When Urania was young/ All thought her heavenly/ With age her eyes grow larger/ But her form unmaidenly

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Answer to A Question Nobody Would Feel A Compelling need to Ask

Q: Just how phoned-in ARE the Hardy Boys?
A: Way phoned-in. I picked up four of them off the shelf in the compound rec room/library (perverse nostalgia, my most notable perversity), and read The Crisscross Shadow. Look, even not getting to writerly things like plot, dialogue, logic, padding-to-a-set-length and all that, if Frank is the quarterback, HE throws the passes in the football game, not halfback Joe.

Also noted: The cover of The Clue of the Screeching Owl, the first Hardy Boys book I bought and read in elementary school en route to devouring about half of the series, shows the boys looking over their shoulders at head of a mile-wide owl looming over a darkened forest. Needless to say, no such owl of unearthly size appears in the actual book. Although the other elements of HB kept me reading, it's interesting that my first impulse was toward the fantastic, a taste that dominated my reading as soon as I found actual science fiction and fantasy with Andre Norton a couple of years later.

Monday, August 08, 2005

SB Day - What We Talk About When We Talk About Romance

Thoughts On Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart

This is a series of ruminations, disconnected and unedited. It is not a review, and will contain what people so inclined would call spoilers. It will also include wild generalizations about the romance genre, based on a single book that I understand is one of the best in the genre. Not talking about the stupidity of overheard conversations because this book was defitely not meant for me ears, but is not stupid.

First, from Rock to Beth: a grateful acknowledgement for lending the copy of Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart with the cover least likely to raise eyebrows on the plane. While the golden dragonfly and spray of flowers and sweeping calligraphy of the F, L and H (the M of the possessive pronoun being relatively modest) fully revealed that the reader had crossed over to the Lavender Side, it didn't look as if he had picked it up solely for a shirtless Fabio or anything. But since everybitch is a book art critic: even if the action of a book spans more than a decade, it's probably not a a good idea to age only one character out of a paired duo in the inside cover art, especially if the non-aged male looks like he gets his coif at Supercuts. Rock's take: Melanthe's bare back is being caressed by her favorite high school basketball star, dressed in his weekend Ren Faire best.

That's all the snark you're going to see. On to the words.

First, this is an historical romance. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, there is a filigree of "archaic" language, not meant to replicate real Middle English, but to orient the reader toward a different era, removed from her experiences, and to give the characters a certain formal dignity and stature, to allow their characters to enlarge beyond what we see without provoking snorts of disbelief, or comparison with the reader herself that might be painful. Skilled, consistent, lite: the reader-orientation of the strategy seems to me part of the very core of the romance genre, and also serves to define what readers it seeks. The dialogue of FMLH in a language nearly as artificial as Tolkien's Elvish, and must have taken considerable skill, but does not explore the strangeness and variety of a language centuries away from becoming bound by rules and with an immense vocabulary.

The opening scene establishes a certain grittiness - the forests of France aren't sylvan beautiful or sundappled and enchanted, but grim. The adjective is being applied on behalf of the reader, anticipating her stance, since the characters in the scene, particularly Ruck, would regard most forests, in England or Germany, in the same light and would not consider it remarkable. The pilgrimage the group is taking is tiring, dirty, and dangerous. Like the language, the medieval
setting is not an explore to recreate a world, but to use elements and the strangeness to create a space in which to tell this particular story to particular ears, to allow a certain element of comfortable strangeness. This is not the Middle Ages of Walter Scott, but the realism is cinematic, with the grime painted on to a purpose. Physical details serve a rhetorical purpose, but the point isn't an exploration of the era (as with normal historical novels, however badly done and unsuccessful at this task), but the heightening of the emotional effects of the story.

What else do it I want to note? The grace notes, what I've called in other contexts the candy, analogous to unnecessary but thoroughly appreciated chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream, nuggets of intense flavor, and, I would say, unconnected with the plot and often a little implausible. To use another analogy: the beautiful but static and unnecessay bel canto arias in an opera, the ones you leave the theatre humming (under your breath if you're both tone-deaf and merciful.) The opulent scene of the falcon summoning would be one such, the implausible, gaudy falcon itself would be another; the fairy-kingdom of Ruck, shut away like Shangri-La and peopled by players. I suspect the nookie scene might also qualify, and might explain why they reportedly go on for a while in most contemprary romances, bereft of emerald-accessorized brocade gowns. The candy.

Romance nookie scenes don't work that way for me, and, I suspect, for most men, neither as erotica, nor as pleasuable to contemplate in any kind of an abstract way. As a plot note it's "Okay, they slept together. That means x." Done. No frisson at all. The emotion is wrong - too right. I mean, even in the locker room guys don't usually talk about how great a time they had with their wives or long time partners, especially at length. None of the other guys are interested. Good evidence, if we needed any, that this book (despite the skill) was not written for me or people like me. Having the villain die by an actionless and pathos-stripped accident instead of in a climatic fight scene was another. Maybe the unconvincing handfling of what I presume was a unbaccountably intact dinosaur fossil was the third - thats a boy pedant issue.

An odd technical note is how in this accomplished, well-paced book, that a plotline could just drag into nothingness. Is the plot beside the point in the midst of the romance, character development, and assorted candy? Much is made of Melanthe signing over her Italian holdings, an essential element of her peril and protection, to the English king - and that she has done so should have been a major turning point in a number of ways when Gian re-entered the picture - instead it was nearly nothing. the Chekovian gun on the mantle never went off, nor was the fact it didn't remarked = another possible strategy.

An odd emotional note is the treatment of Melanthe's baby, murdered by Gian. I recall on two mentions and one reference in the entire book - and no throwing it in Gian's face, or reflecting on it. I noticed something similar in the death of a child in Beth's. In a sense, the more frequent deaths of children even among the upper class in those times might provide a context where it's a side-issue, demonstrating how much Melanthe had sufgfered and how ruthless Gian was. The glancing reference keeps it from overfreighting the book - especially since many of the prospective readers are mothers. but it reminded me of my dog-loving friend John who said about horror films that once the family retriver is killed early on, it's pretty much over for him - like he could care what happens to the rest of the suburban fucks. For me (and I don't know if this is male), it didn't work in this case. The mention and reference is all it took - a baby's dead, the most tragic thing has already happened - didn't care as much about Melanthe as the infant, didn't care at all whether she and the repressed Ruckster found True Rut.

A few more notes on the audience thing: unlike my own genres, I doubt you'd find much formal (e.g. postmodern) innovation in Romance, and the content and diction experimentation is probably relatively limited as well. You do not get Samuel Delany's or Phil K. Dick or Harlan Ellison or Gene Wolfe. You do not get Paul Auster or Umberto Eco. You don't even get the freedom of the occasionally defeated Sherlock Holmes. My take on the invariable happy ending of the romance novel is not only is it important in itself, but it serves as the capstone of an unbreakable pact with the reader: no matter the terrors of the book, you can read, read the whole thing, and it will never be more than you can bear. It will not only come out all right, from page 1 you know it will come out right,and may read with your full heart - it shall not be broken in abook as perhaps it has elsewhen.

Last thing little I have to say: everybody EVERYBODY (even LK) needs an alert copy editor and doesn't always get one anymore. Example: in paragraph 2 we find the following sentence: A few yards from the sobbing female, on the high grass center of the road, a priest sat removing his sandals and swatting dust off his soles one by one."

Yo writers: "one after the other" might have worked (although there is still a sequence problem between the two actions in gerunds this sentence), suggestng alternating, but "one by one" implies a tonsured centipede - or a quadruped at the very least!

Oh my, that counts as a second snark. But if anyone needs me, here I am.