reading between the lines

I generally avoid reviews, but yesterday I did come across one for Queen of Swords at the Romantic Times Book Reviews site written by Kathe Robin. ((Reviewer Kathe Robin has been working for Romantic Times for something like twenty years; her favorite historical is apparently Gone with the Wind. Which probably explains why she doesn’t like my stuff.))

RT has been pretty kind to the Wilderness novels as they’ve come out, and as I like romance novels and romance readers, that means a lot to me. But there is something in the QoS review that has had me thinking:

You’ll enjoy immersing yourself in their sometimes predictable soap opera world and glory in their triumph over tragedy.

Anybody who has to write recommendations for employees or students is familiar with the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) coded language when you don’t want to come out and say something negative. When I was reading applications to the graduate programs at the University of Michigan I saw a good number of such letters. For example (and I’m making this up):

Mr. Smith is very dedicated to his work. He never missed a class or a deadline, and he listened closely to constructive criticism.

To me this says: the guy’s heart is in the right place, he’s a hard worker but he just doesn’t get the basics, no matter how much time I spent with him.

So now back to the quote from the RT review. There are a couple of very loaded phrases there, specifically predictable and soap opera. Let’s look at these separately.

Predictable is one of those words that is positive only in a limited way. You want the person who delivers your newspaper every morning to be predictable. You want your accountant, your dentist, your bus to be reliably predictable. But predictable is never used as a positive in book reviews. It’s a kind of all-purpose meh, that passive agressive sound you make when you’re irritated.

The truth is, most fiction is predictable in at least a couple ways. You can predict that a romance novel will have a resolution that makes the primary couple happy. You can predict that the detective in a hard-boiled series will clobber the bad guy in the end. You can predict that if Stephen King puts a pie in a story, it will be a strawberry pie. You can predict that the novels that win certain literary prizes will not have happy endings. Thus, predictable is one of those terms that says: there were things about this novel I didn’t like, some turns the author took that didn’t sit right with me. But it would take a lot of time and energy to sort that all out and tell you about it, so here: predictable.

In a historical romance, what would be the opposite of predictable? One possibility: the main character dies on the last page, which pretty much rules out a happy ending. But then it wouldn’t be a historical romance, anyway. In a crime-novel series such as Lee Child’s wonderful Jack Reacher novels, unpredictable would have to involve something like Jack finding religion and enrolling in a seminary. Or Jack coming out of the closet. These things would make the novels less predictable, but they would also ruin all the work Lee Child has put into establishing Jack’s character and m.o.

Soap opera isn’t passive or muted, it’s plain negative. Many people love soap operas and can provide lots of solid reasons for this affinity, but in a book review that uses the term brings with it a whole slew of less than wonderful associations: contrived, repetitive, lurid plots; silly complications; iffy dialog; over the top melodrama, shallow characters. It is as pejorative a term as bodice ripper, which is shorthand for a love story set in the past, of primary interest to women So Ms Robin was out to let blood. She really did not like Queen of Swords, but she pulled out this coded phrase to say so.

Here’s what I wish: that reviewers would drop the shorthand. Instead of predictable or bodice ripper or soap opera, write a sentence that gets to the heart of the problem, the reason the story didn’t work for you. That would be a useful review, for potential readers and for the author, too.

7 Replies to “reading between the lines”

  1. If it is any consolation, I found it neither predictable nor similar to a soap opera. I really enjoyed it! I thought the plot line moved along really well with lots of action, was fascinating and the character development was great.

  2. Ok. I think all the books in the series are romantic, however, they are SO much more than that. I have never had the desire to read “romance novels” and to me these books and especially QofS, is too good to put it into one category. In fact I have never understood how people talk about the sex in your books as erotic. To me the sex scenes were always well placed and full of love (except the barn scene, I think Jamima and the Kirby boy (I am horrible at peoples names) which to me was hillarious. The love scenes were just important to show the love between the characters and the need to be together.
    None of your books are predictable, quite the opposite I am always happily surprised at twists and turns in the story. Soap Opera? Never. I watch soaps and this isn’t in the same universe as soaps.
    Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

  3. Just to be clear: I’m not angry or even very upset. It would be silly to get bent out of shape about something like this. The point was not so much about the QoS review as it was about the nature of reviewing itself.

  4. Actually, what irritates me about reviews like this is the “you’ll enjoy” phrase. If the reviewer enjoyed it, then she or he should say so.

    But this phrase tries to hide a little bit of contempt for the expected audience (“I didn’t like this, but YOU idiots will”) and the work itself behind a “positive” face.

    On a personal level, generalized phrases of this sort Annoy The Crap Out of Me. As in: don’t tell me what I am going to like or dislike about the work. Tell us what you enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy — take responsibility for the review and tell the truth about your reaction.

  5. … having just visited the site, I can see this is presented as marketing-speak rather than an actual review.

    Still, it does sound like a veiled insult to readers in the larger cultural context.

  6. Hmmmm. My guy won’t let me immerse myself and glory in anything unless I drag him in with me and lock the bathroom door.

    As labels go, “predictable” is fairly arbitrary. I’d only call something predictable if I stopped reading in the middle of the book, jotted down how I thought the story would end, and then read on to see if I was right (which I have done as a form of twisted writer self-amusement.) PW uses it as a standard pooh-pooh term in their reviews, and a lot of reviewers like to imitate PW.

    I’ve also noticed that Kathe Robin likes to wrap up a good chunk of her reviews with similar reader-directive/author-swat lines; I particularly remember going Huh? when she labeled a very well-written, delightfully complex historical novel a “feel-good” read.

  7. Lynn — now you’ve done it. I’m going to be constructing sordid sentences around the verbs immerse and glory for days.

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