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Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

March 15, 2003 – Issue #157

Robin and Anne lead discussions in this issue of At the Back Fence on “When Love Hurts,” a look at heartache in romance, and “Negative Awards – Necessity or Abomination?” Both topics feature a great deal of reader/author input, and Anne’s segment on negative awards, which grew out of an AARListthread, which in turn grew out of the categories in our annual reader poll, is particularly lively. Enjoy!

When Love Hurts (Robin Uncapher)

There is a scene early on in Marian Keyes’ Watermelon where Claire, the heroine, whose husband has left her for another woman, wakes in the night to begin one of those long internal conversations that only a heartbroken woman in love will recognize. It’s the “If-I-call-him-maybe-it-will-fix-things,” conversation.” You know the one I mean. He’s dumped you. It’s one in the morning (seldom a time when a man is open to having a deep, life changing conversation). You know you are going to wake him from a sound sleep. You are breaking all The Rules. You know that calling him like this will make it worse, much worse and make you look like the pathetic, miserable person that you are (so attractive to men – that image). But you are not rational. You are in so much pain that even a fight with him sounds better than continuing to sit alone in the dark.

In this state Claire calls her husband at their old apartment:

I started to dial the number of my apartment in London. There were a couple of clicks as the phone in Dublin connected with the phone in an empty apartment in a city four hundred miles away.
I let it ring. It might have been a hundred times. It might have been a thousand times.
It rang and rang, calling our to a cold dark, empty apartment. I could imagine the phone ringing and ringing beside the smooth, unruffled, unslept-in-bed, shadows from the window thrown on it as the lights from the street streamed in through the open curtains. Open, because there was no one there to close them.
And still I let it ring and ring. And slowly hope left me.
James wasn’t answering.
Because James wasn’t there. James was in another apartment. In another bed.
With another woman.
I was crazy to think that I could have got him back just because I wanted him back. Temporary Insanity had come a-calling and I had shouted “Come in, door is open.” Luckily Reality had come home unexpectedly and found Temporary Insanity roaming the corridors of my mind unchecked, going into rooms, opening cupboards, reading my letters, looking in my underwear drawer, that kind of thing. Reality had to throw out Temporary Insanity and slammed the door in his face. Temporary Insanity now lay in the gravel in the driveway of my mind, panting and furious, shouting, “She invited me in, you know. She asked me in. She wanted me there.”

We can call it Temporary Insanity, as Marian Keyes does, or depression, or a myriad of other things. But what it really is, at the center of all the pain, is old fashioned heartache. Loving hurts when the person you love doesn’t love you back.

Poetry is full of heartache. For many of us it’s heartache that brought us to poetry in the first place, much in the same way that people in love start listening more closely to songs on the radio because they suddenly make sense. My favorite poem, A Broken Appointment, by Thomas Hardy, begins:


You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure loving kindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.

Heartache is more than just feeling sad that we are not loved. It is also feeling crazy that we could love someone who is callous enough to have loved us once and then stopped. We think they are wonderful, important, critical to our happiness while at the same time we think they must be awful not to love us back.

In spite of the fact that Shakespeare, Hardy, Wordsworth and a million song writers have produced great art to express heartache, there is surprisingly little of it in romance novels. Most romance heroes and heroines seem to know deep down that everything will be okay. If they don’t know that the relationship will be okay, they know that they will be okay. They don’t experience that black inability to see the future without the loved one — which is fairly common when people are really in love. There is however, some heartache in romance, and I often find that my very favorite romance novels are the ones where the heroine experiences some kind of fierce heartache.

Watermelon is Chick Lit, not a romance novel, and this gives the author more freedom with her characters. LLB didn’t care much for the book mainly because the husband (the same man Claire tries to call in the passage above) Claire thought was terrific and spent five years loving turned out to be a complete jerk. Worse, though, as LLB explains in her review, is that the book reminded her “of phone calls with friends married to good men who, seemingly overnight, turn into bad men. Perhaps because this happened fairly recently to a friend and colleague, this bit of reality ruined the fantasy of Claire finding her soul mate in Adam. And though there’s much to recommend about this novel, it may leave a sour taste in the mouth.“

I liked Watermelon very much, though I had many of the same thoughts about it that Laurie had. My feeling is that Keyes made a mistake in her early descriptions of the marriage. This is not a book where the heroine has misgivings about her husband which prove true. It is also not a book where the reader can see past the heroine’s mistaken appraisal of her husband’s character. No, the reader of Watermelon falls in love with James and becomes as bitter as Claire when he turns out to have clay feet.

Like Laurie, I wanted Claire’s marriage to James to work out. But the book’s structure made that tough to imagine happening. The husband abandoned Claire and their baby on the day she gave birth. Two months later he still had not bothered to learn her name. There were five years of marriage to consider, but the reason James had cheated was so flimsy that it was very hard to imagine him not doing it again.

And yet.

I wanted it to work. I wanted the heartache to magically be mended. I wanted James to love Clarie and be sorry. No going to another man was going to be quite a satisfying to me as the reconciliation of the original couple. And yet, as a reader I could see that was impossible. Why? Because what heartache wants is for the impossible to happen. It wants that Temporary Insanity in the middle of the night to be right. It was all a mistake. He really loves me.

The list of romance novels that have evoked very strong feelings of heartache isn’t all that long. Yes, there’s a lot of angst. Many heroes have tragic backstories that are told in a few paragraphs at the start of a book. Some have excellent sad backstories woven into the story itself. But there are surprisingly few convincing broken hearts when the source of the heartache is the other half of the couple. There are few big ones, however. The Bronze Horseman, which includes a long period where the heroine doubts the hero’s love (for excellent reasons), is a masterpiece of heartbreak.

I posted on our Potpourri Message Board to discover whether other romance readers have a similar fondness for serious heartbreak in Romance and Chick Lit. There are indeed some, and many of their favorite books are also my favorites. Here’s Di’s response:

Diana Gabaldon ruined me and made me need severe angst for the hero and heroine before they finally get together and even while they’re together. That’s also why Paullina Simons’ Tatiana and Alex stories are among my favorites. The only (other) authors who really did it for me were Marsha Canham and Kathleen Givens. While not as severe emotionally as the above mentioned but it’s there, and very realistic.”

In talking with readers about heartache in romance The Bronze Horseman and the Outlander series came up a lot. One thing that readers stressed was that not just any heartache would do. To be a special book the heartache had to be unusually well written and believable. Kaija explained this when she wrote:

“I don’t find heartache a requisite in a romance novel but when it’s well done, I appreciate it. One author who can do it very well is Elizabeth Lowell. I don’t like all her books by any means, but the two that I adore (Only His and Untamed) have very painful inner conflict for hero, heroine or both. It’s especially well done in Untamed. Meg sees the good qualities in Dominic but she also sees him very clearly, all his ambitions, his plans and his inability to really trust anyone but Simon [his brother]. She wants to love him but can’t – and the heartache that causes is very painful. I think the scene pretty much at the end of the book when Meg feels that she is released from her responsibilities towards her people would be nearly unbearable if the reader didn’t know that Dominic does love her and has realized it.”One thing that always gets to me is when h/h gives in to inner compulsion knowing that he or she will have to pay a very heavy prize for it. In Only His, Caleb realizes what making love to Willow will cost, but he’s willing to pay it. There is one Linda Howard book with somewhat similar scene that raises goose bumps every time I read it.

“As for Chick Lit, Fiona Walker is good. In Kiss Chase there is a pivotal scene more or less at the end of the book, where the heroine Phoebe is going to do something that will break the hero Felix’ heart. She begs him to leave the weekend party, but he refuses believing that Phoebe won’t go through with the plan. She does and so breaks Felix’ heart (possibly) and very definitely her own. You really feel her pain, and it isn’t pretty. The make-up scene at the end of the book is lovely and for all its implausibility it fits the book. And I do love the fact that Phoebe in her misery is horribly dressed for it (OK, so I always pay attention what people are wearing)

The more I thought about this the more I realized that many books and movies that are called tear-jerkers often don’t really fit this bill. If a book or movie seems contrived or if the emotion is forced the drama in the book doesn’t work. The heroine has to seem like a normal person reacting to a tough situation, not tear fountain. Deciding what is contrived and what is not can, of course, be a matter of taste. In the 70s I remember going to the movies to see The Story of Adele H, which is about Victor Hugo’s daughter. According to the movie she was seduced and abandoned. Later love turned into obsession and finally madness. It is a tragic story and I sat enthralled through every minute. (I have no idea how I would feel now.) The young man I was with thought the movie was so dull he could not believe it when he turned to find me weeping into a wad of Kleenex. It was a first date and a last. I can’t speak for him but I did know that if a man could not understand why I was crying for Adele, he was just not for me.

Reader Sandy hit on some of this sobfest versus real heartache when she posted about the topic by talking about Teresa Hill’s Twelve Days. She found it to be a sobfest from the start. She added, “I’m not sure this is what you’re referring to. I think you’re thinking of something more romantically-related, when the heartache in Hill’s book seemed to be an all-encompassing cloud over every aspect of life. To be honest, although I appreciated Hill’s fine writing, this was more than I could bear. In fact, I considered picking up Sylvia Plath’s A Bell Jar just to cheer myself up!”

Maya also elaborated on heartache books that work and ones that don’t. She particularly enjoyed Marian Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday which, as she puts it, is told through an unreliable narrator who begins as a kind of Bridget Jones clone but comes to understand her faults. Like all of us on the board she agreed that not just any sad book fits the bill. She wrote, “Any old heartache won’t do for me. I need skillfully-rendered, realistically-developed heartache, otherwise don’t bother. I hate angst artificially created because a dark-haired man once wronged her, so she can never trust one again. I even think that an abusive or dysfunctional family background is so easily slipped into a book that those stories rarely end up being my favorites.”

Laurie asked me what books I would consider real heartache books. She had a difficult time thinking of many romances that fit the bill, although Elizabeth Lowell and Linda Howard, through use of the betrayal theme, often manage to do so, particularly in their earlier (but in the case of Howard, not the earliest) work. As for me, I would agree that most on my list are not straight romances, but there are some that have a dose of what I think of as “real” heartache:



  • Karen Ranney’s Upon a Wicked Timecolor The start of this book is so desperately unhappy that I was wondering if I would enjoy it. I did, but the hero is unusually cruel. What saves him is the heroine’s steadfast behavior.
  • Mary Balogh’s The Obedient Wifecolor -When the wife in this book discovers her husband has a mistress the blow is convincing. As I told Laurie the reason I was able to get past the adultery in this book was that the marriage is so clearly one of convenience that even the reader is not sure what the heroine’s reaction will be to finding her husband is with another woman.
  • Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel – This is a book about a regency prostitute and her client. The saddest scene in the book is one where the hero tries to roll back their relationship from lovers to employer and employee.
  • Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Follycolor – The end of the first chapter of this book had me crying real tears. I won’t give it away but it is as sad as they come.
  • Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of Youcolor – The hero of this book, Derek Craven, really pines for the heroine. He feels she is beyond him in a way that is touching and believable.



Most of the books I can think of with wonderful, believable heartache are either historical or literary fiction with love stories in them. Kathryn Lynn Davis Too Deep for Tears (Laurie’s all-time favorite novel) had me crying. The aforementioned The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons broke my heart repeatedly and I expect that its sequel, Tatiana and Alexander, which sits on my tbr, will do the same.

The books with the biggest heartache for me are often the classics. Anyone who loves sad books with believable heartache needs to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for depiction of temptation and doomed love. Tolstoy’s Anna is as fresh and real today as she was over a hundred years ago. Bronte’s Jane Eyre is another one to read if only for the memorable scene where Jane tells Mr. Rochester for the last time that she loves him. And can anyone forget Darcy’s sadness at realizing he had lost Elizabeth Bennett forever?

Current literary fiction tends to be so cold that much of the emotion is lost. Not all, however. There is a memorable chapter in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook where the heroine is stood up for a date. I remember this book well from my college years. It is the first book I read where the heroine, through no fault of her own, is subjected to a man’s whimsy. The heroine has invited her lover for dinner. Lessing chronicles the preparation of the fish with wine, the excitement and anticipation. Then we read the slow panic when the lover does not show, or even call. The dinner grows cold as the heroine’s anxiety grows. Why we ask ourselves, does this man not come? Not call? Why say you are coming when you are not? The reader fills with outrage as she watches the heroine pace the apartment, drink glass after glass of wine and finally throw the uneaten fish with wine sauce in the garbage.

The Golden Notebook is not a romance. We do not learn that the lover has changed his mind, that he was in a terrible accident, that he has amnesia or was out saving someone from drowning. He is simply one of thousands of dates who decided not to show up. For me there was something freeing about reading about him. Maybe this meant that I was not the only woman in the world to be abandoned on a Saturday night. Maybe this meant that I could stand up for myself next time it happened. It meant I was not alone.

And, in the end, when people ask me why I like heartache in romance, I think this is the reason. Reading someone else’s pain can make your own seem more manageable. Reading it in a romance can be even better because the pain can be turned to joy. Edith Wharton wrote that people like to read sad stories with happy endings. Ezra Pound said that poetry should make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. I like stories with both these qualities. Do you know any?

Negative Awards – Necessity or Abomination? (Anne Marble)

Should AAR’s Annual Reader Poll even have categories for negative awards? That issue came up on AARList recently. Some readers and authors disliked the idea of having negative awards. Others loved these awards, even if they disagreed.

Okay, I’ll admit that I like having categories for negative awards myself. For one thing, this sort of question gives us a better barometer of reader opinion. It tells us not just what readers loved, but what they hated. Romantic Times doesn’t ask this sort of question of its readers, but many entertainment magazines that do polls do ask these questions. So do computer magazines and gaming magazines. Why? There are many reasons. One major reason is that people don’t want to waste their money. A computer game can cost $50 and more. Fans without large bank balances often prefer to wait until the yearly “best and worst” lists come out than buy it and risk getting disappointed – especially as some of the major computer gaming magazines are notorious for giving “fluffy” reviews. Nobody wants to spend $50 only to wind up with a game that crashes, graphics that look like crayon drawings, and horrible game play.

Like me, Deirdre isn’t bothered by negative categories, particularly given that AAR is an entertainment site and not a “fan” site. She writes, “A well-rounded view of the genre including what people consider the worst romances (and remember the worst romances are not always the worst books) is appropriate.” She adds that because the site exists to inform the reader, “the further away she steps from concern about hurting the feelings of authors, editors, and publishers, the more informative the site is going to be for the reader.” According to Deirdre, readers aren’t only bothered by the big stuff like plagiarism, but by those “niggling little annoying things that authors do in their books. If something has aroused feelings strongly enough to be voted worst than it says something about where the readers of romance at this site may be out of step with what is being published.”

Deirdre brings up some great points, Also, many times, authors have pointed to the results of AAR’s Reader’s Poll and noted that the books that end up in the negative categories are often huge best-sellers. Perhaps they think that this vindicates those authors. Yet all it proves is that AAR readers don’t always have the same tastes as the book-buying public. And, just because a book sold a lot of copies doesn’t mean readers loved it. Some readers continue to buy certain authors in the hopes that they’ll find that magic again.

Sandy C also supports negative categories and wishes some authors would pay attention to them. “The negative awards and dishonorable mentions might be kind of a wake up call for some. I think the winners in the two big ones were sound choices. I used to read all of Stephanie Laurens’ work and had several friends that did also. About two or three books ago we just got tired of the Cynster books. The same can be said for Evanovich’s Hard Eight… that book was a major disappointment. Hard Eight couldn’t hold a candle to the first five books.”

Unlike Sandy, I didn’t end up giving up on any authors I once loved this year. For one thing, I didn’t read that many new romances this year, though I glommed a lot of authors. Most of what I did read was fantasy, and most of that was older books. Still, I managed to end up with a “Most Disappointing” read. Imagine this scenario. A reader, let’s call her “Enna,” sees a full-page ad for an upcoming fantasy novel in Chronicle, a magazine covering fantasy, science fiction, and related fields. Though this book is a debut novel, it is coming out in hardcover and is being given a big “push” by the publisher, Del Rey, one of the leading publishers in the field. Then Enna finds out that for a limited time, before the hardback has been released, she can download it for free at an e-book publisher. Naturally, she downloads it and starts to read it. And realizes that the first sentence contains three – count ’em, three – adverbs. The rest of the first paragraph has similar problems. There are also enough adjectives to choke a dragon. She keeps trying to read it, thinking that maybe it will be fun anyway. Then, Enna learns that in this book, while the wizards are good, sorceresses are always evil. Talk about a battle of the sexes! (As some readers suggested, the author may have had a dominatrix fixation.) OK, maybe it will still be campy fun, she tells herself. No, it wasn’t, not when that writing style kept getting in the way. That was Enna’s, I mean my, experience with the major fantasy debut, The Fifth Sorceress.

On the other hand, Lian isn’t a fan of negative categories. She can see where they would be valuable to readers, and enjoys the chance to vent, but she thinks they may cast AAR in a negative light.

“In general, and especially as AAR seems to be getting more and more industry publicity, I would wonder if the negative categories might need to be looked at for future polls. It does seem a bit schoolyard to award something to highlight how ‘bad’ an author/book is. In respect to the yearly awards I think the fact that there actually are negative awards only reflects badly on AAR. Initially it creates discussion and a fantastic ATBF column but after this time the list continues to stand for prosperity without justification (either good or bad). I’m as pleased as anyone that AAR is not a romance ‘cheerleader’ and provides readers with a open forum to learn about the best and worst of romances but I don’t think AAR awarding prizes to the ‘worst’ books will mean that the romance industry will be any more validated because of it. I understand the argument that there are other negative awards in other fields (i.e. Entertainment Weekly, The Whammy’s etc)… but because other people do it, does that mean it’s right?”

Like Lian, author Laura Mills Alcott does not support negative awards. She views positive awards as a form of cheerleading but doesn’t see the point of negative awards. “I’ve yet to see the movie award shows do anything beyond celebrate the best. Very often, I didn’t care for some of movies that won, but someone obviously did. I think the same should go for book awards. There are many books that receive awards that I personally didn’t think were so hot. But obviously, someone liked them, so heck, let ’em cheer.”

Yet there are “bad movie awards” such as the Golden Turkey awards, and these have been around for years. actually has a search index category for pages dedicated to bad films. These include pages such as Oh the I will cheerfully admit to seeing some of the movies on these lists. Come to think of it, Ed Wood’s movies might have fallen into film limbo if it weren’t for the attention they get from the “worst movies ever” lists. As far as books go, both Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine list their critics’ annual choices of both the best and worst books of the year. Part of the fun – and stress – of their choices is reading them and saying “What were they thinking?!” Say what you will about AAR, at least AAR lets readers have a say as well.

I think “Worst of” lists have a place in romance. At the very least, they help give a balanced view of readers think about the books that came out that year. In any event, it’s publicity. Several times a bad review at AAR has intrigued me enough to buy the book. For example, all the reviewer has to say is “If you’re a fan of Gothics, you might like this more than I did,” and it ends up on my “to be bought list.” Also, if I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned “big misunderstanding,” I might buy a Big Mis book despite the warnings in a review. Quite often, I wind up shouting, “Wow, I could’ve had a V8!” Uhm, no, that’s not it, I mean, “Wow, I should’ve listed to that reviewer!”

In defense of negative categories, LLB points out that means best and worst lists are

“…a standard and accepted practice. We’ve always been of the mindset at AAR that if you’re going to talk about the best, you’ve got to talk about the worst or else there’s nothing to measure the best against, rendering its ‘bestness’ less than meaningful. As for the idea that it reflects badly on AAR that we have negative awards, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Given that 80% of the awards we poll for annually are for positive categories celebrating what’s best in romance, I’m satisfied that the negative categories don’t damage us. If the percentages were reversed, that would be a different story.”And, what separates our negative awards from those given out at the Oscars, or by SAG, the Director’s Guild, etc, is that all those are industry awards given by peers. It makes perfect sense that those awards would only celebrate the positive. Our awards, on the other hand, are generated organically because they are voted in by readers. There is no slate of nominees presented by a group of experts, which is why we don’t share our staff choices until the poll closes. Every author and book comes direct from the readers.”

I agree with Laurie, and not just because she runs this site. While some people want AAR to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, we can’t really do that and still remain true to the site’s philosophy, can we? This site is for readers, and AAR gives readers the chance to lean over that back fence and talk about why they liked or hated certain books. This site is also about both the positive and negative aspects of romance – and sometimes, readers will disagree on which parts are positive and which are negative. That’s part of the point of discussion – sharing diverse opinions.

Karen2 also sees the importance of the discussions that can generate from AAR’s reader poll:

“There have often been discussions on the message boards at AAR about books and authors relating to these categories. Choices, as always, are subjective and useful for even more discussion. This should have nothing to do with diplomacy and everything to do with readers discussing their favorite subject – books. The Awards aren’t isolated, or a dead end. They are a starting point for even more discussion about books that worked for people and books that didn’t. As has been pointed out, the same book can be one reader’s best and another’s worst which makes for a lot of discussion of some authors. Their names are getting out to other readers who might never have heard of them. Check the archives at AAR after the yearly awards and you’ll find readers involved in lots of discussions about the results. The sad thing is many of the books discussed will be out of print so authors get no benefit from readers discovering them after awards and discussions make a book more well known.”

Still, not everybody is sold on the idea of negative categories. Neala admits that she has thought “What the hell were they thinking?” in response to some best-sellers and popular movies. However, she adds, “If I thought a poll question was dubious or just for a Mr. Blackwell make me famous sort of thing, I’d skip it. But, if I truly wanted people to know what I thought was an incomplete or oddly thought out work, I would. Just like I rave when I find a real strawberry of a work.”

However, I think that there are some differences between Mr. Blackwell’s lists, which often makes me rant and fume (especially when he started listing stars for the way their fictional characters dressed) and AAR’s annual awards. The first major one is that AAR is polling the readers. This isn’t one man’s choice, this is what the fans are voting on. The second difference, just as important, is that the categories in AAR’s Reader’s Poll are overwhelmingly positive. As Laurie stated earlier, 80% of the categories are positive ones – so why the controversy, particularly since controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing? Deirdre points out that many times the same books that rouse negative feelings also rouse positive feelings, which can bring more readers to a book because they want to see what “all the fuss is about.” She added, “I think it would do even more of a disservice to the genre not to recognize that there are some books that are on the bottom of the heap as far as readers go.”

So why so much impassioned argument against negative categories? Could it be that many are still trying to protect the romance genre from criticism? Even though negative reviews are becoming acceptable now, some people still can’t stomach them. Though some boards and lists do encourage negative discussions, many fans and some writers still get uncomfortable about what they see as “negativity.” Then throw the on-line awards into the mix! Suddenly, readers are voting for the best and worst, and they’re not being asked to tell people why they feel that way. That’s not “constructive,” is it?

But does the poll have to be constructive? This is a poll, after all. When Gallup calls me on the phone, they let me voice my opinion on an issue even if I don’t tell them my reasons. When I vote for president, I don’t have to tell the pollsters why I picked that guy and why I didn’t vote for the other guy. Also, remember that not all readers feel comfortable analyzing what they felt about a book. They simply feel it. Readers in AAR’s annual poll are given the chance to make their feelings known without having to start a discussion that they might not feel comfortable about.

There might also be some controversy in romance because there are so many different lists and polls. The RITA’s and the RT awards are probably the best known awards in romance, but many readers don’t know about them or disagree with the results or are startled by the huge numbers of categories in the RT awards. Then throw the on-line awards into the mix (hey, I hear an echo in here), and you have even more chaos. On the web, it’s common for a book or author to end up on both “best” lists and “worst” lists – even on the same poll. This sometimes leaves authors wondering “What the…?!”

Also, are AAR’s negative categories all that negative? MaryKatherine doesn’t think this is necessarily true; after all, two of the negative awards – for Authors Others Love But You Don’t and Purple-est Prose – aren’t strictly negative. The former simply recognizes that readers like different authors. As she writes, “All three of this year’s winners are romance superstars.” As for the category for purple prose, MaryKatherine adds that it “isn’t a worst category at all – it’s a style category. In the 1999 reader’s poll, Robin Schone won Favorite Romance of the Year and Purple-est Prose with The Lady’s Tutor. If purple is really a worst category, she shouldn’t have been able to win both. Purple usually gets a lot of laughs, but sometimes it’s an example of Luscious, as evidenced by Emma Holly’s wins this year.”

On this same topic, Robin Schone says that the “author must take the source into consideration” because some sites attract people who enjoy a certain type of book while another site will attract an entirely different set of readers with different tastes. In the end, she believes, “Negative awards – and positive awards – really reflect more about a given site/organization and the participants/members, than it does an author/book.”

I think being voted in both negative and positive categories should be a badge of honor for writers. I’ve often held that if nobody hates your story, you must be doing something wrong. On AARList, I’ve pointed out that the books that make readers the angriest or disappoint them the most often aren’t the bad books, they were the most involving ones; otherwise, readers wouldn’t care so much when the book took a turn they didn’t like. Also, in the case of Robin Schone’s books, I think some people who voted for her book as their favorite also may have voted for her books in the “Most Purple Prose” category. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t like Robin’s prose. They might simply have a different opinion of what constitutes purple prose, or in some cases, they read books because they have what they consider to be purple prose.

Robin was also put out at first because people were voting for her novels in the “Most Purple Prose” category.

“When I was first ‘awarded’ with the Most Purple Prose award, I was – yes, I’ll admit it – hurt. But mostly I was just plain down confused. The Lady’s Tutor had been accused of a lot of things, but purple prose was not one of them. Compiling my confusion, was the fact that TLT – in the same contest – was voted as the Favorite Romance Book of the Year. I received the Most Purple Prose ‘award’ the following two years in a row. What I learned is that some people mistake ‘purple’ prose – which actually is another term for extraneous, flowery language – to indicate a book has sex scenes. Hot sex scenes. Erotic sex scenes. Knowing this, as the recipient, I really couldn’t be offended by the Most Purple Prose award, because I do write hot, erotic sex scenes. Having received it three years in a row was rather a compliment, as these people obviously felt – when voting – that for three years in a row, I wrote the books that had the hottest, most erotic sex scenes. So I am rather sad I didn’t have a book out last year, because I think it would have been fun winning the Most Purple Prose award 4 years standing.”

Shelley Dodge, AAR pollster/reviewer responds, “Robin is right, our readers do have different ways of defining purple prose. To them it is writing that is over the top in some way, but that could be in adjectives, situations, dialogue, sexual content. IOW, some aspects of the story were considered over the top by that individual reader. But – and this is a big but – many readers who vote in this category are voting for books they really like. Frankly, I have my list of authors who I think are a little more descriptively, err, vivid than some others I read. I still read them and enjoy myself immensely.”

Like Shelley, I also agree that “purple prose” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My special honorary vote for purple-est prose of the year doesn’t go to a romance novel, and it doesn’t even go to a novel published this decade. It goes to Stephen R. Donaldson’s controversial fantasy novel Lord Foul’s Bane. Yet it was also one of my favorite reads of the year, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half so much if Donaldson didn’t relish in big words. That was one of the charms of the novel. Yet if I had opened it expecting succinct writing, I would have been sorely disappointed. Also, when I started reading the book, I already knew that while many people loved it, many others loathed it. If fantasy fans didn’t feel free to discuss what they love and hate about books, I might not have been warned about some of the book’s more (cough cough) controversial elements.

For similar reasons, Raelene sees the negative categories as being useful to her as a reader because “we are inundated with fulsome reviews, publisher advertising, etc, all to convince us how great every single book is.” She wants to know “about the poorly written ones, the disappointing ones” so that she can better spend her money at the bookstore, although she realizes that one reader’s ‘worst’ may be another’s best.”

Naava finds negative categories “therapeutic,” explaining that it’s helpful to vent when she reads a book that doesn’t live up to expectations. Perhaps the polls reflect this, particularly “since books are getting to be increasingly expensive investments.”

Like Naava, Peggy has noticed that books cost a lot more these days, and she likes to use negative categories to help her save money – this seems to be a common characteristic for many readers! She wants to know what books to read and “which books to avoid at all costs,” adding that it doesn’t particularly help readers to “just have the positive side.” And in an echo of LLB’s comments above, she questions whether “the industry is nothing more than a cheerleading squad for its authors,” which may be great “for authors’ egos, (but) not great for readers’ interests. Sometimes hearing a negative side makes me trust reviews more than if I were hearing unadulterated positives all the time.”

On a similar note, Reyesuela says, she loves the negative categories, even when her “response is ‘huh?’ to some of the results.” She finds it a “relief from the fake, simpering sweetness that clogs up so many of the boards online,” adding that while “there are books a lot of people love and there are books that a lot of people are frustrated at. Acknowledge it! Don’t hide behind a veil of pretended delicacy for the sake of the poor author’s feelings.” After all, she notes, “if you choose to write, you choose to make your product a ‘public’ figure,’ and people have as much right to express opinions over it as they did to get ticked when Coke changed its formula.”

Another argument against negative categories came forth in this debate. Some people argued that while negative reviews are fine, and can be considered a form of constructive criticisms, negative awards don’t fall under this category. Negative awards aren’t like reviews or discussions, which are constructive, because no reasons are offered for why they landed on a “worst” list. Jean and Ann took different sides in this debate on this particular point:


“I appreciate negative reviews and negative comments on the list and message boards about novels, but, I agree that the negative categories and the awards serve no purpose, and just make the awards seem juvenile. What is the point of knowing that some people disliked a book, if you don’t know why? They might have hated it because they hate Alpha Heroes, but, you might love Alpha’s. They may hate it because there were no explicit sex scenes, you might hate explicit sex scenes, etc. Just knowing that many people dislike the book tells us nothing. Looking at the interim results many of the books that were rated negatively were also nominated as favorites, which just tells me that what some people like, some people hate.” — Jean “I completely disagree. I will often seek out books that get ‘F’ grades and ‘worst’ awards just to see what was so awful about them. What a ‘worst’ award does, is put me on notice that I should look into this book’s reviews and comments before I spend my money on it. Especially if I was considering buying it before the award was given. I find it interesting that there’s all this hand-wringing about ‘worst’ awards, when all of the arguments can also be applied to ‘best’ awards. No one seems to be complaining about them. Hmmm….” — Ann

I think this is why so many moviegoers love the yearly best and worst shows that Roeper and Ebert do. Remember, a lot of people are like my father, they would rather rent the movie. The best of the year show is great because it can highlight what they might want to look for on the shelves of their local video rental store, but the worst of the year show is just as important. It can warn them away from throwing away money on movies they know they will probably hate. (Despite the reviews, though, I’m still tempted to rent Death to Smoochy! So authors who end up in a negative category needn’t despair.)

Like Ann, Rosario wonders under this argument why positive awards are acceptable. “I don’t think there’s a difference in ‘constructiveness’ between the ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ book awards. One says: ‘Author X, you are doing something right. Many people like your books.’ And the other says ‘Author Y, you are doing something wrong. Many people don’t like your books.’ Neither explains what’s so good/bad about the book, or how the author could repeat/correct it.”

Kim expounds on this issue as well:

“I know there has been much discussion on negative awards in general and the reasons some people don’t like them. One reason mentioned is that they don’t tell you ‘why’. By the same token neither does a positive award. It just tells you how the majority of people voted. There are no specifics. What was so great about it? The characters, storyline, writing style? Explaining why something is good is just as necessary as explaining why it isn’t. Everyone wants their work to be appreciated and to hear what a good job they’ve done which is why you will rarely hear anyone complaining about a ‘best’ award. I’ve never seen a suggestion about getting rid of awards entirely, just the ones that are ‘negative’. I don’t know if this is a factor at all but I would hazard a guess that there is not enough space to list the ‘why’s’ in the final tally for the best/worst categories. If there are several hundred people voting that’s a lot of commentary. The discussions after the winners are announced seems to me a better way for the voters to explain their reasoning in depth. No system is perfect but I feel that the polls are AAR are very fair. The readers are able to vote for whatever book they want to in any of the categories. There is no predetermined list of choices so in the end it is up to the readers to decide whom they want to vote for.”

But Laura Mills Alcott sees a different, and personal, side of negative awards. She says, “…an ‘award’ for the ‘worst book’ is saying ‘this book sucks’ – there’s no getting around that. And I think the whole meaning of ‘awards’ is lost when the sole purpose of that award is to trash a book and author.”

However, author Eileen Wilks says, “This discussion got me thinking…what if we could vote on negative awards for others who are expected to please large numbers of the public? Just having a little fun here…


“Other Negative Awards:

  • Most Unintelligible Cab Driver
  • Rudest Sales Clerk
  • Most Mathematically-Challenged Bank Teller
  • Customer Service Rep You’d Most Like to Punch In The Nose
  • Most Boring Sermon
  • The ‘Nazi of the Year’ Award,” which could go to petty tyrants (bosses, bureaucrats, etc.) in positions of power everywhere”
“Hmm…I didn’t think I had a point, but maybe I do. In each of my rather silly examples, the ‘worst of’ award is based on someone who delivers the exact opposite of what people expect from a person in that position. And there is s sneaking little part of me that would like to vote on a couple of those awards. When we feel we’ve been treated badly, we’d like to shake the person who mistreated us and make them acknowledge that they were wrong, wrong, wrong…and I suppose that’s the appeal of the type of negative book awards we’re discussing. They don’t really give information, the way a review or discussion might. They do give dissatisfied readers a safe, easy, anonymous way to vent those feelings, and they result in a list. People love lists.”

Eileen makes some great points. When a sales clerk makes your life miserable, how do you react? Some people call the manager, others go home and complain, others vow never to come back to that store. I doubt anyone thinks “Well, some people probably liked being treated rudely by him, so I shouldn’t be angry.” We recognize that by being rude, the sales clerk is failing miserably in their duties.

So… why do we call it “trashing” when a reader says she was disappointed in a book? Let’s ask ourselves an important question. When a reader casts her votes in a poll, is she really trashing a book when she simply says that it was the most disappointing book of the year or that she doesn’t like that author? I don’t think this is the case at all. As people often point out, reviews are just one reader’s opinion. For many readers, the annual polls are the only time they get to state their opinion, both the good and the bad. They might be lurkers feel shy about posting to boards or posting to AARList, or they might be readers who simply aren’t comfortable with giving the specifics of their likes and dislikes.

Just like musicians and actors, writers are public figures, whether they want to be or not. Sometimes being a public figure means accepting adulation; sometimes it means that learning to accept that some people will be disappointed enough in your book to vote about it in a poll. Should a reader worry about an author’s feelings before voting in a negative category in a poll? The short answer is: No. And the long answer is: No way. When a reader puts a book down and says “Damn, I didn’t like that,” we shouldn’t ask her to keep her thoughts to herself because after all, the author might be listening, and besides, some people liked that book. When a reader looks at a shelf in a bookstore and decides not to buy something because she doesn’t like the author, we don’t tell her to keep those thoughts in check. We all have books we didn’t like and authors we don’t like, and like that hypothetical reader, we are allowed to have those thoughts. For the same reasons, readers should feel free to vote on negative categories in polls if they like.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

 Do you like to read romance novels where the hero or heroine suffers heartache for the other half of the couple? Can you name scenes that were particularly memorable? When you read Chick Lit or literary fiction do you find yourself wishing for the impossible ie. that the irreconcilable couple could reconcile?

 Robin and some of our AAR readers agreed that “not just any heartache” will do. Can you think of some books which are “tear jerkers” but don’t work for you? Why don’t they work? What makes one book make a reader cry while another makes her grit her teeth? 

 Both Robin and Laurie could think of more books outside romance with believable heartache than those in romance. Why do you think this is? Can you think of some classics or other books outside romance where the heartache has been well depicted? Tell us about them and why you feel this way.

 What do you think of negative awards, and why? If you like them, why do you find them useful or interesting? If you don’t like them, why do you dislike them? Do you find any of the categories confusing? Do you understand the difference between “most disappointing” and “worst?” What about “Purple-est Prose?”

 It seems odd to some that a book can win in a positive category such as “Most Luscious Love Story” or “Best Romance” when it also receives the “win” for “Purple-est Prose.” Is this a contradiction, and if so, why? Do people have different definitions of purple prose, or do they perhaps simply enjoy it?

 If you support negative categories, what compels you to vote for a book in one of those categories? Is there a boundary a book has to cross before you will consider voting for it in a negative category?

Have you ever found a book you loved show up in one of the negative categories? How did you react? Were you more or less disappointed than when a favorite for you failed to show in a positive category?

 What do you think it means if a book shows up in both negative and positive categories? Does it mean readers are diverse? Does it mean something about the book was controversial enough to anger some readers?

 Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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