Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hmm...Not So Good

I've often read discussions about whether or not a writer's personality - either in person or via communication on the web - ever affect a reader's response to her (or his) work. For example, if a writer is a real peach online, communicates with her fans, is friendly and upbeat, gives to charity and adopts stray animals, and is generally a wonderful person, most likely readers would be predisposed to like what she writes. On the flip side, if a writer is nasty or spiteful or outspoken in a brash, undiplomatic way, no matter how good of a story she tells, her stuff won't go over well.

Never have I met (and I say this in the cyber-sense) a writer that rubbed me in such a way as to think differently about her work.

Until now.

Okay, first of all, let me say that I've read most of Judith McNaught's books. Two of them, in fact, are on the top shelf of my keeper bookcase; Whitney, My Love (the original, with the un-PC scenes) and A Kingdom of Dreams. In fact, I might consider KOD one of my top five favorite romances of all time.

But while I found her other titles well-written, after a while they started to blend together to me. They all seemed to follow a similar pattern; hoydenish/tomboyish/misunderstood heroine is introduced to the Ton where she becomes a smashing success and after a giant Big Misunderstand or a dozen ends up with the most roguish, rakish, alpha-male eligible bachelor since the last JM book. The key to the formula was always the Big Misunderstanding, a concept that has to be handled very carefully in order for me to tolerate it for very long (much less the length of an entire stand-alone novel). Even WML pushed my limits by the time Whitney and Clayton reached their last "it's not MY baby!" misunderstanding.

Anyway, I do think Ms. McNaught is a talented writer, well deserving of her place in the romance genre history annals.

But I have to be honest. I just finished reading her interview over at AAR, and...well, I'm kind of put off. I think.

Now, I don't know her personally, and I know that body language and tone of voice and all of that are very necessary to interpret a person's true meaning in what they say, stuff you simply can't get out of an interview posted on a website. So with all due respect and taking this into account, it could be that I'm just hypersensitive.

But I found a lot of what Ms. McNaught said in her opening paragraphs to be more than a little bit condescending. I don't want to analyze it to death here in case you haven't read the interview because I don't want to affect your own interpretation. Go read it, determine for yourself what you think, then come back to see if you agree with me.

It's just that I got the distinct impression that I ("I" being the romance reading community) was being scolded, albiet indirectly. That by expressing a distaste for a common plot device (and yes, the Big Misunderstanding is a plot device with no judgment attached to the definition) that has been overused or misused in a broader sense that perhaps I am looking too hard at what I'm reading. That noticing a fault in a book - that perhaps the writer used a plot device in such a way as to envoke some amount of eyerolling or even stretching it almost to the point of collapse - and thus naming said book a "guilty pleasure," I've committed a serious affront to the writer.

Actually, as a writer, I think I'd be overjoyed to know that despite the fact that I've used what many consider cliches or plot devices that normally cause book-hurling, people still love my stuff enough to call it a guilty pleasure.

I understand that she's trying to tell us to lighten up and stop worrying about what we should like or shouldn't like and just go with the flow. For the most part, I do that. Heck, anyone who reads romance novels is long accustomed to liking something that the public at large vociferously claims no one should enjoy and doing so proudly, without apology. Even within the genre, there are lines we each have drawn about what we will accept and what we won't. And sometimes we cross those lines, even enjoying ourselves when we do so.

Like going to the country fair and plunking down a couple bucks for the giant cone of neon-pink cotton candy. Tastes fabulous, no question about it. Fun to have once in a while, and you can enjoy it without apology. But cotton candy is all fluff and no substance. Doesn't mean you can't like it, but you at least should see it for what it is and not give it excuses or claim that the pink dye they use is full of vitamins and nutrients. It's a guilty pleasure.

Too, I have to wonder how out of touch she must be in order for her claim of not having ever heard the term Big Misunderstanding used in regards to romance novels. I suppose being as successful as she is, she has the option of writing without needing to keep her finger on the pulse of the industry. Writing isn't like practicing medicine. There aren't new technological and medical breakthroughs that require constant re-education. Even so, she and her editor were really that clueless?

And not to rehash old junk, but she emphatically stated that she found nothing at all politically incorrect about what she had originally writte in WML, yet she had decided to change those scenes anyway. When she wrote the books, she hadn't known that real abuse and rape actually happened to real women. Huh? Did she think she invented those concepts out of her own mind? I'm not quite sure I understand that logic, but whatever. I happend to prefer the original, non-diluted version because it makes for better story, and in the end, that trumps a few readers' disatisfaction and loudly cried outrage in my opinion.

In fact, I would argue that by changing those scenes, she's done the romance genre a disservice. Literary fiction covers a gigantic range of human experiences, some of them more horrific than others. But you never see literary novelists changing their stories because they are worried that some of their readers might be hurt by what they've written. Same thing with mystery writers or Sci Fi writers or any other genre fiction. Romance novels reflect a stylized version of reality. As such, sometimes issues will be depicted that mirror real-world circumstances that are hurtful. To delete those references is a form of pandering to the lowest common denominator, of treating your readers like children unable to handle a too-scary bedtime story. So what does that say about the romance genre as a whole? That if its readers can't handle it, the story will be altered until it becomes palatable? So, for example, if romance novel readers don't like reading about blood, all vampire stories must be sanitized in such a way as to keep delicate sensibilities from being ruffled? Not thinking this is a good thing.

Okay, off my soapbox now.

Overall, I felt like she was saying that because she's a successful writer and because she's been writing for so long (over 2 1/2 decades, she pointed out more than once), certainly she knows more and better what works and what doesn't, and if we all have a problem with any of it, especially any of it that she herself has used, then we need to "get over it." We're over-analyzing, over-demanding, and kind of ungrateful, if we want to know the truth.

In skimming the comments about the interview posted on AAR's potpourri message board, I got the impression that perhaps a couple of other people felt at least a little bit of what I felt. Except, I also got the idea that maybe they were afraid of offending a big name writer like Ms. McNaught by calling a horse a horse. I'm either not so shy or totally stupid, but I don't feel such a compulsion. As I was reading the first half of the interview, I just got a really bad taste in my mouth.

However, in the spirit of not letting what I perceive as a writer's foot-in-mouth disease affect what I think about her storytelling abilities, I must admit that I'm intrigued by the premise of McNaught's latest release. I might just give it a go. When it hits paperback, that is.

And in the meantime, I think I'll keep a wide berth around any more McNaught interviews. Sometimes it might just be better to live in blissful ignorance.

1 comment:

Amra Pajalic said...

I agree with you. I clicked the link and read the first half of the interview and I definitely got the impression that she was scolding the writing community and there were quite a few mentions of here 2 1/2 decades in the industry.

I also completely disagreed with her argument that new readers are coming along and don't have a problem with the plot devices she was pointing out. The fact is the newer readers would have greater expectations because they don't know the history of the genre and therefore have sentimantility for it and for writers like her.

These readers are exposed to more savy story-telling devices through sophisticated soapies and other writing that they won't read for the emotional pay-off because their expectations about the pay-off are different.