Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aspirations

I drove to Philadelphia on Thursday; I drive south most Thursdays, but I had to be in Center City by noon, and given that traffic on the Schuylkill Distressway Expressway tends to be slowest when you really need to get there on time, I allowed an extra hour.

Which is why I was listening to the second hour of the Bob Edwards Show on XM.  He had a delightfully rambling conversation with Barbara Heller, an architect and urban planner, about the long-overdue repairs to our infrastructure.  I actually like our interstate highway system; I was driving on I-476 as I listened to them talk.  But it was one of her wonderful ancillary points that really resonated with me.

She had been explaining that when Eisenhower called for the linking of the interstates, the system was built for an excess capacity for cars.  Of course we've filled and overflowed that capacity.  Similarly, Heller explained, a lot of airports were constructed then, and they too were designed to accommodate a lot more planes and passengers than they had to in the late 50s and early 60s.  Again, we've exceeded that capacity.

She said that today, as a nation, we don't seem to want to face the present let alone build for the future.  And then she floored me by discussing a column by Tom Shales of the Washington Post about the TV show Father Knows Best.   Heller said that the TV shows of the 50s and 60s represented the best of America -- not the best we were, but the best we could be.  They were aspirational.  Television viewers were meant to try to be the Cleavers or Donna Reed.  Shales's column mentions how lily white these shows were, and how the reality for the actors was hardly consistent with their TV lives; I don't think Heller was ignoring any of that when she referred to these shows as designed to show us at our best.

By contrast, Heller went on, TV today is about a lowest common denominator; it shows us people we can feel justifiably superior to.  Think about it: We're less desperate than the women on The Bachelor, more polite than Dr. Gregory House, better parents than those on Supernanny, less slutty than the characters on Gray's Anatomy, smarter than the people on Leno's "Jaywalking" segment, and we're demonstrably better in every regard to everyone on Jersey Shore.  Heller's point is that TV today allows us to be satisfied with who we are even if we could do better.

I love this point.  It's not that TV was better then; without a doubt an episode of House is better scripted, acted and directed than pretty much everything that was on in 1960 with the possible exception of a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Playhouse 90.  What Heller's saying is that back then America wanted to do better, build bigger, exceed capacity, and excel.  Today, America seems to want to be stagnant, obstructive, and self-satisfied with the status quo.

This got me thinking about romance novels.  I don't believe that early romance novels (or precursors to romance novels like the series of "career girl" books in the 50s that always ended with her getting married and, presumably, quitting her job) presented their readers with anything to aspire to, just as romances today aren't filled with characters you can feel superior to.  I don't think we want to read about so-so heroines and he's-all-right-I-guess heroes.  There may be subtle sociological indicators in the rise of vampire and werewolf romances, or the increasing number of billionaire heroes, but I don't think it has anything to do with aspirations from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations versus the adversarial quagmire in the politics-of-no-change we see today.

But I do wonder about us as readers, whether we celebrate enough the really good books or do we prefer to feel superior to the mediocre ones.  Is this the appeal of #romfail, for example?  I've not participated in a #romfail session on Twitter, but I gather it involves laughing at a poorly written romance.  It may be good fun, but is it good fun the way laughing at the "bad" singers on American Idol is good fun?

Does this phenomenon -- if it exists in the context of judging romance novels at all -- also explain the review of Deidre Knight's Butterfly Tattoo on Dear Author?  Jane gives the book an A-, which is why it seems strange the the first paragraph of the review begins, "There are so many blocks against reading this book that I wonder you ever had the audacity to put pen to paper." and ends, "I got to the end of chapter 1 and emailed your editor, Angela James, and said, what the hell have you sent me?"  I can understand a D review starting out so negatively, but an A- minus review?  Was Jane disappointed that she loved this book?

What about us, the non-reviewing readers?  Do we pick up a romance expecting to like it well enough, or hoping we'll hate it?  I'd have thought it would be the other way around, that we pick up a romance (by an unknown author, say) hoping it's excellent, but rather expecting it to be just okay.  Are we in general impressed with romance authors or vaguely contemptuous, as if they only deserve our admiration if they write one of the great books.

Hey, I'm guilty of this -- I've not been kind to certain authors here.  I wonder now, though, if all of this -- the snarky reviews, the antagonism toward people on comment threads when they "out" themselves as authors, the running series of tweets about a book that's causing the tweeter's eyes to roll -- isn't part of the same phenomenon Heller's noticed on TV.  We like to feel superior.  Hell, we really think we *are* superior.  And we're just that extra bit happy when we find evidence of our superiority.

Without a doubt, reviewers and their blogs provide a valuable service and I'm grateful to them for their hard work.  In a genre with nearly 5,000 books published each year, it's tremendously useful that someone's sorting the wheat from the chaff; and they can't do that without being willing to say that the bad stuff is bad.  I just don't think that means we have to celebrate its badness.

This isn't a rallying cry -- what would I have people do?  Keep their eye-rolling to themselves?  That's as useful as decreeing how much sexual experience all heroines should have.  People are entirely free to read the books they want, write the books they can, and express any reaction they like about those books.

I'm just sad that we don't seem as eager to praise excellence as we are happy to sneer at mediocrity.  I don't think aspirations are bad things.  I think admiration for a well-written book and its author is a positive force in our community.  And I wish we didn't enjoy it quite so much when a book is bad.

11 comments:

  1. This really doesn't fit with my experience in romance. Most romance readers I know (whether they review/blog or not) are eager to recommend excellent books. For example, Save the Contemporary and the DABWAHA tournament are just two of the high-profile ways that Dear Author and Smart Bitches have highlighted books that are among the best in the genre. [Both of those campaigns take a lot more effort and involve a lot more people than #romfail]

    But I can completely understand getting frustrated when, looking for good books to read and recommend, one finds so much that's NOT good. Not just "not to my taste," but a book that you just can't believe got published. Should those just be ignored? Do film critics only write about good movies? Do theatre critics keep quiet about plays they saw that were done poorly? Not in my experience.

    The fact that some of us express that disappointment with snark, and make jokes about how bad some books are rather than just wringing our hands, obviously doesn't sit well with some people. I guess those people don't like MST3K either, and that's fine -- different folks, different strokes. But I think it's possible to both make fun of the bad and celebrate the good, and I suggest that the idea of the former outweighing the latter in romance bloggging/reviewing is very much in the eye of the beholder.

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  2. Ah, but are the sarcasm and joke really masking disappointment, or celebrating mediocrity? I'm increasingly thinking the latter -- and truly I say that because we all do it. Before I heard that Bob Edwards interview, it simply didn't occur to me that there is currently a cultural bias in favor of feeling superior and self-satisfied as opposed to wanting to do better and thus being willing to see ourselves as having room to improve.

    I completely agree that critics and reviewers have to call them as they see them, and pull no punches. Mockery, though? -- not so much. Whether you participate in #romfail or you don't -- and there's room enough in the world for both camps -- there is a feeling of superiority in that mockery. And for a reviewer to feel superior to the books she reviews . . .

    I can only speak for myself: I find it worrisome. And I don't think that reviewer is masking her disappointment. I think she's channeling her sense of superiority.

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  3. I never meant to suggest that mockery (whether it's cover snark, or #romfail, or a snarky review) is "masking" anything. I don't think it is -- I think the disappointment is right out there. It's a valid way of expressing disappointment, I think; I don't see how it precludes wishing for better or seeing room for improvement. Every time I make fun of a bad cover, I'm expressing a wish for better ones. I'm only a reader, not a cover artist, but I'm pointing out what I don't like, and sharing that with others.

    I don't presume to speak for anyone but myself. I mock bad romance, I mock ugly covers, I mock Sarah Palin -- I have a snarky, sarcastic sense of humor. I post comments my students make to the "Stupid Things My Students Say" page on Facebook, too. Do I feel superior in my mockery? Sure, sometimes. And anyone who isn't okay with that is free to avoid me and the places in which I express those feelings. Some people aren't comfortable with criticism in a humorous form; some people aren't comfortable with criticism at all. It's a big world, with room for all of us.

    But you seem to be suggesting that a capacity for mockery means that one should not attempt serious discussion as well, or that the capacity for one diminishes the other. I know quite a few wise, witty, wonderful people who can be both snarky and serious, mocking or thoughtful; all one or all the other would be dull, I think.

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  4. Of course people who are mocking specific romance novels are also, elsewhere, supporting the genre and writing seriously about romances in general as well as about specific novels. It's only the people who mock the entire genre (usually without sufficient experience of the genre in its diversity) that we condemn outright.

    It's funny, though -- when I thought about your examples of things you mock, including comments your students make, what came to my mind was affection. I can understand better the juxtaposition of mockery and affection than the juxtaposition of mockery and disappointment. I think if one is disappointed in a particular romance novel, there's little affection. Mocking it is somehow a sublimation of that disappointment: either the mockery is punishment for being bad, or an expression of superiority. In the former case (punishment), there's a suggestion of a closer relationship between the author and the mocker; in the latter case (superiority) there is a distance between the author and the mocker.

    And you are absolutely right to suggest that the world would be a dull place without sarcasm; it's funny, it can let off steam, resolve underlying feelings (e.g., disappointment, as you say), and so forth.

    But mockery is definitely a weapon in the armory of those who feel superior, and there is a collusion between those who present figures deemed deserving of mockery (e.g., the "bad" singers on American Idol) and those of us who laugh at them.

    I can remember a time when the emotion evoked by the presentation of sad, untalented people on television was one of sympathy and a desire to help. Times change. But we've lost something in our march toward progress. I think we've lost that desire to make things better, perhaps because we're reluctant to admit we need improvement.

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  5. *This response is probably going to be novel length.*

    Every word has a connotation attached to it. Mock(ery) is one of them. Do we do it to make ourselves feel superior? I say yes and no, but yes has two levels. One is "I feel superior, because I would never do that." The second is a little more complicated. It has more to do with an underlining of fear and behavior we would find shameful. In regards to the Bachelor, the behavior can easily have been seen as I would never be that slutty and I don't like that slutty part of myself so let me vilify and distance myself from it. Or even OMG, I've done, said that same thing.

    Now the "no" is that some things are just so outrageous or unbelievable. Let's make American Idol the example here. Some people on the auditions make me cringe and feel a stab of pity, because they honestly believe they can hold a note. It's hard for me to watch them. Now the guy who rapped/sang Pants on The Ground...yeah, laughed my butt off. I mocked him without a twinge of guilt.

    I would like to say that I always take the high road, but I'm human. For a while I participated in #romfail until one day it felt like it crossed the line for me. Kind of like the American Idol example. Some of those stories it's hard to believe they didn't pen them to make a quick buck, but when it turned to authors who I knew or felt like they wrote without knowing or realizing the line or scene or story was ridiculous I stopped participating.

    Overall, yeah, tv shows can be about feeling superior and sometimes it's laughing at ourselves. The smart shows, movies, books do get fanfare, but for whatever reason rubbernecking the train wreck is the thing we hear more often.

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  6. Melissa -- I really want to acknowledge SonomaLass's point about DA and SBTB's efforts to promote great books. I completely admit that's going on.

    I also have to acknowledge I've never participated in #romfail, although I've clicked on it a couple time just to see what it was like. It's not The End of the World as We Know it, or anything that serious. And just like the first few weeks of American Idol -- a lot of people love it.

    But it's also that old cliche: are we laughing at someone or with them? In the case of William Hung's version of "She Bangs," I'm pretty sure he was in on the joke. (And made some money from it.) With other contestants on AI (or with some books on #romfail), it would seem we're laughing at them.

    I don't have a manifesto here -- I'm not pro or con anything specific. I'm old enough to remember a different sort ethic in America, and Barbara Heller's comments brought into focus for me the contrast between that long-ago ethic and today's self-satisfaction. I think the instinct to feel superior (and the subset where mockery is an expression of that superiority) is part of who we are now.

    Maybe it's enough just to know that about ourselves.

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  7. Many things to ponder here. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

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  8. As a reader who both writes and reviews, I pick up a romance book in the hope that I will enjoy it. I don't expect to love every book I read, and I consider myself a satisfied customer if I deem the book an above average read. Obviously, my expectations are higher for authors whose previous books I've loved, but in general, I'm satisfied with any book I grade from A down to B-.

    There are some books which are bad in such a way as to practically invite snark. In general, though, I don't feel snarky after finishing a book I haven't enjoyed. Disappointed and frustrated, perhaps incredulous that it was ever published.

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  9. SarahT I agree, most of the time disappointment is just ... disappointing. But some books are bad in that way you mention -- they just seem to invite mockery. I'm not sure I can adequately describe it, but I know it when I see it. And I am definitely laughing AT it, I suspect.

    I don't expect to love every book, or even want to. Some of my favorite books are "meh" or even dreadful to other people, so I assume that some books which I don't care for will be other readers' favorites. I only mind that if, as you say, it's an author who I've come to trust who has let me down, or if I had some other reason to expect that I would really love the book, and then I don't.

    I have to say that I've gotten a lot better recently at weeding out books that I won't like. Exceptions usually occur when I deliberately go outside my comfort zone, and then I figure it's to be expected.

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  10. I have read several of the rom fail books, contributed to only a couple due to the time difference. But some of those books are damn bad, with few redeeming features.
    I normally read a LOT, when you read a large number of books a week, there is a lot of dreck, which you don't come across as much when you read less.. just saying.

    But back to point on hand, I do not think we are celebrating/mocking the bad as much in romland as tvland. ie. romfail takes place on twitter on Janes personal account, and has way less followers than her blog does. I have always viewed it as a bit of a side scream as to how is this carp getting published.

    re. The start of the review of Butterfly, not sure where you are coming from there? I think it makes a bit of a statement, that she was a bit lost with the first chapter, but was soon hooked in & celebrating the goodness?

    Edie
    *waves* btw ;)

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  11. There's certainly no accounting for personal taste, and yet some books are worthy of being reviled. I get all that. I also have no doubt that the books selected for #romfail have earned that dubious distinction.

    Isn't there a difference, surely, between stumbling across a bad book and mocking it (privately or to one's friends) and setting up a time to mock a bad book. How many people read a #romfail book just so they can join in? Or worse, never read the book, so they're participating not as an antidote to the disappointment of having read the book but for the festivity itself? I'm not suggesting that these books deserve a more solemn discussion of their lack of worth; I'm merely suggesting that the appeal of #romfail may be an opportunity to feel superior to a bad piece of fiction.

    Edie -- I absolutely agree we are not celebrating/mocking mediocrity as much in Romland as we do with TV programs. I would disagree though that there's no mockery on Dear Author or other mainstream blogs. The mockery of #romfail is more concentrated and in-your-face, but the snark shows up pretty much everywhere, even here at Promantica. (Trust me, I do know that I'm doing this stuff as well.)

    There is a benign interpretation of Jane's Butterfly Tattoo review, to be sure. She may have thought, "Wow, for a book that started out so unpromisingly, it sure ended up being great." But that's not what she says, and it's not how it comes across. As I read the review, the first two paragraphs express her incredulity that such an oddball book even got published; it's not looking good for the book by that point. Then paragraph three abruptly shifts gears and announces Jane's love.

    Perhaps I'm giving Jane too much credit and you're right, she just got lost in the first chapter. But I don't think Jane gets lost. I also suspect she doesn't like having her initial impressions challenged. But I could be wrong about her. Maybe Butterfly Tattoo is that rare book that made her change her mind as she continued to read, and it's purely an accident that she lead off her review with the incredulity and not the love.

    *waves back* :-)

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