Disappointing Reader Expectations and Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

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Most books about successful novel writing emphasize that above everything, the writer who wants to sell well and avoid bad reviews must at all costs respect the  tropes of a genre, and particularly avoid ‘disappointing reader expectations’.

In fact, Chris Fox in his well argued and generally witty book  ‘Write to Market’ emphasizes this to the point of going into the specifics of market research,  cover design and plot details including even the sex of a spaceship’s pilot.

Besides this, genres are not at all costs to be mixed. He gives some brisk advice in a chapter headed ‘Don’t Get Cute’, citing his own experience.

Market research had already told him that Super Heroes and Alien Conspiracy stories were popular around 2016, and he had the idea of combining features of his two favourite television series, ‘The X Files’ and ‘Heroes’. He joined the themes of alien conspiracy and superheroes in the first novel for a projected series called ‘Project Solaris’, ‘Hero Born’.  As both of these are popular sub genres of fantasy, he hoped to draw in readers of both and market a best seller (his first novel had in fact been a best seller, though he modestly ascribes this to a stroke of luck) .

He claims that as it turned out, ‘Hero Born’  failed to attract readers from both genres because the expectations of each group were different and even conflicting.  For instance, market research advised him that readers of superhero stories tend to be in their teens and indulging a fantasy of being suddenly special. By contrast, readers of alien conspiracy themes are interested in reading about uncovering a deeper truth, solving a mystery, and putting right an injustice. He argues that the two themes  of his novel clashed.

The result was, that his book sold hundreds rather than thousands of copies. His current fans loved it, but it attracted no new ones.

Write to Market

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For me, and for many other writers, selling in hundreds is fine – it is selling in dribs and drabs of a couple a month that is soul destroying.  Chris Fox however, aims to sell thousands in weeks, and disappointing reader expectations is not the way to do that.

All this made me think enviously of writers in previous ages, who may not have had the advantages of internet publishing, but who seemingly did not have to adhere to such rigid demands from readers.

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When I recently re-read the collection of Pushkin’s prose in the book ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’  (also In this collection is to be found my favourite robber novel, ‘Dubrovsky’ but that is irrelevant here), it occurred to me that this story, phenomenally successful in its day and now of course a renowned classic, almost seems to be designed to wrong foot the reader.

‘The Queen of Spades’ is of course, Pushkin’s most famous piece of prose writing and was the equivalent of a best seller in his own time. Obviously, with so small a reading public, the numbers sold would be insignificant compared to internet sales in the modern age, but not in his. It was an overnight sensation, and the talk of fashionable society – and possibly of unfashionable society as well.

I first read it at twelve – my father had an old edition of this book – and was struck even then by the concise, dry style, even in translation. For instance, there is the famous beginning of the story: –

There was a card party at the rooms of Naramov, an officer of the guards. The long winter night had passed unnoticed and it was after four in the morning when the company sat down to supper’.

Apparently, Pushkin used the concise style of the old French masters to perfection.

However, it is not about his style that I want to write in this post – though reading it makes me reflect how I must write more concisely myself – but about how in this classic story  Pushkin in fact seems to delight in disappointing those dreaded reader expectations.

For those who haven’t read it, it is about a secret gambling formula which gives inevitable success at cards. It was given to a spoilt young noblewoman by the mysterious Saint- Germain in the 1770’s. She at that time faced the threat of ruin, having lost a massive sum at faro at Versailles. Through using it, she recouped her losses, winning spectacularly, but never played again.

She refused to give the secret to her sons – all determined gamblers – but did once reveal it to another man in desperate circumstances, who also recouped his losses and ceased play from then on.

This story is told at the card party by Tomsky, her grandson, and is overheard by a German officer of the Engineers, Hermann. This man is remarkably careful of his money, having been left only ‘a small independence’ . He does not even touch the interest on his capital, living on his pay. However, so fascinated by cards is he, that he sits up watching others play until the small hours.

Pushkin says of him: – ‘He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but strength of character preserved him from the customary mistakes of youth’.

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That he is a very odd character is surely shown by this. This is further reinforced by his obsessive thinking over the story as he wanders about Petersburg the next evening, musing on finding a way of getting the Countess X to reveal her secret to him.

As he sees it, winning her favour and perhaps posing as an admirer might compel her to do so. However, he dismisses this idea on the grounds that ‘She is eighty-seven. She might be dead next week, or the day after tomorrow, even.’

The callousness of this calculation made me start on first reading it, and then laugh at the grim depiction of his coldness.

His wanderings take him to a great house outside which a great many carriages are arriving for some social occasion, which he learns belongs to the Countess X.  Dreaming that night of winning enormous wealth through gambling, he returns to patrol outside the Countess’ house, and sees the Countess’ lovely young companion, the unfortunate Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom the Countess  has raised as an orphan and treats as a drudge. He looks up at the windows.

In one of them he saw a dark head bent over a book or some needlework. The head was raised. Hermann caught sight of a rosy face and a pair of black eyes. The moment decided his fate.’

At twelve, I had read a fair amount of romances and novels of other genres with romantic sub plots, and I knew that men more callous than Hermann were often destined to cast aside their wicked plans as they fell in love with the heroine. This is what I naively assumed would happen here. After all, I knew nothing about Pushkin save that it seemed that he had died young in a duel over his wife, which seemed to me romantic indeed.

I was startled and dismayed when far from falling in love, Hermann remains cold and calculating. He writes Lizaveta love letters (copied, so Pushkin tells us, from a German novel) and gradually persuades her to agree to an assignation with him. She tells him how to get into the house.

Hermann waits for this ‘like a tiger trembling for its prey’.  He waits until the staff have retired and the Countess is left alone in her room, and then approaches her.  At first, he begs her to reveal her secret to him. When she refuses, he threatens her with a pistol. She dies of fright.

He goes to confess to the horrified Lizaveta.

So those passionate letters, those ardent pleas, the bold, determined pursuit had not been inspired by love…It was not she who could satisfy his desires and make him happy! Poor child, she had been nothing but the blind tool of a thief, of the murderer of her aged benefactress! …She wept bitterly in a vain agony of repentance…’

The most sinister developments of the story are yet to come, but I will write no more spoilers, having made the point that this tale does not follow a conventional pattern. The anti-hero remains cold and callous, indifferent to Lizaveta’s appeal:

‘…Neither the poor girl’s tears nor her indescribable charm in her grief touched his hardened soul.’ 

Reading this at twelve, I was dismayed by the sheer unpleasantness of the anti-hero, who incidentally, is described facetiously by Tomsky to Lizaveta Ivanovna as having ‘the profile of Napolean and the soul of Mephistopheles’. I recall my reader expectations were disappointed in a big way. I did read to the end, and found it a fascinating tale, but at this age found the cynicism in the story rather too much for me, so that it was many years before I read any more Pushkin.

Queen of Spades image

Though I was very young when I read the story, I tend to think my expectations of it were typical. I seem to remember reading  somewhere that in this story, Pushkin deliberately upends expected tropes, and that most readers would expect some sort of love story between Hermann and Livaveta Ivanovna, even if it was not the main focus of the plot. How far Pushkin deliberately toyed with disappointing these dreaded tropes and reader expectations, it is hard to say. Pushkin was fascinated by innovation in writing, and Hermann has also been described as a character of a new type for Pushkin’s age.

There are all sorts of levels of  irony in this story, of course. One is that while it might ostensibly be called a story with a moral that points against becoming obsessed with making easy money through games of chance, Pushkin himself was dangerously drawn by gambling himself. On his death in that infamous duel, the Tsar paid off gambling debts for him amounting to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Pushkin was, of course, a writer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, though this story might be defined as belonging to the genre of horror, or as a ghost story. By the time he wrote ‘The Queen of Spades’ of course, he was so renowned that he could afford to ignore such incidentals as readers’ tastes.

Have specific requirements for genres become more of a requirement in the current era? I do think readers make more demands for specific tropes for genre fiction, and in pointing this out, Chris Fox is doing a great favour to the writer who aspires to sell more.

But it is surely a hindrance on innovative sorts of writing, and I also wonder; isn’t it by breaking out of the demands of a genre, perhaps creating a new one in the process, that a writer often obtains the greatest success?

Interstingly, various highly successful writers have achieved this in the past, Mary Renault for one, and Anne Rice for another. Perhaps I should not try and speak for advocates of sticking  to the tropes of a genre. Still, I suppose they might say that yes, that is true, but those are the ones in several thousand who became world famous, and that perhaps it is best to build a firm readership base before starting to tamper with the boundaries of a genre.

There are, to sum up on a tediously neutral note, there must be arguments either way.  Finally, I supose it must depend upon how well you can write for the market (and I would like to emphasize that Chris Fox in no way advocates selling out and writing about what you hate). Some can do it brilliantly; others, I suspect, less so.

 

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Formulaic Writing: Romantic Melodrama and Charles Garvice, ‘The Great Bad Novelist’.

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I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’  and frankly terrible writing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be:  ‘Leslie’s Loyalty:  Or His Love So True’.

Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.

I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually.  In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s  wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read?  Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and  beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.

I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff  (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.

In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’

She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).

She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.

Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount  Or the Curse of the Venns’).

Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.

Quite often another women  is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.

Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.

The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then  all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.

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Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine.  The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).

I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.

Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’

I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.

Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.

So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…

But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:

‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’

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Christmas reading: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

 

 

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I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those, but for now, which of the many to choose as a seasonal ghost story?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatrabes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history.  Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be. It is also written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with her contentment.

I think for sheer spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ takes a lot of beating.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

 

 

 

 

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.

Genre Fiction, Romantic Novels and Escapism

220px-amalie-augusteOne of the complaints often aired by romance readers is that the genre is despised as escapism, and yet this insult is not so often aimed at other forms of genre fiction.

There is some justice in this complaint.   Yes, there are highly escapist elements  to romantic novels – but often they are ones which they only share with other fiction written as light relief.

For instance, if there are a disproportionately high number of fearless, ripped macho types featuring as heroes in romantic novels, then the same could be said of the heroes of action/ adventure stories aimed at a male readership .

Neither are the adventures of the characters in these stories any more probable, though they tend to concentrate on macho adventures to the exclusion of the emotional side of life. In this way, these two forms of fiction – romance and the sort of action/adventure novels that  attract a largely male readership might be said to represent two opposite ends of a spectrum.

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I may not be fair in showing these two covers as they come from long defunct magazines of the nineteen-fifties. But I thought I would put them in by way of entertainment.  I’d like to acknowledge that the adaption of the first was by Shunk, by the way…

Then there is fantasy, a genre about as unrelated to prosaic reality as you can get. (This is also straying from the point; I seem to be doing a lot of that in this article, but I read a blog about writing fantasy which said of dagger wielding leather clad female warriors:  ‘Enough…I mean we’re here, right?’ That’s rather a pity: that is a sort of  female stereotype I  rather enjoy).

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But there is certainly some justification to the charge of romance being unrealistic, even apart from the preponderance of billionaires in contemporary romances and dukes in Regency romances (there have only ever been about twenty-five non-royal dukedoms in the UK) and the often, wildly improbable HEAs.

One aspect I have noticed is the lack of sordid details in the stories. I have commented before on how there seems to be an agreement that heroes should never vomit, even when suffering from concussion, and that the women never need to evacuate when held captive.  There may well be exceptions, and I’d like to hear of them.

This particularly applies to historical romance. There seems to be a tendency to write stories where, for instance, the characters inhabit a Georgian or Regency London wholly devoid of the filthy streets or wretched beggars.

While the Mayfair aristocracy may have avoided walking through the sordid muck which littered the streets through going everywhere by carriage (and employing a footman to run ahead to clear the way of pedestrians, at least), they could hardly avoid being exposed to general dirt and squalor.

That was why in cities and in London in particular, the reception rooms were on the first floor. That way, the evil smells of the street outside were less likely to penetrate.

Of course, by modern standards, even people from the leisured classes would have been fairly grubby themselves. Bathing too often was seen as bad for the health. 110px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Torse,_effet_de_soleil

It’s understandable that stories which aim to provide the reader with light entertainment are going to pass over these sordid facts.

However, I do think that this concentration on the upper class in historical romance, and limiting the working -class characters to obliging servants and inn-keepers, can lead to the consensus oriented, a-political view of society which is often presented in historical romances. It is too easy for that approach to ally the readers of historical romanced with a sentimental and even a reactionary view of history. That only can be a bad thing.

The Romantic Novel, The Happy For Now And The Traditional Happy Ever After

collection_nocturne_de_harlequinI saw some posts on Facebook recently on romantic novels and the HEA (for anyone uninitiated, that notorious Happy Ever After).

The posters said that there had been some romantic novels released recently without the obligatory HEA, and because of that, some Indie Authors of romantic fiction had included the assurance that ‘this novel has an HEA’.

Romantic novels, of course, are notorious as a genre where the readers insist on a happy ending. That is why, I gather, ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Rebecca’ are often precluded from them – one has the hero leaving the heroine, and it seems in the second the hero makes no explicit love declaration (I seem somehow to have missed that omission).

For my own part, I have long argued that this insistence on the HEA is one of the reasons that romances are not generally taken seriously as literature, that and the tendency to leave ugly details out of the stories.

This if often defined as a necessary part of writing a genre which is by definition escapist.

Personally, I have never seen why a conditional happy ending or what it seems is known as the ‘HFN’ – Happy For Now – is often regarded as unacceptable.

Georg_Friedrich_Kersting_005_detailAfter all, even in a Heats and Rainbows traditional happy endng it is impossible to depict a limitless timing.  One assumes that generally (not inevitably) the hero and heroine are meant to be mortal; therefore, they will in the future either die early, or age. Either way, they must eventually shuffle off this mortal coil. Presumably, the average reader would rather not envisage the hero and heroine in their declining years, with  the hero, perhaps, forced to bolster up his wild curly black locks with a toupe, and the heroine sneaking on ‘controlling’ underwear to give the illusion of a sylph like figure..

Joking apart, what actually strikes me most about the Happy Ever After is that it only has to apply to the hero and the heroine. That might seem a comment on the obvious; but in a way, perhaps it reflects the ideology of our era?

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Just as the Grail legends reflect the frames of reference of the mediaeval mind, the ideology that underpinned feudalism – perhaps the Happy Ever After for an individual couple in romantic fiction is an indication of the ideology of capitalism – individualism – and therefore is equally a finite form of literature, at least in its present form?

It is no accident, surely, that the first romantic novel – ‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson – was written during the era of the rise of the manufacturing class as the dominant force in society.

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Love stories, of course, go back to ancient times and hopefully will still be about far in the future; but as society evolves, how long the modern romance will continue in its present form is an intriguing question.

At the moment, it certainly is the most popular form of fiction, accounting for something like fifty per cent of the sales of ebooks on Amazon. But what have often been seen as the rigid boundaries surrounding the genre may be changing, as is mentioned in this article: –

http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2016/03/happily-never-after-and-the-changing-nature-of-the-romance-novel

This is embarrassing! I have just tried to get that link to come out six times, and I think I’m going to have to admit defeat and ask anyone interested to paste it into the search bar…

 

 

 

The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse Of The Venns Now Out on Amazon…

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‘A good humoured satire of the cliches of Gothic romance…

When Clarissa Greendale inherits the fortune from a disreputable uncle she hardly knows, she does not expect to find herself forced into marriage with an aristocratic fortune hunter and wild, brawling, debauched social outcast.

Neither does she expect to inherit too the legacy of a wrongdoing from half a century before…

For the wicked Lord Venn is rumoured to have inherited a family curse, which, having dispatched the main perpetrators of the old crime, now moves on to their heirs, who are just as wild a set of rakes as their elders. There are rumours of violent deaths preceded by appearances from an inexorable Hooded Spectre, of inexplicable strikes of lightning, and of haunted mirrors.

The light hearted Harley Venn dismisses all these as conjuring tricks. He even hires a drunken charlatan of a professional magician to prove it.

Clarinda is far from sure that there is any rational explanation. Still it would take more than an enforced marriage to a pugilistic libertine or persecution from malevolent spectres to damage her steely nerves and ready sense of humour.

This lively Gothic comedy, written as a appreciative satire of the cliches of Gothic romance, gives the reader a warm hearted and courageous heroine, a wicked but beguiling anti-hero and an authentic historical background to the delightfully over-the-top adventures, plus a host of vivid supporting characters and many chills on its way to its tumultuous conclusion.’

Having worked on this for quite a while on and off, I’ve got quite attached to the characters.  I think if an author is with them for more than six months, h/she is  sorry to let them go.

No wonder so many authors write series.

As I said in a previous post, first I wrote it was a pure comedy – that seemed in bad taste given the tragic background story in France of the Ancien Regime. After 28,000 words, Writer’s Block settled in, horribly…

Then I wrote it mainly as tragedy – that didn’t suit the frequent bathetic happenings of the main story. The absurd goings on in Venn’s London house alone, with the awful valet O’Hare and his ungovernable children, the shameless maid Betsy and the life beseiged by creditors was far too ludicrous. Then, how could I bear to write out Ludovico Sharman, the Professor of Magic, Markmanship, Swordsmamship,  Languages and Subtle Influence?

In the last eight months, I’ve been re-writing it as dark humour, and  that went far better. I was so happy it didn’t end up as ‘The Manuscript in the Drawer.’

Now, I must get on with the ‘sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’, which is half done.

Here are the links:

A Spoof Gothic Historical Romance Episode

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Now for some comic relief. Who’s for a Gothic historical romance, full of anachronisms (which the re-cycled characters know too well).

Scene: A castle in the wilds of Yorkshire, UK, on the moors.  Date – Regency

[ A darkly handsome and brooding man appears  at the bolt studded door holding a modern electric torch. Although it is October and there is a force eight gale blowing, he wears breeches but no shirt.]

Dastardly Duke:    Damn me! Where is the chit? She’s late.

[A footman appears. He, too, is dark and handsome. On seeing him, the Duke starts.]

Dastardly Duke:   Devil take me, not you!

Footman:     It ain’t my fault.  I’ve been demoted from being hero, see, for                  refusing to chase after the heroine after I packed her off,  so  there  wasn’t a Happy Ever After. The punishment was to be a wretched servant. So you’ve been promoted from Dashing Villain to hero? Well, in this story, there ain’t much difference. It’s not fair. I’m better looking than you, too.

Dastardly Duke: I can soon remedy that, you whoreson. I always hated your damned smug face and uneering aim with your flintlocks when you were the Earl of Darlington.  [Makes to seize him, but a sudden flash and jolt makes him drop the torch; the bulb goes out. He lets out a terrible oath] Ouch!

Footman:  [Addressing the sky) Is that the best he can do for foul
language? That’s the punishment for an anachronism in Historical Romances, Your Grace. New rules.

Dastardly Duke:   Go down to the wine cellar and fetch me some strong
liquor, curse you for a miserable, low born rogue.85px-Man's_coat_and_vest_with_metal-thread_embroidery_c._1800

Footman:  We’re out of tallow candles.

Dastardly Duke:  Then you’ll have to go down in the dark, and if you happen to slip in the dark and break your low born neck, what care I!

Footman:   Come to think of it, I don’t care either. The sooner I get to the end of this one, the better. Maybe by the next story, I’ll be allowed to be the Heroine’s Hopeless Admirer or her rakish brother instead of a mere commoner…[Goes off]

Dastardly Duke:  Do I hear horses hooves? Yes, it’s the Heroine
arriving at last. Hmm. I wonder who they’ve sent me? To tell the truth, ha, ha!
I’d like a voluptuous doormat by way of a change from these sharp tongued hoydenish redheads who’re the fashion these days. I haven’t had a Doormat Heroine in years, and that sort was such fun for a sadist like me. [Looks about almost nervously] Well, the term hasn’t been invented when this story’s set, even if old de Sade had been at it,  but I’m talking off camera, or microphone, as it were…And yes, I know they hadn’t been invented either.

[The Ducal carriage appears, accompanied by a roll of distant thunder. The Duke moves, with lithe, almost feline grace down the steps to hand down the heroine when the footman opens the door.]

Spirited Heroine:  Hello, there! Sorry, anachronism. Good morrow, Your Grace. I fear you must have interrupted your toilette, to be gracious enough to greet me, for you wear no shirt.Unless you’ve lost it from your back through desperate gambling.

Dastardly Duke: [ Sourly] No. I’m never gracious. That was just for the cover. Do you think I enjoy standing about half naked in this cursed climate? [Lets out another terrible oath as he takes a closer look at her.] Don’t say it is that awful six foot redhead with the smart repartee? Hell and damnation, it is.

Spirited Heroine:  Well, I can’t say I’m exactly ecstatic to see you, either. No matter; we’ll be falling in love before we are halfway through the book [here they are interrupted by one of the horses speaking before they are taken on to the stables].

Horse:  Can’t I have a foaming jug of ale?

Spirited Heroine  Lud!

Dastardly Duke;  &*^&&^(!!!!!!

Coachman:   He’s been doing that all the way from the coaching
house, Your Grace. It seems he was one of those
abusive heroes with the –ahem – I don’t like to say
in front of the young lady – ‘bruising kisses’ and
worse, back in the 1970’s, and so he’s been paying
his debt to the Romance Society ever since they went
out of fashion.120px-Ds_of_M

Spirited Heroine:  Is that so? [Rushes forward} The swine! Give me that whip!

Dastardly Duke:  [Catches her arm]  No, Miss Er, I can’t allow you to flog a dumb animal.

Horse:  We Alphas must stick together. Anyway, who’s a dumb animal? [Neighs piteously at a sudden flash and jolt] Ow! That hurt! That’s so unkind. Abusers need love, too…[The coachman cracks his whip and sets them off towards the stables].

Dastardly Duke:  Well, shall we get on with it? So, you are the new governess. I hope you won’t find it too lonely in this isolated spot, with only a grim widower for company, and a few retainers.

Spirited Heroine:   [Helping him on with his shirt] Not at all, Your Grace. I like the country. Besides, the handsome renumeration you offer, merely for the coaching of two small daughters …

[More distant thunder]

More Next Week…

Review of ‘Birdwoman; The Memoirs of A Lovesick Siren’ by Anne Carlisle

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This is an outstandingly original story, which draws the reader in at once into the fascinating world of the siren. It’s exciting, well paced, funny, sad, outrageous and startlingly believable all at once. The writing is vivid, evocative, bawdy, witty and sometimes poetic.

I took at once to the heroine, Destiny, who is born, along with a twin brother of considerably less power – though with an equally strong will – to a mother who comes from a long heritage of sirens.

While Destiny is a siren, her brother is a demon. She loves him, though she knows too well that while she is motivated by a genuine desire for good – along with a fairly healthy ego, that is, and a strong sex drive, that is – Dustin is motivated by a will to destroy.

This evil in Dustin is made worse by the fact that he feels unloved –his mother is disappointed in him, for as a boy he shows no particular talents and an unappealing streak of malevolence – while she is justly proud of her daughter. Not only that, but the siren family has a secret enemy in a disinherited part demon who covertly strives to undermine them through his influence on the boy; and the bitter, rebellious Dustin, an under- achieving male in a dynasty of clever strong females, makes for an apt pupil.

Destined, as her name indicates, to be one of the strongest of the sirens of her family, the heroine is as strong and independent as befits a girl growing up in the early twentieth-first century; she is also both kind and family oriented. She is quite simply great hearted.

This is a heroine who, besides her occult powers, is lovely, an outstanding scholar, aided by her eidetic memory, a gifted musician, witty, sensual, cultured and morally aware – but never for one second does she come across as a ‘Mary Sue’. She faces all the feelings of angst, and loneliness and is as tormented by the family conflict by which she is surrounded as any human girl. Her older relatives scold her and take her for granted.

Worse, Destiny seems unable to find true love. She can have any man she likes – that is one of the powers of the siren – but there is a caveat: ‘as long as she likes him dead’.

Destiny dreads this generational curse; she knows that even her devout Grandmother, rebel against her sirenhood –has caused deaths; love, sex and reproduction for the siren must not be mixed: reproduction itself is hazardous, for a male siren is never strong and admirable.

When Destiny does find true love – after many hilarious sexual adventures – this problem becomes truly urgent for her.

Meanwhile, the story moves through the battle between the twins over the fate of the family’s property empire – is it to be used for good or evil? The tensions mount as the story moves to its inexorable climax of violence and sorrow.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes: –

‘ “Death has no impact on character. I’m still insanely jealous, although I’m no longer vain…”Well, at least the afterlife produced some degree of self-awareness.”’

‘Both evil and its antidote reside in the human heart. The best part is, the antidote can be presented as a gift’

‘I wish there was a book I could refer him to, with a title like ‘Emotional Intellgience for Paranormals’.

‘Grammie used to punish Mama with the silent treatment, and once an entire year had gone by without their speaking to each other…’

There are many more excellent quotes. I recommend this book to all fantasy lovers who want a strong heroine and love a laugh. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

https://www.amazon.com/Birdwoman-Memoirs-Lovesick-Siren-Diaries-ebook/dp/B01DB1CH2I/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1463078879&sr=1-1&keywords=birdwoman

An Original, Witty and Spine Chilling Fantasy: Review of ‘Reqium for a Forgotten Path’ by Robert Wingfield

These last couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying reading an excellent fantasy with a strong, independent minded heroine. This is ‘Requim for a Forgotten Path’ by Robert Wingfield.

This is a funny, spine chilling, evocative continuation of the adventures of Ankerita, the eponymous heroine of the first in this series.

I really like this heroine. She is brave, determined, resourceful, loyal, generous, and – decidedly bossy. After all, she’s been around for five hundred years, has been a murderer (of her abusive husband) cursed, drugged, buried alive,become the thief of someone else’s body, then befriended, enslaved, idolised, exploited, and relentlessly hunted down by the sinister Fantasia and her company of thugs . People who have been about for a few decades must seem novices at life to her.

If this young woman ended up as a beaten wife in the early sixteenth century, as we know she did from volume one, then there would have been no hope for the rest of us…

The tale is fast moving and runs smoothly, through every sort of adventure, mundane and arcarne. The writing is full of vivid word pictures but – and this isn’t the contradiction it might appear to be – I was particularly drawn in by the concise, matter-of- fact style. I think, like me, many people will find themselves fully believing in these wild, Gothic adventures through different dimensions and time. Through this combination of humour and readable but sophisticated approach, I really was drawn in and carried along by the tale.

Besides this, I was kept grinning broadly and sometimes laughing out loud by the humour. This is a compliment from me, because often I can read a whole comedy book, and only smile.

The plot took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and this was an unusual treat for me, because I do find a lot of conventional fiction rather predictable, especially in the way it depicts relationships,and those between men and women in particular. Here, you really don’t know what is going to happen.

Finally, some quotes:

””Farewell, my beautiful darling,” he said sadly, and placed a kiss on her cold lips. “If only..”
The eyes flicked open as he lingered. “If only what, thou odiferous shardborne piglet?”Her cold hand lashed out, and hit him firmly across the
cheek.’

“It’s a parking ticket. You have to like pay a fine.”
“Ah,” said Ankarita,”A pox upon that…”

”The journey became an ordeal. The old man gave off a dim glow which led them down a labyrinth of passages. Jo tried to continue marking,
the walls as they continued to keep up, but the old man was moving too swiftly. They went up sloping passages and down spiral stairways and along twisting tunnels. There were many branches that showed up n the glow of the old man’s ghost light, too many even to try to remember a route. There would be no going back…’

A great read and recommended for all who like a strong, independent heroine and an original, spine chilling and witty fantasy.

Available from Amazon Com –

here

and from amazon.co.uk on

here