Rather than presenting a single issue for discussion in this issue of At the Back Fence, we’re going to present several issues, and by doing so, once again showcase the talent of some of our terrific staff. First editor/reviewer Ellen Micheletti is going to talk about the books you see at your friendly neighborhood chain bookstore. Then I’m going to introduce you to a hero type I’ve become fascinated by. Editor/reviewer Mary Novak follows with her piece, Confessions of a Serial Killer. After that are a few very short segments from me: When Bad Plots Happen to Good Authors; an idea on why romance novels don’t translate well into movies; and a question about cover quotes. Next is reviewer Rachel Potter’s piece on what she calls Mouth Frothers (to me these are “teeth gnashers”), followed by continued discussion (from last time) on romance novel settings that takes the discussion into a new direction.
Notes from the Frontline of Your
Friendly Neighborhood Bookstore
I have been working part-time in a bookstore now for three years and have learned a lot. I know that some of the frustration I felt as a customer could have been avoided if I had known then what I know now. So here are the answers to some questions I used to wonder about.
Where do you get the books?
We get them from several sources. Most of them come from the distribution center once a week in a big shipment. This shipment contains older releases to re-stock shelves as well as some new releases. These shipments vary in size – sometimes they are huge. Last December, for instance, we got a 200+ box shipment the week before Christmas. All those boxes had to be scanned into the computer and then opened and sorted. Anyone who has ever worked in retail can tell you that the Christmas season is busy beyond belief, and it was almost New Year’s Day before we had all the books on the shelf. Normally, we try to get the boxes opened with in a day or two, but at times, new releases in a big shipment get delayed.
We also get many of new releases from smaller vendors or from the publisher. These are in much smaller packages. We get them every day and they normally get out on the shelf the day we receive them.
Some books have what is called a street date. That is a date before which stores are not supposed to sell the book. If the street date is February 6, 2001, that morning is the date when the book goes out. Some stores break the date and put it out early. They are not supposed to do that, and it is considered unethical, but it happens.
LLB: I spoke on the phone the other evening with author Judith Ivory about this very thing. There’s a very good reason for not selling a book before its “street date.” If a book is released before it is supposed to, it can interfere greatly with tallies of books sold that are used to determine various best seller lists.
Who puts out the books?
After we open the boxes the books go onto sorting shelves. The shelves are divided by categories and all the romances are together. When the booksellers have time, they are supposed to be shelving.
So why can’t I find the book?
There are several reasons. Most often, we have been so busy we haven’t had time to shelve. That is especially true during the Christmas season. We do try and shelve every day, but there are times when shelving gets short shrift – for example if we are facing a deadline to ship out that month’s returns. If you can’t find the book, ask someone to check for you. We will check the computer and then check the sorting shelves. Of course, if the book you want is in one of the 200+ boxes that the employees have not had a chance to open….
Another possibility why you can’t find a book is that the publisher or distributor either didn’t send us any copies or sent us only a few. This happens much too often to mid-list authors – we get about 4 copies of their book and if we sell out – that’s it. I try to keep an eye open and re-order, but if you can’t find a book, ask one of the booksellers to check and see if it can be ordered for you. Usually, they can, unless the book is a series title that is more than a couple of months old.
The book could also be in the overstock or have been shelved incorrectly. People pick up and browse a lot and put the books back anywhere and everywhere. Most booksellers will be happy to look for you.
I read the most recent book by Author X and I want her older books. Do you have them?
Maybe. If the book is by a prominent Big Name whose publisher keeps her backlist in print, we either will have the book, or can order it. If it is a mid-list author – maybe yes, and maybe no. If the book is in print, yes we can order it, but if it is not in print then you will have to try a used book store or one of the on-line bookstores. This is the most frustrating part of my work – I know some excellent writers from reviewing at AAR and would love to recommend them, but they are not in print anymore.
When do you get your series romances?
The Harlequin company sends us a very nice calendar every year that tells when each series is to be shipped. Ask a clerk and they can tell you. Generally, they ship half the line every two weeks and the books are supposed to be out on the shelf on a Friday. We usually get them earlier and put them out as soon as we get them – our series readers are very loyal.
What if I get a rude bookseller?
Complain! Let the manager know you don’t want to be treated like an idiot for having the temerity to enjoy romances. I know that the manager at my store would rake anyone over the coals big time if they looked askance at any customer’s reading choices. Oddly enough though, in all my years of book buying, a bookseller has never put me down. But I did have a customer sniff haughtily at me and make a snide comment about people who read “those books” while I shelved at the romance section.
The best advice I can give you is to ask. Most stores I have been in have one or more clerks who are knowledgeable about romances. Where I work, we have two. Find out who she is, and ask her your questions. After all, we are in the business to sell books and we want you find the book you are looking for.
The Fake Rake by LLB:
Recently, on our ATBF Message Board, a thread came up regarding Ryder Sherbrooke, hero of Catherine Coulter’sThe Hellion Bride. Why was he so appealing, the reader asked? My response to her wasn’t the full story, but it got me thinking about him. For me, his appeal, in great part, came from his being a Fake Rake, quite the opposite of the Duke of Slut. Then it occurred to me – another Coulter hero I thoroughly enjoyed was Rohan Carrington from The Wild Baron. Both of these heroes were known to be rakes of the tallest order, veritable Dukes of Slut, at the very least. In actuality, they were all reputation, albeit for different reasons. Ryder, whose mission was rescuing the bastard children of various women, accepted that, though he was not, his family and society believed he was the father of all these children. Rohan, who came from a family of male and female rakes, encouraged his reputation in order to be loved by his parents. Yes, this latter treatment was rather farcical, but then, so was the book.
Not long ago we did a column segment on virginal heroes; I indicated that they don’t hold much allure for me. On the other hand, it seems to me that the close relative to the virginal hero is, in fact, the fake rake. Other “fake” sexual reputations have been explored in romance novels as well. For instance, some heroes are thought to be homosexual, as was the hero in Mary Balogh’s The Famous Heroine. In Eloisa James’ less successful Potent Pleasures, the hero was rumored to be impotent.
Some romances featuring virginal heroes treat it as an incidental; it is not critical to the overall story. In other romances, the hero’s lack of sexual prowess is a main feature of the plot. This treatment doesn’t seem to be the case in romances involving the Fake Rake; his supposed reputation is front and center to the stories he stars in.
I’d like to explore the Fake Rake with you, to determine more titles where this type of hero stars. Reputations have always been important when they involve sexuality and prowess. Think back to Christina Dodd’sThat Scandalous Evening where it took the hero years to get over the fact that the artist heroine had once supplied him with what he considered to be a less than generous penis in a work of art. Of course, having been a virgin herself at the time who was not working from a live model, this “misunderstanding” was the basis for years of unhappiness before they both got over it.
Confessions of a Serial Killer
I may as well “out” myself and take care of my credibility right here at the start: out of the thousands of books I have read and enjoyed, there may be fewer than ten cases in which I did not at some point skip ahead and check on something about the ending. The last time I can remember consciously not peeking ahead was with the fourth in the Harry Potter series, and that was a once-in-a-decade exceptional case. Its because Ive always been a lot more involved with characters than with plot that I justify my peeking. The practice began when I was about ten and read my way through Agatha Christie, the first books I ever read in which characters that I loved were suddenly at risk of their very lives. I didnt really care whodunit, but whenever I started to like a character I wanted some reassurance that they would still be all right at the end of the story. They werent, always – in fact, sometimes they done it – but I had to make the effort. Even when I largely left the mystery genre behind (because unlike Agatha Christie, many modern mystery authors kill off characters indiscriminately, even when you really like them!) I kept honing my end-checking abilities. My pattern-recognition skills by now are such that I can extract the fate of the characters I care about – at least the fact that they make it to the final chapter – without taking in any other information.
Im not especially proud of this habit, but I wanted to give you enough context to understand exactly how little I care about whether I read a series of romance novels in order or not.
Even if I werent the end-peeking heretic that I am, I would argue that its generally an unreasonable expectation to ask readers to have read an entire romance series before judging a later title. This comes up in the context of reviews: a reviewer who grades a late title low but admits she hasnt read the rest of the series realizes she may get creamed on the AAR Reviews Message Board. There are always fans that are upset at the idea that someone would judge one part of the series without reading the whole thing.
Well, for practicalitys sake, it aint gonna happen; the reviewers have limited time, financial resources, and patience. If you had to buy all of the Tall, Dark, and Dangerous books in order to review Get Lucky, youd be lucky to get them all for less than $75. Its also a pretty good bet that someone who hates one book in a series isnt going to love any of them. There are certainly exceptions to this, but I can tell you with feeling that pushing your way through one book that you hate is excruciating; you would not want to be forced to read four more just like it in order to get there.
Beyond that, the expectations of the genre make it difficult for me to take seriously the idea that reading a series out of order will somehow ruin it. Come on. Two main characters, they fall in love, at the end they get their HEA, right? Thats the essence of the genre, and in most cases, thats all there is to it. That just isnt enough spoiler information to justify not reading out of order when its expedient. Its rare that theres enough connecting plot bridging between the books to make it worth waiting to have everything in order. This is understandable: in typical romances, theres a new pair of viewpoint characters for every installment of the series. Furthermore, each pair has to have enough of a beginning and end to their story to make their own title complete.
An exception I personally make to this rule is series like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which follow the exploits of a single couple over many books. So much happens to Jamie and Claire in each installment that I think I would be at sea if I skipped ahead a volume or two.
However, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton also follows a single set of evolving characters, and Im very glad that the first book I read was late in the series – Blue Moon (book #8). Blue Moon has a sexual joie de vivre that I hugely enjoy, which is basically missing from the early books in the series – if I had begun at the beginning, I probably would have quit by the third book.
Two reviews Ive done recently also show opposite sides of the series review coin. In one case, Judith Lansdowne’s Lord Nightingales Triumph, I picked up the third book in a series whose plots and characters were clearly more intertwined than the typical romance series. I didnt especially enjoy the book, and one of the reasons was that the hero and heroines relationship seemed to have evolved in other books. Im sure that reading the entire series would have improved the experience. I had enough other problems with the group that I felt that my grade of C- was justified, but I did wonder whether I might have enjoyed the book significantly more in context, or whether the issues I had with book three would have been the same for books one and two.
But its simply impossible to put your head in the place where it isnt, either as someone who has read the whole series, or as someone who hasnt. A case in which I had read the whole series involved the DIK I wrote for Danelle HarmonsThe Wicked One. I absolutely love this series, and have read each book with great pleasure. But in fairness, the character of Lucien had developed over the course of all four books, and I suspect that someone who picked up the book without having the context of at least one of the other books would have more trouble suspending disbelief and enjoying Luciens character than someone who had.
A good series installment should be enjoyable whether you have read the books in order, or not. There will always be readers who dont have access to earlier books but would still like to try a later one, and I think that allowances should be made for them. At the same time, no author wants to do so much backtracking that she annoys faithful readers who begin at the start. In his book On Writing, Stephen King points to the Harry Potter books as an excellent example of an author providing just enough information to orient new readers without alienating old ones. I agree with him; I think that Rowlings’ series are one of the best-managed series Ive ever read, and that an entire graduate writing course could be spent analyzing the reasons why.
LLB: I’ve always said books sold as a single title novels should stand alone on their own merits, particularly when the characters starring in them differ from book to book. My own introduction to Julie Garwood came from reading the quartet of The Lion’s Lady, Guardian Angel, The Gift, and Castles in reverse. I am of the opinion that a good romance novel can and should be able to bring readers up to speed regardless of what book they started in the series first. Given the relatively short print life of most romance novels, this seems particularly critical.
When Bad Plots Happen to Good Authors by LLB:
Not long ago I picked up the two-in-one series title Who Do You Love?. The first book was Two Hearts by Maggie Shayne, an author who I’ve heard many good things about in the past. I read through a couple of fairly interesting chapters until I figured out where the story was going, and threw it down, utterly disgusted. In a nutshell, here’s the plot: The hero is a cop who pretends he’s not because the heroine’s mother is a snob. The heroine is a jock who pretends she’s not because her mother is a snob. Her mother has made her feel so bad about her jock-ness that she turned down an offer to join a professional basketball team after college and is embarrassed to tell the hero who she really is. The plot reminded me of some high school scheme in a bad 1950’s sitcom – “Oh, the horror…what’ll he do when he discovers she’s a tomboy?!”
I’ve read plenty of bad books in the past, and there are a variety of reasons I don’t like them, having obviously to do with characterization, setting, plot devices, style, etc. But when I read a book by an author who comes highly recommended, I start to really think about the book – what precisely about the book failed for me? And it is at this juncture, with a good author and a bad plot, that I am stuck. I used to say that a good author could make me believe any character, any setting, any plot device, if skilled enough. But I cannot fathom any author taking that particular plot and having it work.
I went through BYRON and searched through all the books I’d graded D or F and could not come up with any other book by an author considered “good” that failed solely on the basis of plot. There were plenty of authors considered “good,” either by myself or others whom had written books that were bad because the humor fell flat, the characters were boring or unbelievable, or some other reason or variety of reasons. But none by so-called “good” authors had failed only because the plot was bad. What’s been your experience, and how do those bad plots get published?
Romance Novels and the Movies by LLB:
I haven’t found anyone who enjoyed the recent telemovie Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary. And I can’t recall a single soul who thought Hallmark’s For the Roses, (loosely) based on Julie Garwood’s novel of the same name, was any good. Why is it that Hollywood can create great romantic movies, but not good movies based on romance novels?
The difference between fiction and film that is romantic and romance fiction, I think, has to do with the internal lives of characters. Most of us feel that the most interesting material in a romance derives from the characters’ internal lives – their thoughts, feelings, and the work they must do to achieve their happily ever after.
But how can this internal “stuff” be translated onto film? Unless the internal becomes external – through dialogue with perhaps another character, I don’t think much translation is likely. After all, movies must, well, move, and a character’s internal thoughts and feelings could easily seem like soap opera or melodrama if voiced out loud. Something must replace this material, and that might be action, or – horror of horrors – certain changes in the plot to flesh it out. So that, by the end, the movie is not at all what the book was, and the internal lives of the characters we get to know and love are left out.
This is simply an idea in progress. I know that using two books to base a topic on isn’t enough. As editor Sandi Morris reminded me when helping to edit this column, Marilyn Pappano’sA Season for Miracles was also turned into a telefilm that was, as she said, “pretty good.” Still, I think it’s an idea with some merit, so let’s work on refining it, okay?
Romance Novel Quotes by LLB:
Last week we learned that several AAR reviews had been excerpted for publicity purposes on the inside cover pages of some romances. We’re always thrilled when this happens because it gets our name out there, and it also helps readers determine what to buy. Unfortunately, these latest rounds of quotes are not ones we can be proud of. Because, you see, excerpts were taken of negative reviews and used on books that made it seem as though we had given positive reviews of the books in question. A recent release by one author featured excerpts of reviews from previous books. Two of our negative reviews were excerpted, but the one positive review this author received was not included. Go figure.
Every month Andrea Pool, our Publisher Liaison, sends the publishers copies of reviews for all books we’ve given grades of B- or higher. There are plenty, and we’re always hopeful that we’ll be quoted. Pick up any romance these days and you’ll see quotes from a variety of sources – occasionally that source will be us, but not as often as we’d like. Since we don’t send out copies of negative reviews, that means someone else is providing them to the publishers, who, in turn, rather than excerpting more of our good reviews, has decided to mislead the reading public by excerpting the negative ones.
This is nothing new, of course. Check out any television or print ad for a recent movie release – if a quote is filled with ellipses, you can bet the context of the quote has been changed for publicity purposes. While this may help sell tickets (or books), it does nothing to enhance the author’s reputation in the long run if readers don’t like the book. What’s worse for us, however, is what it does to our credibility if readers don’t like the book.
If a reader decides to buy a book based on good quotes from us and decides the book is horrid, it’s likely she’s not going to check out the full review at our site to learn that we too thought the book was horrid. Instead, she’s likely to decide we’re nothing but a rah-rah cheerleading review site without the ability to discern the good from the bad.
Among the myriad of romance novels that are good are lots that aren’t very good. This is a fact of life. I’ve read many terrible romance novels, and most of them were unmemorable. They were bad, but they didn’t offend. They passed in and out of my life, leaving little trace of themselves. However, every once in a while I’ve come across a book that doesn’t just upset me, it makes me froth at the mouth in rage. There is something about it that is so repugnant, so bothersome, that it’s not enough to throw it at the wall. You must throw it, stomp on it, stuff it in your oven and set it alight. And then trash it to everyone you know.
Interestingly enough, these books are not always badly written. Sometimes, the author makes you care about the characters and then hits you mid-book with something that you just cannot accept. When this happens you feel betrayed as a reader, and it’s something you take personally. Obviously there are many ways a book can offend, as many ways as a book can delight. However, based on conversations with others, I’ve narrowed my list of Mouth Frothers down to five. And here they are:
1. The author glorifies or excuses immoral behavior in a main character. A good example of this is found in The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Brandon rapes Heather and treats her very badly through a good portion of the book, but he never apologizes to her, and he never pays for it. What is the reader supposed to take away from that? That it’s okay to rape someone if you then marry her and eventually fall in love with her? Now I know this is a classic and a favorite for many, but really, isn’t the rule in romance that if you do something nasty to the heroine, you pay, pay, pay?
My sister Vanessa has an intense hatred of the book Bitter Sweet by LaVyrle Spencer because the hero cheats on his wife with the heroine, and Spencer implies that their adultery is justified. Her reaction:
“Though I was initially led to believe that they (the hero and heroine) were caring, responsible individuals, this rings somewhat hollow when they knowingly embark upon an affair. The heroine, raising a daughter on the verge of womanhood and dealing with her own issues about love, sex and commitment, disregards the effect her behavior will have on her family and sleeps with a married man. And the hero is even less sympathetic as he sits the fence, refusing to be honest and leave his unfulfilling marriage, but conversely willing to betray it. Fast forward through two hundred pages of an unplanned pregnancy, a fake pregnancy, a profoundly disillusioned child, and a wealth of other emotional casualties, and I stumbled, dazed and disoriented, upon the happily-ever-after. “This was romance at its most dissatisfying. It portrays the pursuit of love and fulfillment as essentially selfish, something to be gained regardless of the cost to others. As the book ends, I could not help but ask myself this question: The characters are happy, but do they deserve to be?”
2. The author makes the characters behave in prejudiced ways. Diana Palmer’s Paper Rose, which Ellen read and reviewed, featured characters more “horrid” than in any other book she’d ever read. The heroine was whiny and immature and the hero was a racist woman-hater. Not only were they hateful, they behaved in ways that no logical human being would behave. She recalls that the hero, a pure-blooded Lakotah Sioux (or so he thought) would not sleep with the heroine – who was white – since he did not want to corrupt his pure-blooded Lakotah genes. But this logic only carried him so far. Rather than living on a reservation to maintain his purity, he lived in Washington and was having an affair with a rich woman who did not like Indians, but thought he was “exotic.” According to Ellen, “The more I read this book, the angrier I got, until I finished it and wrote the review in a white-hot fit of anger that such a vile thing could be published. For me, Paper Rose is a text-book example of all that is bad in contemporary romance fiction.”
Editor/reviewer Jennifer Keirans mentioned a science fiction book that had bothered her because of its sexist attitude. The book, The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper, is set in some future, post-apocalyptic world. Here are the offending details in Jennifer’s words:
“I think it must have also been set on an island, or some place that is geographically self-contained. The island has a wall down the middle, and all the men live on one side, all the women live on the other. Once a year there’s a sort of festival, in which the men and women can get together, and every year a few pregnancies result from this. When the boy children are four years old, they have to go over to Men’s Country. “Now, Women’s Country is a peaceful, happy land with a pure-communist economy. The women are farmers, doctors, poets, dancers, engineers, you name it, and they all share their skills and resources for the betterment of all. Meanwhile, in Men’s Country, where the men have grown up with no feminine influence in their lives at all, chaos reigns. The men spend their time marching around, making weapons, doing military drills and war games, and once a day they bow and worship a giant phallus. They produce nothing and, as I recall, need the women to supply them with food and power and stuff. Every year, a few boys and young men decide that they want to live peaceful productive lives, and these are allowed to return to Women’s Country.
“At the end of the novel we learn that this entire setup is a huge selective breeding experiment. See, that one night a year when the men are allowed to impregnate the women? They don’t, really – the women are actually secretly impregnated with the sperm of the peaceful men who chose to come back to Women’s Country, so in this way, over centuries, it is hoped that men’s warlike natures will be bred out of them, and we’ll all be – well, women. The whole thing was so awful and so blatantly sexist, there are just no words.”
3. The author makes characters behave in ways you know they wouldn’t. An example of this for me would be The Golden Touch by Sharon and Tom Curtis (which for another AAR Reviewer is a Desert Isle Keeper). I like their work. In fact, The Windflower is one of my all-time favorite reads, but the main character in The Golden Touch, a small town girl from a conservative, religious family, sleeps with the hero, a rock star, way too soon. How do I know it’s too soon? Because, in many ways, the woman is me. I am a small town girl from a conservative, religious family, and I would never do that. Her actions just did not ring true to me.
My father had an interesting reaction to The Gamble by LaVyrle Spencer, a book about the Temperance Movement in Kansas. I liked this book. The only problem I had with it is that the hero sleeps with another woman through three-quarters of it. So I gave it to my dad, and he read it and didn’t like it at all. When I asked him why, he said, “She completely misunderstands the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union]. Those women were serious about outlawing alcohol.” As a child my dad attended meetings of the WCTU with his mother and did not feel that Spencer’s treatment of it was realistic. And it probably wasn’t. The heroine, who is so outraged initially about a saloon opening in her town, eventually falls in love with the saloon owner and abandons most of her anti-alcohol scruples.
Obviously an author’s treatment of people, places, and movements are important. If the author doesn’t do the research and doesn’t know what she’s talking about, some readers are going to be very upset. This brings us to another way in which a romance novel can become a mouth frother:
4. The author misrepresents history in exasperating ways. Usually, small historical mishaps are easily overlooked by a reader, as long as the story is good. But occasionally, the author seems to have no understanding of the historical period he or she is writing about. When this happens the whole book can be exasperating.
Columnist/reviewer/canwetalk moderator Robin Uncapher had this to say about Cassie Edwards’ Savage Fires:
“Savage Fires had the wheelchair bound heroine acting as a lawyer before women could vote. I have no idea if this was technically possible, but it seems preposterous to me. She also had the heroine going everywhere in a wheelchair. I couldn’t figure out how she was supposed to be managing since wheelchair ramps were basically unknown. Oh, and there is a place where someone takes the wheelchair out to the father-in-law on a horse. What did Cassie Edwards think? Wheelchairs weren’t collapsible in those days. (When) you read a book like (this) you are reading something that looks like it was thrown together hoping you wouldn’t notice. Not only that, somebody else edited it, hoping you wouldn’t notice. It reminded me of papers that I wrote in high school, on which the teacher had written, ‘sloppy – not working up to her potential.’ Except that these people are not careless high school students. They are getting paid.”size=4>
5. The author preaches or moralizes. Even a book that is well written can be extremely annoying if the author preaches at you. The book that gets my personal award for the most mouth frothing is Sophie’s Heart by Lori Wick. It has some major character inconsistencies, and Wick moralizes so continuously that it reads almost like a long tract or the To Illustrate section of a sermon. Many inspirationals tell a good story without being off-putting, but Sophie’s Heart isn’t one of them. It seems written solely for the purpose of making converts, which seems strange considering the fact that the only people who could possibly enjoy it would already be quite religious.
Reviewer Maria K. was overwhelmed by the moralizing at the base of Best Kept Secrets by Sandra Brown:
“It was so terrible in its double standards and moralism I was lucky to avoid a heart attack. The heroine thinks her mother is a slut and therefore her murder is more justified than if she had been a virgin. Yeah, right, let’s all go out and murder all non-virgins. And the hero helped frame a mentally retarded person for the murder to protect a rich real culprit. Just my kind of guy.”size=4>
Obviously, there are many, many ways that a book can potentially upset a reader; these five are only a beginning. We are all unique and have varying backgrounds, so a book will speak to us in different ways. Do you have any other suggestions for how a book can be a mouth frother?
More on the Mouth Frother of Historical Inaccuracy by LLB:
There was an interesting thread on our AAR Reviews Message Board last week about a book given a failing grade by one of our reviewers for many reasons, but prime among them were major historical errors. There is obviously a wide array of viewpoints on how important details are to historical romances. On one end I think are those who want to learn a great deal of history when they read an historical novel, romantic or otherwise. At the other end are those who are looking merely for a flavor of history. Then there are those people in-between. Since I think the question becomes more difficult when you are weighing accuracy against writing. For instance, the one and only experience I had with Connie Mason was when I read Pure Temptation, a regency-era historical romance that on its first page had a woman in White’s the exclusive men’s club in London during the period. This did not bode well for the book in my mind because, even though I am less knowledgeable than many of my colleagues here at AAR, I knew this was simply an impossibility. In this instance, the remainder of the book was flawed, and not just by historical “fox paws,” but by poor characterization, a lack of chemistry, and all the things I look for when I’m reading a romance.
Contrast my experience with Pure Temptation with my experience reading Julie Garwood’s Saving Grace, a medieval romance in which two Scottish clans wore distinctive plaids. I adore this book, but later learned from an historian that clan tartans did not exist in this period; they distinguished themselves by other means. This one mistake certainly tarnished the book to a small extent in my mind, but the characters were wonderfully written, the storyline engaging, the chemistry explosive, and the humor I looked for was strong. Two books – two cases of a mistake. One book featured an error and never recovered because it was – all in all – a bad book. The other book also featured an error, and it was a running gag throughout the book. And yet it remains a cherished keeper for me in spite of that.
When Catherine Coulter’s The Wild Baron was published, there was a lot of discussion online about the fact that the widowed heroine eventually married her brother-in-law. Most of the critics of this book, including authors, were up in arms because until the early 1900’s (1906 or so comes to mind), this was illegal. Having read the book at the time, I knew that Coulter had actually found quite a clever way out of this dilemma. I remember an email “dialogue” between myself and a well-known author who was pleased to learn Coulter hadnt made the mistake the author assumed she had. I would never have known about this illegality had the issue not been raised, which is one reason I read romance – to learn some history the easy way.
While there are some readers who positively gloat over catching historical errors in an author’s work, others take a more sanguine attitude. AAR Reviewer Nora Armstrong, for instance, gave DIK status to Jane Feather’s Accidental Bride, an historical romance set during the English Civil War in which a man does marry the sister of his dead first wife. Even though this would have been illegal, the rest of the book was good enough for her that she was able to overlook the error. Had she known the law before reading the book, we’ll never know.
In general, most of us are able to overlook certain errors if the book is engaging enough. However, there comes a point when the errors add up, are too “in your face,” or simply point to overall author carelessness that they cannot be avoided. Every so often I’ll pop in and out of some history newsgroups on the Internet, and invariably there will be discussions of how poorly history is depicted in romance novels. Certainly, the major errors that appear in books that are widely read don’t help us in the way of credibility.
In that thread I mentioned earlier, a reader wrote:
“We are talking about fiction here…if you want real history…don’t look to romance novels to supply it…Fiction writing is just that – fiction. If I want totally accurate historical writing I would not be in the romance genre.”
It’s true that any historical novel is never going to be completely accurate. Historical romance novels may seem more exempt than other historical novels because they must romanticize certain things in order to engage the reader’s interest. However, it seems to me that if some authors are able to provide authenticity to their historical romances, that should be the goal of all authors of historical romance. Sometimes it seems as though romance readers are treated like children in terms of expecting some level of historical detail in their historical romance. Yes, most of us don’t want the detail of textbooks in our romances, but most of us don’t want the Disney-animated-feature version either.
A few years ago a best-selling romance author and I had a discussion about her most recent release at that time. It was set in France and the copy editor for her publisher had turned all her titled Frenchmen into the English nobility, and in the process, botched the titles. In making her final corrections, the author changed them all back. When the book was published, the botched version was back in place and the author was mortified that readers would accuse her of not doing her homework. Magazines employ fact-checkers; wouldn’t it be nice if publishers did as well?
In another, more recent instance, one of our reviewers heard from an author whose book had been filled with some rather major historical errors. There were apparently many reasons why the book had so many errors: the author got some wrong information from a source she had trusted; the book had been marketed by both its front and back cover as being set in one time when, in fact, the author had set it in another time; and the author’s editor changed some terminology that had the result of making the a major part of the book’s plot improbable at best and impossible at worst.
Many of us are aware that editors of mid-list romance novels are often new to publishing and may not hold the genre in very high esteem. Emails such as the two I described above perhaps reflect that and do nothing to counter the idea that the publishing interest holds romance readers at some level in contempt. And, in the latter instance of a book with so many errors, I came away wishing the author in question had been as feisty with her editor as her heroine had been.
Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:
Bookstore Questions (and Answers) – We hope Ellen’s reporter’s notebook from the frontlines of your friendly neighborhood chain bookstore was helpful. If you have further questions, please post them here and she’ll try to respond, as will others in the know.
The Fake Rake – Have you come across the Fake Rake in romance novels? Share with us the romances in which you encountered him, whether you liked him, and why.
Confessions of a Serial Killer – Mary’s piece on whether books in a series should stand alone is a critical one for me. She and I obviously agree on this issue – what do you think?
When Bad Plots Happen to Good Authors – We all know that even good authors can write bad books, for a variety of reasons. For plot to be the reason seems very rare to me. Can you name a good author who wrote a bad book that was bad only because it had a “bad” plot?
Romance Novels and the Movies – Help us understand why most movies adapted from romance novels aren’t good. This is certainly a topic worth fleshing out since there are so many great romance novels out there. Why do you think so few are turned into movies, and why even fewer are any good?
Romance Novel Quotes – AAR’s reviewers always get excited when one of our number is quoted on a cover/intro pages of a novel. However, that excitement turns to cringing when we read an excerpt from a negative review that sounds like we loved the book. If you read one of those excerpted reviews, would you accept it at face value and perhaps think less of us if you didn’t like the book? Or would you wonder if our review had been manipulated?
Mouth Frothers – Did you find Rachel’s list of Mouth Frothers pretty well matches your own? What did she leave out? What did she list that would not make your own list? As always, examples are appreciated!
More on the Mouth Frother of Historical Inaccuracy – We all have different tolerance levels in terms of historical accuracy and the lack thereof. In some instances, however, it seems as though publishers think none of us care for much accuracy, and that we’ll settle for a Disney-ized version of history. Can that be?
In conjunction with Ellen Micheletti, Mary Novak, and Rachel Potter
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