Laurie's News & Views

June 2, 1996 - Issue #6

Much of this issue will be devoted to the follow-up of items previously written about, and other small snippets of interest.

Below is a wonderful blurb written by author Catherine Archer about romantic fiction being larger than life. Catherine's comments were made in the RW-L newslist in response to another subscriber's comments about feminism and fairy tales. (Catherine's comments are used by permission.) See if you agree with her viewpoint.

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"What's wrong with a romance being bigger than life? It is fiction. And romance is not the only type of fiction where things are exaggerated for the purpose of entertainment. Its completely acceptable in the areas of horror, adventure, mystery, and many others. I would not care much for reading a mystery where the sleuth spent the actual time and effort the police do solving crimes. Most of it is dull routine.

"A book is condensed for the sake of excitement. I understand that most of these people in romance novels are going to argue and pack their suitcases and make up (like real people might) over the course of a thirty or forty year marriage. All I'm reading is the courtship, the part where people are so caught up in their reactions to each other that every touch is magic, every problem filled with drama. When you are that involved in your feelings about a man I don't know if anything he did to you while making love could seem wrong or inept.

"The state of falling in love is sort of bigger than life. If it weren't, the books that focus on this event would not be so popular. I think that might be why it isn't so very unhealthy to enjoy romances that are written this way. We are just going back and remembering that strange crazy time. I know that real life sets in after the book is over, but I always hope that the two characters care enough about each other to keep working on it."

Well, do you agree? Please e-mail me with your opinion by clicking here.

A COUPLE OF CYBERLASHES WITH A WET NOODLE
Ouch! My innocent "dis" of author Laura Kinsale has burned up my e-mail. Keep in mind that my comments about this author were limited to 1 sentence of 13 words, which are re-printed here, "And, the only Laura Kinsale title I ever read was also the last." To be fair, I also included the comment of another RReader contributor, who said, "Put me down for not understanding what it is that people see in Laura Kinsale. Her books just don't do much for me and to some people she is the pinnacle of romance writers. I guess I'm missing something!"

Before I provide you with a sampling of the responses I received about this segment, I would like to suggest that fans of romantic fiction seem to be stuck in cheerleader mode. Because we have all endured nasty comments about our choice of reading material, all of us (reviewers, readers, and writers alike!) tend to become very defensive when "one of our own" is attacked. I think it's time we set aside this defensive mode and accept the fact that romantic fiction is just like any other type of fiction. We need to play by the rules of the bigger "game" and learn that criticism is okay, that it is good, and that any discourse is good discourse.

Having said that, I am aware that I get very upset whenever anyone says anything negative about Julie Garwood (with the exception of comments about For the Roses, which I have been afraid to read for nearly a year now). And, having said that, here is what a few thoughtful and/or outraged readers had to say about Laura Kinsale, starting with Monica, who provided a tongue-in-cheek response to my tongue-in-cheek comment:

"I'd never take anyone to task for their comments -- well maybe a couple of cyberlashes with a wet noodle! Kinsale is, in my opinion, a tough writer. There seems to be very little ambivalence about her work, it's sort of a love or hate type of thing."
The most vehement response I received was from Linda. Excerpted below from her message:
"I found your comments about her novels to be callused and uninformed especially if, as you claimed, you have never actually read more than one. Were everyone to judge Catherine Coulter, Jude Deveraux, and Jennifer Blake on the same basis, their history of good, then terrible, books would condemn all of theirs to the trash.

"I guess it is good that there are many different authors to please the different tastes among us. I find Laura Kinsale's books with flawed heroes and heroines among my most favorite. I am "bored to tears" by the perfect hero and heroine, and rapidly become impatient with "California Girl" [my term] dialogue and its snappy comebacks taking place in a Viking warship or medieval France.

"Over the course of a book, I find Laura Kinsale's revelation of character as well as the evolution of character to be intriguing and poignant, and I find her historical research to be excellent. Her hero and heroine both grow emotionally; the areas of growth and evolution are varied: ability to trust, display caring, live with a defect, forgive, feel remorse for immorality, choose a higher way.

"Her "sex scenes" are logical and natural outgrowths of the characters, their situations, and the era. Without describing each waggle of the tongue for pages, she describes a union between characters that is extremely sensuous and erotic, but unique to those characters at that point in the novel."

RReader contributor Meredith Moore agrees. "I think she's absolutely mind boggling. Though her characters are not always likable, her psychology is Shakespearean. She is the one author I throw in the faces of my grad school cronies as an example of top notch writing, equal to anything published as "literary" fiction. I have to agree that Dream Hunter was a failure. It was not her best book. I think her foursome of masterpieces are Flowers from the Storm, For My Lady's Heart, Prince of Midnight, and Seize the Fire (which has a chubby heroine, cheers!). For My Lady's Heart was a tearjerker. I don't cry easily reading books, but that one had me in bits and pieces. Kinsale really turns my insides inside out."

RReader site visitor Leslie commented: "Hope you'll give Kinsale another try; she's extremely talented (and Dream Hunter was really her worst.) Check out Flowers From the Storm or For My Lady's Heart. This writer takes risks others wouldn't dare, and gets away with it."

Also heard from was Cathi, who was glad she had a place to vent:

"While I didn't hate Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale quite as much as you seem to have, I admit that it was not one of my favorites. There is an unevenness in her book quality. However, find an old copy of Shadow & the Star, Flowers in the Storm or Midsummer Moon if you really want to see what the fuss is all about. Incredibly unusual situations, tender, human heroes (with plenty of flaws and pains to love), characters from such different contexts that they cannot help but to clash even when they don't want conflict. The heroines are emphatically not beautiful women, except in their loves' eyes, and they bring a beauty and healing to each other that is the essence of great romantic reading. There's humor, conflict, passion (hot), story, and Laura Kinsale has a wonderful gift for illuminating and making reasonable the hugely different points of view of the protagonists.

AND ANOTHER THING!
RReader visitor Linda also had this to say about my comments and this site in general: "In your position as part of a romance reader group, I would have expected you to have investigated highly rated books (among which Laura Kinsale had a 5 star, a 4 1/2, and a 4.)"

Oh, Linda, what you said! Of the years I have cataloged Romantic Times' historical ratings, 73% of the books they rated received rankings of 4 and above. Of books in my own personal library, 46% of the books I've read received rankings of 4- through 5+. (And, yes, I did check the RReader's ratings -- only 38% of those books reviewed by this site received ratings of 4 or 5 hearts.)

What does all of this mean? Of the 949 historicals I've tracked for the past several years rated by Romantic Times, nearly 700 were "highly rated". I cannot fathom reading that many romances in a few years' time. Can you? As a reviewer, I think that would be cruel and unusual punishment. So while I understand Linda's frustrations, I will not apologize for not giving an author a second chance. Especially when my experience the first time around nearly wore my teeth down from all the gnashing. And also because there are so many other authors out there for me to try.

Finally, I would like to remind all readers that critiquing is a subjective art. Your opinion counts as much as mine does. That's why we post good, bad, and indifferent e-mails on this site. Never forget that a book I love you may hate, and vice versa. It's just as scary for me to post a 5 heart review as a 1 heart review -- I'll hear from you either way. Too many "wrong" reviews, and my credibility is gone.

As for those of you who think that reviewers like to write negative reviews, that is just nonsense. I would much rather spend several hours reading a good book and writing about it than suffering through hours of torment and gleefully reporting on it. Wouldn't you? Please e-mail me with your comments.

A wonderful bit of irony -- among today's mail was a package from RReader editor/publisher Leslie McClain containing three books for review. The book on top? Midsummer Moon by Laura Kinsale. Look for my review shortly.

THERE'S SOMETHING FISHY. . .
Doing that little bit of statistical analysis gave me quite a shock. Does it seem odd to anyone but me that Romantic Times rated nearly three-fourths of historicals as "Excellent" or "Exceptional"? Don't those statistics rather negate terms such as exceptional? Looking at my own ratings reveals I'm quite often a softy; I gave nearly half the romance I've read reviews of 4 or 5 -- the normal bell curve amount would have been closer to the RReader's ratings.

What do you think about RT's ratings? Is it possible they really love all those books? Is it possible they love getting quoted on book covers/jackets? Are we too tough here at the RReader? E-mail me by clicking here.

NOW, BACK TO THAT CHEERLEADER MODE
I have continued to receive responses to that section in the last issue of this column dealing with negative attitudes and stereotypes facing readers and writers of romantic fiction. So, before we put that issue to rest, I thought I would share with you a bit more of what's been in my mail bag.

Author Jean Simmons related a snippet about a personal experience at a booksigning: "I once had the following exchange with a potter (A man who creates beautiful, artistic dinnerware sets who found me signing away). He said, 'So when are you going to write a real book?' I answered, innocently, 'When you make a real sculpture.' He, laughing, responded, 'Oh, I see what you mean -- it's all art, isn't it? Sorry!' Then he bought a book."

One reader wrote a very long and well-thought-out discourse on the effects of such negative stereotyping and the fact that she would like all of us to stop obsessing over it. Then, afraid she had been too harsh, she wrote another well-thought-out discourse on how sad and angry she is that "So many of us learn to doubt what we love, rather than doubting what doesn't love us."

This reader, Beverly, added that, "I do want us to have more confidence in ourselves and to get on with the important business of thinking about what (the ideas and concepts expressed in romantic fiction) might mean, and how they might be further developed. I believe there is important thinking to be done here; the fact that it is about things that women love and value makes it more important to me, not less."

Another RReader, Susan, said she had, "been guilty in the past of hiding my habit or degrading it myself by labeling my books 'trashy novels'."

"Your column helped me make a resolution to stop doing that and be forthright about my reading material. Good romance novels are about resolving the difficulties of a relationship -- women's work, in the 'real world,' which is probably why they are denigrated. Good romance novels are also an antidote to so much of the suffering, pain and sorrow in the 'real world.' How can a novel that adds some joy be considered 'trash,' while a novel by Stephen King or Dean Koontz (who has a touch of the romantic in him somewhere) that contains bloodshed, murder and mayhem be considered 'a good read?' I think you are right when you relate it all back to romance novels as a women's domain, which is considered inferior right along with other women's work."

RUN FOR THE HILLS?
In my last column, I asked readers about the allure of the alpha hero and whether or not we'd like to meet one in real life. While several readers agreed with me that they would most likely run for the hills if faced by an arrogant, tortured "manly man", I was surprised by some readers' responses. You might be as well.

Frequent RReader visitor Wylinda responds: "I have run across men who are arrogant and ego driven. In fact my husband and I have one such friend. And I have to admit that I am twisted enough to call him on it. It makes my day to bring him down a notch or two. There are even days when he thanks me for it! I see the good in him and he knows it. . .I think I'm the only person who can actually make this man blush (he's over 40 and very worldly -- in his mind). That's another twisted part of me -- finding ways to make him blush. He usually opens that door for me so I naturally run through it. No, I don't think I would run from a dangerous man and I most certainly don't run from arrogance -- I thrive on it."

Dagna comments: I may be the only one, but I like alpha males in real life as well as in romances. They're the only men I don't feel in danger of riding over roughshod. I'm defining 'alpha male' as a natural leader, strong, take-charge, decisive, sometimes arrogant, but not as manipulative, controlling, and physically/ psychologically abusive (which I think you find in men who wish they were alpha males, but aren't). I find most of Anne Stuart's heroes appealing (well, not the one who was thought to have killed his wife), but that may just be because her physical descriptions almost always evoke Daniel Day-Lewis.

While Wylinda and Dagna were not alone in loving the thrills of an alpha male, most readers were a bit more cautious in their preference for men, both fictionally and in real life. In fact, RReader Cindy prefers fictional gentle men because, "there are so few of them in real life!" Luckily, several other readers and this columnist know there are real-life gentle men because we have married them.

Brenda was actually engaged to a "borderline dangerous" alpha male. "And then I grew up. I sat down and made a list of what I really wanted in a husband and the father of my future children. I knew that...marriage to a an alpha male would be a constant battle. It may sound fun for awhile, but it gets really old after a couple of years. So here's to a wonderful husband who is the love of my life, and a great father to our four children. Our marriage isn't a battleground, but a beautiful garden."

This reader, however, still likes to read about alpha males, as do other RReaders such as Jill, who says eloquently: "A romance novel is like a fantasy -- enjoy reading them, but I wouldn't want to live it. Much in the same way I enjoy reading science fiction -- I still wouldn't want to live most of them. Or murder mysteries -- would you want to get involved with tracking down a murderer and maybe having you life at jeopardy? I wouldn't, but it doesn't stop me from reading them."

But other readers are frustrated that most romances stick with the formulaic alpha male. Kelly, whose very first e-mail was in response to this issue, said: Lately, I am very careful in the types of books I buy because I am sick and tired of obnoxious, overbearing men! All too often, even in these enlightened times, the heroine lets the 'hero' walk all over her. Often I find myself wanting to jump into the book and show her just how she should be responding! More than one book I have unwisely purchased has been bounced against a wall of my home, never to be finished. I want to read about strong men, but too many authors don't seem to realize that true strength in men comes from their characters and not their abilities to overpower or manipulate the people in their lives."

RReader Robynn agrees. She also is "tired of domineering, rough, overly-macho heroes. I like heroes who are dynamic, intelligent, funny and charming. Strength doesn't equal brutality. I tend to close a book permanently when I realize the hero is just another irritating, overbearing jerk."

So who are some special heroes and/or authors that create special heroes? Michael Kenyon of Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows was a hero referred to by several readers as being kind, honorable, loyal, and gentle. According to Cindy, "He seemed very real and someone you could fall in love with, not the type you fall in lust with at first sight, but the type you fall deeply in love with over time."

The heroes of Stephanie Mittman's books were also selected by readers for being "real". Michael Taggert, from Jude Deveraux's Sweet Liar was chosen by a reader and her mother-in-law because he was "big, burly, and gentle as a lamb." Mary Balogh was another author suggested for her wonderfully written heroic characters. And, the hero from Jennifer Crusie's Charlie All Night was chosen by Leila because he reminded her of her husband. "I don't think that hero came across as wimpy in the book. He was discerning, attentive, and had a wonderful biting humor. He was also unbearably sexy."

Leila's comments tend to bring things full circle then. We can find sexy in an heroic figure what we find sexy in "real life." Even those readers who like alpha males in the flesh are attracted to some very down-to-earth aspects.

Perhaps Julie said it best: "Of all the books I have read, and there have been many, the heroes who were the most attractive to me where men who were afraid, but courageous. They knew their weaknesses, but they were not paralyzed by them. When confronted by love and commitment, they surrendered wholeheartedly and unabashedly. This to me, not 6 feet, five inches of muscle-bound hormones are what attract me and keep me coming back time and time again."

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?
I joined a fascinating IRC (Internet relay chat) this past week on the new Kensington Publishing web site (http://www.zebrabooks.com). Steve Zacharius, president of Kensington/ Zebra/Pinnacle/Arabesque, and several authors, plus a few readers (such as myself), found ourselves discussing covers. I mentioned that readers feel very strongly about covers that do not match the author's descriptions. The conversation veered into another direction before I could inform the publisher about another controversial aspect of covers -- the pictures themselves.

Author Terry Blain offered this explanation for all the cover shot clinches:

"You have to think about how the books are sold by the publisher. The publisher's salesmen (and they are men) go out to the distributors (who are also men) with a handful of covers of various books. Since the distributors are going to want the book that will sell the most, they want the cover that grabs their eye. This is why there is so much cleavage on covers, male salesmen and male buyers are much more interested in cleavage than the woman who eventually buys the book. This is what made Fabio rich -- he was the first man to be featured alone on a cover.

"Which leads us to why all the focus on the cover - because that, along with the blurb, is what the publisher uses to sell the book. It's what they have control over. Can you imagine a salesmen saying, here's a well written book, with all the historical facts accurate, good grammar, well-rounded characters, correct use of point of view and a plot that hangs together?"

Reader upon reader informed me that they are embarrassed and that the genre demeaned by "boobs and brawn" covers.

One Raven Fan asked if, "the word pictures that the literary artists paint seem demeaned by the publishers' choices of real people, half-clothed in silly poses. I don't think the authors have much control over the covers of their books, do they? What do they really think about the covers that go on their 'labors of love'? If they could choose, what would they prefer?"

She added that:"If romance novels are ever going to attain the level of respect they so richly deserve, the tacky covers must evolve away from 'imminent sex on a rock in front of a castle'! The scenic or floral covers seem so much more classy and sophisticated thereby bestowing more validation and credibility to the story contained inside."

Our Raven Fan's comments are echoed by another reader, Leila, who said, "We cannot complain about our genre still being seen as bodice rippers when the covers abound with half naked heroines, skirts hitched up to show one perfect leg, breasts barely covered, while some famished goon (shirtless) looms over her, or holds her in what I suppose looks like a passionate embrace."

I concur with these comments, but just in case you don't, perhaps this little snippet will change your mind. One author remembers meeting a cover artist who said that, for one cover, the only instructions he received from the publisher for a historical cover were to "give us one of those [heroine] upside down poses, where the woman's breast are prominent." Well, ladies, how does that make you feel? Email me by clicking here.

There are generally two sides to any issue, and it would be biased of me not to mention both. I received a very well-reasoned pro-character cover email from Diane, who admits to judging some books by their covers. She doesn't look at covers and see "sex"; she simply sees beautiful artwork.

Diane is apparently not the only romance reader with this viewpoint. There is a romantic fiction web site that features book covers as one of its main pages (http//www.icgnet.com/romancebooks). Diane doesn't like the trend toward making romances appear more as mainstream fiction. She says, "It would be a shame to see the end of covers with embraced lovers because some informed people believe that books with 'trashy' covers could not possible contain serious reading material. A romance without an artwork cover is like walking into a department store without store displays."

THAT'S ALL, FOLKS!
Thank you for your responses in this issue. Many of you have also answered my queries about virginity, books you hate that others love, silly sex terms, over-used plots, favorite plots, book-length, and the alpha male as domineering, controlling lover. I'm afraid we've run out of room to give these issues the space they deserve. Check back in a couple of weeks. If you hadn't responded to those issues yet, you still have time. Email me by clicking here. And, I'm still waiting for additional titles to our category Luscious Love Stories, those romances with love scenes you will remember forever.

As for our growing lists of Favorite Funnies and Two-Hanky Reads - they are getting too long to print in the column. Please e-mail me with your additions to either/both lists and/or if you would like me to e-mail you the list(s) in their entirety.

(Within a few months of beginning this column I'd begun to archive them online rather than email them to readers. And since I was already doing that, I began to keep my "Special Title Listings" - which is how lists like Luscious Love Stories, Favorite Funnies, Two-Hanky Reads, as well as some sixty others had their genesis - online as well. They are now a major feature at AAR.)

Click here to give me your feedback about the column in general or to receive back issues.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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