Tag Archives: reading

On Redemption Songs and Romance

On a recent episode of my new favorite podcast: Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, the hosts discussed romance fiction as resistance. They pointed out that many people belittle women’s escapist literature, romance and cozy mysteries, but not men’s, sci-fi and thrillers. (Of course, I know that many women enjoy sci-fi, etc.)

Why is one type of reading frivolous and contemptible while another is harmless or even admirable? Why is literature is only serious and praiseworthy when the ending is sad, depressing, miserable? Don’t we face enough defeat in daily life without having to fill our bookshelves with tales of ennui and gloom?

These women have a point: falling in love and being loved in return, despite our flaws and our beloved’s, that’s redemption, a peak experience available to all. Love is a victory, something even the goon squad in Washington, D.C. can’t take away from us. Holding onto hope, love, connection in troubled times—that’s an act of resistance. It’s not sufficient to defeat the evil in our midst, but it’s fuel for the fight.

The type of peak experience offered in sci-fi and fantasy stories, rounding up a motley band of resistance fighters to defeat a might sinister force—or the type in thrillers—using whiles and guile to penetrate a criminal organization and lop off its head—that’s available to few of us in real life.

Is only the unattainable worth reading about? Romance readers say no—and roll in that vicarious pleasure like horses rolling in the dust.

Another aspect of romance fiction that feels like resistance is the joyful celebration of women’s sexuality. In another episode of SPTB, one of the hosts posited a response to critics of romance fiction: “What is it about the female orgasm that bothers you?”

“Oh, romance novels are really just porn,” critics say. Nope. The good stuff revolves around determined, smart, problem-solving women, and the men who love them, treasure them, and give them earthquake orgasms. And yes, there are romance stories for everyone on the gender spectrum. Sex is part of finding one’s mate, for the vast majority of people, but it’s not the whole story, just like armed combat is not the whole story in, say, Star Wars.

So, yeah. There is something to reading romance as an act of defiance. To those who say I can’t be a woman of substance and still enjoy these tales, I raise my middle finger—and turn the page.

On Pity Parties, Book Reviews, and Carol Dweck

Thunk.

That’s the sound of another romance novel landing in my Did Not Finish pile.

As a reader, I want to see triumph of some sort, and not just in the form of a sad, scared woman being rescued by some guy. Give me a heroine with spunk, not just a tender heart, and a hero with substance, not just toned pecs.

This week’s discard goes something like this: Horrible people have done horrible things to the heroine and her siblings. She flees, casting herself in the role of their protector, but she’s a dithering, nervous wreck, making near-fatal mistakes at every turn. And something horrible has happened to the hero. He’s really sad about it, and angry, and spends his time brooding. There’s a dog involved—that’s what caught my eye on the library shelf. Who doesn’t love a good dog story? But in this novel, even the dog is sad, mourning the death of his former master. What the author didn’t accomplish by the end of Chapter Six was to give me something to relate to, something to care about, other than pity.

My Did Not Finish pile contains several works of romance fiction, literary fiction, and women’s fiction that adopted this strategy: Look at this poor protagonist! Such terrible things have been done to her/him! Don’t you feel sad, reader?

Ugh.

But then, I don’t like people like this in real life, either. “Hi, my name is X. Thanks for welcoming me into your writers’ group. I have fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression.”

Why do people do this?  I don’t know anyone who’s reached the mid-century milepost without some physical affliction, emotional scarring, or other heavy baggage. And I get it: women have been taught to bond over shared misfortunes. But a blatant appeal for pity right off the bat?

What impresses me, in real life and in fiction, is meeting a person who’s making the most of life, enjoying it as much as possible—and then finding out that she’s dealing with some heavy baggage. That sparks sympathy and admiration. That’s what’s missing in books like the one above: I want to admire the protagonist in some way.

I didn’t write a book review about this novel because A: I didn’t finish the book, and it’s not fair to review a book under those circumstances, and B: I’ve finally accepted that it’s bad karma for an author to leave bad reviews–though I always read the bad reviews before buying a book. This lets me know whether a story is full of my pet peeves, a probable waste of my time and book budget.

Speaking of book reviews, if you work in education or have kids in school, you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck outlines the concept of a growth mindset, the belief that you can change and improve through effort, versus a fixed mindset, the belief that your abilities are unchangeable and beyond your control. Guess which mindset leads to success and happiness? This book should be added to recommended reading lists for authors, especially for those tempted to make pity their main appeal to readers.

How about you? What problems send a book to your Did Not Finish pile?

G is for Genre Fiction

GBooks

Genre Fiction, AKA commercial fiction, is what most fiction-readers reach for in bookstores (real or virtual) and libraries. Spy thrillers, police procedural mysteries, cozy mysteries, romance, new adult erotic romance, young adult fantasy, science fiction, post-apoctolyptic dystopian stories, westerns, steampunk, paranormal romance, historical fiction, military fiction, horror…Your favorite type of story is up there somewhere on the fiction shelves.

Literary fiction is the other main type of fiction; in lit fic the focus is more on the beautiful writing and less on the plot. Some literary fiction stories read like extended poems, and they often have ambiguous endings. Of course, there’s cross-pollinations between literary and genre fiction.

What does this have to do with retirement, the supposed topic of this blog? Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I devote most of my time to writing genre fiction—specifically, cozy mysteries, horror stories, and women’s fiction. The latter is often referred to as “chick lit,” actually a sub-genre of women’s fiction. So is romance, though some would place that in a separate category.

My novel Lola Dares has a lot in common with chick lit: a feisty female protagonist, a plot that revolves around human relationships and personal growth, a bit of romance, a light, humorous tone. But my protagonist is in her fifties, so perhaps Lola Dares is “hen lit.” I’d certainly rather read about the adventures and struggles of a mature woman, now that I am one, and I hope other readers will enjoy her stories as well.

A member of my wonderful critique group called my current work-in-progress “niche fiction,” because it would appeal mainly to female readers. Huh. 51% of the population is a niche? (Which I pronounce “nitch,” even though I speak French quite well, because “neesh” sounds so pretentious when speaking English.) In any case, I love genre fiction because there I can find what I’m looking for: adventure, fun, entertainment, thrills, vengeance, justice, romance, fascinating people, beautiful settings, and delightfully despicable villains–always vanquished in the end, of course. I prefer genre fiction to literary fiction most of the time because, by the end of the book, the puzzle is solved, the relationship forged, or perhaps dissolved, the heroine triumphant, and order restored.  Alas, life seldom works out so neatly.

What’s your favorite genre of fiction?