Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Readable Book

I just finished Hour of the Lion by Cherise Sinclair.  I love her Club Shadowland series, but this was paranormal suspense erotica involving shapeshifters.  I don't much like "fur & fangs" books.

Oh, but it was so "readable."  Like sinking into a comfy chair, putting your feet up and having a cup of tea brought to you.  I settled in and I didn't want to get out.

Chambers (my go-to dictionary) defines "readable" as "interesting without being of highest quality."  That seems a more tepid compliment than I intend.  Merriam-Webster defines it as simply, "interesting to read <a highly readable novel>," and the example evokes the feeling I'm going for more than the definition does.  (It could be that "interesting" isn't a very informative way to define another word.  I keep thinking of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.)

What I mean by "readable" is a book that meets all your minimum standards for hookiness, character, plot, writing, accuracy, and so forth.  If your standards are generous, then lots of books may be "readable" and therefore it's not going to be a glowing recommendation.  If you're a cranky reader like me, "readable" is high praise.

I value readable books and I want to celebrate them.  In a heirarchy of encomiums, I'd put "readable" just below "keeper."  I may never reread Hour of the Lion, but I'll not give it away.  (Yeah, okay, it's digital and therefore not easy to give away, but you know what I mean.)

Readability is so subjective and mutable.  Take Linda Howard's early series contemporaries, for example.  I reread An Independent Wife recently and was struck by how readable it was despite having a old-fashioned world view of the tension between a woman's role in the home and her "right" to pick her own career.

In An Independent Wife, Sarah "Sallie" Baines, neĆ© Jerome, is a dashing international correspondent for a weekly news magazine that has just been bought by Rhydon "Rhy" Raines, a former war correspondent for a TV network nightly news program.  They've been married for eight years and separated for seven.  Sallie doesn't get spousal support now that she's a decently paid reporter, but it's going to be a bit awkward having Rhy as her boss.  Oh well, maybe he won't recognize her now that she has a nickname, lost weight and grown her hair.

Yeah, like that's enough of a disguise to fool a Linda Howard hero!  He recognizes her, goes all caveman on her ass, and actually maneuvers it so that she can't go travel to a Middle Eastern country for an interview because of some local civil unrest.  They may not be living together, but she's his wife and women aren't allowed to have jobs that put them in danger.

The irony is that this is what broke them up in the first place.  At 18, Sallie couldn't handle the stress of having Rhy leave for an assignment and not know if he was going to come back to her or get blown up in some war zone.  She got clingy and whiny and he walked out and she grew up.

Yes, Howard stacks the deck.  Sallie's whining annoys us as much as it annoyed Rhy.  His trying to stop her from doing her job comes across differently.  It's wrong but it's more understandable.  He loves her and worries, they should be together, he's her boss so he'd feel terrible if anything happened to her, etc.  That conflict, written today, would be resolved in the time it takes for the heroine to say, "Hey, bub -- it's my career.  Back off."  Thirty years ago, men and women's roles in careers and in relationships weren't what they are today.

If someone else were to read An Independent Woman and hate it because of this antiquated notion of women's rights, I wouldn't argue with them.  That's the beauty of "readability" -- it's irreducibly subjective.

Here's an excerpt from a Regency romance written forty years ago, Mira Stables' A Match for Elizabeth:
[The hero, the Earl of Anderley, is questioning his newly-found ward, Miss Elizabeth Kirkley, about what subjects she'd prefer after she had refused to study those languages and pastimes deemed fitting for a young woman about to be launched in society.]
"I would like to study the lives and writings of people whom I admire," she said at last.
"And they are?"
"Cobbett and Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry. [ . . . ]"
"Dear me," said the Earl, divided between amusement and amazement.  "For a female you seem remarkably well informed.  May I ask who has helped to guide your tastes in social philosophy?"
"My Aunt Clara, my lord, was an admirer of Mr. Cobbett, having once heard him declare that the best religion was the one that gave all men plenty to eat and drink.  [ . . . ]"

I'll admit, I'd only heard of Jeremy Bentham.  I had to look up Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker social reformer, and William Cobbett, a pamphleteer who worked to end poverty in rural communities.

That Elizabeth should make the speeches she does (which I've shortened here) comes across as realistic -- meaning a young woman raised as she was could know what she knows and feel as she feels.  It's liberal by today's standards and by the standards of the time Stables wrote it, and for the period it depicts.  Plus, it demonstrates that Stables had a far better knowledge of the time period than I do.

But is the book readable?  Well, I found it to be, but I *like* Mira Stables' booksA Match for Elizabeth isn't her best, but it's a keeper for me, and I'll almost certainly reread it at some point.  Other people don't Stables' style -- and their complaint usually reduces to one of readability.  So a historically credible book isn't necessarily a "good" book.

Mind you, if a reader is so knowledgeable about the period that she can fault Stables because Cobbett never made public speeches (for example), then that reader might get disgusted with the book for other reasons.  But Stables was a canny writer.  She seems to make the mistake Carla Kelly did in Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, where the heir to the title is the sister's son.  But where Stables refers to the Earl's nephew as his "heir" it's never in the context of the earldom.  There are Scorton family properties, and it makes sense that the only son of his only sister would inherit any unentailed estates in the event that the Earl never marries.  Stables just doesn't explain it, so the reader has to trust that she knows her property law.

Mira Stables, Linda Howard and Cherise Sinclair are among the authors I trust to write a book I'll want to read.  You undoubtedly have your own list of readable writers.  And we annotate those lists to account for our shifting tastes and an author's improving or diminishing writing abilities.

Above all, readability is a deeply personal perception.  For all that it's glaringly obvious which books have it and which do not, I see no point arguing with someone who disagrees.
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3 comments:

  1. Janet W: Readability -- you know it when you read it. I like Staples but she's not a comfort read for me -- but she's definitely on my keep reading list. Your first author I haven't read and anything furry or fangy would probably keep me away altho never say never.

    But Howard, well, Howard is one of my top re-reads of all time. After we chatted about Wolf, a line from Shania Twain floated through my mind, "Man, I feel like a woman." Hop skip and a jump to Wolf thinking, "He needed a woman. Now." And yessiree Bob, Howard has her men all lined up. And now there's another Howard to track down -- thanks for that, really!!

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  2. Great post! I find it interesting that a dictionary defines readable as being of lower-quality. I've certainly read not-that-great books that I thoroughly enjoyed, but that doesn't mean readability and trashiness (for lack of a better word) are mutually exclusive.

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  3. Janet W -- I'll admit that if you limited me to, say, ten Linda Howards, An Independent Wife wouldn't make the cut. But I've yet to get rid of a Linda Howard, so I think they're all readable. Sign of a good writer!

    Heidenkind -- Thanks. If I'm reading you right, you're saying you can judge a book to be (say) schlocky but still readable. I agree. But in Romlandia we're in a bit of a bind. If we praise romances that rise above the schlock *and* are readable, we damn by exclusion the ones that are schlocky or worse. If we admit that some romances are beloved despite not being very well written, we risk playing into the romance haters' hands.

    That's why I like the concept of readability. Think of all the literary fiction that's not especially readable. (It fails the "hookiness" test.) But it's also the reason that our genre is marketed like snack food.

    A higher percentage of romances are deemed readable by a higher percentage of romance readers -- which is the reason that nearly 5,000 titles get published each year. Publishers are banking on a lot of us keeping our readability standards low enough that most romances meet them regardless of author.

    I personally would like to see that change, and maybe it is changing slowly as more people come online to see what bloggers and reviewers think of various authors. That effort is blunted by the wide range of interests and preferences...and just like that we're back to the subjectivity of readability.

    The mandala of romance!

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