Note: There may be spoilers of some of the various books discussed in this column. I find A books easy to recognize: basically, everything has to go right. Fs are likewise relatively straightforward. But what about the B, C, and D books, in which something has gone wrong, but not everything? The book has a solid, if cliched, plot, but the writing is catastrophic: is that a C or a D? Can a great hero and interesting writing save an unlikeable heroine? And what if, God forbid, somebody kills a dog?
The AAR staff worked to define these elements, which I call dealbreakers. We generally agreed that dealbreakers (unlike pet peeves) must be big or repetitive, must be outliers from the general quality of the book, and are by definition personal and subjective. As Blythe wrote, “Something like ‘I can’t read books with violence against animals’ or ‘I simply won’t tolerate a book with adultery.’ The nature of the term implies that it’s something that drives you nuts but might not even bother someone else at all.”
The most common dealbreakers cited by AAR Reviewers fell into four categories: characters, writing, plot, and research.
Many reviewers listed abusive heroes as dealbreakers. Pat says, “If what he does should land him behind bars… I say put him away and don’t bother me with his story.” Rike hates the emotionally abusive hero “who constantly distrusts the heroine, and harasses her and accuses her of all sorts of wrongdoings because deep down, you know, he’s just so attracted to her…. Why should any woman with a grain of sense accept such a jerk, even in romanceland?” I agree, and add the hero who obsesses over the heroine’s fidelity. After all, if she slept with him, she must sleep with everybody! (The front desk is paging Clayton Westmoreland of Whitney, My Love…)
Yet everybody puts the line between “possessive” and “controlling” in a slightly different place, so one person’s dealbreaker is another’s sexy alpha. And Wendy once had a dealbreaker hero who wasn’t strong enough: “One of the worst books I’ve read was about the downtrodden wife of a powerful, evil nobleman falling in love with one of her servants. The hero was so helpless, bowing and scraping until it made me shudder.”
And then there’s the faithless hero. Lynn Spencer found Mary Balogh’s Dancing With Clara to be a dealbreaker because of the hero’s inability to promise to be faithful to the heroine. “I closed the book wondering when he was going to start cheating on poor Clara, and that just didn’t feel like enough of an HEA for me, even though they had gotten together at least for the time being.”
For heroines, the most-cited dealbreaker characteristic was stupidity. Pat wrote, “If she’s doing something completely stupid (from having unprotected sex with a stranger to stepping in a basket of rattlesnakes), she’s not the heroine for me.” Rike’s out if she encounters a pregnant historical heroine who refuses a marriage offer “because she loves [the hero] too much to trap him.” (Rike muses, “As if damning your child to bastardy was such a noble gesture.”) Lee can’t stand a heroine who loses her professional competence around the hero. Caz calls this type of behavior “emotionally TSTL.”
Maggie, however, says, “I have liked TSTL heroines… What pulls a grade down for me is the writing – did the author think through her trope and realize the effect it would have on people’s lives? Did she give us motivation? Did she create someone both a little TSTL and a whole lot likable?”
When I was writing my first-ever AAR review for The Geek Girl and the Scandalous Earl, I was paralyzed by the fact that the heroine was a subjective dealbreaker for me. I hated her not for her stupidity (which she had in spades), but her rude, bratty personality. In her very first conversation with the earl, she nicknamed him “Mike” instead of Micah. Um, no. I don’t care if you’re dealing with an earl or a waiter, you call a stranger by the name he calls himself. I wanted to put the book down after that scene, which to me, says that the book is a D or D- But I wasn’t confident that this would irritate all readers the way it irritated me, and I had to admit that most of the other aspects of the book were in the low C range. I compromised by giving the book a D+ and putting a disclaimer in the last paragraph, but if I had it to do over again, I might stick by my original lower grade.
Caz summed it up by saying, “I don’t care how clever the plot is, if I don’t like the characters or can’t work out their motivations, then the book is unlikely to work for me.”
Most staff agreed that a few writing mistakes wouldn’t be dealbreakers, but what Blythe terms “repetitive language issues” can take a book down over time. Grammatical errors, typos, basic continuity errors, over-writing (such as excessive similes or metaphors), and cheeseball accents/dialects all have gotten our reviewers at one time or another. But AAR’s pollster Cindy reports that grammar doesn’t bother her much.
Personally, I have rarely in romance found a book which was good or excellent in all elements except writing – typically, I find people who write poorly (or have been edited poorly) have other problems as well and would probably be C-range regardless. I find that this problem occurs more often in digital or self publishing.
Bessie reports, “If the pet dog or cat is killed, I can’t make myself read the book.” Succinctly put.
The Big Mis is, if you’ll pardon the expression, divisive. Some of us can’t stand it. Pat says that when “the misunderstanding is easily dispatched with a simple conversation which doesn’t materialize right away but drags on and on as if the author is trying to complete a page count, then I’m unhappy. In this case, I want to slap the author, hero, and heroine upside the head and yell, ‘Just talk to each other!’” But Caz and Wendy both felt that some Big Mis plots are enjoyable if the author does something deft with them. As Dabney wrote, “In the hands of a fabulous writer almost anything can work.”
Sex could be a dealbreaker. Wendy cited “Inappropriate timing for sex. The protagonists are on the run, or desperately searching for a missing family member, or under a deadline to save the world and they’re so horny they have to stop and scrump? Whatever.” Caz said she’d rather have no sex scenes at all than sex scenes in which she “can’t see why, other than physical attraction, they are having sex.”
Both Wendy and Lynn specifically referenced “skanky villain sex.” Sometimes this is some sort of BDSM/homosexual/alternative sex preference in which the entire point of the sex scene is essentially to harrumph that if they enjoy that, well, they must be the villains! At other times, it seems intended to underscore the eeeeeeevilness of the characters. I remember bailing on George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones over the incest plot, which just seemed over the top.
Caz also nominated “something which would actually make me stop reading a book and not want to touch anything else by that author with a barge-pole: child abuse.” It’s one of those positions one really never expects to be controversial, and yet Caz reports reading a non-romance historical in which a ten-year-old character was gang-raped. Caz didn’t object to such an event existing in the story, as it may have been historically accurate. Her dealbreaker was the fact that it was explicitly narrated to the reader. Wendy recalled that the villainess in Robin Schone’s Awaken, My Love, was sexually abused as a child, and although it is not narrated during the story, it is graphically described by the character to the heroine (who switched bodies with the villainess as part of a time-travel plot).
This is where child abuse meets skanky villain sex, as part of what makes this woman the villain is her inability to provide the hero (her husband) with a satisfying sex life. Yes, she’s also insane. But truthfully, when you hear what she went through, it’s hard to blame her. I also read this book and wished that the author had been more understanding of what the villainess had gone through. Spoiler alert – wouldn’t it have been nice for the villainess to have been the heroine of a modern-day sequel, in which she underwent therapy and formed a new relationship with a new body, instead of flipping out and being killed? The poor woman deserved better.
And then there’s racism (including anti-Semitism). None of the reviewers I polled mentioned it specifically and I hope this is a positive sign, that maybe we’re not encountering these attitudes as frequently. However, they still happen, both in rereleases of old favorites (like anti-Semitism in the otherwise enjoyable Georgette Heyer) and in some less-enlightened modern works. I have no American Civil War DIKs on my keeper shelf precisely because no author I’ve read has dealt effectively with slavery. I get so frustrated by the former plantation belle heroine, and how sorry we’re supposed to feel for her because she’s lost everything. Well, sweetie, that’s what happens when “everything” is based on the blood, sweat, and tears of someone else. Deal with it.
Racism also pops up frequently in contemporary or historical sheikh romances, wherein the hero’s alpha, Harlequin Presents attitude is explained as a product of his “primitive” culture. Even worse is when that’s referred to as the hero’s “true nature,” or what exists “when the veneer of civilization has been stripped away.” Arabs are not werewolves. Save it for the paranormals, please.
This is a dealbreaker near and dear to my heart. Both Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels and its heroine, Jessica Trent, consistently rank well in polls for books and heroines, with some people calling it the best romance novel ever, and yet I can’t stand it. My dealbreaker in this book is the part many fans love most: the scene in which Jessica shoots Dain.
First, I’m bothered by the idea that shooting someone is an appropriate, funny, and for some reason feminist way to solve problems. We would never tolerate such violence from a hero (see “abusive heroes” dealbreaker), yet a gun is equally powerful in the hands of either sex. Why can a woman shoot a man, when a man shooting a woman would cause most people to chuck the book out the window?
But getting back to the research problem: this is a terribly inaccurate scene. In the early 1800s, you couldn’t aim a pistol. Even today, with more accurate guns, how could you shoot at a live and presumably dodging human, and be completely confident that you would hit an arm and not the lung right next to it? And just for fun, let’s pretend for a moment that you could aim perfectly. Historical death rates from bullet wounds are frequently determined not by bullet placement but by infection, for which there were no antibiotics. Jessica was not such a good shot that she could shoot around bacteria. Essentially, if she pulled the trigger in Dain’s general direction, she had to have accepted that he might die. Since nothing Dain had done to Jessica merited that, I couldn’t see her as anything but a violent sociopath. I was done with her, and I was done with the book.
Contemporary authors can fall into the research trap too. For Heather, it’s a dealbreaker if “the hero or heroine behaves with a disregard for professional ethics. This includes cops destroying evidence, becoming intimately involved with a suspect, or failing to recognize a massive conflict of interest when it is presented.” Other commenters found it annoying when authors made mistakes of setting. LinnieGayl read a book in which the heroine lived in Chicago, and the only setting detail (a stop for the L train) was actually incorrect, as the L does not stop at that location. I’ve heard many DC residents complain about the mythical “Georgetown Metro stop.”
So, remembering that they are subjective, significant, and unusual, what are your dealbreakers? Did I miss some here, or do you share them with AAR reviewers? Have you ever read a review you disagreed with because it had a dealbreaker for the reviewer which you didn’t share, or vice-versa?
– Caroline Russomanno