Thursday, October 20, 2011



Sarah Wendell


Sourcebooks, October 2011

Blogger and devotee of the much-maligned genre draws helpful real-life insights about personal growth and relationships from the books, their authors, and their fans.

Cover: In a book with an already high tongue-in-cheek factor, the cover may be the tongue-in-cheekiest of all. The iconic clinch-cover image is obscured by what looks like brown paper wrapping, a clear and sassy nod to the perception that the genre is merely "chick porn" (hence reference to delivery method of X-rated material in the days before internet and the author's name looking handwritten, as in a postal address). It made Apprentice Writer laugh, which is a great way to begin a relationship with a book before the first page is even read.

What Works: A lot.

The author's trademark funny, breezy, low-key conversational style, familiar to legions of her website and twitter followers, translates seamlessly to the printed non-fiction page. New readers should be aware that this style sometimes includes expressions that may not be suitable at work, or with kids reading along. On the other hand, it provides learning opportunties for new vocabulary - AW, for example, had not come across the terms "giddypants" or "crapmonkeys" before.

Another appealling aspect is that the author does not set herself up as the one with all the expertise. She shares her views (sometimes vehemently; witness "giddypants" and "crapmonkeys") however for every personal opinion stated she seeks out those of others as well, and in so doing, gives equal measure to those crafting the tales and those consuming them. This is a refreshing reminder that the book community is composed not just of writers influencing readers through their work but equally of readers influencing writers through their reactions to and discussions about that work.

When Sarah Wendell sends out a query into the blogosphere or twitterverse, she really truly (to use the technical term) listens to the responses that boomerang back, and incorporates them into a more expanded understanding of whatever the issue may be. This collaborative attitude permeates the whole book, and is encapsulated in the dedication to "...the fabulous readers who have come to Smart Bitches over the years to talk romance novels, celebrate the excellence, and bemoan the bizarre."

This willingness to explore said bizarre is also a plus, of the book and the site. If the internet is to be believed (and why in the world shouldn't it?) (Just kidding. Kind of.) that vast army of romance novel afficionados that singlehandedly drives the lion's share of profits of the mass-market publishing industry can roughly be divided into two camps: those who believe it is "mean" to mention anything critical about a romance novel (meaning reviews are all rainbows and roses), and those who believe in mentioning aspects that could be improved (meaning reviews run the gamut between all out raves and full on evisceration. AW, the Gentle Reader may have guessed, leans toward the side that says all types of honest reviews are legitimate so long as this doesn't cross the line into personal slights or attacks on the author.

AW loved the mix of analysis and jokes/gentle teasing about certain common features, such as:

"...4..A romance heroine doesn't just stand by her man, she stands up to him!....5. A romance hero must always be willing to rush into a burning building to save a basket of kittens."

"...Reading romances and taking them literally is definitely not the path to everlasting happiness. There are some crazy over-the-top plots that would never fly in the real world...For any (real-life) men who may be reading this...if you like a girl, I suggest asking her out on a date, in preference to threatening to turn her ecologically sound tourism location into a strip mall."

AW's favorite parts were pseudo-scientific lists and tables. The list of best heros of all time, for example (who's #1? P&P's Mr. Darcy, of course) should provide endless room for debate on correctness of numeration and inclusion, the suggested newbie shopping list of ten iconic novels to start a romance collection that spans most subgenres and which AW imagines was Holy-Melting-Eyebrows-Batman difficult to keep so brief for a passionate lover (ha!) of the genre, the step by step guide to looking like a romance hero ("Step 1: Acquire a mullet. Step 5: Ensure that the wind is buffeting your manly chestular landscape in as flattering a manner as possible.").

Perhaps the most educational (albeit snortworthy) aspect for people who think that all romance is of the Harlequin Presents type (i.e. with a title along the lines of "The Latvian Tycoon Playboy Sheikh Billionaire's Virgin Pregnant Secretary Mistress Bride") is the graph "Which Romance Are You?" which illustrates how diverse the genre really is. It puts specific questions to each of 9 subgenres. In this way, one learns that the answer to the question "How Do You Like Your Steak?" is "Mooing" in Western and "Hairy in Paranormal, the answer to the question "What is Your Favorite Dessert?" is "whipped cream" for erotica and "anything on fire" for romantic suspense, and the answer for "What is Your Favorite Holiday?" is "Boss's Day" for Harlequin Presents and "Talk Like a Pirate Day" for Historical.

What Doesn't: Not so much a criticism as a desire for a specific point's greater emphasis of a or repetition (not, AW grants you, the usual type of request).

The author mentions early on how the life lessons explored are taken from more more recent decades, and may not be contained in quite the same way (or at all) in some older examples of the genre. This is so true, and significant, that AW almost feels like it should be tacked onto the bottom of each page of this book as a warning message. As in: "This is old-skool romance! May contain the opposite of messages like "We Know Who We are, and We Know Our Own Worth", "We Know How to Solve Problems", and especially "Happy Endings Take Work"! Content may be hazardous to feminist sentiments, the concept of men and women being equal partners, the expectation that men NOT solve every problem with might-makes-right, and the idea that women need to do more than just look pretty and blush on cue!"

Failing such distinction between what was then and what is now could lead readers newly willing to give the genre a try to feel like all their preconceived notions were well-founded. AW can certainly remember a couple of earlier-published works that ended up being thrown against a wall from the time that she had newly discovered the genre. Luckily for her, she simultaneously came across some other volumes with much more positive underlying messages (plus great writing) so continued exploring rather than giving up on the genre.

Things AW Wishes Had Been Included:
1. The author's husband's reaction. Not just because a person detailing all the great things they've learned about love just BEGS for a statement from that person's spouse. Not just because it would be nod to the Great Romance Debate on novels told only from the heroine's point of view vs. inclusion of the hero's point of view. But because this particular spouse once did a book review on his wife's site and as AW recalls he was just as funny as she.

2. A stepback cover. As AW may have mentioned (one or two dozen times), she loathes stepback covers because she has yet to see one that she didn't think was snarkworthy to the highest degree. It would have been a lot of fun to see a parody.

Overall: Strikes a good balance between thoughtful and entertaining. Readers already familiar with the author will not be disappointed, while those for whom this is new territory might well rethink a preconceived or perhaps outdated notion or two, and, who knows? Even pick up one of the myriad books mentioned, see if it clicks for them, and whether they can draw a worthwhile life lesson from it themselves.


Rachel said...

I haven't been to SBTB in forever. It got too preoccupied with eReaders and conventions for a while and I lost interest. I should visit again and see how things are going.

Did you see Joanna Bourne's latest is out tomorrow? Also, I was slow to respond to one of your comments last week but I gave a couple historical fiction suggestions since it appears we both look for non-trad settings.

M. said...

I'm very excited about Black Hawk also. Reread 'Spymaster's Lady' just to get in the mood.