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Archive for May, 2013

deadeverafter**SPOILER ALERT** This post discusses Charlaine Harris’s Dead Ever After and makes some reference to the conclusion. If you haven’t yet read the book and want to be surprised, don’t read this post! **SPOILER ALERT**

Poor Charlaine Harris. She announced that she was ending the Sookie Stackhouse series (which has been going since 2001). In her final book, Dead Ever After, she resolved Sookie’s love life, which has been nothing if not chaotic. And all hell broke loose.

Harris’s fans, or rather Sookie’s fans, were furious. They wanted her to end up with one of the numerous other guys in her life, both dead and living. Harris has gotten hundreds of one-star reviews on Amazon and vicious criticism on both Goodreads and the forum on her own Web site. These readers don’t necessarily object to her writing, but they’re livid over the fact that she chose somebody other than their favorite character as Sookie’s final true love.

Now I started reading the Sookie series when it first came out and I stuck with it up through Dead In the Family, when I began to lose track of characters and subplots since there were so many by then. But I’ve also read all of Charlaine Harris’s other series.

She has three that I’m aware of. Her Aurora Teagarden books are cozy mysteries. Her Lily Bard mysteries are considerably darker, but still have some cozy elements. Neither of these series is paranormal and Harris brought them both to a close by having the heroine find her true love and settle down (although Lily and her true love actually make a brief appearance in the Sookie series, a sort of wink to those of us who were familiar with Harris’s other books). Harris also started another series while she was doing the Sookie books, once again somewhat grittier, featuring Harper Connelly, a kind of psychic who can find dead bodies no matter how obscurely buried. And once again, Harris brought the series to a close, this time after four books (although she’s also published a series of Harper Connelly graphic novels).

In other words, Harris has a history finishing series once they’ve run their course. My guess is that she would have done the same thing earlier with the Sookie series had it not been so phenomenally successful. And had it not been turned into True Blood.

True Blood obviously boosted Harris’s popularity tremendously. But it also created problems. First of all, of course, the books and the series diverge sharply in their stories. But I think people who started reading Harris’s books after they started watching True Blood tended to conflate the two. Thus instead of the character Eric Northman, they saw Alexander Skarsgard. And instead of vampire Bill, they saw Stephen Moyer. They expected Harris to honor their preferences. They particularly loved Alexander Skarsgard, and they wanted him to win Sookie—not Eric, mind you, or not the Eric that Harris had created over the years who was an extremely problematic character, but Alexander. He’s admittedly very hot.

So Harris went and broke their hearts. And, as the folks at Wonkette might say, there’s a lot of butthurt out there. But really, what could Harris have done? She needed to end the series. And ending the series meant that somebody had to win Sookie and somebody had to lose. She didn’t choose Alexander Skarsgard for her own good reasons, and his legion of fans is irate.

But I have a feeling Harris would have gotten push-back no matter what character she chose to match with Sookie. And I give her credit for choosing her ending based on the books and not on True Blood and its fans.

However, what’s happening to Harris should strike terror in the hearts of other series authors who’ve made a point of giving their heroines multiple lovers. Sooner or later, those series must end, which may mean narrowing those options down to one (yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, Janet Evanovich). And when that happens, readers will not be happy. At that point, I suggest those writers check out what Harris has to say: “I wrote the best book I could, and I’m confident I stayed true to the characters I’d been writing for so many years.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/10/charlaine-harris-sookie-stackhouse-true-blood)

If you can say that, I’d say you’ve pretty much laid the whole thing to rest.

So long, Sookie. It’s been fun.

 

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Unhappy WriterI work at home, which means I no longer need a career wardrobe. In fact, when I’m writing, I usually stick to yoga pants or exercise shorts with T-shirts or tanks, depending on the season. Now here’s the thing—this is not what you’d call my “public” wardrobe. I wear it around the house and for doing very minor tasks like walking to the mailbox. I don’t wear it when I go out on errands. On the other hand, occasionally people come to the door while I’m working, so occasionally somebody from outside my immediate family sees me in my grubbies.

Recently, it was the guy from the lawn service, and his look told me immediately that he found my wardrobe choices a little…questionable. However, short of sitting around in my best togs on the assumption that I might have a gentleman caller, I don’t know what I could have done to make him any happier. This fact, in turn, led me to consider the whole question of judging other people’s appearance.

You may be familiar with the People Of Walmart web site. It’s a collection of snapshots of actual Walmart customers who are dressed in somewhat “colorful” ways. In fact, a lot of these people give rise to an automatic “What were they thinking?” Few of us, I assume, would show up in public with several inches of buttcrack on view.

On the other hand, I’ve seen pictures of older women in bathing suits with snarky comments that made me want to grab the photographer by the throat. The idea that only babelicious young things should be able to go swimming is at best annoying and at worst an assault both on the elderly and, in many cases, on women in general.

So here’s the thing I’m wrestling with—who gets to make this judgment? Is it fair to snicker at people in the Walmart pictures? Why should some of us become arbiters for the rest of us? Yeah, in reality, I try to at least look decent when I venture into polite society. I don’t wear anything that’s going to offend the sensibilities of most viewers. But do those viewers actually have any right to demand that I dress in a fashion that meets their standards? And what if those standards include putting every woman over forty-five into a Mother Hubbard so that younger people don’t have to be offended by reminders that bodies change as you age?

I don’t have any answers here. I guess I’m arguing for tolerance of differences, but that doesn’t mean I want to see people stuffed into clothes that are several sizes too small and that reveal generous sections of their anatomy that nobody wants to see. But the thing is, you can’t make people not do this, and to some extent it’s not your job to try.

And so we blunder on, trying to hit some kind of sweet spot between looking like you’re dressed for a royal wedding and looking like you’re living in a cardboard box. Just don’t get me started on Jersey Shore (look away, please, just look away).

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woman writing“Show, don’t tell” is standard advice that every author has heard at least once. And it’s good to hear—letting readers see that your character is angry through his actions is always more convincing than telling them “Harry was livid.” But sometimes it clashes with another prime directive in romance writing: let your readers know what your character is thinking. Yeah, you want to show Harry’s anger, but occasionally you also want to take a quick journey inside Harry’s head to illuminate all the cobwebs that are hanging out there.

Romances use more interior monologues than a lot of other pop fiction. We romance authors are prone to explaining how our heroes came to be towering alphas (sometimes towering to the point of misogyny) and why our heroines can never trust themselves to love until meeting Mr. Right. We also like to come up with metaphors for the way sexual attraction makes people feel. An author in one recent book claimed the heroine wanted to crawl inside the hero’s skin and stay there. Personally, I found that metaphor to be pretty creepy since it makes the heroine sound sort of like a hookworm, but to each her own.

All of this came to a head for me recently when I read some romantic suspense by an author who’s on my “auto-read” list (yeah, she’s also the author with the hookworm heroine, but shaky metaphors happen to all of us). I won’t tell you her name, but I will tell you that it’s been a couple of years since she’d published anything and I was really looking forward to her new book. Unfortunately, it took me a while to get into it. A big part of the problem was the hero and heroine, who had one of those instant attractions that frequently happen in romance novels. Now I have nothing against the whole “love at first sight” trope—I’ve used it myself. But the way this author handled it was to give the hero and heroine constant internal monologues about how hot they found one another. Their scenes together seemed to consist of lines of mundane dialogue alternating with paragraphs of internal musing about how much they wanted to do the deed.

I had two reactions to this. One was to wish they’d, in fact, get the deed over with so we could move on to the plot. The other was to feel that the whole thing was bogus. The author was spending so much time telling me about, in fact hammering me over the head with, the characters’ sexual attraction that she never got around to showing me how they felt. The words were there, but the concomitant action wasn’t. Moreover, the characters never seemed to actually feel anything. Despite the number of times the author told me they were nuts about each other, it never really rang true. Nothing they did or said seemed to go along with that heat level.

I’m not sure what the moral is here—even big time authors sometimes need to be reminded of the show-don’t-tell rule? But it may simply be that chemistry isn’t a matter of explanation. The characters have to be believable to begin with, and then their connection will be believable too. Without that, no amount of assertion will ring true. There’s got to be something beyond just “Harry could hardly believe how turned on he was” if an author really wants me to buy in. Maybe she could have Harry slowly discover the truth of his feelings or maybe she could have him fight his impulses or maybe she could have him walk into a wall because his attraction to the heroine makes him goofy. But it would help to have him do something other than tell me she’s hot. Trust me, Harry, most heroines are.

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Nashville posterI remember a couple of years ago when a new series of Robert Altman DVD’s were issued one of the critics in Entertainment Weekly claimed that Nashville was overrated. To this I respectfully reply “Balderdash.” Nashville is one of those rare movies that were not only masterpieces when they first came out, but that have become even more trenchant in the years since.

When Nashville was first released a lot of time was wasted trying to guess who the country music stars in the movie were supposed to be. “It’s Loretta Lynn—no, Tammy Wynette—no, Dotty West.” These days, that’s a lot less likely to happen, and that’s all to the good, given that the artists the characters are based on are mostly dead. It doesn’t really matter if Barbara Jean is based on any particular singer or not (and I’d go with not), she’s a real character with real, heartbreaking issues. The Hal Phillip Walker character, the unseen political candidate, seemed somewhat unrealistic in the seventies, when the two major parties still controlled elections. Now, he seems like a familiar figure from a few elections past. And the intersection of show business and politics is more relevant than ever. What might have seemed like an exaggeration in 1976, seems absolutely prescient in 2013.

And, sadly, the assassin is just as realistic now as he was in the seventies. Maybe even more so, given the rancorous political atmosphere of the present.

Some things don’t work. The clothes and hair styles seem wildly dated, for one thing, and the few references to race don’t really come across as strongly as they should. And Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer is still a stretch. But Altman’s unblinking version of reality still stings. Tomlin’s singing may not work, but the realization that she’s just as callous about sex as Keith Carradine’s tomcatting singer is still a stunner. Geraldine Chaplin’s “Opal from the BBC” is as biting a satire of the press as you’re liable to find. And even the minor characters, like Shelly Duvall’s witless twit of a groupie, have an impact.

I don’t want to get into arguments over what Altman’s greatest film is, but let’s all agree: Nashville is definitely in the running.

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