Meh.

I’ve had something rolling around in my head for a while since Dear Author asked, “What’s wrong with a C Review?” More recently, a discussion at Racy Romance Reviews involving a book I must get expanded on the conversation at Dear Author (I have a sneaking suspicion RfP and I are on the same wavelength with regard to this).

To clarify: C means neither good nor bad, but average.

To me, an average book = meh = forgettable. In my opinion, if a book is forgettable, it didn’t finish the job it started. What I haven’t figured out yet is if a book is so bad it’s not possible to forget, did it do its job?

I’m trying to distill this out for myself, but I’m reading a lot of books lately that are meh. In fact, they are so meh I forget I was reading them the minute I turn my ebook reader off to tend to other things. As I said on the Dear Author thread, I found a dozen books by bestselling authors that I didn’t remember buying and, worse, that I didn’t remember reading until I scanned the blurbs. Mind you, these are books that got high marks at Dear Author and Smart Bitches (I know, ’cause I went back and looked).

Now we have DocTurtle reading a Harlequin Blaze as a challenge by Smart Bitches to read a “real romance” and see how wonderful it is. Turns out he’s having fun, but not of the type everyone expected. He seems to read in fits and starts, so obviously it’s not keeping his eyeballs glued to the pages, unless that’s the type of reader he is, which I don’t know.

So what is this meh? Where’s it coming from? One of the last non-meh books I read was Ann’s because it was so damned different. What made it different?

I’ll tell you what made it different. She broke all the “rules.” Somewhere, somehow, with the evolution of RWA and its sister organizations and their writing workshops, easier access to agents and editors, more stringent-yet-vague criteria on how to write a query letter, and more propagation of some writing “rules” (the ones that would get you a D in any college creative writing course–ask me how I know), there’s been some weird homogenization. (And I started noticing this really begin to gather steam in the early ’90s.) Yeah, you can have unique plot devices or tried-and-true plot devices done differently, but essentially, the voice has become the same: same meter, same literalness (thanks, RfP) to supposedly make for clarity, and same explanation of things that I (Random Reader with a modicum of intelligence) don’t have to be told and would have rather inferred or been left wondering.

Tired, y’all. I’m tired of reading the same stuff over and over again. Even the stuff I’m getting mad at and simply not finishing–one reason is because the voice is tired on top of other problems. Everybody’s taking voice lessons from the same singing teacher out of the same songbook. The only reason I remember any of these books is to say, “Oh. That.” And off it goes to be archived on CD or in the box to take to the used bookstore–without finishing. One book I’ve been looking forward to reading and bought on its release date (because I had it on my calendar as a reminder) was a real let-down.

This “write from the heart and you’ll get sold if you try hard enough” cheerleading? Bullshit. Don’t write from the heart; write from the rules. Write what the gatekeepers tell you to write and, more importantly, how they tell you to write it. Obviously, lots of people love it, and I am the High Priestess of Capitalism, so I’m not arguing with an established market.

But…if everyone’s following the rules, how do you know the reading public wouldn’t like what you wrote from the heart? I know how you know. The gatekeepers won’t buy it because why mess with the homogeneity of voice? People like it; people buy it. [Insert philosophical plug for doing things independently, but that's not what this post is about.]

Nothing, but nothing, makes me realize how homogenized the romance voice has become until I read something different. Kristan Higgins’s books were different and I enjoyed them muchly (although I heard some whisperings they weren’t romance so much as women’s fiction/chick lit and honestly I don’t know what the hell difference it makes). Ann’s, of course. Laura Kinsale, always.  Eva Gale, who came here as a poster (never heard of her before that), whose voice (albeit short pieces) just pushes all my right buttons (not talking about the erotic aspect, either).

Remember, I’m not talking about archetypes, plots, and themes. I’m talking about rhythm, word choice (e.g., the obsessing over avoiding “be” verbs and adverbs that spawns ridiculously tedious prose), dialog tags, over-explanation, and, yes, punctuation, which is one of the biggest tools in keeping your rhythm and singing in your own voice.

RfP said it best over at Racy Romance Reviews:

My most frequent complaint lately is that genre romance has no voice: it’s overly literal and can over-explain mundane detail to the detriment of style. Some of my favorite novels include more impressionistic passages in which I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, but they’re wonderfully referential and evocative.

I mean, come on. If I’ve noticed it and other people have noticed it enough to remark upon it and complain about it (and we’re only a fraction of a percent of the reading public), maybe there are a lot more people tired of it than the gatekeepers think.

9 thoughts on “Meh.

  1. Jessica

    Moriah,

    I don’t know if I have read enough romance to feel this sense of homogenization. I am reading a straight single title contemp right now, and, yes, it sometimes does feel like I am reading the same h/h/ over and over again.

    If one necessary component of “success” is “memorable” and if you think a “C” grade means “forgettable”, then, yes, a “C” grade is a Fail. If that’s right, then using the traditional letter scale makes no sense for book reviews.

    I don’t consider being different or memorable a necessary criterion for romantic genre fiction. Like mystery or military fiction, a lot of the conventions are the same, and it’s going to be harder to be unique. I also think that what makes a memorable impression on me may not be good, and what’s good, I may forget. That’s just a point on which you and I disagree, I guess.

    For me, an “F” book would fail in terms of the writing, the plot, the characterization. I guess there’s a level of unoriginality a book can have that can help it to fail, but I’d need more. an F book fails at being a book, in a sense. The author just cannot write a book. I guess that’s how I see it.

    I loved your point about the effect of the conventions and how-to books. Is it standardization to win at the market, or to win at artistic excellence? It sounds more and more like the former.

  2. MoJo Post author

    I don’t see a “meh” grade being a failing grade exactly (although I’ll admit my thoughts haven’t firmed up). I think if you’re not pissed you spent money and time on the book, it shouldn’t be given a fail. I found those books that failed to make me remember them, but I didn’t resent any of them for what I’d spent on them. They were…adequate for what I needed at the time. And that’s okay.

    (I know I’m not explaining this well; I apologize.)

    it sometimes does feel like I am reading the same h/h over and over again.

    Well, that’s not what I’m talking about. The “same” (or similar) hero/heroine is part of the conventions that we love to read, so I’m not going to knock that. I love all the tired devices that get panned all across Romancelandia: the virgin heroine, the bookish heroine (wrt historicals), the tortured hero, the rakiest of all rakes, and billionaires. The angst! oh the angst! Love it. Every last cliche.

    What I’m talking about is this:

    I loved your point about the effect of the conventions and how-to books. Is it standardization to win at the market, or to win at artistic excellence? It sounds more and more like the former.

    That. Standardization. As if all the kids in the class learn and take tests the same way, and you proceed from the point of view that not only can you quantify that, but that you can AND SHOULD force them all to learn/test the same way and expect the same result from each child.

    This is why I’m not remembering these books. This is the homogenization that I’m seeing, which is in the “voice.”

    And I’ll admit I’ve been reading romance for…mmmm, lessee…25 years, and it’s only been in the last 5-10 that I’ve noticed this standardization.

  3. RfP

    yes, it sometimes does feel like I am reading the same h/h/ over and over again.

    Jessica, my complaint about homogenization wasn’t about reused plots or characters. It was about language; more akin to what Rosina Lippi says about authorial voice and character voice. Distinctive language and voice can help well-used plots stay fresh.

    Why must so many romances be written with a plodding, careful clarity suitable for a fifth-grade reading level? I’m not exaggerating: Julie Garwood’s latest, Slow Burn, seems written BY a fifth-grader, it’s so banal and childish.

    Carolyn Jean is conflicted about The Windflower:

    The writing is technically better than most of what I read today in genres. Especially the descriptions. The imagery is just richer, and the authors are always finding fresh ways of saying things instead of resorting to clichés. … [but] toward the end, [I was] skipping huge chunks of that description. … I can’t help but think that if I’d read it as literature rather than romance, I wouldn’t have skipped description. I expected different things from it.

    And Rowena Cherry said today,

    In a Romance, the chess moves have to be easy to explain, and I need to make the point as economically as possible. The actions aren’t the point of the scene. It’s the dialogue that matters. Moving the chess pieces and pawns is busy-ness, although nuances of character and mood can be conveyed depending on whether the actions are decisive or hesitant, whether captures are accompanied by a taunt or a lifted eyebrow or am emphatic clicking of wood on wood.

    I don’t read her as dissing romance readers’ comprehension, but she may be in part adapting her style to a mode of reading that says, “Cut to the chase; don’t make me puzzle it out, slow me down, leave anything un-spelled out, or make me read anything but love.”

    Then there’s my discovery of Georgette Heyer and her unconventional (so to speak) Regencies. Where did that variety go?

    So, what’s going on? Have the super-short category romances killed our appreciation for a slower read? Do we need simplicity to cope with the exigencies and appurtenances of modern life?

    On a positive note, I just finished Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation, and thoroughly appreciated that I couldn’t skim or skip and keep the thread. It’s a while since I said that about a romance.

    BTW, MoJo, is your RSS feed acting up? I haven’t seen an update in Google Reader since “Kansas City: LDS temple”.

  4. MoJo Post author

    BTW, MoJo, is your RSS feed acting up? I haven’t seen an update in Google Reader since “Kansas City: LDS temple”.

    I don’t know, but thanks for telling me. I need to figure out how to fix that, if I even can.

  5. MoJo Post author

    Why must so many romances be written with a plodding, careful clarity suitable for a fifth-grade reading level? I’m not exaggerating: Julie Garwood’s latest, Slow Burn, seems written BY a fifth-grader, it’s so banal and childish.

    I’ll second that, although I can’t speak to this particular book and it’s been so long I read JG, I can’t remember any complaints about her anyway.

    I’m reading a book right now (self-published–I gotta write a review of this book because it’s truly brilliant in a self-effacing sort of way) that disguises the description of male and female reproductive parts in the operations manual of a nuclear reactor and it’s hilarious. You don’t have to “get it,” but if you do, it’s a hoot! It’s not explained, never explained and I love that. Then he disguises sex as a description of how nuclear reactor parts go together and I was rolling on the floor.

    Likewise, I was told that in several places in my novel, I needed to explain *exactly* what happened/what the character did, or explain it sooner, or make it more explicit (not the sex, but whichever incident) and I disagreed. Some ambiguity is good. I like ambiguity. If you, Random Reader, get it, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s okay–you don’t need to.

    Re the Carolyn Jean quote:

    I can’t help but think that if I’d read it as literature rather than romance, I wouldn’t have skipped description. I expected different things from it.

    See, to me, that’s very telling, but probably a different discussion. If you slap a different cover on it and file it differently, does it make it any less a romance?

    Re the Rowena Cherry quote:

    In a Romance, the chess moves have to be easy to explain, and I need to make the point as economically as possible.

    and your point:

    Have the super-short category romances killed our appreciation for a slower read?

    I don’t think it’s the category romance line that’s doing it–or at least not completely–because those have always been around. In the 70s and 80s you had these sweeping epics that were selling like hotcakes alongside the categories, so that can’t be the whole reason.

    But something IS driving this and somewhere along the line word count became king. When I was writing and submitting novels in the 90s, 100-120k was a long novel, but perfectly within the guidelines at every house that bought romance. Now…100k is the outlier if not the outlaw. I’d sure hate to chalk it up to simple cost-cutting, but I can’t think of what else it could be.

    The more broad advice is to “write tight.” You know what? You can do that and still have a long, perfectly wonderfully long novel.

    Do we need simplicity to cope with the exigencies and appurtenances of modern life?

    Not in my reading, I hope! I can streamline my life somewhat; my favorite word is “no.” But in the late 90s, early 00s, when romance began to fail me, I went elsewhere and I sought out long, complex novels. I came back to romance periodically only to find it was getting less and less what I wanted to read, but I read it anyway just to make sure I wasn’t judging too harshly (plus, I love romance; it’s the only “genre” I read). To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I didn’t leave romance, romance left me. It’s still leaving me, even now when I’ve acclimated to the length, it’s the banality and/or the explicitness (NOT the sex!) of every single “chess move” that’s getting to me.

    In that Carolyn Jean conversation, she says:

    This plot was way richer and more panoramic than the genre literature I’m used to, and that was an absolute improvement. I liked that there were more balls spinning, more moving parts in terms of cause and effect and hidden motivations, more complexity, and numerous loose ends tied up.

    That. More, please.

    Although I see Crazy Little CJ wasn’t thrilled, so now my next question is: Is it too late to go back for those readers who are of this generation of romance novels? Short and sweet and to the point?

    Re Pam Rosenthal:

    Oh, bravo on The Slightest Provocation! And for the same reason!

    I couldn’t finish the first one of hers I read: Almost a Gentleman. That was because I figured out whodunnit very early on and I hate that.

    But I decided to give her another try and damned if I didn’t love The Bookseller’s Daughter, too. You really, really have to slow down with her and savor her words to get the full flavor of the story.

    Re Georgette Heyer:

    I have yet to dip my toe in this, too. I would have read her in my teens if my mother hadn’t decided she was required reading for the summer and I couldn’t read anything else. Well. You can probably figure out how that went. I found one Georgette Heyer at the thrift store the other day (couldn’t tell you the title and it’s upstairs filed neatly in my TBR), so I’ll be doing that soon.

    Sometimes, when I’m thinking about this issue of banality, standardization, homogenization of voice in romance, I’m wondering if this is just us vet romance readers who are whining about “the good ol’ days” or if we’re the savvy vintage shop owners who are stocking inventory for fashion year now+30.

  6. Eva Gale

    thanks for the plug, sweets. I do have something long, but it has to take a long nap, and I am finishing off a short contemp and first person erotic historical which is written in an 18 century voice. I have a few pages to go on each, then I will be starting another long contemp.

    I have to admit to not reading much genre lately, and for just those reasons. Good post.

  7. RfP

    I’ve had weirdnesses with my RSS feed too. No idea what fixed it, or if it truly is fixed.

    I’m told Garwood’s historicals are better. Honestly, I thought it had to be Garwood juvenilia. (It’s not just me: others reviewed it as “Reads like a children’s book” and “A nice easy read”.)

    I tried Bookseller’s Daughter in a bookstore, and put it down. Maybe it’s another that requires time and focus. I’ll try again.

    As I said on the Gab, I’ve found unusual elements in some Heyers–but not all. Some are tedious, and I don’t mean the history-laden ones. Even hit or miss, though, I’m glad to have discovered her.

    I’m wondering if this is just us vet romance readers who are whining about “the good ol’ days”

    That’s part of it, along with a clash of reading styles. A lot of readers don’t enjoy complex verbiage or plot. Or they’ve come to not expect that in romance…. Chicken, meet egg. Bawk.

    I don’t think it’s the category romance line that’s doing it–or at least not completely–because those have always been around. In the 70s and 80s you had these sweeping epics that were selling like hotcakes alongside the categories

    Yes, right. I wasn’t seriously suggesting we pin everything on the category. Though I do think category has changed; it existed in the ’80s but may not have occupied exactly the same range on the style spectrum.

  8. Ann Herendeen

    This is wonderful. Sorry for coming in on this months (half a year) late!

    But I agree so much with what MoJo and RfP are saying about the homogenization of voice, and things being written at the fifth-grade level. It’s good to see that I’m not alone in my feelings. There are so many books I can’t read because they are, as you say, Meh.

    Of course, the reason I broke all the rules is that I didn’t know them! :) I learned to write (if I “learned”) the way writers in the past learned, by reading; and I found my voice by writing, and hearing the voices of writers I liked in my head while I was doing it.

    I’m going to try to work a couple of quotes from this thread into my talk at the upcoming conference at Princeton, “Love as the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture.”

  9. MoJo Post author

    Ann, are you talking about presenting MY remarks at your panel? I’m just a reader, hon, but wow. I’m honored.

    Good luck with that, too. I’m looking forward to the post mortem!

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