Angst and romance

That headline may be a little misleading. The angst isn’t necessarily in the romance, it’s more about the romance.

TL;DR—click here to read a summary of this post.

People who claim to be expert (or at least, er, Adept) at readers’ advisory need to be well-rounded enough as readers to be able to recommend books in every genre, but I confess there are a few in which I am not well versed. One is romance; while I enjoy the occasional book dubbed a “cozy,” wherein the romance is not the entire point of the story, I am mostly a novice and a stranger when it comes to reading mainstream romance.

I did read a few Harlequins in my youth, because my mother adored them so they were always lying around the house. And in my 30s, when I was struggling to become a writer, it occurred to me that an easy way to make a buck might be to try my hand at writing one. I went so far as to send away to Harlequin for the specs to their various series, but I was put off by the incredibly stereotypical requirements. There was a set number of pages, a prescribed age range for the man and a similar profile for the woman (men were late 20s to early 40s, while the women had to be 18-24), and a specific story structure to follow. I decided, from the heights of youthful idealism, that this would be a betrayal of principle and never went farther with that aspiration.

No longer are romances planned out in that way—not even those from Harlequin. Not even the sacred HEA (happily ever after) is guaranteed any longer! There are still prevailing formulas, but with a lot more wiggle room. But romance as a genre is still a relative stranger to me, so I enrolled in an online readers’ advisory class for romance to see if I could garner some tips about referring romance readers to their ideal books.

We were assigned two books to read in the second week: A Rogue by Any Other Name, by Sarah MacLean, and What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss.

rogue1Of the former, I’m not going to say much, except that if this is supposed to be a good example of a contemporary historical romance, then the bar has been set way too low.

Clichés abounded, human interactions were awkward, dialogue was overdramatic and talky, and historical context was distinctly lacking. A few torrid sex scenes (and the requisite ripped bodice) were just not enough to carry the rest.

On the other hand, What the Librarian Did surprised me. I had low expectations for a Harlequin based on what I used to read in my (long-ago) youth, but this book had good characters with assets and flaws, a believable story line, and a subplot that had nothing much to do with the romance, but was therefore a nice balancer. I liked it!

librariandidThe story follows Rachel Robinson (ha-ha, Ms. Robinson), a university librarian, who has a secret in her long-ago past that is about to come back to haunt her. Meanwhile, new student Devin Freedman is garnering an extravagant amount of attention from everyone except Rachel, who’s never heard of him. Devin, lead guitarist in a wildly successful American rock band, has quit the biz to return to his native New Zealand and pursue a business degree. Rachel encounters him on his first day at school when he arrives to tour the library, and her lack of knowledge about him piques his curiosity, while she takes one look at his bad-boy charms and is intrigued, despite herself. The cat-and-mouse that follows switches off from one to the other, and is made more complex by the intrusion of the secret from Rachel’s past, with which both of them must come to terms.

The first thing I liked is that these characters are both adults in their 30s. There was none of this experienced macho man mentoring the naive young girl nonsense—these are two people with an equal amount of years behind them, multiple relationships (and failed marriages, on Devin’s part), and a lot of complex baggage. But there is also “the spark,” which is the essential ingredient for a really satisfying romance, in my opinion, and Devin and Rachel definitely have it. Add to that wit and humor and the aforementioned plot twist complication, and you have a story. I’m all about the story, so this book made me happy!

Hopefully I can find more like this to give to my readers’ advisory clients.

(One caveat: The cover looks like something from the 1970s meant to appeal to swoony teenagers. Which is one reason why I don’t spontaneously pick up Harlequin novels! I think it highly probably that the best thing ever to happen to romance readers is the anonymity of the Kindle!)BlogDingbat

TL;DR: A Rogue by Any Other Name was clichéd, overdramatic, and poorly reflected its historical context. What the Librarian Did had believable characters, an interesting story line and subplot, and a satisfying ending, and also contained wit and humor.

Why dystopian fiction?

mockingjay-pinWhy have dystopian and post-apocalyptic books become and remained so popular? As a teen librarian, this was one of the questions most frequently asked of me (mostly by bewildered parents and teachers), so I recently included my (extensive) answer in a speculative fiction lecture to my Young Adult Literature class.

Included in the dystopian and apocalyptic sub-genre are books addressing the degradation of the planet, painting societies that have run out of fossil fuels, societies that have run out of water, numerous scenarios of global warming, and societies in which the entire infrastructure has broken down and created a scavenger mentality. There are stories addressing the breakdown of civil society, with the rise of oppressive religions and philosophies and the persecution of “the others,” and experimenting with ideas about who those others of the future will be—will they still be gay people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of color? Or will the society shift and find different victims on which to avenge itself?

Some observers of the success of this publishing niche point to 9/11 and the many terrorist events before and after it as an existential catalyst to make people consider end-of-the-world scenarios. But dystopian fiction was around long before any of our current destruction scenarios, starting in 1932 with Brave New World, and featuring such classics between then and now as Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for LeibowitzThe Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, and Parable of the Sower. And in addition to those considered classics, there are equally enduring stories (even though some of them are dated) such as Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank; Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan; War Day, by James Kunetka and Whitley Streiber; Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute; and The Family Tree and The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.

alasbabylon

The question is, though: Why are these books so popular, especially with teens?

Before The Hunger Games ever spurred a glut of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the teen market, there were forays into this downbeat science fiction sub-genre of dark, diminished futures focused on survival: cautionary tales such as Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer; and future projections such as Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, and the chilling Unwind (and sequels) by Neal Shusterman. After The Hunger Games, which is the all-time best-selling book series (surpassing even Harry Potter and Twilight!), the reading public went crazy for such books as Ready Player One and Epitaph Road, and overdosed on such series as The Maze Runner, Divergent and sequels, and The Young Elites.

UnwindSome of these works are focused on the immediate hereafter, while others project centuries ahead to speculate on what a future world would look like after the immediate destructive effects have subsided. If adults are feeling anxious enough to write these books, it’s probable that their anxieties are being communicated to their teenagers through more than popular fiction and the movies made from it.

Reading about a society that is worse than yours, or a scenario in which the worst that could possibly happen has transpired—but people have survived and are using their ingenuity and determination to make things better—can be reassuring.

There is also the advantage of being able to talk about socially unacceptable topics in a fictional arena and work out how you feel about them or how you should feel about them. Calling a political regime into question, or rebelling against a religion or cultural restriction by reading about it can help a teen (or an adult) who can’t quite bring him- or herself to rebel in real life, by offering some relief, or possibly even guidance and encouragement. Authors can offer pointed commentary about societal trends (as did the authors of Brave New World and 1984) from within a fictional setting and gain an audience while not suffering the criticism or retribution they might receive if their comments were offered in plain speech.

Teens can use these books as metaphors to work out their own problems with the real world. Teen brains are not done maturing yet, and many teens are filled with rage and fear and longing, and have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings; so fiction that provides a cathartic release and relief of these emotions is helpful. These books can also inspire us by the actions of their courageous, defiant protagonists who overcome barriers and limitations or come to the realization of their own shortcomings and seek to do better.

Ultimately, it is also fiction that, once again, provides the opportunity for the learning of empathy.

“Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.”

—Dr. Brené Brown

Fantasy fiction

What is the appeal of fantasy fiction? People who don’t read fantasy ask this question a lot. Here are some reasons why people might enjoy reading fantasy:

Escapism: travel into another WORLD, culture, history, set of natural laws

Heroism: the exploration of greater themes, unconscious hopes and aspirations, the experience of admiration and emotion

Specialness: a hidden talent for magic…

Wonder: the appeal of the unfamiliar

Romance: Not just “couples” romance, but the romance of the road, the charisma of the swashbuckler, etc.

Simplicity: the straightforward moral code of good and evil

“The more rational the world becomes,
the more we demand the irrational in our fiction.
The genre starts where science ends.”

—Mark Chadbourn