Boxes, Blurbs, Big Boy

Some random thoughts, all to do in some way with fitting–or not–into boxes.

Blurbs and Boxes

By now most people have probably seen that Mills & Boon-dissing review of Laura Vivanco’s book. (I’m not linking it directly because, though they deserve it really, the blog owners seem rather overwhelmed by the response from romance-readers. You can get to it from this Dear Author news post).

The review inspired a Twitter conversation about how any genre/subgenre seems “formulaic” and “all the same” from the outside. It’s only when you read lots of examples that you become educated in the differences, which often lie primarily in voice, style and storytelling–in how an author deploys conventional (a word I prefer to formula) elements. And to an “educated” reader, an insider, those differences are huge.

This is a familiar–conventional? formulaic?–conversation among genre readers, of course. But it had renewed force for me when someone I follow online was gushing about a book and I checked out the blurb. Meh, I thought, not that again. Maybe my taste differs from that reader’s. But I also think blurbs in romance have become so standardized that they don’t help me tell if a book will work for me, because they don’t give a sense of the author’s voice or what sets the book apart from all the others with similar tropes. He’s this, she’s that, will they overcome this conflict?

I know, I know, getting a feel for voice is what samples are for. But if the blurb makes me think meh, I won’t bother with a sample. I’ll just keep buying from authors whose voices I know and like. A real plus of self-published books is that their blurbs are definitely written by the author and tell me something (for better or worse) about her voice. I wish publishers would break out of their blurb boxes.

Books and Boxes

Someone tweeted this post on self-publishing by Elisabeth Naughton, and I was really interested in her comments on self-publishing the “book of her heart,” which agents told her would never sell: “I never pursued a publisher with this book because I thought those agents had to know what they were talking about. The book straddles genres, it’s not a typical romance . . . !” Carolyn Jewel elaborated on this point in an excellent comment (it’s worth reading the whole thing):

[Y]our experience and that of many, many other authors, is that books they were told would never sell DO sell, and they often sell big. . . .

There are a lot of reasons for this, I think, not the least of which is that NY is buying books to fit an imprint and so, they do NOT acquire books that they can’t make fit in that box. Romance, in particular, is subject to “boxitis.” . . .

Books acquired for an imprint have a sameness, and they are usually not risky books. It means the publisher said “is this book a great book AND a round peg?” instead of “is this a great book.”

When I look at the books a lot of readers are talking about right now, quite a few of them seem to be “books of the heart,” or at least strike readers that way. (What else is fanfiction if not writing from the heart?) They don’t fit publishing boxes. The lack of polished writing in some of them is a marker of this for their fans, who find real, raw emotion that they feel has been polished out of books from Big 6 publishers. (I’ve seen readers make this point about both E. L. James and Kristen Ashley, for instance).

I personally don’t find that polished writing means lack of real heart, but I know I’ve read books that feel like they are just ticking boxes, books with no heart.

Big Boy and Boxes

I read Ruthie Knox’s novella Big Boy. I can’t write a proper review. I have been kind of disaffected with romance lately (in case you didn’t notice). This book restored my faith. I liked the concept–the couple has monthly fantasy dates at a train museum, dressed in period costumes; they don’t know each other’s real names; they use these interactions to escape from their real lives. It sounded sexy and fun.

It was, and it was more. Mandy and Tyler try to box these fantasy dates off from the rest of life, but real emotion and their real selves seep in and eventually they have to find a way to break down the compartment walls they’ve built. They felt like real people (especially Mandy, who is the narrator) with real emotions. I recognized some of my own nearly-forgotten feelings about being the mother of a baby, for instance. The bridge the story creates, in both its content and its form, between fantasy and reality, the recognition that both are part of love and sex and life, is what I look for in romance.

If I had to put myself in a box, or tick boxes, describing me as a reader, one would be “not a fangirl.” No gifs or squees for me. Big Boy broke me out of my box. I wrote Knox a fan e-mail. I fell into this book and read it on an emotional high. I think there’s lots for the brain in there, too, or I wouldn’t have loved it so much. But I haven’t had that fully-immersed, book of my heart feeling in ages.

In an interview, Knox talks about the genesis of this book and others in the series in a Twitter conversation between friends, which brings together all the themes of this post:

Nearly everything about this project was joyful – the burst of inspiration, the collaborative planning, the shared drafts and revisions stage. But the best part of all is the way the stories came out, because they are so much like fingerprints. The closer you peer, the more obvious it is that five people can’t write the same story, even when they begin with the same idea. Each one is rich with its author’s personality, each train fantasy distinct.

That sounds kind of like “books of the heart” to me. And even in the same basic “box” (20,000-word erotic romance about people meeting on a train), voice sets the stories apart. This is the only book in the series I’ve read so far, but it, at least, seemed different from a lot of what’s in the box marked “erotic romance” these days; the blurb made me think, “I’ve never read that before.” I will read it again.

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7 Responses to Boxes, Blurbs, Big Boy

  1. The funny thing is that sometimes these “books of the heart” that break the mold or don’t fit the box, end up becoming the new box that other authors are forced to fit (or try to emulate), thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.

    I stopped trusting blurbs a long time ago when I realized that 1. As you said, they all sounded alike, and 2. They were often made of lies, or to put it in a less dramatic way, they tend to be misleading. However, the right blurb can make me buy a book without even checking the sample or the reviews first.

    And well, Big Boy had a similar effect on me, but for different reasons. Just as you recognized some of the feelings about being the mother of a baby, I recognized the feelings about taking care of a person with dementia. The “he doesn’t grow on you” line reduced me to a sobbing mess. So yeah, an “emotional high” is a good way to put it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      If they sell big, they become the new box for sure. And then there are a lot of copy-cats that are just trying to tick the same boxes and lack the energy and heart or weird luck that made the original beloved. I thought Carolyn’s point about “boxitis” was spot on.

      I think it was you who said in your review of Big Boy that it’s more honest than romance usually is about the negative feelings caregivers (of babies or adults) have but are not supposed to express. I felt, reading it, as if Knox had used the fantasy element of erotic romance (although is this book erotic romance? in the sense that for a lot of the book the fantasy dates/sex were the way their relationship developed, yes) as a safe space to explore those feelings. They were real and moving, and she didn’t fake fix them, but they also didn’t hurt too much to explore because it’s a romance and things are going to be more or less OK. I really loved that about it.

  2. merriank says:

    I’ve just read the post and comments on the review of Laura’s book and have been fascinated by the seeming conviction that romance readers must be/should be ashamed of their reading and do it secretly. This was explicit in the points made about where we supposedly source our books but implied also in the assumption a link to the Vulpes Libris review must have been posted to a fangirl forum; forums require registered membership for comment and the assumptive question that commenters on the review must be friends and family of Laura.

    There seems to be no comprehension that romance genre writing is shamelessly supported and discussed with joy and care in the public world of blogs and twitter. Their certainty about our secret shame and ergo hidden world has never shifted in any of the highly defensive and slightly bizarre comments made by the Vulpes Libris bloggers back to commenters. It is this insistence on romance genre reader shame that constructed the reviewer’s approach to the text I think.

    In their heart of hearts, is it that these bloggers believe that romance readers and Harlequin/Mills&Boon readers particularly are failing at our self monitoring that is, we have no shame? We are failing to monitor ourselves from the point of view of others (and the literary establishment/academia’s negative beliefs about the romance genre and the people who read it); this self monitoring is the essential component of shame because it is how shame is used to maintain social bonds and boundaries.

    The evidence that demonstrates this self-monitoring would be (according to them) keeping our reading private and sourcing our books in non-visible ways (also not commenting on their blog posts?). Their shock and dismay and words in response to the commentary on the review collide with the genre authors and readers lack of self/shame-monitoring. I would say that the Vulpes Libris bloggers are too embarrassed by the idea of the romance genre to think clearly about it and if we accept that ‘shame is the emotion that leads to repression’ I really want to know what they think we genre readers should be repressing and what they are holding down? I also now wonder if it means that there is no dialogue possible between these bloggers and genre readers because the conflict lies in this question of shame?

    I am also struck by how poorly the comments have been handled and by the failure of understanding that on a blog the discussion is in the comments. Even given recent DA kerfuffles I think discussion via commenting and the way a single post or topic can become a several blog and twitter discussion over days and weeks is something romance genre readers and authors are actually well schooled in and take for granted. We are practitioners of online social engagement and meaning construction and reading romance genre texts is for many of us a social endeavour, not a private one. I’ve just counted 21 romance genre and SFF genre blogs in my RSS feed.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What struck me as odd is that they complained that comments were personal and offensive but did not see how things like “author hive mind” and “problem” would be offensive and personal. As if readers and writers of M&B romance are not real people to them, and they never imagined these people would come and read the post and say, “No, you’re mistaken; this is not my experience.” The comments about how they DO read romance (just not “that kind”) were like “Some of my best friends are gay/black.”

      It’s my impression that Laura’s book, and a lot of current scholarship on popular romance, is in some part a reaction against studies like Radway’s that take the reader, rather then the texts, as the real object of interest/study–that is, they treat the books as commodities whose marketing you can study, or conduits of ideology whose social effects you can study, but not as literature. So it seemed deeply ironic that the blogger basically dismissed Laura’s approach out of hand and said a more book history/consumption history approach would be worthwhile. We’ve been there. It just seemed like she did not understand the grounds on which people were challenging her at all.

      I was tempted to comment, but it didn’t seem worthwhile, because they didn’t really seem interested in dialogue. So my thoughts kind of worked their way into this post.

      • Kathryn says:

        I actually wrote a longish comment mostly in response to the VL moderator’s attempts to defend the review, but ended up deleting it because yeah, the reviewer and the VL moderator seemed uninterested in having any kind of dialogue, just in defending their position over and over without examining whether any of their own language or claims were overstated or made from a precarious position. (I mean really just because you have never seen a M&B book for sale in any retail outlet, doesn’t necessarily that M&B books aren’t in stores. It could just mean that you didn’t see them, because you were not looking for them.)

        I did notice at end of comments a third VL blogger posted to say that she had her disagreements with both the review and the other moderator’s responses. Interesting that.

        I really enjoyed Ruthie Knox’s Big Boy — much to my surprise and delight. I was a little leery at first because it was a very short story and in first person (which I usually don’t like in romance). But I loved how Knox did so much in such a little space, and how she manages to convince you that these are two really well-matched lovers who respect and need each other, and I loved the fact that ending is in fact realistically open-ended — the H&H recognize that falling in love is not the end of the journey. There are still problems that need to be solved (and there are no easy solutions to some of those problems), but there is a definite hope that together they find solutions and make each others’ lives better.

  3. merriank says:

    I couldn’t see any value I could add to that conversational debacle either and also really agree with Sunita’s point on DA that they wanted Laura to have written a different book. I think their comments have been so revealing in a despairing kind of way, especially the implied class hierarchies of who reads what.

  4. Kaetrin says:

    I loved Big Boy too. I read it last weekend and it was surprisingly moving. I hadn’t expected that in an erotic romance (albeit a fairly tame one), nor in such a short word count. It reminded me a little of Anne Calhoun’s Breath on Embers – a totally different story, but also an erotic romance novella which moved me. When a story so short can touch me so quickly, it is unexpected. Most of the time those sort of emotions for me are found in longer works. Also, I had no idea of the story, other than that it was fantasy dates on a train, so all the extra was so much bonus.

    As to all the rest, I pretty much agree with everything said above. 🙂

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