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.

bow down before the beta reader

A beta reader is somebody who volunteers to read work at an early stage, when the ride is going to be rocky. Like those daredevil types who test new airplanes, a beta reader survives on curiosity and faith.

Some people have the interest and generosity of heart to be beta readers, but are otherwise not experienced enough to be of much help. And a beta reader has to have some knowledge of your genre to be really helpful.

If you’re writing a book about a place and/or time that is not within the sphere of your personal experience, a beta reader who is familiar with those things is really necessary. You may manage with a huge amount of research, but you will miss things that a good beta reader will pick up. Even if you’ve already sold the novel you’re working on and have a great editor at your publishing house, it’s unlikely that your editor will know enough about (say) New Orleans in 1814 or the things Baptist church ladies in the Deep South are most likely to argue about.

Writing a second book set in the Deep South, I am a little more comfortable than I was last time — in some ways. But then again, Tied to the Tracks was centered around a small liberal arts college, and that is an environment I know very well. In some ways Pajama Jones is much more of a stretch. So beta readers? Absolutely necessary.

My Pajama Jones beta readers are friends, a married couple who live in the south. Between the two of them they can identify pretty much every misstep, but better still: they send me links to local newspaper stories and classified ads that provide excellent and genuine detail. And they don’t laugh at my Yankee mistakes. They are firm, but kind. No, I may not have these men playing touch football. Absolutely not, not in that town at that time. No, that is not how you address a preacher from that church. And so on.

Thus I am very aware of the debt I owe to my beta readers. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I really should have paid more attention

I did an email interview with a reporter from our local paper, which ran today as I am reading/signing at Village Books tonight.

The tone is a little more candid than I would have hoped for, because I answered the email questions in a hurry, as I remember now, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room with the mathematician. It didn’t occur to me (and it should have) that my answers might show up word for word.

Here’s the link, if you care to have a look. As is always the case with newspaper links, it is free now but won’t be in a week or so.

writ large

Via Fuse #8 (and sometime maybe she’ll explain to us what Fuse #8 means) an interesting essay on the art of the book review by Brian Doyle who is the editor of Portland Magazine. This essay itself is written in a grandiose, generous voice by somebody who can poke fun at himself:

… or meeting a writer of startling grace and power whose stories stitch and braid into your heart — a Helen Garner, a Haruki Murakami. Or meeting again, with a shiver of warm recognition, writers who mattered to you once and who leap right back to the top of that teetering pile of books on your bedside table: Willa Cather, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, Eudora Welty. Or, another grinning low pleasure, reading a review and recognizing that brassy pub-argument voice, cocksure about writerly rankings — a voice I drift into myself, I confess, when I insist, banging my tankard, that Twain is the greatest of all American writers, and Bellow the greatest of modern ones, and Stevenson the most broadly masterful of all.

On the best of the genre:

And it is a form with masters, like John Updike (whose book reviews are literary essays of exquisite grace and erudition, far more interesting and pithy than his novels, with far less neurotic, lusty misadventure) or Christopher Hitchens (whose reviews are energetic, opinionated, bristly, tart and often hilarious), or James Wood (who is almost always startlingly perceptive and who, bless his heart, coined the happy phrase “hysterical realism” to describe much modern fiction).

And the not-so-wonderful:

And like any form it has its charlatans and mountebanks; what is more entertaining, among the dark pleasures of reading a newspaper, than realizing that the reviewer has not actually read the book in question, and is committing fizzy sleight-of-hand? Or reading a review that is utterly self-indulgently about the reviewer, not the book? Or a review that is trying desperately to be polite about a book with as many flaws as the New York Knicks? Or reading a reviewer, like Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, who must spend hours every day sharpening razors with which to eviscerate the books she reviews, and has liked, as far as I remember, only two books in the history of the universe, Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” and Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”?

My one quibble here is that I do not consider it a pleasure of any kind to realize that a reviewer hasn’t read the book — especially as this has happened to me personally (and by somebody reviewing for a paper in Oregon, by coincidence). My reaction had more to do with disgust and anger.

The article will disappear at some point into the pay-for-view archives, so read it while it’s hot.