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April 14, 2009

Romance Anniversary

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Harlequin (of Harlequin romance novels) turns 60 this year.

* Bhetti, a smart and funny young woman who hangs out at Roissy's, has some words to say in favor of reading romance novels.

* ABC celebrates the big Harlequin anniversary.

Small MBlowhard rant: I do wish that many readers wouldn't be as quick to condemn and/or condescend to romance novels and romance writers as they are. In fact, it's quite amazing how prone many readers are to dismissing romance fiction, vampire fiction, and the like without ever having read any.

How to explain this tendency of so many readers? My theory: It must have something to do with excessive exposure to English-lit classes.

In any case: Romance fiction is dismissable because it's formulaic, you say? Response: Sonnets aren't formulaic? Rock and roll isn't formulaic?

Incidentally, and FWIW, romance-reading isn't my thing by a long shot. But 1) I'm generally reluctant to condemn anything without having experienced it for myself (because I'm such a super-admirable person, of course), and 2) I'm always curious about genre books. So, many years back, I took the time to read a couple dozen romance novels.

You know what I found? Surprise, surprise: Some romance novels are solid entertainments, crafted by generous and talented entertainers. I was left wondering: Why would anybody sneer at such creations, or at such creators? Let alone at the people who enjoy these creations?

Related: Here's Harlequin's website. Wikipedia is very informative about both Harlequin and romances generally. One of the best of the romance novelists I read turns out to have been a man. Alias Clio is a fan of romance legend Georgette Heyer. Are you really gonna look down on the pleasures of Alias Clio?

Other Popular-Fiction Links: I raved about James M. Cain's mean, brilliant, and juicy "Mildred Pierce." I praised some of the work of trash-novel diva Jackie Collins. I ranted about the class-and-snob basis of the "literary fiction" thang.

Question for the day: Why are do so many people who are comfy with the idea of "popular music" and "popular movies" as "legitimate forms of entertainment that might well be art" turn their noses up at popular book-fiction?



posted by Michael at April 14, 2009


Dimly-related Bonus Link: I raved about James M. Cain's mean, brilliant, and juicy "Mildred Pierce." -MB

RE: What novel/movie you see yourself in...

I believe I'm living in a badly spliced combination of several movies:

"12 Monkeys"
"The Glass House"
"Wild at Heart"
"The Great Gatsby" - only scenes involving minor characters
"Jane Eyre"

There may be others present but most of the time the snippets are only recognizable by astute observers. It's surprisingly more difficult to name that theme than to name that tune so observers often think they're watching a movie not in the mix.

Mildred Pierce strikes me as a uniquely Midwestern character, btw; she was to be admired IMO but for her blindness as a parent which isn't unusual. Such a woman was never raised in the South. Though I did have a psycho-genius roommate with a self-made Ma whose family had moved from the Midwest. Oh dear, now if I were to start comparing her family to a movie...

Posted by: lynx on April 14, 2009 11:34 AM

"How to explain this tendency of so many readers? My theory: It must have something to do with excessive exposure to English-lit classes."

Don't you have any blue collar relatives? People who don't have the slightest thing to do with "English lit" often have just as much contempt for these kinds of things as the snobs.

Posted by: Thursday on April 14, 2009 12:12 PM

lynx -- That's hilarious, and a great idea for a blog posting: Which Mixture of Movies Do You Feel Like You're Caught In? I think "12 Monkeys" might turn up on a lot of those lists ...

Thursday -- You know blue collar people who are quick to turn their noses up at vampire and romance fiction? That hasn't been my experience at all. The blue collar people I know have their snobberies, or at least points of defiant pride. And many of them would certainly say that (for instance) vampire novels aren't for them. But I can't recall ever running across a one who has pointedly put down an entire genre of fiction because he/she feels superior to it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2009 12:38 PM

I read my grandmother’s romance novels as a kid, but discovering Henry de Montherlant and “The Story of O” in 10th grade permanently ruined most romance novels for me, (exceptions being Marian Keyes’ or India Knight’s books), because, guess what, there is a lot more interesting writing about sex and men in literature.

Posted by: CL on April 14, 2009 12:44 PM

Add my name to the list of those who read Mildred Pierce purely on the basis of MB's recommendation, and loved it. Without MB I would have never gone within a hundred miles of that book.

Posted by: Fredösphere on April 14, 2009 12:55 PM

Guys in general disdain Harlequin romances. Pah! Men! Harlequins are great. Waaaay back in the day, I snuck a read of two by a woman called Margaret Rome: one was called Clan of the Eagle or something, about an English chick who falls for (get this) Liam Ardulian, the chief of an Irish clan (doesn't Ardulian sound vaguely Armenian? His name sounds like he should be singing lead for a supergroup made from the remnants of the Pogues and System of a Down), and my all-time favourite, Bride of the Rif, about an English chick who falls for the chief of a tribe of the Rif, a Berber people (he's called Phillipe by the way, and seems completely un-Berberish).

Man, did I dig those books! They were massively overwrought ("He speared kisses down her pliant frame"--what's not to love about that?), emotionally dysfunctional (remember the days when people could be like that in romances?), inadvertently hilarious, and yet, and yet, absolutely mesmerizing reading.

I love those girl meets boy girl hates boy girl loves boy girl loses boy because she let it go too late then gets boy back at the very very very last moment stories. The suspense is great, the emotions are running high, and the stories just grab the woman in me and won't let go.

Which is why guys pretend to disdain Harlequins. We guys have all got a little woman inside (even Shouting Thomas!) and that makes us a little uncomfortable. Pah! I say again! Embrace your inner woman! Let her free! You'll won't regret it when you do!

P.S. Which is to say I don't think lit-fic snobbery has much to do with most disdain of Harlequins. It's a guy thing.

P.P.S. I'll bet ST reads them at night, alone, eating ice cream, and sobbing like a foghorn. Can't you just picture it?

Posted by: PatrickH on April 14, 2009 1:00 PM

Romance fiction is HUGE business, so I don't think there are a dearth or readers out there. And I'll qualify Thursday's observation that blue collar MEN don't go anywhere near romance novels. I'll also add that I know quite a few artsy, lit-fic type women who also read romance novels. I think it's quite amazing how prone many readers are to dismissing lit-fic and the like without ever having read any. The cross-over doesn't often go both ways. Usually it's mainly lit-fic fans who also enjoy genre stuff.

I'll have to check out Mildred Pierce.

Posted by: JV on April 14, 2009 1:33 PM

My wife recommended I read one particular romance author (Georgette Heyer), and I was glad I did. They are very funny and well written. Not sappy (as I kinda expected). Not nauseating soft porn, either, since she started writing in 1921 and wrote most of her works before 1960.

Posted by: JP on April 14, 2009 1:35 PM

From the review of Georgette Heyer's "Cotillion" (the novel praised by Alias Clio):

"As in all of Georgette Heyer's books, Cotillion transcends genre..."

Yesyesyes, of course! Genre simply MUST be "transcended" lest others think we are enjoying a MERE popular entertainment.

Posted by: Bryan on April 14, 2009 1:40 PM

CL -- You discovered "Story of O" in 10th grade? Wow, I didn't get around to it till college. Hey, I wrote an appreciation of "Story of O"


Fred -- Very glad you enjoyed it. Phew.

PatrickH -- LOL, nicely done. Men, eh? Plus there's the whole camp and being-amazed-by-what-the-gals-go-for side to the whole thing. Game players (and player-wannabes) could do worse than read a few romance novels. For a guy they can be really eye-opening. "Good Christ, *this* is what the inner life of a woman is like?" Terrifying and funny can be a fun combo.

JV -- "Romance fiction is HUGE business, so I don't think there are a dearth or readers out there." Somebody asserted the opposite? (Although ... "HUGE business" is overdoing it. The books business generally is a pretty modest one, much smaller in fact than the role it plays in the minds of educated readers. But I know what you mean.) "I think it's quite amazing how prone many readers are to dismissing lit-fic and the like without ever having read any." True enough, but why does that matter? It's not as though lit-fict -- given its dominance at schools, foundations, prizes, and in the classier press, despite a nearly-nonexistent audience -- is lacking for attention or recognition, let alone critical discussion. "Usually it's mainly lit-fic fans who also enjoy genre stuff." Right, while condescending to it, and failing to consider the possibility that the trash novels they enjoy might be as worthy of recognition and acknowledgment as the lit-fic stuff they enjoy. At least such is often the case in NYC, where much of publishing takes place, and where many cultural attitudes are shaped. To repeat: educated people don't automatically condescend to popular music or popular movies. Why do so many of them automatically condescend to popular fiction? Is it because lit-fict authors are more worthy of elite support than, say, art-music composers are? How would that be the case?

JP -- I should try Georgette Heyer one of these days, tks. I certainly don't mind the injection of a little soft-porn into a novel, god knows. Soft-porn can supply entertainment value too.

Bryan -- Lol, nicely put.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2009 2:06 PM

"True enough, but why does that matter? "

I don't know, because maybe some of them would enjoy it?

As I've said before, lit-fic is just another genre, and those of us who enjoy it rarely are concerned if others don't. And it's us mainly lit-fic fans who also read other genres; rarely is it mainly other genre fans who also read lit-fic. FWIW, I don't condescend to the genre stuff I do read. I genuinely enjoy it, but for usually other reasons than I enjoy lit-fic. And my favorite reads are the authors who combine lit-fic with other stuff, a la Umberto Eco.

I will agree that lit-fic is disproportionately analyzed in the press, for 2 reasons: 1) media people as a type enjoy lit-fic, and 2) the aspects of a lit-fic novel lend itself to analysis more readily than other genres. I'll disagree that lit-fic gets more column inches in the media. Check out any of the most popular magazines and you will see reviews of romance, non-fiction, political dramas, thrillers, etc.

I do think you might be getting a skewed POV living in the media capital that is NYC.

Posted by: JV on April 14, 2009 2:32 PM

JV -- I like *your* attitude but marvel a bit that you think it's a common one, or even fairly common. The idea that lit-fict is just another genre is actually pretty advanced and controversial. The notion that popular fiction might offer as much of worth (if not more) as lit-fict is pretty darned radical. You'd find loads of people objecting -- and objecting in the pissiest tones -- to these attitudes in schools, the press, the foundations, etc. "I will agree that lit-fic is disproportionately analyzed in the press, for 2 reasons: 1) media people as a type enjoy lit-fic ..." Not sure that's the case really. In my experience, many in the media pay lip service to the idea that lit-fict is "real writing" (they actually use the term "real writing"!) while in day to day life enjoying thrillers, biographies, how-to books, etc. They often aren't very reflective people, let alone ones who are prone to question conventional wisdom. "2) the aspects of a lit-fic novel lend itself to analysis more readily than other genres." That's fur darned sure. "I'll disagree that lit-fic gets more column inches in the media." I never said otherwise. I'm talking about Harvard, the Pulitzer, the NYTBR section, English teachers, the publishing business, and those who look to these people and institutions for guidance. "I do think you might be getting a skewed POV living in the media capital that is NYC." All our points of view are skewed by where and how we live. NYC sets much of the agenda for American book publishing, media attitudes, and cultural ideas. So yeah, I'm definitely saying what I'm saying against a background of all that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2009 3:43 PM

Hey, Mike Snider turns up a great quote from Samuel Johnson that's vaguely a propos:

“…by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.”


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2009 3:47 PM

MB - I find my attitude towards lit-fic to be very common among the people I know, most of whom are primarily lit-fic fans.

Here's a question for you: Do you think there's a difference between your everyday lit-fic novel and, say, Nabokov? Do you believe there is writing that aspires to more than entertainment (and I'm certainly not dissing entertainment here) and that, when successful, works on a deeper and more lasting level? I certainly do. I don't know if that kind of writing is better than genre stuff, but it has more of an impact on my life, that's for sure.

On that note, has a novel that would be considered a genre piece every struck you on a deeply emotional and/or spiritual level? I fully realize that's not the intent of most of those books, but that's kind of my point. And btw, that is the main issue with lit-fic novels, that the vast majority of those writers are indeed aiming for the Nabokov level and almost none of them hit the mark, so in a way, almost all lit-fic novels are failures. But many of them are quite interesting failures.

Posted by: JV on April 14, 2009 4:10 PM

"You know blue collar people who are quick to turn their noses up at vampire and romance fiction?"

Uh, yeah. They tend to be the punk rock girl or tomboyish type, but there are lots of them out there. Not to mention the absolute allergic reaction that blue collar guys have for the genre.

P.S. Didn't say anything about vampire fiction. ;)

Posted by: Thursday on April 14, 2009 5:01 PM


You know blue collar people who are quick to turn their noses up at vampire and romance fiction? That hasn't been my experience at all. The blue collar people I know have their snobberies, or at least points of defiant pride. And many of them would certainly say that (for instance) vampire novels aren't for them. But I can't recall ever running across a one who has pointedly put down an entire genre of fiction because he/she feels superior to it.

I'll have to back Thursday up here. I move in largely blue-collar circles and the sentiment is overwhelmingly on the side of "romance-fiction = pop trash." Even among many of the women. This may be an artifact of upwardly striving blue-collar types attempting to distance themselves from what they perceive as prole-ness, but there it is.

Your Ivy is showing, Michael.

Are you really gonna look down on the pleasures of Alias Clio?

A veritable infinitude of rejoinders to this , but it's probably best I keep mum.

Posted by: Tupac Chopra on April 14, 2009 6:47 PM

My mom used to buy shopping bags full of second hand romance novels at used bookstores and my brother once discovered one where every page with a sex scene was accompanied by a break in the spine.

Romance novels aren't my taste, but most seem to involve a Byronic hero as a love interest. And the PUAs reading should note that whatever his archetype the lover is always an alpha male. Christina Hoff Sommers once wrote of feminist editors trying unsuccessfully to get romance authors to write about sensitive, unaggressive heroes.

Posted by: hello on April 14, 2009 10:23 PM

> I don't know if that kind of writing is better than genre stuff, but it has more of an impact on my life, that's for sure.

I agree. This is a distinction in all life activities, not just in art consumption. There are experiences that help you build or accumulate something, and those that are fun but don't really accrete or "amount to much" years later. There's a full spectrum in between, of course, rather than two polar types of experience.

I suppose the above proposition is pretty close to a formula for highbrowism. M Blowhard points out that so much of highrowism equals posing, which I agree with, but I'm not sure whether he really rejects the above proposition.

"The Thin Red Line" is a movie that definitely risks over-the-top ridiculous highbrowism, richness, and existential life-worship. But, unlike "The New World," it does not quite go over the edge, and it's my favorite movie, one that's always with me. "Repo Man" strikes me as a kick ass movie that is a complete blast to watch, but hasn't really lodged in my soul or whatever.

I watched a number of the superclassic, mega-highbrow continental movies (French New Wave, Fellini) and found them really drab.

One could easily do all of the following, without rejecting the "essence of highbrowism":

- find that quite a lot of the highbrow canon is not what you would put in the canon

- think that some not-very-canonized works are truly great

- think that a lot of people consume high art and reject genre partly in pursuit of social status

- think that modernism is not that great, on average (eg, Warhol, Jackson Pollock are bad, Debussy and Neil Young are better than almost any atonal music)

- think many modernists tend to overemphasize pure originality in their art, sometimes at the notable expense of beauty, power, etc - better someone who does great genre or semi-genre work than, say, "Finnegan's Wake"

- think it's stupid to be snooty about middlebrow stuff, non-crem-de-la-crem stuff, or stuff that has to make certain sacrifices for the sake of making money by being popular - almost everyone consumes some of that kind of stuff. A lot of the most valuable, accreting, upbuilding experiences require lots of exertion. Energy is limited, with the limits varying by individual. I like to watch "House" on TV, and "24," and read summaries of research on science blogs or pop sci books, or read a blog like Roissy's (and those are by no means the least nourishing things I do with my time), or chew the fat. I would prefer, if I could, to use all that time meditating, or reading Kierkegaard, or reading actual science papers with brass-tacks attention to data and methods, but I don't always have the energy.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 14, 2009 11:41 PM

A very head-scratchin' question, Michael.

Maybe it's a throwback to days when "poor folk" read Penny Dreadfuls, Dime Novels, and Nickel Weeklies which were favored by the newly literate class of blue-collar readers.

Perhaps that skewed perception still remains towards anything the "proletarians" favor in reading material.

Here's a mental exercise: two well-dressed men are sitting in a doctor's waiting room. One man is reading a "MAD" magazine while the other is reading the "New Yorker". Wouldn't you unconsciously associate the "MAD" reader as being less intelligent? Or, at the very least, less emotionally mature?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 14, 2009 11:48 PM

Eric Johnson, superb comment I agree with nearly all of it.


"Repo Man" strikes me as a kick ass movie that is a complete blast to watch, but hasn't really lodged in my soul or whatever.

For shame. Repo Man is one of my Top Ten faves. It has EVERYTHING.

"I don't want no commies in my car. No Christians either." - Bud

Leila: What about our relationship?
Otto: Huh?
Otto: Fuck that.

Posted by: Tupac Chopra on April 15, 2009 12:05 AM

JV -- "I find my attitude towards lit-fic to be very common among the people I know ..." That's nice to hear. Regular people are often far more relaxed (to the point of being radical without even knowing it) in the way they use and regard things than the self-conscious expert class is. I think a point we may differ on is how to take contempo American lit-fict. You seem to see it as the descendant of the traditional literary canon. (Correct me if I'm misrepresenting you.) To me, most contempo American lit-fict has nothing to do with traditional literature / entertainment. Instead, it's a hothouse creation -- a weird outgrowth willed into being and kept alive by academia, workshops, degrees, prizes and foundation money that would disappear in a flash if that life-support system were turned off. (Not a judgment on any individual writer or book, by the way, just my evaluation of where today's lit-fict stands in relationship to the history of book-fiction.) To my mind, the real descendant of Fielding and Stendhal isn't workshop fiction, it's the stuff that's produced by today's storytellers, social observers, and character-creators: Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth George, Ross Thomas, and others. But bless it all, of course, and if a handful of people enjoy reading contempo lit-fict, why not? Why it should be given huuuuuuge amounts of respect, supoprt, and attention ... That's another question.

Thursday -- Punk-rock working-class girls, gotta love them.

Tupac -- It makes sense that aspiring types would disavow something like romance fiction and want to align themselves to something "better." But your picture doesn't account for the many working class and middle-class women I've seen unashamedly reading and toting around romance novels at work, on the subway, etc.

hello -- Cute picture of your mom and how she enjoyed her reading!

Eric - That's a fun and smart collection of musings and reflections, thanks. A couple more to throw in the hopper?

1) Whether or not a person is deeply moved by a work of art or entertainment is largely a personal thing, isn't it? If one friend returns from a Slayer concert and tells me the show was so damn good that his life has been changed, well, why wouldn't I be prone to believe him? And if another friend tells me that he can only be deeply moved by highbrow and complex late-modernist Euro art -- well, why not? I'll believe him too. But none of it means that Slayer is better than the late-modernist Euro-art is, or vice versa.

In fact, it seems to me that all you can really conclude from these two reports is that one of my friends was moved by one experience while the other one was moved by another, not-very-similar experience. (All of which is pretty interesting in its own right.)

There are people who want to proceed from there to argue about which one is better (by which I guess they mean "objectively more important"), Slayer or the late-modernist Euro thing. I'm not one of them, and when such discussions start up I tend to slip out of the room pretty quickly. I can't see the point of them (though I do understand that some people get a lot of out of them).

To be honest, since the experiences are what really count, and since they're entirely personal, I don't fully understand why anyone gets much worked up about grading or ranking works of art at all. I'm by no means a total cultural relativist -- I think it's pretty clear that, so far as what "works" and what lasts goes, there are some regularities and patterns that tend to hold across cultures. I'm even a big fan of reading about these kinds of questions. All that said, I don't find that any of it helps me in a day to day way make a lot of sense out of why one friend finds Slayer deeply moving and another friend can only be moved by Boulez.

As to what winds up ranked where, and on which canon -- eh, I'll be dead by the time that argument sorts itself out. Besides, I seriously doubt that people in 200 years will be spending lots of time sifting and sorting through the art of our age. Canons come and go and shift. And people in the future will be too busy playing games on their iPhones to give us and our productions much thought. So why let concerns about these questions dictate our activities and thought processes in the present? Why read a book from the perspective of "Is this any good? Where will it finally be ranked?" Why not read it instead from the p-o-v of "What's this like?"

Architecture is the one exception to this, because it has real-world impacts and consequences. It's worth arguing about and getting worked up about, because neighborhoods, towns, cities, and lives will be affected. But a poem? A song? A novel? A movie? The fun (and the reward) is in having the adventure, comparing notes, seeing what it's like, etc.

2) As for the "deeply moving vs. mere entertainment" question ... Well, these things can be looked at from a variety of angles. For a common example: The movie that is so determined to wipe you out emotionally that it becomes a pain in the ass. Is it a beautiful and noble thing that the filmmaker wanted to wipe me out? Or was it ... a pain in the ass? Reasonable people can disagree.

One thing I find to be true for myself is that I'm deeply moved by the impulse behind much "mere entertainment." I'm often annoyed by the impulse some artists have to want to wipe me out emotionally/aesthetically/intellectually, while I'm often really-truly moved by a work that sets out to do nothing but amuse me. For the life of me I can't see what's not beautiful, generous and lovely about trying to give me a good time. Life can be tough; being granted some moments of pleasure and forgetfulness in the midst of it is a blessing.

So where some people may read a humorous novel and think "Well that was an amusing couple of hours ... but I wasn't deeply shaken by it, so I give it a B minus," I'll read the same book, I'll have a terrific couple of hours -- and I'll also be very moved by the fact that someone has gone to the trouble of giving me such a good time for a couple of hours. My experience is: I'm not just amused by the yarn, I'm moved by the impulse and craft behind it. So I'll give the book an A plus. Again, reasonable people disagreeing.

Even on a sociological level these things often change over the decades. At the time they were made, for instance, Hollywood movies of the '30s didn't provoke gasps of aesthetic bliss from audiences. The movies were big industrial entertainments and they were enjoyed (or not) as such. These days, though, '30s Hollywood movies have almost become art objects. People "appreciate" them and find much in them that no one at the time saw there. One consequence: Many people today find themselves very moved by the beauty of a Kate Hepburn/Cary Grant comedy that at the time was considered to be nothing but a silly stylish frolic.

Just some musings back at ya. Many thanks again for sharing yours.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2009 12:52 AM

MB - I don't consider most lit-fic to be descendants of the traditional literary canon. I do thinks most of the writers of lit-fic aspire to be included in the canon of the future, and of course almost all of them will fail at that. But that doesn't really interest me except for the way it separates them from writers of other genres, whom I think aspire to tell a good story while selling enough books to make a living. I don't find either approach to be better or worse. Simply different.

I understand where you're coming from a bit better from your latest comment. For one, I'll agree that writers who want to drag you through the mud in order to make you "feel" are mostly a pain in the ass. It's emotional pornography. I much prefer writers who can illustrate the profundity of the mundane. That's pretty much my sweet spot, in literature and film.

Anyway, it all comes down to personal taste, and of course, no one knows what people 100 years from now will consider valuable from out time period. I certainly choose what I read based on that prediction. My only gripe with your initial post is the same one I always have when you bring up this subject. Lit-fic fans, even the snobby ones who look down on other genres, are no different than fans of romance, crime or sci-fi novels. They think the genre they enjoy is the best.

Posted by: JV on April 15, 2009 1:28 AM

Dah! I meant to type I certainly DON'T choose what I read based on that prediction.

Posted by: JV on April 15, 2009 2:20 AM

There was a restaurant in St Paul named "Mildred Pierce" a few years ago, in a working-class neighborhood no less. It's gone now, replaced by a tapas joint. (Which may also be gone...)

Might the general dismissal of romance fiction simply be due to its perception as pornography, albeit emotional pornography? Then there's the sex imbalance. Mysteries are read by both sexes, possibly in equal numbers. That sure ain't true of romance!

There was a point in the 1970s when the Osmonds caught up to the Beatles in sales figures. But almost every single Osmond record was sold to a girl. What's the relative respect ratio of those bands today? Well, mystery is the Beatle-genre, and romance the Osmond-genre.

The maturity level of romance may even decrease as its readership ages. My sister had a book of short romance stories as a teen; I read them myself and noted some mature points-- e.g., that boy next door can look a lot better, after you move away.

Are "adult" romances this grown-up? Let me tell you of the one I read. It was written by the sister of a fisherman in an Alaskan village where I once worked. And the 'alpha male' was a fisherman like her brother, right? Hah! He turned out to be the CEO of a company in Seattle who came up north every summer to clear his mind with dangerous work, leaving the office to his number-two guy. A real fisherman is no catch! The authoress slapped her own brother in the face!

Real fishermen don't run companies, and real CEOs don't take the summer off. (I know I just commented on about Takeo Fujisawa leaving Honda Moters with poor Soichiro while he jetted off to Bayreuth for the Wagner festival. Three-and-a-half days is one thing; but three-and-a-half months?)

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 15, 2009 3:48 AM


I basically agree with you, actually there's not much that I don't broadly agree with you about that I know of. But yeah, I'm a relativist and not a relativist, and hopefully not a snob jerk.

I can see your idea, which seems to have kind of a french vibe to my mind, about being really charmed by the fact that someone is trying to entertain you.

I definitely agree about the "porn" aspect of overrich art that's dead-set on overwhelming you and getting you off. The problem presented by "going for effect" is a very, very key problem for the artist. Nietzsche talked about "music whose only effect is directly on the nervous system" as opposed to music that charms the whole body, and made fun of Wagner as being a genius, yet sounding bad and being desperate to give people "intimations."

This problem is even more acute in writing than in music. It's almost always a bad sign when a lyric poem immediately makes for "the infinite," "god," "love," "another world" and "music" - sure, most of the highest art is mostly about those things or the like, but it's no good to just plow at those things directly, or pile up a lot of emotional words. Poetry seems to be a difficult art where success is rare.

Weezer's blue album is a funny example of "the mask" - it touches kind of a deeper nerve while posing as something shallower than it really is, namely it poses as surfer pop and Elvis-y boy-girl early rock, which for me anyway are not good genres. This pose is hilarious and charming in itself, in addition to being effective.

Blake also has something kind of like that going on in many of his short poems, he can kick your ass with perfection while on the surface being frequently sing-songy, ridiculously simple, and kind of saccharine.

> Why are do so many people who are comfy with the idea of "popular music" and "popular movies" as "legitimate forms of entertainment that might well be art" turn their noses up at popular book-fiction?

This is true - about the only exception I can think of is Sherlock Holmes, few call it art but everyone admits it's good. I think it's easy to just not be exposed to genre fiction at all. Whereas even the world's biggest snob can't really go his whole life without ever seeing a Bourne Identity or James Bond movie, because you come over to someone's house and someone else is watching it, and you basically have to admit it totally kicks ass regardless of whether "The Thin Red Line" is more your thing to have with you if you get stranded on a desert island. Likewise you can't avoid ever seeing any TV, so no one can deny that some of it is pretty good.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 15, 2009 4:51 AM

"writers who want to drag you through the mud in order to make you 'feel' are mostly a pain in the ass."

The problem I see with that primarily is that few writers can pull it off. Classic example: Sylvia Plath and her many, many imitators. A certain amount of over the top suffering, bitterness, and bleakness (I like your term "mud" to encompass all of it) can be forgiven in the talented but since most writers are fairly average it just makes lit-fic (and lit-poetry) depressing and no-fun. Truly gifted writers can make the mud seem better than happiness, just as great musicians can glamorize drug addiction.

I've known creative writing students who started out fairly well-adjusted but embrace dysfunction and disaster in hopes of writing the greats. The ones I knew grew out of it but it makes me wonder if emphasis on the more addicted and psychotic post-war poets is appropriate for college courses.

Posted by: hello on April 15, 2009 7:01 AM

I'll read the same book, I'll have a terrific couple of hours -- and I'll also be very moved by the fact that someone has gone to the trouble of giving me such a good time for a couple of hours.

If that's true, you really might enjoy Georgette Heyer. As I said in my review, she's sort of like the P.G. Wodehouse of romantic fiction. (Thanks for the link, by the way. That's always been one of my fav. pieces of my own blogging.)

I can't remember if I mentioned this in the review or comments, but Heyer was once very moved herself to receive a letter from a woman who had been (I think) a political prisoner in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 troubles there. The woman told her that she had recited one of Heyer's novels, from memory, to amuse the other prisoners night after night, keeping them in stitches. Not many novelists could claim that their work had done as much good...

Posted by: aliasclio on April 15, 2009 10:49 AM

JV -- I suppose we're just comparing personal experiences now, so we aren't really disagreeing. And I certainly like you and your friends' attitudes, and share it basically. But in my experience your outlook has been a really, really rare one to encounter. Nearly all the lit-fict fans I've encountered read it (or remain attached to it) because they think it's better than popular fiction, even if they also read popular fiction. And I've run across nearly no genre-fiction fans who'll say that they prefer it because it's innately superior to lit-fict; they'll nearly all shrug and say they read it because they like it. This is the case so far as the actual lit world vs. the crime-fiction worlds go too. Lit people tend to be high-minded depressives who solace themselves with the thought that at least they're doing noble -- ie., innately superior -- work, while crime fiction people (or romance people, whatever) tend to be cheery, productive hard workers who are focused on entertaining readers and who let the critical and art-history chips fall where they will.

This all makes sense, by the way. If the batting average in lit-fict is so bad (and I agree with you, I think it's terrible -- in fact, it was the terribleness of the batting average in lit-fict that set me off on my explorations of genre fiction), then why would anyone stick with it? Because the once-every-two-years payoff is sooooooo great? I guess so, at least for lit-fict fans. Meanwhile you might well run across dozens of perfectly-OK-to-damn-rewarding performances in your favorite genre. So why would anyone with any sense opt to endure the frequency of disappointment that following the lit-fict thang delivers?

The only way I can explain it is by some combo of 1) lit-fict fans find the (rare) lit-fict payoff so extraordinary that it justifies the long, long waits in between, 2) lit-fict fans think for some reason that involvement in the lit-fict thang is itself a rewarding thing to take part in, despite the frequency of disappointments, because there's something intrinsically noble or significant about it, 3) lit-fict fans who do register that popular fiction tends to be a more solid world and has a better batting average don't value the kinds of things that popular fiction tends to deliver very highly. Thus they can enjoy the pleasures of popular fiction but compartmentalize those pleasures as not very important in the Larger Scheme of Arty Things.

Reg -- Smart and funny. I wish I had more experience reading romances. I also wish the books and book-reading worlds were better-researched ones than they are. Beyond the age-gender basics, it's an amazingly underinvestigated part of life. You'd think some lit profs would notice that and start doing some research. But that'd involved abandoning Theory, getting out of their office, and giving real people and real life a little interest and respect ...

Eric -- That's a smart hunch, about how people generally get exposed to popular music and popular movies/TV whether they want to or not. A companion hunch from me is that for many people books-and-reading have to do with school. So book-and-reading pleasure often gets caught up with showing-off-for-the-prof, trying to get A's, self-improvement. Meanwhile pop music and popular movies and TV (and comic books -- ever notice how the vibe at a bookstore and the vibe at a comic book store are very different?) are things you indulge in just for the pleasure of it. So people's relationships to pleasure are much more direct where music and movies (and food, I'd add) go ...

hello - That's a great description of what often happens to people when they get swallowed up in the creative-writing world. They start to ache for profundity (and, I'd add, they start to want to impress their fellow workshop-goers). They lose track of wanting to write to connect with audiences and vanish instead into a self-contained little workshop bubble, which is of no interest to anyone not in the workshop. It's like what often happens to people who go into therapy. They go in hoping to straighten a few things out and emerge happier, and boom, they wind up manipulated by the therapist into wrestling with HUGE issues, often entirely drummed-up by the therapiest, and getting sucked up into depressions and agonies ... Years pass ... They think they're getting somewhere even though they aren't ... And they lose track of the fact that all they really wanted to do was pick up a few tricks and get on with life. Therapy becomes life for them. In writing workshops, they lose track of how to reach and entertain audiences and get caught up in the endless workshop process instead. It's often kinda tragic.

Clio -- Yeah, artists who deliver something in the way of delight ... Why do so many people undervalue that? (By my lights, anyway.) It's a mystery to me. Commenter/visitor dearieme once suggested that Americans are especially prone to this. We so ache for greatness and profundity in our kooky naive-religious way that we overlook and undercherish wonderful relatively minor experiences. We'd rather be unhappy with what we're getting and overfocused on what we're demanding than enjoy what's actually possible. dearieme pointed out that the Brits, more culturally secure than we are, are perfectly OK with recognizing P.G. Wodehouse as a major talent and culturefigure, while we undervalue light entertainment. Sounds more than plausible to me. Any theories of your own about this?

Which Heyer title should the curious start with? And where has dearieme been recently? I miss his brains, spirit, and humor.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2009 1:14 PM

You seem to see it as the descendant of the traditional literary canon. . . . To my mind, the real descendant of Fielding and Stendhal isn't workshop fiction, it's the stuff that's produced by today's storytellers, social observers, and character-creators: Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth George, Ross Thomas, and others.

A lot of people, myself included, seem to react to your pronouncements here as if you are attacking those "heirs to the canon." The really great fiction writers we do have (Roth, Houellebecq, McCarthy) are associated with what you might describe as lit-fic publishers, so the confusion is understandable, but they aren't really part of the workshop/creative writing program thing.

The truth is that that neither of the groups you are talking about are really the heirs to the canon. The workshop people seem mired in their own modernist and post-modernist ghettos and the pop fiction guys aren't really swinging for the fences. The really great writers we have, like Roth or Houellebecq, seem to get the work done off on their own without much concern about _either_ of these groups.

Posted by: Thursday on April 15, 2009 1:57 PM

Thursday -- A lot of the confusion comes from the term "literary fiction," I suspect. Most people, including many writers, take it at face value: "Oh, this is 'literary fiction,' therefore it's the really serious, talented, and significant stuff that's being done these days. Otherwise why would anyone call it 'literary fiction'?" They don't realize that contempo American lit fict is largely a created-out-of-nothing post-'60s hothouse flower dependent on workshops, foundations, colleges, etc. The name has them flummoxed. Funny that the same people don't fall for it where movies are concerned. Everyone knows that "art movies" aren't automatically good, aren't automatically worthy, and aren't automatically what history is going to settle on as significant. But "literary fiction" still has people confused. Note that the writers you cite -- Roth, McCarthy and Houllebecq -- aren't post-'60s American workshop figures. Roth and McCarthy pre-date the '60s, and Houellebecq is a Euro. Most of what's marketed as contempo American lit-fict, by contrast, is academic and/or workshop fiction.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2009 2:11 PM

Genre fiction is for "escape", i.e., it helps the reader forget himself, become immersed in the story, get swept up into a really cool "brain movie". Great genre fiction makes the movie vivid, engaging, and unbroken. It literally "entertains" (from the French, entre tenir: to hold within).

Lit-fic is really after something completely different. It causes the reader to remember himself, not forget. It disdains sweeping the reader away (escape is bad, remember!), constantly inculcating in the reader a kind of self-conscious observational intensity the polar opposite of the engrossed state of the reader of great genre fiction.

This difference is so profound, I consider lit-fic and genre fiction to be two different beasts, appealing to two different kinds of people (more properly, two sides of people--there are always JVs who dig both). There's an abyss between the two that far transcends esthetic differences of opinion.

It's like comparing Boulez and Berlin. Two utterly different composers. Two different kinds of listeners (at least two!).

Beyond comparing apples and oranges. A's and O's both feed. This is more like apples and, oh, penicillin. Both have a place, but it ain't the same place, and they're not competing.

Not competing,that is, unless you're a self-appointed doctor who views everyone (else) as sick. In which case, it's penicillin, baby, for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

And it is that attitude--the belief that the world, America, people in general--are sick and in need of treatment, that underlies so much of the cultural imperialism of the lit-fic crowd.

Ask yourself: how prevalent is the idea among the lit-ficcers that America is a sick society? You don't even need one guess, of course.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 15, 2009 2:34 PM

PatrickH -- I agree there's a continuum from "very escapist" to "harsh, unyielding look at the raw facts of human existence." But I've had to learn to be wary of people misusing that measurement too. That's mainly because the lit-fict people make such a point of claiming the high-seriousness, moral, aesthetically-transcendent ground as their own, and theirs alone. "OK, we may not hit the bullseye often, but when we do the earth trembles. Meanwhile, those silly escapist storytellers ... Well, what's hard or noble about that?"

Screw 'em. There's a lot of harshness in a good Joseph Wambaugh novel; there's a Dostoeyvskyan psychological depth in Westlake and Jim Thompson; and a universe of political savvy and wisdom in every chapter Ross Thomas ever wrote. Seriously: have these high-minded, dismissive-of-popular-fiction people read (or even heard of) George V. Higgins' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle"? That's one tough and unyielding novel, as peculiar and fascinating as Beckett. Plus all these talents are also crackerjack and accessible entertainers.

I also find it useful to remember that the real purpose of contempo American lit-fict isn't to open up Perspectives on Life, it's to perpetuate the existence of contempo American lit-fict's walled garden: that bizarro world of workshops, schools, grants .. And all those promises that if you write this way and are really good at it you'll attain immortality ...

Accepting the "we write in order to shake the earth" stuff is accepting the rhetoric and the packaging rather than taking a look at the product that's actually inside. Which is often annoyingly high-minded and aesthetically lame, not to mention totally lacking in entertainment values.

Not that there aren't talented people involved, and occasional products worth interacting with, of course.

I think one thing Americans in their searching-for-significance earnestness often fail to grasp is to what extent what we think of as high art is/was produced as entertainment. Opera back in the days when it flourished was like movies are for us. Renaissance painters were often operating like today's interior designers and magazine designers -- they were pro decorators. Dickens' equivalent today is probably "The Sopranos" or "The Wire." There were live, paying audiences to be pleased and entertained. Shakespeare was putting on shows, probably under scrappy and chaotic circumstances, not meticulously assembling texts for profs to analyze.

We, in our earnest naivete, think of this stuff -- the great paintings, novels, and music -- as somehow Something Different, Something ... Apart, Something ... Significant. (And of course it is that too.) But in the time and the place when it was produced? Much of what we now worship as high art was experienced as classy luxury goods or effective and distracting entertainments.

So the lust for works of art of earth-shattering import? I'm wary of that, and especially wary of artist/entertainers who set out to do that. Let it happen, don't force it. Focus on your job, which is delivering pleasure. Let the Great Experiences take care of themselves, or not.

When the Great thing does happen it's usually a personal matter anyway. Townes Van Zandt's music hits me very deeply, for example. But is he objectively great? Or it it maybe better, or at least more realistic and modest, to say that I find it very moving? My solution: I say I like it, I try to point out what I see and hear in it, I suggest that others may enjoy it too, and if they don't, well, they have their own pleasures, and I try to learn from those. As to what anyone will conclude about Townes in 200 years -- posterity will take care of itself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2009 3:20 PM

"This difference is so profound, I consider lit-fic and genre fiction to be two different beasts, appealing to two different kinds of people (more properly, two sides of people--there are always JVs who dig both). There's an abyss between the two that far transcends esthetic differences of opinion."

Again, that's not my experience at all. I don't know anyone who exclusively reads lit-fic books. Everyone I know, including myself, reads a smattering of lots of things. Non-fiction, in particular, although the subject matter of the non-fiction varies widely.

Speaking of subject matter, I think it is that that separates the garden variety lit-fic novel from a novel in another genre. You never find cops or politicians or the like in lit-fic novels. It's usually neurotic college professors and their neurotic students, or neurotic writers or neurotic lawyers, that kind of navel-gazing from the writer. I generally like all that neurosis, what can I say. And in that way, I guess lit-fic writers aren't really reaching. In fact, most of them have only one or two books in them before they run out of their self-reflective material. Oh well!

Posted by: JV on April 15, 2009 3:52 PM

Three Georgette Heyer books you might enjoy, or not: Cotillion (the book which I reviewed, and you linked to); Friday's Child (it was the one the woman recited in prison); and An Infamous Army.

Cotillion and Friday's Child are humorous romps. Infamous Army is a romance set in Brussels around the time of the Battle of Waterloo, as the allied armis wait for Napoleon's arrival. Very exciting stuff, I thought, and the heroine is fun, too. It's portrayal of the battle, and Wellington, is said to be very accurate.

I can't swear you'll like them but they're worth trying.

Posted by: aliasclio on April 15, 2009 4:08 PM

I recently read this 1989 essay by Tom Wolfe criticizing the "hothouse" direction of recent fiction. Hell, the mighty Saul Bellow was alive then, so this is only more relevant now, 20 years later...


I don't think it really adds incredibly much to this conversation, except

1. he recommends that writers semi-intentionally mine the world for material in a journalistic way (which you'd think would sort of go without saying)

2. he suggests that maturing novelists slowly realize that writing the novel is 65% about material and only 35% style

3. he points out that basically realism can make you cry and other forms generally can't, and that that alone signifies a hell of a lot even if it isn't everything.


> The really great writers we have, like Roth or Houellebecq, seem to get the work done off on their own without much concern about _either_ of these groups.

Since you also mentioned McCarthy I'll mention that that is totally true of him too. He did have small-scale highbrow recognition very early, but turned down speaking engagements and stuff despite poverty, and doesn't seem very academic-oriented at all. He claims not to have cared at all about becoming popular through Pretty Horses. Surely he did want to be read, but I really doubt that under any conditions he would ever have moved an inch to please anyone he didn't already, naturally, care about pleasing.

McCarthy has also said he basically reads no recent fiction. He likes to chill out with scientists, in fact, and also colorful people much less learned than himself about canonical intellectual history.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 15, 2009 6:40 PM

One nonfiction that sociologically speaking is not mega-superbrow or whatever, which really blew me away back in '99 or '00, is Krakauer's "Into the wild."

I'll fess up that back then I did feel a little separated from the book despite loving it, just because it wasn't super literary and sophisticated. I had a moderate case of pretentious little dude syndrome at the time.

It seems like everyone who sounds off about Chris McCandless has to say he was an existential superhero, or that "no way, he was an oozy contemptible romantic complete idiot." Why can't they just agree that he was both very over-romantic - not exactly a capital offense at age 23 - and also very awesome? Isn't that exactly what "everyone" thinks about Shelley and his crew?

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 15, 2009 8:03 PM


Why do we think McCandless is a tool? Let me put it this way, I spent most of my twenty-third year in a near constant haze of marijuana and cheap malt liquor. Despite that, if someone told me they were going hiking in Alaska without a map, I'd tell them to put the bong down and get a reality check.

"There's like bears out there that'll eat you, dude. Your pasty hippie ass is like popcorn chicken to them. Go and hire yourself an Eskimo guide or something. They'll like work for firewater and shit."

All that talk about existential heroism and shit, well, reminds me of a cartoon I saw. A man was rushing out of a house saying that God told him to seek the truth. The haggard woman surrounded by squalling brats yelled back "This *is* the truth, bub!"

You wouldn't much care for what I write.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on April 15, 2009 8:48 PM

Spike, OK, but speaking of Krakauer, what about elite mountain climbing? That's a truly deadly business but it tends to be admired, especially Norgay and Sir Hilary. To give some numbers: I read an autobio by some guy who I think said about half of the people he'd considered peers had died. Granted, the cats on this guys list of rivals were probably the gung ho de la gung ho. I only wish I was even on their side of the population median.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 15, 2009 10:03 PM

Hey, thanks for the link! I'm glad that little piece had its airing and that you liked it yourself. Was I surprised by those referrals.

The best thing you could do is get Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels if you want to look at the romance genre (check out some of the classic blog posts in the Bitches' archive while you're there). It's both hilarious and academic. They're not giving me a penny, cent, dirham or riyal for my incessant promotion, I swear.

Every man whose quest is to understand women, or at least female sexuality, needs to read a couple of romance novels (there're usually cross-overs with the favourite genres of your choice). There was a light-hearted segment on Nightline on the topic of Harlequin (which I call M&B after its UK branch) where this -- the suggestion that it could generate more understanding of the female psyche by men -- is alluded to.

hello: I do own at least one book that has a supposed unaggressive hero in it. He just happens to be the one computer programmer that uses working out to 'think'. (Apologies to any programmers who actually do this.)

Georgette Heyer: Here's a man's perspective on reading Infamous Army as a newbie to the genre. I think he gets more excited in later chapters so here's the rest of his reading experience. Recommendations are endless for what men might enjoy: if you want something a little challenging, how about a bit of Meljean Brook's Demon Angel?

Posted by: Bhetti on April 15, 2009 10:53 PM

Note my awareness that I did link the same video Michael did. Whoops.

Posted by: Bhetti on April 15, 2009 10:55 PM

Eric -- That Wolfe essay was a good one. Caused a lot of talk in its day. If you got a kick out of it, you might also enjoy B.R. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto," another great populist rant against snooty literary attitudinizing. Caused a wonderfully big stink when it was published.


FWIW, I knew lots of people in the publishing biz who -- while publicly committed to declaring Myers wrong -- privately thought his piece was right on the money, and maybe even didn't go far enough.

Spike -- I have nothing automatically against workshop fiction and even have a fairly big appetite for experimental fiction. I'm not dissing individual books or authors. It can just drive me a little crazy when otherwise smart and informed people don't understand what "contempo American literary fiction" really is, or where it comes from, or what its history is.

Bhetti -- Nice to see you here, glad to link to your good post. Hey, can you recommend a spicey romance? As a guy I find that sex scenes can help me make it through all the relationship stuff the books are otherwise filled with.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2009 11:13 PM

Never read any romance novels, on the grounds that those things (and a whole host of other items, behaviors, and ideas) were too damn girly, and where does girliness get you?

"Nowhere, that's where!"

Yes, Dad.

Ha! Well, in fairness, the mean old codger was right.

Posted by: omw on April 15, 2009 11:21 PM

MB: I'm not sure I'm that much help when you want it spicey! I like my heat level down. One hot book I liked very recently was Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl.

An interesting vampire one's The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by JR Ward of which Dark Lover is the first. She does a lot of interesting things with it and it seems fairly gritty and unusual. It's probably hot and action-packed enough for you to make it through.

Posted by: Bhetti on April 16, 2009 12:10 AM

JV: Again, that's not my experience at all. I don't know anyone who exclusively reads lit-fic book.

Jesus, man, would you read the frigging paragraph of mine you quoted just before you said that? I put some effort into typing the words, "there are always JVs who dig both [types of fic]". Fat lot of good it did me. Jesus.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2009 1:05 AM

MB, the Wolfe essay reminded me of the Myers too! I don't think I ever read the Myers, yet I remember its publication very well since I was camped out on the McCarthy Society forum back then, annoying the grown-ups.

As I've done 90% of McCarthy but never glimpsed any of Myers' other four prey items, I've just read Myers' McCarthy section only. I have to say, it was pretty withering and hilarious! If it's necessary to admit that McCarthy has his excesses, it may still be true that for various reasons they worked out well for him in Blood Meridian, which I notice Myers doesn't really attack. Though I love all his books, enjoying the others may require just putting up with some pretty excessive rhetoric and passion here and there. Suttree is usually considered his second best, and it's a wonderful read, but I thought the rarefied vocabulary was just totally ridiculous, even back in my maudlin pretentious youth when I would have looked quizzically at anyone who suggested any of his other books had excesses.

I hope McCarthy doesn't read this post and decide to waylay me on the cruel rim above a blasted plain, briefly turn what could have been a raptor's yellow iris upon aught that I am, and then steer into my pusillanimous heart a bullet streaking from the origin of time.

In fairness to McCarthy and authors that have the same problem even worse (Dillard), even if they do risk bathos more than they should, their stuff certainly looks worse than it is when it's excerpted into an inspired smartass session like Myers'. When you spend undisturbed hours reading an overambitious author with a pungent, unconversational style, you do sort of get into a trance or mood in which the stuff starts going down a little more smoothly.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 16, 2009 1:26 AM

The difference is that mountain climbers know the risks of what they're doing and prepare accordingly. Given the immense danger of their obsession, even so a good proportion die.

The correct comparison to the kid is if some trust fund kid got it into his head to climb a minor mountain and failed to read a single book on mountaineering or buy any gear before hitting the rocks. Hardly heroic, just stupid and sad.

I've heard you say before that one of the things you really dislike about litfic is the "writin' writin'". I can't help it, but I love lyrical prose. I do know that the dense figgy pudding consistency of that verbal style ain't to everyone's taste. Fast-paced prose isn't mine. I like to savor words and images. But hey, I'm thinking of sending some stuff up for submission to science fiction magazines once I'm back in the states. If I get one in, I'll tell ya.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on April 16, 2009 9:28 AM

If you're looking for straight romantic erotica, Samhain should be the ones to choose with their selection of e-books, some of which are available in print. Driven to Distraction by Ashleigh Raine is apparently quite good, involving stunt people and uhm... creative uses of cars. Here's a review by a famously funny and discerning lady in regards to romance novels.

Posted by: Bhetti on April 16, 2009 10:08 AM

The Johnson kid says: I hope McCarthy doesn't read this post and decide to waylay me...

There on the cruel rim above a blasted plain the Writer found the Johnson kid and the sun was copper and the Writer said the soul of writing is the echo of the first of the hands that ever scratched an offering on the stone and to the stone and the Writer said Johnson there is a bullet streaking from the origin of time and the dance of time is a bullet with your name on it and that is the love that is writing.

Johnson spat. You cain’t write nothin.

And the Writer said the dance and the stone is a dancing bear stepping into the light of the footlamps and the gorgon in the pool with a jewel in its forehead smirks at the backwardness of time and

Johnson said I need to take a p*ss.

And the Johnson kid dropped his glass and his whiskey and rose and walked out the doors and walked around to the back to the outhouse and walked to the door and opened the door and walked into the outhouse.

And the Writer rose from the crapper and opened his arms and enfolded Johnson forever more into the steaming mass of his prose.

Posted by: PatrickH McCarthy on April 16, 2009 11:11 AM

Was chatting with a friend and we got to talking about the disappearance of the middlebrow. From there we got to the coiner of the word, Dwight MacDonald, and how he and other NYC intellectuals of the time (the 50s)--Partisan Review contributors especially--managed to destroy the middlebrow as a cultural force in America.

Which leads me to Michael's points about lit-fic: the l-f crowd is, to some degree, the lineal descendant of the Partisan Review types (though much less cultured and intelligent), and clearly view themselves as high-brow, and genre fiction as low-brow. The chasm between the two worlds used to bridged by the middlebrow--there was, IMO, a kind of connection between high and low culture in America that the destruction of the middlebrow has eliminated.

So now we have two solitudes. The lit-fic people remain safe in their castle, genre readers remain safe enough I suppose in theirs. But they don't connect at all anymore. I wonder if the high-brows' liquidation of the middlebrow was a kind of pyhrric victory in the end. It was the middlebrow after all that was the conduit from NYC elites to the mainstream.

Maybe the hollowing out of the middle in the case of lit is responsible for some of the things that most make Michael pull out his hair, drink too much and walk into lampposts. And maybe that hollowing out can be traced back to Partisan Review?

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2009 11:23 AM

What ruins Myers credibility is that he cherry picks the worst passages from McCarthy and DeLillo, writers I do know a bit about, which makes me wonder how fair he is being to the others. DeLillo isn't a favourite, but he does have some pretty funny bits, and McCarthy's Blood Meridian is a masterpiece.

Posted by: Thursday on April 16, 2009 1:10 PM


I'm one of Myers' sympathizers, and yet I don't assume in reading his infamous essay that the writers he has so much fun with are irredeemably awful. I don't think that was what he intended his readers to derive from that essay, either.

His point was, rather, that the Sentence Cult is a bad influence on American prose. Ambitious writers attempt to find a place in that cult's pantheon by means of unnatural phrasing and deliberately startling adjectives, and thus weigh down what might otherwise be better books.

I'm willing to believe that McCarthy may be a genius after all, but if the abundant examples chosen by Myers are characteristic of his style, then he certainly needs to tone it down a little.

Myers' lesser point is that some writers, like De Lillo and Auster, disguise a lack of plot and character development behind their eccentric use of the language. It's a trickier one because he makes it in a way that leads some readers to think that his objection to their work is partly a political one, when he goes on about their obsession with cataloguing the vulgarities of Consumerland.

Again, though, I would not assume from reading Myers that these people have nothing worthwhile to say, only that they may not be saying it very well in much of their work. His essential plea is "Find a better way to say it, fellows!"

Posted by: aliasclio on April 16, 2009 8:22 PM

PatrickH rode the sun down and his gaunt legs burned as the day's warmth was given up out of the sprawling borderlands, and in the wind a viscid saline trailed down the pitch of his upper lip. He rode and wavered halfway in and out of sleep and bit his hand to keep himself awake and finally in the foreign dawn he stirred from an unremembered sleep and he looked down and saw his tricycle was stopped.

His heart hammered in his chest but when he glanced back there was nothing but country there and he rode with fresh legs. He had lost his bearings in the night and he squinted out at the tussocks of the plain as though hoping the border had been painted onto the land itself by some mad cartographer grown weary of mere maps and globes. In an hour he stopped and spat on the rusty tricycle chain and plied the spit into the links and watched a mule train cut his path a hundred yards behind, the traders hunched in their saddles, trundling south into the culturally-vibrant Dakotas with panniers full of precious extra-cold Canadian ice.

When they had passed he got down on his belly and drew a chapped hand to his brow and skylighted against the horizon the seven renegade royal mounties, still galloping some thirty miles back, ululating godlessly and whirling their deadly nightsticks by the lanyards overhead. PatrickH stared fixedly and a sweat erupted on his brow even in that frigidness. He slammed his feet into the pedals and his wheels into the miles of grass, but suddenly an adult male cottontail darted out from behind a tuft of grass, stood still directly ahead and drew itself up to its full height. PatrickH's tricycle whinnied and reared up twice and in his bleary weariness he panicked and could not move. He was afraid but there was the glint of some sincere understanding in the rabbit's dark eye and as he watched it wrinkle its nose and pensively breathe he was afraid but somehow not afraid, and finally the rabbit turned and hopped away into the grass.

Fool, he muttered. The land will not love ye forever. God save the Queen.

And he rode without stopping long past noon in desperate fatigue until one shoelace slipped into the chain near the cog, and his foot was pulled back and he pitched onto his back, knocked unconscious in the waning light. As the temperature sank and the massing vultures teetered above, an ovulating moose cow with an estrogen-secreting benign adrenocortical carcinoma appeared on the horizon and began cantering toward PatrickH with crazy, indiscriminately-concupiescent joy.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 16, 2009 11:58 PM

Heh. That's better than old Cormac himself. "Adult male cottontail." Heh.

And damn that cow! I need Harold Bloom to tell me what that means.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 17, 2009 9:05 AM

"As the temperature sank and the massing vultures teetered above, an ovulating moose cow with an estrogen-secreting benign adrenocortical carcinoma appeared on the horizon and began cantering toward PatrickH with crazy, indiscriminately-concupiescent joy."

Eric, Eric, Eric. Cows aren't like bulls despite the fact that they can and do have orgasms. Your excellent prose aside, obviously women's sexuality frightens you.

Patrick! The cow has sighted the proverbial greener grass and you're standing on it. Relax but do step aside by all means.

Posted by: raspberryswirl on April 17, 2009 11:05 AM

Hah, yours was better, I laughed my head off.

Speaking of supreme westerns have you seen "The three burials of Melquiades Estrada?" Practically the best movie ever made IMHO.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 17, 2009 1:44 PM

No, but I've got to. I lurve T L Jones. Michael talked a while back about The Aviator and how he didn't think Leo D had the masculine chops to play Howard Hughes. I recommended a long-ago TV movie about Hughes with Jones playing the crazy billionaire, and doing a great macho job of it too. Much love to T L.

And raspberry: THANK GOD AND JUDGE HOLDEN IT'S A COW AND NOT A BULL. Stepping aside forthwith.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 17, 2009 3:42 PM

MB, just to let you know I just read a novel by Jennifer Wilde out of curiosity: Love's Tender Fury. I'm shocked! Very different from "typical" modern romance, indeed.

Posted by: Bhetti on April 25, 2009 8:26 PM

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