Monday, October 17, 2005

SBD: Broad generalizations about male "romance"…

It’s Smart Bitches Day again, and this time I’ve got something to talk about—a bit off topic, but I think it works. It’s been on my mind for awhile, but as I was unpacking boxes on Friday, I was tipped over the edge.

The new Nicholas Sparks’ book had arrived (set for release tomorrow).

Staring down at the soft focus cover with its ivy green and silhouette of a tree, I could barely control my heebie-geebies as I thought, “I wonder which character is going to bite it this time?”

Because I don’t get it. I don’t get why this schmaltzy, purple-laden prose sells so well, or why the women who read it swear that he is all that is holy and NOT ROMANCE.

Okay, on that last point, I agree. He’s not romance. Sure he has a love story, and the characters have to overcome barriers to be with one another. That part is true, but he violates a basic tenet of romance by killing off one of his protagonists in almost every damn book. It’s how he legitimizes himself as a fiction writer. “See, it’s a love, a love against all odds, which they fight, fight, fight for, but the female lead dies therefore voiding all chances of a ‘happily ever after,’ ergo, not romance. It’s fiction, man, fiiiiiction.”

It’s why I don’t read his books.

This makes me part of a minority, I know, the five million customers that have come into my work asking for this new book—completely ignoring the large sign I have up with the street date on it—have pounded that into my head. That the man is successful and making money is great, more power to him, but why he is successful, I don’t understand.

If you want to depress yourself read a newspaper. If you want to depress yourself about love, read divorce statistics.

People just love him though, and they feel free to read him much more openly than any romance writer I know (with the possible exception of Nora Roberts) even though they know what’s coming! For example: a friend of mine (training to be a pharmacist) was in an intro class for the Safeway pharmacy program, and being the wonderfully OCD person that she is, she would arrive early every day. One morning after she’d sat down, another girl arrived, took her seat and pulled out a book. Not unusual, my friend was reading herself. My friend, however, was not sniffing out loud and almost crying. She was on the verge of asking emotional girl if she needed a tissue and a shoulder to cry on when she caught sight of the book being read: Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

Let me ruin the ending for you: the female protagonist dies of a debilitating disease. Tissues all around. Puffy eyes. Runny noses. The works.

Perhaps not the most appropriate reading material when you are moments away from meeting your bosses. If someone is going to see me bawl in public, it’s going to be because someone died or I won something really great and I’m all, “Ohmigod-I-just-can’t-believe-it-now-they-won’t-forclose-on-my-home-and-we-can-finally-get-little-Timmy-some-help.” It is not going to be because some author hooked me with the same emotional twist he pulls time and again. I thought tragic love went out with the romantics.

I accept that my favorite authors who will catch me with a plot twist or an emotional swell that will make me melt, but they don’t abuse the privilege. It’s not done with a heavy hand. They don’t sit down and think to themselves, “How can I make my readers cry today?”

And maybe Sparks doesn’t either, but given the books he’s written—and those written by others in the same sap-lit genre (Nicholas Evans, James Patterson)—I’m beginning to wonder. Of course I could be looking at this all wrong. They’re male. This is a legitimized form of emotional masturbation. They’re addicted due to hormonal urges they can’t control.

I’ve heard it happens.

I’ve also heard it makes your palms hairy and blinds your eyes.

One can only hope.

So romance ladies, listen up! You want more readers? You want to reach a larger audience? You want to stop being pigeon-holed as the preferred book for Midwestern housewives?

It’s easy; just kill off one of your protagonists.

Think about it, the end of each novel is now so much easier! If you’ve written yourself into a corner where the odds are just insurmountable, all you have to do is kill the female protag, and you’re good. She’ll live on forever as the perfect woman for the male protagonist, if only in his heart. A woman who cannot be surpassed, whose faults fall away in death. Really, I can’t believe that more people aren’t doing this.

I mean it’s Instant Sales! And an emotional hand-job!

You could be responsible for getting off a nation without writing any of those dirty sex scenes.

Standards of decency will be upheld. The masses will rejoice. You’ll get one hell of an advance!

Besides, if one lone bookseller commits suicide, but there is no one around to hear it because they are reading your book, does she really make a sound?


Anonymous said...

I read "Message in a Bottle" just to see what all the hype was about. Hated every word of it. It was schmaltzy, unbelievable, and had a ridiculous ending.

I will never read another book by this man again. This was one of those books that made me wonder: why in hell it is so hard to get published when crap like this ends up on the shelves all the time?

Thanks for a good post.

Moi said...

Excellent post. I've often wondered the same thing myself.

I didn't read that particular Sparks book, but The Notebook because it was mentioned in Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel and I went on a crusade to read the books mentioned. I got through Notebook (before it became a movie) and analyzed it, for my own enjoyment and edification. What I basically came up with is that he told the story competently, but what his real mark of brilliance was hitting those emotional buttons. He's really good at making you cry, making you feel for his characters. (FWIW, both protagonists survive in The Notebook, at least physically) It's a remarkable talent, and one I've tried to study a bit for translation into my own writing.

However, his work wasn't to my taste and I haven't read anything else by him and am not inclined to. I'm a Romance reader, I like my HEA's, and that's my preference. But, as you said, he's not Romance, he's Mainstream Fiction and that in itself makes a world of difference to this reader.

Rosina Lippi said...

Of course Sparks writes romance. You just have to broaden your definition a little. Love story = romance.

Why not? The HEA litmus test does nobody any good.

Great post, by the way.

RNN Admin said...

Ok, I know I'm in the minority. However, I am a man who enjoys romantic fiction. For those such as myself, it is very difficult to find a romance novel written from a male perspective in English.

So, though I agree he isn't really romance, for American men, he's pretty much the best we've got.

Bookseller Chick said...

I agree, there are few options for men that want to read romance, and I think that there is a larger group out there than previously believed. Look Cussler, Clancy, Rollins and Patterson's (non schmultzy) books and you'll find elements of romance in all of them: the give and take between male and female character, a spark of attraction, feelings (beaaaaaauutiful feeeeeeeeelings). The elements are downplayed, or done wrong (Rollins did not carry off the romantic elements in Map of Bones very well at all), or one of the characters even dies, but it's all there. A groundwork for male romance, if you will. Nick Hornsby's look at relationships in general might be something you would want to check out, but his focus makes him considered more Emo than other writers. Personally I can't wait to see what the Bob Meyer/Jennifer Crusie writing partnership produces.