Issue #88 (February 1, 2000)

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If you're wondering what happened to Laurie's News & Views, it's history. The new title for this column is At the Back Fence, which is probably what it should have been named since its inception nearly four years ago. When Leslie McClain, founder of The Romance Reader, asked if I'd be interested in doing a column, she said, "Why don't we call it Laurie's News & Views?" Though I found it hard to believe anyone would be interested in my opinions, she was the boss, and I said, "Sure."

Many of you have been reading this column since its first issue on March 1, 1996. It's always had an interactive format for readers, authors, and myself to come together and talk about all things related to romance novels. So, it's always been a "back-fence" kind of place. Both long-time readers and newer readers of this column know that it still is a "back-fence" kind of place. And the back-fence always benefits from more voices, new voices.

One of my main goals as publisher of All About Romance is the sharing of ideas, which is why we often feature segments by readers and authors. Another main goal is fostering creativity among its contributors. As this column has aged, I've relied on readers, authors, and AAR contributors to keep it fresh - after all, the equivalent of ten or twelve pages every two weeks, if simply from my mouth, would have gotten old long ago.

Several AAR contributors have lent their talents to segments in this column in recent months with wit, passion, and intelligence. They, as well as the readers and authors we'll continue to showcase in the future, are welcome to continue sharing their ideas in creative ways. But I've asked one AAR contributor, reviewer and canwetalk moderator Robin Nixon Uncapher, to join me in this column. You can still expect a column every two weeks on the same schedule I've adhered to for quite awhile. Most often the column will be a collaboration between Robin and myself, with the same input from readers, authors, and other AAR contributors as now exists. Sometimes, such as with the next column when we present our 1999 AAR Reader Awards, I'll be solely responsible for its contents. And, at other times, Robin will take charge. We plan to be flexible and continue the organic nature of this column, to let topics bubble up from our readers.

Which is what we're doing first.

Labeling & the Multi-Cultural Romance by Laurie Likes Books:
After posting the DIK Review of a multi-cultural romance Saturday, I received an email from Jenny Lim, aka Mrs. Giggles. She wrote:

"About the term M C Romance. What exactly is "multicultural" about these romances? Most African American romances - as far as I see - tell the story of two American Black people falling in love. That's one culture, right?

"This bothers me because I can't help feeling that M C Romance is nothing more than a PC term for "This ain't no romance featuring Caucasians." I'm not accusing AAR of racial bias, for I understand that this practice also applies to many online and published review sites. I understand this is just a standard classification procedure. But the resulting divisiveness between "One Culture/Multiculture" romance shouldn't occur in the first place. Especially when this label is the only one that implies the lead characters' birth and upbringing, whereas other labels divide genres by time frames.

"Should I write a romance featuring Chinese characters, I, for one, wouldn't be too pleased to see my book tagged as a "multicultural" romance. What does that label say to the reader?

"Why not just call a book "contemporary romance?"

The easy answer to this is that AAR is simply following the lead of Romantic Times. And yet, every time a review of a romance "starring" non-White characters is sent to me, I struggle on how to classify it. Indeed, Beverly Jenkin's historicals for Avon are classified here as American Historical/Westerns while most of the other romances we have reviewed which "star" African-American characters have been classified as "multi-cultural."

I'm about to talk out of both sides of my mouth again, so listen closely. On the one hand, I think that "multi-cultural" ought to apply when characters of two cultures fall in love. But that could get messy if you followed this through to its logical conclusion. How would you handle the medieval romances featuring Normans and Saxons, as well as time travel romances featuring characters from two different time periods. And, would we really want to reclassify all those Indian or Native American romances as multi-cultural, especially since so many of them are so bad?

On the other hand, I think that "multi-cultural" helps both the African-American and Latino populations for whom these romances were primarily written. If a romance is written primarily with these groups in mind, labeling them thusly should make it easier for readers in those groups to find them.

But there's a third hand here, and it applies to the ghettoization of books. That second hand implies that only African-Americans or Latinos would be interested in the books written with African-American or Latino characters. I have a similar problem with the appellation "Women's Fiction." By targeting an audience, you are also limiting your audience. We've granted Desert Isle Keeper Status to six "multi-cultural" books, and reviews of five of the six were written by white reviewers. As such, that limiting of audience bothers me.

After having read a disastrously bad romance starring African-American characters, I solicited recommendations and read a couple of other romances considered to be multi-cultural. One I really enjoyed and the other was pretty average. These latter two romances provided some context, whether historical or contemporary, for the culture of its characters, that the first did not. All three books were "multicultural" for me, as a white person, because they featured non-White characters. Is this, then the root of the "MC" label?

Two years before I left my position as a manager at the City of Dallas, "Multi-Cultural Training" became all the rage to personnel departments throughout the U.S. As did other managers, I took these courses, but since half of my handpicked management team and many of my friends were African-American, I didn't learn much from the training. I learned far more from my friendships and day-to-day interaction with these (mostly women) about African-American "culture" than I did in the training. I think within a fairly short time, however, the label given to "Multi-Cultural" Training was changed to "Diversity" Training, which I think is probably a more apt term, because multi-cultural somehow implies that White is the culture.

Of the 18 romances/works of fiction that we have reviewed that might be labeled "multi-cultural," the vast majority of these books feature characters of similar cultures. By that I mean both the heroes and heroines are either African-American or Latino. Very few of these books feature relationships that cross cultural lines in the traditional sense. We've taken our cues from RT as well as from these books' publishers in terms of classifying them.

Below is a listing, including links, of all the books we've reviewed that fall into this murky area. Help us to label them appropriately!

Kathleen CrossSkin DeepCrosses cultural linesDIK status
Eric Jerome DickeyMilk in My CoffeeCrosses cultural linesDIK status
Eric Jerome Dickeyfriends & loversAfrican-American charactersDIK status
Sandra KittColor of LoveCrosses cultural linesDIK status
Sandra KittBetween FriendsCrosses cultural linesDIK status
Eva RutlandNo Crystal StairAfrican-American charactersDIK status
Lynda SandovalLook of LoveLatino charactersGraded B
Beverly JenkinsTopazAfrican-American characters *Graded B-/C
Beverly JenkinsTaming of Jessi RoseAfrican-American charactersGraded C+
Angela BensonBetween the LinesAfrican-American charactersGraded C+
Beverly JenkinsThrough the StormAfrican-American CharactersGraded C
Yolanda JoeBebe's By Golly WowAfrican-American charactersGraded C
Timothy McCannUntil...African-American charactersGraded C
Elizabeth BowmanWhite ChocolateCrosses cultural linesGraded D
Kayla PerrinSweet HonestyAfrican-American charactersGraded F+
Diana GarciaLove LessonsLatino charactersGraded F
Monica JacksonHeart's DesireAfrican-American charactersGraded F

* The hero in Jenkin's book is half Seminole Indian, half AA

I'd like to open this up for debate when it's time to post to the message board. For our non-white readers, what would you prefer to see as the label for these books? Do you want a quick way to identify them, or do you see this as ghettoization? Do you think "multi-cultural" should only apply to relationships that cross cultural lines?

In addition to applying the appropriate labels on these books, your answers will help us create a new Special Title Listing, which we would like to do.

LLB: As of February 5th, based on reader comments, we have relabeled the above titles as contemporary romance or fiction. So far we have not received input as to whether readers would like to see a Special Title Listing for romances featuring non-white characters. We did, however, receive a request for one by an author, and since we always try to fulfill requests for new lists, we would like to oblige on this one as well.

Women & Literature by Robin Nixon Uncapher:
Not long ago a friend of mine, who doesn't read romance, innocently asked me a question liable to raise the hackles of any romance reader fed-up with defending the genre. She asked, "How come all of these smart women aren't reading "good" novels?"

Gentle readers, try to remain calm. She didn't mean it the way it sounded. Really.

Well, of course, my first reaction was to defend romance novels, haul out Mary Jo Putney, quote Jane Austen, or suggest a reading list from a conversion kit. Then, I thought about it, and I realized that there is another way of looking at the question. What is it about modern literary fiction that is not clicking with female readers? After all, romance readers read a lot of books. If they think something is interesting they pick it up. And what about me, the former book snob? I've read quite a bit of recent literary fiction and with some major exceptions, find it less and less appealing.

Then I realized that I was asking the wrong question. The real question is not, "Why are romance readers avoiding literary fiction?" It is, "Why aren't literary writers writing what we want to read?"

I'll jump in here first.

At least one reason for the problem is that, many literary novelists have chosen a writing style that seems cold and impersonal to romance readers. It's become fashionable to tell a story with a certain disinterested style. You read the thoughts of the characters but seldom identify with them. In sophisticated love stories characters seldom experience the euphoria of actually being in love. A writer like Philip Roth can write a sex scene and the participants (notice I did not say "the lovers") feel no emotion. To a woman, this is not realistic, nor is it satisfactory. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that women usually feel something when they have sex. An unemotional love scene is not only dry, it is depressing to women, in a way that it is probably not upsetting to men.

Compare this trend with the love stories that we read in the English classics. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Vronsky and Anna Karenina were not the least bit "sophisticated" or detached about their feelings. Not surprisingly. I find that readers of romance love these books.

Women who read romance read a lot. The ones I've met read all kinds of things including history, science fiction, biographies and lots of classics. You would think that writers, even upscale writers, would be trying to court them. Why aren't women running out to buy the latest book-award winner? Think about it. Have you met any woman who has enjoyed a Philip Roth novel published since the seventies?

Okay, don't all talk at once.

Then there are the Oprah books. I actually applaud the spirit of the club. It's gotten a lot of people reading and when it first began, I read many of the selections. But lately the books have tapped into a depressing sort of literature that is almost a genre in itself. The recent pick, A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton, is a good example. The book tells a heart-wrenching story of a woman whose best friend's two year old toddler dies in her care. Later, in an unrelated incident, she is falsely accused of child abuse. The characters are startlingly real. This woman's thoughts and her husband's, make you want to tear out your hair. You-are-there. I read this book at a difficult time in my life. By the time I finished it I was ready for a rest cure.

A Map of the World was not written to be "fun," of course. Still, I had to wonder at its power and also at the popularity (for want of a better term) of such stories in modern literature. As the mother of a toddler, (the age of the one who dies in the story) I wondered if everyone else who read it was getting as upset as I was. Since this is what is being touted as "serious" literature, I can hardly blame women for putting it aside. Furthermore, you go through the NY Times list of recommended novels in January (I do every year) you will find that an amazing number of them are described as "a deeply disturbing novel."

I'm getting ahead of myself but I want to share what Karen Ranney, author of My Beloved and a host of other books, wrote about Oprah:

"What Oprah is going through now is called the "What is the Meaning of Life?" stage. We all go through it. She seeks out deep books that pontificate about life changing experiences, illuminating the lesson du jour. I am past that stage, which is why when someone offers me an Oprah selection, I sprint for the nearest exit.

"If I truly want to get depressed, I'll stand on the scale."

What did romance writers think of the idea that literary fiction is letting women readers down? Carla Kelly, a romance writer who doesn't read romance, gave me her thoughts on women and reading. Here is what she had to say:

"Your comments have me thinking about my own reading patterns. The Siege at Krishnapu was the first fiction I had read in a long time, and not because I don't enjoy fiction. I believe you're right about the impersonality of modern fiction, which seldom grabs the heart, and generally sends me to the freezer for another dollop of Rocky Road (Rule #1 of dieting: ice cream eaten standing up by the freezer doesn't count). Cold Mountain was excellent, and so was Snow Falling on Cedars, but they both have that standoff quality that is somewhat hard to describe. I adore Cormac McCarthy, but he is difficult at best, and extremely depressing. I read him because his visual images are simply stunning.

"Women like to embrace a book. It's part of our more generous natures, I believe. We like things to come out well, even though we know (or perhaps because we know) that things don't often turn out well in real life. Mr. Right does get away. Sons-in-law die too young. Children go astray. We can't deny these things in life and we don't. I'm a realistic, practical woman, and I create realistic, practical characters. But I do like things to come 'round right, as the song Simple Gifts" suggests. Women want this because we are nurturers. We're the Band-Aids of the world, and thank goodness.

"I think people continue to write the stuff that women don't want to read because of what I call 'The Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome.' There's this misperception that because something is glib, and emotionally distant (read Annie Proulx), and clinically sexual, that it must be superior to anything else being written. I remember a piece (ooh, bad word) that Proulx wrote about homosexual cowboys that showed up in The New Yorker a couple years back. I admired her style, as I usually do, then thought to myself, "This is total, well-written bullsh_t." I liked The Shipping News, but it's distant. Those weren't real people, and I prefer real people, as filtered through my woman's heart.

"Women won't want to be distant because we aren't distant people. We fix food and wash clothes, and tend cuts, and like to breathe deep of that little boy sunshine in the hair smell. And what could be nicer than lying down to sleep next to someone you really care about, or even - dare I say? - listening to him snore? This aspect of our natures is soooo un-trendy, and I suspect it's what so-called women's fiction addresses.

"Some of women's fiction is awful, simply dreadful. I don't read the good or the bad, but I make that statement based on the reviews I read in AAR. I think it sells because women are hungry to touch bases in an impersonal world. We may sit in front of a computer screen all day, but something in us knows this is not how it should be. We inhabit a hard, bitter, cruel, impersonal world and modern, current fiction reflects that. We as women don't like that kind of world, and women's fiction is reactionary. But I really believe that many women need to read outside the romance genre and learn to appreciate the good books that are out there. It's hard to know just where to find them, and that's where I like to rely on the advice of intelligent, well-read friends. When my friend William Dobak recommended Siege, I went right out and bought it, solely on his recommendation.

"My reading preferences happen to be history, and I simply adore travel essays and adventures such as written by the incomparable Redmond O'Hanlon, or Peter Mayle. Dave Barry makes me laugh out loud. (After working on this WWII memoir, I'm in deep need of a good laugh. I'm developing a facial tic and have bizarre dreams because of writing about the Marines v. the Empire of Japan in the South Pacific.) I also like Richard Cornwell's books about Richard Sharpe, because I just flat-out enjoy military history, especially the Napoleonic Wars."

I wondered about other romance writers. Did they read literary fiction? Did they feel that the important writers were better? What did they think of the Oprah books? (She's had such an impact in the last few years its hard to ignore her.)

Theresa Weir, author of Bad Karma, didn't really agree that classic fiction might meet women's needs more than recent literary fiction. She wrote, "Reading classic literature is like visiting an art museum full of beautiful antiques. Again, it can't really be compared to present romance fiction. I guess in a perfect world, readers would simply embrace good fiction, whether it be classic or modern, romance or literary."

Barbara Samuel aka Ruth Wind told me that she reads just about everything including literary fiction. She especially appreciates John Irving and Barbara Kingsolver, but guess who she thinks is the real genius of modern fiction?

"The only Shakespeare among us is a genre writer: Stephen King. He's not deemed important by that literary definition, but he's totally a genius, and has his hands tight around the heart of our current civilization. Anyone who reads him 400 years from now will truly understand our culture, and I'm betting it will reflect a good deal of their own. (And if you were a student in English 101 in the year 2432, aren't you going to be glad that it was King, not Updike, who ended up surviving through the ages?"

I've never read Stephen King but I loved this idea. I do suspect that high school English class will be able to render virtually anything, dull.

Jean Ross Ewing uses a lot of literature in her books and its one of the things adds a certain resonance to them. Without missing a beat, her heroes and heroines quote poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare. In answer to my question about literary fiction, Jean was eloquent not only on that subject but on the subject of romance as well.

"The problem here is how we define literary fiction and how we define romance - I think they can often overlap, so the distinction isn't always as straightforward as we might think. Literary fiction can have a happy ending. Romance can explore profound issues. However, only in romance can the reader begin the book with certain assurances and I think it might be those assurances that bring us back to romance over and over again - and it goes deeper than just the happy ending.

"In romance, our longing for moral order is satisfied - the good guys win! The themes are heroic and triumphant - romance celebrates honor, love, gallantry, courage - deeply satisfying when we know the real world is often unfair and chaotic.

"Literary fiction may explore and shed light on that unfairness and chaos, but often enough it doesn't offer a resolution or celebrate justice - as the real world doesn't always offer resolution or act justly (tho' sometimes it does - therefore romance isn't 'unreal,' just concentrating on one part of experience). Romance promises to find answers and offer justice, resolution, and healing - that's the assurance given the reader when she/he starts the book - and I think that's one big reason why we read it."

Karen Ranney, a writer I admire for the emotional honesty of her characters, doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the pain of love or of living. I have to admit that I laughed, in delight, at her answer to my question.

"Literary fiction rarely teaches me anything, frankly. And it definitely doesn't entertain me. In fact, a lot of "literary" writers remind me of a group of beatniks sitting around a coffee house pounding bongos and delighting in their presumed despair. Kill off a main character or expose the worst traits of humanity and a book is considered 'literary.'

"I occasionally read general fiction, those books that have not yet been pigeonholed into a category. I thoroughly enjoy Richard North Patterson, for example. I also read mysteries, thrillers, spy novels, and horror. I do try to avoid, however, anything labeled as women's fiction. Why? I know I'm going to get a coming of age story, something that ends with a lesson. Been there, learned that.

"When I first started reading novels (at the age of 11), I read Erskine Caldwell, Herman Wouk, Elizabeth Boatwright Coker, books that thrilled me with the poetry of language and the intimacy of the written word."

(Karen told a great story about reading Susan Issacs that I thought illustrated Jean Ross Ewing's comments.)
"I read a book once by Susan Issacs whose writing I love. I became involved in the characters up until the last chapter when she killed off the heroine. Up until then it was a wonderful book. Now, when I do pick up Issacs, I never completely involve myself. Instead, I'm waiting to be zapped again.

"The difference between romance and "literary" fiction is that the heroine died. In a romance, she would have lived.

"Ever notice the same thing happening in movies lately? A brilliant tour de force - translation, everybody dies. A magnificent panorama of the American experience - translation, everybody but the villain dies. Somber and sober, a tremendous filmmaking accomplishment - translation, you're rooting for the characters to die.

Actually what I have noticed is sad endings tacked inexplicably onto stories that seem to be doing fine. When I closed Cold Mountain, I was in shock. Why the sad ending? The mainstream The Horse Whisperer gave me the same feeling. I won't give away the ending but I felt a little better when I heard author Stephen King say, "I defy a person to read the last three pages of The Horse Whisperer and not laugh."

All of this is too bad because I want modern literature, as well as romance and other kinds of books to have a place in my life. Romance novels should have happy endings but there is always a place for books that make more complex observations, books that are messy and see the whole of life. Happy endings are wonderful and right for certain stories but to make their point some books need to end tragically. Anna Karenina has to die. Romeo and Juliet should not wake up. Charles Darnay, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities, must go to the gallows. The Titanic has to sink.

And Vice Versa:

As part of our collaboration, Robin and I will both work on topics together and, at other times, work independently. In order to take advantage of this format, however, even when we write about different topics, we'll put in our own two cents on the other's work.

Robin on Multi-Cultural Labeling:
To me the term "multi-cultural" has come about more for marketing purposes than for anything else. That's just fine in my opinion. Black Entertainment Television owns arabesque, an important publisher of multicultural romance. In the writers guidelines posted at their website, they explain that their goal is to publish stories about people from a variety of cultures. Although this is probably true, they currently publish stories about African American couples. My guess is that this is a reflection of the manuscripts that they receive. When people asked me why I categorized Sweet Honesty as a Multi-Cultural romance, I explained that that label had been placed by the publisher.

It makes a lot of sense to me for African Americans and Latinos to have a special place where they can find romances with characters like themselves. I know that African Americans read a lot of romances and it must be nice to have one place to look for them, assuming that its convenient. It also seems to me that such books should also be shelved with the mainstream romance novels, not unlike the way that J.D. Robb books are shelved with romance and with mysteries.

I have some concerns about labeling a book Multi-Cultural when neither the publisher nor the author has made that designation. Such designations cannot help but be arbitrary because books by white authors with African American or Latino characters are seldom deemed "multicultural." If Miss Giggles were to write a romance, she should be able to label it any way that she sees fit. If there was a successful publisher of Asian romances, it might make sense to have the book marketed that way. Maybe not. No author should ever feel that their book will be categorized against her wishes.

Occasionally the question arises as to how, and by whom, Multi-Cultural romances should be reviewed, and that is very disturbing. This has not come up at AAR, although we do now have a reviewer who has requested to mainly review Multi-Cultural romances, but I have heard it opined that Multi-Cultural romance novels should be reviewed by people who have the same heritage as the characters in the book. I can't agree with this any more than I would say that an African American reviewer could not review a story about Caucasians. A good story is a good story.

It is equally disturbing that some publishers of Multi-Cultural romance specify the race of the authors who should submit books. This is not a good idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that any piece of art should be judged on its own merits not on the race of the artist.

But, leaving everything else aside, if some publishers decide that, as a business strategy, they wish to publish and market their books as "Multi-Cultural" I can't disagree with it. Finding out who is most likely to want your product and making it known to them seems like a very good thing.

Laurie on Literary Fiction:
I've always read a variety of books, from Calvin Trillin to Anne Rice to Julie Garwood, from literary fiction to "glitz and glamour" fiction. In the past several years, I've focused most on romantic fiction, but I read everything for different reasons, because each different type of writing appeals to various parts of my personality. Literary fiction, much like the "important" films I make sure my husband and I see every year, is often cerebral, and, as Robin said earlier, "deeply disturbing." I appreciate the thought-provoking aspects of such literature, and feel as though my intellect gets a workout when I read it. Although I do enjoy such books, reading them is akin to taking vitamins - they make me feel good because I know they are good for me.

Romantic fiction, on the other hand, appeals to my, dare-I-say-it-again? peasant-like tastes. I read it for its entertainment value, whether it be dark and emotional or light and frothy. It entertains, engages my emotions, and satisfies me with a happy ending. I don't ask more of romance novels than this.

Time to Post to the Message Board:

What is your definition of a multi-cultural romance/work of fiction? Do you feel that classifying certain books as multi-cultural assists the reader or ghettoizes the reader? Were you to create a multi-cultural list, what titles would you include on it? Finally, look at the listing of books we've reviewed that might fit under the "MC" umbrella. How would you classify them?

Do you read literary fiction? If so what?

Do you feel that the "important writers" Philip Roth, John Updike, Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley really write better stories? What do you think of their work?

Do you ever feel the lack of emotional connection that Robin describes when reading modern literary fiction?

What do you think of the "Oprah" books?

Does classic literature ie. Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy etc. meet women's needs better than modern literature?

When you pick up a romance, why do you choose it over fiction intended for a general audience?

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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