At the Back Fence #146Dabney2017-06-23T08:29:56-04:00
At the Back Fence Issue #146
Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!
October 1, 2002
Robin, Anne, and I all have topics on our minds. First up, Robin talks about “dirty books.” Then I’d like to share with you new books for the desert isle, after which Anne discusses Internet behavior, in a couple of segments she calls “When Good Authors do Bad Things” and “The Fury of Fans.” And we’ll end things up with a couple of mini-surveys about your year thus far as a buyer and readers of books.
Dirty Books (Robin Uncapher)
Every once and a while during a debate on historical accuracy, a reader or a romance author makes an observation something like this, I like some accuracy in romance but I dont want them to go overboard. For example, people were a lot dirtier in days past. I dont want to read a romance that is completely historically accurate because I really dont want to read about people who had body odor, rotten teeth, and didnt wash.
Thats all it takes. The book in question could have been about people in the Medieval period talking about scientific progress or a viscount in nineteenth century England being addressed as Your grace, the discussion grinds to a halt. Pretty soon a number of posts expressing strong agreement appear. Even people like me, who generally say that more accuracy is better, post messages saying that envisioning a sweaty hero who bathes weekly (or even monthly) with a hairy and equally dirty heroine is not their idea of romance.
Soon everyone has forgotten that they are talking about a book where the nineteenth century characters use twenty-first century slang and that the inaccurate book doesnt have a bathing scene in it nor does it describe the sparkling clean appearance of the hero and heroine. It isnt a Medieval but it has gotten off the hook of inaccuracy on the defense that nobody wants to read about stinky pits.
I like romances that really seem to be stories from past times. Unlike LLB, Im not a wallpaper romance person, though I do give Medievals some space, probably because I know less about that period than I do about 19th century England or the historical U.S. Do I want to read about body odor? Not particularly, descriptions of body odor seem like rather boring to me.
But bringing up the subject of cleanliness has to one of the best tricks for changing the subject that Ive come across. What bothers me about people saying that they dont want historical accuracy because they dont want to read about dirty people is that the entire subject of hygiene in historical romance thing is a straw man. For some reason, whenever a romance novelist doesn’t know her history gets down to defending it, we have to hear about bathing habits in the Middle Ages (even if this author writes regencies.)
Why is it a straw man? While it’s true that bathing habits were different before the late 20th century (both in Europe and in America) it is also true that frequency of bathing or clothes washing was not a topic that was discussed a whole lot, or would have been noticed by contemporary characters. Since historical romances are written from the point of view of the hero or heroine, a heroine who started noticing that the hero smelled would be historically inaccurate.
There is absolutely no need for a historically accurate romance give space to body odor, hairy legs or dirty clothing. Contemporary writers in times past, such as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Elliot, Thackery and Trollope never described the bathing habits of their heroes and heroines. You can read the whole of Shakespeare under the mistaken impression that the characters showered daily. Chaucers Canterbury Tales doesnt say a word about people living in filth nor does the King James Bible say much on the subject. Characters in these books were so much a part of their times that they did not notice the smells or grime that lack of washing or lack of deodorant produces. Why should heroines and heroines in romance be different?
Though nineteenth century characters were dirty by our standards, they thought they were clean probably because many of them were cleaner than people in England had ever been. In books such as Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Hard Times, Dickens does describe the dirt and squalor associated with poverty but he draws a sharp contrast between these people and the middle class heroes and heroines with whom the reader is meant to identify. Then, as now, cleanliness was seen as something attractive and though most bedrooms were furnished with pitchers and bowls for washing 19th century authors didnt discuss them. Agnes, the heroine of David Copperfield is frequently praised for her neat appearance. Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte’s biographer made a special point to say how neat and clean Bronte always was – and one reason she does this is to defend Bronte against those who said Bronte could not be womanly because she was a writer.
When we go further back, into Shakespeare’s day, we know that by our standards, everyone was pretty dirty. But Shakespeare doesn’t mention this because he was part of it, and didn’t see it that way.
Only when one culture meets another is it necessary to mention a lack of cleanliness. Clavell does this brilliantly in Shogun, when he describes how appalled the Japanese are by the lack of hygiene of the European sailors, and the fact that so many are losing teeth. Dickens, in his American Notes mentions that Americans might have a good deal less disease to deal with if everything were cleaner. (When you read about Civil War hospitals in America you know that Europeans would have been appalled, but only because their own dirty hospitals had been reformed earlier in the century, by Florence Nightingale.) Similarly it makes sense that a hero or heroine in a time travel romance would have an initial reaction to hygiene – but it also makes sense that the 21st century hero or heroine would begin to forget it as he or she became more involved in survival.
One thing that bothers me about hygiene discussions is the subtle note of superiority that tends to creep into the conversation and kill discussions about the nuances of social history. The subject tends to be a conversation stopper, one reason being that being clean is a value that is so entrenched in our society, especially in female society, that few women feel comfortable saying that its okay with them if an author admits that the heroine wears only two dresses in a week and washes them on Saturday.
In other words, if I say that I dont mind reading about a historical house that is not as clean as a modern one, will people think that my house is not clean? The subject of cleanliness has an emotional component and a kind of one upmanship that is hard to overcome. Here is an example from modern life. Years ago Oprah Winfrey did a show about an alcoholic woman who neglected her family terribly. She had two children. She let the house and laundry go completely except to make sure that her kids had clean clothes for school. The house became so dirty and disorderly that some parts were impassable. The womans husband also did nothing. He would come home from work and ignore the mess. One day Child Welfare raided the house and took the kids. This was a huge wake-up call. The woman went into rehab and stopped drinking. But the house was still such a disgusting mess that the authorities refused to return the children. In an act of kindness, the neighbors came and cleaned the womans house. It took days and a dumpster. Oprah had pictures and they were awful. The authorities returned the children. Now the woman is a reformed Mrs. Clean and a great housekeeper.
My reaction to this was Isnt it horrible that this woman drank so much that she didnt take care of her children, and also, isnt it horrible that the father of these children let things get to this point? (Throughout the show he was treated like a victim who for some unexplained reason was incapable of running a vacuum.) I also imagined that the children had suffered in many other ways. They must not have received attention or help with school, that they must have been eating poorly. The dirty house, bad as it was, was probably the least of it. In other words, to me it was a straightforward alcohol abuse case. But the reaction of people in the audience and on the Oprah.com message boards was different. Few even noticed that the woman had been drinking all day. To most of the posters it was all about being a good housekeeper. Some people even wrote I dont care how much she drank, or how depressed she was, she could have cleaned the house, implying that if the house had been clean the drinking might not have been so bad.
The people posting seemed to get a huge charge out of the conversation. No matter what else they did wrong in their lives, at least their houses were not such a mess as this womans. Even women who admitted they drank a lot got the chance to chime in and feel superior.
I have nothing against soap and water, but being preoccupied with showing how clean you are, and how dirt makes you ill can really limit your world view. In the 70’s when I first went to England, American guide books were full of B&Bs with a bathroom down the hall. It was often mentioned in these books that Europeans did not expect to shower daily. I remember conversations with my parents friends (who had been to Europe) going on and on about this in the most superior way. Some people even said they would not go to Europe because of the stories they had heard.
But when I actually went to England and Europe I quickly discovered that people looked and smelled pretty much the way they did in the U.S. Whether they realized it or not, I think many of my parents friends simply enjoyed feeling superior to Europeans (to whom they felt culturally inferior). But these people were spending so much time feeling superior that they missed telling really interesting stories and making worthwhile observations about their travels. Anyone who goes to China, the Middle East or other parts of the Third World today will see that not everyone has as much water or soap as Americans and Europeans. But contemporary writers do not go on and on about this because it is not terribly interesting and once you have said it it doesn’t really bear repeating.
And the same, to me, is true about advocating lack of accuracy in historical romance with the statement that romance readers dont want to read about hygiene. There is less and less original research being done for the books we read, and it shows. This past month Ive been reading older romances KinsalesThe Dream Hunter, BaloghsHeartless and PutneysVeils of Silk. All of these books show the result of painstaking research and the wonderful stories that can result. As I finished each one I realized how rare it is to come across a new book with so much detail.
There are a so many more interesting things than BO and a historically accurate hero or heroine wouldn’t notice it anyway. Like so many others I have learned a lot of history from historical novels. Jane Smiley’s The All True Adventures of Liddy Newton told me more about bloody Kansas than years of elementary school textbooks. And Kenneth Roberts taught me more about the food colonials ate than anything I’ve ever read.
Finally, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie contains and amazing scene where Ma uses her one day off on the trail to wash the clothing of the entire family in a stream and iron them! (This woman was a saint.) She must have washed cloth diapers as well, as little Carrie was a baby then. I am sure that everyone must have been pretty dirty before Ma washed the clothing – but it says something about her and her values that that was what she did.
Books for the Desert Isle (Laurie Likes Books)
It seems that every year or so I have a romance reading slump. And it was just over a year ago that I talked about being in the biggest romance reading slump I’d encountered since becoming a romance reader in the early 1990’s. My slump ended after reading two brilliant traditional Regency Romances. Throughout the remainder of 2001, I read many, many trads, and continue to read quite a few of them today. But I’ve also been able to go back to reading both historical and contemporary romance with a renewed sense of vigor. And yes, I’ve continued to read series romance as well, although, as I explained to my daughter when she asked if she could try one when she ready, reading them is like eating McDonalds as opposed to eating at Lawry’s (as a carnivore, prime rib is her favorite thing to eat).
Cut to the summer of 2002. I haven’t loved a romance since mid-2001, and the two I loved were trads. I’ve not loved an historical romance since early 2000, or a contemporary since the summer of 1999. I’ve read close to 250 books since the start of 2000, out of which less than 2% were all-time romance keepers. While I’ve enjoyed many of the books I read during that period, there obviously weren’t many that knocked my socks off. So when I’ve picked up romances to read, there’s been none of that giddy excitement that I used to feel.
And then I read Chesapeake Blue, the fourth in Nora Roberts’Chesapeake series, a book she hadn’t originally even planned to write, a book about Seth, who’d been a boy when the series left off. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this book because when authors write books for their readers, books they’d never intended to write, those books don’t tend to be very good. And also, after having written so, so many books, how could yet another be so very wonderful?
Wow – was I ever wrong! Not only did I fall in love with the all-grown up Seth Quinn and Dru Whitcomb Banks, I fell in love all over again with Cam and Anna Quinn, the hero and heroine from Sea Swept, the first book in this series. Let me say here and now: If I were older, I’d want to marry Cam Quinn and be Anna Quinn. As great as they were in Sea Swept (set 18 years earlier), they’re as great – and as passionate and loving and gorgeous – when they’re 50-ish. So Chesapeake Blue gives us not only one great couple, but a secondary couple as terrific as they were when I fell in love with them way back in late 1997.
Not only are these couples great, but everything else Roberts is known for absolutely sings in this book. The chemistry, not only between the hero and heroine, but also among various Quinn family members is terrific. The amount of suffering Seth must endure at the hands of the villain and how he handles it – both initially and later on – works wonderfully. Those of you who’ve read earlier books in this series will remember that Seth was a talented artist. He’s now 28 and a very successful painter who’d been living in Europe to escape the villain’s extortion (his family doesn’t know the real reason he’d moved away from them). He comes home after the villain tracks him down in Europe to further extort money from him; his family is glad to have him home, but still have no idea what’s plaguing him. When Seth finally confesses to his family, the way Cam turns Seth’s logic around is so touching I cried.
Not only does Chesapeake Blue have moments of pathos, it has LOL moments; few authors can carry off this change in tone as well as Roberts does here. And few authors can make the artistic process come to life as vividly as she does; those of you who found the art glass-making process as intriguing as I did in Born in Fire will be equally interested in Seth’s painting. For all of the above reasons, if I were younger, I’d want to marry Seth Quinn and be Dru Banks, who is definitely worthy of being a Quinn.
Shortly after I read Chesapeake Blue, I read two of the three stories in My Dashing Groom, a traditional Regency Romance anthology. I don’t read many anthologies because I don’t tend to enjoy the form, but thought I’d give this one a try. After all, because trads don’t include detailed love scenes, there would be more room for character development.
The first story was by Shannon Donnelly, a relatively new Regency author I’ve come to enjoy. Border Bride was a solid B, a Cabin/Road Romance about a young woman eloping with the man she thinks she loves, who’s brought along his best friend to help them get to Gretna. But it was the second story, Donna Simpson’sLove Lessons, that blew me away.
Love Lessons features two love stories – all in 87 pages that begins with this startling line of dialogue: “You cannot marry your whore, Cedric. It is just not done.” And with that, Nic Barton tries to break up the betrothal between his older brother and Jessica, the former actress who is his mistress. Little does he know that Linnet, the young woman living with this fortune-hunting hussy, is her younger sister. Their first meeting is equally unforgettable. Nic plans to induce the lightskirt to leave his older brother by offering her carte blanche. But he mistakes Linnet for Jessica, who goes into fiercely protective lioness mode, determined that Jessica should have her happiness in marrying Cedric.
This story succeeds for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that the relationship between Cedric and Jessica is not one you come across every day. Jessica is perhaps a bit too dependent upon the kindness of others, but her backstory is good, and the reason for her recent emotionality, while not altogether a surprise, at least explains things. This story also stands out because of the chemistry between Nic and Linnet. Their barbed debates serve as a courtship of sorts… until Nic says something he immediately regrets, but cannot take back.
You’ll know precisely when you’ve read this line because it’s one of those bits of dialogue that brings hot tears to your eyes. Simpson thoroughly captures the essence of underlying mistrust between Linnet and Nic with this single line.
Some romances work because of individual characters – either the hero or the heroine is simply a standout. Others work because as a couple, the hero and heroine together are unforgettable. Linnet and Nic are that unforgettable couple, but they are that unforgettable couple because as individuals they are also well-written and well-defined, and because Nic’s growth throughout the story is both believable and wonderful to read. The relatively short amount of time spent with these characters has its result in a charming fairy tale ending.
If these two stories weren’t enough to make romance reading great again, there was Christina Dodd’sMy Favorite Bride, which I awarded DIK status just a few weeks ago. I wrote in my review that before reading the book, I’d basically given up on Dodd. How truly wonderful it was to fall in love with her all over again after such a long time, and how truly wonderful it was to love a full-length historical after such a long time.
And so I’m more excited now when I pick up a romance to read. After another dry spell, I’m back to my romance reading roots – loving historical romance. I didn’t come to contemporary romance until somewhat later in my romance reading history, but after a roughly three year dry spell, the contemporary drought is over too. And my fondness for traditional Regencies, begun in mid-2001, continues and has been revitalized by a short story of all things. All is right with the world, which helps me justify the number of books I buy and the time I spend reading them.
When Good Authors do Bad Things (Anne Marble)
How should authors promote themselves? That’s a loaded question. Many publishing houses are cutting back on promotion except for the big name authors. Smaller publishers, as well as self-publishing services, provide no promotional assistance at all. Or in some cases, their “advice” turns out to be so incompetent it is toxic. Yet how much promotion is too much? What works, and what turns off readers?
Even readers are asking themselves these questions. As Misty said when she started a Potpourri Message Board thread on “Can An Author Be Too Involved”:
“I realize that the idea is to sell sell sell, but sometimes I feel as though certain authors (and I won’t name them, and don’t want them named. lol) tend to be overtly involved in leading their fan base into the direction they want. Sometimes it seems legit, and other times it just seems pushy. But then I think, well, they do have a product, and the only way to sell it is to promote it and themselves. For example, Author A does spends a lot of time online and has a very devoted fan base, so devoted that the minute author A gets their feelings hurt from a bad review in a magazine or a website the message boards light up with ‘how could you write such a heartless review,’ etc. Is this the covert workings of a sneaky author getting her revenge, or simply just an author ranting to her/his friends about a bad review?”
As the moderator of AARList, I often find myself asking the same questions. Sometimes, as list members will attest, AARlist seems to be a big red target for author promotions.
For that reason, AARList has rules about how many promos authors and web sites and post. There’s a reason for that. We’re trying to encourage discussions, and we don’t want the list to turn into a field of billboards. I have had to crack the whip now and then, and sometimes the whip has to crack in the direction of an author. Yikes! I’d better start another paragraph before this article gets too kinky.
I avoid being anal about these rules. They’re there to keep the list from getting swamped with promos, particularly inappropriate promos (“Read my erotic novel about twin sisters for free!”). That’s why, when a new author – we’ll call him “Frank” – joined the list recently, I didn’t kick him off even though his first post was a promo. I simply sent him a warning and explanation of the rules – and a link to my Vision article The Uses and Abuses of Mailing Lists. Put simply, this is an article about how not to annoy potential fans off by abusing the Internet to promote your book. I also put him on moderated status.
I never heard back from him. But his next post, to the list, the next day, was a copy of the same promotional message. This time, I rejected the post, kicked him off and banned him, and explained why. He didn’t reply that time, either. But not long after, I received a couple of more promotional messages from him – not to the list, but to my personal address. (By the way, poaching e-mail addies from the list is also against the rules and also bad netiquette.) These included not one but two invitations to join his MSN community. In a word, “Argh!”
So you’d think that would have been the last I heard of him, right? Nope, of course not. A couple of weeks later, I got another e-mail message from Frank asking me to let them know if I got my review copy. My what? On top of that, it asked for an updated on when I would be finished with the book. I take it the title was not “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” On top of that, his message included a request to post my (nonexistent) review on Amazon.com, BN.com, Oprah.com, MSN.com, etc. So not only am I supposed to review his book, I’m supposed to do his promotional work as well! Frank, does this mean I’ve been promoted?
Finally, I sent Frank fake bounce messages to make him think my address was no longer working. Will he try sending me more unsolicited mail despite this? Probably.
And then there was the day when I checked my e-mail, and couldn’t figure out why one message was downloading rather slowly. At first, I was excited because I thought my friend Kate was e-mailing a new drawing of Glenn Gould to me. But no, that was not to be! It turned out that a newly publisher author – let’s call her “Petula” – had e-mailed her novel to me. The entire thing. Without permission. Why? Did she want a review? Nope, she was hoping that I would give her cover quotes. Though she didn’t know if I would like the book or if I had the time to read it. In the publishing business, it is quite common for editors to approach published writers for cover quotes, but that’s a job for the editor, not the author. Asking reviewers for cover quotes is also not a good idea. Quotes from reviewers come only if they have actually read and reviewed the novel. You only get the wrong kind of attention from a reviewer if you e-mail your novel to her. Petula’s publisher had given her very bad advice. (For instructions on how to get your book reviewed by AAR, go to this link. But keep in mind that we have a lot of books to review and can’t accept some types of books, including print on demand.)
Then there was the author, “Jake,” who published his novel through iUniverse, a print on demand publisher. Though his novel ended tragically, iUniverse called it a “romance” novel because it contained a love story. In other words, they didn’t know much about the romance market. Sadly, neither did Jake. Although Jake called list members “girls,” he had a good persona. But then, controversy reared its ugly head. Jake’s book sounded like a tearjerker, so some list members asked if it ended happily. Boom! Jake was miffed that so many people would want to know how the novel ended. After all, no one on any other lists had mentioned the HEA to him. He probably wondered where we’d come up with this stuff. Soon after, he left the list, truly believing the posters were being “rough” on him, so he missed the interesting discussions he had started by accident. To be fair to Jake, though, he did tell list members they could read his entire book for free on the iUniverse web site.
And then there’s “Oscar.” Unlike Jake, he didn’t have the best list persona. Also, he made me see double because he went by two names – the one he used on the list (where he pretended to be a fan of his own book) and the one he used on the cover of his book. (Folks, if you pretend to be someone else to promote your book, at least be sure to pick a different first name!) Oscar joined the list and promoted his historical novel, without admitting he was the writer. He thought he was quite the intellectual and loved to show off his knowledge -yet his messages were full of misspellings with sentences that sounded as if they had been written while he was on mushrooms. He eventually got kicked off for not following rules, posting snarky comments in response to posts by some of the other members, and so forth. It probably wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t asked a list member “Do you read or just talk? Observations from this list suggest not. What did you read last? And please make honst comment.” Not a very bright observation to make on a list like AARList, which is filled with readers. Especially if you are looking at these list members as potential customers. How many customers do you think Oscar found on AARList after that post? How many posts do you think he got to make after that incident? Right.
Not all self-published, small press, and print on demand (POD) authors are like this. Thanks to the Internet, I have met plenty of self-published authors who handled themselves really well on-line. For example, Barb O’Neill’s posts on AARList have always been wonderful (and my mother loved her book), and Sheri Cobb South has proven herself to be a class act. Maybe some writers have to learn to be more innovative in their promotional efforts. I know one iUniverse author who promotes himself by writing book reviews on Amazon.com, putting up a website that many other authors find useful (www.selfhelpforwriters.com) and like Jake, pointing out to potential customers that they can read his book for free on-line.
Even reader-only venues are not safe. Another author – let’s call her “Maybelline” – abused AARList’s sister list, canwetalk. Canwetalk is a reader-only list, set up so that readers could talk about books (both positively and negatively) in a comfortable atmosphere. But then one day, a fan of an author got upset about a discussion on canwetalk and felt that she had to do the author a “favor” by informing her of what was going on. Not much of a favor. The eventual result did not reflect at all well on the author, who already had a snarky reputation among many readers.
Shortly after this, the author joined canwetalk, which is against the guidelines, and jumped into the controversy. (Keep in mind that fans join canwetalk so that they can have discussions without worrying that an author might get upset at what they have to say.) Ironically, there was truly no reason for her to defend herself – several readers on canwetalk were doing a great job of doing so before she joined the list. If she had let this go, people would have forgotten the initial controversy. Instead, she ended up hardwiring it in the minds of canwetalk members. Naturally, readers on canwetalk were upset by this – where was the concern for the rules or for their privacy? Do you think that author gained any new fans from that list? Or more likely, do you think she may have lost potential fans?
Readers do care how authors present themselves. As Cara pointed out on the Potpourri board:
“…after I read some things an author posted on a site that was not hers, I was offended enough to stop buying her books. She shot herself in the foot by ranting on a board that fans read. I won’t mention the author or the board because of her apparent raves against the board. I wouldn’t want her to have anything to use against the owner of the board. So, that may have been her idea of self promotion, defending another author and free speech but her books won’t be bought by me again. She now has books in trade size and I would have paid for those as well, but not now.”
Also, sometimes author reactions to a review can become surreal. Several years ago, AAR posted a review of a suspense novel published by MIRA, Harlequin’s single title imprint. We were surprised when the author – let’s call her “Agatha” – posted on our Reviews Message Board, objecting to our review and asking why we had reviewed it when we were clearly a romance site. Hmm, perhaps because Harlequin sent us the novel to review?
Before long, Agatha daughter posted as well and defended her mother. That was odd enough. Then another fan started posting in the thread and supporting the author’s book. And another fan did the same thing. It didn’t take long for people to figure out these fans were the author’s daughter posting under an assumed name, which LLB verified by comparing IP numbers for all the posts. Although LLB killed the thread once she detected the deception. I was just glad the daughter’s budgie didn’t have its own Internet connection.
At AAR, we are not surprised when authors expect us to like their books. We often hear from authors who are upset at negative reviews – or even lukewarm reviews. (We’ve had a couple of authors upset at reviews in the B range!) We aren’t shocked when authors post their discontent on our message boards. We aren’t startled when authors write to Laurie or the reviewer privately to express disappointment – in fact, those responses are often the classiest ways of handling a bad review.
But we are puzzled when an author has problems with our review and yet posted about it at someone else’s message board. This is what happened with a Regency author named… uhm… Lucretia. (Sorry, I’ve run out of good fake names.) This author had received good reviews from us in the past, so when her most recent Regency got a C-minus review, she was stunned. This book was in the same style as her previous Regencies, one of which got a DIK review. Surely this one should get a glowing review as well! Well, err, no, not if the reviewer doesn’t like it all that much. Sadly, instead of coming to our message boards and discussing the problems she had with this review, Lucretia went to someone else’s board and accused us of trashing her book and making “factual errors.” Yet the review was not scathing, and it did not contain errors.
Reviewers are not the only target of author anger. Sometimes, fans who say something less-than-glowing can get attacked by the author. As Misty said:
“It’s probably just me, I know, and it’s a silly silly thing to rant about, but sometimes I feel manipulated when I go into a website for an author, and woe to anyone who actually has the gall to go against the grain and say what they really feel about a book…”
Yet authors really don’t help their causes when they get upset at readers who make “negative” comments about their books. Even mild comments can be enough to set off some authors. Sometimes that kind of author negativity can kill positive, organic discussions about that author’s own book. Now why would an author want to do a thing like that? But this happened in the case of one author who had received great reviews and wonderful buzz. Readers were eagerly talking about her hardcover novel, which had received a DIK review from AAR. The author – let’s call her “Margo” – had kept out of the thread. Then one reader posted about something she didn’t quite enjoy about the novel, and Margo posted in response, somewhat annoyed with that reader. Her response was enough to kill the thread. That’s funny, I thought “Buzzkill” was a band, not a phenomenon created by negative comments from an author. But kill the buzz she did – the people who had been praising her novel wandered off to other discussions.
This wasn’t the first time an author killed the buzz about her own book. The most recent authorial public affairs fiasco involved an author taking umbrage with something a reader said. This one occurred on a thread on our Reviews MB. A fan mentioned she’d had a tough time enjoying a recent historical release despite its DIK status because of a certain historical error the author made several times throughout the course of the book. And how did the author – let’s call her “Devona” – respond? Did she apologize for the error? Or ask why this level of detail was so important to her? No… her response was basically that the reader(s) should have gotten over it and gotten on with the story.
As you might expect, many readers did not take kindly to this. Other readers loved the book and said the error wasn’t that important for them because they prefer the history to be a background to the love story. The discussion might have died down eventually, with some people camping on each side of the river. But then, Devona came back and challenged a reader’s facts. After all, her copyeditor had said nothing about this error. Well, I’m an editor, and I once put a yellow sticky note on page six of a proposal I was editing that said “I’ve checked these pages, Sue.” I didn’t know that section was going directly to the copy room. The proposal, of course, went out with a photocopy of that sticky note on page six. It was a big sticky note, by the way. A warning to authors, copyeditors to make misteaks, I mean mistakes.
Devona’s post went on from there and despite its cheerful tone was insulting to those who criticized the same detail. The less said about that the better. What’s ironic about this incident is that the author got such a great review at AAR, yet left a bad taste in the mouths of so many readers. I have been taught that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. With bad message board etiquette, this author was given lemonade but may have turned it into lemons.
A post made a few days later when the author finally realized she had been in error was nice, but it was likely too little, too late for many readers. Contrast this episode with another episode at the very same time involving a thread about another recent DIK historical and the inaccuracies therein. In this instance, the author’s one and only post charmed and disarmed readers. In a few month’s time, I’ll bet you could ask readers which authors handle criticism well, and they’d name this author. Ask readers which authors don’t handle it well, and you’ve got…well, lemons.
That said, many readers don’t let the negativity get in their way of enjoying that author’s books. Cathy remembered an incident where an author made negative posts in defense of another author. But she added:
“Yes, I certainly did not agree with her and her defense for this other author, but I still buy her books, because I happen to like her style of writing. On the other hand, there are authors out there who I greatly admire, and yet, I stopped reading their books, because they are just not up to standard anymore, or their style of writing has gone in a different direction then I like. So although I enjoy meeting authors and talking to them on line, I try not to let there personal opinions sway me one way or the other. The writing style/quality is what counts with me.
So there is hope, even for authors who just… can’t … pull … themselves … away … from …. those… blasted … message … boards. In the words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in!”
Even writers who have received nothing but good reviews from us sometimes – such as, uhm, “Rudy” – till find a bone to pick with us. Why? Because her fellow authors sometimes receive bad reviews here. So instead of accepting that her friends’ books simply didn’t hit it off with that reviewer, Rudy accuses AAR’s reviewers of being mean and trashing the books. Unlike her, many writers accept that not all books will get good reviews, and they appreciate getting a good review here even more. They see a good review at AAR as something they earned with their own hard work.
Some writers have publicly claimed that they didn’t care about reviews. They ignored negative reviews, and oh what the heck, they didn’t care that much about positive reviews. In other words, when we post a less-than-glowing review of a book by an author, look out! We are in for a flamewar.
The Fury of Fans (Anne Marble)
You don’t have to be an author (or a relative of an author) to muddy an author’s name. Or to participate in message board deception. A thread about a book by an upcoming author suddenly grew overnight…midnight on a Sunday night, to be exact. In fact, it generated multiple threads, all about the same book. Suspiciously, many of the posts, although posted under at least six different names, had the same style. Sure enough, LLB did some detective work and found that all six “readers” were posting from the very same IP address. Very suspicious indeed. And of course, that did nothing to help promote the author. Laurie locked the thread to prevent further abuse. Even then, some people couldn’t leave it alone. One person asked something along the idea of “You mean six low income women who share an apartment and a computer can’t write in support of a book they liked?” Right. And maybe one of this author’s biggest fans is a seven-headed hydra who is familiar with the Internet and message boards.This situation was especially sad because the author had no control over it – the whole thread was started by fans who thought they were helping her. Yet instead, they guaranteed that some readers would forever associate their favorite author’s name with a flamefest and deceitful posts.
And then there was the review that provided a hypothetical quotation to reflect how the heroine was behaving and then added “Or words to that effect.” After that review went up, a fan accused the reviewer of misquoting the book. Keep in mind that the book hadn’t come out yet and was available only in ARC (advanced review copy) form. Which fans get ARCs to read? Very active ones who are likely to defend slights they see in reviews, both real and imagined (although this is changing as publishers begin sending out more ARC’s in order to build buzz online).
Sometimes both authors and fans can jump into a situation and muddy the waters. This happened when LLB posted a link to a newspaper interview with a romance writer turned writer of inspirational romances on our Reader to Reader Message Board and asked for comments. Boy did she get them. Fans joined the discussion and expressed their disappointment. Some writers were upset with the article, where this author expressed regret for writing love scenes. Yet after a couple of days, there was a flood of posts from angry readers who made accusations about the site – though they were obviously unfamiliar with it. (One even asked something like “Who’s this mysterious LLB? Why can’t she use her name in her posts?”) Also, some fans and writers were upset with Laurie. Why? Because she provided the link. I know, that makes no sense to me, either. An interview with a former romance writer appears in a regional newspaper, and it includes potentially controversial points. Points that we know people will want to discuss. It’s a discussion board. Shouldn’t we discuss it? LLB would have been failing in her duties as publisher of All About Romance if she had ignored the article.
But I suppose if our message boards didn’t attract controversy, we would be worried that we were doing something wrong! And, as LLB has often said, “Hell hath no fury like an reader’s favorite author scorned.”
Let’s Take a Survey! Let’s actually take two! (Laurie Likes Books)
The first three-quarters of 2002 are finished. Let’s check in on your book-buying and book-reading habits thus far this year. We’ve got two mini-surveys for you to take. You’ll link directly back to the second survey after you answer the first question. You’ll link directly under the second survey after you answer the second question, just the right place to be to read the questions we’ve set up for you to consider before posting to our ATBF Message Board.
If you’ve answered the first question, please move on to the second.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
A Straw Man? – Is the discussion of hygiene in romance a “straw man?” What is your first reaction when you see that an author or reader has discounted the importance of accuracy on the grounds that “readers don’t want to know about body odor?”
Too Much Information? – Can you think of any historical romances that have included too much detail on bathing, cleanliness etc. What were these romances? Can you think of historical romances where you would have wanted to see more grittiness? Would you feel embarrassed to defend gritty details in a book if everyone posting was saying that they needed the people in romances to be “clean?”
Obsessive Compulsive Americans – Robin says that a person’s current world view can be limited by the American preoccupation with hygiene. If you read a contemporary set in the Third World, how much “accuracy” would you expect or want to read? Would the accuracy of the book be hindered by glossing over unpleasant details?
Research – Do you agree with Robin that romance novels seem to contain less and less original research? Have you learned new things from unique romance novels? What were the books and when were they published?
Yes…We Talk About this Every Year – Romance reading slumps come in for discussion just about every year. Did you suffer from a slump yourself at some time in the past year? Which book(s) pulled you out of it?
Romance Reading Roots – Readers come to romance from a variety of different directions. How has your romance reading changed over the years in terms of sub-genres? Does switching sub-genres help when you are in a slump? Have you ever gone full circle in terms of sub-genre moves? And, have you ever gone back to an author you’d previously given up on? Please include the the sub-genre changes you’ve had, an which, if any, author(s) you’ve gone back to.
Anthologies – More anthologies are available this time of year as the Christmas season approaches. So it seems a good time to talk about them. Do you like anthologies or find the short form doesn’t work for you as a general rule? If an anthology features three or four short stories, how many must be good or great for you to consider it a success? If one story out of three or four is particularly bad, does that “ruin” the whole book for you? What’s your favorite romance anthology, and why does it work? Conversely, which short story was so bad it seemed to go on forever?
An Individual and the Sum of Parts – Have you ever fallen in love with a romance based more on the hero and/or heroine alone than on them as a couple? Have you ever fallen in love with a romance more because you fell in love with the lead couple together even as individual characters they weren’t outstanding?
Author Promotions – What types of author promotion work for you, if any? Have you ever bought a book because you learned about it through a bookmark or magnet or author web page, or are you more likely to rely on word of mouth or reviews?
Authors on Discussion Lists – If you belong to romance discussion lists for readers and authors, do you like seeing authors join lists and tell you about upcoming books, and if so, what’s the best way to tell you about this? In some cases, would you prefer to see authors join in the discussions more often? Do you notice that certain authors (only) seem to post when they’ve got a new book coming out. Do you see this as a good thing or would you prefer more even participation?
Crossing the Line – Are there things you’ve seen authors do to promote their books that you thought crossed the line? What were they and how could the author have better promoted their books in those cases? What do you make of the author known as “Maybelline,” who joined and posted on AAR’s reader-only discussion list, or “Margo” or “Devona,” who managed to turn lemonade back into lemons via their message board postings?
Class Acts – Which authors do you think have shown the best class when they try to get their message across on discussion lists, message boards, and in-general online behavior?
Touchy, Touchy – Have you ever been shot down on a message board or discussion list because you said you didn’t like something an author wrote? Even if the criticism was mild? If you haven’t experienced this directly, have you seen it, and how did it make you feel about the author afterward?
For Authors Only – If you are an author, what have you found works best when trying to get your message across? Also, have you ever been criticized by readers for what you believed were low-key promotional activities? Have you ever made a posting to a discussion list or message board that you later regretted? What happened?
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board