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.