Monday, November 30, 2009

When Leaden Blossoms Break the Very Boughs of Romance

Or to put it another way:  Flowery prose.

We know that the story is what drives every romance:  Characters, situation, story arc, happy ending.  Without any one element, the book falls flat.  But without the author's prose, the story is just a few pages long (and is called a synopsis).

Each author's prose is unique.  Her style includes how she describes action, conveys dialogue, sets the sense of time and place, and crafts word pictures that help her readers see and feel everything for themselves.  (Yup, I'm assuming female authors to keep the pronoun count down.)  Some authors' style is funny, some straightforward, and some flowery.  And it's that last category that interests me here.  (It's a bit like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography.  I can't define flowery prose, but I know it when I read it.  At a minimum, there's some imagery involved: metaphors, similes, analogies -- but don't make me identify which are which!)

Now, I personally don't much like flowery prose.  But after seeing glowing mentions of some books I personally didn't like, I wanted to be extremely fair.  I've selected seven books that seemed long enough to have something flowery somewhere, although page count isn't really the point.  Of the seven books, I'm in the middle of reading one of them, two I stopped reading mid-way because they made me cranky (see Reasons #8 & 9 here), three I like, and one I really didn't like.  I'm not going to identify which are which, nor are any titles, authors, or characters explicitly identified below.  If you recognize a book, congratulations:  You either have an amazing memory (or a so-so memory that allowed you to guess), or you wrote it.  And if you wrote it, please know I mean no disrespect by anything I say about your book or writing; after all, every single book I picked is well-loved.

Methodology:  To prevent cherry-picking (you know: going through the book page by page to find the most elaborate flowery bits), I got a random number generator to give me six page numbers between 1 and 400:  19, 294, 372, 185, 55, and 76.  For each number, I went to that page and found the floweriest sentence or excerpt there (in three cases, I found two worthy selections on that specific page).  I tended to exclude dialogue, descriptions of action, and discussions of technical matters contained in the book.  (I have included one line of dialogue, in quotes, and one excerpt from a character's journal, in italics as it was on the page.)  If I didn't find anything flowery, I just went to the next number in the sequence.  In some books, there was no page 372 (in one, it was an excerpt from the author's next novel; I disallowed that).  In another book, page 185 was the short last page of the chapter.  Everything in brackets is my substitution, and ellipses were used to show where I skipped material on the page.  All other punctuation is from the books.

Here, then, are the seven books I harvested like a purveyor of the world's finest blooms:

Book 1:

19: I cherished each day that slipped by without seeing her face or hearing her name. Cherished time slipping away like sand sliding through fingers. Quickly, painlessly.

294: Pure, sheer happiness filled her soul. . . . His warrior eyes grew fierce, his hand drifting down to the gentle curve of her belly.

185: But he couldn't stop the touch any more than he could stop himself from breathing.

55: For the first time, anger marred [X's] face. . . . His anger turned to something more elusive, dark, and troubled.

76: [She] stopped just outside the room as if peering through a looking glass at a foreign world, taking in the woman who sat so gracefully in a finely crafted wingback chair with a notch in the middle.

Book 2:

19: The ocean rose into view over the rail -- a high black swell covered with a vast reticulation of white foam, like endless yards of white lace -- then dropped, sending a spray up over the deck.

372: Her laughter became deep, a drum roll of mirth.

55: Caught staring again, the woman laughed -- partly a nervous, self-conscious sound, partly the odd, gleeful cackle she was finding so hard to contain.

76: "To let them know me for something other than how I look, something closer to the heart of me than the way my skin spreads over muscle and bone."

Book 3:

19: He felt bleak inside, and absurdly let down. Cheated, as if he'd been declared ineligible for a spectacular prize he'd set his heart on.

185: In that way it was a revelation, and she had a long time to ponder it as she struggled back up the straight, muddy, killing ladders, pausing at every sollar to rest while [her employee] gazed off into space a respectable ten steps below and tried not to let I told you so show in his dark, glaring features.

55: The women seated on long Sunday school benches in the vicarage meeting hall were all misty-eyed, and as enchanted with the love scene as [she] could wish.

76: The scent of her, faint as a whisper, potent as an aphrodisiac.

Book 4:

19: And behind it all were the green mountains rising up to mist and a double rainbow that spanned the entire sky.

294: It had arrested his breath, centered all his consciousness on exploding pain, annihilated him -- and he had had to go on, to keep fighting, to move when his body was paralyzed.

372: [His Japanese mentor] made a sound like a controlled tempest. Not anger, but a sound of pure energy.

55: She sat down next to the crown and peered into the infant face. It was ugly, it truly was, all wet mouth and wrinkled skin, and its mother didn't want it.

76: She pulled the cloak around her, realized she'd forgotten shoes -- forgotten even to dress -- a perfect picture she would make, running along the mucky street barefoot in her nightrail.

Book 5:

19: She was a narrow woman, narrow everywhere -- in the hips, the shoulders, the face, the hands; [her nephew] would have added, in the mind.

294: From an orange tree beyond the shaddocks came mockingbird song that filled the pause like tuned bells.

372: With temper chills biting like teeth in the lining of his stomach, [X] wrenched up the boot, strode with it to the window, pushed open the casing, and flung [Y's] boot into the harbor, where it drowned in a crown-shaped splash. Its halo of disturbed water had expanded and vanished before [Y] spoke.

185: The sweet novelty of it cut like tin scissors through the resistance she had spent the night building toward him, but however attractive the man was, whatever the graces of his character, this man [...] would never be for her.   . . .    In his glowing eyes, in the sensual line of his lips, there was no sign it might be a struggle for him to deny the joyous enchantment of yesterday's kisses and transform the gentle, playful lover into a temperate companion.

76: Tremors began in her chest and rolled violently into her limbs, where the stiff wires of the jute ropes were methodically gnawing the living flesh from her ankles and her wrists, and her hair became fouled by the sloshing bilge water.

Book 6:

19: All color bleached from his face. Oh dear. Blonde hair didn't look so well on skin that particular shade of green.

185: It had been her sanity when the waves grew restive, when they had leapt up against the porthole as though calling her back to them.

55: His movements were seamless, and she closed her eyes, feeling his hands firm around her. She didn't need to count, didn't need to concentrate; she was flying, and if she stumbled, his hands would be there, strong enough to catch her --

76: She laced her hands together in her lap, squeezing hard to channel a tumult of foreign emotions.

Book 7:

19: She liked his eyes, and they had a way of turning soft when they'd light on the boys.

185: Though his insides were jumping with impatience, [he] forced himself to sit easy in the kitchen chair, an arm propped on the table edge, a finger hooked in a coffee cup.

55: He chuckled and ruffled the boy's hair. It felt as soft as it looked.

76: But his thanks made her efforts seem worthwhile and filled her with a sense of accomplishment she'd never known before.

Okay.  What I have learned from this exercise is that, for me, less is more.  Book 7 surprised me with its simple, spare prose.  Very few adverbs, but the ones Author 7 uses are so powerful: "forced himself to sit easy ..." (p. 185) where easy (normally an adjective) is used adverbially to convey both the man's effort to seem relaxed and perhaps his lack of more extravagant words.  And while our gastro-intestinal organs don't actually jump, we know exactly what he's feeling, and we've probably felt it ourselves.

By contrast, Author 5 has very elaborate word pictures indeed.  I'm pretty sure the character on p. 372 is just very angry, but is that really best conveyed by saying that "temper chills biting like teeth in the lining of his stomach"?  I like the description of the narrow woman (p. 19), but if I'd been editing Book 5, I might have suggested making the nephew's point a more straightforward sentence on its own:  "She was a narrow woman, narrow everywhere -- in the hips, the shoulders, the face, the hands.  [Her nephew] would have said she was narrow-minded as well."  "Narrow-minded," in that context is already a metaphor (or is it a simile? -- damn, I knew I'd get this wrong) and not actually a reference to a physical dimension of the body.  No need to make it a meta-metaphor, if you will.

Authors 1 & 6 seem to have a similar tendency to get the imagery almost right, but then either oversell it, or not really consider the plain meaning of their words.  We know what they mean, but it's not actually what they've written.  For example, on p. 185 of Book 1, what she writes is just not accurate.  You can stop your own breathing, at least for the length of time it takes to touch something.  We know she means to suggest that he can't stop himself from touching her -- that's it's a gesture he's compelled to make.  But we're not precisely compelled to breathe; it's an autonomic action that we can -- and do -- consciously control on occasion.  And consider this:  When we're reaching out to touch something in precisely the way Author 1 wants us to imagine, we often hold our breath!

Similarly, we know that the characters are dancing on p. 55 of Book 6, but there's really nothing new being conveyed.  He's strong and surefooted; she's safe and can let go.  Got it.  But consider the character's mood (action?) on p. 76:  We get the image of her gripping her hands tight as an exercise of self-control, but does "squeezing hard to channel a tumult of foreign emotions" actually tell you what she's feeling?  I think we're filling in for Author 6 when we read that sentence more like this:  "She laced her hands together in her lap, squeezing hard to control her thoughts."  You could make them "unruly thoughts," I suppose, but since when do we need to control our placid thoughts?

I would contrast the overwrought efforts in Book 5, and the rather sloppy images in Books 1 & 6, with the spare prose in Book 7.  Book 7 conveys to me more clearly what's actually going on.  Author 7 gets out of the way of my seeing the characters in that scene.  In fact, her prose makes it easier for me to feel that anxiety on p. 185, the boy's hair on p. 55, and the fondness of the man's gaze on p. 19.  (Or, if I might lapse into a highly personal observation:  I would give a lot to write half as well as Author 7 does.)

With the remaining three books (2, 3 & 4), there's nothing too objectionable here.  It turns out that I dislike one of those books intensely and love the other two, but reading these excerpts, I really have nothing to complain about any of them.  All good, workmanlike writing.  (Special mention, though, to Author 2 for describing white caps on ocean waves as an endless yards of lace (so true!) and to Author 4 for her bravery in acknowledging that an infant can truly be ugly, "all wet mouth and wrinkled skin," while still conveying compassion with the conclusion, "... and its mother didn't want it.")  This tells me that what I dislike about the book I dislike isn't the author's writing style, but her storytelling.

Because, ultimately, we can read through the most flowery prose, but if the story's crap, we just don't like the book.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ten Reasons Why I Don't Review Romances

I admire reviewers, and I certainly benefit from those sites that include reviews. All About Romance, Dear Author, Monkey Bear Reviews, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books have supplied me with great recommendations that lead to reading experiences I would not otherwise have had.  In my mind, that's the same as giving someone the perfect present:  She loves it, didn't know she had to have it, and never could have gotten it for herself.  So thank you to all those reviewers!

But I can't review books.  Well, that's not quite accurate -- if the fate of the world hung in the balance I daresay I could muster up the strength to review a few books -- so let me explain why I don't review books.  The first reason should seem pretty obvious:
  1. I'm lazy.  Reading review books is a bit like baking cookies for money: it takes an activity I enjoy and makes it an obligation or assignment.  Suddenly, I don't enjoy it as much.  I value my free time enough that even if I do spend a lot of it reading, I don't want to commit any of it to reading.  Is that laziness, or selfishness?  Whichever:  I'm guilty as charged.
  2. I don't like enough books.  Or -- I don't like some books enough.  I realize that reviewing books is all about the reasoned explanation for why a book worked or didn't work for the reviewer.  Reviewers are not a monolithic entity, joined at the hip and working in lock-step so that they all agree about all books.  But I suspect I'm really off in left field sometimes.  I didn't love The Thief series by Megan Turner Whalen even though seemingly everyone else did.  I have my reasons for my opinion.  I don't think I'm wrong: I think I'm just different.  Being different, absent other characteristics, is not a good basis for being a reviewer.
  3. I believe in De gustibus non est disputandum, meaning why argue about taste?  I can like a book and the next reader can dislike it -- what's there to discuss?  I understand that reviewers work very hard to determine what they like about a book and why they like it, thus forming the basis for their review and/or grade.  But for me, I keep thinking, "Well, would the next reader be wrong to dislike this book?" and the answer is often, "No."  Of course, arguing with another reader about the book's qualities or faults is not really the reasons for reviews -- letting people know about the book is.  But that gets to my next reason . . .
  4. I'm not convinced that what I like others will like, and what I dislike others will dislike as well.  So if I give a book a favorable review and someone buys it and reads it and hates it, I'd feel bad.  Worse yet is the situation where I read a book and dislike it thus preventing a reader from buying it when in fact she'd love it -- now I feel even worse because I've screwed that reader out of a satisfying read and the author out of a sale.  And that gets to Reason # 5:
  5. I don't like people uh, complaining to me.  Oh, I don't mind if someone posts a comment here and says, "I don't agree with you," or even "Well, that was an annoying post," but reviewers have to have an extra-strong sense of security and certainty -- not that they are never wrong, but that they are always entitled to their opinion.  I'm more apt in the face of complaints to see all the sides of the argument.  I also don't enjoy controversy and would rather find common ground.  All of which makes me not so much fun in a spirited debate.
  6. I would probably do a bad job as a reviewer.  I can think about books, and I can write about books.  But reviewing is a fine art of conveying what a book is about (plot, characters, etc.) and also what the book is like (fast-paced, layered characterizations, etc.).  And then saying what worked, what didn't, and whether it's a good book and finally how good.  I'm not sure I'd be very good at all that.  And certainly others do it better!
  7. I own enough books as it is.  In theory one of the perks of reviewing is having the option to get advance review copies of books.  I see the appeal, but then I look at my TBR pile (not to mention my SBR pile:  books I should be reading!) and I don't find the prospect of getting more books -- even free ones! -- in the mail that appealing.
  8. I'm cranky.  Well, I just am.  I get a bee in my bonnet, and I'm apt to sound like that nasty unmarried cousin whom you have to invite to holiday dinners but who's just a whiny nabob of negativism the whole time.  Not my best personality trait, to be sure.  And applied to books that people have written, and others have read & enjoyed?  It's not pretty.  I could tell you I was going to try to be reasonable, pleasant and fair, but I know my cranky-pants persona is lurking around and she can be hard to stop when she gets torqued up.
  9. The DNF conundrum.  I have a couple books on my bedside tables that are DNF at present.  But I got them because some reviewer raved about them.  Why haven't I finished them?  Because they didn't suit me at the time.  And because they made me cranky (see #8).  If I had to review those books, I would have to work hard to finish them -- which means I'd be both sloppy and cranky.  Those books deserve better.  All of the foregoing isn't to say there aren't books out there that deserve a balanced and considered determination that they were not worth finishing.  But would I be able to tell the difference between the book that objectively is not worth finishing, and the ones I'm too cranky and bored to finish?  I doubt it.
  10. I genuine worry I would make a mistake.  This is a personal reason, but sadly it's very real.  Reason #6 was that I probably wouldn't be good -- and that's a bit like saying, "Oh, I don't think I'd be a very good bridge painter because I'm afraid of heights," because it entails a reasonable analysis of the fit between the job and the worker.  But this reason is much more about the worry of getting a specific review wrong.  Oh, not just that I might hate a book that others love -- I've discussed that.  But that I would be harsh about a book that its author loves.  Some of my opinions I can justify and discuss calmly and firmly.  If Megan Turner Whalen shows up and says, in effect, "Why didn't you like The Thief?" I can tell her and feel fine about it.  But what if I review a book in a hurry and make a mistake?  This particular worry is one I also have about being a lawyer -- and while it's made me a better lawyer, I think it would just make me an anxious and stressed-out reviewer.
All of this makes me appreciate even more the work that good reviewers -- the sort of reviewer I wouldn't be! -- do on a daily basis.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Suddenly, They're Everywhere

When I was in fifth grade, I had a crush on my teacher, Mr. D.  (No, I'm not trying to protect his identity -- I can't remember his name.  I think it started with a D . . .)  This was, of course, an early production at my personal Magical Thinking Romance Theater.  You know that hallowed auditorium where all the longings, fantasies and what-ifs come to life, often in frequently rotation (matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays!).  With maturity, of course, we cancel our Magical Thinking Romance Theater productions and start dealing with our romantic yearnings with a more realistic approach.

  -- Incidentally, I saw a Magical Thinking Romance Theater t-shirt once.  It read
Before he wines and dines you
Before he falls madly in love with you
Before he marries you
Before you have his children
Before you grow old together
He actually has to call you.

Anyway, back to fifth grade.  Mr. D. had a yellow Corvair with a black roof.  I knew this because it is a pretty basic production value of Magical Thinking Romance Theater to know what color car the hero drives.  And it seemed so exotic in 1966, such an exotic color scheme.  But then suddenly, I was seeing them everywhere.

That's a not-unfamiliar phenomenon -- you never notice some specific thing, and then suddenly, they're everywhere.

Well, here's the equivalent phenomenon in romance novels.  If you're reading all of a specific author -- in my case, Lynn Kerstan, whom I love -- you may notice something that is in every book.  It could be an expression that a character in each book uses, or a description of the geography that recurs.  Or, in the case of Ms. Kerstan, it is a gesture that every heroine makes.  In every single one of Ms. Kerstan's short-form Regencies (for Signet, I believe), there comes a point of high drama in the dealings between the hero and heroine when she will grab her skirt in both fists.  And the gesture is always described the same exact way.  And once you see the trend, you can't help looking for it to recur in every single book.  It becomes a bit like spotting Waldo!

You know how that could happen.  For the author, it's an almost-Pavlovian response:  Protagonists having tense discussion?  Heroine grabs skirt in both fists . . . . NOW.  I would imagine it's hard to spot for the author, who may be the last person to read her own works in order, one right after the other.  On the contrary, she reads them with a year or so between each book -- and may never re-read them after publication.

The moral is not that authors should re-read their books to look for the Yellow Corvair phenomenon.  No, I think the answer is more simple:  Any reader devouring an author's backlist in quick succession assumes the risk of seeing the Yellow Corvair in that author's work.  It's the downside of reading one author too fast, a bit like getting brain freeze when eating ice cream.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why I'll Never Write a Historical

I'm reading a long-format Regency romance by a famous and well-respected author.  (And no, I'm not going to identify the book or author -- it's not her fault that I'm crazy!)

The year is 1814, and on page 22, the heroine says to the hero, pointing to her dog, "He would not win any prizes at a dog show, would he?"  And I think, Hmm, did they have dog shows in 1814?  Maybe a Best Dog Contest at the village fete?
According to Wikipedia, "The first modern conformation dog show was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859."

On page 26, the hero, a military man, thinks of all the bivouacs he's endured. And I think, Was that a word then?
According to the The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, "bivouac" was in common usage by the French Wars in the 18th century, and Wellington used the word in a document dated 1811.

On page 59, the hero refers to the heroine having a bleeding heart.
This one is tougher.  The adjectival meaning of "bleeding" as excessively anguished, e.g., with compassion, dates back to Spencer in The Fairy Queen (1596), but the OED has no quote later than 1713, so it could have been an obsolete usage by 1814.  The use of "bleeding heart" as a noun-phrase (e.g., "she's such a bleeding heart") or as an adjectival phrase (e.g., "a bleeding heart liberal") is from 1958 or 1960 at the earliest. (All from the OED.)

Also on page 59, he refers to her having filled her home with lame ducks.
According to Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang And Unconventional English, a lame duck was a defaulter on the Stock Exchange, ca. 1760-1870; the use of the term to signify "anyone handicapped or disadvantaged" is from the late 20th century.

And on pages 61-62, we get (in yet another romance; a lot of authors get this wrong) the confusion over the difference among a special license, a license, and the reading of the banns.
This is so not a big deal, but just because it's the sort of insanity I think about, here's a reminder:  Under the Marriage Act of 1753 (aka Lord Hardwicke's Act), common law marriage was abolished and the age of consent was raised.  Because parental approval was required, the banns were read in church on three successive Sundays so that anyone with any objections had adequate notice of the nuptials.  In the alternative, the couple could obtain a license.  They would only need a special license from an archbishop if they were planning to marry outside a church or other place sanctioned for the performance of marriages.  This is pretty much still true in the UK, and when we got married at Fountains Hall (a place specially authorized as a venue for marriages), we had to get a license from the registrar in Harrogate.

Page 64: The hero rode up the driveway . . .
The word "driveway" is chiefly North American, and its use to mean the surface leading up to a house dates from the mid-19th century. (OED)

Okay, that's probably enough.  Again, none of the above is a slam on this book or its author.

You may be thinking, "Oh, so you're one of those people," meaning black-hearted curmudgeons who find fault with everything.  I may be, but that's not quite the point I wanted to make.  I'm quite enjoying the book I'm reading.  I don't mind a book with historical errors -- I doubt I've read a historical romance without any! -- but I would hate to make those errors myself.  When I read something I worry is wrong, I cringe with empathetic anxiety.  I realize all too well that "there but for the grace of the writing gods go I." 

And here's the thing:  I would either make tons of errors or I'd make none . . . on the 20 pages I actually managed to write!  After about fact-checking 20 pages, I'd be ready for the loonybin.  I don't like to research.  It's taken me a couple hours just to look up the few words and phrases I've cited here -- and I'm lucky because I married a man with an entire reference library.  And even if I managed to write one, I don't think I could relax, waiting for the smug email letting me know of my errors.  (Hey, I may be a black-hearted curmudgeon, but I would NEVER write to an author to point out a trivial error.  That's just mean.)

I admire authors who take on this challenge.  And I'll never join their ranks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not That Anyone Asked Me, But...

[I suspect "Not That Anyone Asked Me, But... will be a recurring feature: the unsolicited opinion on the hot-topic du jour.]
Harlequin -- the corporation -- announced recently that it had joined with Author Solutions to offer what I'll call a vanity venture allowing writers to get books published with something called Harlequin Horizons and a cute -- their word, not mine -- logo of imbedded H & h.

In a genre with 400 books published each month, I don't see the upside for anyone other than Harlequin, and I see a reasonable amount of downside. Let me explain.

I assume the following to be correct:
  1. Self-publication means precisely that:  The author finds her own editor, her own way to get her book into paper or digital format, and does all her own marketing.  The only logo would be her own, and she would own all rights to the content, and the ISBN, if there is one.  All royalties go to the author.
  2. A vanity press is a company you pay to publish your book for you.  
  3. Harlequin Horizon is not self-publishing because while the ownership of all rights was a bit unclear, Hh was going to claim 50% of all royalties, which would be split between Harlequin and Author Solutions.
  4. While the current status (this story changes by the minute) is unclear, Harlequin's original announcement strongly suggested that a selling point for the writer was the acquisition of the Harlequin Horizons logo and presumed imprimatur.
  5. The structure of fees was a la carte, meaning that the writer could pay for editorial assistance, etc., but didn't have to.
  6. There are other publishers -- notably Harper Collins -- that have a similar service for would-be authors.  HC's is called Authonomy.  On the HC website, there is a link (under Our Other Sites) to the Authonomy page.  On the Authonomy page, there are small references to Harper Collins.  I did try to click on some of the features (e.g., Beat the Slush) but you need to register to read that content.  From the About Us link, it would seem that Authonomy includes the option to upload a portion of your work in a "community" situation so that other people can read it.  That sounds like an e-version of a slush pile, which is an intriguing idea.
Let's say all of the above is true (or was true sometime in the past 48 hours).  I can see the appeal to Harlequin (the corporation) of monetizing the slush pile.  Lots of manuscripts get rejected by Harlequin editors -- probably thousands.  Which means there are thousands of writers who want to get published.  Chances are, they'd be willing to pay to get published.  And who knows, maybe some of those manuscripts are good.  In which case, Harlequin Horizons gets some royalties on the back end in addition to the upfront money.

Fine -- we can see the financial advantage to Harlequin.  (Although the distinction between "price" and "cost" comes to mind here -- how much will they make and what will it cost them to make it?).  Let's look at how everyone else fares:

  • Writers -- The unpublished author now has another route to publication.  If she (I'll go with the feminine pronoun on statistical grounds) just wants to see her book in print, then Hh is one of many options, and probably not the cheapest.  If she thinks that by choosing to publish through Hh she increases her chance of publication, the jury is out.  Harlequin insists in its press release that it will monitor sales of Hh books for possible additions to its existing imprints.  Even if we take this at face value, selling Hh books is going to be hard for the Hh author.  As a rule, vanity press publications sell only modest amounts of books, and presumably a lot of those are purchased by the vanity author.  In monetary terms, therefore, it would seem cheaper to go back to the traditional route of finding an agent or sending an unsolicited manuscript to the Harlequin imprint editor.  Less upfront costs, but if you finally make money, it's a larger net gain.
  • Readers -- I don't see a net gain or loss for readers, as it is unlikely that any of us will ever stumble upon an Hh book.  In fact, I worry a bit that if a good writer wrote a quirky romance and published it through Hh, we readers might never hear of it.  I'd like to think that someone would read it and get the word out, but I may be seeing that through the relatively narrow prism of Romlandia (meaning those of us active on the Internet).  The Hh author of a delightful but quirky book would need to be pretty savvy about how to get her book read by the right people -- and would the fact that she published through Harlequin's vanity venture hurt her efforts?  Especially if all Hh authors thought they had written the delightful but quirky little-romance-that-could...?
  • Already Published Authors -- I'm not a published author, so I hesitate to speak for them.  I've read different comments, ranging from "distanced regret, but this doesn't affect me" to outrage.  RWA, which represents published authors, took a bold step of announcing that Harlequin Enterprises had lost its eligibility under the RWA bylaws because of the vanity venture with Author Solutions.  The ramifications of that may be moot by the time of the 2010 RWA convention, but if there are authors who felt Harlequin's move hurt them personally, they may have been pleased to see RWA take swift action.
  • Reviewers -- This can only mean more submissions to online reviewers.  It may be a de minimus addition -- Jane at Dear Author reports she gets 5 submissions each day, so that might only go up to 6 -- but it could be more, particularly if Hh authors figure out that a favorable review online is the best route to higher sales figures.  (I don't know anything about Romantic Times reviewers, but they might draw the line at vanity books and have a policy against reviewing them, period.)
  • Publishing Industry -- There's an alternate scenario that not many people are talking about.  What if traditional publishers, including Harlequin's many imprints, are the dodos here?  What if the paradigmatic customer for Hh isn't the writer of a rejected manuscript, but the writer of a great manuscript who believes she does better on her own, even counting the costs and effort in self-marketing.  If a lot of talented writers went the self-publishing or vanity route, there might actually be a slew of good books out there that people eventually would want to consider when making their reading choices.  And if the model worked -- if romance writers actually made more money acting as their own publishers, or through a vanity venture like Hh -- then a lot of things could change.  Harlequin might have a smaller pool of applicants for publication.  Already-published authors might defect to self-publication.  Editors might quit working for publishing companies and have viable options in self-employment, selling their services to self-publishing authors.  Agents might restyle themselves as freelance marketing consultants, cherry-picking the best authors and books to represent, much like they do now.  Lots more people would wear pajamas to work.  (Wait, is that a potential upside?)
  • Fans of the Romance Genre -- (Is there a better name for us?  Let me know if there is.)  A few months ago, there was a flurry of press coverage for authors like Nora Roberts (prolific and rich!), Julia Quinn (medical degree from Yale!), Eloisa James (tenured professor at Fordham!) and for online sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (witty and they use words like woo-woo and heteronormativity!).  This was a bit of a double-edged sword:  on the one hand, it was nice to have mainstream media acknowledging romance novels as being written and read by intelligent, well-educated people; on the other hand, does the author of a romance have to have an advanced degree to be deemed worthy by USA Today?  (I wrote a longer screed about this topic here.)  Well, I don't think this week is going to mark a high point in the fluctuations of media coverage for romance fiction.  The New Yorker dragged the discourse back to the truly bad-old-days of calling them "bodice-rippers," not to mention referring to the potential users of the Hh service "hacks."  The New York Times reported it straight, straight enough that Author Solutions reprinted the piece on its website, but there's still a whiff of exclusion in the presumption that anyone could have a dusty romance manuscript in their desk drawer.  We -- fans of romance -- are back to being wannabe authors, which diminishes us and the genre.
In the end, I don't think this was a good move by Harlequin.  Harlequin is one of the names that symbolizes the romance genre to the outside world, meaning the same people who recognize the term "bodice-ripper."  Strange how the terms that outsiders know and use are all so pejorative, isn't it?  I contend that Harlequin demeaned its own name by suggesting that its seal of approval could be bought for a couple thousand dollars.  And when it demeans its name, it demeans romance fiction generally.  In the publishing world, I don't doubt that Harlequin is already a bit of a joke.  Unless you take the position that Harlequin's cred couldn't have sunk any further, this week has not improved its reputation.  Of course Harlequin is out to make money, and the vanity venture should do that.  But at what cost to the romance genre?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Does Miss Manners Tweet?

I recently made a good friend in Romlandia, and it really makes all the difference.  I have someone to ask "Who's this?" before I put my foot in it and write the wrong thing.  Twitter is famous for this.  You can see someone's @name and think, "Oh, she looks interesting," so you follow her and almost immediately discover you really don't know what she's talking about or who's she talking to.  Now I have someone I can ask.

Another pitfall in Romlandia is how you can get into debates with people without ever meaning to, and possibly without having really signed on to that specific debate topic.  With Twitter, in particular, you can suddenly find yourself defending a position -- in 140 characters or less! -- that you might not actually believe, if you had the time to sort out all your feelings.  Someone tweets something, you hit reply with what you thought was a modest enough point, and before you know it, you're defending the most absurdly dogmatic positions.

In real life -- which is to say, if that person were in the room with you -- the exchange would have been very different.  Here's a hypothetical Twitter exchange:

TweetTwit23 @PeepsRUs  Have you read the latest Edith Peach-Pitt novel?  It was a DNF for me, I'm afraid. Something about the hero put me off.
PeepsRUs @TweetTwit23 Oh, I loved that book.  Something about his teal hair and slightly scaly skin was so appealing.  Would love to meet him in real life. LOL
TweetTwit23 @PeepsRUs Are you nuts?  He was a chameleon.  WTF?  Since when is that sexy? Don't care how many sex organs he has.  Gross.
PeepsRUs @TweetTwit23 U R so wrong.  Donaldo was elegant and suave, esp. in full evening dress.  Can't believe U didn't feel the LURV.
TweetTwit23 @PeepsRUs  He was a LIZARD. Lizards are not sexy!! The Geico thingie is not sexy, no matter what his accent!  Can't believe this got published.
PeepsRUs @TweetTwit23 YOU HAVE NO SOUL.  You are a SPECIESIST and have NO imagination.  Book was AWESOME!!

Here's the same conversation at a coffee shop:

Mary:  Hey, have you read that new book by Edith -- what's her last name?
Tammy:  Peach-Pitt?
Mary:  Yeah, that's the one.  I forget what the book's called, but the hero is a shapeshifting chameleon.
Tammy:  Yeah, I read it.  Did you like it?
Mary:  Not so much.  How about you?
Tammy:  Well, there was a good bit of disbelief being suspended, but yeah, I kind of liked it.
Mary:  Hunh.  Well, to each his own, I guess.  I'm getting a biscotti -- can I get you one?
Tammy:  That would be lovely, thanks.

Now I have a theory about why exchanges on Twitter "go polar" (meaning devolve to positions as close to 180-degree opposition as possible), but it almost doesn't matter why it happens.  What matters, to me at least, is that we lose the opportunity to learn.  My coffee shop friends could actually have a lengthy and fascinating discussion about whether a chameleon is an appropriate hero for a paranormal romance.  They could leave such a discussion no more in agreement about Ms. Peach-Pitt's novel than when they started, but with a new perspective on what makes for a romantic hero when any species is possible.  (I'm drawing the line at snakes, myself.  The absence of arms and legs would seem to be a deal-breaker.)

I like "the marketplace of ideas," but I favor the soft sell.  It not that someone who believes something strongly should mute that certainty in favor of some namby-pamby washed-out position.  But there has to be a way to express our certainty without attacking another, or even insisting that the opposite position is wrong.  Clearly, if Mary thinks X and and Tammy thinks not-X, they disagree with each other.  Each may even think the other's position is rot.  But that disagreement is so obvious that there's no need, surely, to use up a subset of those 140 precious character to write it out.

Now, I'm no one's mother.  People can have at each other on the Internet if they wish.  Free country, and all that.  But I try not to.  And that's a position that's neither right nor wrong.  I could accept some justification for what others do -- and if I worked at it, I might be able to imagine a situation where I felt it necessary to behave that way myself.  It just seems unlikely.  My guess is, in most situations I'm going to be quite comfortable using phrases like, "that's just me," or "in my opinion," or even the automotively-phrased, "your mileage might vary."  Those aren't just panaceas to me.  They all stand for a simple proposition:  Everyone's entitled to think that they are right.

I can afford to be open-minded and so forth because I have a friend in Romlandia.  At times, Twitter has reminded me of people passing notes in homeroom, or -- wait, I've got it!  Remember when you didn't have to bring a valentine for everyone in the class, so the most popular kids would get the most valentines?  Well, that wasn't me.  And it never will be.  I'll never be the most sought-after voice in Romlandia, and I'll never get the most tweets/comments/valentines.  That's okay -- I've got my friend, and I'm happy.

But I'm going to treat everyone who comes to Promantica the way I treat her.