Joanna was too lazy to go out to dinner by herself, so after she washed off the heavy makeup she changed into a nightgown, and then settled down in front of the VCR with a Lean Cuisine, a bottle of Soave, and The Big Chill for company, fully prepared to feel sorry for herself.
Kevin Kline, however, proved to be a wonderful antidote for self-pity, and she was just musing on the definite resemblance between the actor and the mysterious Ryder O’Neal when she heard a crash from Rosie’s apartment next door.
Barbara Bretton, Playing For Time.
This book is a delightful work of historical fiction.
Part of me barely believes this is happening. When do you ever get to see your formative romantic tropes grow up, fighting for their happily ever after?
Oh, hello, Maura Magazine has a new issue! A gorgeous, harrowing piece of fiction by Nick Antosca inspired the incredible cover. Plus: Maura Johnston on rock snobbery; Jess Driscoll on the need for better romance novels; and Jeremy Gordon on action heroes!
I’m in this issue! You should go subscribe and read because my essay is way better than the first time I wrote it. Thanks to Maura for her edits and the fastest turnaround from acceptance to publication, and thanks to Megan for telling me to submit something, even when I didn’t know what to submit.
Year of Romance has just two rules: read more books and write more books. While I was at the library, picking up whatever looked interesting, in addition to a couple of Harlequin paperbacks, I also grabbed Why He Didn’t Call You Back, a dating self-help by Rachel Greenwald.
It’s not a list of symptoms and a course of how to change your life. It’s actually a list of archetypes and personality profiles. I don’t know how helpful it is for women looking for better dates, but as a writer, I found it super-fascinating. There are characters in here, waiting to be made real out of cutesy names, like The Bait & Switcher, The Sadie Hawkins, The Busy Bee.
Greenwald is a dating coach, by way of Harvard Business School, so her gimmick is what she calls the Exit Interview. She calls up failed dates and asks them why, what happened, and what went wrong. Years of these interviews has resulted in an extensive collection of anecdotes (collected in another book, Have Him at Hello) of reasons why some dates fail and some succeed.
Some are basic (she wiped up her spill at Starbucks), some are predictable (I just liked her ass), but there could be a story in all of them. Who is the man and who is the woman who get together and stay together because “her hair smelled like summer camp”? I want to know.
For me to read later, and for Jess - though I’m not sure I can vouch for any of these.
Kimberly Raye, The Sweet Spot (89).
Never underestimate how much worse it can get.
Julie Elizabeth Leto, Fever Pitch (49).
Also true about me.
Julie Elizabeth Leto, Fever Pitch (12).
I’m heterosexual, and I don’t know what this means.
I stayed up late last night to finish reading Time Out by Jill Shalvis. Not because it was amazing or I needed to know how things turned out, but because it was short.
Before I do a review, let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, I started watching As The World Turns. I had never watched soap operas before, the same way I have never read romances before. My mom watched Perry Mason in black and white in the afternoons. I remember a friend’s older sister had a poster of Paul from The Young and the Restless on her wall. (I didn’t know his name, only that he is a blonde, blue-eyed guy, and I still see him on the show, flipping past the channel, so I went for Wikipedia’s List of longest-serving soap opera actors.) She and their mom were the only soap opera fans I knew growing up.
And when I say I started watching As The World Turns, that’s not quite true. I started watching the Luke and Noah storyline, which people had edited out of the show and posted on YouTube. I caught up on years of daily episodes in a single night and could keep up in ten minute chunks with sometimes weeks between. The Luke and Noah storyline was something to be commended on network daytime television, but it wasn’t a priority for the producers. So the way I watched soap operas is still not how other people watch soap operas.
I draw this comparison to explain how out of my depth I felt watching a soap opera then and still feel reading romance novels now. I have no background in how they operate, the archetypes and the tropes. Soap operas look terrible to me. The acting is painful. Let’s not talk about the writing. Everything I know about both, I learned first through a disdain for the genre.
My mom read romances when she was a teenager, but only ever when she was babysitting. The mom of one of her regular charges had whole shelves of the books, and my mom would read one in an evening while the kids were asleep. We didn’t have them in our house when I was growing up.
When I worked my factory job, I’d see the other ladies reading paperback romances. There was a box of them in the locker room, a kind of primitive book swap. I would pick them up, skim through, but there was nothing about the long-haired, kilted men on the cover which enticed me. I wanted to read “real” books. I went through all the obnoxious literary phases in high school: Greek myths, Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare, the Beats. I read a single V.C. Andrews on a dare from a friend.
Today, I’m more likely to be found reading a non-fiction book about salt or Robert Kennedy or 50-year-old family-run diner. I keep writing love stories, but the harder thing is finding ones I like to read.
Apologies to Jill Shalvis, but Time Out isn’t it either. I enjoyed how she bucked the stereotype of dudes with weird names and named the hero Mark and the heroine Rainey. There were many wonderful and interesting supporting characters. I loved Mark and Rick’s dad, Ramon, who was living in his new house (rebuilt after it burned) with no furniture because he hadn’t found anything new he wanted to buy. I loved Pepper, one of the teenage girls on the softball team and the keeper of Mark’s swear jar. They didn’t all get a lot to do in such a short book, but they made the world real.
But when you make a fictional world real, non-fiction problems can’t be ignored. Late in the story, at a fundraising bachelor auction, where Mark puts up his NHL players for bidding, he also ends up on the stage. Rainey tries to buy him, in some kind of misguided proof of true love, but is quickly outbid by the celebrities, socialites, and one “woman producer.”
This one line, one description of a character with no name, no dialogue, and no purpose beyond plot obstacle, poked me at the back of my brain for the rest of the book. It’s unnecessary, to begin with, to define a producer as a “woman producer.” The word “producer” works fine. English can be helpfully efficient when it wants to be. To quantify this producer as female assumes that people reading the book will read a producer as male. Which is even more offensive, because the majority audience of a Harlequin book is female.
But when you put this one sentence (one sentence, folks, and I’m already onto my third paragraph ripping it apart) into the context of a bachelor auction, to quantify this producer as female is also homophobic. Because it says only women are allowed to bid on dates with men. Not only says, but in a wholly prescriptive way, it prevents any reader from reading otherwise.
It’s a little thing. I imagine most readers would pass it by, the same way the writer and the editor passed it by. Because they’re probably used to it. If this isn’t their first romance novel, they’ve seen this kind of thing before. Time Out isn’t my first, but I’m still new enough to the genre that something as small as “woman producer” stops me up short.
I don’t know enough to let it go as “just one of those things.”
It’s a little thing. But in a book by a woman, written for women, and read under the covers by the daughters of women, don’t tell me the little things don’t count. Don’t tell me this cover isn’t racist. Don’t tell me we don’t deserve better love stories. I’ll tell you you’re wrong.
Jill Shalvis, Time Out (196).
Jill was doing so well. Then she busts out the unnecessary gender quantifier, which, in the context of a bachelor auction, also comes off homophobic. Little things are never really little.
After that, it was a blur of frenzied movements. She ripped his shirt off, he unzipped, and together they freed the essentials.
And oh God, the essentials…
Jill Shalvis, Time Out (78).
And oh God, I have a new favourite euphemism.
"Wait," she managed to say.
His lips were trailing down the side of her face, along her jaw, dissolving her resolve as fast as she could build it up. “Wait…or stop?”
She had no idea.
He bit gently into her lower lip and tugged lightly, making her moan.
"Stop," she decided.
"Okay but you first."
She realized she was toying with the button of his jeans, the backs of her fingers brushing against the heat of his flat abs. Crap!
Jill Shalvis, Time Out (64).
I’m not posting this passage because it’s particularly good. But because it’s not at all what I expected when the hero dragged the heroine into a storage closet.
I could think of nothing more fitting than reading Pride and Prejudice as the first book of my Year of Romance, the year I finally figure these romance novels out and how I can write one better. But when I did some quick research, I discovered there is something more fitting: January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication. Like every great love story, it was meant to be.
It wasn’t meant to be when I was in school. We did Jane Eyre in grade 9, but I remember picking up Pride and Prejudice off the same classics rack at the library. I didn’t finish it.
In university, it was assigned as a compare/contrast with Bridget Jones’s Diary. We read them concurrently—not the whole books, but specific chapters which highlighted the connection between the two books. I read what was assigned, which means I didn’t finish it.
There’s a lot wrong with doing an English degree. The worst of it is slogging through books because you have to. (The worst of the worst is reading Frankenstein three semesters in a row because professor don’t talk to each other.) But the same way I couldn’t write a novel until I was ready to write a novel, I couldn’t read Pride and Prejudice until I was ready to read Pride and Prejudice.
I was ready this time. It grabbed me, and I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what makes it great. Because I want to make my books great, too.
This year is about figuring out how to write the kinds of books people want to read, not just me. I’ve started to tell people that I write books about normal people with boring lives, and then they fall in love. I don’t write about dragons or wizards, spies or hunters, aliens or pilots. A happy everyday life is about all the fantasy I can handle right now.
Mixed in with my History of Romance Novels syllabus, I’m reading recent contemporary books, too. The ones which look interesting at my local library, which basically means the ones with modern typography and are also often about women who bake.
After I finished Pride and Prejudice, I tried to read Fool For Love by Beth Ciotta. Right away, I didn’t like the heroine. I didn’t like the way she defined herself by the failure of her recent break-up, instead of the victory of her recent graduation from culinary school. She whined about leaving New York for a small town, she whined about the job handed to her, she whined about cupcakes. (Speaking of which, can we be done with cupcakes now?)
But none of this means our heroine deserves to grabbed and kissed against her will in a vulnerable and half-dressed moment. This is the first kiss from the two we know are destined to fall in love by the book’s end. This is where I stopped.
Perhaps it was the abrupt change from Austen’s Regency era discretion to Ciotta’s casually explicit language, but there were moments in Fool For Love which made me feel like a prude. I wonder if, like cable television did for network, Fifty Shades has made it OK for romance novels to drop random descriptions of hard cocks into the narrative. When characters are sitting in restaurants and eating dinner.
I want to read the dirty parts as much as the next girl. But there’s a way to write it that doesn’t make me feel like I accidentally changed the channel.
When I put down Fool For Love, I picked up How Sweet It Is by Sophie Gunn. Our heroine is a single mother, living in her run-down childhood home and working at the local diner. Our hero, a man passing through town, trying to escape the worst day of his life: a car accident, which killed someone.
There’s a lot going on here, with a missing bag of money, a mysterious white cat, a long-lost father, sibling rivalry, and accidental pregnancies. None of it really went together, but it all carries me along to the happy ending.
But I didn’t care whether our heroine and our hero got their happy ending. I didn’t hate Lizzie and Tay, but I didn’t like them either, and that’s the bigger fault. Characters can lead boring lives, but you have to give the reader something they can hold on to, something in them a reader can love.
Lizzie is a good mom. Tay is a remorseful person. That probably works for someone else, but it didn’t work for me. What I realised, though, is that it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. There are hundreds of romance novels published every year, which means there are hundreds of characters. By the law of large numbers, one of them will be exactly what you want. Every romance novel is another blind date.
This is also why it appears to be so easy to publish in the romance genre. The market demands more stories, more characters, more voices.
It’s my first lesson of my Year of Romance: the reader has to care about these people. It’s not an interesting story with social commentary. It’s a love story. You can throw as many fancy balls, overly-frosted cupcakes, and bags of money at the plot, but romance isn’t built on plot. It’s built on character. Two characters, actually, that a reader can love and root for and want to invite into their lives. So make them good.
Page 35, and this book is already pissing me off. I’m going to sleep.
(This is another He. Not the main He. God forbid.)
— She’s a chef; he’s a beefcake. Get it?