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At the Back Fence Issue #172


December 15, 2003 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

After stewing in my own brain juices for a week, I’ve been able to put together my thoughts based on a lengthy message board discussion. And those thoughts jibed with a couple of romances I’ve recently read, so below you’ll find the ramblings of my fevered brain, albeit in hopefully cogent prose. Next up is Anne Marble on “hot button issues” and then Robin Uncapher on Christmas books.

Beginning with Anne Perry…Ending Elsewhere (Laurie Likes Books)

One of the most common – and powerful – themes in literature is redemption. I’ve been thinking about this theme over the past week or so for several reasons, first among them the thread about Anne Perry that’s been so controversial on our Potpourri Message Board. I’ll go into more detail on this later, but to summarize: in a thread that began in a discussion of historical realism, Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries were mentioned. That thread later intensified when it was noted her web site did not mention her imprisonment many decades ago at the age of 15 for her part in a very notable New Zealand murder case later fictionalized into the film Heavenly Creatures. If I remember correctly, Anne Perry was not “outed” as Juliet Hulme until 1994, when she’d already been a successful mystery author for well over a decade, and the question our readers grappled with was this: given that many readers are turned off to an author’s negative behavior online, how is it possible that people continue to read the work of a convicted killer? Can a person truly pay their debt to society for a heinous crime and “get” to start over again with a clean slate? And, for many, how much do we truly believe in repentance and redemption?

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While I immediately jumped on one side of the fence – that side totally separating an artist’s work from the artist – I spent a good portion of the last week or so really contemplating the notion that Anne Perry writing mystery novels is kind of creepy. Thinking about Anne Perry brought to mind both Michael Jackson and R Kelly, the latter of whom recently received four major music awards and continues to be critically acclaimed and sought after both by musicians and the public even in the face of child pornography charges and his penchant for sex with underage girls.

All of which brought to mind Roman Polanski, who won the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist earlier this year. He couldn’t receive his award in person, however, because had he stepped foot into the U.S., he’d have been arrested for fleeing California on the heels of his plea agreement on the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. And yet he is sought after by actors and actresses throughout the world and there was nearly a contest in Hollywood as to which “lucky” actor would bring him his Oscar in person. Contrast this with the special Oscar given to director Elia Kazan a few years earlier; not only did some members of the Academy seek a boycott, but many who were in the audience pointedly made their displeasure known when the director, who once “named names” to the House Un-American Committee, received his award.

And let’s not forget Woody Allen. For every person who has decided upon a personal boycott of his films ever since the revelations of his private life, there are probably just as many people who are shocked that anyone would stop going to those movies just because of his private life.

And whatever you believe about those issues, it makes the controversies about romance authors seem tame by comparison. Except for the few plagiarists, the most readers can say about romance authors whose behavior they disapprove of is “She was rude.” I don’t like rudeness, but I’m glad I’m a fan in a field where, in general, the most controversial thing an author can do is be rude to someone.

Even where fictional characters are concerned, we don’t always want to believe in repentance and redemption. The recent Potpourri board discussion of Mary Jo Putney’s Dearly Beloved is a great example of that. Some posters loathed the hero and thought nothing he did could make his actions in the beginning of the book right. Others were forgiving of him but less forgiving of the heroine’s actions. However, when someone does wrong in a book, you can close it and trade it in. Real life doesn’t offer that option.

Reading about redemption is one thing – dealing with it on a personal level is different. A friend of mine whom I’ve known for several years didn’t reveal until a couple of years into the friendship that the man she fell in love with and married was at one time arrested and served time for a crime so notorious it not only made the national news, it resulted in a movie of the week. She’s an intelligent and thoughtful woman, not a Menendez-marrying weirdo, who has since made a life – and had children – with this man. After the shock of her revelation, I thought long and hard about it, and didn’t know quite what to make of it; I questioned not only what I knew about her, but wondered whether or not I could ever fall in love with a similarly notorious man.

What makes my friend’s life germane to this discussion is its immediacy. It’s one thing to read a story in the newspaper – it’s quite another to know a person involved in such an incident, even if their involvement came years the fact. I think that may be why the whole Anne Perry repentance/redemption thing is so difficult to figure out.

The accident that happens to someone we know is much more painful to us than the one we read about or hear about on the news. This also relates to why local news is so important to people. We can distance ourselves from reading about a terrible accident in Hong Kong. But if we read about an accident in our hometown, we wince because we know the area, we can imagine it happening to us, and we might even know the people involved.

“Anne Perry joined the Mormon Church a number of years ago; it’s not a recent thing. We really mean it in our church when we talk about repentance. She made some reference to that fact in an article I read a few years ago, which certainly convinces me that she has found repentance and peace. Because of that, and my own affiliation with the LDS Church, I would never presume to judge her actions. The whole gospel of Jesus Christ is wrapped up in repentance, and I leave it to the Lord…I’ve enjoyed both series, although I prefer the edgier darkness of the Monk books. The Pitts became less interesting when Thomas began to reach the upper circles of Bow Street. Struggle always makes a better story than success, eh?”

Carla Kelly

I’ve not read Anne Perry, but that’s because, try as I might, the mystery genre doesn’t appeal to me. And yet I’ve been fascinated by the discussion about her, and even found myself strongly on one side of the argument initially, only to waver more and more as it progressed. Authors Laura Kinsale and Carla Kelly both make important points, and while in theory I agree with Kelly’s view of repentance and redemption (even though I’m not a member of the LDS Church), in practice I don’t know if I can. It’s one thing to think about this theoretically, but when families of the victims of violent crimes bring in their histories, theory sometimes goes out the window.

Everything about a discussion changes when you learn about some of the losses people have experienced. Anne Marble belongs to an online writing community and notes that she once discussed a story within it, leading another member to share a story of a violent personal crime. Anne adds that this woman had to leave the chats whenever story ideas came too close to what she’d experienced, and that everyone else in the group learned to take care about what they talked about when this member is involved in a chat.

“Perhaps it’s the breaking of the fantasy boundary by an author’s real life involvement in the power of that fantasy that makes the difference. In general, we assume that mystery writers don’t commit murders in the name of research. (Isn’t the that standard reply of a romance writer to the question about sex scenes?) So we can accept the story as myth, just as we can accept the terrible scenes in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy as cathartic elements rather than view them the way we view a story in the news, or something that happens to us or a friend.

“When the myth and the reality begin to mix, when the creator steps over the bounds into the myth itself, as when rap artists are personally involved in the violence and drugs they sing about, then the moral questions – which were academic in a fictional creation, food for thought and consideration, but contained within their controlled wall of fiction – confront us too profoundly, and we get angry and uncomfortable and start to wonder if we should put a stop to this.

“The interesting twist to this is that, of course, real life incidents are always the food for the creation itself, and quite possibly a great part of the reader’s interest in the fiction. So we toy with these powerful elements, and in that way incorporate them into our lives while we hold them at a distance.

“If the creator doesn’t maintain that distance, then we feel ourselves slipping too close.”

–Laura Kinsale

(On the other hand, note what Marilyn Manson writes when asked whether he felt a greater kinship to KISS or Alice Cooper: “That’s hard to say. In the grandness that we aim to achieve, I’d say KISS. But however much I love Alice Cooper’s music, I was always a little disappointed in his off-stage separation from his on stage persona. That was always a letdown for me as a kid, because I don’t ever consider myself a different person onstage and offstage.” It’s worth noting that there have been a lot of rock performers who wore makeup or costumes as part of their show. But as far as I know, most admitted that it was an act – even those who wore it in public. Interestingly, in the same interview, Marilyn Manson said “I get shocked when I go to a mall, just by the way people dress these days.”)

Most readers bothered by Anne Perry’s writing say they are bothered that she writes mysteries, that her guilt in a murder some 50 years ago means she should not be writing books featuring murder because she is using fruits of her own guilt to create these stories. I honestly don’t buy that. When Madonna’s first children’s book was released earlier this year to critical acclaim in some corners, it was also ridiculed: How could any self-respecting parent buy their daughter a book by a woman who is such a slut? Which begs the question: Would those readers who are bothered by Anne Perry’s writing murder mysteries be any happier if she wrote children’s books?

I think they would be much more upset if she were writing children’s books. People are angry enough that Madonna has written children’s book – and she’s not committed any crimes (other than starring in the remake of Swept Away). Among some readers, there may be a misconception of what mysteries are about. Anne’s impression is that while many of those posting were actual mystery fans, some were not readers of the genre at all. Her feeling is that these posters seemed to think mysteries celebrate murder when the opposite is true. Murder mysteries are not about the murder, any more than romances are just about sex. Instead, mysteries are about solving the crime and putting things back together – and assuring justice for the guilty. Anne concludes: “Does that mean those readers would have a different opinion of Anne Perry if they had a better understanding of what mystery novels are all about? No, of course not, but I still think this point has to be made.”

Also, I think it’s telling that Anne Perry is writing books where murderers are found out and punished. I think it’s even more telling that these novels are set in Victorian England, an era where almost all murderers were executed, even those who were underage at the time of the crime. Is she, as some posters suggested, reliving possible punishments for her own crime, over and over again? We will never know.

And now, on to something else.

I just finished reading Rexanne Becnel’s The Heartbreaker, which earned DIK status from one of our review staff. While not a DIK for me, I enjoyed precisely what turned off so many readers; that the hero had lived such a profligate life and fathered at least three children out of wedlock, and that his behavior continued to be partially (okay, mostly) selfish throughout most of the book. Selfless characters are great, but it’s incredibly satisfying to see a character grow out of the self-centeredness and into a person whose existence centers around others in addition to him/herself. (There are other reasons some readers had trouble with this book, but to go into them would spoil it for those who have not yet read it for themselves.)

In The Heartbreaker, James Lindford, Viscount Farley’s betrothal with a diamond of the first water is broken off after she discovers that not only has he fathered children out of wedlock, but that he intends to care for and raise them himself. His hopes for a political career dashed by this breakup, he returns to his ancestral estate with his baby daughter and her 10-year-old half-sister in tow, determined to raise his children as his own.

Phoebe Churchill lives in a nearby cottage with her niece. Raised with impeccable manners by a mother who married beneath her, she maintains a sterling reputation despite her sister’s extremely tarnished one. The result of her sister’s bad behavior resulted in the niece Phoebe dearly loves, the same niece left for Phoebe to raise while her sister returned to a disreputable life in London.

Phoebe becomes involved with the Viscount’s children because she feels sorry for them even as she finds Lindford’s behavior morally reprehensible. And yet she senses kindness from him, this man who tireless walks with a colicky baby and will do anything to improve his relationship with his new-found older daughter. After all, it’s not every titled gentleman who would not only recognize but actually raise his by-blows.

Though Lindford began on his road to redemption when he assumed physical custody of his daughters, he is far from the end of his journey when he meets Phoebe. Though she is not one of the flashy women he usually finds attractive – and has no background to recommend her as his stunningly beautiful ex-fiancée did – he is drawn to her goodness (it doesn’t take him long to realize she’s no schemer), determines they will have an affair. While many of those who commented negatively about the book found James’ behavior reprehensible and unredeemable and thought Phoebe was passive and a doormat, I was captivated by their story. Some find romances between those of unequal standing inherently unromantic; not me, I enjoy historical governess/nanny romances. Then too, what some readers saw as historically accurate behavior was also seen as historically inaccurate. Christine wrote: “This author (and many others) tend to pick and choose when they are going to play the ‘historically accurate’ card. I don’t see how you can use ‘historically accurate’ as an excuse for bad behavior and then turn around and happily accept the ‘happy ever after’ for this family. I was unable to suspend my disbelief and accept that things would work out for them.”

One reason the story of James and Phoebe story captivated me was, quite frankly, because James was a single parent trying valiantly to raise his daughters alone. This, it seems to me, is a very powerful theme in romance novels, but it can also be incredibly clichéd. The year Kramer versus Kramer was released, I know of no household that wasn’t abuzz with discussion about the poignancy of the movie, in which Dustin Hoffman must fight ex-wife Meryl Streep for custody of their son.

Why is a single father struggling to raise a family on his own so powerful? Why is it even more powerful than a woman trying to do the same? Could it be that we find it amazing for any man to love his children as much and/or in the same way as a woman does? Or is it simply because it’s so much more unusual? If that’s the case, than why is it such a common theme in romances, so common that when I read it in another recent book, it turned me off as being an over-used plot device?

I’d nearly finished Jennifer Greene’s Wild in the Field when I realized I felt I’d been “taken in” by the same plot device I loved in Becnel’s book. Wild in the Field is the first in a trilogy about three sisters, one of whom maintains the family’s farmland, another who lives in Paris, and a third, who is brought back “home” by her sister to recover following the devastating death of her husband. I liked the book, but….

When Camille’s sister brings her home to Vermont from Boston, she’s a wreck. Her beloved husband is dead, the perpetrators of his murder have gotten a light sentence, and she has trouble even getting out of bed every morning. Pete lives on a neighboring farm with his twin 14-year-old sons and his father, single after his wife left some years ago, unable to cope with family and farm. Pete discovers he’s got to help Camille rejoin the land of the living, and though she fights him every step of the way, she emerges whole, and in love with the man who loves her.

Although Pete’s sons are well-written and fun, I couldn’t escape the feeling, as I closed the book, that I’d been duped yet again by another series romance featuring a bad first wife. Bad wives seem worse than bad husbands in much the same way as a single father is more poignant than a single mother. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the worst thing a woman can be is selfish and this is seen as the height of selfish behavior. Or maybe it harkens back to the good old days when men were men and women did what they were told. Think of some of the western historicals you’ve read. I’m sure your bookshelves are filled with romances featuring a first wife who died because she was too gentle to withstand life on the range, in the cold, in the middle of nowhere. But haven’t you also read an almost-equal number featuring a first wife who so hated life out west that she high-tailed it back to her parents in Boston or New York or some other city considered large in the 1800s?

Think back to those Gothic novels – bad first wives were especially prevalent there, and while this can be very well done, it’s often a cop-out and/or an excuse for the hero to be brooding and moody, and, of course, an excuse for him to turn out to be nobly suffering in the end. Anne makes the point that this type of hero doesn’t drive away the governesses, the evil insane wife he was hiding under the stairs scared them off. She adds, in a complaint often lodged against Jane Eyre’s Rochester, that “if he were such a great husband, maybe he would have helped her get treatment instead of sticking her into a closet and pretending she didn’t exist! Shades of the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper!”

But back to those mainly western historicals that feature women “bad enough” to desert their husbands and/or children – you’ll find this type of heroine elsewhere as well. Contemporaries feature the same “bad women.” Karen Templeton did it in Anything for His Children, Linda Howard did it in Duncan’s Bride, Millie Criswell did it in The Trouble with Mary, which I enjoyed. And in a sequel to Criswell’s book (not a good book), the ex-wife later comes back with her wealthy second husband and tries to regain custody. Oh, the evil! And then, of course, there’s just plain old “bad mothers” (not to be confused with evil step-mothers) that also litter the romances aisles, but we’ll get into them in our next column….

When trying to understand why I may like one book featuring a certain premise because of that premise but dislike it in another book, Anne offers up a possible answer. Maybe this is a hot button issue, just like rape and divorce and the other issues she mentions in her segment, which follows. And as with any other hot button issue, my reaction to a book is influenced by a lot of factors. Everything from the realism of the problem to whether or not the characters solve everything too easily at the end.

Hot Button Issues (Anne Marble)

Kidnapping. Murder. Child abuse. Alcoholism. Divorce. Drug addiction. Adultery. Rape.

A list of social problems? Well, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s also a list of just a few of the “hot button” issues romances have addressed.

However, not all is sweetness and light in the land of dark topics. First, of course, you have the fact that many readers hate it when romance novels address these topics. Some hate it because they want to read for escape, not to be reminded of the evening news. Others have a problem with hot button issues because of the way these issues are treated in romance.

For example, Kerstin admits that she reads romances to relax, so if the romance involves serious issues, it gets in the way of her reading pleasure. One reason for this is that while most romances take place over a short period of time, and are generally about 350 pages long, “hot button” issues are often extremely complex. For Kerstin, this often means that “for the sake of the HEA, the hot button issue has to be dropped entirely at the end of the novel.” She mentions having read more than a few romances wherein the heroine was “raped and sexually exploited (often over years and months, sometimes she was ‘only’ gang-raped) and recovers in no time from her dreadful experiences. Seems those authors never dealt with post-traumatic stress disorders themselves, obviously. I don’t like the fairy-tale-solution for these kind of problems. I prefer to read about these sort of issues in women’s fiction.”

AAR reviewer Marguerite Kraft had the same problem with a traditional Regency she reviewed recently, A Twist of Fate, by Susannah Carleton. “The heroine has suffered from spousal abuse, and it’s a main reason she doesn’t want to get married again. But at the end her trauma is just casually swept aside in a way that I didn’t care for in the least. ‘It’s a big deal! It’s a really big deal! Oh, now I’ve slept with another man… okay, it’s not a big deal any more.'”

Similarly, AAR’s Jane Jorgensen agrees that most romances don’t attack serious issues successfully – because of the size of the books. When she thinks of books that handles traumatic material well, the first authors she thinks of are mystery author, and as she sees it, these work because the authors have to freedom to write series about the same characters instead of relegating their stories to a single book. While individual books in a mystery series do have a mystery at the core, they can also reveal a little bit about the protagonist, over time. Romances, on the other hand, have to concentrate on the romance, and that often doesn’t leave the room for treating the subplots with any depth. Jane mentions, for example:

Charlaine Harris’ character Lily Bard survived a brutal kidnapping and rape prior to the beginning of the series. Over the course of the series Lily progresses from that trauma. I won’t call it recovering, because I don’t think anyone could ever fully recover, but she does move on with her life. And she succeeds at recreating it so that it still works. She even has romance. Barbara Seranella’s protagonist is a former addict and child of the streets. She deals with recovery from book to book. In romance the only equivalent I can come up with is J.D Robb, [and that’s often marketed and sold as mystery/suspense than it is romance]. I think Eve’s evolution is believable. She hasn’t gotten over her childhood traumas with the advent of Roarke in her life. She deals every day in small and big ways. I love how each of these authors explores these darker themes and shows that tragedy and trauma don’t have to be the end. These women are survivors and their journeys fascinate me.”

Do these readers have a point? Yes, to a point, they have a point. Longer novels and series can delve more deeply into hot button topics. But are these issues simply too complex to be addressed in romance novels? Now there I don’t quite agree. Nor do I agree with those who argue that these issues shouldn’t be addressed in genre books in general or that hot button issues must always be given complex treatment.

When I was growing up and started reading Young Adult novels, I learned that there were two types of novels for young adults – “problem novels” (books about a social problem) and everything else. Another thing I learned was that problem novels could be boring or insipid or preachy, often because they were about a lofty issue. But regular novels could still be about the same issues and yet were more often interesting, because they weren’t just about the issue. They were about characters trapped inside an exciting plot. I can’t remember most of the YA novels I read that were just about kids suffering through horrible problems. But I’ll never forget William Sleator’s House of Stairs, which was about a group of “misfit children” trapped in a giant building where all they could see were sets of stairs going up and down all around them. The book still addressed the problems of its characters. (Translation: They were screwed up.) Sure, it didn’t delve into the depths of each issue, as a problem novel might. But it didn’t put me to sleep, either. Look, if I want to read a treatise on a social problem, I’ll go to the nonfiction section. If I want to read about fictional characters who are suffering because of a social problem, more often than not, I’d rather read a genre novel about it.

Also, there’s one thing a lot of novelists realize. If a hot button topic means a lot to them, and they have a message they want to deliver, they can send that message by using it as the background for a novel. They realize that many people would never pick up a nonfiction book about PTSD, but they might pick up a novel about it and then realize that their uncle who served in Korea must have suffered from PTSD. I know, I know, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. But sometimes, putting your message into a novel can give the novel added depth, without turning the message itself into a bitter tonic that no one wants to swallow.

That leads to another thing, though. If an author cares a lot about the issue, there is the danger of the author becoming preachy. Let’s face it, it’s hard to write about controversial topics that mean a lot to you without trying to say “This should be done…” or “People should do this…” It must be the hardest thing in the world for an author to avoid putting that “stamp” on the story.

Lady Naava doesn’t like it when authors get up on their soap box about hot button issues. While she doesn’t mind small doses of it, too much can become heavy-handed very quickly.

“I don’t need my consciousness raised on these issues. I’ve read and heard enough. I think this becomes worse, especially if the characters are still struggling with these issues, rather than recovering. I recognize and acknowledge that these are very real issues that many people struggle with today. But, I just don’t find this to be entertaining. I’ve pretty much given up reading Mercedes Lackey because of the ‘soap boxing’ which goes on in her books. I think she’s a great author. And the message is great. But enough already.”

I must confess, I’m a huge fan of Mercedes Lackey books myself. Yes, even the ones where she writes books with a Message. For example, like AAR’s Katarina Wikholm, I loved the urban fantasies she wrote for Baen Books. In many of these books, modern-day elves helped saved human kids from child abuse. Why do I love those stories when so many other readers (even fans) didn’t care for them? I’ve got several reasons. One is that when you read nonfiction about child abuse, it can be depressing, like watching too many episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in a row. But in Lackey’s novels, the novels gave people hope because the kids were rescued. Another reason I liked them is because they didn’t cloud the issue with lots of gray areas – sometimes I don’t want gray areas, I want something that attacks the basics. Finally, maybe the most important reason I like these novels is because I can tell Mercedes Lackey cares about the issues she writes about. Yes, to some readers, that translates to preachiness, but I guess I’d rather have a little preachiness than any bit of insincerity.

Sincerity. Maybe that’s part of what separates a successful hot button book from one that doesn’t work. Sincerity brings care in the writing. Insincerity often brings about the taint of exploitation.

I think we can all point to instances where we read a romance about a hot button issue and felt that the author was exploiting it. Maybe the treatment seemed slight or perfunctory, or maybe it seemed to dwell on the squalid parts of the story. Readers of other genres have the same problems. Years ago, I read a mystery magazine with an article about the awards given at a mystery conference. Like AAR, they gave away awards in negative categories besides the usual awards. Several books were “honored” for being the most egregious examples of books with tacked on themes about incest. So sometimes, readers can smell the insincerity and the stink of exploitation.

Of course, there’s a catch. Isn’t there always? Then again, while it’s generally easy to tell which writers are sincere, maybe it’s not always easy to tell which are insincere and which are simply struggling with an issue.

Eileen Wilks doesn’t think it’s best to assess motivation on the way a book affected you because “all writers have things they’re good at and areas where they don’t shine.” As such, she argues, “A writer whose handling of an issue seems shallow may have latched onto the issue because she thought it would move readers – or it may be an issue that moves her deeply, but she wasn’t up to conveying that to readers. A scene that strikes you as trite or even exploitative may have been one she wrote with tears streaming down her face. Or not.” She continues: “Motivation is a murky area, difficult to figure from the outside – though being human, we can’t help wondering or making guesses.”

Maybe Eileen has a point. Even when the author is obviously sincere, that doesn’t always mean that the book works, and that doesn’t mean that the book might not seem exploitative. For example, AAR reviewer Lynn Spencer found too much melodrama in a book she read for review, Sharon Sala’s Out of the Dark. This book was about a heroine who was a survivor of child sexual abuse – but Lynn didn’t like the treatment of the topic. “For me, this book seemed to border on exploitation because it had rather graphic allusions to the heroine’s past. Also, the fact that the traumatized heroine, who was still childlike in many ways, would end up in a sexual relationship with the heroine really disturbed me.” At the same time, the author was obviously passionate about the topic, and Lynn thought she was brave to write about it. So yes, sometimes an author can be sincere and still write a book that comes across as exploitative to some readers.

While I didn’t think it was exploitative, I had similar problems with Diane Chamberlain’s Breaking the Silence, because there were so many issues in the book. It just got to be too much. I’m sure Diane Chamberlain cared about Alzheimer’s disease and barbaric medical experimentation – nothing came across as false. But part of the problem was that she wanted the readers to care about so many things at once without giving them a chance to catch their breath.

What do you think? Can writers be sincere and still write books that come across as exploitative or overdone? Maybe if you feel that strongly about an issue, it’s that much harder to keep your passion out of it, and that can color the way you treat the villains. (A lot of fans complain that Mercedes Lackey’s villains, especially in the urban fantasies, are often too evil.) Then again, sometimes exploitation is simply that – exploitation. Are there times that we, as readers, always detect exploitation and insincerity in the books we read? This may be a tough call, after all. After all, just as readers rarely agree on who the best authors are, readers don’t agree in which authors are exploiting an issue and which are treating it with the care it deserves.

For example, Mrs. Giggles finds Catherine Anderson to be an exploitative writer. She believes Anderson’s heroines “[suffer] from all sorts of physical and sexual traumas yet at the same time [are] repressed by her own family members and persecuted by the law, ugh ugh ugh, until the one shining hero comes down and swoops the hero into his manly arms for some tender loving, sexual healing, and justice.” She feels these heroines are presented as “helpless and also perplexingly naive and prone to martyr tendencies and they need the hero to correct everything that is wrong with their lives.”

On the other hand, many readers love Catherine Anderson, and she has received a DIK status from AAR in the past. But Mrs. Giggles argues that when a book piles on the trauma, makes the heroine a helpless dumb bunny, and piles on cartoon villains, then it gets to be too much. “A good book will deal with realistic emotions and treat the main characters like human beings, not damsels in distress. A good book doesn’t sacrifice realistic characterization for the sake of overly sentimental or melodramatic rescue fantasies.”

Susan K also believes that issues are being exploited when they are not treated realistically. “For example, if a character has been raped or had all their money stolen or been involved in a battle but then shrugs it off as if it were as easy to recover from such life-changing traumas as from a hangnail.” This doesn’t always make the book a wallbanger, though. For example, she enjoyed Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You, but thought that the response one character had to killing someone wasn’t realistic. However, because it wasn’t a central issue in the novel, she still liked the book, even if her problem with that scene bothered her.

LLB agrees with Mrs. Giggles as regards Catherine Anderson, at least for the most part. Of the three books she’s read by the author, two featured hot button issues such as prejudice, abuse, and incest. Not surprisingly for LLB, who not only doesn’t go for “issue” romances in general but “hot button issues” in particular (except for “forced seduction, but that’s another topic entirely), she didn’t care for either of these stories. The one Catherine Anderson title she enjoyed was Phantom Waltz. While the hero truly was too wonderful to be believed, the heroine was neither repressed by her family nor sought by the law. What LLB particularly appreciated about this book was that it caused her to think about something difficult in a personal manner; while that may indeed be the purpose of a hot button issue, paraplegia is not a hot button issue, so perhaps that’s why it succeeded for her.

Or… is it exploitation to write about a hot button issue to begin with? That’s another problem about hot button issues. This is inherent right in the phrase “hot button.” When some readers come across a romance about one of these topics, they don’t see a serious topic being addressed. They see buttons being pressed. In these cases, they see the issues begin raised to push and prod the reader into being excited.

For example, while many readers loved Linda Howard’s new book, Cry No More, Carol M was disappointed in it, in part because it used the hot button issue of kidnapping. She liked the relationship but was less than impressed by the rest of the book. While she found the child-stealing plot necessary to create the story’s conflict and provide a reason for Milla and Diaz to get together, she didn’t think the book packed the emotional punch many other readers did. She goes further and writes, “I expect more from Linda Howard than using a current hot-button issue to grab the reader’s attention. I do think she did a great job of resolving Milla’s personal situation in the last quarter of the book, but I felt manipulated by the final scene.” Carol compares this to the preponderance of romance novels about characters dealing with incest several years ago:

“Every other book seemed to have a heroine who was damaged by an incestuous relationship as a child. Basing a work of fiction on one of these subjects makes it difficult for the reader to criticize. Baby stealers and incestuous family members are obvious villains, so criticizing the book is taken as condoning the evil. Linda Howard is such a wonderful writer that I expect more subtlety from her. She doesn’t have to use such an easy target. Because the thought of having a child stolen is so awful, writing about it generates an emotional reaction without much effort on the author’s part.”

Does writing about a hot button issue mean an author is taking the easy way out? I don’t think it does. There’s a reason these issues are hot buttons for so many readers – because they’re important. Should a writer avoid these topics because some people might find them manipulative or exploitative? Well, no. The important issue is how the author treats the issue.

I’m more likely to suspect exploitation if the issue seems like a throwaway issue. If the issues come across as overwhelming, as in the Diane Chamberlain novel, that could be because the author realizes they are overwhelming. But if the alpha heel hero suddenly reveals, near the end of the book, that he was an abused child, and that is used to explain why he was such a jerk since Chapter One, then I’m more likely to turn up my nose at the book.

So while I see some books as being exploitative, I don’t see that in all “hot button” books. For one thing, these issues are hot for a reason. They are important to us as individuals and to society as a whole. Should we tell authors they can’t write about them because we might think they are exploiting the issue? I don’t think we have that right. Many authors write about these topics not because they are hot, but because they are hot to them. They matter. They are sincere about the topic.

Author Lynne Connolly believes that authors should approach these topics with understanding. “When a writer takes the trouble to do her research properly and understand the situation, it usually works beautifully. Understanding stops writers from exploiting disabilities, situations etc.”

Maybe what we should really ask authors is to treat these issues more realistically, to avoid easy answers, to avoid using abuse as an “excuse” for bad behavior, and to avoid But most important of all, just tell us a good story. If you tell us a good story about interesting characters, then I’ll accept unrealistic treatments and black and white treatments of an issue. But no amount of research can rescue a book if the story falls flat and no one cares whether or not the characters were abused.

That Christmas Feeling (Robin Uncapher)

What is it about Christmas that makes reading stories about the holiday so appealing? Other holidays don’t seem to inspire nearly so much literature. Easter is religious for some, and delightful to children, but few bookstores stack the shelves with Easter stories. The Fourth of July, which has the wonderful story of the writing of the Declaration of Independence behind it, inspires lots of picnics and celebrations but not many stories (although 1776 is a marvelous musical). Thanksgiving reminds all Americans that, with the exception of native Americans, we are a nation of immigrants. There’s an immense amount of creativity in Thanksgiving and you would think the diversity of the way people celebrate it would make for some good stories.

But it’s Christmas that inspires the books and short stories, and there seem to be more every year. Go to any bookstore and, by the register, you will see them – the Christmas books. Most are small, some tiny enough to fit into a Christmas stocking. They have beautiful covers. John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas sports a witty blue cover worthy of The New Yorker. Jan Karon’s tiny The Mitford Snowmen, is the size of an old Beatrix Potter book with colorful illustrations and fancy coated paper. Jimmy Carter’s Christmas in Plains has hand drawn illustrations. Many of covers of the mainstream Christmas books seem to have been inspired by the hugely successful Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box and none more so than Richard Paul Evan’s latest, The Christmas Box Miracle.

Of course in the romance world we also await our cache of Christmas stories. If Christmas is wonderful and romance is wonderful, shouldn’t stories about both be ever better? My answer is sometimes….

The anthology I wait for is the Signet Regency anthology. This year it is called Regency Christmas Wishes. I’ve read the annual Signet Christmas anthology yearly and some years feature wonderful stories, particularly those by Carla Kelly and Mary Balogh. This year’s book has the Carla Kelly story, Let Nothing You Dismay, which is what got me thinking about Christmas stories.

I opened Regency Christmas Wishes and read Let Nothing You Dismay very early on a cold Saturday morning. The house was not decorated. With all the stress and strain of Christmas chores I needed a book that would make me feel like Christmas on the inside. In other words, I needed a story that would give me just a little bit of the sense of magic and wonder that I had as a child at Christmas Right away I knew I had the right story. In the story, Kelly writes about Lord Trevor Chase, who has taken on the thankless job of defending London children accused of crimes. I was swept into the story with these lines: “Trevor had never felt the need to celebrate the year’s cases won or lost. He seldom triumphed at court because his clients were generally, all guilty.”

The story, with its bittersweet tone of a good man who suffers from terrible guilt on Christmas, put me into the Christmas mood more than all the Christmas Carols and pictures of Santa at the Mall.

Every year I try to get back the feeling of Christmas that I had as a child. Part of that means reading Christmas stories. I grew up in a house that loved Christmas. Though we did not have a lot of money, my parents believed that a wonderful Christmas and beautiful Christmas memories are a gift you give your child forever. Toys were received twice a year, on birthdays and on Christmas – with the majority on Christmas. My father would go out and buy a real tree and two enormous boxwood wreaths. There was holly and evergreen all over our small house and before Christmas we children agonized how to spend our small savings to cover three elderly aunts and two sets of grandparents.

My parents, like the parents of most of my generation, were children of the Depression and I think that explains so of their Christmas cheer. For their childhood Christmases they had received fruit, nuts, socks and other useful items. The toys advertised on the radio and in magazines had not been for them. Both my parents remembered wanting certain toys desperately and never receiving them. For this reason my mother believed that it was important that each child got one or two items that were exactly what he or she had asked for. Yes, the real Barbie was more expensive than the knockoff but Mom knew what it was to want the real Barbie and she was as excited as I was when I opened it. All three of us, my brothers and I, made out embarrassingly long lists for Santa. Naturally all the gifts could not be had. But some would come which is why my brothers and I lay awake late into Christmas Eve night too excited to sleep.

But even though we received some wonderful gifts, Christmas, to us, did not seem to be about material things. It was about the magic of surprise, the joy of the birth of Jesus, the love of friends and family. I never really understood what people meant by the commercialization of Christmas until I left home and started buying gifts myself.

But, as all of us know, feeling “Christmassy” when you are an adult is a good deal harder than it is when you are a child. Christmas to adults means spending money, worrying about Playstations and Gamecubes and whether they are good for kids. It means hiking through shopping malls and worrying about Amazon’s ability to deliver those all important boxes on time. It means worrying that the Christmas tree will fall over, that somebody might leave the tree on and burn the house down.

Usually at Christmas I buy a few romance Christmas anthologies and call it a day. Although I’ve read some great stories, including last years Donna Simpson, A Matchmaker’s Christmas. I’ve also read many stories where the author seemed stumped by the assignment. A good Christmas story, it seems to me, has to be more than a romance that happens at Christmas. Well I have been complaining about romance Christmas stories for years. This year, for a change, I thought I would check out what people outside of the romance world are reading. Were they doing any better? I picked up a handful at random to see.

Well dear reader, you will be happy to hear that the short answer is “no.” While there are some pretty wonderful mainstream Christmas stories out there are also a load of books being sold because they fit conveniently into a Christmas stocking.

The worst offender in this category was Jan Karon’s tiny The Mitford Snowmen, so short you can read it in the bookstore in less than ten minutes. Less than a thousand words and lacking in plot, here’s what happens in the story: A group of characters from Jan Karon’s previous books sit around a closed coffee shop talking about the parking problem in town. One suggests closing the ballpark. A few people are appalled. A few minutes later someone goes outside. Someone is building a snowman! Then someone else is building one! Passersby look at the snowmen. The mayor arrives and invites everyone for donuts and cider. That’s it. This book cost $10.99.

Once I finished The Mitford Snowmen I figured things had to improve with the John Grisham bestseller, Skipping Christmas, which is about a middle aged couple, Luthor and Nora, who decide to forgo Christmas and go on a cruise instead. Initially Luthor, the story’s Scrooge, says that they are skipping Christmas to save money. This leads to all kinds of problems. The shop that prints the Christmas cards is appalled when the couple doesn’t renew their $325 order for cards. (These people pay more for every aspect of Christmas than I would have thought was possible.) The boy scout who sells the trees is hurt when Luthor turns him away. Things get nasty when the Luthor refuses to put the neighborhood Christmas decorations on top of his house.

Skipping Christmas has been touted by some as a new Christmas Carol, but Dickens needn’t worry. The characters who inhabit Skipping Christmas advocate celebration more out of some deep suspicion of anyone who refuses to be like his neighbors than anything else. Luthor and Nora face social ostracism in their neighborhood for not putting a styrofoam Santa on the roof. People who have attended their annual Christmas party for years are so rude when they discover its cancellation that one wonders why they were invited in the first place. The end of the story provides something of a turnaround – but far too little. One closes the book feeling that Luthor and Nora would do well to go on that cruise next year.

After Skipping Christmas I flipped through some of the other selections. The Christmas Box Miracle, which initially seemed like a great idea to me, seemed to be padding a very interesting story of how the original book was sold. (This fascinating tale was told to Brian Lamb on a memorable Booknotes on C-SPAN.) Nothing seemed particularly interesting until I picked up an unexpected winner, Jimmy Carter’s Christmas in Plains.

Okay, okay so you didn’t vote for him. Or maybe you did. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I did vote for him, twice – but probably would not again.

But politics have nothing to do with this lovely little book about celebrating Christmas as a child in the deep South. Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut plantation in a town called Archery. His playmates were the children of black farmhands and sharecroppers. The book evokes a time gone by when a little boy would wait up all night to see if Santa had brought a red wagon or a baseball mitt. Christmas day was often spent hunting quail with his father, or raccoons and possum with his black neighbors. Carter describes the friendships he had as well as the differences in the way that his black friends celebrated Christmas and the way he did. I was amazed to learn that the white churches were closed on Christmas (unless it was Sunday) so as not to inconvenience the congregations! By contrast the black churches were full and many black children received their only Christmas gifts there. One story Carter tells, about a truck that accidentally dumped its entire load of holiday grapefruit on the road, providing baskets of fruit for black children who had never tasted it, is both sad and joyful.

Christmas in Plains put me in the mind of another wonderful Depression era Christmas story, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. As a child Capote lived with elderly relatives in the deep South. One of these ladies, Sook, was slightly mentally retarded and very much like a child herself. She was Truman’s best friend. A Christmas Memory tells the story of how the child Capote and Sook set about making thirty fruitcakes. Money was tight and liquor for the cakes was hard to come by in their dry town. Overcoming these things the two make the fruitcakes, sending one to Mrs. Roosevelt for the White House Christmas buffet. My favorite part of the story is when Sook and Capote imagine Mrs. Roosevelt serving fruitcake to White House guests.

In the early 1970s A Christmas Memory was made into a black and white television movie with Geraldine Page. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Why do some Christmas stories work and others fall flat? I asked the question on the Potpourri Message Board and got this response from Ellen B, who wrote that “Well-written Christmas stories make some of the best stories because some very basic elements of romance – forgiveness and redemptive love – play so well with the themes of the Christmas season.”

Thinking about this I realized that Ellen was right, and it doesn’t matter if you are reading a romance or a mainstream story. Christmas stories are about forgiveness, redemptive love and sacrificing for others. What makes A Christmas Memory so touching is the thought of two poor and lonely people struggling to give fruitcakes to people they love. It doesn’t matter that Mrs. Roosevelt is fabulously wealthy while they are poor. They want to give her a present and that makes them feel wonderful and important. What made Skipping Christmas so empty was not the wealth of the people involved, it was the complete selfishness of almost all the characters so that even when the main character changes his mind you are not exactly sure why.

I’m glad I read a few mainstream stories but it’s time to get back to reading some romance Christmas stories. Please let us know your favorites and if you think great romance Christmas stories follow the same lines as other great Christmas stories.

A Final Note from Laurie Likes Books

I’m not a Christian, but remember quite fondly driving through a specific Los Angeles area neighborhood every year growing up (dogs included!) to see the wonderful display of lights. Another terrific memory is more recent; when our daughter was in pre-school we threw a home-made Hanukkah party. My daughter and I actually made a dreidal piñata over a period of several days and my husband cooked latkes for our small guests. Once was enough, but it really was wonderful.

As far as Christmas books go, I too have read The Christmas Box and A Matchmaker’s Christmas. I thought the latter was quite good, and would also recommend Diane Farr’s Once Upon a Christmas.

What I mainly recommend this time of year are a variety of movies, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (made for TV), and the original We’re No Angels.

Please stay healthy and happy during this busy time of year. Enjoy parties, the giving (and receiving of gifts), and designate a driver if you go for some eggnog or a hot toddy or two.

Rather than providing specific questions to kick off our ATBF Message Board, this time around we’re simply going to list, in thumbnail fashion, points for discussion for you to consider:

  • Repentance and redemption, in theory and in practice, in books and in reality
  • Selfish characters you’ve loved or despised
  • Single parent characters
  • Bad spouse and/or parental characters
  • The purpose of hot button issues in romance novels
  • The good and bad hot button romances
  • Manipulation, preachiness, depression, sincerity – and when you did or didn’t feel it in a hot button romance
  • Exploitation of issues that works or fails
  • “Ripped from the headlines” writing
  • Feelings of Christmas
  • Christmas stories and/or romance Christmas stories
  • Movies about or featuring Christmas

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)