Nov 8 2011 4:00pm

I Love Henry Higgins; or, the Power of Positive Thinking

Promo shot for My Fair LadyAs 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.

Florida palm tree image courtesy of livingonimpulse via FlickrThe 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?

Eliza and Higgins in My Fair LadyBecause 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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
Reviews are a guideline for me. I have come to know reviewers whose opinion I value and not always in a way they'd appreciate. I read some reviewers whose taste differs so far from mine that I only seek the books they deride and stay way from all the ones they love. Yet again others have simillar tastes to me and so I feel comfortable following their recommendations. And sometimes, no mater what, certain books just don't work for me at all.

What I do enjoy about reviews is that often they lead me in unexpected paths and can help broaden my reading horizons.
2. jsmom2
bravo, Megan. well said.

And yet... I, for one, avoid reviews like the plague. It all started way back in the day when everyone said/wrote "you have to read" suchandsuch. I did and, man, I hated it. And that continues to happen often enough that I take recommendations (I've found some great stuff through this very website) but never read - or write - reviews.

I have opinions, which I'm happy to share and people are welcome to disagree with, but we like what we like and no one should have apologize for that.

People's creative works of art are just that - their voice, their vision and their art. It might not resonate with me, but I'm not going to intentionally pass judgment on it either. Thanks for the reminder...
Janet Webb
3. JanetW
Oh such a lovely and just what the doctor ordered essay. I heartily concur -- well, with just a few caveats. I don't review formally very often and when I do, you want to believe it's going to be me talking about a book I enjoyed. When I have the privilege of really sharing what's close to my heart, then I let 'er rip. What a joy to talk about a fave Balogh or Wolf or Heyer or introduce someone to a long-forgotten trad or make a huge to-do about a terrific new writer joining the ranks.

So where's the caveat? I reserve #goodreads, my own personal stomping ground, to tell the unvarnished good/bad/indifferent about the books on my shelves. Why? Because it's an extension of my bookshelves and I read so many books, I have a duty to my re-buying self to keep it real. In a review setting, though, it seems I have less patience for rip and shred reviews of tripe. Opposite side of the coin, the fawning *best book since sliced bread* reviews. I have been so burned, so many times. Now I rely on trusted reviewers, check out consensus, read what folks are saying on #goodreads and most of all, try to track down reviews that share the love and put some justification into it. I'd be remiss if I didn't share my appreciation for well-reasoned, thoughtful B-/C+ reviews: whoever said they can be the hardest to write, I so agree.

Whatever age a person is, there just isn't enough time to wallow in miserable books so I'm trying to avoid the mediocre. Thanks for your perspective!
4. Annabel
I am really feeling you on this one.

Last week there was a review about how bad Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught is. I defended the book because it's one of my all time faves, but ultimately I came away feeling shamed for liking the book. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Over time, I've moved into the camp that no longer reads reviews, or, if I read them, I take them with a grain of salt. They are just personal opinions, and everyone perceives books differently based on their world view (which may or may not be similar to mine.)

Instead, now, I seek out other readers who enjoy the authors I enjoy (like Judith McNaught), and then ask them for book recs. So far this has worked great for me! I find most authors are pretty consistent from book to book, at least on the big things.
5. EvangelineHolland
First let me say that I love Henry Higgins as well! I cackle with glee at the insults, riposts, and dexterious use of words by Henry Higgins (as portrayed by the wonderful Rex Harrison--must make a point to catch Leslie Howard's interpretation in 1938's Pygmalion), and find Eliza more than a match for him. As a Cockney flower seller turned "lady", she is in on the big joke Higgins plays on Society, and falling for her is a sort of confirmation of his disdain for superficial proprieties, on Edwardian woman, and the fluid distinctions of class.

To return to the subject of this blog, this is why I shy away from the phrase "guilty pleasures" as it applies to my reading habits. If we're already supposed to be ashamed for reading romance novels, why should we then--within a circle of romance lovers--be ashamed of what sort of romance novels we choose to read? Granted, I do like academic discussions about the genre, but there is a time and a place for that. However, I find that I'm less and less prone to rating/reviewing/discussing what I read because it has sapped the personal journey from reading. My enjoyment of reading lessens if my brain is also engaged in scrutinizing the book for future comment, rather than just reading for the sheer pleasure of finding a great story.
6. willaful
JMO: I think there's a place in the world for B or C reviews, not only because they're honest opinions, but because I think there's a place in the world for B or C books, too. I don't expect to read an A book every time, and think I'd find it exhausting if I did. I usually need some time after a really good book to... reccoperate? Or perhaps a better way to phrase it would be, I need some time to let a really great book go. but I don't want to stop reading in the meantime. Or sometimes I just don't have the energy to properly concentrate on something I know will likely be outstanding. Pleasant, not earth shattering books fill the bill at those times.

I have actually moved *away* from "the aesthetics are pleasing" reviews and more towards "I liked it," because it seems more honest to me. Either way, the opinion is going to be about *me* as much as it is about the book, but one phrase admits that while the other seems to be saying the opinion is an immutable fact.
Hazel Hazel
7. Hazel Hazel
love the way you address the topic. looking forward to reading your books now!
Post a comment