Tuesday, July 19, 2011

They hate us for our beauty

There's been a little bit of discussion over at All Day All Night Romance Divas regarding why critics -- usually social conservatives -- heap so much scorn on women's romance fiction, and I made the comment that it's almost always and only "traditional" romance fiction that gets accused of turning women into sex addicts (or whatever).  Exempt from the criticism are gay (m/m) romances and lesbian (f/f) romances.  One of the divas wondered why that is.

I can't speak from anything other than my own personal logic and experience, but here's my theory.

The social conservatives are as anti-gay as they possibly can be, and they logically ought to be out there claiming gay and lesbian romance fiction is a serious threat to . . . . civilization.  But though they won't admit it publicly, I believe they're more concerned about the real threat of traditional -- meaning one man, one woman, Happily Ever After -- romance.

Traditional romances celebrate and inculcate the conservative norm of one man, one woman, HEA.  That's a good thing, in the eyes of the social conservatives.  And if that's all romance novels did, the social conservatives wouldn't have a problem with them. They'd be quite happy if women read Grace Livingston Hill, Catherine Cookson, and Emilie Loring from now until Armageddon.

Is this a contradiction?  Yes, and no.  As I wrote at ADAN Divas:

Most writers and most readers, in my personal opinion, fail to recognize that just because the heroine gets to have great sex does NOT make the story pro-woman. There are contradictions that are rarely explored.

What happened in 1972 with the publication of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower is that female sexual satisfaction as an expectation was thrown onto the table.  It's not just that the heroine has great sex; it's that her pleasure becomes obligatory and the hero has a responsibility to oblige her.  His sexual satisfaction -- and her duty to provide for it -- was always taken for granted; her sexual satisfaction was often denied, ridiculed, condemned.  But because Woodiwiss published at a time when artificial birth control relieved women of one of the major physical, social, and economic consequences of sex, her heroine's sexuality became part and parcel of her being.  Woman's sexuality was turned from The Original Sin into A Damned Fine and Beautiful Thing.  The thing that made Eve the fall guy for all of human ills -- her being a sexual being -- got turned around 180 degrees.

Many of the novels that have challenged the patriarchal status quo -- white men on top, women and all others below -- have dealt with female sexuality.   Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Forever Amber.   Peyton Place.  Fear of Flying.  They addressed the right of woman to own her own sexual pleasure.  And if a woman takes back her pleasure, she takes back the power of a man to own her.

Gay and lesbian romances don't challenge that power structure.  There is no male-as-owner-of-the-female power structure in the individual relationships.  And as long as the social conservatives don't see gay or lesbian romances as interfering with the power structure, they aren't going to bother beyond the general and all-encompassing condemnation of anything that even hints as GLBTQ people as real.

Because if they were to attack the m/m or f/f romance novels, they would have to do so from a position of accepting that gays and lesbians can even experience "romance."  That they are people who can love and commit and care, and that, too, is outside the sphere of experience for many social conservatives.  (It should also be noted that many men who publicly claim to be social conservatives are also heavy consumers of print pornography which contains more than its share of f/f sex.  While socially conservative men might want to censor written f/f stories, they aren't going to cut off their own enjoyment of illustrated f/f sex.)

It's difficult to denounce something without first admitting that it exists. 

Much of the criticism of women's reading of romance novels manifests in an accusation that too much reading of romance "ruins" women for real life relationships.  The readers are encouraged to put the books aside and concentrate on their husbands and their marriages.  The readers are told they will develop unrealistic expectations that can never be fulfilled and will be resultingly miserable the rest of their lives.

There is never any suggestion that what the heroines of Romancelandia are given by their heroes -- full measure of pleasure in their sexuality even when being raped -- ought to be and could be and should be the expectation of any woman who is the heroine of her own life.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The dilemma of cover art

I've posted here  a couple of times about the bad cover art that shows up on some books, and the whole issue of cover art on romance novels is nothing new.  We went through the nursing mother covers -- heroines portrayed as young women so well endowed that they must have been lactating -- and of course Fabio and the Topaz Man and on and on.  Back the day (1970s, '80s, and into the '90s) there were a number of artists whose work was almost instantly recognizable.

Morgan Kane will always be my personal favorite

but I've loved the work of John Ennis,

Robert Maguire

James Griffin

and many others.  But these were one-of-a-kind paintings, often commissioned by the publisher specifically for that book.

Somewhere around the mid-1990s there was a switch from the "fine art" portrait style to the flowers-and-jewelry cover, sometimes with a fine art step back, sometimes not.  Was this a cost-cutting move on the part of publishers?  To be honest, I don't know.  What I do know is that some of the cover art could not have cost what it used to.

Cover art was a matter of pride for the authors.  Did the people on your cover match the characters in your book?  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't.  Were the colors attractive?  Was the lettering for the title (and your name, if large enough) legible?  Did you get embossing or foil or . . . . or anything?  Back in those days, your cover was your main selling tool, and very often authors had little to no control over their covers.  Johanna Lindsey made news when she demanded -- and got! -- a naked man on her cover, by another favorite artist, Robert McGinnis.

But now, as we're more than a decade into the 21st century, we're getting into a whole bunch of new issues with cover art. 

As documented here and here and here on Smart Bitches Trashy Books, cover art gets recycled, sometimes the paintings and sometime with photographs.  Stock photography such as found at IStock.com and 123rf.com and others is inexpensive and plentiful, and a graphic designer armed with Photoshop or any other graphic manipulating software can turn out some pretty cool stuff. 

The problem is, so can anyone else.

Or these:

While the first two examples appear to be books self-published by new authors, the latter two are from authors established in print in the 1980s.  And the worst of it is that both pairs of books were released in the same month on Amazon.

What's an author to do?  Laugh it off and say at least both of them have good taste?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Regarding the validity of review opinions

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and an opinion as put forth in a book review is only an expression of personal like or dislike, not a statement of fact.  Even if the reviewer makes statements such as "The book is riddled with factual errors" and then goes on to cite them, the purpose of the review is to encourage -- or discourage -- other potential readers to read the book and that can only be an opinion.   The reader of the review is then free to agree or disagree with the reviewer.

There was apparently quite a huge and heated discussion on the Amazon Kindle boards regarding the glowing reviews given to one particular self-e-published book -- I won't link or even mention the title because it's not relevant and I don't want to perpetuate that specific controversy -- and whether or not the writers of the favorable reviews were legitimate reviewers or just friends and family and sock puppets trying to boost sales.  Other readers, who for whatever reasons considered themselves "better" reviewers, didn't think the book in question was all that good, felt the hype it was getting was unwarranted, and in some instances apparently resented the fact that the positive reviews were generating substantial sales of a book that wasn't (in their opinion) worth it.

But who, ultimately, is the judge?  Shouldn't it be up to the readers?  If people who bought it based on the glowing reviews didn't like it, they apparently didn't speak up.
A few days ago, I was alerted by an acquaintance to a new e-title on Amazon by a new writer and this acquaintance asked me if I would offer an opinion.  I read the basic information and decided I would download the free sample first, as the description of the book didn't sound like something I'd normally be interested in spending my money on. 

What I read in the sample told me very clearly that this was not a book I would ever buy.  The "Prologue" served also as a kind of epilogue and foreshadowed a tragic ending, which I don't care to read.  I told my acquaintance how I felt and she suggested I write a review anyway, since the existing reviews were uniformly five-star gushing praises.  I gave the book two stars -- it was bad but I've read much worse -- and wrote an honest but critical review.  I began with a disclaimer that I had only read the free sample and then explained at least some of the reasons why I gave it the low rating.

Part of the reason was the strong hint in the prologue of the unhappy ending.  Since all the description of the book and the opening portions refer to a romantic relationship, I have to admit right here that I don't like romantic-relationship novels that end tragically or even without an HEA ending.   There are other characters in the novel whose deaths would also have turned me off to the novel even if the hero and heroine have their own HEA.  I'm not prepared to like a book if I know ahead of time this sort of thing is going to happen.  If that kind of tragedy is thrown at me unawares, the book becomes a wall-banger.  The Thorn Birds is an example of that kind of ending.  I absolutely hated that book.  I felt I'd been cheated.

But anyway, getting back to this book I reviewed.  The writing was not bad, but it wasn't particularly good either.  And after I got past the prologue that was full of the first-person narrator's "despair," I found the opening chapter poorly constructed.  I detailed some of my reasons for this conclusion and then posted my review.

The other reviews -- half a dozen of them or so -- were vague but raving, and most of the reviewers had no other reviews posted.  Were they sock puppets?  I don't know.  I will admit that when I review a book I've bought from Amazon, I do so under another name.  Is that fair?  Maybe not, but it allows me to be honest and not fear personal repercussion, because, after all, I am also an author and I would like my books to be reviewed on the basis of their content rather than because someone is out for revenge because I gave their book a bad review.  And, to be fair the other direction, I'd prefer that when I give a glowing review, the author doesn't feel obligated to reciprocate if in fact she or he doesn't like mine.

So my gripe therefore is not with the sock puppetry itself, if that's what it is.  Nor do I even have a problem with the fact that the reviews of this book don't say a whole lot about the book itself but rather about how much the readers loved it.  There are a lot of reviews by people who only know enough about reviewing to say "THIS IS A REALLY GRATE BOOK AND EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT!!!"

My complaint instead is with the comment attached to my review in which another person who has no other book reviews posted on Amazon took me to task for not liking this "masterpiece."  Maybe the author is his wife; I have no way of knowing.  But I felt obligated to respond to him and tell him I'm entitled to my opinion and I just didn't like the book.  He's also entitled to his opinion, as are the other reviewers, including the one who described the book as "A beautifully written and compelling love story that triumphs over diversity."  Now, you and I, dear blogreader, know that she probably meant "adversity," but since the reviewer is herself a writer and should know the difference, we'll have to reserve judgment.

The point is, ALL reviews have at least some validity.  It becomes incumbent upon the purchaser to determine if they trust the reviewer's opinion or not, and then to make their decision.

I'm still not going to review books here.

Some of those 80s and 90s authors are here after all!

Now and then I have days when my brain's creativity section goes on lockdown and I need to let it recharge.  Yesterday was one of those days.  Events external to my writing life had put me into a funky mood, and the brain was telling me not to even to attempt to write.  So I didn't.  Maybe today will be better.

I put the time to relatively good use, however, by strolling through Amazon's Kindle listings on a hunt for digital reprints from those midlist authors I mentioned yesterday.  Sharon Ihle has digital editions available.  So does Shirl Henke, and in Ms. Henke's case, she is clearly listed as the publisher, not Leisure/Dorchester, which suggest she is reaping the financial benefit.

You may have noticed that most of the authors I've mentioned have written a lot of books set in the American West.  (Texas, though smack dab in the middle of the country and the Central Time Zone, is considered part of "The West," along with Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas.)  Not too long ago I did a stroll through the list of books reviewed at All About Romance and discovered there were damn few American settings.  European Historicals (most of which were England/Regency era) and various paranormals made up the vast majority.

With the explosion in digital publishing which will make possible the release of books that would not have justified a publisher's print run, I expect to see an explosion in reprints.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Authors of the 80s and 90s: Where are they now and why aren't they here?

Yes, it's the week-end and I should be working on a novel, either formatting another for uploading to Amazon Kindle or writing a new one.  But something nagged at my little brain last night and I couldn't let it alone.

I know that some of the authors who were writing when I was back in the 1980s and 1990s are still going strong in their careers and have embraced the move into digital publishing:  Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly, Connie Brockway to name a few.  Even midlist authors like myself have done it; I credit Alexis Harrington with being part of the inspiration for my great leap of faith.

But what about the others?  What about some of the women I socialized with at RWA conferences or corresponded with in the early days of AOL and Prodigy and GEnie?

Using my book inventory spreadsheet, I started down the list of authors -- big-name as well as midlist -- and checked it against just Amazon's Kindle listing.  Very very few Rebecca Brandewyne titles in e-print.  Virtually no Rosalyn Alsobrook.  And then I got to Margaret Brownley.  Dear Margaret Brownley, so active in PAN and PASIC, dear goddess I admired Margaret so much in her high-heeled sneakers!

One of Margaret's Topaz Titles, The Kissing Bandit, is available on Kindle via Hard Shell Word Factory.  The Hard Shell edition was produced and/or put on Amazon in 2000, so Margaret must have had the rights reverted a loooooong time ago and decided .  But I was completely appalled at the presentation.  I mean, the cover art is HORRIBLE!!


Now, I see by Margaret's Facebook information that she has become an "inspirational" writer and she is publicizing her Christian beliefs.  That's fine for Margaret, and maybe she has disavowed her Topaz historical romances, much as Robin Lee Hatcher did when she switched to Christian Inspirational writing.  It's possible Margaret doesn't care whether The Kissing Bandit, which didn't have exactly the greatest Topaz cover in history (Mario Lanza, anyone?),  sells another digital copy or not.

So then I looked for a few of my other old buddies.  Evelyn Rogers was one of the first Zebra authors I met at the RWA conference in San Francisco in 1991.  One of her later (1997) Leisure titles Hot Temper is available in a Kindle edition, but given Leisure's chronic payment problems, one has to wonder if Evelyn is getting even minimal royalties from or any of the other titles she published with them.   However, Texas Kiss appears to be self-e-republished (is that a word?) by Evelyn, but the cover is . . . . just a yellow rectangle with a title???  Even more sad to report, even her name is misspelled on the Amazon listing.

Thea Devine went on to make a name for herself in erotic romance, but only one of her many titles for Zebra, Pocket, and Harlequin is in a digital version on Amazon, and that's an anthology.

When I went through the first 1200 or so Kindle "best-sellers," I didn't see any of these names. 

Harlequin is dumping (and I use that word intentionally) approximately 10,000 titles from their voluminous backlist into the digital bookstore this year.  One has to assume that they expect to sell at least a few of these titles, most of which are contemporary category romances from the 1980s and 1990s and before, so possibly quite dated in details as well as social attitudes.  Then why aren't the authors of historical romances jumping on the digital bandwagon?  The publishers are still putting out digital editions of the classic "bodice-ripper" titles of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Jude Deveraux. 

The rest of us need to get out there, too.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It's alive!

Secrets to Surrender is now up on Amazon Kindle for the bargain price of $2.99.

The past couple of months have been pretty stressful as I've done the formatting work and so on.  I never knew if I was doing anything write at all.  I can be pretty anal at times, going through the directions step by step, but every now and then things wouldn't work quite right and I'd get frustrated.  But when the time finally came to upload the file to Amazon, it worked like a charm. 

And now I have to start work on the next one.  The hardest part is going to be finding cover art for Shadows by Starlight.  That was the original title, and that's what it's going to be on Amazon.  Here's hoping the second one is easier than the first!

Then I have to go back to some more writing.  As always the ideas just keep coming.  If only I had the time to write them all!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

After the week-end, and 14,585

The good news is I figured out how to surf through all of Amazon's Kindle listings and get past at least some of the garbage.

The other good news is that I did some writing yesterday -- 820 words -- so even if I didn't meet my challenge every day, I at least made progress.  I also spent some time on research, which is necessary when writing historical fiction, and the information I obtained helped me work through a particularly difficult spot in the novel.

And we had rain over the week-end.  First a strong storm cell moved through early Sunday evening, and then last night we had several nice steady showers.  This will do our parched desert landscaping a world of good.  Even the cactus were starting to shrivel up!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Will someone please tell me I write better than this? (and 13,319)

So the writing wasn't going as smoothly last night as I wanted.  I'm at one of those points where I need to insert some backstory narrative and I hate just doing a bland info-dump even though it can be fixed on a rewrite.  Before today is over, I'll probably do the info-dump and move on, but it's still a struggle and a nuisance.

I had to take a break from it, so I went surfing, which means browsing through the Kindle offerings on Amazon. This in itself is a frustration, because Amazon limits one's browsing capacity to 100 pages or 1200 titles, sorted either by best-selling, high-to-low or low-to-high price, review ratings, or date of issue.   I decided to try the low-to-high price sort on historical romances for the Kindle, and that was a waste.

Here's what I got --
Lots of Austen reprints, in a variety of languages.
Lots of Bronte reprints, in a variety of languages.
Just about everything by Sir Walter Scott
Lots of stuff by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
War and Peace in a variety of languages.
Anna Karenina in a variety of languages.
A lot of Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, George McDonald and George Meredith, some Rafael Sabatini.
A lot of "classic" erotica
A lot of Ellora's Cave reprints
Four full pages (47 entries) of  Don Quixote in installments
Short stories (some of which were identified as such and some not)

And a few historical romances.

The problem was that I was kind of looking for stuff published in the $1.99 - $3.99 range, but I never got any of that.  I didn't want the agency-priced $7.99 and up stuff either.  I wanted the stuff I'd have seen on the shelf in a bookstore -- the mass-market paperback historical romances.  Not the cheap reprints of classics, not 19th century erotica, not Tolstoy in German.  I can't look the stuff up by author because I don't know who most of the authors are these days, and anyway I might want to try someone new that I've never heard of.  Nope, sorry, Amazon won't let you do that.

So that frustrated me and put me in a bad mood.  I should not even look at sneak previews of books when I'm in that kind of mood, especially self-published books, but I downloaded several free samples anyway in the hope that maybe at least one of them would prove worthwhile.

None did.

Now, I wrote a few days ago that I wasn't going to do reviews here, and I'm not.  I will not identify the books, nor will I quote from them.  I just want to know, does anyone consider this worth putting out money for?

#1  Opening scene has the heroine "looking at herself own face in the mirror". . . . . . . . .

#2  Opening scene has hero being threatened with bodily harm by the heroine for a full page as she details exactly what horrors she's going to visit upon his person, and he does. . . . nothing. . . . except to compare the tilt of the heroine's hairdo to the Leaning Tower of Piza[sic]. . . . .

#3  Opening scene actually isn't too bad, if you can get past the immediate flashback in the first paragraph and a whole lot of head-hopping (which normally doesn't bother me).  But then comes page after page after page without a paragraph indent, British titles used willynilly and wrong. . . . . . . . .really wrong. . . . .

#4  Opening scene has more incorrectly used British titles, a huge and very clumsy backstory info-dump that goes on for pages and pages and pages of narrative.  The writing isn't bad, but where's the story?  Where's the action?  Where's the dialogue that could have given the backstory scenes at least a little bit of life?

#5  The last one turned out not to be self-published at all, though it had one of the worst and most amateurish covers I have ever seen in my life.  Though I've considered some of the covers on my own books to be horrible in terms of their ability to generate sales, none were even close to as tacky, cheesy, just plain shitty as this one.  Yet the front matter of the sample indicated that this was a product of an established e-publisher and proudly (??) listed the editors' names (there were two of them) and the artist's name.  But I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so I began reading the very very brief (four pages) sample.  Ugh and double ugh.  More info-dump.  More illogic.  More crummy writing.

Please, someone, tell me this is halfway decent?

      "Marshal, we got some trouble brewing," a breathless Todd Newcomb announced as he stumbled through the open doorway. "There's a medicine show wagon up at the north end of town."
      Todd had run the entire distance to the marshal's office, a sure indication he considered the matter of some importance. A man of his age and weight didn't run that far without good cause.
     "They got a pretty good crowd gathered, too," he added ominously.
     Sloan McDonough took his feet off his desk and unfolded his long lanky form from the wooden chair. He reached for the hat hung on a peg behind him, then, when the hat was securely seated on his head, he adjusted the familiar but never comfortable weight of the gun at his hip.
     "Thanks for letting me know, Todd. I'll take a look right away."
     "I knew they was up to no good the minute they pulled into town," the marshal's visitor continued. "Folks here work hard; it ain't right that some phony doctor comes in and — "
     "I said I'll take care of it."
     Though spoken softly, Sloan's words carried the weight of authority. Todd Newcomb nodded his acquiescence.
     As he followed Todd to the door, Sloan involuntarily gave up a sigh of resignation. He had been looking forward to a quiet evening now that the day was almost over. Instead he would likely have to escort some sniveling confidence man ten miles out onto the prairie and order the man not to set up shop in Coker's Grove again. It had happened often enough before.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Getting back to work -- the 13,175 challenge

This past week was not conducive to writing.  The day job not only took time, it also took more than its share of mental energy.  Though I sometimes had time to write, I had no creative strength.  At best I was able to make some revisions to a longish short story I wrote several years ago.  It still needs more work, but it's getting there.

So this week-end I intend to dedicate myself to the novel.  Saturday's challenge is to reach 13,175 words.  We'll see how I do.