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Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.

 

What's Good For You: 'detoxifying' reading

I am annoyed, and I am disappointed.

Scholastic, the huge global children’s publisher who do, among other things, Harry Potter in the States, have a blog. And on their blog they had a post about doing a ‘literary cleanse’, which is what you’d call ‘throwing out books’ if you weren’t desperately hanging your monthly blog post on a New Year’s Resolution hook.

So this ‘literary cleanse’, in the way of overstretched metaphors, involves ‘detoxifying’ your life to make it ‘healthier’. And what genre of book do we find exemplified as the filthy junk poison that the author needs to eliminate? No, go on, you have one guess.

from this day forward I am officially strict in my literary screening process. I’ll think long and hard about what I want to read in the first place, and if it’s not good for me (ex: See’s Candy catalog, trashy romance novel), it’s out. (Source)

Now, you may argue that the author means only trashy romance novels and not the good ones, but let’s be honest: she doesn’t. Trashy is a word that gets attached to romance like brave to any celebrity who’s been slightly poorly, or renowned to curators being murdered in the Louvre. Romance novel=trashy romance novel. Anyone who cares about the genre wouldn’t have used this example because they’d be tired of being kicked in the teeth.

The author is of course entitled not to read romance, or to feel it’s bad for her, just as she is entitled to toss out casual dismissals of any genre she likes. I think it’s more meaningful to criticise a specific book than to dismiss a whole genre, but whatever, it’s a throwaway line in a throwaway post, who cares. That’s her point of view, fair enough. What bothers me is to find this kind of thing on a children’s publisher’s platform, and here’s why.

The thing about children’s publishing is, it cannot be worthy or didactic. We’ve been through that. Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.

Scholastic know this. You can tell they know this because they publish Rainbow Magic in the US. Brace for pink.

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Here is what Scholastic have to say about Rainbow Magic:

Rainbow Magic is a delightful way to boost literacy. The predictable series plotlines gently stretch reading skills, allowing children to develop their fluency and speed in a fun and familiar context.

Even the publisher says it’s predictable. Oh my God, is it predictable. We must have had fifty of these pass through our doors, and (aside from the first seven, which are actually good), every single one was identically plotted, repetitive to the point of brain death, and utterly unchallenging.

My daughter read and reread these things, her literary security blanket when she was coping with starting school. She  started to develop critical faculties off their pink-foiled backs (‘Why do the goblins always hide the stolen magical objects where Kirsty and Rachel live?’) and eventually got bored and moved on without regret. She is now seven with a reading age of 14, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t rot her brain. I never want to encounter Bertha the Barrel-Scraping Fairy again, but these books were worth every penny and every minute for her.

These books are fun and pleasurable for kids. Not for anyone else, sure, but that’s the point. Scholastic publish series after series of stuff that any tweedy literary critic would pick up using tongs because they know bloody well that there is a massive value in reading for pleasure. They know readers often need a sense of familiarity and security. They know that the book world is wider than the Times Literary Supplement would have you believe. They publish stuff that their readers want to read, not just to make money, but because the health of the entire book world depends on people learning to love stories and read voraciously.

So why the hell would a publisher that knows about the importance of fun, and familiarity, and story, and reading for pleasure, casually publish a swipe at an adult genre that offers the same thing?

Why can’t adults read for pleasure? What exactly makes romance (or fantasy, or YA, or implausible conspiracy thrillers) ‘trash’ as a genre? I’m not just defending the genre books that are brilliantly written and well executed here, legion though they are. Even the most routine, uninspired, ‘trashy’ series product can have value to readers who want that sort of book right then–just like Scholastic’s routine, uninspired Rainbow Magic series product does.

It’s book snobbery. It’s the didactic, dictatorial impulse that says ‘Take away Rainbow Magic and give that child The Water Babies!’ The urge to tell people what to read, the urge to dictate what’s ‘good for you’. The attitude that can’t simply say, ‘I will read something else,’ but has to frame it as ‘This stuff is junk and I look down on you for it.’ That isn’t how anyone who cares about reading should talk about other people’s books.

Let readers have the ‘joy of reading’, as the tagline on the Scholastic website has it, without sideswiping their tastes, whether they’re adults or children. Because if you ask me, a habit of patronising, belittling or casually sneering at other people’s pleasures is a lot more toxic than reading genre fiction can ever be, and probably more likely to turn people off reading at all. And I don’t want my book-gobbling children growing up with that.

_______________

KJ Charles used to edit children’s books and now writes award-winning romance. Jackdaw is coming in February.

Yes, I Write Romance.

One of the minor irritants of writing, editing or reading romance is that people who aren’t romance readers make jokes. Well, I say jokes. Usually jokes are defined as ‘things that are funny’, so we may need another word.

I can’t tell you the tedium of the unimaginative rote remark. I probably don’t have to. If you’re very tall, think of ‘How’s the weather up there?’ If you’re carrying a double bass on public transport, it’s doubtless ‘I bet you wish you played the flute!’ If you have a surname that lends itself to tiresome weak jokes and puns, you know the score all too well. (My real surname lends itself to puns and I write romance. This is why I need anger management classes.)

I edited for one of the most famous romance publishers in the world for five years. It got to the point where I refused to tell people my job at parties because the inevitable conversations were so deeply, profoundly, irritatingly, predictably dull.

Dull person: Romance novels?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: Like Mills & Boon?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: [bodice-ripper; ‘don’t they just give authors a plot and tell them to write it?’; all the same; ‘my granny reads them!’; Barbara Cartland; ‘don’t you want to write real books?’; 50 Shades of Grey; hahaha sex!]

I mean, I get it. Really. Romance is this totally silly genre which is about love and sex, something that no normal person is interested in at all. It’s completely trivial too – why would anyone take a genre seriously when it only makes up 17% of the entire US publishing market? Obviously any genre dominated by women as readers and writers is inherently laughable, because women. And I for one have never understood why you should be expected to look at good examples of something before dismissing it with contempt. I think it’s much better to look at something terrible published in 1974 and base all your theories on that.

Me: You make films?

Film person: Yes…

Me: I saw The Swarm! It was awful! Hahaha, you make films! It’s all hallucinatory giant bee sequences, dreadful dialogue, and random jump-cut nuclear explosions caused by bees, right?!*

* If you haven’t seen The Swarm, take a long weekend and stockpile beer.

I’ve had a lot of these conversations and have every expectation of more, so let’s just get some of it out of the way, shall we?

— Yes, I write romance. In which genres are your books published?

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, it has sex. I’m sorry you find sex so painful and unpleasant to think about. I understand there are some very good creams these days.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, many romance books are crap. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. I think Sturgeon was an optimist.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, they’re real books. You know what else is real? My royalty cheques.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, I think I can do something creative that I love and am really pretty good at, and make a living from it. I’m sorry, were you expecting a punchline?

— Yes, I write romance. No, you don’t have to respect that or be courteous about it. Then again, I don’t have to be courteous to you either. Your call.

And no, you don’t have to read my books. But – new rule – if you want to make snide remarks about them with impunity, you have to buy them. Show me a receipt and you can go to town on the hilarious subject of romance novels. As long as you’re aware that you have to pay me to listen to it.

 

Fed up of it? Join me in the comments!

 

Think of England is out from Samhain right now. The Magpie Lord is a Romantic Times Top Pick for September! (“The dialogue between the heroes is fun and intense… The building steam combusts into heat that sizzles right off the pages.”) 

 

 

Sexism on the march: the latest blather on women in publishing

I read a Will Self article on the death of the literary novel today. I don’t usually read Self except to play the party game (‘Simulacrum’! ‘Hegemony’! ‘Polymorphic!’ BINGO!) and this was more of the usual. But I came across this passage:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. (Guardian)

Hmm. Self wants to sneer at non-literary fiction and he picks on Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. A children’s book and a romance. He could have mentioned The Da Vinci Code, a book as hugely popular, egregiously bad and knockoff-spawning as 50 Shades. Inferno was the second best-selling book of 2013 in the UK: renowned wordsmith Dan Brown has not yet shot his bolt. Or as an example of the doorstop megaseries, surely Game of Thrones is better than Harry Potter, of which the last book was published seven years ago? But Mr Self clearly feels there’s something Dan and George have that Joanne and Erika don’t.

If you want to set up a straw man in opposition to the dizzy heights of literary fiction, you pick on children’s and romance, every time. Two genres dominated by women, as writers and editors and buyers; two genres that are constantly getting it in the neck as objects of sneering.

Think I’m being oversensitive? Yesterday it was announced that HarperCollins were acquiring Harlequin from Canadian owners Torstar for half a billion dollars. Harlequin is a gigantic player in the romance market, which is estimated to be worth $1.4billion per annum. Here is how the (male) business news editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail responded to the news of a half-billion dollar acquisition of a Canadian company by an American publisher.

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Yes, the priority for the business news editor of the newspaper based in the same city as Harlequin HQ is definitely to find the joke. And he did, filing the following piece:

The tension in the room was palpable. The fan blades twirled to keep the sweat from trickling off their bodies. They’d done similar things with other people, of course, but it was never like this. This was scintillating, and they ached just from the anticipation.

Oh, yes, the bankers groaned, in their throaty way.

Yes, there, the lawyers moaned, passion mounting as they pointed to where to sign the deal.

Etc. Hilarious. And comparable to the way he presented acquisition of Pixar by Disney as a squeaky voiced Mickey Mouse parody oh no wait that didn’t happen. (Click here for an excellent summary of how bad the reporting of this huge publishing event has been.)

Recently author Jonathan Emmett got himself in The Times explaining how children’s publishing was failing boys because it was dominated by women. It’s paywalled but there’s a summary here.

he believes that “children’s books tended not to contain the elements many boys were attracted to, such as battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships,” adding that research shows that the majority of children’s books in newspapers, including The Times, were by women.

[…]

“… there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”

Ignore statistics about which parents tend to read to their kids, and the female-dominated children’s publishing industry’s efforts to get male reading role models and male reading champions. Ignore the way that the media and society still present reading as nerdy and unmanly. Ignore the fact that you can’t throw a sparkly pink kitten in the Usborne or DK sections without hitting a book about ‘battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships’. It’s bloody women doing it again, refusing to publish Alex Rider or Young James Bond or Darren Shan or Percy Jackson or Beast Quest or Captain Underpants or any of the other gigantically successful boys’ series that must be a figment of your imagination.

Certainly you should ignore the fact that, if children’s publishing is dominated by women, that may have something to do with men not applying to work in it. I’ve been in children’s publishing for eight years and seen one male CV. But no, it’s actually rampant sexism, according to this post (guess the author’s gender!) on The Bookseller website

Commercial fiction editorial departments in particular—the commercial heart of all trade publishers—are almost wholly staffed by women. …

If we have stopped being good at publishing for men, perhaps one of the reasons is that even in those companies that do have male commercial fiction editors, it isn’t easy—in these zealously group-think days—for them to get buy in for fiction that cannot fit the prevailing culture in the office. I have sat in publishing meetings where the room was happily discussing the latest sex and shopping novels before moving on to some male editor’s action thriller: the drop in temperature was perceptible.

Of course, a good professional is in theory capable of evaluating all sorts of fiction, but just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects?

That was posted on 2 May this year and not, as you may think, 1981. The author concludes that, “men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Just read that sentence again.

“men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Whatever.

In what feels increasingly like an atmosphere of seething contempt and resentment for women in publishing, for women’s genres, for women authors, it is really important not to develop a bunker mentality. I’m as guilty as anyone of ranting about what ‘men’ say in response to this sort of thing, and that is deeply stupid. My life as editor, writer and person is full of male colleagues, authors, librarians, teachers, friends and readers who have no time for the misogynists and inadequate ego-strokers, and are quite ready to smack them down.

We must not let the haters in any area set the tone of the debate, not let them overshadow the very many male authors and publishers and journos and buyers who don’t feel compelled to scapegoat women or mock women-dominated genres. And we must not lose sight of what the real problems are.

The problem of boys’ reading is a problem of children’s reading, and it is about library closures and economic conditions and austerity measures putting books out of more people’s reach; about school systems that don’t give time to reading whole books and suck the joy out of reading in favour of standardised testing; about insufficient staff to support reading. For boys in particular, it is about social attitudes (we need more male nursery staff and primary school teachers, and it’s not women’s fault they’re not there), and possibly developmental differences that need staff and time and money to support them, things the funding-strapped education system aren’t providing.

The real problem of representation in publishing is about class and race, as the derisory salaries at junior/middle levels, the reliance on unpaid internships and the concentration of work in incredibly expensive places exclude people who don’t have financial family support. Sexism both ways is a relatively small issue compared to the overwhelming upper/middle class whiteness, in UK publishing at least.

The problem of there just not being enough good publishing for men is…uh…

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Looks much like 50% to me, remind me what the problem was again?

So I’m mostly posting this to remind myself: Keep your eye on the ball. Defensive sexism isn’t the answer to aggressive sexism. Ignoring people who care and listen and think is always a mistake, and so is judging people by anything except their words and deeds. I really don’t want to be pushing away supportive, listening, non-stupid men at this time. We have enough problems with the other kind.

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.