Monday, March 10, 2008

The Book of Lost Things & what's wrong with the romance industry


Just finished John Connolly's Book of Lost Things, which was interesting in the way it played with familiar stories and poems (Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came among them, one of my favourites) and had clever moments, but didn't enthral or engage me the way other authors have with their explorations of those old tales which permeate our perspectives of stepmothers, wolves, lost children and queens. I suppose I am thinking of Angela Carter's Company of Wolves and Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, which in their very different ways were exuberant celebrations of the tradition, along with AS Byatt's Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.
I think Connolly's main character, David, is a little plodding - he doesn't quite come off the page - his growth is told more than shown, perhaps. And the final chapter is a gallop to the finish, as though Connolly realised that he had written too much and needed to compress everything into another 3,000 words or else. But the plot is clever and intricate and interesting and the Beast is a great invention. The dangers that David faced were effectively detailed, particularly the Beast (which is a sort of underground arachnid with millipede characteristics and a way of bursting through the earth to swallow men up) and aspects of the bleakness of reaching adulthood were very effectively depicted.
In the meantime, I have finally managed to get the internet back at home, at last at last so am surfing again. And I was led by Smart Bitches to a survey on the romance industry which asked what I really would like to change about it - well obviously I couldn't put down that they should publish me properly with a whacking big advertising campaign and staged readings up and down the countryside, but other than that, what do I really wish for the romance publishing industry?
More variety. And better writing. I can think of the really well written romances I have read on the fingers of maybe two hands - Jennifer Crusie; Jude Morgan; Nita Abrams; Tracy Grant; Eva Ibbotson from the pantheon of the living. Austen, Trollope and Georgette Heyer from the late lamented column. That's really pretty much it. Romance has been commoditised more than other genres, although I think there are some howlingly awful crime novels out there, and of course, we won't even open the Dan Brown can of worms. I am not including my favourite writer of historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett, as a romance writer, because her books with a couple of notable exceptions are not really romantic. There is plenty of love and hatred and passion but other than Checkmate, they are not really romances.
Because romances have been turned into sausage-machine type fodder, and the demand for them continues to be high, there is this problem that the writing generally speaking is rarely polished. It can be smart and clever but it is not consistently good even within a single book.
Then there is characterisation - I believe I've posted before about my enjoyment of the bad girl in fiction. But it's as though writers and publishers are afraid to go with the really bad girl. Someone mean, or spiteful or careless or manipulative. Why why why???? It's only when a character has really significant flaws that they can truly grow and change. I suppose I am thinking of the heroine of The People's Act of Love (James Meek) which remains the book I best remember from the past few years of reading partly because the heroine has disastrous judgement when it comes to the men she chooses to entangle herself with. She's careless, she makes reckless choices, she doesn't get it right. These are the heroes and heroines I really like.
It seems to me that the publishing industry and the romance publishing industry in particular are risk averse - they go with what works and then look around in astonishment when the different thing actually sells and sells. Then they try to encourage more writers to write the different thing so that it is no longer different any more. And the whole industry has been infected by block-busteritis, so there is no room for respectable sales any more - a book has to make it onto lists and into supermarkets and sell shedloads. So it is harder and harder to find hidden treasures and those are what makes a book really exciting, the sense that it is your secret, that other people don't necessarily know about it, so you can rave to them. I've never been sufficiently into religion to be a proselytiser - perhaps my only faith is really the written word. But when I find a book that is amazing, it really is difficult to shut me up about it.
I sympathise with publishers. No really, I do. They are inundated with extraordinary volumes of paper, much of which could have been put to better use as chip wrapping, they have bottom lines and deadlines and lines in the sand over which they cannot cross, they have a daily diet of weirdness (just go check out any editor's blog for a sample of the type of bizarro-land letter they receive in a vain attempt to convince them that the next big thing has just landed on their desk). But they are also vain and silly and superficial, which is how we get so many celebrity biogs that are just testaments to the vacuity of our post-modern world - and which earned enormous advances but.... didn't sell. And in addition to all that, the office politics of the average publishing house make imperial Rome look like a calm night at an old folks' home in Bournemouth.
Still, that doesn't diminish my frustration as a reader waiting for another desert island keeper. And waiting. And waiting. Ummm, yes, the clock is ticking and I'm still waiting. That's because too many books are published too fast and the quality control is poor as a result. So my real wish for the publishing industry would be to curtail the running around like a headless flightless egg-laying avian and get on with finding really good books to publish. Like mine.

2 comments:

Amy Addison said...

Of course you should be published properly! And I think it's fair to say that's what's wrong with the publishing industry ;)

La Belle Americaine said...

Word!