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Avon FanLit

I know that many of my readers enjoy historical romance, and a number of you either write in the genre or aspire to. So I thought I would share details of an intriguing collaborative writing contest.

Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has launched Avon FanLit, a 12-week onliune writing programme beginning on 8 May. Avon provides a writing prompt, you write the chapter as you’d like it, and Avon selects and publishes the winner – then provides the next prompt. So the book unfolds according to input from various writers.

The book is set to be a lot of fun to read and write. The first prompt opens a story of Lady Felicity Stratford meeting her childhood Maxwell Trent, the Duke of Highcliff, at a society ball. Instructions are to include in your chapter a whispered argument, a daring waltz and an annoying interruption.

Writers have ten days to submit for each round – and readers can then vote on the chapters. The winning chapter will be revealed every two weeks, and the next prompt will follow on from the winning chapter’s narrative.

To make the exercise really valuable for writers, bestselling Avon authors and editors will be providing feedback along the way, and winners will receive signed books. One overall winner will be considered for an Avon Impulse publishing contract. The final book will be available to buy as an Avon Impulse eBook.

Such an innovative idea, don’t you think? I’d love to participate, but sadly entry is for United States citizens only. If you’re US based, why not get involved? Please do let me know how you get on – I’m registered and eager to read your chapters.

Is reading romance a ‘guilty’ pleasure for you? Do you read romance novels on an ebook so no one knows what you’re reading and judges you by it? Do you associate the words ‘trashy’ or ‘illicit’ or ‘low-brow’ or ‘anti-feminist’ with the romance genre?

Then may I suggest you read this fantastic article in Bustle: ‘7 Reasons It’s Actually Totally Feminist To Read (And Write) Romance Novels, Thank You Very Much’. The author, Maya Rodale, explains:

My inner feminist resisted reading romance novels because I thought these trashy books were somehow bad for women by filling their heads with unrealistic ideas about life and love. But the more I read them (and eventually wrote them), the more I realized that these books are totally fairytales for feminists.

She goes on to explore different reasons that put romance novels firmly in the feminist camp, like the fact that they are by women, for women and about women, and that they reward women. She writes:

Unlike any other literature, romance novels champion women who defy expectations, they validate their interests and experiences, they declare women deserve love, respect and pleasure, and they reward them for refusing to settle for second best. What’s more feminist than that? 

Maya is the author of this book on the subject:

Dangerous-Books-For-Girls

From the blurb:

Long before clinch covers and bodice rippers, romance novels had a bad reputation as the lowbrow lit of desperate housewives and hopeless spinsters. But why were these books—the escape and entertainment of choice for millions of women—singled out for scorn and shame?

Dangerous Books for Girls examines the secret history of the genre’s bad reputation—from the “damned mob of scribbling women” in the nineteenth century to the sexy mass-market paperbacks of the twentieth century—and shows how romance novels have inspired and empowered generations of women to dream big, refuse to settle, and believe they’re worth it.

For every woman who has ever hidden the cover of a romance—and every woman who has been curious about those “Fabio books”—Dangerous Books For Girls shows why there’s no room for guilt when reading for pleasure.

Maya also has a well-argued website at www.dangerousbooksforgirls.com which contains some compelling reading. I was especially fascinated by her infographics, based on a study she conducted, that give a broad picture of the romance genre and, especially, attitudes towards it.

If you have a little time, I really recommend checking out Maya’s writing. She’s a champion for all of us romantics. Thank you, Maya!

Darcy

Mr Darcy, the archetype of the brooding, aloof romantic hero who is famous the world over more than two hundred years since his inception. Clearly, Jane Austen wove magic into this character, so lasting and powerful has been his legacy.

But does the character of Mr Darcy stand as testament to Austen’s vivid and clever imagination, or is he in fact the embodiment of her social scrutinising? How far is Fitzwilliam Darcy a fictional character, and how much the representation of someone Jane Austen knew?

In her new book Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House, Dr Susan Law puts forward the case that Austen’s inspiration for Darcy was the first Earl of Morley, John Parker. Based on letters, diaries and newspaper articles, Dr Law has found the Earl to be a logical contender. He was the husband of Frances, with whom Austen was close, and she spent time at their home in Plymouth while writing Pride and Prejudice. Apparently, the physical similarities between the two men were strong.

The Earl of Morley is the latest in a line of contenders for the title of ‘the true Mr Darcy’, which includes alleged lover Thomas Lefroy, and Dr Samuel Blackall, whom Jane met on holiday. Certainly, unless new evidence alights, none of the theories can be proven.

What do you think? Was one of the most beloved heroes in romantic literature a living, breathing man – or was he a product of the imagination of a very gifted writer? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Book restorationTwo news stories caught my eye this week. The first was that, according to The Association of American Publishers, ebook sales fell by 10 per cent at the start of this year compared to the preceding year. The second was a story about a Japanese book craftsman who lovingly restores battered old books to be read, and treasured, once more.

An interesting pairing, don’t you think? Digital is on the down, and interest in reusing the old is on the up.

Nobuo Okano has been restoring books for 30 years, and his process is careful and reverent. A video (in Japanese) at https://youtu.be/iSjI-BjrGLo shows how he cleans the glue off the spine, irons dog-eared corners and clips the page edges to remove discoloration, before rebinding in a new leather cover. How time-consuming and difficult the process is, with Nobuo using tweezers to take each page of the big volume in turn, but the end result is worth the toil.

What is striking in this story is the effort gone to in order to save an old book. We’re living in an age where books don’t have to physically exist, but may be read on a screen; where paperbacks are printed cheaply and piles of them are pulped by publishers; where charity shops are full to the rafters with cast-off tomes; where printed books can be purchased so cheaply (see my recent blog post Rehoming the Forgotten Books) that they are no longer the treasured items they once were. For bibliophiles like me, that’s a sad state of affairs, and so it warms my heart to read of book restoration.

Some time ago, I was lucky enough to be invited into the studio of a traditional book binder. It was a delight (the scents! the textures! the myriad materials!), and a real education for me. My colleague took me through her process, from receiving a battered old book, often from a private collection, through painstakingly repairing damage and rebinding it. The attention to detail and the care taken was inspirational. This is an ancient craft, and a beautiful one that has lost recognition and respect in our current world, where when something is imperfect or worn out, many people simply throw it on the rubbish pile and buy a shiny new one.

I think what often gets lost in the relentless pace of ‘advancement’ is emotion. Books matter to people. They have sentimental value. When you have had the same book in your family for many years, there is a reluctance to relinquish it and replace it: like a beloved member of the family, it deserves care. In the Nobuo Okano story, the book in focus is an English–Japanese dictionary that the client has had since his school days and now wants to pass on to his daughter, who is preparing to attend university. English–Japanese dictionaries are, of course, easy to come by, and buying a new copy would have been far less expensive than restoring the old version. But that original book must have held memories of pride, joy and accomplishment that the father hopes his daughter will experience. What an amazing and thoughtful gift!

What do you think of book restoration? Are there books on your shelf you treasure that you’d  always want to keep in the best possible condition, and perhaps pass down to your children some day? Do you think restoration should be more commonplace, and the ‘buy it, throw it’ culture should be more challenged? I would love to hear your thoughts.

I’ve written about a couple of interesting apps for readers recently: Whichbook, which matches a book to your mood, and The Clean Reader, which blanks out offensive language. Here’s a quick peek at another innovative app that’s hit the headlines.

Fictionary

The Fictionary is a free app that aims to help readers navigate through complicated fiction read on an ereader by offering a quick-reference ‘dictionary’ of fictitious terms, places and characters in a novel.

Various books across several genres have had the Fictionary treatment. You can download a Fictionary for the works of Jane Austen and Victor Hugo, for example, and one for young adult fantasy works by Rick Riordan and Cassandra Clare. If you can’t see the fictionary you’d like, you can even request one be created.

I think it’s a great idea. Keeping in your mind a whole world of fictional details as you read can be difficult – especially if you’re not reading the book in one flow, but dipping in and out of it. Backtracking to find information is frustrating and time-consuming; this allows for informed reading in which the reader need not doubt the writer’s level of detail or their own level of retention.

I wonder whether such an innovation will allow for more complicated writing than ever before. What do you think?

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