As some of you know, I’ve lately been reading romances.
Now, in a woman who’d come no nearer romance than Austen and Shakespeare until her late thirties, this must be understood in the way of a daring expedition into unknown and somewhat strange territory.
Picture me, in fact, in helmet and safari suit, led by a troupe of – possibly pink-attired – natives, penetrating impenetrable jungles.
Only as far as that goes, I would be a terrible explorer. Rather than penetrating deep (it’s so wrong to use this expression with romance, I know) into the contemporary swamps, I mostly stay around the edges of regencies – i.e. near the native villages of historical, which I have visited before.
Part of the reason for this is the reason I no longer read mysteries in the way I now read romance. Growing up I considered Science Fiction and Fantasy “real” reading, while mystery was what I read when otherwise out of “real” books, and/or, later on, as “popcorn.” Popcorn books are read without studying them and without any necessity to feel like I’m competing with them.
As it’s probably obvious part of what chased me out of mystery is that I started writing it. But the other part is what makes contemporary mystery – and a lot of science fiction and fantasy – odious to me.
I’m perfectly willing – no, look, I’m used to – skipping the political screeds in the middle of books. That’s fine. They’re particularly funny in older mysteries which assure me that such and such event/policy will destroy all life as we know it by... well, earlier than now. So, cool.
But while I’ve my entire life worked on the principle that everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, I do take offense to people being entitled to their own facts and both in mystery and SF and for that matter contemporary romance, I run across an awful lot of stuff where I go “Well, now. I’ve never met a woman who worked THAT way.” Or “Yeah, you know, I refuse to entertain the idea I found the only man in the universe who is not an abuser.” And in the last ten years or so, either I’ve got more crotchety (Hey, you kids, get off my literary lawn!) or the instances of this type of nonsense have gotten WAY thicker. I’d suspect both, as the older I get the more I have trouble suffering fools – gladly or otherwise – and as we’re churning out generations of women who have been taught an entirely imaginary history, not to mention sociology and economics. (You need to be exquisitely educated and exceedingly brilliant to believe that much nonsense.)
Anyway, so I ended up reading mostly historical mystery but some years ago the publishers decided historical mystery was out. (No, don’t tell me it didn’t sell. It was a niche, like anything else is, practically. Mostly it didn’t sell because the publishers wouldn’t get it on shelves. They decided all that needed to be pushed was what I call “sex and the city” mysteries, which is fine, but I’m simply not that interested in shoes. Oh, and craft mysteries, which are the resurgence of the cozies they also decided wouldn’t sell about twenty years ago -- but the fact I write those about furniture refinishing should tell you how ‘with it’ I am about crafts.)
I still need popcorn books. These are things read when cooking or cleaning, and usually not remembered at all. The things I consider ‘vacation’ because I can retreat into them and not think about much of anything. Ideally they’re the books I read while walking around amusement parks in the wake of the boys.
So I started reading romances. (They’re also great recessionary reading because I can buy a used book for a dollar pretty consistently, and then I can trade them in, four for one more book. And it is only after two of these transactions that I have to head to the used bookstore with thirty dollars again. So, a month’s worth of popcorn reading might cost me fifty.)
Unfortunately, you can take the writer out of her field, but you can’t make her stop being a writer.
So lately my mind has been turning on what makes some of the regency-popcorn I’ve been ingesting particularly tasty, and what makes some of it a snort-giggle fest.
We’ll eliminate genius from the equation, first. I should point out what led me on this primrose (or at least pinkish) path to hell to begin with was Dave Freer making me read Georgette Heyer. I’ll say it right now: Heyer is not like any other regency romance. Just isn’t, period. That’s genius.
So, I’m fairly sure I’m not a genius, and that’s where THAT analysis ends. Now, onto the other ones.
Like with any other genre I plunge into, I started noticing stylistic and character building stuff in some of the books I buy more or less blindly (no, really blindly sometimes. As in, I tell my friend at the used bookstore “grab me thirty regencies, put in a bag, I’ll pick them up in an hour.) So I started making “friends” – i.e. “I like her style, I’ll look for her name.” – and “enemies” – “oh, my freaking Lord, I’d pull out my eyes rather than try to read anything else by this woman” lists. We’ll leave those aside too. Right now my hatreds are way more violent than my loves which mostly rise to “oh, okay, she’s pleasant.”
Instead, let’s say that in the mass of books I get I get any number of “category” romances, as well as the more complex – better covers, far more push – “bigger” romances.
It wasn’t till this weekend I realized I could tell which one I was reading and would be able to even on kindle, with no cover or weight to tip me off to which it was. And then it occurred to me you might be interested, as I suspect this applies to all books.
A lot of the category romances are painless enough to read. None has made it to my hate list. On the other hand, none has come close to the love list.
What I will say for them is this – none of them is very deep. Now I think a lot of people have made this observation and in usual the cure for it from editors – who are not, after all writers, and who are, most of them university graduates in the fuzzier fields – is “let’s make it relevant.” This usually results in the injection of the sort of ideas that could only pass as facts on a college campus. I suppose that makes them feel “deeper” or more “relevant” if you either agree with them and/or you’ve been living in an hermetically sealed chamber for the last fifty years and the idea that someone would write a book positing women are the equals (or even the superiors) of men is a mind blowing thought. For the rest of us it amounts very much to a yawn.
No, what makes these books – as opposed to other regency romances – lighter or less relevant or, let’s face it, less interesting is more difficult to correct and I’d say it’s this: the writer studiously avoids the big emotions.
I realized this last night as I was reading one where a young girl “ruins” herself by attending a masquerade and being recognized. In one of the “bigger” books, this would be a serious thing (whether historically accurate or not is something totally different) and the subplot of her finding true love despite this would be if not the secondary subplot (she’s the supporting-role character) to the entire book, at least the subject of the second half of the book. It would require some soul-searching and changes on her part. You’d see character growth. In this book it is merely a diversion on the way to something else, and a reason to go to the country for a few days and you know that the problem will be solved in the way other problems in this book are solved: through luck.
In fact, we already know how it will be solved because, behind the back of the character, we hear that the guy who bragged of seeing her is not really believed since, what young lady of proper upbringing would go unmasked at a masquerade? Coincidence also helps a character follow another character who elopes, because someone with a carriage just drives by. In other words, it is too easy.
Is that all, you say, and you’ll remind me Heyer also employs coincidences. Well, sure. But because not everything is easy and passing, you don’t feel the coincidences are unwarranted. In this book the coincidences mar a plot punctuated with irrelevancy.
What do I mean irrelevancy? Well... take the disgrace above, even though we’re assured it won’t matter in the long run and the girl is none too worried about it and doesn’t seem to give it a thought, this is the reason the main male character chooses to throw a hissy fit we never saw coming, and the reason the girl then chooses to elope with someone she never looked at twice before, and who in fact doesn’t want to elope with her. Uh?
In the better romances, they start with something the character wants desperately (and usually it’s not JUST love) and then wind love and other contretemps around it, TIGHTLY never letting go until the climatic moment.
What this means is that people don’t acquire emotions and discard them simply to move the plot forward. If they want something they’ll continue wanting it until they either get it or are convinced it’s bad for them. The emotions don’t LET UP. They continue going deeper and deeper throughout the book.
If you do that, then even a fluffy romance can touch the heart of the human condition. I know it’s uncomfortable and it requires putting a lot of yourself in, to go into the emotions – but trust me, it’s the only way to make your book memorable and rising above the general stream of pap. And it doesn’t matter what field you write in.
*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*