This issue of At the Back Fence comes complete with a language warning.
While I was mall walking the other day, this entire column came to me. By the end, I had to stop at a store and borrow some blank receipt paper and a pen in order to sketch out the outline of what I wanted to say. My tip of the day: if ideas aren’t coming your way, take a walk or engage in some other form of exercise. It’s a fabulous way to clear the cobwebs and make room for new thoughts.
A Body of Work
When I was reviewing at The Romance Reader, I did two historical romance reviews of Amanda Quick books. One of those reviews was of 1996’s Mischief, a regency-set historical that I thoroughly enjoyed. At that time I had read perhaps five books on her backlist. The mail the editor received was overwhelmingly negative on my review, and most of it went along these lines: “How could you have given this book a 4-heart review? It’s almost exactly like Deception, which Quick wrote in 1993!”
The next year I had the chance to read Deception, which Quick had written in 1993. I had my editor add a coda to my original review when the book was released in paperback. It read:
“Since I initially read Mischief last spring, I read Deception by the same author. While many fans of Amanda Quick have come to, if not appreciate, than at the very least, accept the similarities in character types and stories, I was dismayed at how similar both books are. Both stand alone as 4-heart reads, but together they read as though Quick plagiarized herself. Readers beware.”
By the time I read Deception, I had read close to ten books by Amanda Quick. After that point I began to notice her subsequent releases were missing something for me, although I still enjoyed them, just slightly less so. And yet, when I talked to readers who started, say, with her 1997 release, the old Quick magic was apparently still fully in force. Which brings to mind a couple of thoughts, the first being the “first as favorites” question I first asked back in July of 1996. Do readers who fall in love with an author come to consider that first book they read by her to be their favorite? The answer for me is a resounding. . .sometimes, but there have been enough first books to make the question interesting.
When a reader first discovers an author, that moment of discovery is splendid, exciting, and brings on thoughts of an immediate and impatient glom. Often that first book will become a sentimental favorite for a reader even after she reads perhaps better books by that author. One thing is clear – once any book by an author becomes a favorite, it’s difficult to assess other books by that author without judging it against the favorite.
Just over three years ago, I had the chance to interview Ty Burr, a reviewer at Entertainment Weekly. When I asked him about a reviewer’s responsibility, he answered that his job is to provide both a service (is the item worth the money) and “the larger pop-cultural angle – ie, where does the movie, etc, fit in the larger picture – of the creator’s work, the genre as a whole, the marketplace, etc.).” He added as well that reviews are opinions reflective of one writer’s point of view and that “what is important is being honest about your subjectivity.”
Reviewers (and columnists) at AAR are first and foremost readers, and each reviewer has different likes and dislikes in the books they read. Just like the regular reader, if we like a certain author, we’re bound to read many of her books. And, just like the regular reader, we tend to look at the body of the author’s work when we read a new book by the author. While we don’t expect every book to be a masterpiece, sometimes, however, at that point where the body of the author’s work and the marketplace meet, there’s a problem.
Discussion on the last ATBF Message Board brought this home to me. The grade of our recent review of Lisa Kleypas’ newest release, Suddenly You, was a solid B. The reviewer, Kelly Parker, had never read any of Kleypas’ previous books. However, AAR Editor Ellen Micheletti has read all or nearly all of Kleypas’ backlist, and for her, the book didn’t measure up to earlier works, including Dreaming of You. In fact, for Ellen, Suddenly You was uncomfortably similar to Dreaming of You.
In 1999, we conducted a little experiment here at AAR – we assigned a book to two reviewers, one who had previously read the author several times and the other who had never read the author before. The book was I Thee Wed by Amanda Quick. I was the long-time Quick author, Anthony Langford was the Quick newbie. Anthony’s grade for the book was a solid B while mine was an unsatisfying C-.
Which all leads me back to the beginning, and discussion of the spark an author generates inside a reader when they first discover that author. I have no doubt that Kelly will find at least one book on Kleypas’ backlist that she’ll enjoy even more than she enjoyed Suddenly You, just as Anthony would probably enjoy earlier Quick even more than he did I Thee Wed. When readers ask, “Can you believe that Book X by Author Y is on the NYT Bestseller List? Why, she jumped the shark three years ago!”, I remember this experiment and that some small spark of genius is still showing through to newbies even if us long-time readers thought the spark was extinguished years before.
Whether or not an author is still writing in her particular sub-genre, is trying something new by switching sub-genres or entire genres, or is continuing a long-running series, she faces a multitude of problems. If she switches sub-genres or entire genres, she risks losing a portion of her old readership. If she continues a long-running series (or continues to write books set in the same narrow time-frame), she must try to keep things fresh while giving loyal readers more of what they want without becoming stale. Some authors have failed in this, but others are talented enough – and savvy enough – to succeed. Suzanne Brockmann’s Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series and J.D. Robb’s In Death series are still going strong, and I have no doubt that, when the time comes, both these women will end their series on a high note rather than waiting until their welcome has worn out.
We Don’t Ask for Much, Do We?
Readers are a greedy group, aren’t we? Once we find an author to love, we want to keep on loving her forever. We want the author to stay fresh, but if she strays too far, we may complain, and if that very same author continues to write as she has, we may complain about her writing the same-old, same-old. I recently conducted a private email exchange with an author I respect tremendously who finds this frustrating.
What she found even more frustrating, however, is the fact that readers can pick at a new book like vultures over a rotting carcass, finding minute things to bitch about – even if they liked the book in question! Does it matter if the hero says “gosh darn” when “shit” would be more natural? Does it matter if an author uses the word “slacks” instead of “pants” or has a 24-year-old listen to music a 39-year-old is more likely to listen to? It really doesn’t, but it kind of – ever so slightly – does.
Let me explain. One of my “comfort read” authors is Leanne Banks, who writes series romance. I have no doubt that Ms. Banks is/was raising teenagers at the time, because in the very first book I read, an adult character thought about how another adult character “rocked” his or her world. At this particular point in time – roughly four years ago, only teenagers uttered that phrase (or their parents in an attempt to be “cool”). I took note of it, even though I enjoyed the book. I noticed that in just about every book I’ve read by Leanne Banks, some variant of “rocked his world” is included. Has that stopped me from reading her books? Of course not, but it’s a jarring little thing that momentarily takes me out of the story each and every time.
By focusing on those small things, are we ruining our good times? The author with whom I corresponded believes that some of what readers object to is little more than “anal picking.” She added that by focusing on such minutiae, “Nobody’s talking about content or quality. None of this should matter. The story matters. Did you enjoy it or not? Did it entertain you or not?”
On our home page, AAR calls itself “the back fence for lovers of romance novels.” When people gather at the water cooler to talk about last night’s episode of Sex and the City or meet at the back fence to discuss last week’s party at a friend’s house or are sitting at the kitchen table gossiping over a cup of coffee, part of what they do is focus on the little stuff. It doesn’t mean they’re damning the entire episode to talk about how silly Sara Jessica Parker’s character Carrie Bradshaw looked in the green micro-mini-skirt with fur trimming the back at the bottom. It just means sometimes her clothes go a bit too far over the top, even for the show.
Quite a lot of what happens on our message boards is “the little stuff” that stays online for a few weeks and then is gone forever. Interesting posts/threads may be incorporated into a future article or archived, but unless their impact is large, they’re mostly forgotten.
One of those threads, however, that I believe has larger impact, relates to a discussion on our Reviews Message Board about the latest Suzanne Brockmann series title – Taylor’s Temptation. The book received a grade of B from AAR’s Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill, although the thread focused on one of her minor criticisms of the book – the toning down of profanity to an extent that some readers found ridiculous.
Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“And just an aside: Would it be too much to ask for Silhouette to allow Brockmann to use the f-word? These are military men, and they are saving the world – not attending a cotillion. We know they probably aren’t saying ‘Oh shoot’ and ‘jeepers.’ Instead of actually reading that Wes or Bobby has said ‘No f*ckin’ way,’ we hear over and over that Wes has used his favorite expletive, or Bobby has said ‘No way,’ but inserted Wes’s favorite expletive in the middle. By the time we think about what Wes’s favorite expletive is, we have spent more time thinking about the word f*ck than we would if it were actually there on the page. (And yes, I am aware of the irony that I myself am not spelling out the word in its entirety).”
Books published by Harlequin/Silhouette seem notoriously out of date to me where things such as swearing are concerned. If memory serves me right, one of the reasons Jennifer Crusie stopped writing series titles for them was because of the morality clause they wanted her to sign as part of her contract, which would have allowed them to change things in her books when published oversees.
I’m not a little old lady who is going to have a fit of the vapors if I see the word “shit” or even “fuck” in a book if it fits the character. Last year marked the first time a broadcast television show character uttered the word “shit.” If it’s made it into prime time, should it be left out of a book meant to be read by adult women even if it fits? Why can a series title feature fairly explicit sexual activity but a character can’t say “oh, shit?”
When I was a high school senior, I took a current affairs class from a teacher who was not exactly politically correct in his teaching methods, although they brought his points home very well. One day he was recounting his first leave from the army and was at home at the dinner table when he found himself saying to his mother, “pass the fucking salt.” If men in the armed services spoke like that in the 1960’s/1970’s, I doubt Emily Post rules for dinner table discussion apply today.
One of the primary reasons we read romance has to do with characterization. And though we know romance is fantasy, we want characters who are true to themselves, and this might include having a member of the armed forces cussing when he’s frustrated, stressed, or angry. Knowing that Harlequin/Silhouette does not allow most “swear words” in their series romances strikes me as more than a little archaic, although many Harlequin/Silhouette authors and other readers disagree. My friend the author, for instance, has written both series titles and single title romances. She’s not bothered in the least about Harlequin/Silhouette’s requirements on swearing, and when she receives mail unfavorable in relation to language, it’s for her single titles that include various four-letter words. For her, language restrictions are part and parcel of the series romance form itself.
There’s obviously something to that – the owner of the new/used romance bookstore I frequent told me last weekend that she’s “kind of glad” series titles don’t allow much cussing because “they’re the last books like that.” And, one of the posters in the Message Board thread I mentioned earlier known as Carolina Girl wrote, “I prefer a more circumspect way of writing, at least in category novels. I am able to imagine what they are saying. I don’t need the printed words.”
Carolina Girl was in the minority on our Message Board; most of the readers who posted also found it frustrating that, as adults, the dialogue they were reading was not consistent with the character speaking it. Ruby, for instance, wrote, “Why doesn’t Silhouette allow Brockmann’s military men to say f*ck?…The constant ‘Bobby used Wes’s favorite cuss word’ references were distracting. They would drive a priest to swearing. You can bet that I was doing some pretty heavy cursing while reading this book. (By the way, I really liked the book.)”
Marissa too “prefers the dialogue to fit the character and if that calls for sh*t, f*ck, or whatever, then so be it. I actually cringe when I hear someone like Bobby or West say ‘darn’ or some such nonsense. It takes me right out of the story. I wish Harlequin/Silhouette would enter the new millenium and realize we readers are tougher than they seem to think.” Keishon agreed, writing, “Nope. Like Nike. Just do it……Just say it. Sh**. I could understand if they were around polite company but we’re talking about the SEALs here! Dirty language is mandatory.”
Suzanne Brockmann can always be counted on for a colorful response, so I invited her onto the Reviews MB to talk about the cussing issue. Here’s what she had to say:
“Let me tell you about the series romance fan who sent me her copy of (along with a letter informing me that she would never buy my books again), because she was so offended by the language. She is not the only person from whom I have received negative comments about what I perceive to be the use of fairly realistic language in my single title books. (Frankly, I think my single title SEALs still don’t even come close to talking the way real SEALs do – particularly when they aren’t around any women.) But that’s not why I don’t use realistic language in my series romances. No, it’s not in there because they won’t let me put it in there. “Here’s the deal: They (aka Harlequin/Silhouette) have rules about what words can and cannot be used in a series romance. I have yet to have a ‘shit’ show up in any of those books (although, I’m always trying, believe me), and I would never dare to try to slip in the f-word. In H/S-speak, Pissed off becomes ticked off. (You don’t think I would ever really used the phrase ‘ticked off,’ do you? ) Assh*le becomes dirtwad. And so on.
“Who reading this has heard me tell the story about the young (and destined not to last long thank you Jesus, who also can’t be mentioned by name in a series romance) copy editor who, while line editing Prince Joe (we later had a three hour phone conversation in which I stetted nearly all of her changes [‘stet’ is the editing term for putting something back the way the author originally wanted/wrote it, and it’s all done in quite a civilized manner, without the author calling the line editor a dirtwad. ]) changed one of Joe’s rather harmless little ‘Oh, damn’s’ to ‘Oh, fudge.’
” ‘Oh, fudge,’ said the Big Bad Navy SEAL.
“So here I am, writing Bobby’s story, knowing that Wes is going to be a major player in the book. Both of these characters have been used from day one in this series as comic relief, and it’s taken a lot of fancy planning in the most recent books to reveal that they are, indeed, Real Romance Heroes, although definitely rough around the edges. Wes always says the wrong thing (unless Bobby says it first), and he swears like a…well, a sailor. (Funny, he is a sailor.)
“So in my big confrontation between Bobby and Wes, after Bobby f*cked Wes’s sister (yes, those are the four words that Wes said to which I was alluding) I had to do linguistic gymnastics to let the world know what was being said without actually saying the words. (This was not particularly easy to do, and frankly, I was proud of the way I pulled it off. My apologies to those of you who were bugged by it, but I wouldn’t have been able to write it any other way (other, of course, than actually using the actual frickin’ language – which my editors would have drawn big lines through with their red pencils).
“And speaking of fricking and freaking. We (or perhaps I should say I – because it seems the rules about use of bad language change day by day, minute to minute, author to author) aren’t even allowed to use those fine variations on the f-word. Apparently (and I didn’t know this until one of my editors told me!) both of these words have very explicit sexual meanings. Yikes. Who knew?
“I’ve generally followed the soap opera rule when writing series romance. If they can say it on As the World Turns, I can use it in my book. Unless someone has written in to the editorial department recently, complaining about the use of ‘son of a bitch’ or ‘damn.’ And then the edits fly fast and furious.
“Forget about God damn – that’s never going to make it to the typesetter’s. Not even if, like I’ve been known to do, you try to sneak it in with a little g and no n (goddam). I was sure Wes’s use of the word ‘crap’ was going to be changed. It’s a little frustrating when these changes occur because you end up with three or four male characters all walking around saying ‘Damn!’ and ‘Hell!’ and sounding exactly alike.
“(Oh, I snuck a Jesus in Prince Joe. Joe often said ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ which was allowed to remain. Why? God only knows. )
“Here’s the deal – some people don’t like realistic language. In fact, lots of people don’t like realistic language. And they are extremely vocal about it. (I got a written hand slap from a reader for having one of my characters say ‘God’ in one of my Loveswepts. She wasn’t bothered by the screaming, swinging from the chandeliers sex scenes, though. LOL! I just don’t get how someone could love to read steamy books and find problems with word choices, but that’s okay. The world wouldn’t be quite so amusing or interesting if everyone thought the same way I think.)
“I believe that H/S is not going to change its language policy. I’m okay with that. It’s simply one of the rules that come with writing for that format – like the 250-page limit and the fact that the covers often suck. (Oops, did I say that? Nothing like a lousy cover to really tick me off. )
“As for that series fan who sent me Body Guard, I wrote back to her to tell her (politely and as nicely as I could manage) that she could continue to read my series romances without fear of being offended. There would – and will – be no ‘offensive’ language in those books – I promised her that. But I also warned her to stay away from my single titles because all kinds of realistic language will, as Sam Starrett might say, ‘abso-f*cking-lutely’ be included.”
This column was entitled “Odds ‘N’ Ends” because its filled with a variety of content, not all of which is related. So, we’re going to end this issue of At the Back Fence with a segment provided by Pandora’s Box columnist Linda Hurst that has nothing to do with anything else discussed in this issue of ATBF. The Beauty and the Beast fable is one which all of us are familiar, and for many, it remains a potent and romantic fantasy. I hope you’ll enjoy Linda’s take on it.
Beauty & the Beast
Earlier this year I was asked to give a presentation at Celebrate Romance 2001, which caused me to reflect on one of the recurring discussions in on-line romance groups: What was the first romance you read and what is your favorite type of hero? I often answer that the dreadful Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers was my first romance book and it was so awful that I didn’t read another romance for a decade. But, upon further reflection, I realized that I read my first romance at the age of 10. Not only did I fall in love with the hero immediately, I have had a continuing affair with him to this day. My first romance was Beauty and the Beast, and I have been reading and loving the Beast in different guises ever since childhood.
The Beast is often a man of mystery, wounded and in deep need of rescuing. The Beast can be both physically and/or emotionally scarred, but he is always isolated from others. Our Beast hero may be described as a lion, dragon or tortured alpha male. He is often too proud to ask for help and as any wounded animal, often attempts to bite or slash at his savior. The true strength of the story is that by her love and strength Beauty not only rescues herself, but the Beast as well. Stories with “beastly” heroes only work for me if they are balanced with a strong heroine. Doormats need not apply and the stories with a weak heroine just do not work for most fans of this tale. Also, a key factor is that the Beastly hero must be more then a jerk – he must be lovable underneath his Beastly-guise and he must never injure or rape the heroine – which disqualifies several of Catherine Coulter’s heroes who might otherwise be wonderful Beasts, as well as Steve in Sweet Savage Love – for me a rapist is more then a Beast, he is an unredeemable jerk!
While the Beast’s needing to be rescued is obvious, it is often not as easily recognized that Beauty too needs rescuing, if only from loneliness. A successful telling of this tale shows the couple filling each other’s needs, not just a rescue of the Beast. A wonderful description of a classic Beast appears in Amanda Quick’s Ravished, when her plucky heroine Harriet describes Gideon: “He was incredibly large, like his horse, he was tall and solidly built, with broad, sleekly muscled shoulders and thighs. His hands were massive and so were his feet.”
Equally telling is Gideon’s description of himself: “He had never been a handsome man, but the deep scar that slashed across his left jaw like a lightning bolt had not improved matters.” Gideon expects immediate rejection, another common characteristic of “Beasts”. The key to turning the Beast into a loving mate is Beauty and no submissive missish lady is she.
It is Beauty’s characteristics which include strength, lack of fear, love and discernment that are integral to the success of this oft-used storyline. According to author Mary Jo Putney, the one trait that most characterizes this tale is “discerning beauty that is hidden or submerged.” Beauty is a bright, courageous woman, which has always been my favorite type heroine for the taming of the Beast is definitely not a smooth or easy task.
My continuing love affair with Beauty and the Beast made me wonder why we were attracted to certain fairy tales as children and does this attraction have relevance in our lives today and our choice of reading matter? Would we prefer to be Cinderella pleasantly serving the undeserving? (A martyr complex perhaps?) Are we waiting for our fairy Godmother and Prince Charming to arrive and rescue us or do we prefer a more active role? De we prefer a perfect Prince Charming or the Beast (prince uncharming) or perhaps Peter Pan, the ultimate bad boy who won’t grow up. Do we want to be Wendy who mothers him? Surely we don’t want to be Snow White who welcomed the Witch and ate the apple when she knew her stepmother was out to get her – the original TSTL heroine.
We may have identified with the youngest princess in the Twelve Little Princesses. My Pandora’s Box partner Blythe Barnhill prefers this one because the hero wins the youngest Princess with her cleverness. Obviously Blythe prefers brains to brawn. Perhaps the truly passive among us we would like to be Sleeping Beauty, who does not even have to wake up to attract her true love! The Ugly Duckling again reflects the themes of Beauty and the Beast, looking beneath the surface for beauty and the hero who is seen and found wanting by society.
Author Rita Herron says of the lure of Beauty and the Beast, “The Beast has an animalistic nature with simmering sensuality, but scarred. The Woman has to look below the surface.” Now, I am not sure that I picked up on the simmering sensuality when I was 10, but I knew that I just loved the Beast. His mysteriousness was a great lure. I loved the care he took of Beauty: lovely clothes, wonderful meals and luxury surround her, but at first she never sees him. When Beauty finally glimpses The Beast, she does not react in terror or fear. The scene where the two waltz was always a favorite of mine – it is tender, poignant, and very romantic. The best versions of the theme always have similarly tender moments in them. Amy Fetzer’s recent Taming the Beast has a moment in which the hero’s small daughter sees him for the first time, and her simple acceptance of him and they tenderness between them is exquisite.
Stories about Beauty and the Beast are about redemption, whether or not in contemporary settings such as Fetzer’s book or in Susan Mallery’s Sweet Success (where the hero was an “emotional zombie”), or in historical settings such as Ravished, where six years of social exile have made Gideon cynical and embittered. There is one constant: once our Beastly hero recognizes Beauty he hangs on for dear life. He may push her away half-heartedly because he is afraid to love or like the fairy-tale Beast, sets her free for her own good. The Beast is afraid to even hope she will return of her own free will yet he knows he is doomed if she doesn’t return.
To be satisfying, many readers like to see these Beastly alpha males “grovel” a bit when they realize that Beauty is the love of their lives. A good grovel scene is one of the hallmarks of Diana Palmer’s books and I think is the secret to her success. One just loves seeing those strong, beastly men brought to their knees by a young miss. A book that does not have the hero “grovel” when he realizes the error of his ways just misses being satisfying for many readers.
I think this is the problem with Linda Howard’sLoving Evangeline: when the hero should be groveling, he is arrogantly dictating terms of the couple’s future. Even the epilogue showing he changed without the words doesn’t work, we want to see these guys grovel! Unfortunately “rescuing” has acquired a bad name in our society and can be labeled “enabling”, so our modern day Beauties must rescue the Beast and herself while not enabling him to continue being a Beastly alpha jerk. A tough role for a strong woman – which makes Beauty my kind of gal.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
First as Favorites? – What is that moment of discovery like when you discover a new author to love? Describe your feelings and actions. Do you go on an immediate and impatient glom? Do you quickly re-read the book? When you think on it, is the first book you read by an author often your favorite?
A Body of Work versus The Marketplace – When you read a book, do you compare it against previous works by the author, or do you compare it only against what else you’ve recent bought? Do you want those who review and/or talk about books to do the same?
That Old Black Magic – Have you had experiences similar to the ones described in the column where you were a long-time reader of a certain author and talked to a newbie reader of that author and your opinions on a book diverged based on that? Or, vice versa? Share your experiences, please! Does this explain (at all) how an author you feel has gone downhill continues to land on the bestseller lists?
The Greedy Reader at the Back Fence – Do you understand the frustration of the unnamed author who believes online readers focus too much on small details and not enough on the bigger picture? On the other hand, do you think she’s perhaps missed the point of the “at the back fence” concept? Can you see both sides?
A Fit of the Vapors – Is Harlequin/Silhouette out of touch w/today’s reader in terms of the rules it imposes on authors in terms of swearing? Does it make you focus more on the missing words or do you like the fact that you won’t be confronted with most four-letter words when you read a series title?
Beauty and the Beast – Though modern critics often deride the Beauty and the Beast fantasy as promoting either violence against women or encouraging men to be beastly in general, many of us love the fantasy and see it for what it is – a fantasy. Do you enjoy Beauty and the Beast romances? If so, which are among those you liked best?
In conjunction with Suzanne Brockmann and Linda Hurst
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board