The Delights of Good Bad Writing

 

Picture_of_Jeffery_FarnolI am run off my feet at the moment in real life with family responsibilities – as always happens during July and August – so I haven’t been able to keep up with writing at all these past few weeks.

That’s a good thing in a way; real life events should always take precedence over our imaginary worlds, as long as one has writing time over the year. Anyway,the last editing of my latest novel, that sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’’, must wait until the autumn. Still,  I do feel that I have been neglecting my blog for too long.

Apropos my last post, which commented on the similarities between the the poet and spokesman for the days of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, and the writer of historical romances and detective novels Georgette Heyer, I was reflecting that I must explore the writings of Jeffrey Farnol, who has something in common with either:

Here he is summed up by Wickpedia:

‘Jeffery Farnol (10 February 1878 – 9 August 1952) was a British writer from 1907 until his death, known for writing more than 40 romance novels, some formulaic and set in the Georgian Era or English Regency period, and swashbucklers. He, with Georgette Heyer, founded the Regency romantic genre.’

The synopsis of the plot for ‘ Martin Coninsby’s Vengeance’ made me laugh out loud. Here it is, in all its glory:

‘Jeffery Farnol brings back the pirate days of the Spanish Main in this stirring book with a company of picturesque characters. It is a full-blooded, wholesome novel that captivates the reader.
Martin Conisby, sour from his five years of slavery on the Spanish galleon Esmeralda, escapes during a sea fight on to an English ship and makes his way back to England. Seeking revenge on Richard Brandon, who was the cause of his father’s death and his own imprisonment. Broken both in body and spirit, he arrives home disguised as a tramp, just in time to save a beautiful girl from the hands of robber, Lady Jane Brandon, the daughter of the man whom he has sworn to punish.
In the tavern he meets an old friend, Adam Penfeather, who tells him the tale of Black Bartlemy, the infamous pirate, with his treasure buried on a desert island–treasure of magnificent value.’…

I see. I simply have to read that one. It sounds as if it must be a classic following the ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ blood and thunder So Bad Its Good type of reading.

The titles alone are a delight. Here are a few:

The Amateur Gentleman (1913)

The Jade of Destiny (1931)

John o’the Green (1935)

Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer (1940)

The Fool Beloved (1949)

Sorry about the uneven print size.

I have not yet explored the contents of any of Jefferey Farnol’s novels, but from those titles and that synopsis alone, I am willing to take a bet that regarding purple prose and stereotypical characters, they have something in common with the novels of Charles Garvice, writer of  best selling Victorian and Edwardian romantic melodramas.

I may be proved entirely wrong, of course, and they may contain brilliant writing along with the bad – many novels do.

Charles Garvice, to my mind, wrote the worst prose, and created the most cardboard characters, of any writer I have ever encountered. I must admit that Barbara Cartland may be a strong runner up. However, I could only endure reading two of hers. Both were terrible and full of unintentional comedy.

One was about a disguised courtier turned highwayman in the court of Charles II. The other was about an obese, drab haired girl who went into a coma for a year and emerged as a slender ash blonde creature who came over to the UK to work for her own estranged husband, with whom she had been forced into a marriage of convenience, and who didn’t recognise her.

These gave me a pretty good  idea about the value of her literary output. However, as I read these many years ago, and have been unable to track them down,  I don’t feel that I have recently read a fair enough sample of hers to claim to be properly informed.

Regulars of this blog will know of my fascination with Garvice’s works, and how Laura Sewell Mater’s article more or less summed up my own reaction, that she had only to read the few paragraphs on the pages of that Charles Garvice novel she found washed up on a beach on Iceland, to know that the writing was ‘incredibly, almost uniquely, bad’.

Many writers combine both good and bad writing – that is certainly true of Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters –  but they include too much excellent writing ever to come close to vying for the title of a Good Bad Writer, unlike Vulpius with his ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’, Kipling in much of his poetry, Georgette Heyer, and Charles Garvice.

 

 

 

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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 leave 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 the blogger’s idol’s literary ability. The blogger later described that series of agreements  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 as having a hidden feminist message.  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 Regis’ work:

‘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.

Christmas Reading and Enjoyable Escapism

dickens-christmas-walkSometimes I can be sceptical about  people going in for a massive amount of escapist reading. For instance, I’ve met people who read an average of five male adventure stories or fantasies or romances a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That – even with my just-prior-to-Christmas just ticking over brain – amounts to 260 a year, and when someone is doing that amount of escapist reading, that might indicate avoiding some serious problem in real life that needs urgent attention.

But perhaps that problem is insoluble – or one that will resolve itself in a few years but currently must be endured – in which case, a retreat into escapism is surely sensible.

And I have to admit, if I’d written 260 books I would find it hard to criticise anyone who spent every evening with his or her nose buried in them…

And I have to admit, too, that there is some justice in the argument that authors spend too much time immersed in our fantasy worlds.

But a bit of escapism is refreshing.  It’s nice, sometimes, to be completely uncritical and self-indulgent, particularly at this time of year. In the New Year, we can leap up to tackle the world’s problems with new enthusiasm. Well, possibly we will waddle along to confront them, given that we will have gained on average three pounds.

I like settling down with a book and a mince pie and either a cup of tea or a glass of sherry, or even of mulled wine, while the wind howls outside. I no longer live in the isolated old houses in which I grew up, but I do live on a hill, anyway, where it’s often windy. I don’t have a real log fire these days – but a radiator will do as well (and having been brought up with open fires, while I miss them I know all too well how tiresome they are to light and clean up after day after day).

I was reading Mari Biella’s excellent recommendations for Christmas reading. She’s beaten me to it with ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Christmas Crackers: The Best Festive Reads

Well, as I have often jeered at the insipid nature of Dickens’ heroes and heroines, and commented with disgust besides on his treatment of his wife, it seems only fair to show a flash of Christmas charity and recommend one of his books; besides, sentimental as it is, I do like that one.

christmas-tree-old-fashioned
For sheer escapist fun, I don’t think you can beat Sherlock Holmes short stories at Christmas. For instance,  there is the first collection I ever read, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. My favourite is ‘The Speckled Band’.  There’s a Christmas story in it too, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. That one is also interesting as a reminder that in the UK, goose was traditionally the fowl eaten at Christmas – by those who could afford it, anyway.

the_adventure_of_the_blue_carbuncle_07

Then, for short ghost stories, I highly recommend ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.gothic-tales-elizabeth-gaskell

That one is truly alarming. Then, ‘Mr Jones’ by Edith Wharton is another fine spine chiller.

For something both fun and spooky – with the borderline between the psychological and the supernatural there, but only just –last year I read the fine novella by the above quoted Mari Biella: ‘Wintergreen’.

wintergreen-cover-ebook-2I recommend it for seasonal enjoyment, and for another atmospheric winter read,  her vampire story, ‘Pietra’.pietra

Or, for a full length tale of terror, there is, of course, Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’.

 

Seasons Greetings to everyone. Now, where is that heated mince pie and that glass of sherry?

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