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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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I’m a big fan of regency romances, although I’ll probably never try to write one (the research involved is mind-boggling). I’m obviously not alone in this, given the sales of people like Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, and Eloisa James (to mention some of my favorites). Incidentally, let me be clear on this: when I say “regency romances,” I’m talking about romances set in England during the early part of the nineteenth century. I know some people have used “regency romance” to designate a particular style of historical romance that involves little or no sex and a lot of heavy breathing. While I’ve read some of those (Loretta Chase’s early series romances fall into that category—so do Stephanie Laurens’s), that’s not what I’m talking about here.
One of the things I love about regencies is the way the authors have to work through the social conventions of the time without letting them stifle the romantic aspects of the story. Basically, they have to develop people with somewhat modern sensibilities but not too modern—they also have to at least pay lip service to the social conventions of the period. So you can have a hero and heroine who chafe at the restrictions placed on them by society, but who still play more or less by the rules. Or you can have a hero and heroine who don’t play by the rules and end up paying the consequences.
Thus, for example, in Quinn’s An Offer From a Gentleman, the gentleman in question can offer an arrangement to a woman who is basically a ladies maid, but he can’t marry her. Even his mother, who’s very sympathetic to his feelings, points out the social disaster that would ensue if he did. Now Quinn sidesteps this issue in typical romance fashion by coming up with an Oliver-Twistish plot turn, but she doesn’t have the hero say, “These social conventions are asinine and I’m going to ignore them.” In Mary Balogh’s Indiscreet, the heroine does defy a social convention and ends up in virtual exile. She’s placed in an impossible position by the somewhat callous hero and ends up having to follow convention only because her other choice is starvation (don’t worry—it’s a romance and has a relatively happy ending).
Which brings me to my subject—sex. To me, the best regency authors realize that they can’t bring totally modern sensibilities to the subject of sex. Characters can’t fall into sexual relationships just because they’re attracted to each other; they live in a society where that kind of behavior has serious consequences, particularly for unmarried women. Which isn’t to say that the characters can’t have sex: Hey, these are romances, right? It just means that the characters have to wrestle with their consciences and their fear of ostracism before they finally, inevitably give in. And once they’ve given in, they have to deal with consequences great and small (e.g., the requisite marriage proposal from the hero after he “ruins” the heroine). One of the things that makes regency romances fun to read is this struggle the characters go through when trying to decide whether to follow their inclinations or to toe the line and follow social convention. Granted, they almost always follow their inclinations, but it’s a lot of fun watching them work through the problems.

Unless they don’t. This is my major complaint about some regencies—they ignore the whole issue of social conventions. Their heroines, even the unmarried ones, hop into sexual relationships without a thought beyond “yummy!” In other words, they behave like modern heroines wearing empire gowns. For me, that’s cheating. If you want a heroine who behaves like a modern woman, write a contemporary romance. But if you’re going to set your romance in the regency, at least make a stab at showing a regency sensibility. Maybe the struggle with conscience doesn’t take all that long, but you at least need to have a struggle to begin with.
In the end, that’s the whole point of a historical romance, at least for me. They show how you can use romance conventions in societies where it’s not as easy to have a romantic relationship as it is here and now. And that’s a good thing, both for romances and readers.

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I once made the mistake of taking a Mary Balogh novel with me on a long flight. Don’t get me wrong—reading Mary Balogh’s novels definitely isn’t a mistake. And I usually get so engrossed in her books that I can overlook minor inconveniences like my fear of flying. But the thing about Mary Balogh and me is this: she makes me cry. Always. At some point in reading Balogh’s books, I always break down. And while that’s not a particular problem when I’m sitting in my own living room, it’s a bigger problem when I’m sitting next to a complete stranger who becomes convinced that he’s stuck beside a nutcase.

Crying at romances is a cliché, of course. Women are supposed to be particularly susceptible to sentimental stuff, breaking down over puppies and daffodils. But crying over books isn’t something that happens to me all that regularly. The books that really get to me, the ones that overcome my usual reluctance to get teary, usually have a couple of characteristics.

First, they have the kind of characters that pull me in. They don’t have to be much like me, nor do they need to go through situations I’ve gone through. But they do need to be drawn so well that I can momentarily enter into their lives and feel what they’re feeling. Take the heroine in one of my favorite Balogh’s—Slightly Dangerous. Christine Derrick is a classic Balogh character, plucky, decent, and beleaguered. She’s been wrongfully accused of something she didn’t do, but she hasn’t let it keep her from living her life, although she’s still hurt by the desertion of people she cared about. During the course of the novel she falls in love with one of Balogh’s best heroes—Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. Wulfric is, in fact, a very irritating man: repressed, severe, apparently unemotional. He doesn’t really want to fall in love with Christine because she’s so obviously wrong for him, plus the difference in their social status is immense. However, once he falls, he goes about rectifying the slurs against her, correctly identifying the real villain and reuniting her with her estranged family before marrying her.  The thing that makes this book heart-rending isn’t Christine’s suffering. In fact, Christine’s a remarkably sunny character—cheerful and full of self-deprecating humor. She doesn’t particularly want to be part of the ton and isn’t too upset over their rejection. But she is heartsick over the loss of her former in-laws’ affection, and she’s hurt and confused over their censure. And because you like her and sympathize with her and, thanks to Balogh’s careful characterization, understand her, you definitely feel her unhappiness. When Christine suffers, you suffer. And when Wulfric fixes everything, you may get tearful all over again.

There are also certain situations that make me tear up. Almost anything involving childhood pain or disillusion can do it. The really horrific descriptions of Sebastian’s childhood in Lord of Scoundrels make me ache; ditto the descriptions of childhood trauma in Susan Smith’s The Vanished Child. Mothers and fathers dying or giving up their children (usually the hero or heroine) can also bring me to tears (I’ve even been known to tear up at Citizen Kane when the banker takes little Charlie away from his father). And yes, I know these are sentimental situations. I just don’t think sentiment is necessarily bad.

So what doesn’t make me tearful? Usually novels where I never really bought into the hero or heroine in the first place. If they don’t seem like real people to me, their pain doesn’t really seem real either. Sometimes this happens when the hero/heroine endures too much angst. If a character’s life is just one disaster after another, you get a little shell-shocked. Sometimes I lose interest if the characters’ suffering is the major point of the plot. If all the heroine does is wring her hands and moan, I’m out the door pretty fast.  I’m more drawn in by people who do their best to persevere, even if their best doesn’t always work. That way when they meet with reversals, I’m more inclined to feel for them. Finally, if the author makes a big point of how tortured the hero/heroine is (usually, the hero), I frequently find myself going “Naw.” It’s all part of the telling/showing thing. Balogh shows you how the characters feel through the way they talk and the way they behave. She doesn’t say, “Christine had always been hurt by the way her sister-in-law rejected her.” She shows us Christine avoiding contact with her sister-in-law, then working not to show any hurt at her coldness. You feel with her because you’re shown how she feels. And although she won’t cry, you can.

Actually, I don’t feel embarrassed about feeling tearful when I read romances. My family is used to my sniffling by now and they usually ignore it.  On the other hand, I’d just as soon not freak people out on public transportation. So don’t take Mary Balogh on a plane. Maybe that’s the time to read that cookbook you’ve been meaning to get to. 

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The Madcap

I love old movies, and by that I mean really old movies—movies from the thirties and forties. One mainstay of thirties comedies is the “madcap” heroine. The kook. The flake. The one who keeps doing nutty things that nobody expects. The hero (like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby or Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve) is first annoyed by her, then fascinated in a kind of annoyed way, and then, finally, entranced. Both the hero and the viewer are supposed to be charmed by her wacky personality—and sometimes you are. I like Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and I absolutely love Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. This heroine shows up in romance novels too, of course, particularly in contemporary and historical comedies. In historicals, she’s the Regency bluestocking, beyond marriageable age, reputed to be plain, frequently with a pet cause (getting her beautiful but dim cousin married, taking care of orphans, protecting animals, etc.) that gets her into difficulties with either the hero or society in general—sometimes both.  In contemporaries, she’s the party planner or the gift shop owner or the caterer who’s also a disaster magnet (although she usually has some particular talent that sets her apart from everybody else and saves the day). In both cases the hero decides she’s annoying but ultimately adorable.

The tough thing about the madcap heroine isn’t the annoying part—that comes with the territory. The really tough part is the adorable. Because if she goes too far, the madcap can always turn into a pain in the ass. Remember, the hero has to find her quirks adorable in the end, or at least tolerable. Her determination to flout convention (and she’s always determined to do that) has to seem justified in some sense, although the madcap usually takes it too far (if the heroine’s convention-flouting seems totally justified and society seems totally wrong, it’s not comedy anymore).  Moreover, for me at least, the heroine can’t be rendered totally ridiculous. If she takes too many pratfalls, I start being exasperated with her. She reminds me of the heroine in Support Your Local Sheriff, who wails at one point “I am sick and tired of all these stupid things happening to me!” You and me both, sweetheart!

She also can’t be dumb. That should go without saying, but it often doesn’t. There should be some justification for her actions, even if they seem slightly loopy. And if she gets slapped down, she shouldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again—masochistic madcaps just don’t cut it. At some point, she also has to win, even if it’s only a minor victory. That party she’s planning has to turn into a triumph or her orphanage has to earn the patronage of somebody rich and famous (and possibly as eccentric as she is). We have to feel that she isn’t a total loser, in other words.

I have to admit—I sometimes either start skimming books with madcap heroines or I put them down altogether. The “annoying” part of the job description sometimes gets to be too much, and I’m also not crazy about stupidity. If I start thinking the heroine is a dope, I’m likely to get out of Dodge. But when she’s done well, the madcap can be engaging. Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion works well for me. So does Barbara Metzger’s The Duel. In contemporaries, there’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had To Be You and Jennifer Crusie’s Tell Me Lies. All of these heroines have madcap elements, but they’re also smart and resourceful—you don’t feel like you’d be grinding your teeth after ten minutes in their presence.

And that’s the final thing about the madcap: you need to feel that the hero isn’t totally nuts for loving her. That means you have to love her too, at least a little bit. That isn’t always easy, but it’s usually interesting. 

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The Big Misunderstanding

I not only write romances, I read lots of them. And like most romance readers, I’m very particular about what I like and don’t like. One of my major peeves is the Big Misunderstanding. You know–the plot where the hero thinks the heroine has been unfaithful because he saw her kissing that guy at the ball, but it turns out the guy was her long-lost cousin Alfred, thought to have died at Waterloo but actually hale and hearty. However, the hero is so bummed that he decides to sail to Virginia without telling the heroine why, and the heroine is so hurt that she decides to let him, etc., etc., etc. Usually, the problem with the Big Misunderstanding is that it requires both hero and heroine to be morons. Whatever they’re getting so worked up about could usually be taken care of with a quick conversation, i.e., “Oh, that guy? That was just Alfred! Here, let me introduce you.” The only way an author can make this situation even slightly credible is to set up both hero and heroine with tortured backstories that explain why they both overreact so badly. The hero’s been hurt before by an unfaithful wife. The heroine has always been belittled by her horrible family and can’t believe anyone would ever love her for herself. And so on. It’s sort of like the monster movie set-up where the characters have to find some reason to head back into the house where the insane ax murderer is in residence. You’re spending a lot of authorial energy justifying something that’s basically absurd to begin with. This is not to say that you can’t have legitimate misunderstandings in romances. In Venus in Blue Jeans, my heroine has a misunderstanding with my hero that ends up threatening her life. And it’s not to say that characters can’t have quarrels over stupid stuff–as they say, that’s life! But if the major plot hinge is something that requires both characters to behave stupidly, it’s a problem for me. I don’t like to feel the characters are behaving like dodos for no good reason, and as a reader I’d rather not spend a lot of time with idiots. One of my all-time favorite books, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, is actually almost a satire of the Big Misunderstanding. The hero is one of those fairy-tale-style rich lords who’s living a life of unhappy debauchery. The heroine is a classic independent woman who doesn’t particularly want to get married but finds herself unaccountably attracted to the wastrel. Again and again, Chase’s hero and heroine are set up to misunderstand each other’s motives and actions. She even provides the hero with a horrendous backstory that explains his numerous psychological quirks. And again and again, one or the other fools you by behaving, well, like a reasonably intelligent adult and explaining exactly why he/she is behaving the way he/she’s behaving. Needless to say, the course of true love doesn’t exactly run smoothly, but neither of them is a dope. It’s one of the great joys of a wonderful book–the way Chase keeps setting you up to believe that there’s going to be this awful misunderstanding that will ruin everything and the way it doesn’t happen.

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