As romance fans discuss books amongst themselves in Romancelandia, there is a recurring discussion that crops up every few months about whether readers appreciate negative reviews, positive reviews, DNF reviews, don’t-ever-read-this-book-even-if-doing-so-will-postpone-the-apocalypse reviews, etc. I am not here to dissuade you from your opinions on that score. Read what books you choose. Visit the blogs you choose. Hate them. Love them. Have at it. More power to you.
As for me, I tend to talk almost entirely about books I love. It is probably some residual etiquette from my rather conservative upbringing. I can hear the adults of my childhood informing me gently that people don’t really want to hear a litany of complaints, dear. One friend of mine’s dad went so far as to tell us that when people ask, “How are you?” they only want to hear one thing: “I’m great!” (He was in sales.) But the point my girl-power teachers and mentors were trying to make was, if you are dissatisfied with something, you should do something about it, not whine about it. Social change and all that.
I love Langston Hughes’s poem “I Dream A World.” In my case, I dream a TBR. I want it to be the best of the best. I am not a professional reviewer; I only read for pleasure. And if it’s not a pleasure, why would I be reading it? Like Iris said in the movie The Holiday, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life, for God’s sake!” And this is my life. This is my TBR. There are millions of excellent books (or, more to the point, books that I will consider excellent), so I have to own it and love it.
A few years back, as a relative newcomer to the romance genre, ooh-ing and aah-ing over my first Quick and Quinn and Crusie, of course I sought out recommendations. And like the Music Genome Project, Pandora, I tended to like books that people liked who also liked the books I liked. But then I started to develop my own taste, to have confidence in my likes and dislikes. Your frog might be my prince and all of that.
The study of aesthetics is long and erudite. I am not really equipped to address it here with any authority, but I loved Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Ten years after reading it, I still think of her palm tree discussion quite often. “Is a palm tree inherently ugly or beautiful?” she asked. I live in Florida, so this tends to come up. Some are scrubby and mangy. Some are tall and elegant. Some are deadly. Is a pierced nose beautiful? A shaved head? An abandoned building? An empty plastic bag?
I had a wonderful art history teacher in high school who took points off any time a student said, “I like it.” She taught us that those weak opinions were worse than simple laziness. “At the very least, say it is aesthetically pleasing,” she demanded. At first I thought it was semantics. But there is real weight behind that semantic difference. I like it is all about the “I.“ It is aesthetically pleasing is all about the object of beauty. Big difference.
Twitter and blogs like this one are great places to practice this separation of church and state...the separation of ideas from I. A few weeks ago, author Zoe Archer tweeted how she could not understand how Eliza Doolittle could ever end up with Henry Higgins, whom Zoe described as “a selfish, classist, sexist bully.” My world was slightly rocked. I love Henry Higgins. For all those reasons. He is so unapologetically priggish. In writing, he’s what I would describe as a pure character, so purely himself. Yes, arrogant, but sigh, in possession of such a sexy, self-satisfied, superiority complex. (I confess that I go in for that sort of thing; Flowers from the Storm leaps to mind.)
So why should it bother me if someone loves a book I hate? Or hates a book I love?
Because sometimes it stings. We all develop a sense of community, especially online where many of us have discovered the joys of shared likes and dislikes (especially those likes and dislikes which might be derided by society at large...it feels safe here, protected). So when Zoe Archer and Maisey Yates and Carolyn Jewel and Courtney Milan and Elyssa Papa (all of whose voices I admire) all cheered about what a pig Henry Higgins was to them? I felt small. And wrong. And then I dusted off my 44-on-the-outside-and-8-on-the-inside proverbial skinned knees and said why I loved Higgins. This was my tweet:
“Because she strips him of all that. He winks and smiles when he asks for slippers. *runs crying from the room*”
The things that I want to say and then run crying from the room are usually the things I most need to say. Not because my interpretation is so germane, but because it is important for me to accept that I am not inherently “wrong” or “small”—that I am entitled to my opinion and that Zoe and Courtney and Maisey and Carolyn and Elyssa will not vilify me for it. That the discussion is open. That discussion continued and I ended up reading George Bernard Shaw’s sequel to Pygmalion and then continued for another hour reacquainting myself with Galatea and the entire philosophical concept of creation and despising (or at least decrying) one’s creator. The world is so full of ideas. Concepts. And all of that was sparked by Zoe’s quick tweet that forced me to question my own long- and closely-held opinion. If I had stayed there feeling small and wrong, I would have missed all of that.
So, clearly, I welcome ”all of that" in the realm of ideas (whether or not palm trees are beautiful, why Zoe dislikes Henry). But in the realm of romance reviews? Oddly enough, I don’t want that. Some “reviewers” are philosophical in nature; they use the book as a launching pad to discuss feminism or pornography or virginity theory. I know who they are and I lurk around their sites for the byplay.
But most review sites are more like movie reviews, setting up a grade or a star-rating system that is inherently intended to lead to the purchase (or non-purchase) of a book. And for those types of reviews, I only want the best. Give me your five stars. Give me your A-pluses. And I will give you mine. Does that make me a Pollyanna who is all sweetness and light about every book I read? Hardly. I read plenty of books that are dreck, but why would you want to hear about them? Why would I want to waste one additional minute talking about them? (Sure, misery loves company, but that’s the exact opposite of why I read romance novels in the first place. It’s not for nothing that I’ve fallen in love with a genre that provides a guaranteed happy ending!)
Our reading hours are precious and finite. I want reviews and recommendations of books in which the recommender is filled to bursting. “You are going to love this!” is one of my favorite things to hear when someone hands me a book. If I live to be 95 (it could happen!) that means I have roughly fifty years of reading left. At a hundred books a year, that means I only have about 5000 books left. I want them to be good ones. The absolute best. That is why I only want you to tell me about the books you adore.
Florida palm tree image courtesy of livingonimpulse via Flickr
Megan Mulry recently signed a three book deal with Sourcebooks.