Friday, June 02, 2006

I'm Trying. Really.

I finally caved and picked up my first Nora Roberts.

Actually, that's not quite true. I have read a couple of the J.D. Robb "In Death" books, and once upon a time I read a novella-length Roberts in an anthology. Only thing I remember is that it was set at Christmas time and involved a poor girl and her father and some guy who was wounded and hiding out in their barn.

But yesterday I broke down and picked up a copy of Sea Swept from the library, and today I toddled over to the UBS to pick up Born in Fire, as well as the final three titles in the Chesapeake Bay series.

Up to this point, I have ignored La Nora on principle. Now, I don't know Ms. Roberts in person. I'm sure she's a wonderful, lovely woman. And I know she's paid her dues and works very, very hard for the overwhelming success she's attained. I hold no personal grudges against her and wish her only good health, long life, much happiness, and many more stories to tell. She's truly a talent and deserves the respect of the entire romance community, if for nothing else than because she's our permanent ambassador to the NYT Best Sellers list and has done more than probably any other genre writer in giving the old one-finger-salute to the literary snobs by making gazillions on those "formulaic trashy novels."

That being said, I have steadfastly refused to purchase a Nora Roberts novel because the woman is everywhere. You can't swing a figurative dead cat without hitting a Nora title or a Nora re-release or a Nora anthology, trilogy, series or stand alone. She's everywhere.

And some impish bitch inside of me simply refuses to contribute to the epidemic of Nora books blanketing the world. She certainly doesn't need my money. And she clearly doesn't need my support since there are masses upon masses who adore and worship at the altar of La Nora. I'm an eye-dropper droplet in the Pacific Ocean of Nora fans or potential fans, thus my boycott on principle doesn't hurt her a bit. I prefer to spend my bookbuying dollars on writers who actually might benefit from the sale of another copy, those who are trying to build a career from the ground up rather than raking in the gazillions from re-releases and various permutations of combining past titles while at the same time cranking out dozens of new books to glut the market, leading to a full 1/3 of the space devoted to romance novels in any given bookstore to be lined with Nora Roberts spines and face-outs. Not to mention all those NYT endcaps...

But someone answering a question I had posed over on the AAR potpourri message board suggested a Nora title to solve my problem. Then that very same title showed up in a recent AAR At the Back Fence column. When Sea Swept also appeared as the number one title on the reader-recommended top ten Nora Roberts titles list as well as earning a DIK review, I figured the gods were trying to tell me something. Maybe I should stop being a snob for no reason and give Nora a try. Maybe I was cutting off my nose to spite my face, missing the best flavor of ice cream simply because I refused to try it only because everyone else told me to.

I'm about 150 pages into Sea Swept. And my feelings so far?...Ambivalent.

Yes, I do want to finish the book. This is a humongous hurdle overcome already, since I have at least a dozen books on my TBR shelf that I gave the old 50-page college try only to put them down without any burning desire to pick them back up again. I do want to know what happens to the characters I've met so far. Sort of.

But even so, I'm still not getting it. Why the huge appeal of this woman? Why do so many sing her praises and whisper her name in reverent tones?

And I'm not just saying this because I have a chip on my shoulder the size of Texas. I have legitimate, real beefs that I truly believe would be the downfall of any writer of lesser fame and stature.

For example, head hopping in the extreme. I've heard tell that La Nora can pull off head hopping in such a way as to make it nearly invisible to the reader. She's one of a handful that can get away with it. But in my opinion, it's not invisible. Especially in a book where the POV hops not just from hero to heroine and back again but between several brothers and other characters. I always notice when it happens, and it pulls me out of the story. No, I'm not dizzy. Nor am I ever confused about who is thinking what, so to that end she does pull it off. But I'd just as soon remain in one person's head throughout the entire scene, especially since much of the hopping about seems more about giving the readers visual images of the characters rather than for better story telling.

Another problem is the use of phrases that make no sense to me or are so over-the-top poetic as to be outright silly. I encountered this phrase that made me read it over three times because I found it so bizarre: "Huddled in the dark, his body weeping at every bump, he promised himself he'd kill or he'd die before he went back." Um...body weeping? I'm not getting what that's supposed to represent. And not more than six paragraphs later, there's this to further confuse the issue: "His shirt stuck to his back; his feet began to weep." We won't go into the use of a fairly unique word as weep within two pages, but I do think it fair to question what exact imagery she is trying to conjure.

My last bitch-fest complaint is that she gets away with something that no fledgling writer in her right mind would ever even attempt. The first time we meet the heroine of Sea Swept, she's all alone, driving in her car. We are in her POV and only her POV since there is no-one else around to have a POV. Yet we get a description of her physical features, from hair color and style down to her pale gold skin and almond-shaped eyes, including such un-modesty as "Her mouth was full, with a ripe bottom lip." It's as close to the old looking-in-the-mirror technique as you can get without a piece of shiny glass nearby. Now, I understand that such descriptive works in a distant third-person narrative. Perhaps that's what's happening in this case. We aren't really in the heroine's brain but looking at her from high above. Not only does this cause a distance from the character for me, but with such phrasing it actually serves to make the heroine seem pretty darn full of herself, thinking she's a sexy mama with that ripe bottom lip. What woman thinks of her own lower lip as ripe?

Before I come off as the she-bitch-from-hell, these issues with craft really aren't any big deal. I've enjoyed many a book with much worse. I'm the kind who believes that a great story can overcome craft flaws easily, and because I'm intending to finish Sea Swept, obviously nothing in it so far has offended my writer sensibilities to the extreme.

It's just that for someone so entirely famous, so clearly the icon of an entire genre and so frequently held aloft as the bar for which we all strive, I expected perfection. I expected to be blown out of my socks, so swept away in the story that any craft issues would be invisible. I even went the extra mile to choose what many people say is the best of the best of her work. But I keep getting jerked out of the story.

I know. Maybe it's just that I'm looking for problems. Maybe I want this poor woman to fail in my estimation, so I'm just being a nitpicking fussbudget determined to be displeased. Maybe I should just shut my mouth and my writer's brain and try to enjoy the story.

To that end, I can promise to finish the book. To give it the entire go rather than judge it after only a few pages. I do have my principles, though. No guarantee I won't get any necessary Nora fixes via the library or the UBS. She won't miss me at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're right about Nora, you know. And another thing, if you read a few more of her books, you'll find that they all have the exact same plot and ending.

Don't get me wrong, she's okay. She's good even. But why she sells SO much really confuses me. Maybe it's because she's so productive. Oh, and I think her publisher markets her well.

Anyway, I was relieved to see someone who had similar sentiments. I'm not that big on romance novels in the first place, although I do enjoy reading a few of them a year. Nora's great, but there are better out there.