11 February 2014

Tuesday Musings from the Editor: Why romance? Why not should be the question!

Have you ever wondered WHY you love to read romance novels? I know that I've been reading books that fall in the romance category, since I graduated from Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books. While this genre is not all I read, romance novels of all shapes, sizes, and categories probably takes up more room on my bookshelves than any other type.

So, why do I read them? Perhaps it's because I loved fairy tales (yes, I did), but I wasn't drawn just to the HEA tales, but dug into the Brothers Grimm too. That's translated into the present day as I love my romance novels with a bit of meat to them. While I desire the HEA, I prefer not to be able to connect all the dots beforehand and want to be twisting a bit inside as I read along, really wondering if the protagonists will achieve happiness together.

While i like surprises along the way, I most enjoy curling up with a book that I know will be fun and have the perfect (or almost perfect) happily-ever-after. But even if this qualifies as a "fantasy" (I don't think it does, real life HEA romance does exist), I want that indefinable zing to occur. That moment when I'm reading where the author draws me into her or his world in such a way that it totally suspends disbelief. Now that's a successful novel!

With that in mind, over the next few days I plan to make a list to post of my favorite reads. Most of these will be series - some paranormal, some historical, quite a few contemporary, and romantic suspense - that just hit the right notes for me. (Yes, that subjective "me.") This isn't to say that each book in the respective series is perfect, but overall this group of books is on my must-read (and re-read) shelf as it transmits that certain indefinable zing!

The other reason I realize I read romance novels is that they're wonderfully subversive. Yes, you read that right. They are subversive - and I think always have been. While many of these books could simply be seen as "escapism", in reality they and their authors convey quite a bit more than just happily-ever-afters.

One series that comes to mind immediately is Kim Harrison's The Hollows. From the first book, I knew that the subtext I was finding was as important to me as Rachel's journey as a witch/demon. Really where else could I find a book where the female protagonist not only accepted, but admitted attraction to, her lesbian partner? While they never consummated their relationship, and sometimes Rachel and Ivy's friendship seems strained - they remained at heart a family, even if a dysfunctional one. Yes, Rachel has created a family by choice - with Jenks and his children, Trent and his kids, and Al and Newt. This new kind of family sends a message of inclusion into an inner circle irregardless of who you are, be you vampire, elf, witch, and demon (just substitute any group that is discriminated against) and you'll see just how wonderfully subversive and fantastic Harrison's series is.

Harrison isn't the only author to be successfully subversive within the paranormal genre and push this boundary. In about fifty years, I imagine that it won't just be a few fringe classes in literature departments that will be studying these books and authors, but they'll have their own minor. And it's not just the paranormal authors who provide this voice and vote for inclusion in their stories. Contemporary authors like Jayne Denker, Hope Ramsay, Brenda Novak, Tracey Alvarez, Sophie Moss, Jessica Scott, Sugar Jamison, Kate Pearce, Lauren Dane, and others are able to give voice to inclusion through humor, love, and acceptance within the communities of their protagonists - and thus within our homes too.

The other reason romances are so outstanding is that they truly, truly celebrate women as women. I truly admire the authors who are able to convey the strength of women in their novels. Both historically (thinking of the Brontes) to today's authors. That's subversive too. A friend shared this video from Maya Rodale and it definitely speaks to this issue:

Isn't that a fabulous dissertation on what we love to read!

I will admit that there are certain stories I stay away from reading that fall under the romance novel category - and probably some of these are bestsellers too. What books are these? Well I'm not going to name names, but they're the books that I feel are degrading to or denigrating of women. You know the type, where the alpha hero is just really - in my view - a serious master manipulator or an out and out skunk. You know, the guy who tells you what to do, what to say, what to wear - perhaps in the guise of being a billionaire or being a "master" - then will proceed to treat the woman like dirt. Sometimes the author includes a bit of redemption for this "hero," but it usually isn't plausible enough to counteract the way the character was drawn. Nope, I'm not reading these books and won't (unless backed into a corner) review them either.

Other than that, my Kindle is pretty inclusive and books and genres find a home and shelf in it. I don't have any quarrel with stories that have a BDSM theme or those that have wealthy protagonists, what I do have a problem with is idolizing control freaks so that women think this treatment of them is okay. Having volunteered at women's shelters and seen the results of just these attitudes in action, these books are a no go for me. Authors, if you want to have a billionaire or master, please make them human, make them kind, let that control slip away so that your heroine is visibly in control of her destiny as well.

The other thing that gets my ire up as a reader is the sense of a story being plotted deliberately to fit into a certain criteria of a bestseller. When I'm reading the book, if I can picture the the writer having a list to check off with certain boxes/categories/criteria to include to will make the book a success, but forgetting the most important part - the story itself. Yep, no indefinable zing in these pages. I don't find this happening often, but when I do, I will shout it out.

Okay, now let me address reviews. Why should I shout this or anything out? Wouldn't it be better if I don't mention it and just go on to review a book I do like? Well, first of all reviews aren't by definition supposed to just be positive, but they're supposed to be an honest evaluation of what is read. (Screen shot from Merriam-Webster)

I know that this may annoy some authors who could receive a less than glowing review on their Amazon or Goodreads pages, but you know, just suck it up. Oops, did I just say "suck it up"? Isn't that harsh. Umm no, not really, any artist - really any person - who has the courage, yes courage, to put themselves "out there" will be open to criticism, it's the nature of the beast. But reviews that are based on honesty and not in any way driven by malice should be read and taken on board. BUT please always remember that reviews are wholly subjective - what one person loves, another may hate, or be indifferent to - but that's what makes the world go round. So what I might not like, another (and probably many others) will love. It's really not the end of the world. Keep your sense of humor. It's really just one person's opinion (hopefully).



Now, what I do find tiring and kind of sad is the proliferation of "reviews" that are posted on bookseller pages that simply say "I LOVED IT" with a few non-explanotory additions to that phrase. Why, I ask myself did this person love the book. If you're going to leave feedback, please, please, please say something more. Otherwise, I'll simply disregard that "review" as being left by an author's fan club (official or non-official) and start reading the critical reviews for a more honest take. Why? Because while authors may count their five star reviews and perhaps gloat silently that they're equal to a "ka-ching" in the bank or rank on a bestseller list, if those opinions aren't saying anything more than "I loved it. It's a pretty book" they're pretty darn meaningless and worthless to me. 

Oh, that's harsh isn't it? Well, sort of, I guess, let me explain. I admire how online e-tailers have set up review systems for products - and believe me, I check them out when I'm buying electronic devices, books by new authors, and other things that I might not have familiarity with. But I'm reading the reviews that consist of more than one sentence - and if none of the five star, four star, three star, two star, or one star ones qualify their impressions beyond "I loved it" "I hated it" - I figure that either the manufacturer and/or author has drummed up support in a way that isn't quite by the books (ha ha) or that there might be a campaign to negate a book or product, so I look to those reviews that actually "say" something.

If you're encouraged by an author / manufacturer to leave a review, DO! However if an author / manufacturer encourages you to only leave a five star review, even by implication, run fast and furiously the other way. They're not looking for honest feedback then - and that's just sad, because some way, some how, they know their product (whatever it might be) doesn't really hold up to honest and open scrutiny - whether they admit it to themselves or not.

Speaking of reviews, Sunday was a red letter day for romances with the appearance of the New York Times Book Review's special Love Stories issue and Sarah MacLean's review of four romance novels.

Yes, New York Times Book Review "The Shortlist" was all Sarah's and she offered reviews of Sherry Thomas' The Luckiest Lady in London, Kristan Higgins' The Perfect Match, Tracy Ann Warren's The Last Man on Earth, and Karen Rose's Watch Your Back (yes, historical, contemporary, and romantic suspense all covered in one great round-up). Now, the real test will be to see reviews like this appear in non-Love Story, non-Valentine's Day-themed issues, but Sarah broke the proverbial glass ceiling. CONGRATULATIONS!

So, these musings are from an editor who will be writing and posting some reviews in a bit. Who's been reading some seriously fun and interesting romances as well as having some fun pondering the why behind reading them. If any of these sentiments resonate with you, let me know. Please give me your honest feedback in the comments, shoot me an email, or find me on Facebook.

Happy Reading!