At The Back Fence – Issue #175

February 1, 2004

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We begin this issue of ATBF with a wacky interview I did with Regency author Nonnie St. George. Next up is a segment from Anne entitled “Dinosaurs Still Walk the Earth,” followed by some random thoughts and questions I have regarding recent reads. The poll remains open for you to vote in our annual reader poll; indeed, click here for interim results, and if you’d like to enter our Isn’t it Romantic? contest, the deadline is midnight, February 10th.

A Wacky Interview (Laurie Likes Books)

I’m on a never-ending quest to increase the popularity of the traditional Regency Romance. Like most converts, I’m probably more strident about my cause than those born into the faith, but I feel it’s my duty to convince readers who were once like me of the error of their ways. I know there’s a substantial group out there who think Regencies are stuffy, filled with cant, sexless, boring, old-lady-ish, or pedantic. That’s what I once thought. And was I ever wrong.

I seem to turn to the Regency whenever I’m in a romance reading slump, which is what I was in towards the end of 2003. And then I read Nonnie St. George’s The Ideal Bride and was so reinvigorated that since the start of 2004 I’ve finished 14 books. That may not sound like a lot to many of you out there, but for me it’s tremendous.

In The Ideal Bride, Gabriel Carr and Lady Nola Grenvele are on a literal collision course to love. The wealthy businessman seeks a wife and maintains a list of his criteria. Some of his requirements are that she should not be part of the nobility, she should be a sensible sort and not likely to make trouble, and she should have an identifiable bosom (although I believe that last is added only after his mother hectors him about Lady Nola). Until they meet, Lady Nola considers herself quite sensible; she’s known about London as Saint Nola because of her attempts to find work for war widows. But she’s a lady, and in her clothing it doesn’t appear that she’s got much in the bosom department. And most of all, she’s not looking to be anybody’s wife – particularly not an ideal one.

The lady seeks the gentleman in order to create a bazaar for the widows in one of his warehouses. He’ll have nothing to do with it, or with her, so it seems. But everyone around these two believe they would make a smashing couple and do their best to bring them together. In actuality, they are wonderfully suited; both have brilliant heads for business, and Nola’s seeming indifference to Gabriel’s gorgeousness is just what he needs to bring him down a peg or two. Both are single-minded – she wants that warehouse and he doesn’t want her to have it. And because everyone seeks to push them together, Gabriel constantly misunderstands Nola’s attempts to convince him that she wants that warehouse; he always thinks she wants him instead. But he doesn’t want her… or does he? And could she in turn want more than his warehouse?

The book is rounded out by a series of eccentric secondary characters who add further to the hilarity of the story. There is nary a false note in the entire book, and it’s hard to imagine any reader not falling in love with it.

After finishing her brilliant debut, I contacted Nonnie St. George, and when I heard back from her I was certain AAR’s own Nora Armstrong had been pulling my leg for years. You see, Nora has an amazing sense of humor; she’s dry, wry, and LOL funny. So when I opened Nonnie’s response to my interview request and read lines that seemed to have flowed out of Nora’s mouth, I accused her of having a secret identity.

I had a wonderful time posing questions to Nonnie, and I’m going to present our email exchanges exactly how they occurred. This turned out to be anything but a traditional interview. After feeling like a straight-laced hero hooked up with a nutty heroine, I decided, with a resigned sigh, that sometimes it’s better simply to go with the flow. In a way I’m glad; Nonnie’s infectious humor is more convincing than anything I could ever say to induce non-Regency readers to give them a try…well, at least hers.

Nonnie –
My name is Laurie Gold, aka Laurie Likes Books. Last month one of our review staff granted your debut romance Desert Isle Keeper status, which at our site is the highest honor. I was so intrigued by Ellen’s review that I immediately read the book myself, and it was the only 2003-published romance to earn DIK status from me as well. Congratulations – I even blogged about it today in my personal blog Would you be interested in being interviewed by our site?

Heh. I will answer this tomorrow with a very clever and witty email which I swear will justify my DIK status. But I can’t tonight. In the first place, my kids don’t go back to school until tomorrow and I can’t think when they’re buzzing me. Also, tonight I just want to go stare at your blog and preen. And possibly bask. With wine. Oh, and be modest. Right! Crap. I knew that. Be modest. Modest basking and preening.

Also, I haven’t written a thank you to Ellen Micheletti yet (see sentence re kids at home) so I feel guilty fawning appreciatively at you when I haven’t slobbered on her first for finding me and reviewing me, because as a baby writer I didn’t send my book to AAR. But mostly, it’s about preening.

(and now, Nonnie’s “official” response)

I would be happy to be interviewed by your site. I promise I will try to be very good. I entered mah jong rehab this morning and there’s every hope I might be able to lead a normal life once again. See? I’ve just gotten this business done. Quitting mah jong has already made me a better, more productive person. Sob. And please forward the following to Ellen Micheletti.

Dear Ellen D. Micheletti,
I am writing to thank you for your lovely AAR review of my book, The Ideal Bride, and for making The Ideal Bride a Desert Isle Keeper. Because holy crap! A DIK! Get out! Not that it’s a huge deal or anything. I mean, it’s not like I got emailed by other writers the minute it hit the Net or that I keep checking to make sure it’s still there, nestled amongst the Heyers and the Baloghs. Because it’s just a good review. Among many, I might add. No big deal. So I very much appreciate your kind words and I am very honored that The Ideal Bride was selected as a DIK and oh, did I mention how much I love the cute way you repeated that rhythmic bit with Gabriel’s mother, St. Fell and the dandies? And your opening sentence! You’re not my mom, are you? And thank you very much for mentioning how difficult it is to write comedy. It really is a brutal job. I cry a lot.

Speaking of crying a lot, I see that you said you were looking forward to St. Fell’s story in Courting Trouble. So was I. I had a great story-sweet, touching, yet hysterically funny. The kind of story where you would have laughed yourself silly while wiping away your tears. Plus smiled wryly about the absurdity of life’s universal truths. You know, that kind of book. But the insensitive bastard completely refused to go along with it and made me write something very wrong and demented instead. I don’t care to discuss it. And I am not head over heels in love with him! The smug jackass thinks everyone is in love with him.

Anyway, thank you so much. Writing is complete hell, but it’s cool to get vindication for the notion that if you write a grown-up Regency, grown-ups will like it.

(It’s at this point that I sent some initial interview questions. They are followed by Nonnie’s answers.)

Your first published romance is a traditional Regency Romance, a sub-genre many consider a dying breed. What’s your background in terms of reading the traditional Regency, and why did you decide to write one?

I only started to write fiction after I read a Regency romance, so I never wanted to write anything else. I knew the genre didn’t pay well. I knew it wasn’t pushed in the bookstores. I didn’t care. I had fallen head over heels in love, first with Patricia Veryan’s Georgian adventure-romances, then with Georgette Heyer, followed by Mary Balogh and Barbara Metzger. I read all the Regencies that friends recommended, so I sampled Diane Farr, Carla Kelly, Emma Jensen and a few others that in their opinions were the best in the genre. And then I stopped reading and decided to try to write my own.

What was your road to getting The Ideal Bride published? Was it your first book, the first you sent out to publishers, or one of many?

In 2002 I entered the first two chapters and a synopsis of what would later be re-titled The Ideal Bride in the Royal Ascot, the contest run by The Beau Monde, the Regency chapter of the Romance Writers of America. I was one of three finalists. The final judge was Kensington editor Kate Duffy and she offered each of us a two-book contract.

When I sold, I had two polished chapters, a strong synopsis and a standard baby writer first draft: endless conversations with principal characters regurgitating their long and tragic backstory and several other fascinating scenes which gave the motivations of the servants. ie. I had nothing usable past chapter 3. I did have a strong synopsis though, and several scenes clear in my head, and it’s on this basis that they wrote the back cover.

So The Ideal Bride is the not only the first book I wrote, I wrote it to deadline. As a result, I learned this extremely important fact which I hadn’t quite grasped before: writing a book is hard. Writing a romance is really hard. Writing a romance where the hero and heroine aren’t moodswinging psychopaths is so brutally hard that you spend most of your day crying or screaming or gibbering over your keyboard like, well, yes, like a moodswinging psychopath.

This very important lesson lead to the equally important epiphany: it wasn’t the Regency part that was the hardest thing to write, it was the love story. And since all romance genres have a love story, and most pay better than Regencies do, a sensible career move might be to try to write in another romance genre. One which had the potential to pay enough so that my family would not complain so much about the whining and the wailing and the swanning around like a great big self-absorbed prima donna which I do not do. Much. They just don’t understand the pain of My Art! Also, they eat my chocolate whenever I lock myself in the bathroom. So as much as I love Regencies, and I do most of all, my agent and my editor and my family and my critique partners think it’s long past time I tried to write something different.

I mentioned in my blog that when I finished reading your book I’d stuck so many bookmarks into the book signifying funny passages I wanted to re-read that the book had nearly doubled in size. What was your comic inspiration for the book? To me it was part Cary Grant screwball-comedy, part Bob Newhart the sane-man-in-an-insane-world. What types of comedy do you like? Some favorite funny movies, books, comedians?

You got it! Yes, it’s Cary Grant, as the sane man in the midst of madness: it was meant to be my take on Bringing Up Baby, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever. Cary Grant is the gorgeous yet clueless paleontologist professor just trying to retrieve his missing bone (it’s not like that!) while madcap heiress Katherine Hepburn turns his life upside down chasing him. Grant spends the whole movie trying to impose order on Hepburn’s chaos…boy, I love that movie. Of course, I love Cary Grant…oh, right…comic inspiration. Yes, Bringing Up Baby. But then my heroine refused to be daffy or predatory, and my hero not only realized right away that he was gorgeous, he decided he wanted her and it kind of veered off from there. Still, the descriptions of them are those of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and the characters start out the same starting position: she’s impulsive and he’s following his plan. And by the end, they realize that the other is exactly what they want, of course. Sigh. I think I’ll have to go watch Bringing Up Baby again.

I love screwball comedies. The women were strong, the characters were put upon, the dialogue was fast and brilliant and both the hero and the heroine get good lines. Writing romantic comedy where both the hero and heroine get to be funny is much harder than making one the straight man for the other. I also love the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And yes, I’ve always loved Bob Newhart, but we just rented Legally Blonde 2 and I’m scarred.

Bringing Up Baby – how can you do better than Grant and Hepburn? I hope your surgery goes well. Let me know when you can continue, and make sure to include chocolate in your recovery. (Nonnie St George had surgery on her foot during the interview process)

Ahhh, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Unbeatable…well, except possibly by Cary Grant and Roslyn Russell in His Girl Friday. Ok, Cary Grant and anyone, any time, anywhere, frex with me, in my office, right now…Right. Ahem. Ok, I’m back, limping, chocolate-filled and still wrestling with copy edits, but if you do have more questions, send them on.

I sent an additional set of follow-up questions to Nonnie, and received the following in response:

Oh, nice thinky questions. So I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Also, I think I might have to go into mahjongg rehab. So you’d better scare me with a deadline. That always works. You know, shake a stick and write in caps: “You, obscure and strange little Regency writer, finish these interview questions by Friday or you will remain obscure!”

So I can whine: Saturday? How about Saturday?

I demand your answers no later than Saturday or I’ll… send my husband to your house and he’ll smack your husband in the nose with a pair of gloves?

That sounds kind of hot, actually.

But I’ll answer those questions by Saturday, dammit, I will! Or I’ll die playing mahjongg trying.

It’s Saturday! And I’m indoor soccer mommy. Also it’s Chinese New Year and we’re going out to a fancy dinner. I have other excuses, but the fancy dinner one is my best. We never go out for a fancy dinner. It’s a big deal. My 11 year old daughter has agreed to wear her skirt. Anyway, it is an early fancy dinner, so I can finish the questions when I come back. I’m still quivering over the what would I do to fix the Regency one, as I don’t want to alienate every publisher and every other writer in every other genre and every reader in every genre. Because I’m savvy that way.

Anyway, I know you were just teasing me with your husband and the gloves, but I will try very hard to have these done tonight. Er…Happy Chinese New Year!

My response to Nonnie was that it sounded more like a funny scene in a romance novel. And, after having thought more about her book, I added some very specific questions for her to add to the previous set.

You want to talk about writing! God, yes! Do you write comedy? And I’m not going to discuss my own pathetic writing in The Ideal Bride. We have to have a meta writing discussion because they’re way more fun and suck up considerably more time. Unfortunately I have to go to the doctor’s now because of my stupid ankle, but I would much rather talk about writing than try to pick one favorite author.

You don’t want these silly answers now, do you? It’s bedtime. Let’s go to bed. Not together.

Speaking of your blog, I agree with your Mary Balogh analyses. There is no better trad than Mary Balogh, and her use of sex is brilliant. It’s always important to the characters and it changes things. Have you read The Temporary Wife? Oooh, I’ll go check and see if it’s a DIK….No, it’s not. I think it’s one of her best, ie perfect.

Well, now that I’ve had that Mary Balogh moment of bliss, I suppose I could go find some answers to some questions tonight.

(Upon learning that The Temporary Wife is a favorite read, I asked Nonnie if she’d write a DIK Review of it for AAR. She agreed – here’s the link.)

When will you be moving on from Regencies, and what direction will you take? Historicals or contemporaries?

I am now writing contemporaries, not historicals, and not just because I asked my agent which paid better, because that would be a very crass and shallow way of deciding what to write. I have always dreamed of writing a contemporary novel. For money.

Obviously, if they ever offered me sack of money to write a trad Regency, I would do it like a shot. But they never will. If Carla Kelly and Barbara Metzger and can’t get rich writing trads, I certainly can’t.

And the weird thing is that actually I’m quite into my contemporary now. Not that I’m admitting that my critique partners are right for saying all along that I would love writing a contemp too. But it is fun having characters that can think and talk explicitly about the kind of stuff that you can only hint at in Regencies. It’s a different kind of funny. But not that different, since my Regency characters have always insisted on telling each other the truth. It’s just that in a contemporary, the dirty jokes can be dirtier, and your heroine gets to make them too. And the book I’m writing is longer and a bigger story than a Regency, so there’s much more room to play.

What is your favorite Romance novel? Your favorite novel altogether? Your favorite author? Your biggest writing influences? And, which comedians over the past 20 years do you most enjoy?

Favorite Romance Novel – Patricia Veryan’s The Jewelled Men. Well, okay, yes, it is a series of six books. But it’s actually one very long book about August Falcon, my secret dream man.

Favorite Novel of All Time – (no pressure or anything) Easy: Pride and Prejudice.

Favorite author – Margaret Atwood. I’m Canadian.

Biggest writing influences – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dorothy Dunnett, Patricia Veryan, and Mary Balogh.

Ok for tonight? I’ll finish them tomorrow. I mean, there’s no way you’re going to use all this info, is there? You will have to cull. I’m completely boring and you’re probably already asleep.

I can’t wait to read the rest of your answers.

That’s just because you want to laugh at me for trying to answer the @#$$#@ Regency question.

What childhood quality do you still have today, and how does that aid in your creativity, if at all?

Procrastination. It helps my creativity by requiring me to come up with new and interesting excuses for avoiding the stuff I’m supposed to be doing.

What do you most enjoy about the Regency sub-genre?

I love everything about writing in the trad Regency subgenre. I know that’s a pathetic answer. But I tried listing all of the bits I liked best and the list goes on forever and includes:

  • The honor of writing in the genre that’s Jane Austen’s bastard daughter;
  • Rakes;
  • Regency society is the perfect setting for comedy because of strong social code; also serious social consequences for all romantic decisions make for good romance;
  • Chaperones; and
  • No men with big bosoms on the covers.

(And now, for the @#$$#@ Regency question.) And what, besides increasing its readership, would you change if you could wave a magic wand?

But what’s the point of having a wand if I can’t increase readership? I’ve brooded about the answer to this question for ages and all of the wand waving answers I’ve come up with are intended to increase readership. Although the cool thing about being in a completely obscure and unmarketed little niche genre is that you can pretty much get away with whatever you want to write, as long as you write it well enough. A colleague of mine writes for Harlequin Intrigue and they have rules about everything, including the characters, their emotional stake in the mystery, the hook, and even whether or not the heroine can rescue the hero. Because they sell a gazillion of the suckers and I think they must have market researched the damn things to death. Whereas in trad Regencies, as long as the hero and heroine get together at the end, and there’s no explicit perverse nookie along the way, you can do whatever you like to get them there. And the freedom to write whatever you think is funny is a fine thing when you’re writing comedy.

Wait a minute! I’ve actually just answered the first part of that question again, haven’t I? Except that now my answer is different.

Crap. I might have to think about this more.

(And now, that final set of questions and their answers.)

Let’s talk about the hero and his beautimousness. He knows he’s gorgeous yet tries to hide it yet is bothered when he thinks the heroine doesn’t notice how gorgeous he is. How did you come up with that?

Eh? Are you suggesting that I was mocking the gorgeous romance hero who never happens to notice the obvious fact that he’s God gift to women? Anyway, if you are, you’re right, because Gabriel Carr is probably totally unrealistic. Because real life guys have no idea if women find them attractive. And the buff and gorgeous looking ones have no expectation of getting macked on at all.

Anyway, I made him know he was pretty as his motivation to make his list, but past Chapter 2, he came up with all the preening and expectations himself, and yes, I know it’s pretentious crap to say the characters take on a life of their own. But I am pretentious, and anyway it’s true crap. It’s happened to me twice now, with both Regencies, and it’s already starting to happen in my contemporary, and the men are the worst. They don’t give a damn about the plot. They have their own agenda and if you try to make them do stuff that’s out of character but perfect for the romance, God’s sake, just perfect, they just make you rewrite and rewrite until they’re happy. Bastards.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe once I get the hang of this better, I’ll know ahead of time how the characters are going to screw up my touching plots and then the back cover copy they write will actually match the book they get.

The continual misunderstanding regarding the warehouse and the marriage, where he thought she was talking about one thing and she was talking about the other. How did you keep that going so long without it getting old and/or ridiculous?

So is what you’re saying is that it didn’t get old or ridiculous? Not that I’m insecure and needy or anything. But you think it didn’t get old or ridiculous, right? It was cute, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

I have no idea how I did that. I have only one yellow sticky note on my monitor and it says “don’t overkill the joke.” It must come from there. Of course, I know I will never be able to do it again. If I did it in the first place.

Finally, the bosom… all those semi double-entendres. Discuss.

I certainly will not discuss these entendres. They are very rude. I am ashamed that I sullied the Regency genre with jokes about rude things. Fortunately, my second Regency is not the least bit rude. Except for that one tiny bit of naughty dialogue. And that other conversation. Oh, and the ongoing rude joke that’s the reason for the whole book. I mean, not the reason for the whole book! Certainly not! Why, the reason for the whole book is so that I can pay homage to important romance conventions. Not clichés. And not mock them. Or make fun of my first Regency. Because I am a serious writer and there are no clichés in romance, and even if there were, I certainly wouldn’t write them, and romance readers would never notice them. Nor would I ever mock myself because that’s bad for my career of writing moving yet wry, witty and laugh out loud contemporary romance.

(And, because I’m pushy, I re-asked an earlier question)

What do you most enjoy about the Regency sub-genre? And what, besides increasing its readership, would you change if you could wave a magic wand?

Oh, crap! This question again! Hell, I don’t have the faintest clue, and I’m the nitwit who suggested we talk about Regencies. But honestly, I’ve written a thousand attempts at an answer and each one is more pretentious than the next. I’m at the Napoleon stage now, where I’m pacing up and down my hallway shouting that all Regencies should immediately be bound in plain leatherette with numerical titles and back cover copy that says “Society as portrayed by Jane Austen” and be sold in the grocery aisles next to the radicchio so that pretentious snobs who say that they never read romance will buy them. But the problem with that solution is that I think that all romances should be sold that way. And people who sneered that they didn’t read romances should have to pay double for them. And the rest of us who liked romances all along should get good ones for free.

That’s no good! That’s a terrible interview answer. I sound crazy. What? I heard that! But it’s better than the three paragraph polemic on how there’s the same percentage of boring Regencies as there are boring stories in every romance sub-genre, but Regency has a bad rep because it’s more work to read a boring Regency than a boring Blaze. Or the essay on how a good Regency satisfies our common cultural urge to see a woman in a long dress who’s oppressed by her social circumstances find the love of a good man. Without necessarily having boinking, because boinking takes up a lot of room in a category length book, and unless you’re Mary Balogh, there’s a danger you’re not going to be able to give it the importance it warrants in the relationship. So rescue me. You have way more than you want for the interview, don’t you? I mean, no one cares about my stupid opinions, do they? No, really, they don’t.

Dinosaurs Still Walk the Earth (Anne Marble)

Don’t believe what you see on the Discovery Channel. Dinosaurs still walk the earth. That becomes clear by the attitudes some people still have about romance. I saw proof of this recently on one of the ghost fiction mailing lists to which I belong. I mentioned Gothic romance novels, and another poster admitted that she collected them for the covers, although she hated most of the books. Aha! I thought. A fellow spirit! But then she had to trot out the hoary old disclaimer that while she loved Gothics and romantic suspense, she could not abide straight-out romances. I wondered why she mentioned that. Maybe she was worried that the ghost fiction aficionados would think less of her if she thought she was reading (gasp!) romances. More than likely, if she is a fan of Gothics and romantic suspense, she probably has read romances. She just doesn’t realize it or is afraid to admit it in public. Sad, isn’t it? Would she have felt the need to distance herself if the topic had been mystery novels or science fiction instead?

In a post on the Reader to Reader Message Board not long ago, Silvia, a college student, wanted to know if the stereotypes about romance readers are true. Are romance novels really read only by “high school educated middle to lower class women” who are 30 years of age and older?

Are they what?! As you might expect, the board lit up with protests. Not to mention astonishment that some !@#$ still had that attitude. Some people believe in “old wives’ tales.” Maybe that outdated attitude about romance novels is an “old husbands’ tale.”

Many people, including authors Karen Harbaugh and Sabrina Jeffries, guided Silvia toward statistics such as those in the lengthy PDF download on the RWA website. On top of that, Karen mentioned that the typical age of romance readers shouldn’t be seen as symbolic of anything – “this is also the baby boomer generation, and it’s the largest group of people in general. So of course, any large group – and the romance reading public is very large – is going to have the baby boomers very highly represented in it.” Others countered with their own experience or education. Still others reminded Silvia that the reader’s “statistics” shouldn’t matter as long as that person was bothering to read at all.

AAR regulars know that this isn’t the first time a question about the education of romance readers has been asked – and it likely won’t be the last. Strange, isn’t it? You never see people asking the same questions of mystery readers, do you? While readers of all sorts of genres are pegged with stereotypes, none are quite so beleaguered as romance readers.

KarenS was the first to remember that last April a similar question was posed, and that many interesting responses were posted as a result. She added, “A few were annoyed the question was ever posed as it makes you feel you have to justify your reading preferences to the world. Then of course, the assumption is that only bored, poor, dumb housewives read romances. In other words, we’re not smart enough to read anything intellectual. As you can tell from the responses, we are quite an eclectic group!”

How eclectic are we? A small sampling based on responses to Silvia’s question reveals that we are special ed teachers; readers’ with master’s degrees in such areas as public administration, history, and accounting, anthropologists, CPA’s, business owners, and English Lit specialists, not to mention stay-at-home moms and librarians. Those responding were from all socio-economic classes, geographic regions throughout the US (at least) and represented readers in their 20’s all the way through their 70’s. Phew!

But what about those stereotypical “30+ high school educated middle to lower class women” who are supposed to be the sole readers of romance? Ironically, Tracy worked in a grocery store where women in that particular demographic shopped. She noticed that they rarely bought romances. Instead, they tended to buy either magazines or books in the Stephen King vein (pun intended). Maybe they bought romances elsewhere, but at this store, they rarely picked them up. Maybe they didn’t get the memo.

AAR reviewer Lynn Spencer thinks romance readers come from all walks of life and points out, quite accurately, that “Even those who are uneducated are not necessarily unintelligent.” Lynn knows a woman, for instance, with a 10th grade education who reads romance, raised several children, worked as a police officer, and on top of all that, owned a general store until turning 70. Sounds like an interesting lady! Do romance readers have something in common? Lynn thinks that “What we all share is a love of reading and a love of good romance. Surely appreciation of true love does not belong to only one strata of society.”

Allyson admits that she used to feel defensive about reading romances. However, she doesn’t care what others think about it anymore. She started reading romances because of the happy endings, as well as the focus on relationships. She kept reading them because she found that “there are some damn good authors out there, as good or better than some general fiction.”

Like many others, kur thought the post itself was offensive, even if Silvia was well-intentioned. kur wonders why posters don’t simply ask for information instead of trotting out the usual assumptions about education, age, and social class. kur got the impression from the original post that we should be distancing ourselves from the “30+high school educated middle to lower class women” group, and she hates the intellectual elitism inherent in this pigeon-holing. While Silvia was trying to refute her professor’s assumptions, kur asked, why make women in that social class feel like pariahs? kur argued: “The implication is that the genre is not legitimate in her professor’s eyes because it may be limited to a certain socio-economic demographic and that in order for the genre to become legitimate the original poster must show that it has a wider readership. I disagree with this criteria for legitimacy.”

Like kur, Gail doesn’t feel like she needs to trot out her credentials to disprove the stereotype. Also, Gail wonders if it really would be such a big deal if “30+ high school educated middle to lower class women” were the only people reading romance. “So what? All I really need to know about my fellow readers of the romance genre is that they love to read and that they have opinions.”

And MMcA is “… too busy being devastated by your revelation that America has a class system to explain that I’m an upper-class but poorly educated hermaphrodite…” In other words, MMcA doesn’t think that her age, sex, class, or education make the books she reads more or less legitimate. “It somehow seems that if you have to rush around producing your degree every time you say you read romance, you’re buying into the belief that the existence of the genre needs to be justified. So what if they’re mainly read by women?”

That’s not to say that romance readers don’t have inferiority complexes. I still remember standing in a used bookstore and overhearing a romance reader stating that she was buying her “trashy novels.” Yet she was picking up romance authors such as Mary Jo Putney – not even fluffy, let alone trashy. Maybe this is a defense mechanism some people pick up to turn off the snooty clerks. Let the clerk think they are buying “trashy” books. That will shut the clerk up, and they will be able to go home with their books. The problem is that in that store, the clerks weren’t snooty, so there was no need for a defense mechanism. Maybe these things become habitual after a while, or maybe some readers even make themselves think they are buying trashy, fluffy books just because they don’t want to address the issue more deeply.

On the other hand, not all romance readers are so willing to “let it go.” Many are willing to defend their choice of reading material. So much that people sometimes ask “Why are romance readers so defensive?” The answer is right there. Because we often have to defend ourselves, that’s why.

Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone say something insulting about mystery readers? Oh, it happens, but it’s much more rare. On the other hand, almost every article on romance writers and readers starts out with the same old clichés about sex, bodice rippers, bon bons, and Fabio. Even if the article turns out to be balanced, that doesn’t stop the writer from dragging around those stereotypes. Oh, and don’t get me started on sitcoms where one of the characters turns out to be a romance writer. These shows often follow the lamest of the lame clichés. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the writers of a bad sitcom with horrid ratings think they are so much better than romance writers with millions of dollars in sales?

Then there are the bookstores. You’d think they would stock romance, keep the stock up-to-date, and of course, treat the customers with care. After all, romance readers buy a helluva lot of books. Yet many romance readers will tell you horror stories about bookstores that didn’t even bother to have a romance section or snooty clerks who mocked their reading choices. According to AAR’s Sandy Coleman, the Borders she frequents is snotty about romance. She shared the following story:

“If you really want something you’ve got to ask them to go look in the back room – something, as you can imagine, they’re really attitude-y about. Anyway, my sister sent this guy back to look for the I Love Bad Boys anthology, and five minutes later she hears over the speaker in the snottiest voice imaginable: ‘Would the customer who wanted I Love Bad Boys please come to the information desk.’ She said the sneer in his voice was unbelievable. You’ve got to have a sense of humor about it, you know?”

And it’s not just the clerks. Or to be fair, just men. Quite a few women disdain romance novels – usually without ever having contaminated themselves with one of the books, of course. Once in a while, you might come across a woman like my former coworker, who read a total of one, count ’em, one romance and decided the entire genre wasn’t for her. Lady, you just flunked statistics. At least these people can come around, if they actually (gasp) read more than once romance and realize that, hey, they don’t all suck. For example, on a discussion on AARList, Radgrrl admitted that she started out as an anti-romance snob. She avoided it because of the bad press it got and noted that unless you talk to romance readers, you will probably have a lot of misconceptions about romance novels. She also thinks a lot of women are worried that if they read romances, other people might think they are bored housewives reading romances while eating bon bons.

LLB also finds the old stereotypes offensive and finds it hard to believe that those old tropes still exist to this day. The AAR staff members represent a good cross-section of romance readers, yet most if not all of the staffers have degrees, including some with advanced degrees. She notes that almost everyone she comes across reads some kind of romance novel, even if they don’t realize it, including women in a range of professions – thus shooting the leaky old stereotype out of the water. But it’s the necessity of defending reading choices that most bothers readers, including LLB.

Of course, you can recite statistics and anecdotal evidence and gosh-darned common sense until you’re blue in the face, and the naysayers will cover their ears and shout “La la la, I can’t hear you.” To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, some people can’t handle the truth.

What’s the truth that can’t be handled? In an earlier discussion about on AARlist, author Eileen Wilks cited two reasons romances are still looked down upon. Those reasons are linked – the undervaluing of women’s concerns and way of looking at the world, and the snigger factor.

“The snigger factor is the adolescent reaction to sex–the idea that sex is crude and somehow cheap, so stories that celebrate sexuality must be stupid, cheap, and only about sex. I believe this is a pervasive attitude in our culture because, for all that sex seems to be everywhere, in commercials, TV, etc., we often see it treated cheaply because we are afraid of it. Sex is powerful. It is primal, unreasoning, funny, undignified. It’s easier, more comfortable, to snigger at sex than to acknowledge its power.”

That explains the reaction my brother and his friend had when they saw me reading a Signet Regency with an extremely tame cover. All they could do was snigger away because they were sure I was reading something laden with sex sex sex, no mater how much I told them otherwise. They simply couldn’t accept that this book was about r-o-m-a-n-c-e rather than s-e-x. And these “boys” were in their mid-40s at the time.

And just last week, AAR’s Lynn shared this story:

“I was working out at the YMCA about an hour ago and I brought along Kasi Blake’s new Harlequin Intrigue to read while I was on the bike. One of the trainers came up to me and told me that I had to put the book away because the YMCA is a ‘family-friendly’ facility and they don’t allow those kinds of books in there. At the time, I was so offended (not to mention moderately appalled at being chewed out in front of a crowded room) that I was pretty much speechless. Still, I don’t really think it was any of their business. It’s not like I was sitting there flipping through porn in the rec room or anything.”

An attorney, Lynn knows that reading romance novels is not looked upon favorably in her profession. Trial attorneys often bring books to court so that they have something to do between dockets. However, “bringing anything that looks remotely like a romance is asking to mocked and tormented by the other attorneys. I think that attitude is partly a ‘macho’ thing as my subfield is still male-dominated for the most part. There is also definitely an air of ‘smart people don’t read those books” about it, though. Because we like Lynn, we will avoid inserting a lawyer joke here.

We’re Readers… So There!

When people turn up their noses at romances and romance readers, I often think, “What’s the big idea?” (I also think “What’s it to you?” and “Do you need a pair of tweezers?” but that’s another thing.) Experts often complain that there aren’t enough people reading in today’s society. At the same time, when people are “caught” reading romance, those same experts slap the book away and say, “Silly! We didn’t mean you were supposed to read those things.”

I truly believe that at a time when readers should be praised and celebrated, those who chose to read for entertainment – especially those who chose to read romance – are often vilified. How dare they read fluff? Well, because they want to, that’s why.

It’s also illogical, isn’t it, that although they are reading, romance readers are denigrated for being “uneducated.” How dumb can they be if they are reading? KarenS agrees that this is odd. “It’s interesting that assumptions are made that only dumb, uneducated, unsophisticated women read romances.” She argues, “If you have a reading disability, it doesn’t matter what you’re given to read, if you don’t have the skills, you won’t finish a book.” Also, Karen has learned that most reading teachers prefer students who read over students who don’t read. “The straight A student who barely reads is not as good a student as the C student who always has his/her nose in a book. Does it really matter what you read, as long as you read? Then again, in America, we certainly like to stereotype and label people. If we weren’t so concerned with placing people in their proper spots, there wouldn’t be this concern for what people read.”

LLB is also offended by the fact that this sort of question is still asked,”particularly since any type of reading is to be celebrated in this day and age when the reading of books declines year after year. She goes on to mention RWA’s involvement in literacy programs, arguing, “I can’t imagine any group of readers having to defend their choice of reading material at a time when fewer and fewer people are reading books. And, as I’m sure someone else already indicated, more than half the sales of paperback books comes from the sale of romance novels. If anyone’s reading out there, it’s romance readers, many of whom read 100+ books a year or more.”

Maybe romance readers need to start banding together, just as early science fiction fans did – and just as the romance writers have done. We could start support groups, march in protest at newspapers and other media outlets that promulgate outdated tripe about romance readers, and buy a few Congresspeople. Maybe we even need bumper stickers that say things like “My bon bons, yes. My husband, maybe. My romance novels, never.” Or even “You’ll take my romance novel away when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Then again, as long as we’re reading and having fun, maybe we don’t have to worry about what those other losers say. If they have an issue with romance readers, that’s their problem. In many cases, it’s a sign that they have issues that go far deeper than their smirk. In other cases, it simply means that they don’t know any better. If you feel up to it, defend your honor. If you don’t feel up to it, then refuse to feel guilty about walking away without a fight. You’ve done nothing wrong, unless reading what you bloody well please is wrong. And remember, remember to feel sorry for the poor things, too. Maybe if they had a little love in their life, they wouldn’t be so snotty with you.

Random Thoughts (Laurie Likes Books)

A number of questions arose as a result of the books I’ve read so far this year, and additional queries come to mind based on recent message board discussions. For instance, a recent thread regarding the tremendous disparity of opinion on Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child led me to consider the following: Why, as a progressive, assertive, and independent woman, does a bizarre little fantasy live deep inside my head that sometimes allows me to enjoy works of fiction such as Sarah’s Child and A Woman Without Lies (Elizabeth Lowell) wherein wonderful, almost saintly women are occasionally treated like dirt by the men in their lives? I know I’m not alone here, perhaps even about this particular little fantasy, so come on and ‘fess up – what bizarre little fantasies live in your heads that surprise you when you begin to examine them?

As for the books I’ve read so far this year, here are the issues I’d love to explore with you:

  • Do romance readers enjoy horror and fantasy novels featuring strong romantic components solely because of the romantic sub-themes? Outside of Anne Rice’s work I’m not a horror reader in general, but first there was the Anita Blake series, than the Sookie Stackhouse series, and now the Bitten series. I know I’m not alone in this and wonder: do we enjoy them because of the romantic sub-plots or because authors Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, and Kelley Armstrong create wonderful worlds and terrific characters? LKH’s Merry Gentry series, a fantasy series about the faery world, has also captivated me with intriguing societal structures and characters.

    Oddly enough, or perhaps, not oddly, I can’t say the reverse. Romance novels with strong fantasy or horror sub-plots rarely engage my interest; I can think of one or two vampire romances I enjoyed (Nightwing and Love Bites) and one of Susan Krinard’s werewolf romances was reasonably good. But in general I find that the other-worldly aspects found in romance novels are never as well done as the romantic aspects found in horror and fantasy novels. As I wrote in my review several years ago of JAK’s futuristic world in Zinnia by JAK, for instance, “cities are named for cities here on Earth, casino owners are still considered gangsters, and supposedly fallen women still wear red. And, oh yeah, adult women heroines in romance novels are still virgins.” I don’t include time travel romances in this category, but I’d say the only author who writes strongly fantastical romances that consistently appeal to me is Susan Grant. What about you? Do horror and fantasy authors get relationships better than romance authors get alternate realities?

  • Why is it that the traditional Regency is the one sub-genre seemingly guaranteed to pull me out of a romance reading slump? And how can we as readers increase readership? Is there a particular type of romance that seems to always work for you when you’re in a slump?

    I’ve gone from someone who never read Regencies to someone who read only one Regency author to someone who now turns to the Regency each year to jump-start my romance reading. I think it’s a combination of length, setting, and more unique storylines and characterizations than I see in current historicals. I continue to read a variety of Regencies, from those published many years ago to those published today, and while I hear many long-time Regency readers complain that Regencies are not as good as they used to be, I’m still finding many good new Regencies to read.But that’s me. What about you? Is there a sub-genre that always seems to work for you, that you turn to when nothing else satisfies? And in a similar vein, is there a lesser-known romance author you’d love to make known to other readers because you just know they’d love her if they tried?

  • After having read four Mary Balogh titles nearly back-to-back (The Ideal Wife, The Obedient Bride, The Last Waltz, and The Incurable Matchmaker), I can honestly say that I’m one of that group of readers who prefer her traditional Regencies to her single title historicals, even though I understand her more recent historicals are considered “Regencies in disguise.”

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Ideal Wife and The Obedient Bride, found The Incurable Matchmaker better than average (with some brilliant closing scenes!), and quite honestly don’t know what to make of The Last Waltz. It tends to strengthen why Balogh is a hit or miss author for me – her books can be depressing. I finally understand, though, why people love Balogh; she takes chances in her books, it seems as though every single word she writes is necessary in her books, and her love scenes are always critical to the story.But to get back to The Last Waltz, I have not yet assigned a grade for it. It deserves props simply because I found it unique in terms of storyline; I’ve never read a romance that begins with a hero showing such intense hatred of a heroine. And yet – and this is a criticism I’ve leveled against Balogh before – her comfort level within the Regency period works against her here as far as I’m concerned. What do I mean by this? Appropriate behavior, while not as strictly dictated as some of us tend to believe, was still prescribed in the period. Although this allows for the book’s low tones to come through, it rather mutes the book’s high tones. Without that upper end to balance the lower, the result is a depressing read.

    I used to be quite the traditionalist as far as Regencies were concerned. I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a trad that “pushed the envelope,” but after having read these four Balogh’s I’ve changed my mind. I may not always enjoy her books, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve thought so much about a book that I didn’t really like. Do you ever come across a book or an author about whom you have a similar response?

  • What is it that causes good authors to put out so-so stories upon occasion? I don’t mean bad books, but ones that really aren’t worthy of their talent. I say this after having read an old Marilyn Pappano’s Somebody’s Lady, which was not at all up to better books by this author. This seems to happen more with series titles than single titles; are they just more dispensable and/or disposable?

    Which brings up a fascinating point: do we judge series titles differently than we judge longer romances? I realize that it’s extremely rare for me to grant DIK status to a series title, but there have been many to receive B+’s, B’s, an B-‘s from me. And yet, I wonder whether or not I grade them differently than I do single title releases. My sense is that I tend to consider them on a slightly lower level and therefore a B+ series grade is not fully comparable to a B+ single title grade. What about you?

  • I had a discussion with my daughter not long ago after watching a VH1 special on “hotties.” She wondered why Orlando Bloom was ranked as less hot than Colin Farrell, and I explained that it’s because, even though both are the same age, Bloom looks like a boy while Farrell looks like a man. Along those same lines, I love a real “man” in romance, like the hero from Kate Bridge’s The Surgeon. There’s something about a man who’s sure of himself, comfortable in his own skin, and able to take care of things that I find very sexy. The hero from Lorraine Heath’s upcoming release is also a real man, and I loved him.

    Some of this harkens back to an earlier ATBF segment on Old School Heroes. There are certain things that “separate the men from the boys,” but I’m not sure they’re very tangible things. I find myself thinking that “competent” is a very sexy trait in men. What do you think?

  • Jill Marie LandisSummer Moon features a hero who hates Indians. They kidnapped his son and when, years later he finds the boy and brings him home, he’s certain his son will forever be a lost cause. I found this an interesting, politically incorrect look at prejudice. It seemed realistic that this man would virulently despise Indians – even though as a reader it was difficult to read.

    So often in an historical romance if prejudice is stated, it’s countered by another character in the form of a lecture (unless of course it’s the Irish or Scottish versus the English). It’s anachronistic and unnatural. As a reader I may find it unpleasant to read about prejudice, but I find it refreshing at the same time to read it uncensored, and to have a character learn the truth of it naturally.

Time to Post to the Message Board

For many years we presented specific questions to lead the ATBF Message Board discussion. More recently we’ve tried to get away from that in an effort to allow the reader more direction in these discussions. Throughout this issue of ATBF several questions were posed, but in other parts of the column we simply presented material for you to consider. We hope there’s lots of good stuff here for you to comment upon on the message board and Anne and I look forward to engaging in some excellent discussion.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, with Nonnie St. George and Anne Marble

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

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)