Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

At the Back Fence Issue #198

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

March 15, 2005

The first few segments of this column, all from me, are pretty short, intended to open up discussion for the next ATBF. First up is an exploration of four previously undiscussed roles women sometimes play in romances – and each is related to sex and sexuality. Next I take a quick look at the roots of romance authors, and then I ask us to consider how we “box” romances for ourselves. Anne Marble wraps things up with a report on the returning and tossing (shudders) of books based on recent Potpourri and AARList threads.

The Ho, Fake Skank, Virginal Widow, and Mistaken Skank (Laurie Likes Books)

The very first woman created, in Greek mythology, is Pandora, and we all know what she let loose on the world. In the Bible, it is Eve’s taking a bit of the apple and tempting Adam to do the same that gets them kicked out of Eden. What’s worse, all women thereafter must suffer the pain of childbirth because of Eve’s failure to obey God. The prevailing view was that women lead men not only into temptation, but into evil because a woman’s sexuality is a very dangerous and scary thing that must be controlled.

If there’s one romance novel subject guaranteed to create endless discussion, it would be sex. Over the years we’ve talked about love scenes in and of themselves, whether romance novels are women’s porn, the purple prose associated with love scenes, the Duke of Slut, and the Fake Rake. We’ve also talked about the double standard associated with sexual appetites and virginity, both of which have their basis in ancient histories and religions. Women have gotten a bad rap all along, and even though the mores of Western history dictate a woman’s goodness is in her purity, the importance of virginity as a sign of virtue in romance novel heroines – mostly, but not always in in Historical Romance – revs the engines of more than a few readers today.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that woman gained control over their reproductive systems, and it’s no surprise that during this period fewer women went to college looking for their “Mrs” degree. Historically, a woman’s virtue was tied to her chastity because her main role in society was to bear children and continue the patrilineage. If a man couldn’t be sure a child was his, that entire system would fall apart.

Reproductive and sexual freedom, increases in education, and the desire of more and more women to work (and later, the necessity for them to work as part of a dual wage-earning family), changed everything. No longer must a woman be virtuously virginal to attract a husband who will provide for her financial well being. Not only has virginity lost its luster, so as the idea of the man as white knight – who needs a husband to provide financial well-being? Everything is topsy-turvy from how it once was.

I think it’s important to understand this history in order to talk intelligently about women and sex in romance novels. Even though our lives are not governed by the same mores as our ancestors, they are part of our collective unconscious.

I’d like to spin things off in a new direction this time by bringing into play premises other than strictly virginity associated with women – but you can be sure they all relate back to sex. Each of the premises I’ll be listing engenders strong feelings, including the heroines who are forced by circumstance to be prostitutes. Mary Balogh has written this particular heroine more often than most authors (The Secret Pearl and A Precious Jewel), leading Blythe Barnhill, one of her biggest fans among AAR, to pen a Purple Prose Parody entitled Once a Ho. But a woman who uses her body and sex for gain isn’t always in it for the money. Some women are spies who use their womanly wiles for their family’s welfare or in service of their country (Mata Hari, anyone?) – and any of us who has watched international news for more than the past year or so is painfully aware that the use of sex, usually associated with the degradation of women, can also be used to degrade men. Just ask some of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

While a mistress may be considered a less skanky type of woman than a prostitute because she sells her favors to only one man at a time, a prostitute may actually engender more empathy from readers because it seems she has so far to go for redemption. Still, I count 11 mistress romances good enough to make it onto our list of Mistresses & Sexually Experienced Heroines (twelve prostitutes are listed). For purposes of clarity (and I address this later in the column), I’ll define “mistress” in an historical context as a woman who engages in an exclusive sexual relationship with a man to whom she is unmarried. In a contemporary setting, mistresses are generally defined as women who engage in extramarital affairs with a man who provides financial support in return. It’s doubtful any reader would find a true contemporary mistress romantic or heroic – greedy is a more likely term to come to mind.

Even though the heroine as virgin and the heroine as prostitute represent both ends of a spectrum, more than a few romance novels manage to combine them. There are young women saved by the hero just before their first “trick” (Tempting Fortune by Jo Beverley, The Viscount Vagabond by Loretta Chase), or just after (as in the case of The Secret Pearl). There are virgins in harems who were taught every position in the Kama Sutra (Illusions by Jean Ross Ewing) but before putting their skills into use return to the European country of their origin as the long-lost daughter or niece of a lord. And then there are those virgins who pretend to be prostitutes as part of a necessary scheme in tricking a man for some reason or other. There are romances to fit each of these scenarios, and how well they convince the reader of their believability varies from one to the other. Personally I’ve never been convinced by any of these premises, although, according to Anne Marble, Theresa Weir managed it in Cool Shade. I’ve had more luck with heroines thought to be prostitutes by others, but they don’t fit this category – see instead the Mistaken Skank below.

Two other roles for women in romance novels that play off their sexuality are the virginal widow and what I’m going to call the Fake Skank. The latter is the female counterpart of the Fake Rake, but she generally suffers far worse in the reputation department (His Lady’s Ransom by Merline Lovelace and My Only Love by Katherine Sutcliffe). As for the virginal widow (Adele Ashworth’s Duke of Sin and Kimberly Logan’s A Kiss in the Dark are two recent Avon historicals with virginal widows), I’m guessing its basis in romance novels is that the hero should be the one to awaken the passions of the heroine, and by having the heroine be a widow, she can be somewhat older and have lived a bit more life. More intrigue, perhaps, but as far as contrivances go, that one is pretty far out there – and it’s one that seems to bother a rather large group of readers. Even when they enjoy books such as Ashworth’s, discussions on the widow’s virginity are lengthy and loud.

There’s one final role many a romance novel heroine has played in a romance novel, and it’s an adjunct of the Fake Skank. I like to think of the Fake Skank as a woman who proactively projects the image of promiscuity…or doesn’t try to convince those around her that she’s not skanky. But what about all those heroines, mistakenly believed to be skanks – or even skanky ho’s – by the hero or others around them (Allison Lane’s The Notorious Widow, Liz Carlyle’s A Woman Scorned )? Let’s call them Mistake Skanks. In historicals these women are often virgins to boot (Moonspun Magic by Catherine Coulter, Once a Princess by Johanna Lindsey), and while the whole virgin heroine thing is not a topic I want to get into per se, it’ll be okay to talk about virginal Mistake Skanks.

I’d like to explore each of these four roles women play in romance, and to discover various combinations thereof. Let’s share the names of romances that worked and those that didn’t, and why. Already our staff is considering other sexually-related roles for women in romances, and their ideas, along with your comments, will form the basis of a segment for the next ATBF.

Roots (Laurie Likes Books)

After having fallen in love with The Real Deal last year, I eagerly looked for other books by Lucy Monroe. When I saw that they were all Harlequin Presents, particularly after comments made by readers and staff during last year’s reader/publisher preference survey, and saw the titles – The Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress and The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride – I decided I’d have to hold out for her 3 Brides for 3 Bad Boys, a trilogy of short stories all by Monroe in a single volume published by Brava this month. To tide me over, though, I picked up Merry Christmas, Baby, an anthology with six short stories, one by Monroe.

I didn’t care much for Silver Bella, but needing to see if TRD was a fluke for me, one day while standing in front of the romance section at the flagship Half-Priced Books in Dallas, I found myself pulling The Italian’s Suitable Wife off the shelves. Yes…I’d finally broken down and bought a Harlequin Presents even though the titles of HP’s are ludicrously silly.

It’s now several weeks later, and I’ve been inhaling HP’s like air (so far I’ve read fifteen, and have an entire shopping bag full of more from various UBS’s tbr). Two were written by Lucy Monroe, and when I picked up 3 Brides for 3 Bad Boys, it didn’t surprise me in the least to discover that, had the three “bad boys” been Australian, each of their stories could easily have been HP’s in terms of style. And while that initially disappointed me, I’ve since changed my mind. I still hope Monroe will write another book in the style of The Real Deal, but the over-the-top quality of HP’s is growing on me, and if I can just get over my title “issues” with The Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress, there’s no doubt that if Monroe continues to write HP’s I’ll continue to read them.

And then I started to wonder…which other authors have I read whose roots come through when they switch sub-genres? The first author who came to mind was Mary Balogh, and then Diane Farr, whose writing is about as opposite as the writing in HP’s as is conceivably possible. Where HP’s are over the top, Balogh and Farr’s writing is nuanced and subtle. Equally powerful emotions may be evoked, but it’s done differently. Even when Balogh presents extreme situations, it’s done at a far more discreet level.

Okay…those were easy, but what about the rest? I did a BYRON sort of books I’ve read and sub-sorted it by author. First up – Leanne Banks. She’s only had a couple of single titles released to date, but my impression of When She’s Bad was that it read like two mediocre series novels in terms of premises but that strong characterizations made it more than the sum of its parts. Did her roots come through? Yes.

If only every author who has switched sub-genres for whom I’ve read a number of books were as easy to dissect in this manner! Catherine Coulter, for instance, shares with Balogh and Farr roots in the traditional Regency. But I don’t think anybody would call her writing nuanced and subtle. As for MaryJanice Davidson (next in line alphabetically), her first published book was a Young Adult novel, and her next releases were Romantica featuring writing far darker than the book that put her on the mainstream map in 2004 – Undead and Unwed. Not only that, but her initial single title releases were not nearly as sexual as her earlier books. It wasn’t until this year’s Derik’s Bane that she melded together the humor and the Romantica.

I’ve glommed about 150 authors, and roughly one-fifth of these authors who I’ve read in one sub-genre, I’ve read in another, so to list here each of them and analyze their roots would not only be incredibly lengthy, it would be equally boring. By mentioning Monroe, Balogh, Farr, Banks, Coulter, and Davidson, my attempt was to show you that of six authors, roots for some are clear-cut while for others they are not. And what makes this exercise even more difficult is this: while I’ve glommed 150 authors, I’ve only crossed genres for 20% of them. Many of the remaining 80% have actually written in more than one sub-genre, but since I haven’t crossed back (or forth), I wouldn’t know either their roots or if they’ve changed.

Since romance readers are also glommers, I’m sure that if you went over your list of books and authors read, you’d find a tremendous number of authors you’ve glommed. Among those, how many have written in more than one genre/sub-genre, and how many have you crossed over – or back – with from one sub-genre to the next? And what would you say about the author’s roots? Are they visable or not?

Romances Across the Board? (Laurie Likes Books)

As with many readers, when I discover something new to me – whether an author, a genre, sub-genre, or series line, I go on a glom. Last year I glommed Mary Balogh trads, Frontier Historicals, anthologies, and Romantica. This year I’ve continued my Romantica glom (actually combining it with my anthology glom) and started glomming Harlequin Presents. Although I’m continuing this HP glom, last week I needed some time away from this guilty pleasure (HP’s are kind of like my Diana Palmers, if that makes sense), featuring contemporary heroes so alpha they could be Medieval, titles filled with out-of-date words such as “Mistress” when the heroines really aren’t mistresses at all, marriages of convenience/arranged marriages in contemporary settings, and virgins all over the place.

So I did what any romance reader would do to cleanse the palate – I grabbed a traditional Regency off the shelf.

There is more than one way to demarcate romances readers. First is by sub-genre. A decade or more ago, there were romance readers who read Medievals almost exclusively, and another group who read only Frontier Romances. As releases in these historical periods and settings have declined, these readers have pretty much been forced into other historical periods and locales. That only increased the number of readers who only read romances with an historical setting. There’s another large group of readers who don’t want to read romances “long ago and far away.” They like the here and now and read Contemporaries. That group, of course, has its own set of splits. One such split is that between single titles and series titles – some read both while others read only one or the other. Another split is between Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense. As with series and single title Contemporaries, some read both while others read only one or the other. There are also Paranormal readers, who like SF/Fantasy, or “Monsters” mixed in with their romance, and Romantica readers, who prefer romance with a heavy dose of sex. And, of course, there are readers who read across the board rather evenly. They may base themselves in a particular sub-genre, but they aren’t exclusive to it.

But there’s another way to look at it. What if we grouped readers by tone? Some readers love humorous romances and read them almost exclusively while others prefer darker, more emotionally intense reads and don’t care for lighter fare at all. Are the lines of demarcation here somewhat less pronounced, with more willingness to read both lighter and darker fare than there is among readers who are fairly exclusive when it comes to sub-genre?

I know where I fit – I enjoy historicals of any type ending at about 1900, don’t care for Romantic Suspense in general (although Anne Stuart’s May release, Black Ice, is a major exception to that rule), and while not wild about Paranormals, I’ve enjoyed more than a few “monsters” in my day. As for light and dark, my general preference is for lighter fare, but more of my favorite reads have been darker in tone. And after my gloms of the past couple of years, I’m reaching for fewer and fewer light books. How about you?

Books, Books, Books (Anne Marble)

Are books sacred to many readers? They just might be. When most readers hear about returning books, as happened in a thread on the Potpourri Message Board, most of them can’t imagine returning books. A thread on tossing out books (oh, the horror!) was even more controversial.

Returning Books

Into the life of most readers comes a time when the memory fails and… okay, I’ll admit it… Last week, I accidentally bought two copies of a new Luna book by Robin Owens. The second time, I bought it because I could have sworn I hadn’t bought it the first time. Luckily I kept both receipts and was able to return one of the copies. This sort of thing happens to readers all the time.

Most readers have no problems with returning a book because they realized they had already bought a copy. Not all readers leap at this idea, however. Peggy H says that if she accidentally bought two copies of a book, she might think about returning one of the copies if it was a hardback for which she had paid the full purchase price. “But anything else, well shame on me for not consulting the keeper collection list I carry in my purse.”

However, Peggy H is that rare case, a reader with a really good memory. Laurie, for instance, recalls that she had two reasons for starting her book database a decade ago. Not only did she record the books she’d read and their grades, she used to list the books she bought so she wouldn’t continue buying duplicates. Unfortunately, time constraints mean that she no longer records bought books, and has returned more than a couple of books as a result. As long as she hasn’t read the book, she thinks it’s okay to do that. Otherwise it would be like buying a dress for a one-time event, wearing it without clipping the tags, and returning it as “new.”

Many readers admit to returning books because they already had a copy. I’ve done that a few times. I’d probably do it more often if I remembered where I kept those darned receipts. I will sometimes buy a book I am pretty sure I don’t have because I know that if I don’t buy it now, it might not be there next week. So sometimes, I end up with duplicates.

Author Michelle Hauf said that she returned a book recently after realizing it was already in her TBR pile. This was the only time she had bought the same book twice. (Wow, she’s one of the lucky ones!) She also felt guilty about returning it, fearing that the people at the bookstore would think she’d read the book or that she had bought it from another store. Maybe she was all the more embarrassed because she used to work there.

Luckily for impulse shoppers like me, most stores understand that people sometimes end up buying the same book twice, and accept returns of books in unread condition. I can think of only one store that refused to let me return a book in obviously unread (heck, the darned thing was pristine!) condition. I tried to argue about the policy, pointed out that I hadn’t read the book, explained that I didn’t really need another copy, and still, wasn’t able to return the book. After that hassle, I stopped buying books there and rarely shopped there anymore. I don’t think that’s the reason the chain went out of business, but sometimes I wonder if that sort of attitude toward customers didn’t push them along…

Most readers do know better than to buy the same book twice. But what about defective books? Even more readers have returned books because pages were missing or falling out of a book poorly bound. Misteaks Mistakes happen, after all. While browsing, I once found a book on the shelf that looked perfectly fine, until I flipped to page 30 and realized that the next 40 pages or so were from another book! I don’t think anyone would have objected if I returned that book. Even the cashier at that blasted (and now defunct) chain.

But what about this scenario? You buy a new book by your favorite writer, Jane Author, Hot Bonds. Then you go home, start to read it, and realize it’s a reprint of Jane Author’s 1987 series romance, Investing in Love. Now what do you do?

Some people would return the book then. (On the other hand, I would probably not realize that I had read it before until I had read half the book and dropped it in the tub twice.)

Like many other readers, Bree has bought books that turned out to be reprints. In one case, she admits to returning a book because she found out that it was an “expanded” reprint of a book she’d already read. She’s not the only one who has taken action that way – Dick has done the same, and he has taken the added step of writing to publishers, complaining about mislabeled reprints. Author Laura Mills Alcott points out that readers who want to send a message to publishers about reprints would be better served by writing complaint letters instead of just returning the book. She argues that a letter to the publisher, telling them in advance that they feel duped when buying reprints/expanded releases and asking that the publisher “make it plain” that the book is a reprint will “do more good” than returning books essentially in silence and hoping the publisher eventually “gets the hint.” Author Eileen Wilks agrees that it’s very unlikely returning books will send any sort of message to publishers. The publisher, after all, won’t know it was returned by the customer, and they surely won’t know why. If the sales are low, or many people return it, they’ll know something is wrong, but they won’t know what. She counsels that to send a message you should actually do so in the form of a letter. Publishers will pay attention to letters from annoyed and angry readers, if there are enough of them.

But…. what about returning a book because you didn’t like it? Now it gets tricky. Really really tricky. There are lots of contrasting points of view here, and many of them are correct. A friend of Wilks’ returns everything she doesn’t like, “whether it’s a book, a dress, or a package of lunch meat.” Wilks “can’t do that;” she believes that once she’s used something “book, lunch meat or dress – there has to be a very serious problem before I feel entitled to get my money back.” If a book has pages missing or a dress shrinks that is supposed to be washable – those examples “seem valid” to Wilks, but deciding “I don’t like bologna or that the ending sucked” don’t. She concludes, “My friend sees herself as an enlightened consumer; I think of myself as not expecting life to give me a money-back guarantee. Neither of us is right or wrong. We just approach things differently.”

AAR reviewer Cheryl Sneed takes a carefully researched list to the bookstore, so she doesn’t buy things she doesn’t think she’ll like – or buy by mistake (for instance, a reissue). She “cannot imagine returning a book half read because it ‘sucked.’  It just seems dishonest to me.”   Because books are getting more expensive all the time, she advises readers: “Do your research, seek out reviews, trusted friends’ opinions before buying.  If you still don’t like it, oh well. C’est la vie, Caveat Emptor and all that.  You did the best you could to be sure you would enjoy the book and sometimes you don’t.  Suck it up.”

Author (and former bookstore employee) Michelle Hauf says that while most of the turns she saw were unread copies in great condition, sometimes she would look at the condition of a return and wonder if the book had been read. And if she doesn’t like a book, she’ll give it away rather than returning it. Karen W., a bookseller, has seen people return books because they didn’t like the read. For example, one of her a customers recently returned a book because “she couldn’t get into it.” Karen has seen all the tricks in the book, too. “We have people try to return books that were very obviously read, book club editions, books that are so old the store hasn’t carried them for a year, books with writing in them, etc. You name it, and someone has tried!” She may have met the person author Laura Mills Alcott knew, the one who admitted that she would buy books, read them, and then return them simply because she refused to pay for books!

Altogether now… Ewwwww! Like Laura, I agree that this is … well, icky. It’s immoral and dishonest. Like those people who buy shoes or clothes, wear them, and then return them six months later because they don’t think they should pay for clothes. But while not all readers agree, I do see a difference between returning a duplicate purchase and returning a book because something about it was just … off somehow. And Laurie reminds me that many moms, when clothes shopping without their children in tow, buy clothes in two sizes understanding only one will fit and that the other will need to be returned. She adds that she’s sometimes bought clothes for her daughter not knowing if they’ll get a “that’s cool” or “that’s like something you would wear” in return. In her mind if the clothes go back brand new and never worn, it’s okay. She has never returned a book because it didn’t live up to her expectations, though. She says that’s what UBS’s are for – but never the trashcan!

Twila, though, will return a book if it turns out to be terrible. However, she is also careful not to wrinkle the pages or crack the spine, so the books look unread. Also, she reads ahead in the books before buying them, so they have to be “very very disappointing and/or bad to be a return.” She won’t return books that she finds to be just mediocre, only absolute wall-bangers, and she only does this two or three times a year.

I’ve never returned a book because it was a wall-banger. For one thing, I get much more mileage out of complaining about it on-line! If it hadn’t been for the joy of venting about a bad read, I might never have found my way to AAR. Also, once you’ve tossed a book around or shaken it or stomped up and down on it, most stores don’t let you bring it back. But on top of that, in a weird way, I think that I’d be reluctant to return a bad book because to me, true wall-bangers are emotionally involving in a way merely mediocre books can never accomplish. They’re a special part of my reading memories, much like a trip ruined by rain or a really bad sunburn.

Now something that disappoints from the outset is another story entirely. Earlier this year, I bought a book of market listings published by Writer’s Digest. I brought it home, opened it to the first page of listings, and immediately found a listing that I already knew was outdated. I realized that I had just paid nearly $25 for market listings that might be out-of-date. I argued with myself about keeping the book as some of the listings would still be good, but finally – and reluctantly – I decided to return the book the next day.

But nonfiction is a different animal than fiction. Opening a nonfiction book and finding an error is one thing. It’s objective. An error is an error. An outdated market listing in Writer’s Digest is a sign that you might know the market better than the person who wrote that listing. But liking and disliking fiction is subjective. Just look at the results of AAR’s Annual Reader Poll. Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal “won” in the Worst Read category, but many readers, including LLB, absolutely loved that book.

Do the readers who hated The Real Deal have the right to bring the book back to the store and demand their money back? Or would that be incredibly crass and stupid and sort of like… cheating? It depends on who you ask.

Mary echoes the sentiments of many readers when she says, “Returning an already-read book is like eating half of a bon-bon to find out what’s in the center, finding out it’s not what you want and returning it to the box. (Go ahead, ‘Ewwww.’)” She wouldn’t return a book just because she didn’t like it. Whether she is buying a book by a new author or one by an established author, as far as Mary sees it, she is taking a chance whenever she buys a book. She thinks that if you don’t like a book, you should turn it into a UBS or give it away rather than returning it. Ellen B also disagreed with the practice of returning a book after you’ve read it, or even after you’ve read a part of it. This reminds her too much of “buying a dress, wearing it to a party, and then returning it the next day.”

Bree has returned books for content maybe a couple of times, if that. She’ll do this only if she hates it enough that she can’t finish it – it only takes a chapter or two for her to know it’s a dud, and she always returns them soon after buying them. Usually, however, she accepts that buying a book is something of a gamble. You might not like that book you just bought. And in that case, you can trade it in, knowing that someone else might love it.

Most readers agree with Bree that when you buy a book, you accept that element of risk. You might love it, you might hate it, you might find it just so-so. PB realizes that buying books includes an element of risk, and she also wants to support authors. But even she admits that she returned a book for content – once and only once. It was the controversial Whitney My Love. So why did she return that one? “The thing with Whitney was… I just couldn’t bear to know I had spent money on it. Plus, the author has pretty clearly made it, and my return was not going to adversely affect her (I mean, the book I bought and returned was a reissue).” (PB, did you buy a reissue or the re-write? Either way, point taken.)

jmc doesn’t believe in returning books she didn’t like. However, she does make an exception if she couldn’t get past the first chapter. If the first chapter is that bad, she will return it. But even then, even if she has read only one chapter, she is reluctant about returning it because it feels like returning something she has used. Like jmc, Gail K. has returned books if the first chapter was bad. But she tries to avoid this by reading the first chapter in the store before buying the book. Gail also likes the fact that she can return books because this policy enables her to spend money more freely on books. As she keeps the vast majority of the books she buys, both bookstores and publishers end up ahead.

Dick falls somewhere in the middle. While he has returned books that had one of those “guaranteed good read” stickers if the didn’t like the book, he wouldn’t return any other books, even if he didn’t like them. On the other hand, he has written to publishers to point out grammatical and editing mistakes.

Ifalna is probably thisclose to sending marked-up copies of some of the books she has read back to the publisher. On the other hand, she has never come across a book she believes is “a total loss.” Even the worst books she read had some redeeming quality. Also, she believes that if she returns a book, she also gives up her write to criticize it. “Getting my money back, in my mind, automatically forfeits my right to rip the book apart if I feel the desire to do so.”

MMcA admits that she has never even thought about returning a book simply because she didn’t like it. She could understand returning it for defects or because of a misleading blurb, but not because it was bad. MMcA didn’t even realize some stores would take back books because they were bad. She points out that “in the UK you’re only entitled to your money back if the goods are defective in some way – though usually shops will, out of courtesy, give you a credit note on goods returned as new, if you have a receipt. I’d hate to try and argue with a shop manager that a book was so badly written as to be defective.”

xina doesn’t believe in returning a book because you were disappointed by it. She says, “I think you take a chance purchasing a book and if you don’t want to risk a bad read and lose money, then use your library for those risky books.” Kim’s response mirrors xina’s: “I try and do enough research so I buy books that I know I will like, but if I happen to come across one that I didn’t enjoy, I wouldn’t dream of returning it.”

Maybe that’s why so many readers disagree with the very concept of returning a book just because we didn’t like it. We believe in the saying “You pays your money, you takes your chances.” Not all books are guaranteed keepers, or for that matter, even guaranteed t be good. (Not counting those books with “Guaranteed Good Read” stickers, and those are special cases.) To most readers, returning a book because the first few chapters were bad seems a lot like putting down money at the roulette wheel and then suddenly shouting, “Wait! I changed my mind and want to spend that money on the buffet after all.” And returning a book after reading the whole thing seems like going over in blackjack and telling the dealer, “Uhm, I changed my mind. I want to stand.”

And maybe, just maybe, a lot of us see books as some sort of sacred object – a book is not lunch meat or a dress (even a designer dress). Sure, we might leave them in stacks all over the place. Or casually toss the “non-keepers” into a bag to be traded or given away. Or even throw books against the wall now and them. But we draw the line at returning them once we’ve started them.

Tossing Books

Have I ever thrown out a book? Yes, I confess. Sadly, it’s true. I was gathering some old Gothic romances to give away, and several of them were in horrid shape. Some had loose pages, others had stains on the covers. These were titles I had picked up for a pittance, because I couldn’t leave them there if they were only a dime. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to read them. But there was no way I was going to put these books in a pile to be donated. Especially the stained ones. Ewww. That would be like donating dirty clothing to charity. Yech. So these books had to be “retired” permanently – into the recycling bin. Just think, your stationery printed on recycled paper might contain bits of an old Gothic novel. I have also recycled ARCs (advanced reading copies) of books I didn’t want to keep. Those are special cases. ARCs can’t be resold, and giving them away isn’t a good idea, either. So many reviewers at AAR are forced to toss out or recycle ARCs. (The unbound ones take up too much space, anyway.)

There was also one other book that I retired permanently. When I was in college, I got together with two of my friends to celebrate all our birthdays at one time. We bought cake and presents and all that fun stuff. On a lark, I bought one of those really tacky porn novels (by Beeline Books) they used to sell in bookstores. Then, as one of our party activities, we read badly written passages from the “novel” to each other. I have never laughed so hard. It was the worst writing I have ever seen. (A typical line of dialogue went “Oooooh! Ohhhh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Ooooh! Yes yes yes yes yes!”) But because of the memories, I didn’t have the heart to get rid of that horrid thing. Finally, one day, I decided that thing had to go. What UBS was going to take that piece of crap? So it ended up in the trash. But it wasn’t really like tossing it out. It was like flushing a beloved goldfish down the toilet. I still have the memories.

Sometimes, like that Beeline book, even good books have no place to go when we’re done with them. Not everyone has a UBS in town. Then what about the books the UBS doesn’t want? Emma ran into a wall when she tried to give away the books she no longer wanted. “None of the libraries around here will accept them as donations (snobs, all!).” Selling them on-line was too much of a pain, and let’s face it, giving books away can be a huge hassle, too. Emma isn’t the only one to run into a wall when trying to give away books. I went to the trouble of packing up two big boxes of mysteries for the senior center and was told that they don’t accept donations because they are near the library. Man, that was frustrating! The library took them in, but most likely, all they did with those books was put them on sale.

Of course, try explaining this to somebody who doesn’t read like a fiend and they will look at you like you’ve grown two heads. To most people, if you’re finished with a book and there’s nobody to loan it to and you don’t frequent UBS’s, you throw it out without a second thought. You paid your $7.00, you read your book…end of story.

MMcA admits to throwing out lots of Mills & Boon romances, treating them as disposable. She does try to donate Silhouettes if she’s giving away other books at the time, but doesn’t feel “morally bound” to do so. She also gets rid of damaged books and admits, “I get a pure and unholy pleasure out of dumping really bad children’s books. However clean the copy, there are some stories about kittens that have no right to exist.”

Some fans throw away books that make them angry. This is a special group, a select group, as not all readers can bring themselves to do it. But sometimes that one book will anger or offend a reader so much that she just has to do it. Sometimes it’s personal. MMcA threw out any books with a hint of rape after hearing about a friend’s rape. Fair throws out any books that show a woman enjoying rape (not “forced seduction” but violent rapes). During the bodice ripper days, she threw out quite a few books.

I grew up in the “bodice ripper” era, and I’m surprised I didn’t throw out more books. Most of my first romances were bodice rippers. Some did cross that boundary from “forced seduction” to outright rape. Yet although many of the bodice rippers annoyed me, I never hated them enough to throw them out. I think I had more fun throwing them around the room a few times, then tossing them into a bag and taking them to the UBS. And in some cases, imagining a sequel where the hero was kidnapped by pirates who decided he would make a nice cabin boy. Yeah!

Obnoxious heroes seem to be the most common reason people toss books into the trash. Teresa has endured many books she didn’t like. But one hit the trash because of a horrid hero. The book that set her teeth on edge was Lilian Peake’s A Bitter Loving (a Harlequin Presents from 1977). She tossed that one because the hero was such a jerk. Having read some of the Presents from that era, I can relate! Bettie has only thrown out three books because of their content, but one of them was another HP – Frustration by Charlotte Lamb (1980). I hope Laurie didn’t pick up one of these books on her HP glom (for her the worst HP’s so far have featured annoying, ditheringly dishrag heroines rather than heroes, though).

xina can also relate to hating the hero that much. When she did it, she felt as if she were “getting back at the hero in some way by throwing the book in the trash masher.” Considering that the hero was a jerk who went so far as to ship the heroine off to America, pretty much abandoning her there for several years because of a misunderstanding… I can understand. I don’t have a compactor, but I do have a shredder.

Will I ever decide to introduce a book to Mr. Shredder? Eh. Giving the book rug burns by tossing it across the floor has been satisfying enough for me. And I blush to admit that in a very special case, I gave a book the finger because the hero was such an oxymaroon. Sure, I felt silly afterwards. Silly but nicely vented. I also went back and finished the blasted thing, in part because I hoped the so-called hero eventually woke up and realized he was an ass, and in part because I couldn’t help it. Books that make me angry have a special place in my memories. Sure, they pissed me off and made me want to fling the hero (not just the book) across the floor. But at least they didn’t bore me.

And plenty of books have upset me or annoyed me. But as far as I can remember, I have never thrown one out. Would I ever do it? Would I ever hate a book so much that I would toss it? As anyone who has read my reviews or seen me rant on-line knows, I have hated a lot of books. Many of them have made me angry. Yet I haven’t yet thrown one out yet. Not even that special Diana Palmer book. Not even a John Norman book. Not even that wretched men’s adventure novel I read several years ago where the hateful “hero” used the term “you people” a lot. Is there a book out there that is wretched enough to make me throw it out? I hope I never have to find out.

Lynn Calvin remembers throwing out books because of content several times. “The books in question have been various combinations of incredibly, vilely, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic and otherwise profoundly disgusting.” Yikes! I can see why Lynn wanted those books to mingle with the coffee grounds.

LauraD bought a bag labeled “Mixed Romance” at a garage sale. One of them turned out to be “flat out porn. I’m pretty tolerant, but after skimming it and finding scenes including abduction and rape, I threw that sucker out in the bag with the used kitty litter” – and didn’t feel guilty about it at all.

PilotToBombadier didn’t feel guilty about throwing out Anna Jeffrey’s The Love of a Cowboy and Celeste Bradley’s The Pretender, adding she “didn’t miss a heartbeat when I tossed them into the recycling bin. I will never read anything they write in the future.”

Lesa usually donates the books she hates, but admits that “there have been two occasions in my reading life where I have actually ripped them apart and used them to line my cat’s litter box. I also received much satisfaction in doing so.” (Man, now I want to read those two books out of a sort of morbid curiosity!) Heather threw out a Johanna Lindsey because it was so bad she didn’t even want to trade it in at the UBS. “It may sound silly, but it just gave me satisfaction to put that book in the trash.” Kerstin also threw out a book, either a Lindsey or a Coulter, with “great relish.” Or did she mean that she threw it out with the relish? Anna Bowling has also tossed out a book, and once made a friend hide a book that offended her (because of animal cruelty) so that she wouldn’t rip it up. Usually, though, she does like me and simply throws books across the room instead. “On rare occasion, if warranted, I will go back, pick it up, throw it again, and stomp up and down on it. But only if warranted. ” Anna, I think I’ve read that book, too!

Many readers who toss out books do it as a form of venting. It’s like taking that extra step beyond throwing against the wall, or throwing it against the room and stomping on it. They hate the hero so much that they want to imagine his face covered with coffee grains and dirty diapers. Ewww. As much as I’ve hated my share of alpha heels over the years, I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to that point. Yet. Maybe that’s because I tend to take my anger out while I’m reading the book. (Yes, some of my books have gotten dented and wrinkled.)

Other readers throw out books they hate to as a public service – they want to save others from having to read it. Cheryl remembers throwing out one book “because it was too horrible and I couldn’t bring myself to possibly inflict it on anyone else.” Author Pamela Clare has only thrown away a book once, but like Cheryl, she was hoping to save other readers from the trauma of that book. It contained what she considered to be “outright rape of the heroine by the hero.” It angered her so much that she actually ripped it up and threw it out. In part, she did this “so that no other reader would have to look at it.” At the same time, she admits that “It does sort of feel like sacrilege, doesn’t it?

Blythe usually gives away or sells books she doesn’t like, because she realizes that her trash might be someone else’s treasure. But there was one case where she decided she couldn’t inflict the book on the world. Once, she did throw out a book because she felt that no one else should have to read it. Ever. It was a self-published book called The Phoenix Concept. Blythe challenges anyone to find a “more offensive book, anywhere on the face of the planet” because it was more or less an issue book about abortion that had this “amazing capability to offend absolutely everyone, no matter where you stood on the issue. If you are curious as to how a book could be offensive to people who have had abortions, adoptive parents, people who are pro-choice, people who are anti-abortion, men, women, and thinking people everywhere, well, I guess you could try it. No, wait – don’t even try it out of curiosity.”

Jillian is a big Elizabeth Thornton fan, but she still threw out Thornton’s Velvet series because they were bodice rippers and so offensive to her that she couldn’t justify passing them on to fans who might be expecting something like Thornton’s more recent books. Since then, she has read other books from that era and realizes this was the popular style of that time. She has also learned that this older trilogy has its fans. But she still wouldn’t take those books out of the trash even though all of Thornton’s other books sit on her keeper shelf.

Yet not everyone agrees with the idea of “saving” other readers from a book. After all, while Jillian hated the Velvet books, other fans love them. Sybil asks, “Who am I to decide what you or anyone else would like? It is a little to vain, for even me, to assume my taste or morals should say what anyone else should read. So no, if I dislike a book I am pretty sure there is someone, somewhere who will enjoy it.”

For all the passion that a wall-banger can engender, throwing out books for content seems to be pretty rare. Most readers can never bring themselves to do it, no matter how bad that book. Even readers who have tossed books do it rarely, and only in special cases. Usually, they toss the books not because the writing itself was bad, but because the book was offensive in some ways– although some have tossed books that were both offensive and badly written. But many readers refuse to toss out any books because of content.

Peggy “could never throw out a book…the idea gives me shudders. I just throw them at the wall and then donate them or exchange them at a UBS.” Most readers seem to be like Peggy. Lee B, for instance, doesn’t throw out books either – even the ones she doesn’t like. Even the ones she hates. Lee says, “If I don’t like a book, I’ll donate it to the library. That way, either it is put on the shelf or added to the inventory for the annual book sale.”

L. K. Campbell says, “There have been plenty of books, which I didn’t read past the first few chapters, but I don’t throw them away. I pass them along to someone who might like them or I put them in the swap shop at the recycling center. I believe that reading is subjective. Someone else might love what I don’t like. I honestly never had a book bring out such a bad emotional response in me that I wanted to line the bird cage with it.”

But some writers start out in the “never toss” camp and end up in the other camp. Jaz had never thrown away books before because “it just seemed wrong.” She even kept “Catherine Coulter’s book where the non-hero rapes the heroine till she loves him.” Then, she decided to get rid of everything except for her keepers. She gave away a lot of books to three libraries, but after a while, the women at the libraries started to give her funny looks. So she started tossing them instead. That Coulter was the first to go. Jaz admits that “it got easier the more I threw ’em away.”

Will I ever become like Jaz? I don’t think I will. After all, I read the first few pages of Chrstine Monson’s infamous bodice ripper Stormfire without turning on the shredder. (I did put it back in my “bodice ripper box” so that I could read it when I was in the right mood – the mood to be angered and offended, I guess.) I would rather enjoy that vicarious thrill of reading a book with a nasty hero and venting. Somehow, it makes me feel stronger.

In the case of a book with an obnoxious hero, or just bad writing, I don’t feel as if I should save the world from it, either. Sure, most readers hate books with alpha heel heroes. But they’re not the only readers out there. Some fans love those books, and who am I to tell them they can’t have their fun? Like me, they know it’s only a book and a fantasy. And maybe there are readers like me who hate hate hate those heroes and yet now and then need to exercise that “stomp on the alpha heel” muscle by reading a book that with a hero that just annoys them. If I toss the book out, they’ll never get that pleasure.

Besides, as Pamela Clare said, “It does sort of feel like sacrilege, doesn’t it?

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

Help us flesh out the discussion of the: Ho, Fake Skank, and Mistaken Skank, any combinations thereof, and heroines from any or all three of these categories who are also virgins. And let’s not forget the Virgin Widow! Give your opinions, list characters and/or titles of good and/or bad romances that fit, and let us know if there is another sexually related theme for heroines we’ve yet to hit upon.

How many of the authors you’ve glommed have written in more than one genre/sub-genre? How many have you crossed over – or back – with? Are these authors’ roots visable?

Do more readers identify their likes and dislikes by sub-genre or tone? Which has a more pronounced line of demarcation? Are you more of an all eggs in one basket kind of reader, preferring one sub-genre over all others or light to dark reads or are your tastes more evenly spread? How has this changed over the years for you, if at all?

Do you consider books “sacred?”

How many books have you returned in your history as a reader, and for which reasons? Will you/would you only return a book if pages were missing or falling out? What if you mistakenly bought it twice or felt the publisher mislead you into buying a reprint? Have you ever/ would you ever return a book because you thought it was awful, or because it was riddled with errors a proofreader or copy-editor should have fixed?

There are those among us who have been so angered by a book that nothing short of throwing it out with the dirty cat litter would do. Others would never dream of actually tossing a book, no matter how bad we thought it was. Where do you stand on book tossing? Which books have upset you so badly you tossed them, and why?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books and Anne Marble

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

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

Subscribe to AAR’s weekly newsletter Powered by