Readers Respond to Quickies

As seems to be so often the case, I manage to speak out of both sides of my mouth on the same topic. Perhaps that's why I was I found some responses to Judy Cuevas' and Patricia Gaffney's Quickies so surprising.

As someone who clearly marks herself as a reader and takes the reader viewpoint, I was shocked to discover that I missed the mark in this instance. Where Judy and Patricia had, I thought, explained the writer viewpoint in such a manner that I was whooping in delight, how could I have missed the fallout? Especially since Judy was responding to content in my column, which, I felt, really presented both sides of the issue and was not only about Christina Dodd's book but how political correctness is infused in how we read books.

So I re-read Judy's Quickie and found myself captured by this statement:

"But to discuss the subject matter as if it had something to do with the quality of the writing only ties an albatrose around romance writer's necks - an albatrose no other genre is expected to wear."

And this one as well:

"If she takes you vividly where you don't want to go, well, for heaven's sakes put the book down - but if it's vivid, even unsettling, then graciously admit another might find it interesting."

It's the first quote that I think was troublesome to readers - I'm not sure I agree with it. But the second quote reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Carrie Feron, executive editor at Avon. I called her after the flap about A Well Pleasured Lady developed and she mentioned to me that she thought Dodd's book had touched a very raw nerve. No kidding! But she added that perhaps the "unsettling" nature of it has evoked responses in readers that are equally unsettling. I initially dismissed that idea out of hand, but in light of Judy's comments, I'm thinking about it some more.

But I still don't see where either Judy or Patricia said that, because of content, readers want to censor the works of authors. Maybe I'm just dense, because so many readers commented on that. Obviously, this issue is still unclear in my mind and I'll be considering it further.

Here's what some readers had to say:

Liz Zink (moonrose@initco.net):
I just read the comments from Gaffney & Cuevas and I say "Brava", too! If an author chooses to write about something not politically correct, "great"! I'm all for it, if I can't handle it, then I'll feel bad that I didn't get the point and maybe keep on trying to get it. But it must be done well! Not only will the author get slammed for writing something "not politically correct" but she'll be branded as a bad writer. I already mentioned in one letter that I liked A Well Pleasured Lady and it was done well! The scene was well written. I beg for authors to go out on limbs, if they have something to say, more power to them. I can't write it, so I'm happy they can. Because for everyone who doesn't like what they've written, there is a person that does like it. And maybe the discussion that comes from the differences will enable people to see things they might not have seen before!

Ita Vandenbroek (VANDENIB@ofc004c.sce.com):
I read the note from Judy Cuevas. I was a little disturbed that she would think that anywhere in our conversation about Dodd's Well Pleasured Lady we said she should not have written that book or that scene. I don't recall anyone saying that or even implying it. Some of us said we didn't like it or that it wasn't well-written. Others liked it and thought it was brilliant. A rational discussion with varied opinions. Why would she think anyone wanted to censor Dodd???

Cuevas also writes that since the book did brilliantly on the USA today list, that "A lot of people sure think the scenes in it sing." Just because a book sells well does not mean that it is well-written. Dreck makes it to the best-seller lists all the time. Also, one does not know if scenes sing until one has read it. How many, like me, turned around and sold it?

Holly Fults (hfults@erols.com):
Frankly I thought the tone of Cuevas' essay was shrill. Just as author has the privilege of writing what she wants, readers can state opinions of that writing. My only concern is when the criticism is hurtful or attacks a writer on a personal level. I really enjoyed the discussion about Dodd's book, and I thought that's all it was - a discussion.

Juno (tweetybd@fortwayne.infi.net):
I haven't read Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady yet, so I can't comment on it. But I will say that just because a book makes a bestseller list, doesn't mean it's worth reading. I don't pay any attention to those lists anymore. I think they have more to do with marketing and how big the author's name is, rather than how good the book is.

This is a hypothetical question, which maybe someone can answer. Imagine you're as wealthy as Bill Gates. I know it's a stretch, but bear with me. What if you wrote a book which was a piece of trash, got it published, then bought about 20-million copies (or whatever) of your own book. Would that instantly put the book on the NYT Bestseller list? Is this possible?

Gail Brodeur (bookbabe@javanet.com):
I'm usually pretty passive and my motto of non-involvement is tattooed across my forehead - but lately it's becoming irritating to me that some authors feel that criticism from readers is akin to naughty children sassing back.

Just as they have to right to write what they want, and the majority of us love it, do we have to keep silent if something bothers or disturbs us? Some of these authors may be making pretty good money at their craft - where does it state that we can't criticise or comment on what we like and dislike?

I think they have to lighten up a little. When in the public forum you have to expect a couple of ripe tomatoes to hit you in the face now and then. And with that snippet of philosophy, I'll sign myself off.

Karen Wheless (kwheless@rockland.net):
What I found interesting/annoying about Cuevas' response was her comments that:

"As to good writing, you can talk about the quality of the prose, the structure, what makes the writing work or not - the writer's ability to make her vision vital, real. But to discuss the subject matter as if it had something to do with the quality of the writing only ties an albatrose around romance writer's necks. . . "

I would agree that a good writer can write about any subject, but I don't have to read about them all. I did read Mailer's book about the serial killer, and while it was well written, it didn't make me run to pick up his other books. I had a similar (although less extreme!) reaction to Beast (by Cuevas/Ivory) - a brilliantly written book about boring, vapid characters that left me cold. Subject matter does count! I want to care about the characters I spend my time with, and I find it difficult to care about characters who are amoral or evil, who don't have some core of decency. (I haven't read Dodd's book, so this is more a comment in general.)

That's not to say that other books should be censored, or that romances always have to fit into some strict mold - I love dark romances, and the occasional tragic ending doesn't bother me either. I want to read about all those dark thoughts and emotions - but if the hero doesn't have a fundamental sense of right and wrong that goes along with the darkness, he's a villain, not a hero. (Actually, I'm not that fond of completely amoral villains, either, I think they're unrealistic. But I digress..)

One thing that bothers me about these kinds of characters is the authors usually have them change and become "heroic" by the end, going off into the sunset with the heroine. I have a hard time believing that someone who is amoral and uncaring enough to rape is going to fundamentally change, and that the hero and heroine will really live happily ever after. And that's usually the way romances end.

Now I'll make a wild generalization about "literary fiction", which usually has a pessimistic outlook and an unhappy ending. I think many of these writers feel the same way, and write about ever bleaker and more amoral characters to strip away the readers' sympathy for the characters, so that "only the writing counts". It's as if they think the two can't go together - either you are a good writer or you write about sympathetic characters. Why this is, I'm not sure. Even Lady Macbeth had some good qualities! :->

One final comment - Patricia Gaffney wrote "If we don't judge it by the same standards we apply to any other kind of fiction, it's dead." One way that romance fiction is different from most other kinds of fiction is that it isn't widely critically reviewed or discussed. But when it is, a lot of writers (and readers) jump in and are offended that anyone would dare to disagree. That's not serious fiction - it's a middle school essay contest judged by our mothers.

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