Issue #51 (May 1, 1998)
I just read my very first multicultural romance, and had a thoroughly miserable time of it. That I attribute to poor writing more than anything else, although it did raise a question in my mind. When I see a film about Jewish people, I expect the film to reflect the Jewish experience. When I read a book about gay characters, I expect the book to reflect gay culture. And when I read a book about African-American characters, I expect that book to reflect African-American culture. What I don't expect are characters who could just as easily have been White, Latino, or Asian. This, unfortunately, is what I got.
Am I missing the point? Should a multicultural romance be filled with characters who could be any color but are African-American because the author says they are and they have dark skin? I don't mean a book should be filled with stereotypical behavior that would satisfy a white reader, but when I see a Woody Allen movie about neurotic New York Jews, the characters act accordingly. When I read a gay vampire erotic novel (yes, there are such books, and I started one accidentally but stayed with it anyway), the gay vampire acted as one. He didn't act like a straight werewolf instead. When I read Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, a sci-fi feminist book about a Puerto Rican woman, she lived a Latina lifestyle.
The impression I got from this one multicultural romance was that it was published as a marketing tool to bring African American readers more into the romance market. There's nothing wrong with bringing such readers into the market - it's a great idea. But what came to mind are cigarette billboards, you know, the ones that show African Americans when they're situated in AA neighborhoods and whites in predominantly white neighborhoods. This book could have had a few lines of text changed and could easily have been marketed as a contemporary romance, albeit a crummy one.
I'm not looking for every book with AA characters to be like a Spike Lee film, but I resented feeling as though this book was like a cigarette billboard. I'd like to hear from all kinds of readers about this. Am I missing the boat here? Did I insult anyone with my little rant? What are some good multicultural books to try?
Addeundum dated May 3: Please click here for an addendum on this issue.
The Times, Are They A-Changing?
I think I must be getting old. You have to understand, for me, that's fairly significant. For most of my life, I've always been the youngest. I was a clever child so they "skipped" me into the first grade at age five. I was the youngest first grader, the youngest to grow breasts, the youngest to menstruate, the youngest to graduate, the youngest to start college (barely 17), the youngest to fall in love with my husband, the youngest in grad school, the youngest mid-manager,etc. Frankly, it all stopped when I had my daughter, Rachael, at the age of 30.
Suddenly I was not the youngest anymore. I was more in the middle. Many moms at Gymboree were younger than me, and when Rachael made fast friends in pre-school with Madeline, I became friends with her mom. Now Rachael is six, I'm almost 37, and Madeline's mom isn't, not by a long shot. Ouch.
Being 37, I see things differently than I used to. Part of it is age, part of it is being a parent, and part of it is no doubt due to our hectic schedules these days. We don't stay up late into the night dissecting art films; we probably only saw five first-run movies last year altogether that weren't starring cartoon characters or cars that fly. I have to face it - going to gallery openings and experimental theatre doesn't have the same lure to me as it used to. I'd rather curl up with a good book on most nights than read sub-titles.
In Issue #47 of this column, I ranted about cynicism in modern culture, especially among those who comment on modern culture. I talked about movies that were filled with a lack of hope, that were dark rather than light, and how things romantic are looked upon with disdain by critics. And how every time a "woman's" movie, chick flick, or romance does well at the box office, it's suddenly a big surprise. I spoke as well about how many critics panned the love story in James Cameron's Titanic, and how those same critics lauded Breaking the Waves, a film I found disturbing and distasteful. This ties into romantic fiction, of course, and I wondered whether this cynicism is one of the reasons the books we love to read are looked down on.
When I asked for comments by readers, I assumed they would be in response to my comments, but most readers had rants of their own to get off their chests which veered a bit off course. After having read them, I realized of course that it was likely not culture which was becoming more cynical, but that I myself had changed. I've grown more cynical myself. But, at the same time, I've grown softer, and that's because I now see the world through the eyes of a child. Most people who know me, of course, know that I'm rather child-like myself - I love toys, I love to fingerpaint, and I can throw a tantrum with the best of them!
As an adult, we spend a lot of time dealing with people who lack pride in their work, who couldn't make the right change without a cash register that has pictures on it instead of numbers, who are rude, who live life as thought they were on the Jerry Springer show. So, when I choose to sit down with a book, I want to forget all of that, and experience the kind of pure delight my child experiences when she's on the swing set in the side yard. That's why I read romance - to forget about the daily grind of life.
For some, this is apparently not a good enough reason to read a book. In this age of 24-hour sports channels, 24-hour game show re-run channels, there are those among us who say that reading romance is a waste of time. If you read a book or see a movie, it should do more than entertain, it should delve into the dark recesses of the human soul and/or psyche and provoke a profound response. It's not enough for a book or movie to make you laugh, cry, feel hope or love, it must also stimulate you intellectually. That's the impression I get from many critics. That's apparently the impression many of you get as well. Here's what some of you had to say, in as roundabout a fashion as my comments have been.
Some of the far-afield yet intriguing comments were made by some of my more literary readers, readers such as Emily, from whom I learned a great deal:
"I'm not all that interested in what the critics have to say about the books I love. I have reasons for ignoring what the critics say, largely historical ones. Chaucer was considered rather lowbrow because he wrote in English rather than Latin, and he's considered the father of English literature. Dante was considered an idiot for writing in Italian, yet he's read more today than any of his Latin writing contemporaries. Shakespeare was the author of soap operas by contemporary standards. Historically, it's unusual for "great writers" to be considered great by their contemporaries. And as for those contemporary critics, well, they're usually not remembered at all.
"I don't think that the critics today are quite clued in to what truly makes a classic book either. After all, how many people read William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway for fun? Yet from the same time period, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer are all still popular, and they were great popular successes too. Funny how these things work, huh?
The great "literary" writers are still published yes, but no one reads them for fun. The great popular writers are still read and enjoyed, and it's all for fun. Oddly enough, that pattern tends to hold true throughout history. Shakespeare, Dante and Chaucer (as well as just about every other "classic" author) were popular authors, not literary. Now, if the critics were so clever and excelled at predicting what would become a classic, they would give raving reviews to work that was popular. But critics aren't looking for what is popular and destined to become a classic, they're looking for what is interesting to someone with their high degree of literary knowledge, and such things tend not to interest us mere mortals."
TJ wrote, "The reason why relationship aka romance is so successful in a movie is that we all have relationships. We have relationships with parents, sisters, brothers, lovers, husbands, wives, etc., etc. When we see a movie or something, we want to see the relationship and how people interact with one another. Perhaps that's why it's so hard to remember a movie with nothing but pure action. The X-Files, despite its rather unconventional plots, is very popular because of the relationship between Mulder and Scully. If they weren't there, the show wouldn't have the popularity it has right now. Just look at all popular TV shows and movies. They all have strong relationships in them. Whether the relationship is romantic or not is another question entirely, but I think that the movie makers and critics should be aware that the viewers are tired of watching a wasted manic depressive loser and exploding buildings."
AAR Reviewer Ellen's comments were along the lines I'd expected when writing that initial column, and I think they are well taken as well. She wrote, "I don't think that the vast majority of the public is cynical. I do think that there is a certain group of critics who are cynical. These are the ones who praise movies like Breaking the Waves to the sky. I agree with you that it was painful and depressing to watch. These are the critics who like their main characters to be anti-heroes and their endings unhappy. Unhappy is more "real" to them. They like their music to have "social significance". Never mind that most songs that people remember are love songs. For example, there's a song from the musical, South Pacific called "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." It's a good song about how people are not naturally prejudiced, but what is the song people sing from that musical? "Some Enchanted Evening" yep, a love song.
Juliet's comments very nearly mirror my own.
"Laurie's rant started with this question: Why do critics often seem to think that any book,play,song,or movie that focuses on a romance is necessarily 'lightweight' or not a good example of the best of that art form? And, it isn't only the critics -- I have friends who read mysteries and science fiction but think romances are "simpleminded", "poorly written and predictably plotted", and "an excuse for reading soft-core pornography", and my spouse is convinced that too much romance results in brain rot. I tend to agree with previous posters who speculate that most adults view the world as a difficult place with few uncompromised happy endings, few relationships with great sex, great communication, great mutual empathy and the great good luck that often surrounds and follows the protagonists in romance novels,movies, etc., and many instances of evil, bitterness, tragedy, ignorance, horrible circumstances and overwhelming losses, as well as thousands of everyday neurotic quirks, annoying personal habits, and dumb mistakes. Therefore, since romances idealize love relationships and lovers and often fail to mention, let alone dwell upon, the many irredeemably rotten things that happen in the world, they will not provide:
"Let's face it, romances are definitely sentimental, going for emotional responses, not or not primarily intellectual ones. The romantic story satisfies us because it reinforces powerful but simple ideas: Love can overcome many obstacles, it can redeem, heal, nourish and mature people, it makes life easier to bear, and love can, in fact, give purpose and meaning to life, profoundly enriching the lovers and all who know them. For many, perhaps most, that sort of love is an unattainable ideal, but it's a powerfully attractive one. So, a romance may not make anyone rethink the great questions of the age. It probably won't make the reader see the world or her own life very differently, and it doesn't set any literary styles. By those criteria, most romantic films, novels, songs, etc. are not going to be called great. But great isn't the same as popular, as other posters mentioned. I would argue that romance themes have been enormously popular for a long time. And that popularity means to me that it simply isn't true that "society" is cynical.
- Insights into the human condition
- Perceptive criticisms of our society
- Profound exploration of x ideology, y moral dilemma, or implications of z technological developments (though I would argue
that Jane Austen's books gave her readers both insights and criticisms)
I think that lots of people still treasure the dream of romance and enjoy experiencing some of those feelings vicariously through romantic stories. I don't think that critics are necessarily cynical either; I think that the criteria they use to evaluate the value and impact of a given work are not the same ones I would use to decide whether I want to see or read or hear it. And as Paul McCartney has sung, "you think the world has had enough of silly love songs; I look around and I see it isn't so." The songs, the movies, the books, the TV programs won't stop because we're pretty much all wanting to believe in love.
"I think criticism is bad when it causes somebody to be ashamed of being a romantic and enjoying romantic themes in their entertainment. My own view is that I don't usually feel like exploring the great thoughts, social issues or moral dilemmas of our time when I have a chance to kick back. I want to be entertained, to relax, to escape, to enjoy myself. That's why I read romances. I don't always choose them, but I don't feel ashamed when I do. I don't think most romances are "great art", but I think there are quite a few good romances of all types out there, and I don't think you have to be naive, tasteless, or not very bright to enjoy them. Do I want everything I eat to be "gourmet"? Nope, often I'd as soon have well-made meatloaf."
The lone voice of opposition in this entire discussion was Gillian's. One of her arguments was that there is a vast difference between academic criticism and entertainment criticism, although I believe that certain critics like John Leonard like to cross that line somewhat. I agree with her on that; when I indicated earlier that this discussion had veered somewhat off course, I was referring to many of the comments being directed at academic critics rather than entertainment critics. Still, I'm glad the discussion took a fork in the road - it helped me crystallize my own thoughts.
I'm also glad that Gillian posted her dissent; you all know how I love to present "the other side". Well, here it is, and, thanks, Gillian, for making it! Here's what Gillian had to say:
"It seems as though you guys are doing the same thing to "critics" as these mainstream critics do to romance readers. By that I mean that all of the posts I have read so far seem to assume that there is this monolithic group of critics who all think the same. What do people mean when they refer to critics? the people who write book/movie reviews for the major papers? The people who write reviews for things like the New York Review of Books or The New Yorker? Or academic critics, i.e. professors who study literature for a living? Who are the critics who are being lambasted here? To assume that all people who write criticism are saying the same thing is equivalent to saying that all romances are trashy, poorly-written junk. In neither case are we seeing the vast and diverse range which is out there, within both criticism and romance writing.Thanks, Gillian, for putting your own view out there. I don't think we're being reverse snobs here, but there is something to be said for entertainment just for entertainment value. I don't believe that anyone who reads as a hobby could be considered anti-elitist; most of us who read romance read other forms of fiction and non-fiction. Many of us who read historical romance are also students of history. In fact, I've found that readers of romance who frequent the Internet are a fairly intellectual bunch.
"Put me down as someone who really enjoyed both Breaking the Waves and The Last Seduction. I thought they were terrific films. I will agree that Breaking the Waves was by no means easy to watch and it could have completely failed for me. But Emily Watson's performance kept me spellbound. For me, the film was a meditation on faith and an individual's relationship with God. Someone posted earlier that people like to watch relationships, not just romantic but of all kinds. I feel that this film is full of relationships, between Watson's character and her sister-in-law, between Watson and her husband, between the oil riggers and the strict religious villagers. The last scene annoyed me to no end, but that's getting a little off topic.
"The Last Seduction was about a nasty lead character, true. But it was just so much fun to sit back and watch her out think and outsmart every single person around her. The intricacy of that film was what really got me. And the clever writing. Do I think that because I liked these two films and others like them that I'm cynical? I really don't think so. I love romance novels and have been reading them since I was about 12 when I discovered The Flame & the Flower in the bedroom of a friend's older sister. I love romantic films and am much more easily swept up by romantic story lines than my boyfriend. For instance, he remained unmoved by Lady Jane and The Whole Wide World, two films which brought me to tears. Perhaps this is a generational difference (I'm 22). But perhaps it has to do with what you're looking for in books and movies. Do you only want to be entertained? Or do you go wanting to be challenged? I think if you're open to all sorts of experiences, then you can appreciate Breaking the Waves.
"Now, maybe this is because I'm planning to go to graduate school in literature, but I think people are being a little too hard on professors in some of their comments. Shakespeare and Dante might have been considered lowbrow at the time (which I'm not so sure about) but they were certainly not writing purely to entertain. The stories are entertaining but there are whole other levels which require considerable amounts of education to access. Like the references to Virgil in The Divine Comedy or the classical allusions in Shakespeare. Not all great books are scorned by critics when they initially come out. Russia is my field of study and I can tell you that Anna Karenina was not ignored when it first came out. And people do still read these books for fun. I quite liked The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov are probably my two favorite novels of all time.
"I feel that there's this weird anti-elitist, reverse snobbery at work here. But people actually do like the canon. That's why these books are part of the canon. That's not to say that there are many books out there which have been unjustly ignored (women's and minority writing, say) but we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss these great works. And we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the multiple layers of meaning within these books. It's the books that work on multiple levels, that are able to speak to all people that all endure. Much as I love romances or Janet Evanovich's mysteries, I think that maybe of them are too rooted in this time period to be popular in fifty years. Look at how few of the romances from the 70s are still palatable today. I'm not dismissing entertainment and enjoyment as a criterion. I just think you're doing a real disservice to authors to deny them the other facets of their books. And to believe that this doesn't play a role in keeping readers coming back again and again.
What we seem to be saying is that there is a place for entertainment and that there should be a place for entertainment. Not everything you read should have to be a classic piece of literature. There should be nothing inherently wrong with a book that celebrates love and happy endings.
Visiting a Cherished Friend:
I asked awhile ago about how well series of interconnected books work for you. In my own reading, I've discovered that some authors can maintain quality over a series of books while others can't. Some authors seem to write by wrote by book number three, and with other authors, quality is high after five or more books. In certain cases, the author focuses too much on characters from previous books to the detriment of those whose story she is at the forefront, while in other instances our old favorites are a strong complement to the couple we are now being introduced to.
I haven't heard from as many of you as I would have liked. I know how popular family series' are on the Special Title Listings, so please post to the message board when the time is right. Those who have written in so far enjoy connected books. I'll let them tell you why.
Mary wrote that when she gets into a book, its universe becomes her own. "When another book refers to characters in the first book, or have people related to each other, I feel like, 'Hey! This is happening in the real world!' I was very excited when I read a time-travel regency (Step in Time) that had the main male character actually talking to the main male character (though very briefly) from Georgette Heyer's book A Civil Contract. My favorites, though, are family series, perhaps because I'm an only child, and I am a little envious of the sibling relationships that are usually portrayed."
Jennifer was particularly fond of Roberta Gellis' The Roselynde Chronicles because the author "does a wonderful job of developing her charactars and her use of history and setting are wonderful. Each book is complete unto itself, but also forwards the other stories. I love this series and re-read it periodically."
Caprice is "a big fan of the family book series. The best that I've read are by Christine Rimmer (Jones gang) and Curtis Ann Matlock (Breen series). Both series are fantastic. The plots, characters, and dialog are outstanding. Everytime a book is added to the series, its just like a wonderful visit with a treasured friend."
Reading successive books in a series is indeed like visiting a treasured friend according to Jill. She recommends the Barsetshire series by Angela Thirkell even though they are not labelled romance (and yet each book ends with a couple happily paired off). Of the series, she wrote, " The were begun in the 1930's and take place in the mythical English county of Barsetshire originated in the 19th century by Anthony Trollope. The families woven through these books became like old and trusted friends to us. You knew exactly what to expect when Lady Leslie appeared on the scene. In the 29 or so novels of this series these couples would reappear occasionally if only to have the number of children then now had reported on. My friend and I still laugh about some of the scenes from these books and the memorable characters, in another year or so it will probably be time to begin them all over again."
Blythe spoke for many romance readers when she said, "Hearing that a book is part of a series makes me more likely to read it. I like the way that the relationships of secondary charcters can progress over time, and it is especially rewarding to have a charcter you loved from another book reappear. My favorite series is Mary Jo Putney's Fallen Angel series, but I have also enjoyed the Malory books by Johanna Lindsay and Nora Roberts' Born In trilogy. I think my taste for this may have begun as a child reading all of the Anne of Green Gables stories." She added that there is a down side in all this, however, in that it's difficult at times to track down all the books in a series. Glommers know full well of this frustration. I personally have been looking for a trilogy written by Jessica Bryan after having read a Desert Isle Keeper review of Beneath a Sapphire Sea. How long have I been looking? Since the review was written a year or so ago.
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