Criticism and Romantic Novels

I am a bit perturbed (I’m good at being perturbed, aren’t I?) at a New Age view which has infiltrated popular thinking.

A recent blog post by Mari Biella on free speech

Free Speech, Fake News and the Internet

inspired me to write this one.

This ‘New Age’  view that has to some extent infiltrated popular thinking is the  ‘No Negativity’ mindset that equates ‘criticism’ with something bad and unfair – in effect, with ‘negative criticism’.

This seems to me a worrying trend.  Criticism is surely equal to having an intelligent awareness of ones surroundings – towards having an active sense of discrimination. Without that we will have, surely, no intellectual life and also, no moral awareness.

Certainly, criticism can sometimes be harsh and unfair. Nobody exactly enjoys being on the receiving end of a scathing attack, however amusing it may be for others to read.

For instance, literary critics can be savage.

Then, with the rise of the internet, anyone can set buy a book and have a review, even if it is of the ‘Boring – didn’t get past the third paragraph’ one star variety, up there on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and so on.

For my own part, I avoid giving one star reviews unless the topic is really offensive – ie, a rapist or otherwise really abusive hero, say, and I avoid giving up on any book until I’ve read the first three chapters, while I never review a book unless I’ve read it through.

But that’s just me; a lot of readers take a different approach: that is their right .

And surely, the alternative of a non critical attitude, is far worse all round.

Unfortunately, this ‘New Age’ ‘All criticism is bad and unfair’ is an attitude prevalent amongst the ‘Romance Community’, and that does bother me.

What that amounts to, is to adopt the attitude of the cults – disseminating received information, the value and veracity of which it is an outrage to challenge – so that any critical response is attributed to supposed personal malice and psychological shortcomings, if not downright inspiration from evil spirits (glances uneasily about in search of said evil spirits).

There is a  sort of ‘keeping ranks’ attitude amongst writers and readers of romance – who often seem to know each other through blogs, etc – which adheres to unspoken rules, one of which seems to be that being under attack from outside means that they must not express any discontent between themselves. Any outspoken, hard hitting criticism is seen as being infra dig (Sarah Wendell has been to some extent an exception).  I recently came across a series of fulsome comments agreeing with a blogger who had objected to critical dismissal of an author idol’s literary ability later described by that same blogger  as ‘a stimulating discussion’.  I didn’t quite see where the ‘discussion’ part came in? What was her view of a non stimulating discussion?

Seriously, I truly did encounter this on a cosy little blog, the purpose of which seemed to be to give glowing reviews to historical romances,’intimate’ and sentimental biographies of monarchs, etc.

I can see how this approach has come about. Romantic novels have been traditionally derided as being unworthy of serious consideration as literature. While genre fiction generally is seen in this light, it is particularly true of romance, which has been especially targeted as absurd. Certainly, there is an element of sexism in this.

A lot of romance writers and readers point out, and with some justification, that male adventure stories and fantasy are just as far fetched;  it is merely that the unrealistic elements in those are different to those in romantic novels.

However, to take the attitude that it is permissible to write what is supposed to be literary criticism, in which a writer or student proffers no objective analysis of general weaknesses among examples the genre, and of particular weaknesses amongst the authors discussed, is surely not  literary criticism worthy of the name. Unfortunately, there are examples of so-called ‘literary criticism’ of romance as a genre which reflect this attitude.

I am sorry to say that this is true of a renowned book of literary criticism of the romance novel written by a Professor of English at McDaniel College in the US – often solemnly quoted as a brilliant defence of the genre in various articles about the web – ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’  by Pamela Regis.

This struck me as containing no criticism either of the genre, or of the authors’ work the author purports to analyse. Rather it was a glowing series of expositions of various novels.

At no point during the whole of the book does Regis admit that any of the novels she ‘discusses’ have weaknesses. It reads more like a panegyric on the various authors. She sets out a structure she has devised to which the ‘pure’ romantic novel is meant to a adhere, comprising eight points. She then goes on to define various classic novels as having these points and therefore, by definition, belonging to the category of romantic novels, ie, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (whether or not these last two are in fact romantic novels is, of course, highly debated; anyway, Regis is confident that according to her approach, they are).

When I came to the chapter ‘The Limits of Romance’ , I thought, ‘Ah; now we shall have some objective analyses worthy of the name’ but no such thing. The phrase merely means that certain novels which are, generally, regarded as belonging to the romance genre are excluded – ie, ‘Gone With the Wind’, which is excluded by not having the necessary HEA.

Where there is any criticism, even of highly contentious subjects – for instance, of Samuel Richardson’s making a happy ending between the heroine and the ridiculous but supposedly romantic would-be rapist hero Mr B in ‘Pamela’ – then rather than engage herself, the author quotes opinions by other critics, never stating her own opinions except in defence of the genre.

Discussion of varying points of view should indeed be used to extend the scope of an argument; but when it is used as a substitute for any real investigation of structural and stylistic weaknesses by the author herself, when she is supposedly an expert on literary criticism – that strikes me as extraordinary.

My own review of this book can be found here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/182152.A_Natural_History_of_the_Romance_Novel?ac=1&from_search=true#other_reviews

I found some of the comments on the book made by a journalist called Noah Berlatsky in this blog highly apposite:

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/12/romance-and-the-defensive-crouch

‘Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. ‘

…An impossible position to maintain, but somehow the author does it. But then she makes a truly astounding claim about the ‘first romantic novel’  ‘Pamela’, of which, it seems, for all its glaring faults, she as a defender of romantic novels is determined to admire.  She maintains that:  ‘The story can be called oppressive, I think, only if one believes that marriage is an institution so flawed that it cannot be good for a woman.’

I wrote an answer answer to that bizarre attempt at defence of the distasteful and sentimental outcome (as critics say, the obscenity of ‘Pamela’ lies in its sentimentality)  in my Goodreads review of her book. This would take us too far off topic here for me to quote…

So, to move back to the general…

I remarked in my own review of this book:

‘The author, in fact, puts herself in an impossible position; in arguing that there have been some romances written which are great literature, pointing to the ‘canonical’ texts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, she never admits that comparison means just that. If there have been excellent romances written, then by definition there have to have been some far from excellent ones churned out. But as a defender of romance, who seems to make it a point of honour to eschew all criticism, this is an admission that she cannot make. All that she can do, is to maintain a deafening silence on the topic.

This ‘closing ranks’ out of defensiveness and equating all criticism with negative criticism is an attitude of the romance community which contradicts the desire of its members for their genre to be taken seriously. Criticism by definition cannot all be positive.’

If romance readers and writers want their favourite genre taken seriously as literature, then surely one of the first steps must be for romance writers to accept criticism without automatically maintaining the ‘defensive crouch’ that Noah Berlatsky analyses in his blog.

To move forward, surely the ‘romance community’ must also  be prepared to extend hard hitting analysis worthy of the  name about ‘classic romantic novels’ and others  – particularly in works of supposed literary criticism.  Free speech should operate here as elsewhere; for romance writers and critics to adopt the attitude that it is somehow unfair and not nice  makes them seem weak in a stereotypically ‘feminine’ way, and reinforce those sexist interpretations they so rightly resent.

Inspired Endings – That State of Transendence

I have written before about the inspired ending to Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, which is, along with ‘Hangover Square’ considered to be his masterpiece.

I won’t do it justice here,  unless I explain something of the story, which is essentially a dark comedy. It concerns the grim – and often ludicrous – experiences of the lonely, early middle aged Miss Roach in a Henley boarding house called – with a typical Hamilton facetious touch – ‘The Rosamund Tea Rooms’ – in England during 1942; in other words, in the middle of World War II.

She incurs the wholly unjustified vindictiveness of two of her fellow lodgers. One of these is a German woman, Vicki Kugelmann, whom she has previously tried to befriend, the other a type which I gather was common in the ‘genteel’ boarding houses of the era – the impossibly overbearing and reactionary Mr Thwaites. They encourage each other in taunting Miss Roach, and gibing at her support for democracy.

Miss Roach has developed a mild flirtation with an American GI, the generous but unreliable Lieutenant Pike,who wishes, if he survives the war, to enter the laundry business. He has even proposed to Miss Roach: ‘Though she had laughed at the laundry, she had never entirely discounted it’.

The predatory Vikki, taken along to a meal with Lieutenant Pike and some of his GI friends through Miss Roach’s charity, throws herself at the unreliable, drunken Lieutenant Pike, and contrives to come between him and Miss Roach and to steal him as ‘her American’, though she smugly informs Miss Roach that:  ‘I am not the Snatcher. I do not snatch the men’.

Then Miss Roach, already feeling undermined through the constant sniping comments from Mr Thwaites and Vikki, hears that Lieutenant Pike in fact is notorious for going about proposing to every woman with whom he becomes entangled, so his previous proposal was empty. She feels; ‘deprived of all dignity’.

Vikki gradually reveals herself as hating the British, and Mr Thwaites has always been a closet fascist. After a prolonged psychological battle with these two, Miss Roach finally emerges triumphant.

Lieutenant Pike shifts his allegiance back to Miss Roach, but has to leave when his unit is transferred. Having inherited a sum of money from her aunt, she leaves the boarding house in triumph. Mr Thwaites has now died of a sudden agonising illness  –  and Vicki has been asked to leave to boarding house for inviting Mr Thwaites and Lieutenant Pyke into her room in a drunken spree.

Miss Roach is invited  to see the retired actor Mr Prest – always despised as ‘common’ in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – brought out of retirement to star as the wicked uncle in a pantomime. This, and the delight of the childish audience, gives Miss Roach a feeling of transcendence: ‘There was an extraordinary look of purification about Mr Prest..and…Miss Roach felt purified.’

She has taken a room for a couple of nights in Claridges (able to pay through her small inheritance from her aunt): Here her strange feeling of purification continues:

‘An orchestra was now playing in the lounge, and sitting and having that last drink…something else was added to Miss Roache’s state of mind…there came a sort of clarification of mind, in which she could see in their correct proportions all the things which had occurred to her in the last few months…

She saw Mr Thwaites in his right proportions…The trouble with that man was that he had never stepped beyond the mental age of eleven or twelve, nature having arrested him at a certain ugly phase…

She saw the Lieutenant in his right proportions. Not strong of mind, easily affected by drink, in a foreign land, in a mood of sexual excitation, in fear of the future and over anxious to live life to the full, the poor man had gone about in drink making love to the girls and asking them to marry him…

She saw Vikki in her right proportions. A wretched woman that, more wretched than evil…savagely egoistic. And in her sex obsession, vain. And in her vanity cruel…She probably wasn’t really the concentration camp, stadium yelling, rich, fruity, German Nazi which Miss Roach had at times thought her (and yet she very probably was!) and now Miss Roach found it easy to forgive her.’

Settling down to sleep, Miss Roach, ‘That slave of her task master, solitude …hopefully composed her mind for sleep – God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us.’

Patrick Hamilton was in fact an atheist, but if ever a line was written in a state of inspiration, that last line of supplication to the Deity is it.

To me, the feeling that it inspires sums up the state of mind in which the author must be himself or herself, in order to inspire that same leap of transcendence in the reader.

This is the culmination of that satisfactory ending. We’ve had the fireworks, and we’ve done the prosaic stuff with tying up the loose ends.Now you must impart to the reader a feeling  of peace and completion.

This is the culmination; this is where you leave the reader who has paid you the compliment of joining you in a sojourn through your imaginary world. You must leave that reader contented.

In a fictional work that has any aspirations to merit, that moment of parting is all important. .

You can’t afford to leave that reader dissatisfied. Unless you are writing a series, in those last pages,  you must tie up those loopholes in the plot, that goes without saying. You must resolve your main characters’ dilemma, end that quest, bring down those barriers .
You have to bring about completion as surely as any conveyancing solicitor handing the client those coveted house keys.

And evocation of mood is a great part of it.

In light novels, say a romance pure and simple, you only aim to solve the main characters’ dilemma and bring them together. It is that which gives the reader her (less often his) emotional high. It’s ended nicely, for those protagonists, anyway.

But if you are writing something deeper, that is hardly enough. You want to evoke a more expanded mindset that that. You want that reader to feel almost stunned and emotionally both drained and fulfilled, by first the drama of those concluding chapters, and then to come to a sense of peace.

I’m not, of course, implying that we can hope to come even close, were we to write and rewrite our ending lines several thousand times,  but below are the ending lines to ‘King Lear’.

Cordelia is dead, Edmund’s repentance when he found himself dying after his fight with Edgar wasn’t in time to save her; the once foolish, vain and authoritarian King Lear, who has run mad and been restored to sanity again by that rejected daughter, has himself died of a cracked heart; Goneril has poisoned Regan, and then stabbed herself to death, and ‘My poor Fool is hanged’.

The slaughter is awful. It is given to Edgar (the probable future ruler) to say:

‘The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

It wouldn’t even be a good idea if we could replicate that tragic grandeur. It is probably better for the mental stability of the population that we don’t read several such great works of literature each week. We would become overwrought.

For all that, we must, of course, always try to write the best version of whatever it is that we are writing or we won’t be aiming high enough: we’ll be churning out pot boilers.

There are some writers who have managed to do that and produce something of lasting value – I would argue that Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories achieved that, however light a value he placed on them – but they have not been many.

But if we want to write something of value, then at the conclusion of a story, that feeling of transcendence, that mindset of rising above petty differences, of compassionate awareness of the tragedies in life – of the terrible waste in human misunderstanding, must come through.

When I first finished reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a good long time ago, and read the concluding passage:

‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fl uttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’

Those evocative words gave me that feeling.

That was as myself in a transcendent mood.

Later, when I came to think about it, having reverted once more my everyday self – I decided that I personally found the ending of the story unsatisfactory because Healthcliff never repents of his evildoing – he explicitly tells Nelly Dean that he has done nothing wrong.

I have learnt since, that Emily Bronte had given much thought to the final destination of the ‘unrepentant man of iron’. Now I would hazard that the ending is not meant to give any definitive indication of what that final account will be, other than at the last, we are all perhaps incorporated into that all encompassing peace.

And, of course, with regard to all the above,  if you are writing a series, then that job is in some ways even harder, as in each stage, you must have an interim ending which gives a partial sense of completion and then finish with the fireworks and the roll of drums and then – that final piece of imaginative empathy.

Well, that is what we must aim for. We can only try.

I’m on to the last 30,000 words in my latest now, building up to the fireworks, which I can only hope don’t prove to be damp squibs, and then I’ve got to pull off those final moments .

Wish me luck.

Getting From the Middle to the End of Your Story: The Main Characters’ Darkest Hours…

2013_fireworks_on_eiffel_tower_49

YUK. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the sagging middle, and how I was fighting my way through that in my latest, the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’.

By the way, this one has the interim title: ‘Villains and Vampires’. However, as my last began with the words, ‘The Villainous Viscount’ I am not sure that this new title is sufficiently different. A potential reader, skim reading, might say; ‘The V….V…’ that rings a bell; I must have read that…’  So I’m in two minds.

I have written a bit more of that middle – but guess what: I wrote a pivotal part about which I wasn’t quite sure. Then this way led somehow to all the characters getting towards the end from the middle too quickly.

I didn’t feel that the main characters’ feelings of desperation during the darkest moments were sufficiently extended or bleak. It was more, ‘Oh dear. This is bad. Oh dear, THIS IS BAD! Oh, what’s that? Ah, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel yet…’

I felt that I was pulling too many irons out of the fire before they were red hot, or as if I had lit the fuse too soon. A couple of the sub plots seemed to fizzle out.

And that isn’t good enough. That’s second rate at best – probably third rate. The only writers who can only get away with writing a middle like that are ones with a massive fan base, most of whom are so addicted that they will somehow miss the unsatisfactory nature of that move to the resolution, and give a five star review to anything connected with that writer’s name – even reissued juvenelia.

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So, in that last display of fireworks, you want them all to go off so that the reader says at the end ‘Wow! Just – Wow!’ I hope I’m not normally given to fatuous observations (some might dispute that ) but while I hate that expression  ‘Wow’, that is exactly what I did say at the end of, for instance, Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘In the Moon of Asterion’, the concluding part of the Greek section of her ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series. The way everything came together was brilliant.

By the way, at the moment,the first novel from that series, ‘The Year God’s Daughter’  is permanently free on Amazon.here

That being so, all I could do was jettison those 15,000 words and go back. It made me feel quite dismal for a day or so, but still, I wrote ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ three times.

I found the following information from this website very useful https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/19/evolving-your-story

…13 Downtime begins
The last section of the middle portion of the story begins with the downtime, which precedes the black moment. Your characters are coming to feel they have nothing left to hold on to. Detail these feelings.
14 Characters revise old or design new short-term goals
Your characters are going to make their next decisions out of sheer desperation. From this point on, they seem to lose much of their confidence – or, worse, they’re feeling a reckless sense of bravado that may have tragic consequences. What are their new goals and how do they plan to reach them?
15 The quest to reach the story goal continues, but instability abounds
Though your characters are ploughing ahead bravely, each step is taken with deep uncertainty. How does this action unfold?
16 The black moment begins
The worst possible failure has now come to pass. The short-term goals made in desperation are thwarted, and the stakes are raised to fever pitch as the worst of all possible conflicts is unveiled. Describe it in detail.
17 The characters react to the black moment
Characters react to this major conflict with a sense of finality. Never will there be a moment when the outcome is more in question than in this concluding section of the middle of the book.
The end…At the end of a book, all plots, subplots and conflicts are resolved. In the last few chapters, the characters are finally given a well-deserved break from their recent crisis.

On juvenilia – I am sure there will be no takers for anyone wanting to read my first satire, which I wrote in cartoon form aged nine?  Entitled ‘Wendy Goes To Town’ it was about an officious little girl who – surprise, surprise, went to town to stay with her aunt . She discovered that a gang of altruistic local villains from the local rough estate were stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and spied on them, using newly acquired detective skills acquired from a book. The story ended with Wendy driven off  by her proud parents, wearing a medal awarded by the local magistrate, who had given all the menaces to society six months…

170px-robin_shoots_with_sir_guy_by_louis_rhead_1912

I remember that I had recently read a version of the  ‘Robin Hood’ legends, which had a great affect on me; any readers of this blog or my writing will know, of course, that it lingers still.   I hope I can write slightly better than I did at nine, though…