At the Back Fence Issue #171

November 15, 2003 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We offer up several segments for your enjoyment in this issue of ATBF. Anne kicks things off with a discussion of the “Ick Factor.” Robin returns to us from hiatus with the question: How many new writers do you read? And there are two short segments from me, the former called “Parkay… Margarine” and the latter entitled “Flash-Point Authors.”

The Ick Factor (Anne Marble)

In an ATBF from last month, LLB mentioned a scene from Janelle Dennison’s Wilde Thing that turned her off. In this scene the hero paints caramel onto the heroine’s breasts and asks the heroine to suck it off her own nipples. When LLB talked to AAR staff about it, nearly as many of us were as grossed out as confused as to how this could physically be done unless the heroine had, as men like to say, “a huge rack.”

Though one lone staff privately emailed to say she found this kind of scene erotic and exciting, to me it’s a perfect example of the Ick Factor, those moments when you suddenly shout “Ick!!!” while reading a book. Such scenes can really yank the reader out of the story, even if the book was otherwise enjoyable. If it’s just one small element that bugs you, then you can usually keep reading. But some books are loaded with the Ick Factor. And some books are built on a premise that smacks of ick factor – for example, many people can’t read May/December romances because for them, these books have a major Ick Factor.

Indeed, for some readers the Ick Factor isn’t something physical, it’s something more emotional or something that makes their relationship outside the norm, such as a huge age difference, a domineering hero, rape scenes, skanky sex, or relationships between family members (heroines and step-brothers, guardians and wards, etc).

For LLB, the Ick Factor is often something that is not only icky, but overdone. She points to skanky villain sex, father/step-daughter incest, and villains maniacally torturing and raping characters in front of the heroine to show her who’s boss. And while she agrees that sex is most definitely not a sanitary and sterile event, she admits to being jarred completely out of the story when confronted with something like oral sex following defloration in romance novels. On the other hand, sex in all its funky glory in a novel like Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker presents no problems at all for her. As for her all-time winner for greatest Ick Factor in a romance, that would be Peggy Hanchar’s Scottish Bride, which begins with the heroine’s father being decapitated and his head served up on a dinner platter and also features a delightful little scene in which the villain suckles at his mother’s breast.

But when most people think of the Ick Factor, they think of scenes like the worms scene in Robin Schone’s The Lover. Or scenes where the hero makes the heroine “taste herself” (such as in Vicki Lewis Thompsons’s Compromising Positions). Controversial scenes such as torture, memories of childhood abuse, and that old “favorite” – villain sex – often get an automatic “ick” unless the author can really pull it off.

Usually, when readers talk about the Ick Factor, it’s something physical. Two of my biggest Ick Factor moments come from reprints of older romances – Gold Was Ours, by Rebecca Brandewyne, and Sea Fire, by Karen Robards. Brandewyne’s book featured such romantic favorites as a villain who steps on bugs (hey, wasn’t there an episode about this on The Practice?) and an evil killer nun who may have killed the heroine’s friend and violated her with her crucifix. The Robards seemed tame by comparison, even though it was pure 1980s rapefest – the scene where the heroine makes herself throw up pales in significance next to the evil killer lesbian nun.

Killer nuns and squashed bugs aside, most of the time the Ick Factor involves sex. AAR’s Blythe Barnhill read a Western historical in which a hero and heroine travel to Oregon by wagon train. One night they stop by a stream, bathe, and eat homemade ice cream. Blythe recalls, “The hero and heroine, who have just bathed for the first time in weeks, follow up by smearing ice cream on each other before sex. The next day they take off and are on their way. Without bathing again or anything. I just pictured them walking around in the hot sun feeling all sticky. Ewww.”

Mixing food and sex may sound romantic and sexy, but Blythe and others have noted that they don’t necessarily stand up to close scrutiny. LLB remembers the maple syrup Tyber and Zanita pour on each other with total abandon during a particularly hot scene in High Energy, but if she thinks about the dried syrup on hair too closely, it sounds as uncomfortable as having sex on horse-back – and nearly as unlikely.

But even food and sex scenes don’t compare to the scene Robin Uncapher, one of my co-columnists here at ATBF, came across. She hated the scene in Thea Devine’s Desire Me Only during which the heroine smears the hero’s “love cream,” which is precisely what you think it is, all over herself and wears it under her own clothing. Note to self: If Thea Devine ever comes out with her own brand of perfume, don’t buy it (and if you ever get the idea of inserting a stick of gum inside yourself, then exercising to get it all juiced up, putting it back in its wrapper and packing it in your husband’s suitcase before he goes out of town to have something to remember you by, blame it on Penthouse Forum, not Thea Devine, although it is hard to tell the difference, doncha know). Desire Me Only was recently reprinted by Brava, and coincidentally, our own Nora Armstrong shared that her own biggest Ick Factor moment also occurs in a Brava anthology. In that one, the hero decides he is too well endowed for the heroine, “so he takes a leather glove, cuts off the fingers, and devises a set of phalluses (phalli?) to gradually ‘stretch’ her so she’ll be able to accommodate him. So very thoughtful, no? The scenario hovers between hilarious and Truly Tasteless, depending on the reader’s mood.” Nora has a point, I’m chuckling as I type this segment.

I think Nora has hit on something here. I’ve read lots of romance novels that have gross moments, but to me, the Kiss of Death is if I start rolling on the floor and laughing during what is supposed to be a dark, sexually charged scene. These scenes become nothing more to me than silly sex. You can get grossed out, or you can laugh, or you can roll your eyes. Or all of the above. In the Laughter category comes one of my first memories of silly sex, from an Indian romance I read years ago. Every time the heroine had sex with the hero, she was astounded by the size of his penis and was sure it wouldn’t fit and was sure it would hurt, and sure enough, every time they had sex, she loved every minute of it. This happened so often that I would smile, roll my eyes at the heroine, and keep reading.

Some readers hate image that grosses them out. Donna finds herself put off by phrases such as “his finger sliced through her wet folds…” Author Laura Mills Alcott hates the ubiquitous term “nub,” and she doesn’t like authors who go into too much detail about “juices.” When this sort of thing is overdone, “…you would swear the couple in question were pretty much bathed in microwaved mayo because of all the ‘slicks,’ creamy,’ and other descriptions the author used to describe those ‘hot juices.'” Lynne Connolly hates nub as well as its more annoying nubbin; pebbled; lave; creamy; and in some uses, bathe. Yet she admits that she likes to “wallow in the full purpleness of absolutely unbelievable purple prose.” (Manroot anyone?) Rosario hates phrases such as “ripe with child” and is also turned off by some animal imagery. The heroine is often compared to a filly, and of course, the heroes are often “hung like stallions.” Am I the only one who reads a phrase like that and imagines the hero neighing, prancing, and shaking his mane?

But sometimes, the Ick Factor is no laughing matter. Sometimes the Ick Factor can be bad enough to turn the reader off that author, or at least make them cautious. I’m sure Nora will avoid Brava erotica anthologies in the future. Also, author Michele Hauf says that the Ick Factor can turn her off the author for good. “An ‘ick factor’ moment for me can be reading a pretty good book, then having the author introduce some truly horrific means to an ending. Or describing certain personal events in a woman’s life that just aren’t ‘romantic’, such as…well heck, her period! That’s not romantic to me. It’s real life, but doesn’t belong in the romances I read.”

Doggone was so upset by the descriptions of Jamie’s torture in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander that she hesitated before buying Dragonfly in Amber because she didn’t know if this sort of scene would be common to all the books in the series. Renee was horrified by a double dose of ick from a Cassie Edwards novel. First, one character (a hero from an earlier book) cheats on his dying wife (the heroine of an earlier book!) with a younger woman. Not only are several characters dying from horrid diseases, but there was also a madman who murdered the daughter of the adulterous character mentioned above. The combined ick was enough to turn Renee off Western historicals for a long time.

Not every Ick Factor moment is a big deal to the reader. It might throw them off for a while, but it won’t completely throw them (or make them chuckle). AAR’s Katarina Wikholm enjoyed Alice Alfonsi’s ghost romance Eternal Sea but disliked the love scene because the ghostly hero’s physical form was cold and clammy. On the other hand, I wasn’t disturbed by that scene, although I did chortle when the naked hero said something “cockily.”

Malvina came across a small Ick Factor moment “in Robin Schone’s Awaken My Love; after she traveled through time the heroine was horrified to discover she had lots of black leg hair, and also struggled with bodily functions of all types without modern amenities.” She added, “It didn’t make me stop reading, and it didn’t make me give up on Robin Schone. It was simply too much information, and took the romance quite out of the book. How on earth can you write the differences, though, without some detail?”

For some readers, however, the fantasy is everything, and the Ick Factor rarely intrudes. Sheryl says, “I think context has a lot to do with whether a specific act is an ick or not. If the whole environment is fantasy (I have no idea whether Lindsey researches outrageously or not, but the world her characters live in has few contact points with mine), then I just edit out the ick. If the environment is more realistic – if the characters get full bladders and sand in their shoes and mild indigestion and other minor irritants of day to day life – I’m a lot more likely to consider that sort of thing during the sex scenes. The only romance-related author I’ve seen write in that world is Schone.” However, she is grateful that most romance writers avoid the Ick Factor.

Sometimes it’s not a single gross incident that puts off the reader, it can be something more abstract. For example, Ashleigh’s “Ick Factor” is the Duke of Slut. “I have a hard time believing that any man that slutty wouldn’t be seething with all kinds of STDs. I don’t want his thingy getting anywhere near that sweet tight virginal love-pocket. But … if I like the author’s voice and the character are otherwise engaging, I just suspend my disbelief and ignore the ick.” Ashleigh also dislikes stories about a younger woman with a much older man because of the inequality she sees portrayed in those relationships. Especially when those books have “perky little girl-woman” heroines.

Like Ashleigh, Janet is put off by the combination of the Duke of Slut and age differences. “I’ve read a lot of historicals where the heroine’s innocence has made me put the book down because it felt like the Duke of Slut was molesting a child. Doesn’t matter if her body is 18 if her mind is at the level of a toddler.” Naava also hates stories about romances with a large age difference, especially when the characters keep whining about the difference in ages.

Susan is put off by relationships that aren’t socially acceptable, such as a heroine falling in love with her brother or with a friend of her father or even with the son of a dead ex-lover. But that’s nothing compared to the sleazy relationship Carolyn found in a Sandra Brown suspense novel. In this novel, the grandfather made his prostitute granddaughter visit him wearing school girl outfits without panties, and he’d hold her on his lap and spank her. And yes, both lead characters knew about their relationship. While she found that moment disturbing, it wasn’t too big an ick because grandpa and the nymphet were minor characters. On the other hand, Carolyn loved Francine River’s Redeeming Love even though she found an incident involving the prostitute heroine and her father very disturbing. She points out that in the story, it seems natural that the tormented heroine went to the lengths she did to hurt her father.

AAR’s Teresa was bothered by an incident near the end of a historical novel. The heroine is raped by her husband, long thought dead, who is maddened because of syphilis. When she read this scene, Teresa didn’t realize the creepy husband was no longer infectious, so she thought the heroine might get syphilis as a result of the rape. That added another level of Ick on top of the Ick of the heroine being raped by a sicko. Even worse, the heroine decided not to tell the hero about the incident!

Jean doesn’t mind the gritty details that many other readers hate. After all, sex is rarely clean, and let’s face it, the past was far from sanitary as well. Nor is she bothered by age differences, closely related lovers, adultery, or even incest. What does bother Jean is child abuse that takes place in the present. “An H/H can have been abused as a child and that theme can be touched on without bothering me, but let an H/H be less then kind to a child and it is unforgivable. For example, I once loved Jo Beverley, but, after a H/H in one of her historicals let their child be born a secret bastard to protect adult reputations, I have never read another of her novels.” Jean is also bothered by people who try to manipulate other peoples’ relationships, whether the manipulation is done by a well-meaning relative or by the heroine herself.

Like Jean, Ally isn’t bothered by the usual Ick Factor moments at all. Instead, her biggest ick comes from weak and listless heroines. “Those just gross me right the heck out! Otherwise, pretty much anything goes; while I may not get icked out when a character does something ‘immoral,’ it may change the way I view that character…unless that so called immoral act is a huge part of the plot!”

Many readers aren’t bothered by gross incidents but are bugged by other things. For example, AAR’s Jennifer Keirans is most bothered by emotionally disturbing elements in romances, such as rape. Even so, though, rape isn’t an automatic Ick Factor for her. “I have enjoyed many romances about heroines (and heroes, now that I think of it) recovering from rape and other acts of violence. If the rape is an integral part of the story/character development I often find it powerful and effective. But I hate when authors use rape to manipulate the reader. Like when the author spends several pages showing the villain raping a chambermaid, in order to demonstrate that the villain is evil.” One example she remembered was from Desperate Alliances by Cory Daniells. In one scene, the heroine psychically eavesdrops, watching a maid get raped and then watching her stab and kill her attacker. The heroine draws from this incident to replenish her magic and then goes on as if nothing had happened. The reader never sees the maid again, and the whole thing both offended Jennifer and grossed her out.

I know what Jennifer means. This kind of rape almost seems like some kind of “throwaway” plot device – and that’s not right at all. It doesn’t even have to be graphic. Years ago, I started to read a suspense novel about an escaped psychopath. One of the first chapters ended with the villain murdering a man, then walking up the stairs, where he knew that man’s child was sleeping. I can’t place my finger on exactly what went wrong with that scene, but it felt manipulative to the extreme, even without graphic details. And I didn’t make it to the next chapter.

Like Jennifer, I also have read plenty of romances where rape was an important and believable part of the story. These stories aren’t so much about rape as about recovery. Yet for many readers, the rape itself is enough to turn them off the novel completely, no matter how sensitively drawn. They don’t want something that dark intruding into their romances.

Sometimes it’s how the rape is handled that makes a difference. Varina says that while she usually isn’t put off by a rape in a book, she was appalled by how a near-rape was handled in Catherine Coulter’s The Duke. In this historical, a rewrite of Coulter’s earlier Regency The Generous Earl, the heroine, Brandy, is nearly raped by a cousin. Varina was bothered by a couple of things. First, the heroine’s grandmother thinks it’s no big deal and even lets the cousin prey on Brandy in hopes that Brandy will get pregnant and give the grandmother an edge to use in manipulating that cousin. Second, the grandmother is “gritty, heartless, scheming.” Also, there is a proposal by a secondary character where, without being “provoked,” he mentions spanking her. Varina doesn’t know if she’ll ever read another Coulter: “It has been just over a year since The Duke, and all the disgusting side characters in it, together with the talk of forced seductions in other Coulter books, has made me hesitate, for fear the next one I choose will be equally full of characters who are morally repulsive but aren’t satisfyingly punished for it.”

Varina also dismisses the “rape-to-love” plots found in many older books as weird. She views rapists as “selfish, possibly incapable of love, and all too likely to rape again.” She sees most fictional rapists similarly, although she accepted Brandon in Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower, realizing that doing so is “irrational” and “inconsistent,” particularly since she was unable to accept the hero as rapist in Sandra Brown’s The Sunset Embrace.

Indeed, just as Varina accepted the rape in Woodiwiss’ book but not in Browns, it’s clear that one person’s Ick is another person’s treasure. Linda found the bondage and rape in Joanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire high on the “yuck scale,” but LLB and many others loved this book. (Like LLB, I reread it recently and appreciated it more the second time around.) It’s also true that some readers had no problem with the worm scene in The Lover. And like Varina, AAR’s Rachel is also a fan of Woodiwiss’ book, although, as she puts it, “I’ve heard Woodiwiss’s books described as the heroine being bullied and browbeaten for the first half and spoiled to death in the second, and I think that’s pretty much true. “

Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight is another romance readers feel strongly about – some hate it while others love it. While Nora liked the book, she thought it was the “ultimate ick” because the villain was having sex with his daughter. AAR’s Andrea Pool also hated the Ick Factor in this book – not just the skanky villain sex, but also the fact that the hero and heroine were so closely related. On the other hand, AAR’s Teresa loved it and thought that this was one case where the skanky villain sex worked to illustrate character and motivation. It helped pull her into the book, even though she was a little “put off” by the close kinship of the h/h, who are second cousins.

As someone who cut her eyeteeth on V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, I probably wouldn’t be took shocked by a hero and heroine who were second cousins. My reaction would probably be, “Well, if this was a V. C. Andrews novel, they’d be brother and sister.” (Anyone up for The Hotel New Hampshire?)

Then again, Flowers in the Attic is far from a romance novel. Do non-romance books get a “free pass” in the Ick Factor department? I think, depending on the genre, they do. Lois McMasters Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books are very popular with many romance readers. Yet there are dark elements in all of those, from the psychopathic Bothari who nearly rapes Miles’ mother in Shards of Honor – before becoming her savior of sorts – to the disturbing scene where Miles’ twin Mark tries to force himself on an attractive clone he has rescued, and then stops when he has a flashback of anal rape in Mirror Dance. If these elements occurred in a romance, the author would become the target of many angry posts.

Of course, as Sheryl said, with romance, the fantasy is everything. When most readers come across a “morning after” scene where the hero and heroine have hot sex and then shower, they don’t hold their nose and think “Eww, morning breath!” Many readers can put themselves in the mindset where they know we are living a fantasy where virginal heroines have hot sex without any pain and give great head the first night they have sex, where heroes can have sex several times a night, and where the wet spot does not exist. We know that love and sex can (and often should) be paradise in romance novels. For most readers, it’s only when something intrudes on that paradise when the Ick Factor rears its ugly head. Otherwise, it’s paradise all the way.

How Many New Writers Do You Read? (Robin Uncapher)

Not too long ago fellow AAR staffer Sandy Coleman and I were lucky attend a Booksellers Luncheon given by the Washington Romance Writers of America. The main purpose of the luncheon was to honor Washington area booksellers who make the effort to sell romance the way it should be sold i.e. with respect for the readers and writers. But one interesting offshoot of the luncheon was meeting some upcoming writers who will soon be bringing out their first books.

The happiest and most joyful conversations one has at RWA events are with writers who have just sold their first books. These writers look happier than most lottery winners. Given the difficulty involved in getting published combined with the effort it takes to write a book, who can blame them? I was seated near Kathryn Caskie, who just sold her first book, Rules of Engagement, to Warner Forever. Kathryn seemed to be no exception to the first time author rule and she was happy to tell me about her story. I asked her first if she was concerned about the title Rules of Engagement. Was she worried that her first book had the same name as a successful Christina Dodd book from a few years ago? Kathryn was not worried. She was pleased about the title mainly because the term “rules of engagement” inspired her to write the story. No other title seemed to make sense; the idea that inspired the book was that just as the military has specific rules on beginning a battle so did Regency era society have strict rules on how men and women were to meet and interact socially. I found this very interesting; I find subtle social rules from Jane Austen’s jokes about them in Pride and Prejudice and am fascinated by Carrie Bradshaw’s pithy observations in Sex and the City. The idea intrigued me so much that I am sure I will read the book when it comes out in May.

While listening to Kathryn talk about how she had developed her idea and how much she loved writing, I suddenly realized how many of my very favorite books were debut novels. Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline, with its genius heroine, My False Heart by Liz Carlyle, and Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Clair’s Angel, with its arthritic heroine – all of these books were debut novels. Not only were they very good reads, each one was also a slight departure from most of the romance novels published and that makes them memorable. Carlyle’s book seems more detailed than many romances. I remember thinking it read a bit like a read Victorian novel, so rich was the detail. AAR reviewer Colleen McMahon agreed with me when she wrote “Carlyle has created a memorable hero and heroine, and placed them against a rich backdrop of life in Regency London and a warm country household. It’s one of those books where you can feel the weather, hear the household sounds, and see the textures of clothing, drapes, and furniture” It’s true that this description is also true of some books written by experienced writers, but their was something about the writing in this debut that made me aware that the writer had taken the time to polish every sentence.

Another first novel, Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear struck me with terrific force. When reading that book I checked out of life for a while. I stopped watching television, stopped cleaning our Brooklyn Heights apartment and stopped going to lunch with anyone. All I wanted to do was to read and I could not wait for the sequel; unfortunately, I found its sequels disappointing The second book in the series, The Valley of Horses, seemed far less original than the first and the sex seemed gratuitous at times. The third book, The Mammoth Hunters, was so awkwardly written I could not get through it. How did this happen? I asked an author friend of mine to consider the question.

It didn’t take her long to come up with the answer. “Jean Auel probably took years to write that first book,” she explained to me. Then she went on to tell me how an author has virtually an endless amount of time to make the first book perfect. The second book is another story entirely. The second book is written with an advance and a tight deadline. In Auel’s case the pressure was probably double because her debut had been such a huge success; the editor may have been more interested in getting a quick follow-up onto bookstore shelves than in maintaining the quality of the series. This explains the different styles from the first book to subsequent ones.

Many readers don’t agree with me about The Clan of the Cave Bear and I have not kept up enough with the sequels to know if I would have liked the most recent books. But it is interesting to me that it was the first book in this series that is a minor classic.

Every year when I tally up my own reading I review how many new authors I have read. This includes brand new authors and new-to-me authors. And every year I vow to read more debut books and more new-to-me authors. Unfortunately a quick review of my reading lists since 1998 shows that I am failing miserably and the more romance I read the fewer debuts I read. In 1999 I was new to romance. I read about 125 books and most of the authors were new to me. This year I have only read about sixty books and only about eight are by new romance authors, though an additional number are also new-to-me nonfiction writers.

Why such a small group? Why is my list of new authors dwindling in spite of my best intentions?

The main reason is that my auto-buy/auto-read list is growing. Now that I read so much romance the year seems to pass in publishing seasons. It’s spring? Where is the new Rachel Gibson? The new Jo Beverley? The new Mary Jo Putney? Oh, three new Mary Baloghs – everything has to wait until I have read them all. I may have a pile of DIK new-to-me authors on my desk but if Suzanne Brockmann comes out with a new SEAL book everything is going to wait until I have read it. Not only are these authors known quantities in terms of quality, I know what kind of mood I should be in when I read one of them. Need a funny book? Grab the Gibson. Want something exciting to take my mind off things? Time for Brockmann. Need a good cry? Ah, glad there is that Karen Ranney over on the shelf next to the Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel. Want something sure-fire? Time to get out Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm or Carla Kelly’s With This Ring. Sometimes it’s just a question of which favorite author I’m going to pick up.

This reliability explains why, at the end of any given year, I have always read a small pile of Nora Roberts. I am one of those people who loves JD Robb but doesn’t always get Nora Roberts’ popularity. It’s not that the books aren’t good. They are. But I read mostly historicals and am not all that crazy about romantic suspense. Why do I read Roberts? It’s pretty funny that I do. I used to tell people I didn’t “get” her but I am at the point where that answer seems a bit dishonest. I do read her, after all, so I must get her on some level. So why do I read her? One word: reliability. You can really count on Nora Roberts not to be bad. She doesn’t hit every out of the park. Who could with her kind of output? But she is amazingly consistent. If I am in an airport or hotel lobby and none of my favorites are there it’s Nora Roberts who almost always ends up in the shopping bag.

Picking up a new author seems to take some energy and I am not always up for it even though I know the payoff can be well worth the effort. And it’s not the actual reading that takes the effort. It’s taking the initiative and being willing to take the risk that the book will not be good. Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman sat on my bookshelf for months even though everything I knew about it made me sure I would love it. In fact I took it on my New Year’s vacation trip to Buffalo because I knew that I would be forced to read it or brave the snow getting something else. How glad I am that I did, as that was one of the most wonderful reading experiences I have had in years. But what if I had not read glowing reviews of The Bronze Horseman at AAR? What if I had not listened to the excited message board threads? I doubt I would have picked it up.

Thinking about this I realized how many good books I might be missing. Many new authors don’t get much publicity. Had I not made the effort, think of the wonderful writers I could have missed! And I am here on the AAR staff hearing about new books all the time. I simply should be reading more new authors and trying more new-to-me authors. I wondered if anyone else found herself reading only a small number of debut novels and new-to-her novels. So I asked readers, and the response was very interesting. Although there were some readers who, like me, do not read a lot of new authors, there were also many romance readers who read dozens in a year. Meezer, for example, posted that “probably half of the books I buy in a year are authors I’ve never read before – the other half are auto buy authors and backlist on enjoyable authors.”

Senetra was another poster who reads a lot of new to her authors’ she “probably [tries] three or four new authors a month. They are a mix of debut and new-to-me.” Senetra considers herself a “blurby reader” so “if the blurb and first few pages sound good,” she’ll give the book a chance. But at times, like all of us she’ll look at her bookshelves and find nothing of interest. Occasionally that’s when she’ll take a break from reading, but that’s also when she realizes she “needs” a new author. Among her recent successes are Barbara Samuel, Sheila Williams, Laura Moriarty, Catherine Asaro, and Marsha Moyer.

The idea of “needing a new author” intrigues me. I used to feel that way all the time when I read literary fiction. But the reason was that I was so often dissatisfied and bored with what I was reading and because I had read all of my favorites books. But many other AAR readers seemed to agree with Senetra, including Beverly, who shared that she is always trying new authors and that there are times when it is easier to read someone new than an author with whom she is familiar. Beverly wrote that it’s easier to read a new/new-to-her author because “it feels new, like blazing a new trail, experiencing something totally new and unpredictable.” She added, “Sometimes books I have been anticipating from my favorite authors sit on the shelf for weeks after they’ve been published because I know what to expect from them and I’m not in the mood or I am saving them for a special day.”

Gail also likes reading new authors and doesn’t have the “energy” problem that I do. She finds it takes less of an effort to try a new author because she can go “into this type of reading experience with fewer pre-conceived notions” and won’t “subconsciously measure the book against the author’s previous body of work.” Reading a new/new-to-her author allows Gail to “simply get absorbed in a story and to judge at the end whether or not the book is a keeper.” She adds:

“The more years I read romance the more willing I am to try new authors, especially debut authors – usually picked the old-fashioned way of browsing in bookstores. It’s often fruitful to try the buried-treasure recommendations of others but even then I end up reading with expectations because of certain “buzz.” The Internet and my addiction to this site (a benign one, as addictions go!) has certainly saved me from wasting valuable time and money on bad books, but every now and then it’s a refreshing, palate-cleansing exercise to sit down with a book written by an author I know nothing about.”

Another reader who likes books by new to her and debut authors is Maili. Maili’s comments were particularly interesting to me for what they say about the new perspective that newly published authors can bring to the romance table. Many of us (including me) complain about the stagnant nature of some of the themes in series books. Maili looks for freshness in new series authors. While she reads romance by established romance writers, she looks for new writers in the realm of series romance. Why? She finds “too many long-time authors” writing series romance who write “contemporary heroines who aren’t contemporary at all.” She believes many of these authors, some of whom have written series titles for 20-plus years, “are too comfortable to make the effort to find out what it’s like for a contemporary woman of their time.” She adds that these authors “tend to recycle what they know about a contemporary woman of their time, e.g. a 1990s woman with the mentality and attitude from the 1950s,” and wonders exactly for whom they are writing.

Rosario also reads a lot of new authors. She has read 45 this year and expects to read another ten by year end. Like many other readers who read a lot of new and new-to-them authors, Rosario read a lot of books — 224 since January! This was another theme. Many of the readers who read a lot of new authors read a lot of books period, which makes sense.

Jmc reads a lot too, 318 books so far this year and 63 are by authors new to her. When it comes to the energy required to write something new she believes the effort required depends more on style and subject matter rather than how many books she’s read by a particular author. And yet she notices she is more patient with debut authors, tolerating their “editing issues and plot holes, trusting that s/he’ll tighten up and learn as s/he writes more” but does not make similar allowances for long-published authors. “Spelling and editing errors,” she writes, in books by established authors, annoy her because those authors have “been writing for a long time, have editors who are presumably competent, write as a full time job and get paid a great deal of money to do so. But for a debut author who wrote her book in addition to a 40+ hour per week job, a spelling error doesn’t bother me as much.”

Maggie mac is another reader who’s read a great many books this year – 188 so far. Nearly half (79) were by authors new to her and included debut authors Victoria Bylin, Janet Chapman, and Cheryl Howe, and new-to-her authors Rachel Gibson, Sandra Hill, Judith Ivory, and Nora Roberts.

Danielle wrote that she is new to romance and as a result a great many authors are new to her. Like me, she noticed a wonderful quality about some debuts: “Since debut books are so often labours of love, crafted without punishing deadlines, their quality is quite often higher than that author’s next book. Of course experience then comes into play, lending more confidence to the later output, but I often find that special spark missing. For instance, I loved the richly detailed storytelling of Karyn Monk’s Surrender To A Stranger, but have not found anything similar in her later works.” Ah, I know exactly what Danielle is saying. I too loved Surrender to A Stranger, but have never felt the same about Karyn Monk’s other books. And Danielle is right. The writing style is simply different. Monk takes her time telling the story of a man who rescues French aristocrats caught in the Revolution. There are scenes in that book that you will never find in another romance novel, including wonderful descriptions of French aristocrats and the kinds of places they were held. You can see how much original research went into this book. It is unique.

Some of my AAR colleagues weighed in as well. Rachel Potter reads a lot of new and new to her books in a year. Out of the 83 romances she read this year more than a third were written by new to her authors. What is interesting about this is that only four of these authors were read for review.

When I first started with AAR I also read a lot of new to me authors but, unlike Rachel, they upped the percentage of my debut and new to me authors considerably. Blythe Barnhill AAR’s Managing Editor is like this. She reads many new to her authors and debut authors because of her job. Thus far this year she’s read 63 books, and more than half were by new-to-her authors. Were she not a reviewer, however, she believes these numbers would be “vastly different.” Most of what she reads is for review purposes, Pandora’s Box, or a book club she belongs to, and she purposely assigns herself authors she’s not reviewed in the past. Somewhat surprising, she adds, is that “only seven of these authors were debut authors. In many other c ases she read/reviewed their second or third book.” She expects herself to read new authors and because she is a workaholic, it “almost takes more energy for me to make myself read an old-standby/just-for-fun author. Obviously this is not the norm.”

AAR reviewer Jennifer Schendel also posted that about a quarter to a third of her reading was of books by new to her authors and that about a quarter of those were debut novels.

There were some posters who had my problem of resisting new books but far fewer than I would have thought. This is a good thing, I think. After reading these posts and talking so much about new writers its given me the impetus to decide to commit myself to reading more new to me writers and especially more debut writers. After all, who knows when the next really great romance writer will come along?

Anne and Robin’s segments differ from the two that follow in that my segments are far shorter and are at the genesis stage of thought. In other words, they represent ideas in progress, and in order for that progress to continue, I’ve got to go to the reader for further input. If you can, please help.

Parkay… Margarine! (Laurie Likes Books)

Remember the Parkay Margarine ad campaign? I was a pre-teen when, according to the the Washington Post, the plastic tub of Parkay margarine first said, “‘Butter,’ curled its lip lid,” and began “seducing its victims, who tended to be daffy, giggly suburbanites sitting in their kitchens.” The suburbanites would talk back to the tub; “‘Parkay,’ they’d insist.” And so the “butter-unbutter discourse” began. The tub would retort, “Butter,” the taster would try the Parkay, revel in its buttery flavor and realize, “mmm, tastes like butter. Must be butter, then,” after which the tub “would gleefully announce ‘Par-kayyy!'”

A reader sometimes experiences something similar. Is the book they’re reading a romance or is it something else? What’s more, however, their reaction to the book may depend on what they think they’re reading.

I first noticed this phenomenon back in 1999 when a review landed in my in-box for an author who’d recently made the jump from Romance to Women’s Fiction. The reviewer didn’t know that, though, and while that original review had some great things to say about the book, it was clearly graded down because the romantic aspect lacked a great deal. I went back to the reviewer and asked, “Check the spine of this book, please. What does it say?” Her reply? “Fiction.” Then I asked, “Did you know this author no longer writers romance novels? She’s now writing Women’s Fiction. Would your grade for this book be different if you judged it as Women’s Fiction?” Her answer was that yes, she would, and that she would rework her review accordingly. The review ended up going online as a B+; I think the original grade was C-.

Once in a blue moon something similar happens; a review will land on my desk that requires my going to the reviewer and grilling her. “Is the book romantic suspense or is it a plain thriller?” “Is this truly a romance novel or might it be Women’s Fiction?” It doesn’t help that publishers sometimes publish a romance novel and label it fiction; I’ve noticed that a number of times on novels by Nora Roberts, but investigating such books online can make a big difference. Often it’s the author’s website that reveals the true nature of the book, or perhaps it’s looking at the cover more closely. Regardless of how it’s determined, there are rare instances when looking at a book differently based on its genre or sub-genre can affect the reviewer’s perception of the book. I’ve no doubt I could easily replace the word “reviewer” with “reader,” which is why I’m interesting in further exploration of this occurence.

Last week a very intriguing DIK Review hit my in-box; it’s not yet been posted, but the review details the experience of expecting a romance, feeling the book did not live up to its romantic potential, and what can happen when “romance novel” preconceptions are set aside. After reading the first fifty pages of the book, the reviewer hated it, so she put it down and didn’t pick it up again for a week. She writes, “When I picked it up next considering it Women’s Fiction instead of a romance novel, my perception of the book changed and I really started to like all of the characters. The more I read, the more the women in the book grew on me. In the end the story was awesome. I was so glad I picked it up and moved past my original thoughts.”

At the same time as that DIK Review hit my in-box, author Karen Templeton posted on our Reviews Message Board about our review of Darlene Scalera’s Unmarked Man. Leigh Thomas’ B+ review of this series romance ends with this: “To be honest, I don’t know if the book is that successful as a romance… Even so, I enjoyed it too much to care. It’s a triumph of style, tone and interesting characters. Approached as the usual series romance, Unmarked Man doesn’t fit the mold. As a cool, quirky, different sort of story, this is one fun read.” Templeton’s post called Leigh’s review a “breath of fresh air” for accepting “the book for what it is, not for what it ‘should’ be vis a vis the so-called parameters of the genre.”

In Anne’s ATBF segment I talk about maintaining different standards for what I read. What would vex me in a romance novel might delight me in literary or “regular” fiction. And so I wonder, what do you accept as a romance? What do you expect from a romance?

I’m a Gemini, and though I don’t believe in astrology, the idea of two distinct personalities fits this discussion; on the one hand I like to think outside the box, but on the other hand, I like to put things into a box with a nice, rigid exterior. I always check the description of what I’m watching on TV and never go to the movies without knowing what I’ll be seeing. My husband doesn’t understand, but for me, knowing the parameters of what I’ll be watching helps me settle in.

How many of us need to know what we’re reading before we read it? How many of us, aside from the HEA, can accept just about anything from a romance novel? How many of us like to categorize what they read, and have trouble accepting what’s outside the box if the box is labeled?

Flash-Point Authors (Laurie Likes Books)

Earlier this week I posted a review for the newest Christina Dodd release and was horrified. Not only had our reviewer not liked the book, she thought it was horrendous, and provided detailed reasons for her animosity. One of the things I like to do at AAR whenever a multi-DIK’d author earns a bad grade is to indicate at the top of the review how many times she’s earned DIK status from us. Dodd had received five DIK’s from us over the years and another five B level grades. She’d also received four D level grades and now an F. Which caused me to wonder: what is it about certain authors that they engender such strong feelings from readers?

Catherine Coulter is likely the queen of what I’m calling “Flash-Point Authors,” authors readers have extremely strong feelings about on both ends of the spectrum. What makes Coulter’s case even more interesting is that she manages to engender strong feelings not only between readers, but within individual readers. I’m the perfect example of that; she’s earned five DIK’s from me and four F’s, six B’s and six F’s.

I’m interested in furthering this concept of Flash-Point Authors. Who are they, and why such vehement reactions from readers?

Time to Post to the Message Board

What are the biggest/silliest Ick Factor moments you have come across in romances? Do the Ick Factors mentioned in the column bother you? Or are you more bothered by abstract things like the attitudes and behaviors of characters? Are you more forgiving of Ick moments in non-romance novels?

Have you ever had an Ick Factor moment bad enough to throw you off a book or an author completely? If so, was it an author you had liked in the past, or a new-to-you author?

Some readers want gritty details – the “romance fantasyland” view where sex is always clean and no one smells funny makes them roll their eyes. Are you one of those? Would you prefer more realistic details, even if it meant more icky details? And if you are more tolerant of the Ick, are there some scenes that were so over-the-top that they still made you go “Ick!”

I have a case-by-case response to Ick Factor moments. Some things are an Ick Factor, some are not, even if they are very much alike. What do you think makes one moment an Ick and the other okay to the reader?

How many new to you and debut authors do you read in a given year?

If you resist trying new authors what do you think is behind it? Limited time? Not knowing who to read? Does it take extra energy to read something new? Do you like to pick books for your mood and aren’t always sure where a new author will lead you?

Robin reads a surprising amount of Nora Roberts mainly because her books are so reliable. Do you have reliable authors that you pick up for that reason?

Who are the debut authors that you have enjoyed this year? What were your favorite debut books of years past?

Does your assessment of a book sometimes depend on what you expected from it? In other words, if you read a Women’s Fiction novel expecting a romance novel, might that be a problem?

Do you like to put things into boxes or to break out of categories when you read? Does your answer depend on what you’re reading? Do you have different requirements for romance novels than for other works of fiction? Similarly, if you read a thriller expecting it to be romantic suspense, how might that effect your assessment?

What do you think makes an author a “flash-point author,” someone who engenders very strong positives and negatives?

Which authors do you think are Flash-Point authors, and why would you list them as such? Are they authors you either love or hate or that you’ve noticed others either love or hate? Is it easier to make a case for Flasph-Point books?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Robin Uncapher, and Anne Marble

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

 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)