Mood Scale: Just Below Crabby

October 12th, 2005 · 10 Comments
by Booksquare

We will warn you in advance that we are feeling disagreeable this morning*. And we will admit we read Brenda Coulter’s post on romance novels and reviewing while in this mood. She started her post with this statement, quite possibly certain that someone would take exception to her position:

The world of published romance writers is a small one, and many of us have forged some strong friendships within it. Also, it’s disloyal for an author to trash the books of someone who writes for the same publisher she does. But although nobody can spot the faults in a romance novel quicker than another romance novelist, the primary reason we don’t publicly criticize each others’ books is that we all know how hard everyone else is trying.

We could not disagree with this more if we tried. The fact that romance writers can spot faults in romances is the very reason they should engage in serious, critical peer review. We do not agree that women need to play nice due to some misguided sense of sisterhood (for the zillionth time, we will note the viciousness that only sisters can exhibit; brothers simply don’t have the inner strength to go that low).

We are at the mid-point of a review of a romance novel that is, frankly, crap. Not the good kind of crap (a la Scruples

Brenda gets to quote her hero Terry Teachout throughout her piece, but circles back to an idea that makes us uncomfortable:

Romance novels are character-driven. By definition, the books are deeply emotional. So if you’ve just figured out that romance writers must be people who feel things deeply, you’re catching on. Yes, we’re sensitive.

This is true, though at Booksquare, we prefer to be called “delicate flowers”.

But it is not just romance writers who are deeply emotional and sensitive. Though we haven’t checked lately, we vaguely recall this being a natural part of the human condition. Some are merely more emotional than others. Brenda is writing in response to the often ill-informed criticism by those outside of the community. Writing any novel is hard work, and nobody (we hope, though we have our doubts) sets out to write anything less than their best work. Writers, like all artists, have different levels and some will only reach a certain strata of achievement.

That is not the point. Far too many lousy romance novels are being published, and it is incumbent upon reviewers to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. This is not the same as trashing — different type of reviewing. We are reminded of our first encounter with Jill (poor, long-suffering Jill). Though the exact words are fuzzy, we basically said, “Good story, but you started in the wrong place”. That Jill remains our friend after that says something — we are not sure what, but we will suggest that she can be emotional but serious about her craft. We must stop before we say something too kind and change our mood.

Romance novelists often complain that they don’t get respect in the industry, and suggestions that critical reviews among peers are somehow taboo doesn’t help anyone’s cause (unless you are a critic and can seize upon this as proof that romance writers are not serious about craft). It’s clear that the genre has fallen into a long period of stagnation and readers aren’t being satisfied. One way to raise the bar is for romance authors to hold their peers to a higher standard. Stop worrying about hurting someone’s feelings and help them grow as writers.

* – This falls just under “crabby” on the mood scale. You’ve been warned.

File Under: Square Pegs

10 responses so far ↓

  • Bernita // Oct 12, 2005 at 8:45 am

    Seen just a little too much of “It’s a fab read” and “Just awesome, congrats!” lately?

  • Rosina Lippi // Oct 12, 2005 at 8:57 am

    I agree with you down the line, argument for argument. Having said that, I’d like to point out that there’s a dynamic going on that may be part of the reason behind Coulter’s (in my view, erroneous) position:

    There is a group of romance writers who give each other unconditional love and support, just as there are many critics who automatically dismiss and/or trivialize every novel shelved under romance.

  • Brenda Coulter // Oct 12, 2005 at 9:25 am

    Booksquare, I’ll see your crabby mood and raise you one TMJ headache.

    I didn’t say romance writers shouldn’t review romance novels. I was explaining why they rarely do it. And I was urging all reviewers who trash books to, as I put it in one of the comments, “be fair and reasonable about it and not appear to derive any pleasure from the experience.”

    Yours truly,
    Just another delicate flower

  • Joan Kelly // Oct 12, 2005 at 11:11 am


    I don’t know much about the romance genre, but I wholeheartedly agree with your take on how higher expectations can at least encourage, if not ensure (insure?) better writing. That very issue is why I feel like the book I recently finished should have at least ten other women listed as co-authors – despite my initial difficulty with receiving criticism in my writing group, it’s exactly what helped me become the kind of writer who *could* write this book. I was totally up for the task of writing something crappier when I joined the group, and I’m not saying I’ve written the kinky War and Peace or anything now, but to the extent I’ve succeeded in writing something that doesn’t suck, it’s because other writers told me when I was writing stuff that did.

    Your fan,

  • Karen Scott // Oct 13, 2005 at 1:35 am

    You’re not alone, I’m pretty sick of sycophantic reviews too.

    I understand that some authors may not want to publicly bash their peers, but I’m of the mind that they owe it to readers to be honest.

    If they can’t say what they feel, then they should leave the reviewing to the people who aren’t afraid to tell it how it is. Nice Girls need not apply.

  • Isabel // Oct 13, 2005 at 10:53 am

    Damn straight.

    As long as a genre emphasizes being nice, and sensitive, and trying *really really hard* over critical assessment, as long as it promotes some sort of misguided sense that one has a special connection to those who happen to share one’s plumbing and thus owes them extra consideration, as long as it, in short, acts like the bigeyed emo-poetry writing chick who made the rest of us roll our eyes in every class she was in…

    ..then that genre is neither going to get nor deserve respect.

  • Anonymous // Oct 13, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Romance writers don’t publically review each other’s books because the person critiqued will come after the reviewer with guns blazing and fangs bared.

    It’s not being too sensitive. It’s an attempt to keep it sweetness and light.

    Which is why I don’t read romances anymore. I want to know if a book sucks before I plunk down 8 bucks for it.

  • KathyF // Oct 14, 2005 at 3:04 am

    Is the industry actually slumping? Why oh why am I not surprised?

    OT, but did you read the Steve Almond piece in Salon? Or did I miss it? When he said “the modern writer is engaged in an enterprise almost guaranteed to crush her spirit” I don’t think he was just talking about romance writers.

  • Selah March // Oct 14, 2005 at 7:42 am

    And they say it’s we erotic romance peddlers who court the disrespect for the genre. Bah.

    “Don’t look too closely. Don’t expect too much. Don’t set the bar too high. WE’RE JUST GIRRRRLS.”

    Bah again.

  • Angela // Oct 17, 2005 at 3:45 am

    Agreed. There are far too many mediocre(and not just to some people) romances being published and no one seems to have a problem with it, as though by just being published is good enough. I know first hand how much hard work goes into creating a novel, but I am always left, scratching my head when yet another book flies onto the shelves full of errors,tepid characters and weak plotting. It makes me wonder whether writers see becoming published as such the be all end all Big Prize that constructive criticism and critiquing is viewed as “fraternizing with the enemy”. Why don’t we writers hold each other accountable for what we’re writing? As Kassia said, not to bash anyone or proclaim them a hack, but to push higher, to want, to need, to deliver to readers what they deliver when they decide to purchase your book.