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Fake Beneath The Bodice

Occasionally I'll pick up a Regency romance or Western novel as brain candy, dessert after large and fiberous helpings of Cheever or Emerson. But much like in my actual diet, the crap far outweighs carrots.

I don't know why I read these things. They're awful, both as books and as moral compasses (compii?). Sometimes I tell myself it's because I need to know how not to write, in the event I wake up one morning firmly decided to turn from literary personal nonfiction to romantic fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars. Georgette Heyer novels are excused on account of being old, and non-crappy by comparison, and therefore classic. By this measure, of course, any daughter of Jim The Small Child Nephew might well read Valley of the Dolls in her Intro to American Literature, under the banner of "Unit 4: Understanding Your Elders, Or Why Pfizer Owns Us All."

They're tough to write. No, wait--they're tough to write well.  The author must integrate and scintillate. Nonfiction is difficult, but fiction even more so, which is why I don't write it. You need to make that *&%$ up, and you have to make it sound for real. I can barely recount conversations that actually took place without it reading like an especially wacky day at Bayside High. The trick to writing an historical romance novel is to make the romantic plot seem as if it has happened at some point in history, without making it seem like you're making it a historical romance. When this works, Clark Gable will take your calls and say "Damn" all day long when actors just didn't say "damn." When it doesn't, you have Titanic on every possible level--boat, book, and movie.

I remember reading one novel which was so clumsily written--I'll not name names or ripped bodices here--but it was so bad that I read it right to the end, every single page, because 340 pages of self-punishment is just how I roll. It was set in the Western frontier, and the author had gotten herself a Word document and access to a Wikipedia page detailing Things That Happened When U.S. Presidents Had Beards, and man, she was going to use both. People said things like, "Why, have you heard what the Wright Brothers are up to?" and "I understand that the Cincinnati Red Stockings defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in base-ball, three games to two!" After all that, nobody had any sex until the very end, and even then it didn't seem worth all the petticoat removal. Neither Wright Brother, even after a long, lonely day of wing-fixing, would have been interested.

At least the author actually wrote the thing. The big buzz in chick lit these days is a plagiarism scandal concerning the pulpy Shadow Bear, written by Cassie Edwards, and her thoughtful discussion of ferrets, written by nature journalist Paul Tome. "Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population," the heroine announces, post-coital. Hot.

When I started teaching writing at the college level, I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to bullseye stolen passages. "Don't worry," I was told many times, in many ways. "You'll know." And I did. Maybe it the was the fact that a student who for four months could barely string two sentences together and was suddenly churning out the King's English on the final. Maybe it was the way the font changed from one voice-shifting paragraph to the next. Or maybe it was how a few phrases, when fed into Google, magically popped up, fully formed, on such sites as ExampleEssays.com. But somehow, I developed an amazing second sight, a truly good eye. It is worthy of base-ball.

F minus at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (15)

What I find rather sad about Regency Romance Novels and their ilk (porn for women, we called it), is how well it sells. Is nobody getting laid out there? Have we as women lost the ability to tell our partners what pleases us because, hey, I can always go pick up the latest bodice ripper?
Give me Heyer and Holt. At least they didn't have pages I skipped, even if their heroines had the intuition of a bran muffin.

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstarnarcosis

Who doesn't love a hot, mindless endeavor every once in awhile?? I just devoured 12 of the Janet Evanovich books in a row. They are much better than her non-numbered books, in my opinion. She doesn't write those bodice ripping books, but they ARE good fun. I had one of her books downstairs on the counter and my husband said, "When did YOU start reading Romance Novels?????" Sometimes, you just want to read a non-book club book!

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris

There's a definite hierarchy in romance novels. It's hard to believe that "Shadow Bear" and the works of Georgette Heyer--some of which, I think, approach literature-- are stacked in the same section of the bookstore.

And yeah, some are basically women porn. Men want boobies, we want words about boobies. Escapism for sure. I think some of these books actually do damage to the way women view relationships, because a template plot is that the heroine tames the wild hero: She's the strong and amazing angel who makes the bad boy settle down. Which, in real life... not so much. I dare anyone to sell romance novel in which the frontier woman sits down across from the outlaw gunslinger and says, "Tex, we need to work on our communication."

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMB

>>>I dare anyone to sell romance novel in which the frontier woman sits down across from the outlaw gunslinger and says, “Tex, we need to work on our communication.”

So, MB, is this your next great writing assignment?

At least Cassie Edwards has taught all hopeful romance novel writers that inserting intellectual dialogue--plagiarized or not--doesn't automatically make your 'bran-muffin-intuition' heroine any more believable...

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterj.s.

I have a "Valley of the Dolls" story for you. My junior year in high school, I took an American Novels class and we had to do a book report. While others were choosing classics by Twain, etc., I chose "Valley of the Dolls". The teacher was actually impressed by my oral report & said that before my speech, she'd always thought that the book was just garbage but I changed her mind.
Also, my aunt taught me not to call them "bodice rippers"; we call them "Crotch novels". Vulgar, yes, but it seems to hit the nail on the head!

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSara N

I told my mother I wanted to write a romance book that turns romance cliches on their heads. For instance, a woman is frantically looking for someone, only to be waylayed (way-layed?) by the hot, rich (ALWAYS rich), titled gentleman, who then proceeds to steal a kiss. Or a grope. Or a kiss and a grope. The female is then left hot and bothered.

In my version, the woman would kick the guy in the nuts, punch him in his swoon-worthy kisser, and continue her frantic search for her friend, all the while wondering, "where the hell are the cops...".

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnlyn

"And yeah, some are basically women porn. Men want boobies, we want words about boobies."

I strongly recent that!!!!

We also want butts, you know ;-)

PS: You may be interested in reading "The Queen of the South", by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a great novel with a great heroine.

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterred pill junkie

Having now taken formal courses in both fiction and non-fiction creative writing, and also having dabbled in both for the last 25 years, I am still undecided where to land.

I like writing both. I like the grittiness of writing first-person experience non-fiction. But I like the creative control one has in writing fiction. In other words, if I want my main character to wear plaid with polka dots, then by golly, I can make him.

I could do both, but I can't shake the feeling that I really need to focus my energy on one or the other if I am going to make a serious pass at this. As in publishing and all that good goofy stuff.

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJules

Perhaps we need a Reader list of "Non Crotch Grabbing Mind Candy".
I nominate "Possession" by A.S. Byatt and "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield.

April 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstarnarcosis

I have the same 'brain candy' affliction.

Might I suggest Diana Gabaldon?

I am on the sixth book of her series of 1,000 pagers, and they are hard to put down. Check 'em out. :)

April 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTamar

OK, should have specified,

They are MUCH higher quality than your usual 'bodice ripper'. Oh! And the hero guy is scotch. Yum!

April 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTamar

Scots, I guess. Not the drink. Apparently I need a bit of scotch myself..... Carry on.

April 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTamar

Are any of you all on goodreads.com? I love that site!! I have gone back to childhood and added all my books and of course, I made a book club list, a college list, a favorites list, a most influential list. Wow, apparently, I really like making lists...

13th Tale was pretty good - a present day Gothic novel for ya!

April 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris

I love romance novels.

There. I've admitted it. Yes they are fluffy. Yes the characters and plots are predictable. But darn it, sometimes I need a little bit of fun in my life.

Seriously, I have to choices about what to read. I could do my homework The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics


I could read The Seduction of an Unknown Lady.

Seriously, what would you choose?

April 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCollegeGal

I think you should at least make a sporting attempt at writing some fiction someday, MB. Even if nobody reads it.

Hell, Bill O'Reilly even wrote a novel. Evidently, it sucks. But he doesn't seem to have suffered for it.

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