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.