Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Going Deeper

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*


Synova said...

Heyer is, of course, in her own league.

I just read a really horrible regency and it was frustrating because it sounded like it would be an over-the-top ride. It had an evil twin! What was not to like? Unfortunately it was populated by modern persons with modern attitudes, which is bad enough. But the way the modern attitudes were presented was in the way I like to call "woman too stupid to live." Makes me nuts. This is where the woman has no actual competence, but demands to be included in men's dealings to prove her equality.

I'm more than willing to accept hyper-competence in a fun read. The important part of my gripe is that the "woman too stupid to live" is not competent at all.

Heyer has a vast range of heroines. Some are timid and submissive and some are not. Consider Harriet in "The Foundling" compared to Sophie in "The Grand Sophie." Harriet is a mouse, and lovingly portrayed even though she is so retiring that she hardly even appears in the story. Sophie is outrageous, she only complies with cultural expectations when she must and with complete understanding of the silliness of the rules she has to follow, and when she does something it's because she actually has the ability to do so.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It occurs to me there are SOME tropes that have become cliches in our culture because they zing our pleasure centers very deeply. One of those HAS to be the indistinguishable "evil twin." I started playing with some of these in Athena and it was really a lot of fun.
On the incompetent upty woman -- yeah, I come across a few of those in regencies, though frankly they're more common in contemporary. One of the things that I caught on early on was what a fine line very successful romance writers walk. They have to make their women "independent" etc, to cater to the feminist beliefs, but they have to make them submissive because most women identify with that (never got it myself) So you end up with what I call the Gone With The Wind Paradigm in which the woman is "independent" in a foolish way, till the "good man" tames her.
This is a gross generalization, but I find it in enough best selling books to believe it's a key to success -- even if it annoys the living daylights out of me. (I don't like ANY characters to be foolish.)

MataPam said...

Just like we have different "Ick!" triggers, I think we all have different emotional situations that we react to differently. Some social situations I find excrutiatingly painful, other people think are funny.

Like you guys, the incompetent woman drives me up the wall. I understand submissive, but don't like it at all. And I really hate characters keeping vital information to themselves "for her protection" ie, so she'll run straight into the Evil Twin's arms.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

yes, we have different triggers, but the writers' job is to transmit that emotional anguish to the reader. Say, for instance, from you, I'd expect you to take me through how painful a social situation is -- for your character it would be and it would MATTER. The problem with the superficial books is that we're told it matters, but then the whole thing is diffused before we feel it, only to be brought back again randomly. Remember, we don't write with words -- we write with emotions.

You know, the weird thing is I can even forgive that to a writer PROVIDED the rest holds or something holds in the book. Sometime read Patricia Wentworth for the "run into villains' arms" thing done right.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I read all of Georgette Heryer's regency romances at least three times. And I'm collecting the new editions because my old ones fell apart. My favourite is Black Sheep.

The heroine has the horrible feeling of being trapped in a family and social situation where you have no one who sees the world as you do. Until the hero comes along and doesn't give a hang for social convention.

I can't get involved if the characters are modern people in period costume.

I guess the reason I stopped reading regencies is because no one could hold a candle to Heyer.

Kate Paulk said...

I wouldn't have ever thought to look at it that way, for the simple reason that Heyer is probably the only romance I read. The category stuff didn't manage to hold me more than a few pages.

Which is kind of a long way to say I don't really have anything constructive to add here.

Synova said...

I enjoy category romances from time to time but it's true they're not deep. I've noticed a lot of times that the author partly solves the problem of depth by adding a history between the couple that happened before the book started. There simply isn't time to get all that involved in 50 to 70k words. Even so, the author sometimes manages to make me bawl in the appropriate place.

When that happens I'm impressed.

That dark night of the soul moment when all is lost is as important as the happily ever after. I think that sometimes the fatter romances benefit from having room to add additional conflicts that might seem sure to go wrong, instead of having to rely only on that one moment when it seems the lovers will pass each other by and irrevocably miss their one chance for love.

(Which is one reason that Historicals are so much fun. They can be set in a time where a decision to marry the wrong person can't be repented of and undone afterward. Someone of a romantic tendency can only forlornly hope for a carriage accident.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, that's largely Heyer's formula, but her work is SO FAR beyond formula. Though not always, sometimes hero is trapped... One of my favorites is Sprig Muslin. Though mind you my VERY favorite is Sylvester. In both cases, interestingly, both are trapped, and both freed, once by third party agency. Yeah, she was a genius. There's no accounting for genius. Can't be predicted or forced. Or planned for. I just wish they'd make movies of some of hers... Frederica and Sylvester, for instance.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think I saw it clearer because I usually DON'T read romance. Now looking back, of course it's the same for everything, even space opera. To be GOOD it has to touch something essential to human condition, which means sustained, deeper feelings. Don't believe me? Read Tom Holt, say, Expecting Someone Taller or Flying Dutch -- not bad books, mind, and often funny -- then read Pratchett -- say, Small Gods or Lords and Ladies. Then report. :) (Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Categories CAN be good, but the vast majority is not. They don't take you to that deep sustained feeling. It's NOT space. TRULY. It might be that a lot of these women were apprentices (they used to invite you into category to teach you to write, before they let you do the "big stuff") or it's possible they were cranked out too fast (is there such a thing as too fast, given my best-grossing book was written in three days? Yeah, there is. I could write that book in three days because I live part time in Tudor England -- Plain Jane -- and because the story was already self-organized by reason of history. BUT even for me there's such a thing as too fast. Depends on the book and how cleanly it shows in my head. If I force it, I break it.) Forgive me, other than having bumped into you around the net here and there, I have no clue what your religious or moral convictions are, but if you don't mind reading m/m romance, take yourself over to Fiction Wise and sample some of Josh Lanyon's shorter works. Frankly, I think his longer ones, except for mysteries, are about 70 to 80k, but he does sustain depth and feeling. Study it. I am. (Not the fantasies. Oh, Lord, not the fantasies. I don't know if it's utterly new to him or if he just has been away from fantasy too long, but oh my heavens, it's painful. Not badly written, mind -- I don't think the man could write badly if he tried -- but he doesn't cue the tropes right for us f/sf readers, so you get the impression he's inventing the wheel right there, in front of your eyes and beside a 2011 model race car.)

Anonymous said...

The first book I read that was "historical romance" but had obviously modern characters was "Forever Amber." My mom and aunt said that when it came out *everybody* was reading it. So I gave it a shot. It was a contemporary woman - a 1943 or thereabouts contemporary woman. It's a hoot, now.

But the evil twin ... didn't Shakespeare use a lot of that, even? Not to mention Jacob and Esau!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Evil twins are the foundation of human civilization.

Well, the better regencies that do this have some explanation for hte woman's unconventional views, but... honestly... if you got the idea from regencies written in hte last ten years, every regency woman WAS a proto-feminist

Anonymous said...

Sarah Hoyt said:
"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."

I agree and disagree. Agree that no people don't just acquire and discard emotions in order to move the plot, but I also think that people can put emotions aside for other reasons than satisfying the desire or being convinced that something is bad. Sometimes people grow in ways that something that was very important once can less important later with more experience or a change of circumstance.

I hope this didn't come out sounding too pedantic. I've been thinking along these lines recently with respect to my career prospects and felt the need to say something.


Dave Freer said...

Kate (from the man who introduced Heyer into various lives ;-)) Track down and read Grace Ingram AKA Doris Sutcliffe Adams. Particularly Red Adam's Lady and Power of Darkness. Both are romance as it SHOULD be done. (So is A Town Like Alice, for that matter).

Kate Paulk said...


Point taken. I've read a few Tom Holt - up until he started repeating the formula. It's the difference between kraft sliced cheese and a good sharp cheddar.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Absolutely, but you're talking real life, not novels, and of course those are different. I was talking in terms of the writers' craft. A novel could be described as "a unite of coherent event/action" but those must be underlied by coherent emotion to make sense.
In novels that span years, characters DO grow in the way you describe, but then the writer needs to make that clear.

And yeah, at some point all of us realize that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I've tried to track those down. I think that book is something like five hundred dollars, used, on Amazon...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes. Pratchett takes the characters seriously even while making fun, if that makes sense.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah - maybe NR should track down the author (or estate) and see if they can get e-book rights. The few people on the bar (Pogo, Lisa Satterlund) who had read them concurred about the quality, but the US paperback cover SUCKED big time. I'm as mean as cat's wee, but I'd cheerfully pay $20 for the ones I haven't got as e-books, and the price says there is a real demand.