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Archive for August, 2015

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.

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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.

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