The Sweetest Thing, by Deborah Fletcher Mello

I read Deborah Fletcher Mello’s The Sweetest Thing because Meoskop and several other people were going to. I would not have finished it otherwise, because I found the writing a slog. But I’m glad I did, because there were things I really liked, and a lot I want to talk about.

This is going to be a long one, so pour a drink and pull up a chair–or just skip out now. Above the fold I’ll discuss what I liked and what I didn’t, and below will be a more spoilery discussion of one plot thread, and some thoughts about the question of writing quality.

Blurb: 

When the owner of Memphis’s most mouthwatering bakery, Just Desserts, suddenly dies, pastry chef Quentin Elliott and his brother, office manager Troy Elliott, are distraught. Everett “Pop” Donovan was more than their boss, he was a beloved mentor. So they’re shocked to learn that Pop left the business to his beautiful, estranged daughter—a woman they know nothing about—and who knows nothing about running a bakery…

Harper Donovan intends to sell off Just Desserts as quickly as possible. She has no interest in Memphis, much less sweets. However, handsome Quentin has definitely sparked her appetite—and business aside, the feeling is irresistibly mutual. But soon a powerful, smooth-talking rival appears, vying for Harper’s heart and her bakery. Harper might have a taste for Memphis after all—and Quentin might have to prove he’s exactly what she craves…

The Good:

  • “Pop” was a great foster father (now that’s a nice change) but he’d been estranged from Harper, and though that seemed to be partly because her mother was messed up and vengeful, he also seemed to have earned some of that ire. Harper’s need to come to terms with never being able to have a relationship with him, her regret and her resentment at being around “strangers who knew more about him than she ever would” were realistic and nuanced.
  • Quentin and Harper’s romance is low conflict. There are good reasons for their initial reluctance to get involved and for Quentin’s struggles with trust, but Mello doesn’t belabor them or drag them out too long.
  • Mello either subverts some familiar tropes or is working in a strand of the romance tradition that uses them somewhat differently from what I’m used to. At first we seemed to have a stock Evil Other Woman and Vengeful Ex BFF, but Rachel and Dwayne turned out to be much more than that, and for me the most interesting part of the book. I also liked how eventually I figured out that Rachel was white, from descriptions, but it was never overtly stated or made an issue in their relationship.
  • This book was surprisingly dirty for a romance set in a bakery with church-going characters and wise grandmother types. I suspect–though I am in no way expert here–that this reflects a difference between African-American evangelicalism and white evangelicalism (the kind that produces sex-free inspirational romances). There’s talk here about saving yourself but that seems to be more about waiting for someone you love and respect than waiting for marriage. No one judges Harper for having had sex before Quentin. I liked this different style of religion in romance (I felt the same way about the religion in Piper Huguley’s historical with African-American characters, The Lawyer’s Luck). 

The Not So Good:

  • The writing was an almost constant distraction. I’ll talk about that more later.
  • There was a lot of building tension and I thought Dwayne and/or Rachel was going to do something really awful but then it all fizzled out and the main conflicts were resolved at 70 or 75%. I wondered if there were going to be a ton of samples in the back, but no, it went on and on–in part dealing with some secondary conflicts, which were interesting but also quickly/easily resolved, but mostly with Quentin and Harper going on vacation and having a lot of hot sex. I skipped most of this. I am less interested in reading sex scenes in general lately; I felt the characters were already as developed as they were going to be; and Mello’s writing of sex scenes didn’t really work for me. (If your sex scenes are longish, detailed, and not prim, I don’t think phrases like “the door of her treasure spot” and “her sweet nectar” really work. OK, they never work for me). YMMV on all this; it’s absolutely about my personal tastes.
  • Interesting as I found the Dwayne and Rachel plot and the way it subverted my expectations that they’d be villains, I also thought this aspect wasn’t entirely successful (and their characters were somewhat inconsistent). But most of what I have to say about that is spoilery and below the fold.
  • There were some plot holes/things that stretched credibility. Even a successful family-run bakery is surely not worth “a multi-million dollar bid.” I was willing to write that off as the romance fantasy of everyone being rich. But the tension of whether Harper would sell to Dwayne made little sense. We learn early on that Pop left seven-figure bank accounts (of course he was a genius investor) to Troy, Quentin, and Harper. So if Harper wants to sell the bakery, why can’t they just buy her out? Oh right, no plot. Actually Troy pointed out both of these things in the book. Despite my struggles to finish this, I plan to read Troy’s book: he’s running for mayor and the heroine is Muslim. Don’t disappoint me by turning into an idiot, Troy!

Spoilers below, or you can skip to my confused, tl;dr thoughts on writing quality.

The Thing About Rachel and Dwayne

So, I said I found the Rachel-Dwayne relationship the most interesting thing in the book, and I did. But at the start it made me profoundly uncomfortable. Rachel and Dwayne seemed to be villains, and then they had a sex scene. I don’t like villain sex. It often seems to be a way of getting certain erotic tropes into a story for readers to enjoy without having to be OK with them (BDSM, homosexuality, incest–I’ve seen all kinds of ooh, dirty villains). And that was true here, too: there is an at best dubiously consensual scene between Rachel and Dwayne. He orders her around and plays power games. It turns her on, but she’s unhappy. They have rough sex, and sometimes he’s just plain abusive . . . or is he? Is it what she wants? (Also, Harper has a treasure box but Rachel has a pussy. She must be bad). In erotica I can be OK with lack of clarity around consent, but in a romance with a bakery it just didn’t work for me. It felt really creepy to read scenes that seemed abusive written with the voice/tropes of erotica. Was Mello suggesting that these things are automatically abusive? I thought the implication was that good people had nice, loving sex (if with fingers in the anus now and then–whoa, wasn’t expecting that!) and bad people had kinky, wrong sex.

Except then Dwayne and Rachel weren’t over the top villains after all. We got scenes from their point of view and found they were confused and hurting. I thought Dwayne was going to try to rape Harper or something when he flew her to Baton Rouge–he’d seemed so menacing. But then he turned into a sad little boy who needed love but didn’t know how to accept it. This change didn’t entirely work for me; his character, especially, felt inconsistent. But it also made me think about how I’d read the early scenes with Rachel and Dwayne through the lens of romance tropes I’m familiar with, and maybe I failed to recognize that Mello is working with different tropes. Maybe I lacked the expertise to properly interpret the opening Dwayne and Rachel scenes.

I was also interested in the way the concerns I had about the early sex scenes were resolved:

He suddenly realized that what they shared behind closed doors, the fetishes Rachel yearned for in bed, was far different from the abuse he had thought to inflict on her.

They learn to be kinky with consent and love. So my initial impression of how Mello was judging their desires was off, too. I think the writing was part of the problem there, but my willingness to leap to conclusions and apply genre conventions was at fault, too.

[Re. consent: Harper takes pictures of Quentin in just his boxers when he’s sleeping. She starts to masturbate to them, then stops (Quentin has a similar scene without the non-con photos–part of why I thought good people only had “nice” sex. Just finish yourself off, already! It doesn’t mean you don’t love him/her.) Eventually she feels guilty enough to delete them, but this episode was too hand-waved for my taste. That’s not cute and funny. It’s invasive.]

Writing Quality

I feel that talking about the writing in The Sweetest Thing is a fraught issue, because there is a problem with people saying “all romances by/about people of color are badly written.” That is not my point. The romances by PoC I’ve read are all over the map in terms of writing quality, just like the romances by white writers.

I also think “bad writing” can mean “uses words in ways I’m not familiar with” and I hope that’s not my point, either. Some of my struggles with the writing style were me getting used to a vernacular that’s unfamiliar to me (for reasons of region and religion as much as race, I think). Like the “repast” after Pop’s funeral or the way Mello uses “spirit” to cover a multitude of things I’d call character, personality, soul, heart, and maybe even genitals. I don’t mind adjusting to those uses in the least. That’s part of the point of reading diverse books–reading about people who talk and think somewhat differently from me.

But there were also a lot of repeated words, sometimes used in ways that didn’t make sense. For instance, “chimed” and “intoned” are Mello’s favorite dialogue tags, as in “‘Thank you,’ Harper intoned. ‘You’ve been so nice.'” I don’t think “intoned” has any connotation that works there. Characters are frequently referred to as “the man” or “the woman.” This is not only repetitive but oddly distancing in a deep POV when the person referred to that way is someone the character knows well. Who thinks of her grandmother as “the woman”? These repetitions quickly became like fingernails on a chalkboard and are part of why I had to skim. I can’t imagine anyone who would not be bothered by this, which is why I’d call this kind of repetition bad writing.

Then there are the busy eyes. Harper rolled her eyes so many times that by Chapter 4 I added a note saying “Stop, Harper.” People gaze, stare, peek, wink, narrow their eyes. Once Harper “glanc[es] over to stare at Quentin.” I closed the book left with an impression of eyes in constant motion, and it was distracting as I read, too. I wonder if this is a common pitfall of romance, actually, because I’ve noticed some pretty mobile eyes in the book I’m reading now. In a genre about feelings, but where the rules say “show not tell” and readers object to too much internal musing, it can be pretty hard to express what the characters are feeling. Still, this book went way past my eye-rolling limits.

I think that an editor could have dealt with all those things and still kept the unique and culturally-specific elements of Mello’s and her characters’ voices. And I wanted to talk about this–although I wish the question of quality hadn’t come to a head for me with this particular book, given the fraughtness I mentioned above–because I think Romanceland has become really reluctant to make evaluative judgments beyond “it worked for me.” To say something is bad is seen as potentially “shaming” people who like it. I think there are criticisms that can come off as shaming–I wouldn’t call a book trash, for instance. And though my thoughts about quality are inspired in part by this post from Steve Donoghue, I wouldn’t condemn adults who read YA the way he does. I do, however, enjoy his strong opinions–agree or disagree, they make me think. And that’s what I want from criticism.

I don’t think people should be afraid to talk about issues of quality if they want to. Criticism loses some of its power if there aren’t people willing to assert strong opinions that go beyond purely personal taste into reasoned argument. Of course these judgments are more or less subjective and open to debate, because language itself, and even more ideas of “good writing,” is a social construct. There are no scientific, objective standards, so a claim about quality should be backed up with reasons, examples, and an explanation of criteria (which may differ from reader to reader).

I’d agree with Steve Donoghue that some readers are better than others, but I think the definition of “good reader” varies a lot according to context. It means one thing in the classroom, another when one is reading for pleasure. We probably all have our own definitions of what constitutes a “good reader.” And when we’re reading–and reviewing/being critics–just for the love of it, we should be whatever kind of readers and critics we want. I do think, though, that when Romanceland discussion in general is reluctant to engage with questions of prose quality (just as with any other substantive craft issue), the genre suffers. Why write better if no one cares?

We like to blame other people’s sexism for the low repute of genre romance, and there’s some truth to that. But we, both readers and writers (and certainly there are exceptions), often value emotional impact above other qualities of a book. We don’t talk about writing quality unless there are a lot of blatant editing errors (and sometimes not even then). We give awards to books with mediocre prose and put them on “best of the year” lists because people loved the story (even in places like Publisher’s Weekly, which put Mello’s Craving Temptation, the companion to this book, on its 2014 list). I think all of that is part of why the genre is looked down on. In most major publication best-of-the-year lists that include romance, as far as I can judge, the quality of the romances is not as high as the quality of books on other sublists overall. That doesn’t mean all romance is crap. There’s some really well-written romance. But we’re more likely to reward the mediocre as if it were great.

Maybe you think I’m totally wrong. Maybe I am. Maybe you don’t agree this is a problem. If readers are happy, who cares? But it’s a problem for me as a reader, so I want to talk about it. There was so much to like in The Sweetest Thing, but I could only get through it by skimming. A lot of the problems would be easy to fix–there aren’t fundamental grammar or sentence structure errors. And I can’t help wondering why no one did fix them. I suspect it’s partly because there’s not much payoff for better-written romance; the time isn’t worth it when no one is demanding better.

These ideas are kind of muddled, and maybe I should have waited to post them. But I couldn’t stop thinking about them, so here they are. I certainly welcome other opinions.

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27 Responses to The Sweetest Thing, by Deborah Fletcher Mello

  1. Sunita says:

    I love this post, and not just because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s not just about whether bad writing is objectively definable, or whether it’s called out in romland discussions, but the extent to which the quality of the writing doesn’t even seem to matter except as an emotion delivery device. Even when writing is considered “good,” it’s often because of the way it makes the reader feel. People rag on writing about nothing in lit fic, but the romance genre has plenty of overwritten prose that is considered lyrical or beautiful. You’ll have paragraphs extolling the beauty of the countryside, or the moonlight throwing shadows on the water, and then the carriage rolls up to the house and the hero/heroine interaction takes over. I have no idea what the point was of telling me about every leaf and flower, except to show me that the author can pen a phrase. And the endless descriptions of inanimate and animate objects. When was the last time you read a book and didn’t get told the exact color of the important characters’ eyes and hair, over and over again? The precise type of columns (Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian) which hold up the mansion? Whether the rug is Aubusson, Axminster, or Persian? Why does it even matter for the story that I know that there is a rug?

    Ahem. Back to your point. 😉 I think there are a number of reasons why we don’t talk about writing quality in romance as much anymore, or evaluate books on the basis of craft. One is that we have a convention in the community that quality is subjective, that there are no agreed-upon standards beyond basic grammar and spelling (this is a description, not an explanation, of course). The second is that emotional connection of the reader with the characters is paramount, so if it occurs for the reader, the book is good. I would argue that the correct word in this case is “effective.” You can have effective books that are not good, but in romland we conflate the two. Third, romance readers who are active in the community read many, many books in a year. If you’re reading 4-5 books a week, you simply can’t analyze most of them in a detailed way. You can register their emotional impact, because that’s intuitive. But to really sit down and think about structure, rhetorical effectiveness, etc.? Maybe if you’re an author and think about these things all the time you can do it for a higher proportion of what you read. But if you’re an author you’re not going to call out bad writing as a rule, because it’s considered unprofessional.

    I think the 3-6 publications a year rule is also to blame, but I think the biggest reason bad writing isn’t called out and/or discussed is because the emotional payoff is the most important metric. And since reviews and discussions of books revolve around the emotional effectiveness, it’s a self-reinforcing equilibrium. A conversation about quality will either die out quickly or lead to blowback from people who found the book emotionally effectiveness. Inevitably, emotion becomes the fulcrum of discussions.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s an interesting point about effectiveness. I wonder if it is harder to admit when something we like and that affected us is not so good in terms of craft? It might be good by SOME measure, if it had that effect–but I’m not sure I’d argue that, although I think most romance readers and writers would/do. What I mean is, that effect is often in the reader as much as the book, in what we bring to it. Certain plot elements tend to “get” me no matter how poorly executed, and so I’m not sure a book is “good” just because I make an emotional connection. Maybe. Maybe there needs to be some good quality there, in terms of characterization or voice, for that to happen.

      I find it easier to recognize when something is not good but effective when it comes to TV. I’ve watched plenty of shows in my time where I recognized writing, acting, and/or production values were not good but I still connected with the show and enjoyed it. (Explaining why is harder). I can’t think of a lot of books like that, but maybe I am less willing to recognize it when I’m reading.

      I do think this is more of an issue in romance than in other genres, and I think you’re right that it’s because emotional response is such a big part of why people read it.

  2. lawless says:

    Thank you for this, and thank you for recognizing the implications of bringing up poor, bad, or less-than-optimal writing in a PoC-authored book, though, as you say, poor writing knows no ethnic boundaries. Neither does good (or at least better) writing — something that put me off a somewhat differently aimed post about this elsewhere.

    I also agree with you that writing quality is inherently subjective and subject to considerations of personal taste. That is, some readers prefer plain or muscular prose to lyrical prose, some prefer the opposite, plus there are all other sorts of preferences as to style, genre, viewpoint (I know some people who dislike or despite 1st person POV, for example, others who don’t care for omniscient, etc.), tense (ditto with present tense), content — I could go on. But I’m not so sure that it’s as completely subjective as you seem to. I may have an exaggerated opinion of my own opinions and ability to evaluate writing gained partly from having beta read or edited the work of others and partly from having my work beta read or edited. (Not for publication other than when I was working in a supervisory capacity as an attorney.)

    I’ve only started reading genre romance recently, and while the content and sociological approach of the writing (sexism, racism, classism, ageism, sizeism — basically, all the isms society is afflicted with) is a bigger issue for me than the quality of the writing, you are not wrong in identifying quality as problematic. Genre critics are not wrong to dismiss the genre as slight when it comes to literary quality. To my mind, it’s because feels, story, and character — in that order — are more important within the genre than writing quality. As Sunita says, romance is written and read mostly for the emotional effect, and thus work that evokes the right response is considered good irrespective of the writing quality.

    I could go on about why I think my concerns about content are a large part of why the writing isn’t stellar, but I won’t. Suffice it to add that I think there are ways of evaluating the emotional effectiveness of a piece of writing that don’t ignore relevant contemporary norms about writing quality that are applied to other genres, including the litfic genre.

    So don’t apologize for calling out a work for poor writing quality. That’s a test of effectiveness for some of us, too, not just you.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, lawless.

      When I said quality is “more or less” subjective, I actually meant some things are more and some less. It’s ALL subjective in the sense that it is a social construct; there are no “natural” laws of good writing (pace Alexander Pope and his Essay on Criticism). But some rules of grammar and syntax, for instance, are so widely accepted that most people agree about what is wrong/right or good/bad. Some rules, there’s much more debate about. And then there are stylistic issues (preferences for lean or lyrical, as you say) that are much more subjective. I’d say the repetition and word choices I pointed to here are less subjective criticims–I think a lot of readers would notice those as a problem–but some of the other things I disliked were more individual.

      My impression is that romance readers, vs. those in other genres, are more likely to see “good writing” as purely, highly subjective, and as less important. I think that’s partly because we don’t talk much about it. Even when people praise good writing (which, as people pointed on on Twitter, we are more likely to do than call out bad writing) they don’t always explore why they think it is good/what is good about it. I’d agree with Sunita that it tends to be lovely imagery that people find moving that gets praised, and I often find that kind of “lyricism” self-indulgent–I want imagery to contribute to the meaning of the story, not be a paragraph of mixed metaphors there for decoration (this, of course, is a subjective criterion). Anyway, I think without a robust critical discussion of what constitutes good writing, which the romance genre really lacks, we are not likely to have any kind of community norms. And that’s about where we are. So then people are even more hesitant to talk about whether writing is good or bad when they review.

      I think there’s a more positive way of looking at all this, too–as a redefinition of what matters in fiction writing, as one of the radical things about the genre–but I’m too much the English teacher to buy into that. We can have the radical valuing of feelings and female experience and all those things people say in defence of the genre and also better writing, if we want to.

      • lawless says:

        In most situations, might not clarity be a hallmark of good writing, though, and confusion the opposite? Ditto logic/plausibility/making sense.

  3. I can’t comment on this because it would just be ‘Squee! Squeesquee!’. It’s like you took my thoughts and made them smart 🙂

    Well said, in other words.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m sure there’s something in my prose deserving of criticism! I had to edit out a bunch of repetitive “of course” for instance….

  4. laurakcurtis says:

    Everything you said and then some! I would like to elaborate, but honestly, you’ve hit everything I would say about the lack of criticism, both objective and subjective. When I’ve tried to crit romances for either their objective (bad grammar, bad spelling, repetitive language, massive plot holes, etc) or subjective (there’s no content, just emotion!) flaws, I have gotten so roundly trounced that I’ve given up. I pretty much only talk about books I like these days, which is deadly dull and I feel as if I am now contributing to the problem by staying silent!

    Anyway, thanks so much for bringing this up. It needs to be talked through more!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Laura. I think it is really hard for authors to be critical, although their voices would be an important contribution to a robust critical culture, because, as Sunita said above, in the romance world that’s seen as unprofessional. That’s another difference from other genres/mainstream/lit fic, where authors-as-critics are common and no one thinks your job is just to be a cheerleader for your peers. On the other hand, perhaps because social media helps make all literary worlds smaller and more intimate, I think that’s changing elsewhere (for the worse, in my opinion) and there’s more boosting of author-friends than there used to be.

      A strong critical culture requires thoughtful discussion of good AND bad–so at least if people only feel they can talk about the good, they can contribute by offering more substance and less squee.

    • LoriA says:

      This is so problematic. I know some people think that certain criticisms aren’t appropriate (e.g., don’t chase away new writers by letting them know everything you notice, just give them one or two items to start), but, to me, problems with grammar and massive plot holes really do need to be addressed. I think one reason some people object is that some writers suffer from too much criticism (too many people telling them what they think is wrong with the work), and trying to fix everything can result in a pretty bland work. Partly because too many people provide completely different criticisms, and those criticisms may be very subjective, reflecting the critiquer’s own voice. But a heads up, such as “watch your spelling/typos” or “you have a few troublesome plot holes; here’s an example of one” should be taken very seriously, without scaring the writer.

      I read somewhere (maybe a quote for writers) that if several people tell you something is wrong with your writing, there most likely is something wrong. but they probably will all tell you something different about how to fix it. And none of them may be right.

      I do know that learning to critique and paying close attention to such details can make it much harder to read and enjoy books. Instead of getting lost in the book, one starts noticing how many problems a book has. (I wish I stopped to marvel at how well an author pulled something off. )

      I suspect I’m often tone deaf to most repetitive language. Though I think repetitive sentence length and structure are also problems.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I think “don’t overwhelm people with feedback” is not bad advice for someone whose task it is to give feedback to a writer (especially a new one). When I’m grading a paper–or giving feedback on a draft–with a ton of issues, I don’t mark every one, for instance. I comment on the things that are most important to tackle. There is only so much advice that someone can take in, and only so much they have time/energy to fix.

        Of course, in my dream world, if someone is writing for publication, they revise and revise until ALL the issues they can tackle have been dealt with. (No book is a Platonic ideal–I remember Courtney Milan once did a great post, at Dear Author I think, about how sometimes you can’t fix something because it would create another problem, or because you can’t figure out how to fix it, etc.). It’s a bit different from a student paper which is a learning experience that no one is expected to pay to read.

        And I think that as a reader writing a review/response/reflection, I am not really giving advice to the writer at all. I’m reflecting on how the prose and other craft issues shaped my reading experience, and possibly giving advice to other readers who might share my concerns about those things. Since the audience is different, the rules for giving feedback to the writer don’t apply.

        • kaetrin says:

          And I think that as a reader writing a review/response/reflection, I am not really giving advice to the writer at all. I’m reflecting on how the prose and other craft issues shaped my reading experience, and possibly giving advice to other readers who might share my concerns about those things. Since the audience is different, the rules for giving feedback to the writer don’t apply.

          THIS THIS THIS

  5. kaetrin says:

    I’m all for critical reviews and I don’t think the quality of the writing should be immune from it. That said, I’m not sure I’d know what “rhetorical effectiveness” is if I fell over it. In some respects I’m not qualified to comment on some of the craft issues. I don’t think I really know anything about writing craft. I mean, I may know some things instinctively but that’s different I think.

    I’m interested to read critical reviews about craft issues though because that’s how I learn about it. 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think–and I don’t mean this as an attack on you, at all–that people’s view of themselves as “not qualified to comment” is also part of the problem. No one feels unqualified to comment on whether they liked the characters, the storyline, etc. Commenting on the writing is just another form of opinion. I don’t think anyone MUST comment on it, but I think anyone who reads CAN. We know when we trip over sentences, or when something is unclear, or when the pacing feels wrong–parts drag, etc.

      Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, because I have a PhD in English and I teach writing, though the academic sort. But I rarely use the critical vocabulary I learned in my profession when I’m blogging. For one thing, it can exclude readers who don’t share it. But also, it’s not necessary, because much of the time I’m talking about books in a different way here than I do professionally. (Also, I teach a lot of 1st-year students. We have to build up to the high-falutin’ vocabulary).

      Different readers will have different vocabularies and approaches for talking about writing and craft issues, readers who are also authors will have a different perspective from the rest of us, but we can all do about it and I don’t think people should feel hesitant–I mean, I don’t think there’s a reason to feel hesitant. Especially if we approach it as expressing our point of view, not an undeniable fact, and are open to other perspectives–as you are very good at doing when you talk about issues in a book.

      I think some (not all!!) authors are quite invested in the idea that only authors can understand and evaluate craft. And I think that view is wrong, pernicious and aimed at chilling critical (not just negative) discourse among readers.

      • kaetrin says:

        LOLOL. Now I can see that I do comment on those things when I notice them. I don’t have the “high-falutin’ vocabulary” for it – I need to sit in one of your classes I think! 😀

    • Sunita says:

      I think you know more than you think you do, by which I mean you probably register it but you don’t necessarily have the same vocabulary to express it that Liz and Robin do. That’s OK, though. My vocabulary comes from social science and I often don’t know how to describe in proper technical terms what I mean about craft, so I just wing it with normal language.

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  7. Ridley says:

    I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I haven’t felt qualified to comment. This is probably why I get read as male so often online.

    Anyways, good review and rant. Meoskop just posted about it today on our poor neglected blog and I’m going to refrain from playing Civ for a day and read it now. I guess we’ll see if the writing tics irk me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think maybe Meoskop disproved my claim that anyone would be bothered by the writing tics (to which I can only say OMG how could you not be?!) but otherwise we pretty much agreed.

  8. Oh, bless you! It is a conversation that must be had. Thank you for putting it so clearly.

  9. Isobel Carr says:

    Genre critics are not wrong to dismiss the genre as slight when it comes to literary quality. To my mind, it’s because feels, story, and character — in that order — are more important within the genre than writing quality. As Sunita says, romance is written and read mostly for the emotional effect, and thus work that evokes the right response is considered good irrespective of the writing quality.

    I think gets at the heart of my frequent dissatisfaction with the genre. As a reader, writing/voice come first, then all the rest of that stuff. I won’t ever get to the emotional effect if the writing doesn’t suck me in and compel me to READ (or if I do, I’m likely to be grumpy and not engaged enough to embrace the emotional effect, and thus to miss out on it or to be annoyed at what it could have been if only the writing had been better).

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  11. LoriA says:

    Liz wrote:

    “There are no scientific, objective standards, so a claim about quality should be backed up with reasons, examples, and an explanation of criteria (which may differ from reader to reader).”

    Part of the problem here is that most of us have no background in how to identify and back everything up. I don’t always notice all the problems that some people mention (I’d have to see examples to see if it bothers me). I do notice that some people rave about books that don’t seem to be examples of great writing/grammar, so I really think that may not bother a lot of people. (For example, I’m pretty sure that previous sentence got lost along the way … I once identified very strongly with a particular fantasy author because I thought his prose resembled mine. I.e., sort of middling and sometimes awkward.)

    In SF, Sturgeon’s Law is something like “90% of all science fiction is crap, but 90% of all fiction is crap.” I think Romance may suffer more because it’s such a big genre, there are so many books out there, and some people read so quickly that maybe they don’t absorb every word, as long as they get the gist of it.

    Some publishers have a reputation for not doing a whole lot of editing (do they proofread?) which only adds to the problem. Apparently, Nora Roberts’s early books were so bad that the mss were completely covered in red when her editor got finished. But, because that editor persevered, I saw raves about those early books. And her prose did improve.

    I once picked up a book which read (in the first few pages) as if it was a script (dialog and some action, little else). It was weird. I couldn’t figure out what was really going on without more indication of setting, some description. Anyway, I don’t remember the book at all, just that I didn’t get past the first few pages. So yeah, I probably do want a bit more description than some do. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I guess my feeling is that anyone who notices prose style can comment on it, if they want. I know that’s easy for me to say because I DO have some language for talking about it, and it’s my job to talk about it–I’m comfortable doing it. But I don’t generally use professional jargon (grammatical terms, or unfamiliar literary ones). I’m cool with people just saying “it sounded weird to me.” I don’t think we must have technical language to express those responses.

      I’d agree that fast readers may be less likely to notice these things. I know I miss things when I start skimming, either because a book has failed to engage me or because I can’t wait to see what happens next. And I do think many readers, especially of genre fiction, care more about the story and their emotional response than about the language in which the story is told. That’s true for me, as well; I have different expectations for prose style in different kinds of books.

      I’m mostly bothered by the idea that it’s somehow wrong or shaming to mention these things. Because this is a piece of writing we’re talking about.

  12. Walt Woody says:

    You should consider reading Deborah Fletcher Mello’s literary writings – Graye and Rested Waters – $3.99 on Amazon (ebook). She truly writes to her audience and both of these books are a better reflection of just how good her writing is. I think her romance writings are a reflection of who reads her and what they like and want from her books and clearly those readers aren’t academics. Her literary writings are written for more discerning tastes. She’s good but hasn’t gotten the attention I think she deserves.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you for those recommendations, which look interesting. I hadn’t realized Mello wrote non-romance books.

      I disagree with you that the audience for romance is “not academics,” though. Of course it is not *only* academics, but I know plenty of romance readers who are, like me, academics. We read romance for fun, just like readers with other jobs. And those of us who are both academics and romance-readers are not the only people who bring high expectations for craft and writing quality to our romance-reading. I think there’s something of a false distinction in your comment.

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