In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had various ideas for blog posts that I’ve decided not to write. People have mentioned that Romancelandia (and the wider online Bookuniverse) seems extra sensitive and reactive these days. I count myself in this group. I worried both that these potential posts might offend people, and that I was writing them out of defensiveness rather than a desire to start a conversation. I think it’s time to back away slowly from discussion of bookish community relations for a while, and just talk about books. Less social, more reading. [No one incident prompted these comments, and I really don’t want to provide a forum for dissecting any one incident, either.]
Two things that happened to me this week that reflect the current mood:
1. A Goodreads friend contacted me because someone had contacted her to say a review of mine appeared to have the wrong star rating. It obviously did. I said in the body of the review that I wavered between four and five stars, but the rating was one star. (I’m sure that wasn’t true originally; I probably touched the wrong spot on my iPad screen one day). I fixed it.
Of course I’m not sure why the person didn’t just point out the discrepancy in a comment on the review. But I suspect she was worried about how I would react or that I’d perceive it as a challenge to my right to review as I saw fit. I think a lot of readers, authors, and reviewers feel we’re walking on eggshells these days, afraid of being misunderstood.
2. Today, I read a review that began this way:
People who make fun of romance novels assume that all of them are like this one. [It] . . . features purple prose galore, a club full of heroes with ridiculous nicknames (and the one in this book is a total ass), no plot to speak of, and the most unintentionally hilarious ending I’ve seen in quite some time – or maybe ever. In my house we are fond of quoting Jane from Pride and Prejudice; when someone can’t understand the appeal of something, someone else will say, “You do not allow for differences in situation and temperament.” I can’t imagine the situation or temperament that would enjoy this book.
I really enjoyed the review; it had a strong voice, was not gratuitously mean, and made clear why the reviewer thought the book was bad. The opening shows that the reviewer’s general attitude is “tastes differ, and I respect that,” but that she’s really unsure how this book could be to anyone’s taste.
For me, that paragraph doesn’t cross the line into reader-shaming. I found myself wondering, though, whether one of the readers who gave this book four or five stars on Goodreads (and there are such readers) would feel the same way. This question wouldn’t even have crossed my mind a year ago. And it’s not bad that I’ve learned to avoid denigrating others for their tastes. But I also believe we can go too far in being sensitive to reader-shaming. One of the things that first drew me to Romancelandia was the strong critical–by which I mean thoughtful, not negative–culture and, yes, the occasional snark.
Coming from an academic background, I regard statements like “it’s just my opinion” and “your mileage may vary” as redundant in an argument. I tell my students not to use them in writing, because obviously an argument states their opinion. I like reading strongly worded opinions. They make for lively discussion. While I don’t think it’s cool to say “if you like this you’re an idiot,” I’d rather a few feathers be ruffled by a forceful opinion than that reviewers pull their punches or qualify every statement. If you think a book is terrible, say why. If others disagree, they can ignore you, think you’re an idiot, or come explain their point of view. That’s what critical discourse is all about. Of course, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
In this moment of sensitive crankiness (I refer here to myself) I’ve found comfort in old favorites and books no one else I know is talking about. I re-read Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, which was my favorite of the Carsington books. I’m kind of surprised at that. Generally, I’m not fond of books that are viewed as “the hero’s book.” If fans talk mainly about how awesome/hot the hero is, I’m out. I like an equally-interesting, well-matched couple. As the title suggests, this is really Rupert’s book. Heroine Daphne, the bookish widow finally able to pursue her scholarly ambitions, who’s been taught her passions aren’t appropriate but learns otherwise from Rupert, is a fairly conventional romance-novel type. Rupert is less so, and he’s a big part of the book’s charm.
I never find him a convincingly stupid character, even when it comes to book smarts, and that’s perhaps a weakness of the book, as he’s supposed to be. But I did notice that he’s a master of what today we’d call emotional intelligence, something that’s seen as more typically feminine. He reads Daphne’s moods perfectly and finds subtle ways to distract and cheer her. I really enjoyed that, because so often in romance fiction the “emotional work” is, very conventionally, the purview of the heroine.
While I read this, I was listening to Elizabeth Peters’s Crocodile on the Sandbank, one of my most favorite books ever, and I realized I like Chase’s book in part because the Egyptian setting and adventure plot remind me a bit of Crocodile. There’s a hint of Middlemarch‘s Dorothea in Daphne, too. A favorite partly because of links to other favorites.
At the moment, I’m reading Victoria Holt’s The India Fan, the opening of which, with its half-remembered, half-understood childhood scenes, reminds me of many Victorian novels. I also just started Zadie Smith’s NW. I really love her debut novel, White Teeth, which I’ve taught a couple of times with great success. I’m listening to E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, an Edwardian mystery classic. One thing’s for sure: I won’t encounter any of these authors on social media, and for that, this week, I’m grateful.