Do you remember the children’s game ‘spot the difference’, where you compare two pictures and circle the differences? Well, if you played that game with two romance novels, you would entirely deface the pages with red circles (please don’t!).
To me, it is evident that all romance novels are unique. Any yet, those who don’t read and enjoy romance continue to stick upon the genre this label: ‘all romance novels are the same’.
Last month, similarities in romance novels hit the headlines when it emerged that a prolific self-published romance author had plagiarised the work of bestselling author Becky McGraw. In the commentary on the news story, some journalist displayed a lack of understand of the romance genre that angered another author, Jenny Trout, and prompted her to write a piece for the Huffington Post entitled ‘No, All Romance Novels Are Not the Same’.
In the article, Jenny challenges lines from The Washington Post: But a romance novel isn’t exactly ‘ Infinite Jest.’ though some bodice-rippers are dirtier than others, there is a formula – at some point, the wealthy heiress or the lady-in-waiting hooks up with the horse wrangler or the errant knight, and jeans come off or, well, bodices get ripped.
Romance novels are not the same, she argues; they merely follow genre conventions – as does all genre fiction.
Yes, in a romance novel there will always be a character who meets another character and falls in love, but that’s hardly a ‘fill-in the blank’ template. One of the characters can be anyone; a reporter. A cowboy. A vampire. The other could easily be a fairy, or a detective, or a billionaire. And the obstacles to true love are not going to be the same for a sheik and a hotelier as they would be for a werewolf and a DEA agent.
In an article for Bustle, Sadie Trombetta is on the same page. In ‘11 Things All Romance Readers Are Tired of Hearing’ she writes:
Is every science-fiction book the same, or every fantasy book? Like every other genre, romance novels are all different. Some have aspects of historical fiction, others involve the supernatural. Some have happy endings while others end in tears. No two romance books are the same — read a few and you’ll see.
I wholeheartedly agree. Over my life, I have read many, many romance novels, and each has been original in sentiment and story and setting. When I look at my own published works, I see similarities only in the sense that they meet conventions of the romance genre; most prominently, I see differences:
Each book is set in a very different place, from Kenya to Italy to Spain.
Some of my books have other women; some have other men.
I situate the story in different eras: so far, the 1950s, 1970s and 2000s.
My heroines have differing personalities and qualities: some are reserved, some emotional; some are naïve, some more worldly; some are quick to trust, some wary.
Line up my heroes – Leandro, Andrés, Salvador, Paolo and Rafe – and you see very different men. Strong, yes, and attractive; but each has his own backstory that drives him, and a different manner. Rafe, for example, is the ultimate tortured Byronic hero; Salvador knows his own mind and is resolutely proud; Leandro, conversely, is all about freedom and tribalism.
Each book has a unique mood. The Echoes of Love, for example, has a dark, mysterious undercurrent; Indiscretion is warmer, more impassioned.
I explore different cultures in the books. For example, Burning Embers touches on local tribal witchcraft; The Echoes of Love contains some Eastern philosophy; Masquerade brings in the ways of the Romani people of Andalucía.
Themes and contexts differ widely. Masquerade relates to Surrealist art; The Echoes of Love draws upon a Venetian heritage and legends of Italy.
Of course all my novels are different. It is the difference that makes reading any book so much fun. You have a very broad idea of what to expect: man and woman meet and encounter obstacles to love. But beyond the basis, every single detail is brandnew. That is what makes me read a book and write one: the journey of discovery.
The idea that we romance readers would repeatedly read the same, ‘fill the blank’ book is laughable. We’re intelligent, we’re discerning, we love to be challenged and surprised and intrigued. Isn’t it time that the strongest, bestselling genre in the market was given the respect and credibility it deserves?
No doubt you’ve come across newsletter signups in your forays online. Perhaps you subscribe to some newsletters; perhaps you even put out your own. Certainly, newsletters have become one of the core tenants of a marketing strategy, alongside social media activity.
But I wonder: have you ever stopped to think about newsletters as a new medium not only for marketing but also for soulful, meaningful communication: for sharing art?
A recent article in the New York Magazine prompted me to consider this subject. Entitled ‘Are Newsletters the Internet’s New Safe Space for Women?’, the article looks at examples of women opening their hearts via newsletters, from the Lenny Letter newsletter covering ‘feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and everything else’ to writer Sarah Gallo’s ‘Things I Tell Myself (and You)’.
The traditional ‘news’ letter has moved beyond news; it has become a vehicle for opinion pieces, personal narratives and – most interesting for me, given my job – fiction and poetry. Many people are coming to use the newsletter to share content not given out elsewhere: the newsletter is a private communication between writer and subscriber.
Why choose a newsletter as a medium for sharing? Several aspects strike me as being attractive:
- There is a simplicity, a quietness, to the newsletter. ‘While not handwritten or personally addressed to each individual, it feels like a throwback to letter-writing,’ wrote Sarah Gallo in the Guardian.
- The connection is close: from writer’s desk straight to reader’s device. This form of communication is intimate, but the writer stands protected in a way he or she does not in most other mediums; the newsletter is not a dialogue; there is no sharing it online or commenting on it. (The New York Magazine outlines that protection is a key driver for many starting up newsletters who have encountered trolling and abuse online when blogging or sharing via social media.) There are plenty of examples of writers using newsletters to talk about personal subjects, such as child-raising and mental health difficulties.
- Some who use newsletters for self-expression value the impermanence of their words. Just as not everyone wants every declaration made public, not everyone wants their every declaration to be permanently public. Newsletters go out, and then are gone. Yes, a reader can save one, if so compelled, but there is no public archive. This can liberate a writer to write in the now, and then move on.
The New YorkMagazineapproaches the newsletter from a feminine angle, but I think sharing via the newsletter can be of value to all. When one tires of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (ad infinitum!), one can turn to a simpler form of connection.
What I love best about newsletters is that you can take the time to craft something of length; you are not restricted to a clever little nugget as on social media. In addition, as I write I feel so wonderfully connected to my readers, because I know that each is invested in what I am sharing. We can easily miss a Tweet or status update by someone we follow on social media, but we don’t miss a newsletter right there in our inbox. And – best of all – we can choose to read that newsletter at our convenience.
You can sign up for my own newsletter at www.hannahfielding.net. If you’d like to write your own, it’s worth exploring Tiny Letter (http://tinyletter.com/), which is a very neat and simple newsletter platform. If you want more tools for your newsletter, I can recommend MailChimp (http://mailchimp.com/). Whichever you choose, you have a choice: will your newsletter be a letter about your news, or will you share something else, something of yourself – something of your art?
Imagine a world in which books matter a great deal, but authors – their creators – do not. Imagine a world in which the author of the Next Best Thing is unknown; the words alone are what influence and inspire and transform.
In our modern era of celebrity culture, such a concept seems remote; crazy, even. We live in a people-centric world. And yet, one author is standing apart from the crowd.
I can’t tell you the author’s name; I do not know it. No one does.
I can’t tell you where the author lives, what her professional background is, what her inspirations for writing are. I do not know this about her. No one does.
All we readers have to go on is a pen name: Elena Ferrante.
Have you heard of Elena? Perhaps. More likely you have heard of her books, because this author tries to ensure that all of the focus is on the writing, not the writer. Her books are as follows:
- The Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child
- Troubling Love
- The Days of Abandonment
- The Lost Daughter
- The Beach at Night
These books, published in Italian from 1992 and subsequently translated and published worldwide, are widespread bestsellers that are critically acclaimed. According to the Paris Review, ‘It is now common to hear Ferrante called the most important Italian writer of her generation.’
And yet, the writer behind the Ferrante pen name wants none of the glory of such accolades. In a letter to her Italian publisher before her debut novel was published, she declared:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. … I do not intend to do anything … that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.
In the letter, she wrote of ‘those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own’. She closes her letter by suggesting that while her demand for complete privacy may be unconventional and difficult for her publisher, she will at least be ‘the least expensive author of the publishing house’.
I find Elena Ferrante’s approach fascinating, as do many authors, I think. On the one hand, all authors crave peace and quiet in which to write, and to put our ‘art’ first and foremost. Many authors have spoken out about their discomfort at being in the public eye. Veronica Roth, for example, author of the wildly popular Divergent series, wrote a blog post after the first book was published admitting she was struggling greatly with anxiety now that her work was under inspection. ‘Writing used to feel safe,’ she wrote, ‘because it was so private.’
But the desire for anonymity is not whole-hearted for the majority of authors, or even realistic. Take the issue of promotion. Ferrante is not ‘the least expensive author of the publishing house’. The publisher must promote her books in order to sell them; they simply have to do this without her assistance. And, in fact, her decision to be so private has become her marketing hook: her books are not authorless at all, they are written by ‘that lady whose identity is so famously unknown’.
Putting aside the business of publishing, however, I see another, more compelling reason for the visibility of the author. It comes down to authenticity. Take Veronica Roth once more as an example. When you know something of the author – that anxiety has been an issue for her – the narrative of the Divergent series has more depth, more meaning: it is all about conquering fear.
In my own writing, I am present. I am not my heroines; their stories are not my own. But I have lived in and travelled to the locations in which my novels are set, and I know that my own sense of places comes forth strongly in the novels. Would you enjoy my books so much if you knew nothing of me? Or does knowing a little about how and why I wrote each book help you connect better to the story and the characters and the meaning? Is knowing that I write my romance novels sitting on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean ocean meaningful? I think it is: meaningful, important, genuine.
When we like a book, we are interested in the writer. And I think, most of all, we respect that writer, not only for the writer’s ingenuity and creativity and talent and intellect, but for their courage in allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Writing, as Roth said, is safe. Sharing that writing publicly, standing behind that writing and being known as the author, is not so safe; it forces vulnerability. But as Jan Denise has put it, ‘There is something about vulnerability that helps us to connect with people.’ And all writing that is shared, not burned on the fire, is designed to connect the creator’s vision to others. As John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
How thorough is your reading scope? Have you read all of the novels commonly held as being important, classic works of literature? Have you ticked off the list Great Expectations and Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice and Les Misèrables and The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Hobbit and The Grapes of Wrath and The Odyssey and Ulysses and The Catcher in the Rye and Crime and Punishment?
I very much expect the answer is a resounding ‘No’. Unless you are an English professor or particularly interested in literary fiction, you have likely read some classics but there are sizeable gaps in your reading.
How does confessing to the gaps make you feel? Are you quite happy to say you have read no more than three, five, ten, twenty classic novels – or do you feel a little uncomfortable being questioned on the subject? If an English professor grilled you on your reading list, would you feel somehow that you should have read more classic works? Or, indeed, would you feel annoyed by the professor suggesting (in a superior, snobbish tone) that you really ought to have made it through Moby Dick and War and Peace?
Writers Sarah Galo and Elon Green set out to uncover the reasons behind works remaining unread in their recent Hazlitt article ‘From Steinbeck to Cervantes: Confessing Our Literary Gaps’. They were inspired to delve into the reading histories of a host of writers after influential American journalist, author and Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates revealed he had not read To Kill a Mocking Bird. This shocked his interviewer at Slate magazine, given that Coates’ recent book, Between the World and Me, is a passionate look at the exploitation and terrorisation of black Americans in American history. But Coates responded: ‘Why is that?… I am always surprised people are surprised that people haven’t read things.’ He reads what interests him to read: nothing else.
That is a strong and courageous stance for a figure in the public eye. But I wonder: why is the courage required? Why is it difficult for an intelligent, cultured reader to admit to gaps in their reading? It seems to me that not enough credence is given to the reasons for not reading classics. In the Hazlitt article, various reasons for literary gaps come forth:
Style: The authors of the article admit to avoiding Jane Austen for her ‘dryness of language’. Some of the classic works are hard reading compared to today’s style of writing: long books, long paragraphs, long sentences, complex syntax, complex vocabulary.
Aversion to aspects of the content: Galo and Green cite ‘fundamentalist Christianity’ as a reason for avoiding Harry Potter (it is of little surprise that a response to the article argues with this). Similarly, there are those readers who will always avoid Lolita for its depiction of a man’s romantic love for a twelve-year-old girl.
Education: Schooling plays a crucial role in introducing students to classic literature. Which works are taught – and how well they are taught – hugely affects engagement. I was lucky enough to be taught French literature by nuns who were very passionate about the books, which no doubt put me on the course to my French literature degree.
Discomfort/laziness: Green admits that ‘with each passing year [he is] simply less inclined to step out of his comfort zone’. The older we get, the more we know what we like, and we tend to repeat rather than push ourselves into new experiences. How much easier it is to buy a book from a tried-and-tested genre than to take a chance on something brand-new.
Mood: Author Renata Adler spoke of struggling to get through One Hundred Years of Solitude, so much so that she kept giving up on it – until one day she was ‘just in the mood’. I have always believed that the right books ‘find’ you at the right time; and then they have real power to move and challenge you.
Reluctance to be a sheep: Consider for a moment the Harry Potter phenomenon. When all the media are shouting about this new book series, does that make you want to rush out and grab a copy? Perhaps. Or it may make you feel the opposite; you may be averse to hype and prefer quieter reads.
Put off by others’ criticism: If your partner or best friend has read a book and condemned it, how likely are you to put time into reading it? What if they’ve given away the ending? Author Lesléa Newman said of The Well of Loneliness: ‘I know it’s a classic, but I hear it doesn’t end well and I just can’t bring myself to read it.’
Just not ‘getting it’: This is how Renata Adler described her inability to read Don Quixote. Nobody can feel an affinity with each and every book.
Sensitivity: Have you ever felt haunted or scarred by a book? The classics are so-termed because they are big, important, powerful works incorporating difficult subject matter. ‘Heavy reads’ is another way to describe them. But reading is a pleasurable pursuit and so, understandably, a resistance develops to reading something that is difficult, challenging – even, perhaps, depressing.
Feeling overwhelmed: The list of classics is very long (and very much in dispute). Where does one start?
There are plenty of compelling, reasonable explanations for literary gaps. And yet, those who think and dream and wish to be moved by writing and challenged by it will still seek to fill the gaps. The most sensible of them do so one carefully chosen book at a time.
I have challenged myself to read one new classic work each year. I read without pressure and with a great deal of consideration. I have found that it is a refreshing change to slow right down; it makes for very relaxing and rewarding reading. I am of a similar mind to CS Lewis, who said: ‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.’
Will you read a classic book in the next year? Which one will you pick? I would love to hear about it.
Recently, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a hardback, clothbound edition of my favourite work of English literature: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The book was beautiful to the eye and to the touch, with stunning colours and exquisite workmanship and – best of all for me – it was a good, weighty tome. Here it is:
A look inside the book revealed it was a Penguin Clothbound Classic, which was intriguing, I thought, because I was sure my edition of Jane Eyre at home was a Penguin Classic. Sure enough, when I returned home I took Jane down from the shelf and found it is indeed a Penguin that looks like this:
Quite a difference in cover, don’t you think? It got me thinking about how I would read my Jane Eyre with this old, traditional cover, and how I may read the clothbound edition. Would it change how I felt about the reading?
Before delving into that question, I felt I must arm myself with knowledge – were there other Penguin Classic Jane Eyres to consider? A few minutes on the Internet later, I had my answer in the form of a fascinating mix of covers:
I confess, by this point I was somewhat excited, and had to sternly tell myself not to rush out on a bookstore mission to collect other editions of my favourite novel!
The more I looked at the covers, the more it struck me that they were designed to create very different feels and appeals. First, the vintage, classic cover look, in keeping with my own edition:
To me, these say serious, high-brow, classic literature – the paintings on the cover give a wonderful historic feel to ground the writing in its time and place. I find the bottom-left cover most engaging; there’s something beautiful in the colours and in Jane’s expression, I think.
Then comes a batch of covers in which the heroine is very much the focus. She is less ‘plain Jane’ here, and more beautiful heroine, in an effort to place her not in her historical context but in line with modern heroines:
The top-left book would never find its way onto my book shelf: it goes too far, I think, into the modern. But I find the bottom-left one intriguing; it is so darkly romantic. The bottom-right one is a little too illustrated for me, but I like the idea that it may attract a younger reader.
Moving on, we come to the most basic covers of all:
What do you think? They don’t excite me, I’m afraid. But the designs of the final selection are interesting:
There’s a synergy of vintage and modern here, calling to mind a designer like Cath Kidston. I can imagine readers buying books like these for how they look on a shelf even if not so much for what is between the covers.
Taking a look at the covers overall, it’s clear that this is an example of clever and creative marketing by Penguin, targeting the same book at various people through various presentations. No doubt the different covers affect sales of the book. But do they affect the reading?
Back to the core question: Does a book cover colour your reading of a book? Yes, I think it does. There’s a psychology at play when you read a physical book (its absence when reading ebooks accounts for some of the enjoyment dilution that can occur then). The joy of reading is to create one’s own pictures in the mind based on the words, but a cover is always going to sway just a little the pictures that form. And if you love a cover, are you not more likely to love a book? Whereas, conversely, if a cover doesn’t sit well with you, won’t you find flaws in the story?
Based on these covers, I can easily imagine myself relaxing into Jane’s story with one of the classic covers or a couple of those depicting romantic women. But there are some covers in the mix that I feel would temper my enjoyment. Take this cover, for example:
It is one of the Penguin Drop Caps series: 26 works of literature for each letter of the alphabet. The ‘B’ here is for Brontë. But I find it a little dominating. The book, for me, is all about Jane, not Charlotte, and the B detracts from that. Thus, I worry that this cover would colour my reading – would affect my connection with Jane.
Do you agree? Do you think cover art influences your reading of a book? Do you collect multiple editions of a book you love? Would you select one of the Jane Eyre editions here over another? I would love to hear your thoughts.