Archive for August, 2014

Pieces of My HeartI enjoy showbiz biographies, the good, the bad, and even the ugly. If you’re an old-time movie fan like me, it’s fun to read anecdotes from people who were involved in making pictures you enjoy—or even pictures you didn’t like much. My most recent read was Robert Wagner’s autobiography Pieces Of My Heart, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Wagner, of course, started out as a juvenile lead, one of a group of young leading men that included Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. But unlike some of the others in that group, Wagner has managed to keep working for the past sixty years or so, moving from leading man to character actor and from movies to television when the opportunity presented itself. Sadly, he’s also well-known for his marriage to Natalie Wood, which ended in her accidental death aboard their boat, the Splendor.

I said I enjoyed Wagner’s book immensely, and I did. It was written with style and verve and a nice balance between personal stories and views of the industry as it changed from old Hollywood to new. After I finished reading, I checked the reviews on Amazon out of curiosity to see if others enjoyed the book as much as I did. For the most part they did, but one negative review struck me particularly. The reader was outraged that Wagner had written the book with a collaborator, Scott Eyman. From the reader’s point of view, the presence of a collaborator meant that the voice in the book couldn’t be Wagner’s. The book was, therefore, a cheat, an inauthentic voice.

Now I obviously have no way of knowing how “authentic” the voice here is, just as I have no way of knowing what the working relationship was between Eyman and Wagner. Clearly, some collaborators do more than others. At least the collaboration in Pieces Of My Heart is acknowledged—not all celebrities are willing to admit they had help. And the experiences described are obviously Wagner’s. The book’s style is tremendously appealing and tremendously readable. Is that style Eyman’s or Wagner’s? I have no idea.

However, I’ve read or tried to read a few showbiz biographies that were written with little editorial help. I remember one recent one by a comedienne I particularly admired—I gave up before the end of the first chapter. It was close to unreadable.

The reader/reviewer who trashed Wagner would probably find that book more “honest,” but he would also find it a lot less easy to read. I’d argue that Wagner’s decision to work with a professional writer was a good one. He has a story worth telling, and one that deserved to be told well.

And I have a secret for the reader/reviewer: none of us does it alone, or at least we don’t if we’re smart. Even self-published authors hire editors if they know what they’re doing. Facility with language is a gift, and not everyone has it in equal amounts. Moreover, it’s very difficult to read your own prose objectively. At the very least critique partners and beta readers can give you a quick jolt of reality.

So Wagner had a collaborator, and together they wrote an absorbing book. The voice in this book may or may not be Wagner’s, but it’s an interesting voice that serves the story well. Given my choice, I’d far rather read a well-written collaboration than the alternative. More power to them both.

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50 Shades of GreySo William Giraldi wrote this article in the New Republic a couple of months ago about Fifty Shades of Grey. You’ll notice I’m not providing a link to said article—feel free to look it up if you want, but I’m not giving Giraldi any more clicks than he’s already gotten. The article is another in a long series of articles by various authors meant to demonstrate the author’s cleverness by trashing the book. None of them has seemed to slow down EL James.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can’t really comment on it beyond being mildly annoyed by those who insist on using the term “mommy porn” to describe it. Had Giraldi confined himself to trashing the book, I’d have no more to say about it than about Dave Barry’s trashing of the book (which is considerably funnier).

But Giraldi used Fifty Shades of Grey as a jumping off point to trash romance and romance readers in general. In many ways the reaction among romance writers to this aspect of his article was far more interesting than the original article (but then just about anything would be). The response in Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is a good summary. But my question here is maybe more fundamental: Why bother?

Articles trashing romance are a regular feature of high brow discourse. And every time one is published, we trot out the same responses. Romance is the most popular form of genre fiction. Romance is dominated by women and sometimes gets trashed because of it. Romance is a huge genre with a large set of subgenres, as well as a dizzying variety of writing styles and registers. It can’t be lumped together into one basket and dismissed. And the response to these counter arguments is always a massive shrug. The literary fiction establishment and male critics in particular are hostile to romance, and probably always will be.

Romance has three characteristics that these guys (and I use that word advisedly) object to: it’s written by women, it invariably has a happy ending, and since it concerns romantic relationships, it usually (but not always) includes fairly explicit sexual activity. None of these characteristics is likely to change, and thus neither is the reaction to romance in general.

So why bother to respond at all? Yes, Giraldi is tremendously annoying, as well as flat out wrong about several things. For example, he seems to believe that women who read romance read nothing else and thus have no acquaintance with Great Literature. As someone who has probably read at least as much of that Great Literature as Giraldi (including Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon), I call bullshit.

But here’s the point: you won’t convince him. And there’s no reason to try. Giraldi can read what he likes and so can we. Neither of us is likely to have any impact on the other. The Romance Writers of America have expended a great deal of effort to improve romance’s reputation, but they can’t stop guys like Giraldi. Meanwhile, those of us who read and write romance go about our business, occasionally grinding our teeth at the William Giraldis of the world.

Yeah, those guys are snots. So what? As long as publishers go on publishing the books we like to read, who cares? And frankly, given the profits to be found in publishing romance, I’m fairly certain that nobody’s going to shut romance down. So let’s let Giraldi go off and read his Thomas Pynchon in peace. Maybe if we don’t jab at him, he’ll forget about us. And maybe if we don’t click on his article, the rest of the world will also forget about him. And that, my friends, would be a satisfying conclusion.

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