Act Your Age

12002220_979662202072215_1317836556402165806_nI’m illustrating this post with one of my favorite Facebook memes—the caption, in case you can’t see it, reads “I don’t know how to act my age. I’ve never been this old before.”

To me, that sums up an ongoing struggle for a lot of us. Once upon a time, particular ages came with instructions. When you hit thirty or forty or fifty or sixty, you were supposed to look and behave in a certain way. And everyone knew what that way was. If you didn’t fulfill these expectations, you got a lot of social disapproval and a reputation as an eccentric.

But now the whole concept of age is undergoing a sort of revolution. Part of this phenomenon is the result of that great bump-in-the-python known as the Baby Boomers. From the time we were born, our sheer numbers have changed the dynamic around us, and now it’s happening with retirement and aging. But I don’t think this new view of aging is entirely due to the Boomer influence.

More often than not these days you reach a particular age and find yourself at sea. You remember your parents or grandparents being this old, but somehow you don’t feel the same. You’re simply not interested in orthopedic shoes and shapeless black garments, let alone silver hair (is there anyone out there who actually has the hair color they were born with these days?). Tradition tells you one thing, while popular culture tells you another. So are you supposed to act the way you feel or the way someone your age acts according to convention?

Just to make this whole matter that much more confusing, a lot of famous people no longer look and act like we expect people “of a certain age” to look and act. Rosanne Cash is 60. Bonnie Raitt is 65. Meryl Streep is 66. Susan Sarandon is 68, and so is Emmylou Harris. Helen Mirrin is 70. Blythe Danner is 72. Joan Baez is 74. Lily Tomlin is 76. Jane Fonda is 77, Vanessa Redgrave is 78, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are 80, and Sophia Loren is 81. All of them are still working, and none of them has taken to her rocking chair with an afghan and a tabby.

So we’re back to the basic question: how do you act your age these days? The answer, so far as I can tell, is you act the way your age feels to you. There are some things I no longer do. I don’t wear heels anymore because I figured out what they were doing to my back (actually I stopped wearing them many years ago, but now I find even moderate heels uncomfortable). I’d rather wear leggings and tunics than dresses, so that’s what I do. I have no idea whether this goes with my age or not, and I don’t much care. But the don’t much care probably does have something to do with my age—one of the many benefits of getting a few years under your belt.

I don’t talk about age much myself, largely because I hate being put into boxes, and age is definitely one of those. I’ve found that when people know your age, they tend to attach a set of expectations to you. But I find the occasional media assumption that everybody past forty would like to be young again (as in this popular series) somewhat naïve. Each age has its own pluses and minuses. And these days many of us are trying to find our way through both.

imgresYou see this meme repeatedly on Facebook—a Venn diagram showing the small intersection between what the author meant and what the English teacher thinks the author meant. Usually it’s posted by an author who’s convinced that English teachers are evil witches distorting an author’s true meaning. English teachers, say the authors, should just stick to grammar and leave literature alone.

I’ve got a sort of unique perspective here since I’m an author and a retired English teacher. I’ve taught literature and I’ve taught grammar, and I’ve enjoyed both. Moreover, I agree with the poet Donald Hall who once said that a lot of people go into teaching English because they love to read and want to talk about books (Hall thought that was a problem, but I’m not sure I agree). I’ve also encountered the same kind of hostility toward interpretation that you get in that meme.

But here’s the thing: the meme implies that there’s only one meaning in a book, and it’s the meaning put there by the author. On the other side of that idea is reading theory, which holds that the meaning of a book rests with the reader, and that it changes with each person who opens the book. As a teacher, author, and reader, I’d say the truth lies somewhere between those two poles. Reading isn’t anarchy—some readings clearly have more validity than others. But authors don’t always see what readers see, and a work that can only be understood one way can be tiresome to read.

But what about those totally weird interpretations English teachers come up with? That goes back to the whole multiple meanings idea. Like other readers, English teachers come to books with a particular point of view. Some English teachers like to look at history (e.g., what was going on in Shakespeare’s England when he wrote King Lear?). Some prefer cultural criticism (e.g., how does nineteenth century colonialism inform Joseph Conrad’s work?). Some are feminists or psychologists or close readers who delight in language. Their interpretations seem weird only if you assume that there’s only one way to read—a meaning the author built in originally.

I’ve occasionally had people claim that reading that arrives at an interpretation other than the author’s “ruins” a book. One of my husband’s relatives once accused me of spoiling Huck Finn by suggesting it was a lot more than a “simple children’s book.” A quick aside: Huck Finn includes child abuse and murder, along with some shocking violence. I wouldn’t suggest giving it to a child unless that child is beyond the age of nightmares.

As an English teacher, I felt honor bound to push my students into looking beyond their kneejerk reactions to a book. That doesn’t “ruin” the book. That makes it richer.

In reality, English teachers can be authors’ friends. They’re sort of “super-readers”: people who love books and language, and who want to pass that love on to others. When they press students to go beyond their initial impressions of a book, they’re pressing them to think about what they’re reading. To pay attention to features like characterization and language, along with plot. Students who come out of a good English teacher’s class are more likely to be people who love to read. They’re not our enemies, folks, they’re our allies.

Forget Perfect

51ylynf4muL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Elbow was one of the leaders in revising the way we teach writing during the seventies and eighties. His books Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power were beloved by teachers and students alike for their multitude of ideas about getting the whole writing process going. Back in the days when I taught Freshman Composition, I used Elbow’s writing heuristics to get my students over their worries about having nothing to say or not knowing how to say what they wanted to.

But to me, the most valuable thing Elbow proclaimed was the need to get rid of the perfect. In his studies of writing among students, Elbow took a long hard look at writers block. He suggested that one sure way to become blocked was to expect your first draft to be perfect, or even to expect it to be very good. First drafts are just that: the first version. There will be (and should be) several versions after that. Get rid of your expectations of perfection, and get to work.

I thought of this the other day when I was closing in on the end of my Work In Progress (WIP). Because I wanted to quit. All of a sudden, I became convinced that what I’d written—all sixty thousand plus words of it—was crap. And though I could see the end, I wasn’t sure it was worth pursuing. The thing is, though, I often feel this way about something I’m working on. And as a result, I often feel like just chucking it in. But for the most part I don’t. I know it’s a temporary feeling, and that I’ll change my mind once I start working the manuscript over. Moreover, my work ethic won’t let me throw something away unless I absolutely have to.

I’m guessing most writers feel this way at some time or another. Part of it is that your WIP is always better in your head than it is on the page. You come up with all these clever turns of phrase and interesting plot twists, but when it comes time to write them down, there’s nothing clever about them. And what had seemed so exciting in your head now seems like pure drudgery.

But that’s where Peter Elbow comes in. Forget perfect. Just get it down. It isn’t like you have to have a perfectly written draft this time. You just need a written draft, period. Like Nora Roberts says, “I can always fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.”

Whatever problems you may find (and usually you find quite a few), you can solve them once you’re finished. Multiple drafts mean multiple chances to get it right. And if you just give yourself time and space you can do it. We all can.

woman writingMost romances are written in third person. It’s not a requirement, mind you. There are first person romances, some of them classics (Jane Eyre springs to mind). But using third person allows you to use multiple points of view, switching back and forth between hero and heroine, for example, with the villain thrown in sometimes for a little variety. First person tends to be somewhat hermetic, locking the reader into a form of deliberate tunnel vision. Since romance delights in showing what both partners in a relationship feel, third person frequently works best.

Mysteries and thrillers, in contrast, use first person more often. It gives mystery writers the opportunity to play games with narrators, including the ultimate unreliable narrator, the murderer himself. And since mysteries can benefit from having a limited point of view (more opportunities to overlook vital evidence and to be deluded by preconceptions, for example), first person can work well.

But things start to get murky when authors want to introduce more than one point of view. If getting one voice right is tricky (and it is), getting more than one right is a real balancing act. Still, both romance and mystery writers have found interesting ways to experiment with multiple narrators—as well as some familiar ways to fail.

One recent mystery example is Margaret Maron’s Long Upon the Land, part of Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. The series began as simple first person, all narrated by Deborah. But at a certain point, Maron decided to add another point of view through Deborah’s husband, Dwight. Rather than having two first person narrators, however, she writes Dwight’s chapters in third person and Deborah’s in first. Long Upon the Land also adds another third person point of view, a series of flashbacks showing the love affair between Deborah’s parents. The great advantage of using both first and third person comes in making a clean demarcation between points of view: if the chapter is in first person, you know it’s Deborah; if it’s third, it’s either Dwight or a flashback. Maron succeeds in making these three voices distinct and readable. Judith Merkle Riley does something similar in Serpent Garden. The heroine narrates her sections, with a engagingly quirky, first person voice. The sections focusing on the hero or the various supernatural characters are written in third person, switching the point of view from the heroine’s more limited, sometimes confused perspective to a deliberately omniscient overview.

Using more than one first person narrator is also possible, although a great deal trickier. Linda Fairstein’s Devil’s Bridge uses two first person narrators, the heroine, Alex Cooper, and the hero, Mike Chapman. Unfortunately, Devil’s Bridge illustrates all the problems that come with that technique, chiefly that these two voices, supposedly from two very different people, sound remarkably similar. We know that we’re reading Mike’s narration because Alex is missing for most of the book, but it might as well be Alex. There’s nothing distinctive about the voice—when Mike makes references to Alex’s Porthault sheets and Chanel perfume I found myself wondering why a tough NYC detective would know or care what brands his girlfriend uses. The answer, I’m afraid, is that both Alex and Fairstein care, not Mike.

So what choice is best? Hard to say since it depends a great deal on the skill of the author involved. To me, multiple first person narrators are tough, but I can see the attraction. The main thing is that all these point of view choices have to arise from the story. In the wrong hands, both first and third person can be clunky. In the right hands, they can sing.

The Fabio Problem

FabioSo recently Kristan Higgins blogged about a conference she attended representing a diverse group of writers: romance writers, poets, memoirists, other novelists. At one session, novelist Andre Dubus III made some slighting comments about typical romance readers. When one of the romance novelists took him to task during the Q&A (he’d never read a romance novel—surprise, surprise), he said he’d been put off “those cheesy covers with Fabio.”

Now you might simply dismiss that statement as an indication of Dubus’s ignorance regarding romance publishing (Fabio hasn’t been on a cover for a good many years), if these Fabio references weren’t so ubiquitous. John Havel, the blogger who stole a romance writer’s work for his own purposes, justified himself with a reference to “cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store”. Femsplain, a feminist website, wrote a snarky putdown of romance with the comment, “Anything with Fabio on the cover never mentions supporting local farmers and makers.” The Gloss headlined an article about makeup ads with “The Cheesy Ads For MAC’s New Collection Beat Out Any Fabio Romance Novel Cover.” References to Fabio seem to crop up whenever bloggers want to sneer at romance.

Many of these writers seem to be under the impression that all romance novels feature Fabio or a Fabio look-alike. But as Kelly Faircloth points out, Fabio wasn’t even on that many romance covers during his heyday in the eighties and nineties. And he’s not on a single cover being published today. And yet every time another “romance is dumb” article appears, you can be assured there’ll be a reference to Fabio somewhere in the text.

So the question is: what exactly does Fabio represent that gets these people so worked up? Any answer to that question is purely speculative. But considering how eager romance critics are to speculate about the nature of romance readers and writers, I’m perfectly willing to speculate right back.

Pulp coverFor some people, of course, lurid romance novel covers from the eighties and nineties are easy targets, ways of deriding the genre for being “cheesy” (the favorite descriptor). But these same people would never criticize detective novels for the lurid covers that were common during the forties and fifties. I assume that’s because they’re aware that those covers are long gone. But not having bothered to check current romance covers (because why bother—they’re all the same), these same critics demonstrate a woeful ignorance of the subject they’re supposed to be analyzing.

In terms of Fabio, most of his covers were for historical novels, featuring period outfits and settings. It’s decidedly easier to see historicals as fantasy than, say, thrillers. And of course Fabio, with his shoulder-length hair and gleaming pecs, fit into this fantasy easily. He was an appropriate subject for imaginary romance, sort of like Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is today.

Fabio coverBut the fantasy aspect of romance is one of the many things that romance critics find troubling. In their formulation, women romance readers use fantasy to escape from the reality that they should be facing—husband, home, and, well, ordinary sex. For these critics, romance creates unrealistic expectations. If women think Fabio is what they should want, they’re not going to be happy with their non-Fabio hubbies. Fabio is therefore responsible for women not appreciating the guy drinking a PBR in the recliner.

There are all kinds of problems with this claim (among them the idea that only women romance readers among readers of pop fiction have trouble separating fantasy and reality—male readers of thrillers are supposedly grounded), but to me there’s also a faint whiff of envy. In his prime, Fabio was one good-looking guy. Thus if you’re a man who’s already nervous about his partner’s “unrealistic expectations,” Fabio could become everything that scares you. And if you believe that women who read romances become automatically dissatisfied with real sex, then Fabio could symbolize your panic. Thus you deride Fabio and romance in general because he represents something you don’t really want to admit about yourself.

Now I’m not saying that people who criticize romance are actually victims of sexual panic. Well, actually, yeah, that is what I’m saying. That is, of course, a sweeping generalization based on fragmentary knowledge at best. Sort of like the kind of criticisms aimed at romance by people who have never read it. Go, Fabio, go.

Lost Authors

Serpent GardenSo I discovered this new-to-me author last week: Judith Merkle Riley. Her historical novel, Serpent Garden, is set in Tudor England and France, and it’s an absolute delight. Riley juggles multiple points of view, a complex mixture of historical fact and conjecture, ingenious details of her period setting, and a whiff of the supernatural. All this plus an engaging first-person narrator whose love story bounces along happily.

After reading the first part of Serpent Garden, I did what I usually do when I find an author who grabs my interest—I went to Amazon to find what other books she had available. There were six more novels, three of them a YA trilogy. Interesting. I wondered what she was currently working on and looked for her website. And this is where things started to get, well, strange. Her website consisted of a single page, a list of her six novels with links to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Given the number of positive reviews Riley’s books had from major sources like Kirkus, I was amazed. Why didn’t she have a more developed website?
Then I happened to glance at the short bio for Riley that was posted on Google. The most important information was right there at the top, her birth date and her death date. Riley died in 2010. I had two reactions to this news: I was saddened, first of all. But then, selfishly, I was stricken by the thought that six novels was all we’d ever have.

We readers are voracious, and we always want more. Once we discover a novelist we like, we keep demanding product. Some writers, like Grace Burrowes, are remarkably productive, giving us book after book to feed our habits. Some, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, work more slowly, so that each book becomes a kind of event.

And some authors simply opt out. Julia Ross wrote wonderfully ornate historical novels a few years ago, including The Seduction, Clandestine, and Games of Pleasure. But after several years of turning out one novel after another, she hit the wall. She simply couldn’t write anymore, as she herself explains. Another of my favorite writers, Judith Ivory, simply disappeared after a bout of ill health.

So are we readers at fault when writers go missing? Nope. But it might be a good idea occasionally to think about those writers whose books you depend on. Maybe they need a little encouragement, or even a little gratitude. So please Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, Loretta Chase, and Mary Balogh keep writing—I love everything you’ve done. Please Anna Cowan, write a second book: Untamed was awesome. Please Karen Rose and Tess Gerritsen keep bringing those thrillers out, even though writing them must take a toll. And oh, Jane Haddam, please don’t stop. I need my Gregor Demarkian fix each year.

And Judith Merkle Riley I wish I’d found you a few years ago. I really wish I could have told you what a wonderful writer you really are. Now all I can do is leave a review on Amazon and feel sad.

The Scam Artist

Face PalmSo the romance world has another outrage to deal with, but this time it’s been perpetrated on us rather than by us. A writer named John Havel decided to “expose” Amazon’s bestseller list practices by plagiarizing a novel and then manipulating it onto the list. Havel justified himself by saying that all the profits he made through his project would be donated to charity. So even though his whole enterprise was based on theft of someone else’s labor, it was okay because he was both demonstrating Amazon’s dishonesty and not keeping the profits for himself. Kat Mayo has summarized this entire saga, and you can read about it here.

This whole project was, of course, ethically suspect from the beginning. But it might have been less so had Havel chosen a book that was truly in the public domain (Moby-Dick with a sexy new cover, for example). But instead, he chose a Harlequin Sensation, Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin, by Australian author Anna Cleary. Cleary, needless to say, knew nothing about this since Havel didn’t bother to ask her permission or to explain his project. She only found out that someone had taken her book, changed the names of her characters and her title, and posted it online for his own profit when other writers informed her.

All of this is sordid enough, but the real source of the outrage (beyond outrage for Cleary and her stolen royalties) is Havel’s reason for choosing her book. It was a romance. Romance, we are told, “sells big,” is easy to scam, and is an object of contempt as far as Havel is concerned. Reading Mayo, you get the impression that Havel doesn’t consider romance novels to be “real” books. Apparently those of us who write in the genre are scam artists ourselves; therefore, our books are open to plagiarism without consequence.

Romance writers confront contempt frequently. It’s never fun, but it can usually be dealt with in one of two ways. First, you can say that reading is all about personal taste and that our readers enjoy what we write. Second, if the contemptuous one seems amenable, you can list a few of the many romance authors who might confound his/her expectations and recommend a little reading.

However, we shouldn’t have to argue that our books belong to us. That they’re real, and that it took a lot of effort to write them.

Havel’s ultimate argument—as Mayo points out—is that all romance books are the same, thus their readers are so gullible that they’re asking to be scammed. As Havel sneers, “Plus, don’t you remember seeing cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store check out? How’s this different?” But the thing is, Mr. Havel, those “cheesy paperbacks” weren’t all the same. They were written by different authors with different approaches and levels of skill and different readers, as you’d know if you’d ever bothered to read a few. The fact that you didn’t like their covers doesn’t mean the books themselves were something you could treat as a joke. And it sure as hell doesn’t give you license to steal them.

Oh and by the way, John, Fabio hasn’t appeared on a romance cover since the nineties. But compared to the other things you seem ignorant of, that’s probably a minor point.


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