June 11, 2006 - Issue #228

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher: Those "F" Books

Quick show of hands, when was the last time you started a really awful book? I mean one of those books that reaches the top 100 worst books of your experience.

Great. Keep those hands up if you made it through the first half of the book.

Quite a drop off, but I see there are some stubborn readers among us. Keep your hands up, if you read the first three quarters of the book. Hmm. Most of you thought this one was not worth finishing. No matter. .

Now here is the million dollar question. Has anyone finished a really bad book lately? I mean a really terrible one, one of the top one-hundred worst of your life. Hmm. I seem to see a lot of AAR reviewer hands up there. Anyone else? Anyone?

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You may think I’m not serious but I thought of this little exercise while finishing my latest review book, Colleen Thompson’s The Deadliest Denial. I've seen the book in quite a few bookstores lately. It’s getting pretty good shelf space and is often one of the new books displayed with the cover showing. Presumably someone is buying it. Is anyone finishing it?

One reason I ask is this. I left off reviewing regularly about four years ago. Though I'd continued to read romance at a steady pace, it wasn't until I started to review again that I was forced to do what reviewers must do...finish horrible books. The Deadliest Denial was the worst book I have read in four years, not because it is the worst book I picked up in four years, but because it’s the worst book I finished. And because it’s the worst one I finished, it’s also the one that I remember.

While it is true that a review is just one person’s opinion, The Deadliest Denial had me wondering. Among those of us who started this book, what percentage of readers made it all the way through? It’s not hard to understand why someone would buy the book. The story has a crackerjack first chapter where the heroine wakes up early one morning to find that her husband has been arrested for planning to murder her. A casual reader, browsing in Borders, could easily read the opening pages and come to the conclusion that Thompson's story was worth buying.

In her review of Cassie Edwards' Silver Wing, Blythe Barnhill wrote that every bad book was different. Silver Wing was bad on every single page. It’s been ages since we reviewed Cassie Edwards here at AAR. We stopped because following one F book with another began to seem like overkill. Reviewing her books used to be a kind of rite of passage for new AAR reviewers, but we could not find a reviewer who liked her. Over the years I have occasionally read posts by people who like her books, but not too many. Presumably they do finish her books. But I also wonder how many new readers Cassie Edwards gets with each new book. The covers on them are clichéd but curiously intriguing. Even with all those F reviews I remember looking forward to my turn to review her, not because I expected the book to be terrible - but because I secretly thought an Indian hostage romance might be sexy and exciting, even if the Indian was a blonde.

Reading The Deadliest Denial reminded me of what is at the bottom of the romance barrel. Unfortunately books like this are the exception that proves the rule when it comes to critics outside romance who are sure they know the genre without bothering to read it.

During my four-year reviewing hiatus, I barely noticed the worst of romance novels except to chuckle over the occasional bad review. I discussed romance. Read hundreds of reviews and lots and lots of posts. The worst of romance barely showed up on my radar because when I hit an awful book, I put it aside.

Was I in denial or, was I getting a better picture of the genre because I was not focusing on what was terrible? I have to admit that during that time I think I judged mediocre books more harshly than when I was reviewing really awful books. When a book irritated me, as Donna Kauffman’s The Cinderella Rules did, with its completely inaccurate depiction of the social scene in Washington, DC, I was more annoyed than I would have been if I had just finished The Deadliest Denial.

I always wonder this when I read a particularly harsh criticism of a basically reliable writer on AAR's Review Board. I cannot help but consider if taste is relative and that this poster would be less harsh if she had just read a book like Passion by P.F. Kozak, "the most boring book” reviewer Leigh Thomas had read in years, or Phoebe Conn's Midnight Blue, which Blythe just reviewed. Conn's book features a hero who thinks the heroine is incredibly sexy right after she has given birth. Blythe wrote, “While I can believe that Angelina Jolie could probably look hot mere hours after childbirth, with the help of able and expensive make-up artists, I simply can’t believe that anyone else would look sexy. (If you disagree, and in fact looked like a ravishing temptress five hours after you had your child, please post about your experiences at www.youarelying.com.)”

But while most of us who read romance barely notice the worst of it, everyone else seems slightly obsessed with the idea that romance is all “the worst.” Am I completely crazy or does the general public find it find it deeply satisfying to believe that romance novels are either all stupid or mostly stupid?

Not long ago I ended up in a message board conversation about the New York Times list of the poll for the “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." This poll of a select group of literary fiction writers and critics served up a list of books that were overwhelmingly written by white men. I’ll spare you my remarks about that list, but tell you that I did end up mentioning that literary fiction has become a genre in itself. I also said that a good romance novel is as good, on its own terms, as any other kind of book, and that the domination of literary fiction by men may explain why so many women flock to romance.

The mostly outraged reactions to my post were predictable but interesting. First off most readers seemed to want to believe that I was trying to push a romance novel as the best literary fiction of the last 25 years. It seemed to fit with their mind set on romance readers being too brain dead to understand the difference between the two kinds of writing. The next interesting thing was the supposed “insights” people in the discussion had about romance novels. I was told, for example, that romance novels are based on fairy tales and there was a lot of intellectual discussion about this that was presumably supposed to go right over my head.

When I read the fairy tale post all I could think of was this, how the heck does this guy know? Has he ever read a romance novel? My response was that romance novels are more like the old TV series Moonlighting or the movie When Harry Met Sally.

But it didn’t really matter what I wrote. With one wonderful exception, the people reading my posts seemed to want to believe that the understood more than I did about the genre, even though most of what they knew seemed to date back to 1980.

One of the points I made was that while I enjoyed romance novels, a small number really were terrible and that these books are funny. But they are funny not only to outsiders, but to romance readers themselves, who, contrary to common belief have a sense of humor and are fairly literate.

And I believe that.

So where, I have to ask, does The Deadliest Denial come from? I’m not really blaming the author Colleen Thompson. No writer wants to write a book that readers won’t enjoy. But surely the editors and publishers of this book, who read it cover to cover, must have known it needed another draft? Why on earth did this book make it to publication with lines like “The words hardened into jagged pebbles in her throat.., “ and “She shook her head, lying as reflexively as an eye blinking to avoid a finger,” sprinkled throughout? Incidentally, these were not phrases I highlighted; I simply opened the book to two random pages and there they were.

Did the editor of The Deadliest Denial believe that its readers would stick it out until the end? Did they believe they were catering to some reader taste that remains outside our view?

I could be completely off. AAR has not found a reviewer who enjoys Fern Michaels books and yet she hits the best seller list so often that she obviously has repeat readers. On her last try of Michaels', AAR's Ellen Micheletti: “I know Fern Michaels is popular, but for the life of me I can't figure out why. All the time I was reading Kentucky Rich, I was mentally editing it in my head, but finally I concluded that there was no way to salvage it.”

Fern Michaels' popularity causes me to wonder whether her books serve to reinforce the popular concept of romance novels, as do perhaps the works of Nicholas Sparks, who seems to inhabit rarified world of writers who get to write below average romance novels in hard cover. I would like to say that I cannot begin to imagine why, but the only answer that comes to mind is that Nicholas Sparks books are directed at readers who have a taste for romance but don’t want to actually read genre books. And (I am going to catch it for this) like Robert James Waller, of Bridges of Madison County fame, he’s a man.

So I put it to all of you, when is the last time you read a book you would have marked “F” and what was it?

Do you finish really awful books and if you do, do you remember them?

Do you agree that really bad romance novels seem to hit some kind of satisfying chord with the general public? Do bad romances fill some kind of need people have to bash them? Can you think of some examples?

Are there qualities that almost assure you will hate a book? If so, what are they?

Robin Uncapher

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