Saturday, April 14, 2018

What Makes a Poor Romance: An Answer to One-Star Reviews on Amazon

I recently attempted to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah for book club. I didn't make it very far. So I went to Amazon to read the one-star reviews (at least some people also disliked this book!). And that irritated me too. So I stopped.

The problem: the one-star reviews castigated The Nightingale for its admittedly poor writing; unfortunately, they did so with sentences like this: "It was SO bad, being a romance novel set in WWII" and "I thought I was getting a good novel, but I got a bodice ripper instead."

In other words, the one-star reviewers equated "romance" with "bad writing."

This is entirely unfair. I have read excellent romances, including romances that would be deemed "grocery store paperbacks" or "bodice rippers." In fact, this blog is primarily devoted to good romance novels and films.

However, although I don't equate "romance" with "bad writing" (maintaining that "good" and "bad" exist in all genres), poor romances do exist. And I suppose the time has come to detail what makes a poor romance novel. Here are the criteria:
This is comparatively good writing--at
least it uses parallelism!

Poor romance novels are badly written.

I'm talking about the prose itself. So many times, when reviewers discuss "writing," they mean the plot. But the way the words fit together on the page matters too. Poor romance novels don't just utilize cliches (which are not in and of themselves a problem) or suffer from lousy subject-verb agreement (I've read plenty of translations that do the same thing). Poor romance novels are also laboriously written.

The sentence "several of the rooms were closed up now that the male teachers had been mobilized" is, let's face it, simply bad. It is passive voice for one thing and transverses cause and effect. It is also dead on the page.

"As mobilization sundered male teachers from town, more and more rooms closed up . . ." is slightly better. Active voice, strong first verb (indicating emotion) and correct cause and effect.

Poor romances novels rely on stereotypes.

And (let's not kid ourselves) so do a lot of so-called literary novels. Pathos doesn't automatically excuse or hide stereotyping.

I am not, by the way, referring to "tropes," which I consider entirely respectable. As I indicate in a prior post, tropes provide a foundation that the writer can build on: the aloof man, the headstrong woman could grow and expand.

The stereotype assumes that once the character has been so-designated, no more has to be said. Why did she do that? Because she's headstrong!

Poor romance novels are soap operas. 

Good romance novels are about relationships that grow organically. Bad romance novels rely on a plethora of BAD, STARTLING, AND SHOCKING EVENTS to keep the reader worried about the couple.

BAD, STARTLING, AND SHOCKING EVENTS can be fun in a shaggy-dog kind of way. When they are done as a substitute for complexity (see how bad things were: here's another shocking thing!), they are manipulative.

When in Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter tries to win an argument by saying, "I dated a gay black midget," he breaks down laughing as his wife wags a finger. It's funny because substituting labels for an actual person is meaningless--as Mike knows (Mike is a good libertarian and accepts people as they are so long as they don't borrow his lawnmower).

SHOCKING EVENTS do not equal complexity any more than LABELS denote a person.

A character obsessed with shoes can be witty and classy, like
Mandy. Unfortunately, too many writers substitute
shoe shopping for witty and classy.
There's way too much shoe-shopping in poor romance novels. 

I've avoided using the label "chick-lit" throughout this list. For all I know, there's good chick-lit out there, and the lovers of chick-lit would be as annoyed at me for using it as a derogatory term as I was at Amazon reviewers for using "romance" as a derogatory term.

So . . . maybe there's tons of great chick-lit out there!

Personally, however, I rather dislike romances where women style their hair, fuss about make-up, deliver token speeches about NOT caring what a man thinks, and shop incessantly for shoes.

Maybe that's just me. (And why I generally stick to murder mystery romances, historical romances, and M/M although even with M/M, I get tired of the "clinging t-shirts.")

So maybe this last criteria is completely subjective. Still--it seems like poor romances do get massively off-track with the amount of furniture moving: And then she went to the mall! 

Where's the plot? Where did it go? Please bring it back.