Making Fun of “Babes”

August 22nd, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

If an alien were to explore our bookshelves in an attempt to understand something about us, the likely conclusion would be multiple personality disorder. We admittedly read romance. We read science fiction. We read mystery and crime fiction. We read fantasy. We read literary fiction. We read classics. We read non-fiction. We read periodicals. We read cereal boxes. We read.


It’s probably a side effect of having a librarian for a mother, but our literary prejudices are minimal. Mostly we hate celebrity autobiographies, but that’s because we don’t get a good sense of honesty from them. When we judge fiction, we start from the same place: was it a good read? Did it change us in some way? The ending doesn’t have to be happy, it doesn’t have to be sad, it doesn’t have to be anything — the story, quite simply, needs to make us sit back and say, “yeah, that was great.”

It’s even better if we think about the words, the story, the characters, a sentence, a feeling months after we’ve read the book. This is why we thought about Dandelion Wine this morning (yes, finally, new sneakers!). This is why we flip through J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and return to the real world hours later. This is why we give every newborn of our acquaintance a copy of Where The Wild Things Are. We like to think we’re forming many young minds. We’re probably delusional.

There is a school of literary criticism that sees popular fiction as, well, something the common folk enjoy. It’s all very well and good if you want to slum, but our kind of people don’t do that. Which surely explains the success of Mary Higgins Clark in a classless society. We don’t begrudge anyone their personal choices in reading material (though we suspect if someone were to confine their reading to ice cream cartons, we’d wonder). What bothers us is when people whose job it is to review fiction define good fiction with an “use versus them” mentality. Yeah, like, they haven’t snuck a few Dr. Seuss’s on the side.

This sort of faux intellectualism, and our inherent disdain for it, makes it almost too easy to poke fun at the current “Bookbabes” column — we believe the term is shooting fish in a barrel. However, we are notorious for our lousy aim, so will take free shots when handed to us.

Let’s start with a fun one:

Aside from the fact that most critics consider happy endings to be anti-intellectual (hey, life doesn’t usually have them, so why should fiction?)…

Uh, most people’s lives don’t end in misery. At least as far as we can tell. We happen to be pretty happy. Life doesn’t usually end in violent death — why only review books that do? Life doesn’t usually end in abject misery — why bother writing about it? If we we recall the concept of the novel correctly (and please tell us if we’re wrong), it is to explore the human condition. The good. The bad. The really bad. The happy ending. If you think happiness or love is anti-intellectual, perhaps you should talk to your doctor about upping your medication.

Why not give readers hope? If fiction only exposes the dark side of life, no wonder people are giving up reading. We get enough of that from the news. Does an honest look at society require misery? Always? We read, to the bitter end, the critically acclaimed Fall on Your Knees. It is the book the husband calls, “the book you hate, but can’t stop recommending.” So much about the writing was incredible; so little about the characters was inspirational. We couldn’t understand why the characters didn’t just put themselves out of their misery. Group suicide would have worked just fine for us. If we can explore the inner lives of this group of losers, why not look at people whose faith in themselves leads to triumph? Fiction doesn’t have to explore misery and depravity to offer value.

And yet, last year this vast market [romance fiction] accounted for more than half of all paperback sales and one-third of popular fiction sales in the United States.

And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. We think the Bookbabes haven’t been watching sales figures. We don’t believe that men don’t read, but we do believe women drive the fictin market. Women read romance. If the romance market is declining, it will trickle down to other genres.

The ‘Babes try to analyze the situation, despite exhibiting a clear lack of understanding of the problem. Okay, we can get behind that. We do it all the time. Unfortunately, they base their analysis on the seventies — and despite the repeated attempts of disco and mirror balls to return, the seventies are way over. Unless you’re talking about The Clash. Or The Ramones. Or Patti Smith. Or the never-truly-appreciated or heard Big Star..

As for the Bookbabes, it becomes clear that they haven’t spent any time in a bookstore observing what people purchase:

No, the truth is women’s taste in romance has been changing for some time — and society’s attitude toward acceptable reading material has, too. Turning away from bodice-ripper books, women now are embracing all sorts of genres usually associated with men — thrillers, suspense, and science fiction — as well as a new romantic genre that definitely drops the old formula of weak heroine and strong hero: chick lit.

Women’s taste in romance shifts on a regular basis. All you have to do is a quick analysis of the market (hint: go to a used bookstore and ask for help). Harlequin was particularly slow in recognizing the shifts and responding. That, we believe, is the core reason behind its current woes. There is something about romance that speaks to women — but as we (women) change, our fantasies change. That’s not to say traditional romantic fantasies don’t exist, but we also want fiction that reflects our current struggles. Harlequin grew stagnant, partially because its core business was on auto-pilot. It has nothing to do with society’s attitude about reading material — we’re pretty low-brow as a species.

It’s sad that the Bookbabes don’t have a clue from bodice rippers, but, uh, we grew up in a household where thrillers and suspense were the mother’s choice of reading. At least one sister prefers mystery to other fiction. We have a critique partner who devoured science fiction in her formative years. And we mixed romance with every other type of fiction we could touch. Women have traditionally read broadly. Perhaps the ‘Babes haven’t, but they shouldn’t pretend to speak for the gender.

Women aren’t just now embracing all sorts of genres associated with men — women have always read broadly. What is being missed here is that the demographics of the romance reader are shifting — Harlequin’s core readership is growing older; chicklit is being embraced by women who are under forty. And, having read far too much chicklit, we can say with authority that there are sufficient weak heroines…unlike modern romance where that cliche went out with leg warmers.

Should we book editors be taking a look at this large and changing area of books? And, if so, how can we begin to cover this market?

Uh, by reading and reviewing books that are actually selling? Maybe getting down with the readers? We know it’s tough to believe, but the books reviewed by most major newspapers aren’t hitting the bestseller lists. We have long suggested that it would be really cool if book review sections paid attention to mass market publications. Just to see how the little guy lives.

However, as the “form” matures, it becomes more formulaic and doesn’t have much to offer candidates for review. Readers will find them without review help. Ditto the romance genre. These categories have been and should remain under the purview of Faith Popcorn, not Michael Dirda.

They’re talking about chicklit, but fill in the blanks: mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy. This is silly. Books that people actually want to read shouldn’t be reviewed…just those books that require readers to be coaxed toward? Why not offer a mix? If we trust your taste on books we are inclined to read, we might take your suggestions on things we’re less likely to pick up. Just a thought.

With newspapers trying so frantically to draw in fans of Britney Spears, perhaps book editors — and features editors who cover the world of books — should consider taking a harder look at what women readers are picking up these days.

Uh, yeah. This shouldn’t be a revelation. There is a great diversity in readers, yet book review sections of major newspapers don’t acknowledge this. We devour the Publisher’s Weekly reviews every week because of the diversity — we encounter titles we wouldn’t find. If we depended on the Los Angeles Times for new and interesting books, well, we wouldn’t read much. The comparison to Britney Spears fans is a bit facile (and condescending). Why not acknowledge that women readers, like all readers, are diverse, and have book review sections that reflect the vast range of titles available to them.

We need to get over our old antipathy for the romance genre. A constantly evolving market, much of it is not the anti-feminist throwback we imagine. Today’s romance fiction is not your mother’s bodice rippers: Heaving bosoms have been replaced by Bergdorf blondes.

We (almost) totally agree with this paragraph. It’s pretty easy to figure out where we have issues. Romance novels, just like other genre fiction, evolve. We are admittedly highly critical of today’s romance fiction, especially as it relates to Harlequin, but at least we have a basis for our dissatisfaction. We haven’t seen (or read of) a heaving bosom since…well, we don’t recall (unless a character has been running for some time — in that case, the chest, of which a bosom is part, would naturally heave).

We’ve never been impressed with the Bookbabes column. We’re usually pretty sure they’re trying to make a point, but we can’t figure out what it is. This column leaves us in the same position. They realize that women readers are evolving, but…what? They’re moving from romance to something just as bad? Something that can’t possibly be understood, much less reviewed, so why bother?

Did we mention how important it is for a reviewer to gain the trust of the audience. We’ve just discussed two reviewers who have lost our faith.

File Under: Square Pegs