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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.

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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.

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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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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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Finding Mr. Right NowIf you write, sooner or later someone will ask you where you get your ideas. It’s a logical question, particularly for people who’d like to write but who aren’t sure how to go about getting started. Unfortunately, for me it’s a tough question to answer. Sometimes I remember how I got an idea, but most frequently I don’t.

Take Finding Mr. Right Now, my next book from Samhain (released on June 2 and available for preorder now). Finding Mr. Right Now is about a reality show, Finding Mr. Right. It’s (very) loosely based on the bachelor and bachelorette shows. But I have to admit—I don’t watch those shows and never have. The closest I’ve come is reading articles about the bachelors and bachelorettes in People and Us magazines (although once I started writing the book, I did check out some episodes on Hulu). Still, I sort of remember wondering what would happen if the bachelor or bachelorette happened to fall in love with the wrong person during the course of those shows.

That would be interesting. However, it’s not the plot of Finding Mr. Right Now. My problem was that as I considered the contestants on those shows, I just couldn’t figure out how to make them the heroes or heroines of the book. Being the bachelor or bachelorette requires a certain “willing suspension of disbelief.” Face it: trying to find your one true love among a group of strangers in front of millions of people isn’t exactly a romantic situation. It requires either a certain degree of naiveté or the willingness to pretend to be naïve about the chances of finding Mr. or Miss Right under those circumstances. Neither possibility appealed to me much for a hero or heroine. I didn’t really want to deal with either a naïve protagonist or a deceptive one.

So I started modifying my original idea. What if the hero wasn’t a willing bachelor at all? What if he got dragged into the whole thing against his will? And just to up the ante a bit, what if he fell in love with the wrong someone while he was being an unwilling bachelor? That was the germ of the story that became Finding Mr. Right Now.

I made some other adjustments along the way. For example, I’d originally thought I’d make the bachelorette at the center of the show a villain. But once I started writing, I discovered that I really liked Ronnie Ventura, even though she was a little too naïve to be the heroine of the book (she grows up, though—look for her in book 3 of the trilogy). But the original idea still worked. An unwilling bachelor, his unexpected true love, and the town that supports them.

I’m still not sure where the idea came from, though. Maybe I’ll just blame my muse.

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RickI’ve weighed in on the alpha hero debate in the past. I’m not a big fan of traditional alphas—the tormented tough guys who don’t much like women but are willing to make an exception in the heroine’s case. My problem with them stems from the only slightly latent misogyny in the concept and the fact that a lot of the alphas I’ve known in real life have been jerks. But I’m not particularly taken with the ill-defined “beta heroes” either. At best they seem to be alphas with a sense of humor. At worst, they’re nuts.

So what am I looking for in a hero, anyway? It occurred to me the other day that what I really want is a self-aware alpha or SAA. Alphas do, in fact, have some positive characteristics. They’re usually honorable, loyal, and protective. To those positives, the SAA can add not just a sense of humor (which he usually has in spades), but a sense of the absurd—something the average alpha needs desperately.

Because when you think about it, the role of the alpha is basically sort of, well, silly. He’s encouraged to embrace ideas and attitudes that will probably get him a lot of bruises and possibly a life-threatening injury or two. Think of Rick in Casablanca, mocking the absurdity of his melodrama: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.” His position is both heroic and faintly ridiculous, and he knows it only too well.

Moreover, if the heroine is worth the hero’s time, she’s likely to be unimpressed by his alphaness. The days of the heroine who swooned with gratitude at the big, strong man who came to rescue her are long gone. While the heroine frequently can’t rescue herself, she’s at least going to try. “This is some rescue,” Princess Leia snarls at Han Solo before she figures a way to get them out of the Empire’s prison.

For me, there’s a great deal of attractiveness in a man who can see the absurdity of the task he’s set for himself, and who can occasionally laugh over his stumbles. Someone who takes himself, and his heroic role, with a very large grain of salt.

Most of the writers I admire write this kind of hero, particularly those whose books have a slightly humorous approach. Jennifer Crusie’s books are wonderful examples (see Faking It and Welcome To Temptation). Susan Elizabeth Phillips is similar (check out Natural Born Charmer). Loretta Chase has done it again and again: Lord Perfect and Mr. Impossible both have SAAs. Writers who do less humorous books can also come up with the self-aware hero. Joanna Bourne’s spy series has both impossibly smart heroines and impossibly sophisticated SAAs—my favorite being Adrian Hawkhurst of The Black Hawk. Eloisa James conjures up a wonderful self-aware hero in Three Weeks With Lady X. Even Nora Roberts has the occasional SAA, such as the cartoonist hero of Tribute.

I’ve tried to make all my heroes SAAs, although some of them are more in that mold than others. My newest hero, Paul Dewitt in Finding Mr. Right Now is definitely SAA. He’s a writer on a reality show (yes, they have writers) who gets dragooned into being a bachelor on a new bachelorette-finds-love program. He knows only too well how absurd his life has become, particularly when he falls for the show’s associate producer. As we say in the romance business, hijinks ensue—but the right people end up together in the end.

Because, of course, any romance heroine worth her salt will value a SAA. Just look at Han and Leia or any of the other couples mentioned above. A sexy guy with a sense of humor and a healthy dose of self-knowledge. What’s not to love?

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