mike-hammer-collection1 Heroes making big assumptions… They’re so common in romance. So much so that they were labeled “Big Ass” heroes” in an ATBF column several years ago. Readers often use shortcut terms like “the Big Miss.”

But what about readers making big assumptions? Whoops. Guilty as charged. I finally figured out something I hadn’t wanted to face. I have been a Big Ass reader.

The book that shook me up wasn’t a romance. Far from it. It was a collection of Mickey Spillane’s first three Mike Hammer books. Sure I was familiar with Spillane. I had enjoyed his beer commercials. I had fun watching him get interviewed on TV. I watched the Mike Hammer show on TV.

So why had I never read one of the books? Why had I never even cracked one open? Because I had read about what a terrible writer Spillane was. Essays called him one of the worst private eye writers. Ever. I had read some bad PI books, so boy, Spillane’s books must be awful. Sure, people like mystery author Lawrence Block loved him. But Spillane wrote books with titles like The Erection Set. Ouch. The 1970s cover was even worse than the title. On top of all that, critics said that Spillane’s his most famous hero, Mike Hammer, was sexist, racist, and homophobic, not to mention an alcoholic. There was the sex and violence, often on the same page! Hammer wasn’t a real detective, they claimed — he was a vigilante. Even worse, “they” said, his writing was terrible, just terrible. To me, that’s almost as bad as the “ists” and “ics.”

Then I actually opened one of his books, a classy new omnibus edition put out by NAL Trade.

Oh my. The original critics can go pound sand. Or pray for my soul. Or whatever. Just leave me alone as I read this stuff and regret not reading this sucker sooner. Like while the author was still alive. Mike Hammer is far from a PC character. Right on the first word of his first Mike Hammer novel, he uses the “J” word to refer to the Japanese. Yikes. So the naysayers were right about that. But bad prose? I don’t think so. Spare prose, yes, and fast-paced. Powerful, even. Oh my, save me from the horror of concise, fast-paced writing. Since when did that become “bad” writing? Maybe it was bad only because the critics were offended by the book. Whatever you think of Spillane and his writing, he knew what he was doing. (“I don’t care what the editor likes or dislikes, I care what the people like..”)

What about romance? Some people avoid romances because of the covers, the titles, mistaken impressions, so forth. Not me. I started in high school and saw nothing wrong with picking up romances. I bought romances, mysteries (except Spillane, so sue me), adventure books and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy… So I used to think I was ready to read anything. Was I, really? If so, why do I usually ignore the Western romances? Why do I usually put romantic suspense novels back on the shelf if it turns out the mob is involved? Or why do I avoid some types of paranormal romances, some types of small town contemps, etc.? Sometimes it’s because of taste, but when does my taste become prejudice? It’s a thin line, and I’m not always aware of the difference.

Luckily sometimes I can break through the barriers. All it takes is experience. Actually giving a book a try instead of letting it linger. Like the first time I so much as touched a Regency trad. I was aware of Regencies. Sort of. My favorite used bookstore had a whole section of them, after all. I knew because I used to pass it on the way to the Silhouette Intimate Moments. Although I read lots of historicals, the Regencies didn’t seem that interesting to me. Maybe it was the covers or the way most of the books looked… older, even when they were brand new. Then the store had a book signing. A local author was signing her latest Regency trad, and it came highly recommended. The author? Mary Jo Putney, just publishing her first Regencies for Signet. That was how I read my first Regency. After that, I was hooked, especially as MJP recommended other books during the signing. Now, I still miss the trads, and I feel sorry for all the people who never picked them up because of their covers or because the books looked … old.

Then there was the time I saw a debut romantic suspense novel by an author unknown to me. I read the back of the book. My first thought was, “Oh cool! It takes place in the near future!” My second thought was, “Noooo! The last futuristics I read were horrible.” So I put it down, certain it would suck as much as those books. Imagine my surprise a few years later when it turned out the mysterious “J. D. Robb” was really Nora Roberts. Boy did I feel silly.

I wonder what else I have missed because I remembered that “they” said the author was bad or because the last book I read from that publisher wasn’t very good or whatever. Sometimes I make big assumptions about an entire subgenre because one or two duds. After all, I found it easy to avoid funny paranormals after reading some that I found painfully silly. Yet I should know better because I have read some great funny paranormals.

So what about you? Were you ever held back from reading a certain book or author because of what other people said? Or did you avoid some genres because of the covers, only to become a fan once you tried one? Are there still some genres you’re holding out on?

Or are you braver than the rest of us, shoving those doubts to the side and trying anything?

– Anne Marble