authors many times control the discourse surrounding romance.

    It does shift the balance of power when readers become writers of prose too. I’ve read comments by a very, very, few authors who seem to consider themselves the wordsmiths and therefore consider the opinions of readers as less valid. It’s true that authors are the experts at writing fiction, but that doesn’t automatically make them expert readers who can tell other readers how to respond to the books (everyone’s reading experience is personal, and affected by their own emotional and intellectual outlook, their mood etc.) nor does it necessarily make authors experts in writing reviews or literary criticism.

    We probably also need to separate out ‘criticism’ as in ‘negative comments’ (which might or might not appear in reviews, depending on how the reviewer felt about the book) from ‘criticism’ as in ‘analysis/literary criticism of texts’.

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  55. Janet
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 15:57:50

    My sense is that the current culture of the romance industry makes it difficult for authors to review books or to come out more strongly in favor of criticism, because they are afraid of backlash from fellow authors (And who knows? Perhaps from editors as well). I could be wrong about that -’ I hope I'm wrong about that -’ but that's the sense I have. And if that's so, who knows how many authors might wish for a different atmosphere that would make them feel more free to participate in critical discussions.

    Good points, Janine. And haven’t we already gotten word that such pressure from editors exists? Where was it I saw someone quote Brenda Chin in saying that she won’t work with anyone who bad mouths another author? If I were an author desperate to publish, I sure as hell would interpret that sentiment as including reviewing another author’s work with anything less than a rave. I think that change is going to have to be initiated by readers.

    Given the numerous incidents of ugliness in the author community we’ve seen over the past few years, has the culture of suppression around honest critique really convinced anyone that it’s the healthiest path, either for the industry community or the genre? I can’t help but think of Pleasantville.

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  56. Maude
    Jun 28, 2007 @ 23:53:30

    This is a great discussion. It’s obvious that you all take romance and the genre seriously. I think this is how it starts, with readers who care.

    *Given the numerous incidents of ugliness in the author community we've seen over the past few years, has the culture of suppression around honest critique really convinced anyone that it's the healthiest path, either for the industry community or the genre?*

    My own experiences,– I am also an author as well as reader– have not been good. I am not going to focus on the negativity. Romance does not need validity outside the community. It needs work inside the community. There are some excellent authors, and even *Great Failed Attempts* at trying new things.

    Again, your thoughts have been insightful and provoking. I’m linking.

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  57. XandraG
    Jul 01, 2007 @ 11:46:26

    I think the main problem with the authors isn't so much that they have to embrace the review for the book or the reviewers, but they need to embrace criticism as a concept. I.e., authors many times control the discourse surrounding romance. They are the ones with the biggest platforms, the loudest voices. So when comments about reviews that have qualifiers, the authors encourage only the most positive of reviews. They do not, in any way, foster a community of reviews that are critical. And by doing that, they are essentially saying, these reviews that are critical have no value in our romance community.

    I don’t know about the monolithic “Authors”–there are a lot of us out here with all different levels of influence (the idea that I have as much ability to control discourse as Nora Roberts is just…silly). Just like authors of any other literature, there are authors who are going to be more or less receptive to critical review. I’ve no doubt that there are authors of more “highbrow” fiction who have been involved in blog wars or other communicative shenanigans.

    But when it comes to critical review, romance as a genre is going to run up against a brick wall (or maybe a pink ceiling). Consider that to review a book of any genre by an author, it first has to be published, and nowhere else but the romance genre can you find publishing criteria or editorial preference so specific–hence you have a publishing industry (or portion thereof) at odds with critical review efforts–there exists a commonality that means steady profits to the one, but devolves into cliche’d banality very quickly for the other.

    Not to say it couldn’t be done – I appreciate honest critique of my work as an author, and as a writer, I appreciate honest critique of both mine and others’ work because it’s how I learn what works and what doesn’t. I just think that a new or different approach to literary critique is probably going to be needed.

    Romance is the meatloaf of the publishing industry. Nourishing, plentiful, and fun for the whole family, but not generally served because it’s startlingly unusual. Authors have the capacity to construct really good stories within the framework. Make really good meatloaf, so to speak. But in order to be published as romance, rather than a cross-genre, it still has to be meatloaf.

    I doubt the NYT is going to be jumping on board any time soon, and truthfully, I don’t read and write romance because of anything the NYT may or may not publish about it. But I do get tired of people thinking it’s okay to scorn the romance genre just because it’s large and well-stocked.

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  58. Read for Pleasure
    Jul 02, 2007 @ 17:11:48

    Nostalgia, irony, incest, legitimacy…

    …Wolk describes \”comics culture\’s slightly miserable striving for ‘acknowledgmentÂ’ and ‘respectÂ’….\” That could be said of portions of the romance community (witness the hostilities between authors Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld …

  59. Stephanie
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 11:22:55

    I know this is way late, but no one mentioned that Eloisa James qualifies precisely under the last two of J.M.’s Ways To Be Important: she has delicate wrists, a Ph.D (I forget where from, but she studied at Oxford), and a famous set of parents, especially in the literary world (the Blys). Why isn’t she getting respectful reviews in the NYT?

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  60. Laura Vivanco
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 12:34:47

    Eloisa James got to write an op-ed piece for the New York Times in 2005. The text of it’s here (that’s not the original location, but you need a password to read some NYT articles, so this is easier to get to).

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