At the Back Fence Issue #322

October 27, 2008

From the Desk of Robin Nixon Uncapher:

A Few Last Words over the Back Fence

“I have fallen in love once a decade,” says an old Catholic priest in the charming and underrated movie Keeping the Faith.

In 1998, I fell in love with romance novels. Then I found All About Romance, which was almost as good.

At the Back Fence, the column that Laurie Gold created when she renamed Laurie’s News & Views comes to an end with this column. It’s been my great privilege to work with Laurie, Anne Marble, and with all of the many contributors and authors who have made ATBF possible over the years.

When it was decided to discontinue At the Back Fence, I asked our new publishers if I could write a final column, looking back over the history of AAR. They were kind enough to give me the go ahead. This is the first ATBF column I have written which was not edited by Laurie Gold. That is fortunate because Laurie herself would never allow such praise for her own work.

All About Romance has an exciting future ahead, in no small part because of its dedicated and brilliant creator, Laurie Gold, who worked tirelessly over the past ten years to make AAR something that could continue without her. The new managers of the site, talented and creative women themselves, with a lot of experience at All About Romance, would be the first to agree with this assessment. We are fortunate to have them in charge. But I wanted, for one last time, to talk about what Laurie created when she started All About Romance, because it’s so easy, in these days when romance novel conversation is everywhere, to forget.

When I first clicked onto All About Romance late in 1998, I had low expectations. Ten years ago, most of the available information on romance novels on the web was advertising thinly disguised as commentary. The only critical site I came across before AAR was The Romance Reader, which published many excellent and entertaining reviews. All About Romance, took the concept to another level by putting up message boards and allowing people to talk about the reviews it published.

All About Romance also had an opinion column, Laurie’s News & Views (carried over from her original column with The Romance Reader). LN&V tackled romance issues from the point of view of serious readers. Unlike mainstream critics, Laurie had no desire to see romance novels become literary fiction. But she wasn’t afraid to talk about common story flaws that had been ignored by romance authors and publishers for years. She also talked about plagiarism and the sexism that dogged romance in the media. From the first time I clicked on the LN&V I knew that she was on to something new.

For one thing, Laurie liked to talk about problems which cropped up all over the genre. Why, she asked, should a heroine be Too Stupid to Live? Did the dreaded Long Separation kill books for others the way it did for her? Why were so many historical heroes promiscuous? Did a romance hero have to be The Duke of Slut? Laurie coined acronyms for some of these phrases and pretty soon everyone was using them, She gave some problems clever names that stuck, and provided the original venue where others were popularized. You can read these phrases all over the web: TSTL, the Big Mis, the Big Secret and of course the Desert Isle Keeper or DIK.

Before long I was writing reviews myself. In April of 1999, Laurie set up the email loop that is still called AAR Family. Among the many reviewers whom I met were Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill, Senior Editor Ellen Michelletti, alumni reviewers Marianne Stillings and Nora Armstrong. We were soon joined by many others including Senior Editor Sandy Coleman, Lists editor Rachel Potter, and Ombudswoman Lynn Spencer. Receiving those first aarfamily emails was a revelation and an enormous amount of fun. These supportive, witty women were the light of my day. We read each other’s reviews and offered support and help to each other. As a new reviewer I was thrilled to get emails about my work. And I loved reading the work of others and being able to talk about it with them. It was also a big help in relieving the constant pressure. “What pressure?” you might ask.

To understand the situation of the AAR reviewers and Laurie Gold in 1999 and the few years after that, you have to understand the challenges and pressures that the site was under. The idea of receiving real reviews was a new one to many romance authors and their publishers. While many authors loved the chance to talk about books and find new books, the shock of being reviewed was more than some could take. Some authors were shocked by reviews of their books, and threatened by reviews of the books of friends. It was not unusual for an author to post on an AAR message board saying that she was coming to the defense of a “sister” author, implying that a book review was a personal attack, as opposed to one consumer’s opinion of an item for sale at a local bookstore. Laurie received calls from authors asking that poor reviews be taken down. One author, after receiving an F review from me, called Laurie to ask that the review be withdrawn. She felt that we should do this in consideration of the fact that she was up for a RITA Award for that book. To her credit, Laurie never considered it.

A hot debate arose among some authors and fans as to whether negative reviews should even be allowed. (Who, one wonders was going to be in charge of that decision?) On the AAR list and on the message boards some asked: If a review wasn’t “true” wasn’t it slander? Couldn’t a romance author sue over a bad review? One publisher discontinued sending us books after an author received a bad review. The publisher began sending books again when they realized how many people were reading the site, but this action did not exactly make us feel warm and fuzzy. The action would have been ineffective; at the time we reviewers often bought our own books to review.

While many authors understood that a review is simply one person’s opinion (covered by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution) others wrote us complaining bitterly of our “subjectivity,” and were shocked when we replied that all reviews are subjective. AAR was criticized for reviewing books without the author’s permission, for reviewing books in ways that were not “constructive,” and for not understanding that an author’s book is “her baby.” We were told that we had given authors insomnia, made them sick to their stomachs and hurt their business prospects. Laurie was even told that her column should be called Laurie Hates Books.

None of this, I should say, had the least effect on Laurie or on the reviewers so far as the work went. If anything it made us more determined to say what we believed needed saying. We loved romance novels. We respected good books, and romance readers. We believed that an “A” review can only be believed when B, C, D and F rades are given to other, lesser, books.

Though many romance authors wrote us privately, telling us how much they enjoyed the site and a few defended us publicly, the real comfort we AAR staffers took, was in each other. We laughed amongst ourselves and talked about many of the issues that later turned up in At the Back Fence. Did everyone have a house full of books? How did they store them? Who among us admitted to the real world that we read romance? What did our husbands and lovers think of this obsession? (Since our group included both gay and straight contributors this could be very interesting.) How did we find out-of-print books? How did we manage to finish a “C” grade book? What on earth was one writer of American historicals thinking when she changed the hero’s horse from a stallion to a gelding within the course of a few pages? We also joked about how bad it was to have to read a boring book and then be accused by some authors of secretly liking it! After reading one author’s post accusing a reviewer of attacking a good book just so that she could make witty comments about it, one staffer teased that the reviewer was clearly trying to gain underserved stardom in the “glittering world of internet romance novel reviews.”

Romance itself was changing and we talked about the coming and going of genres. American westerns were beginning to decline. Quilting romances, Americana romances that included quilting bees, were enjoying a publishing boon, though none of us reviewers could figure out why. Traditional regencies were still popular. Erotic romance was just breaking through with the popularity of Dara Joy and later Robin Schone. I loved all of this and I was even happier when Laurie asked me to join her writing, a continuation of Laurie’s News & Views, which she called At the Back Fence. ATBF was launched in February 2000.

At the Back Fence turned out to one of the most rewarding projects I have taken on. With many talented contributors we wrote columns about the “Romance Family Tree” including columns on 80s “bodice rippers,” Georgette Heyer historical regencies and Irving Stone fictional biographies. We wrote about romance novels “before the beefcake,” and romantic biographies. Anne Marble joined us as a third co-columnist and soon wrote about gothic romances. We tackled many favorite books including a Gone with the Wind column, a Jane Eyre column and one on Jane Austen. Later I even got to write a Little Women column and asked readers if it was possible that Jo was gay.

A lot happened over those years. On September 11, 2001 most of us posted on the Internet, making sure that we were safe. I had been traveling to New York City regularly on business and AAR staffers emailed me to make sure I was okay. Later in the month, Laurie put out a special edition, talking about her feelings and also the differences in the perspectives of our European reviewers from those of the American reviewers. It was a sad, sad time, a hard time to talk about romance novels. But we were glad we had each other.

Romance novels have changed a lot since Laurie began writing Laurie’s News & Views in 1996 and so has the romance community. Women all over the Internet now talk about romance in a variety of blogs, many using the phrases and ideas Laurie introduced, and taking them a step further.

The books have evolved as well. Traditional regencies, “trads,” have been phased out. Erotic romance and romantica have become huge sellers. Chick Lit arrived on the scene with Bridget Jones, and grew from a subgenre to a genre in its own right. Vampire and paranormal romance novels are bigger than anyone could have imagined ten years ago.

With Laurie’s decision to move on, it’s time for Anne Marble and me to close up shop here at At the Back Fence, now the longest running romance column on the web. Anne will still be managing aarlist and working on new writing projects. All About Romance will undoubtedly be publishing other opinion columns in the future. I urge you to stay tuned for the next big thing.

As for me, I am looking forward to going back to writing reviews, and occasional special projects, for All About Romance. The fantasy of romance, the belief that the most amazing mystery we have is why people fall in love, is still strong in me. What better subject could there be for a book?

As Peter Pan would say, “Take the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”


Robin Nixon Uncapher