Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Cranky Reader Opines

In a phone conversation with my "industry insider" (a former editor for a Harlequin Enterprises line who currently works for one of the big NYC commercial publishers), I said out loud, "Julia Quinn killed the Regency romance."

This is a false statement in more than one way.  First, the Regency isn't strictly speaking "dead" as long Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh are publishing.  But Regency-era romances have taken a hit in recent years.  My insider-friend (I'm resisting calling her "Deep Throat" or any pun like it) told me that publishers resist publishing Regency romances because they don't sell enough copies.  Even if the heyday of Regencies, when Signet and Fawcett/Coventry both had consistent lines with some excellent authors, is past us, we're still getting new and satisfying single-title format books from the likes of Elizabeth Hoyt and Joanna Bourne (about whom more, below).

And it is unfair to blame this all on Julia Quinn.  She was hardly the first author to think it fun to write in a fast-and-loose style bearing the tiniest possible resemblance to a Jane Austen novel, or a Georgette Heyer romance.  I'm not enough of a historian to be able to point to the precise moment when readers were allowed to have candy in place of a healthy & wholesome supper.  But you have to admit that as frothy and fun as JQ's books are, they're not even pretending to be plausible.  The attitudes, issues and dialogue all point to modern American culture, not the culture of early 19th century England.

I don't have kids, but I babysat for 25 years.  Feeding kids candy for supper doesn't only ruin their appetite for healthy food, it gives them a sense of entitlement.  When next you provide them with meat and veg, they're apt to sneer at you and demand the Snickers.  Less of a market for the meat and veg.  (It's too bad this is a metaphor; if it were true that Julia Quinn really did cause a drop in the demand for beef, say, we might get another Oprah versus the Cattlemen showdown.)

Next opinion:  I'd never heard of Ann Herendeen's book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander before yesterday.  I haven't read it, and I don't have an opinion about whether it's a good book or not.  Heck, I'm so ignorant about romances with three protagonists (in Phyllida's case, she marries a man she knows is inclined exclusively toward other men, but they get on all right and when another man enters the picture, all three of them get on all right . . . or so I've been led to believe) that I honestly don't know the significance of whether it's an M/M/F romance or M/F/M -- is it a matter of who gets into the bed first?  Because surely the point of a romance with three protagonists is that each member loves (emotionally and physically) two other people, regardless of who got there first.  We write the letters in a straight line, but they ought to be arrayed in a triangle, right?

But it got me thinking.  If the appeal of M/M romances is in some part voyeuristic, and the appeal for (some) (all?) M/F romances derives from the reader being able to put herself in the heroine's shoes (or bed), then what's the appeal of two Ms and one F, in any configuration?  In theory, it could be this: the reader (an F) puts herself in the M/M action -- a ringside seat, of sorts -- by virtue of the sole heroine's involvement in the story.  Only as others have pointed out, why would the reader want that?  Isn't the romantic paradigm "I am the one for my beloved," and not "I'm one of two."  I suppose these novels offer a completely different paradigm:  "I am loved by two, and get to watch them love each other."

It seems a hard paradigm to promote, though.

Finally, I'm reading The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne.  Now, here's an author who uses the building blocks of prose to awesome advantage.  I'm only on p. 119, but here are some of my favorite examples (context provided in italics):
She could not, not ever again for all of eternity, unknow what she knew of his body.  Someday, when she was old, she would take this knowledge out as if it were a letter she had treasured.  By then, the pain would be thin and crackly, like old paper.

She would be changed as well.  She was quite certain old women did not feel this sort of pain.  As if the air were knives that cut, going in and out of the throat.

[After seeing her naked as she changed into clothes he'd stolen for her, and then saving her life.]  He leaned to her breast . . . "I wanted this," he whispered.  "Couldn't get the picture out of my head.  You, by the fish fountain, dressed in nothing but morning.  That's not something a man forgets."

[Sitting together in the dark, talking.  The hero says . . .] "I had to walk away, once, and leave everything.  My books.  Ideas I'd written down.  Essays."  He didn't move, but his stillness changed in quality.  "My father burned it all."

She did not rush to fill the silence up, in case [he] might have a use for it.

I would argue that not one of those word-pictures is gratuitous or overly flowery.  And as you know, I have an innate aversion to flowery prose.

But as good as I think Bourne's writing is, why the hell is she writing about spies?  The world is hardly clamoring for another romance novel about "The Game."  In particular, unless John leCarré starts writing about British espionage in the late 18th and early 19th century, I'm not sure it's so easy to understand what British spies of the period did and why.  It's all very twisty and not necessarily England's finest hour in geopolitics.  (Here's a snippet on William Wickham for a taste of what was involved.)

No matter.  Authors are 100% entitled to write about what they want, so have at it, Ms. Bourne.  I'm in.

There's a saying, "Good enough for government work."  Back in the 1980s, my cousin and I rewrote that to make it more topical, "Good enough for an ABC sitcom."  Well, I'm tempted to rewrite another expression, "She could read the phone book and I'd listen to it," to this:  "She could write a spy romance and I would read it."  Because that's how good Joanna Bourne is.


  1. I think the way threesomes are labeled let you know if there's same sex action.

    M/M/F - the males get it on, they get it on separately with female, and all three together

    M/F/M - they get it on with the female separately and when the 3 are together the men are okay with each other's presence but there's no hanky-panky between them

    I haven't read any to give proof to those statements, but that's what I get from the arrangement of letters.

  2. Okay unless you count ABVH books but it's really Anita and the other boys and then Asher mooning over JC and wanting action that way too.

  3. Keira -- As you know, I'm often ignorant in the vast landscape of romance and its subgenres. I have had some exposure to L.K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books -- they've been serialized on satellite radio (XM and Sirius).

    I'm always startled when I hear them, though -- I will come upon them by accident so I'm dropping into a story quite without warning. (One was Obsidian Butterfly, but I don't recall what the other one was.) The scenes I've heard have been straightforward thriller. But this is in the middle of the day; what happens when a sex scene comes up? Is it Bowdlerized to protect little kidlets who might be listening?

    I haven't quite gotten around to reading one, though. I wonder if my deeply religious library system has them. (So far, the only romance author they circulate is La Nora.)

  4. I'm not a fan of fluff historicals. I realise they sell and several authors have made a successful career writing them. Perhaps it's the historian in me but I recoil in horror at obvious anachronisms and speech/behaviour which reflects our 21st Century society and not the period in which the book is set.

  5. I like picking up a regency from time to time and I don't think I'm too too invested in perfect period recreations but it irks me no end when the only thing regency is that the men wear neck cloths. I think of period books like a haiku poem--restrictive in a way to make certain themes more interesting. But don't make it 20 lines with a hundred beats and try calling it haiku.

  6. LOL. Good enough for an ABC Sitcom? Hey, great post! As somebody who has only heavily gotten into Regency romances in the last year, I am sad to hear they are dead. Though, I read the Duke and I by JQ and it wasn't my favorite - I missed the heft, really, of the ones that made me fall in love with the genre. I do care about period reality, and I sure do like your candy for dinner metaphor, and I think it's generally true, though hopefully there will continue to be readers who want porridge and beans and all that.

    And OMG, my only problem with Bourne is when to read this book. Do I devour it? Or save it for a very special time? Because I know I'll love it.
    And I love spy novels! But then again, I'm new to the whole Regency thing, and oh, I so hope they continue to be published. I feel like going out and recruiting more readers now.

  7. Okay, don't love Bourne. Why? When I read her I notice the prose too much. All I can think of is "wow, what a great writer" and not "what a great story."

  8. Betty Keira -- I love the comparison with a haiku. I had wanted to make some comment about there being more fabric in a Regency dress bodice than there is . . . but the comparison died a merciful death on the spot. There are so many great Regency romances out there but I worry that publishers assume all authors should sell as well as Julia Quinn, while all readers think Regency romances should be as easy to read.

    Carolyn -- I have now finished The Forbidden Rose and I think it's safe to say it's not a book to be gulped. I'm a fast reader and it took me a solid two days. It's a bit like chocolate mousse: delicious, but a little goes a long way.

    I suppose all genres have their ups and downs, so we'll probably cycle around to the Regency-qua-comedy-of-manners again. As for spy novels, I do enjoy them, although the subject matter can be difficult. It's to Bourne's credit that her writing is rich enough that the sadness of her story really comes through. (Which is like saying the chocolate mousse is so dark & bittersweet but you're still glad you ate it.)

    Mary Lamb -- I don't disagree with your point. I think I would say that I read her work and think, "Ah, what great writing," even if the whoosh factor of genre fiction is missing. (The "whoosh factor," for me, is that quality of having the author grab me by the lapels and drag me along for the ride so that I can't help but want to know what happens next and then after that and then after that.)


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