Truth’s Superb Surprise

I try not to write about writing itself on my blog because such topics tend to only be of interest to other writers. Also, I don’t always (okay, I seldom) feel like I have something original or worthwhile to say about the writing process. But to break my own rule and be a little cryptic…

For a long time before I started writing fiction down, I was writing it in my head. I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying around a bag and I was putting all sorts of things into it. Jokes that I (and those around me) told. Words that I liked the sound of. Bits of description. Images. Smells. Fragments of motivation and psychology. And questions–so many questions. Why did he do that? Why did I say that? Could this have happened another way? What is she thinking? Etc.

When I started writing, I began taking things out of the bag. I recently re-read Special Interests and it amazed to me how much truth I told while lying. The bones of the scene, the things that were happening in terms of the plot or characterization, would be wholly fabricated. But every single detail of the scene would be true. The book is a patchwork quilt of my experience in and observation of the world.

For a long time in my writing life, I would take things out of the bag and tap them into my stories slant (sorry, Emily Dickinson, that’s one of those words). I mean to say that I used a trick not too differently from how it happened or where I had once seen that sweater or how that thing had tasted. I just sort of twisted a bit.

However, I’ve been writing something that is (for me) very different and crazy. But here’s the thing: I’m using just as much stuff out the bag as before. Maybe more. I’ve discovered whole other rooms, whole other continents, in the bag. So what I’m trying to say is that I am larger than I thought I was. And for the moment at least, that makes me less scared of my writing than I’ve been in a long time.

We, as writers, are told to develop a brand. To make a promise to our readers and to deliver on it in terms of voice and tone and story and setting. What I’m writing now doesn’t feel all that off-brand. It feels like me…but slant. And on the bias, there are entirely new ways of being.

What makes good criticism?

Sorry it’s been so long! I was trying to write a lot of words, which was I doing until about two weeks ago. Then we went on vacation and we moved into a new house. We’re still very much in unpacking mode and at the end of every day I fall into bed exhausted. I haven’t been reading or writing–and this somehow makes me more tired.

Also, while I’ve been happy with the words I’m writing, I’ve been experiencing professional disappointment that has me thinking about my voice and the market. I don’t have conclusions about this yet, but I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, the real point of this point: what is good criticism? Natalie of Pretty Terrible posted this question on Twitter. For reasons related to my academic training and my area of study, it is something I have very strong opinions about. I was going to respond there, but it would be too long. I’ll keep the abbreviated bullet point format of Twitter, though:

  • Good criticism is an intellectual, and not primarily emotional, response to a text. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in criticism—indeed, really good criticism often comes from explaining one’s emotions—but isn’t primarily about “the text made me feel X.” Criticism is what comes after that stage.
  • Good criticism is not primarily evaluative. It’s NOT about saying whether the text is good or bad. When I teach this idea, I often show students a Siskel and Ebert film review (say this one). Then I show them Matthias Stork’s amazing series on Chaos Cinema (here’s part one). What’s the difference? Siskel and Ebert are trying to tell you whether you should go to a movie—is it worth the price of admission? Stork is trying to tell you what this new style of film is. He has an opinion about whether it’s a good or bad development, but he’s mostly trying to define it and tell us how it works. Stork is critical; Siskel and Ebert evaluative.
  • Good criticism has a clear idea about what it’s doing. So any individual entrant is joining a larger conversation. This conversation (or method) can be formal. For example, there’s a set of writing that lays out Marxist critical discourse, or formalism, or New Historicism. But the critical approach can be more squidgy. Either way, people over time develop critical schools of thought and any given critical gesture is in the style of (or in response to) one or more of these.
  • For example, in romance (and I’m sure this is true in other fan communities), popular feminist discourse is important. We talk about whether heroes are alpha or beta (or caretaking alpha or alphaholes), which is another way of talking about how the texts construct masculinity. Also important: genre studies. What tropes does the text use? And does it just replicate the trope, does it make it fresh, or does it subvert it?
  • Good criticism, then, tells me how the text works (and to do this, it must substantively engage with the text) and then puts this into a genre context and a large critical conversation.
  • Here are a couple of critical responses that I think are good: Olivia Waite on Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits and Natalie Jo Storey in the Los Angeles Review of Books on sheikh romance. These make good comparisons because they both use gender studies to talk about how the texts “do” gender and post or neo-colonialism to talk about how the texts “do” race. They do make some evaluative judgements, but mostly they’re talking how the texts work. They’re explicit about the critical moves their making (good criteria) and they engage substantively with specific works. Waite focuses on one text while Storey takes in an entire genre–but she’s still citing lots of specific examples.

I’ve used academic language for this definition, but I have serious concerns about how this goes down in the academy. I don’t think academics are always good at explaining their critical criteria and group-think leads them to only ask certain questions and only of certain texts. Part of what I love about romance is that there are really cool critical conversations happening that I never heard in the academy.

Finally, to be clear, I don’t think criticism is the only valid approach to texts. GIF/squee reviews do important work, I read things all the time that I never move past the “digestion” stage with, etc. Criticism isn’t higher or more valid or anything. It is its own flavor and pursuit and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it’s not.

So, what do I have wrong?

Both Alike in Dignity

Over the weekend my friend and critique partner Gen Turner started a Twitter imbroglio when she confessed that she doesn’t really connect with the novels of Jane Austen. I was traveling so I didn’t get to follow all the nuances of the ensuing discussion, but several of us posited that there seems to be a schism in romancelandia (and probably the broader culture) between folks who love the novels of Jane Austen and those who prefer those by the Bronte sisters. Elisabeth Lane compared it to the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate.

If so, it makes sense. While Austen died in 1817 when the Bronte sisters were infants, Charlotte Bronte famously disliked Austen’s novels, saying Pride and Prejudice was “An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face” or, in other words, realistic but boring. In another letter Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The Passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen].”

There’s a lot I could say here about how Austen is more properly grouped with the 18th century novelists than the 19th century ones. Austen has a more Enlightenment view of human nature and love, not to mention that she wrote novels with strong romantic elements not genre romances per se. In contrast the Brontes–who are hardly a united front as my favorite Kate Beaton cartoon spoofs–were more influenced by Romanticism and Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” They also wrote for a vastly different audience.

But that’s not my area of expertise and so I’ll refrain.

Instead I want to suggest that Austen/Bronte debate is unnecessarily adversarial. Genre romance descends from both, as Pamela Regis explicates nicely in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but I’m going to argue that genre romance uses Austen and Bronte for different things. To my mind, Austen provides a set of plots for romance and Charlotte Bronte provides an aesthetic for romance prose.

Continue reading “Both Alike in Dignity”

Women, Depression, and the Obscene

(Prologue: this is the latest entry in my series of late night thoughts about romance fueled by random association and too much graduate school. Please keep in mind that while I may be pretentious and use words like companionate and displaced melancholy, my characters are much healthier and cooler than I am and would never do that.)

In Black Sun the psychoanalytical critic Julia Kristeva analyzes the place where depression and creativity meet: for the depressive, “there is meaning only in despair” (Kristeva 6). She defines depression/melancholy as “a common experience of object loss and of a modification of significant bonds” (Kristeva 10, emphasis in original). Her argument is extremely Freudian: the depressive hates the other because it (the other) is separated from the self; however, they can be symbolically reunited in sex and/or death. But (because this is Freudian) the depressive doesn’t openly mourn or even hate the other. Instead the grief is displaced onto a Thing: “an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time” (Kristeva 13). But since the depressive is displacing his/her grief, the “depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense again” personality destruction (Kristeva 19, emphasis in original). I’m over-simplifying here dramatically, but you get the gist of it.

Continue reading “Women, Depression, and the Obscene”

Come a Little Closer

(Warning: I was up with a sick child all night. When I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking. And I have to write this idea out. It isn’t fully-formed, but tell me where I’m wrong so I can finish working this out.)

In The Melodramatic Imagination, literary scholar Peter Brooks defines melodrama not as something aesthetic–not in other words as a genre defined by mustache-twirling villains, perfect heroes, and damsels in distress–but as a narrative structure and a moral imperative. He writes of a scene in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin,

The narrative voice is not content to describe or record gestures, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” (1)

Brooks is saying that Balzac pushes closer to his subjects in order “to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality” underneath (2). Brooks argues that in melodrama “nothing is left unsaid” (4), which helps to reveal the “operative spiritual values” (5) that are present but hidden in other works. He applies this schema to Henry James, in whose work he sees this “melodramatic imagination” operating when “things and gestures are necessarily metaphoric because they must refer to something else” (Brooks 10).

As far as I can tell, no one has applied Peter Brooks to genre romance–but we should because romance seems to work in much the same way. Romance is closely cropped onto a few key pieces that carry metaphorical significance and its narrative resolutions (e.g., the creation of a stable couple) are moral ones.

Continue reading “Come a Little Closer”

Purple Haze

…or more precisely, why I don’t think all romance is properly categorized as containing purple prose–and why I don’t think that would be bad even if it were true.

What precisely is purple prose? According to A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman (8th Edition), a “purple patch” is

Now and then authors in a strongly emotional passage will give free play to most of the stylistic tricks in their bag. They will write prose intensely colorful and more than usually rhythmic. When there is an unusual piling up of these devices in such a way as to suggest standing out a self-conscious literary effort, the section is spoken of as a purple patch … Although sometimes used in a nonevaluative, descriptive sense, the term is more often employed derogatorily. (421)

I eliminated a few sentences explaining the reference to Horace, but this is a workable definition. Purple prose is excessively descriptive for its context and that, therefore, draws attention to itself.

Genre romance regularly stands accused of trafficking in purple prose. The Missouri Review ran a column in 2013 comparing Nora Robert’s descriptions of sex (“absurd”) to Nabokov’s in Lolita (“poetic”). Such accusations are so common that AAR use to run a purple prose parody contest. And certainly love scenes lend themselves to description. The Literary Review awards an annual bad sex in fiction award–one that invariably goes to a literary novel.

Continue reading “Purple Haze”

Romance and Feminism

I’ll post a version of this at Dear Author too, but I want to respond to Robin’s post from this morning about romance and feminism. Her thesis is, “Romance is not a feminist genre – and that it doesn’t have to be for us to enjoy, celebrate, appreciate, and feel empowered and liberated by it.” I agree that feminism isn’t the sine qua non of literary merit; it isn’t the only thing books can and should be and isn’t the only way women can be empowered and liberated by reading.

Hers is a definitional argument. Robin says that in order to consider romance feminist we’d have to use a definition like, “Romance celebrates women” or “empowers women.” I agree that’s weak sauce. Such definitions aren’t good for feminism or romance.

Here’s what I’d offer instead: feminism is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (bell hooks, Feminism is For Everybody, viii). Or maybe a “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes; the movement organized around this belief” (Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism, 13). To my view, feminist writers, scholars, practitioners would (should?) share a few assumptions about the world: that gender is a pervasive social construct; that systems of oppression are interlocking; and that equality will require the dismantling of those systems and the creation of new relationships, new ways of being in the world.

Continue reading “Romance and Feminism”

Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here

I was thinking about Louis Althusser…as one does. I have a long-time, complicated relationship with the neo-Marxists. More specifically, I’m fascinated by the Frankfurt School (and would like to write a romance set in a fictional version of it), but I’ve read many of the later, post-WWII generation of Marxian theorists too.

Althusser is not, to be clear, my philosophical boyfriend: he had a troubled personal life, with the whole killing his wife thing, so that honor belongs to Jurgen Habermas.

(Hey, Jurgen. It’s been a while. You’re looking good. Remember that time I saw you speak about democracy and communication and it was like we were the only people in the room?)

Anyway, I was thinking about the essay Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus. In the most famous section, Althusser discusses how ideologically-driven societies (like our own capitalist one) require subjects to function. For him, subjectivity is a self-conscious identity–indicated by things like interiority and agency–that’s produced by an ideological society; the entire thing is pretty circular. We’re products of our education, interpretive communities, social practices, etc. and the ideological state produces people in its image who think they have their own desires, choices, thoughts, and so on but who are merely doing exactly what the state wants them to do–like we think we have a choice about what we drink, but it all comes down to Coke vs. Pepsi. And this goes on replicating itself forever. (Except when it doesn’t.)

Continue reading “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”

The Dashwood Rule

If you are a person who reads about media on the Internet, you’re probably familiar with the Bechdel Test. Taking its name from Alison Bechdel a Gilmore Girls actress (ETA: or not. Yeah, I’m an idiot. It’s actually named after MacArthur Genius Grant winner Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Fun Home is way super awesome. I’m going to leave this error here so we can all laugh at my silliness, which is legend), the Bechdel Test grades books/movies/TV shows/etc. on the basis of whether they include two or more named female characters talking about something besides men. It is astonishing how much media, and specifically media targeted at women, fails to meet this standard. Even within genre romance, in which female friendships are frequently represented, not every book passes the Bechdel Test.

Over the weekend, I read Erin Satie’s excellent historical romance The Secret Heart. One of the things I liked about the book was not just that it passed the Bechdel Test–the heroine, Caro, and her close friend, Daphne, discuss art and paint–but that the hero and heroine have conversations about things other than each other and their relationship.

For example, early in the book Caro and Adam talk about their respective (and suspect) passions, ballet and boxing. Caro explains,

“Dancing makes me feel powerful. In control. Like— I don’t know— a watchmaker— and my body is the watch— and some people say God is like a watchmaker—”

“So dancing makes you feel like God?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know, maybe a little.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts and hunched her shoulders, tipping her chin into her chest. “I don’t mean it like that.”

“Like what?” Adam snorted. “Blasphemy?”

“It’s just. So, God the watchmaker.” She raised her arms and let her hands illustrate her words as she spoke, enthusiastic despite herself. “He builds the whole universe”— she mimed a child stacking blocks—“ and he winds it up”— the fingers of one hand twisted while the other held her imaginary watch steady—“ and lets it go, and then…” She flicked her fingers wide, miming a starburst. “Everything works!”

She glanced in his direction, something sad and solemn in her expression. “Except that the universe is nothing like a watch. It can’t be. It’s full of living things.”

(Kindle Locations 446-453)

As good passages tend to be, it’s wonderful on several levels, but for the moment, I want to focus on how the conversation reveals the characters’ philosophies about the world. Caro and Adam pursue their arts for disparate reasons, seeing the relationship between their bodies and their human-ness differently, which is part of how we know even before they do that they will understand each other better than anyone else in their world and would thus be good together. These ideas come out of their backstory, but I don’t think Satie could have substituted any other conversation here that would have as concisely or effectively shown us who the characters are, why they are different, and why they are similar. Sure they’re talking about deism in a way that reveals their education, the early Victorian world in which they live, etc., but this is all about character development. And it’s a way of doing that development that doesn’t feature in every romance.

I proposed on Twitter yesterday that we need a new test to capture this quality, namely a way to celebrate when the hero and heroine (or hero/hero, heroine/heroine, etc.) have a conversation about something other than their respective personal histories or romantic relationships.

I suggested calling this the Dashwood Rule. I was thinking about a scene in a Sense and Sensibility adaptation in which Margaret Dashwood defends her mother’s cousin and his mother-in-law, saying, “I like them. They talk about things. We never talk about things.” But Miranda Neville pointed out that the “things” Margaret likes are the characters talking about people, love, scandal, gossip, and so on, which is sort of the opposite of what I mean. So perhaps it needs a different name.

But regardless I think we should recognize and celebrate romance in which characters talk, really talk, about art, music, philosophy, history, sports, beliefs, and ideas of all kinds–in which, in other words, all the things that we love about our partners in real life get represented on the page.

So the Dashwood Rule*: live it, learn it, love it.

* Or whatever we decide to call it.

Book-Ends

(This is the latest in a series I’ve been writing about how we read, why we read, and what we read. It’s, um, a bit ponderous. These things happen.)

Over at Dear Author today, Janet writes about how the specialness of books should be determined by readers:

If anyone should be deciding whether books are special, it should be readers. No, let me correct that. Anyone can believe that books are special. Authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, marketing advocates – whoever. But the only people who should be deciding for readers if and when and which books are special, are readers.

I agree with this whole-heartedly, as I do with most of the piece. Books are consumer goods whose use value is determined by the reader. Their worth isn’t intrinsic. While gatekeepers like marketers, reviewers, booksellers, teachers, academics, and other readers influence these determinations–insofar they shape our taste and teach us how to read/make meaning from texts at all–it is ultimately the individual with the book on her couch or on the subway who decides if Moby-Dick was worth the slog.

To the extent that anything separates books from other consumer goods, it is that books in their physical or digital form are unfinished. We must decode them. And I do think that the reading experience provides a more intimate communion with books than consumption does with many other consumers goods. When I read, I have a reading voice in my head that repeats every word (or every few words if I’m skimming). I literally re-articulate everything the writer transcribed (and which editors, formatters, etc. shaped) and then filter it through my education, my past reading experiences, my mood, and so on in order to decide what it means. This is a somewhat different experience than eating an apple, wearing a shirt, or even looking at a picture.

I don’t think that my Moby-Dick is necessarily your Moby-Dick. And my Moby-Dick isn’t the same as when I first read the novel seven years ago. Today’s would be shaped by the first and the subsequent reading experiences. A rose is a rose is a rose: the first rose isn’t the last.

We must “finish” other consumer goods, of course, either by assembling them (e.g., Ikea furniture), making things out of them (e.g., groceries), etc., and we do have to decode other cultural goods, like film, music, and television, but books have always seemed different to me both because I value them more but also because the process takes longer. I’m a fast reader, but it still takes me four to eight hours to read a 70,000-100,000 word novel. I’m going to spend a lot of time with the writer (and the editor, etc.) in my head. And the form in which I’m going to experience a book is closely aligned with the form in which it was produced. A writer wrote on a page and I’m looking at a page, or a screen as the case may be. This may give books a sort of…liveness that other cultural productions don’t have. (I’m not sure what to call this quality.)

So books aren’t special but they are participatory in a way that marks them among consumer goods.

Continue reading “Book-Ends”