Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nora Roberts, Romance, and Applebees

First, I want to apologize for those fans of JR who miss his commentary, but you are stuck with another post by me. While he is in Iowa I am alone with our trained Akita, Bootsie, a rack of hunting rifles, and too much time on my hands. In the comments of my last post our old friend Diana (a very funny and successful romance writer) suggested I read the New Yorker article about Nora Roberts. Our copy hasn't arrived, but I managed to sign up to get it online. Oh, yeah, and I also ran out and got a copy of Roberts's novel Tribute. You can read the first few pages on Amazon, if you're interested.

So, what do I think? I have a lot of respect for anyone who writes something that so many people want to read – and Nora Roberts clearly does it well. In fact, if I could wave a wand and have her career, I would. Because you know what I want? I want to spend my day typing and typing and making things up and producing books, and I don't really care how I do it.

But, I don't like her books. I don't think they're beneath me in any way – I read truly trashy stuff all the time (true crime, celebrity gossip), so it's not a matter of snobbery. I'm a compulsive reader, and my life would be a lot easier if I enjoyed her books, because there are a lot of them. My grandmother, also a compulsive reader, used to come visit us with a towering stack of romance novels, which she would churn through during her stay. At the time I had a towering stack of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators books, and I assumed I would one day graduate to romances.

And there are probably romances I would like, though I'm really not that invested in the whole boy-meets-girl, etc, thing. A lot of writers are taking their books out of their genres and playing with the rules. (I would guess for romance writers, playing with the rules is part of the fun.) So right now I'm not talking about all those other romance writers -- I'm talking about Nora Roberts, who is probably a genre unto herself.

But I'm finding Tribute to be excruciatingly boring. For the most part the writing isn't bad -- in Tribute , some of the early lyrical descriptions are, in fact, bad, but she seems to drop this mode pretty quickly and revert to a more expedient style once she gets going. But it's all just really, really uninteresting.

By uninteresting, I mean lacking in the stuff that, to me, makes writing worth reading: surprisingly apt descriptions, insights, humor. The characters seem dull and unrealistic. The landscape is rendered with strange blurriness. In the NYer piece, Lauren Collins says: "Like campfire stories, Roberts's books rely on verve and familiarity, rather than any particular polish or originality."

That sums it up. Her audience prefers familiarity -- at least familiarity with "verve" -- to originality. Instead of campfire stories, Collins could have compared Roberts's books to any popular thing in American culture, really: Applebees, American Idol, jeans, new cars. These things all generate comfort, rather than stimulation -- though I guess all books generate both, in some degree or other.

You know, having said all this, it seems like I'm wasting my breath: it's so obvious! But you know, when you do something in a particular way, and the force of popular opinion tells you you should do it in a different way, it's worthwhile figuring out exactly where you stand.

But I repeat, I respect what she does. She pleases millions and millions of people and brings something valuable into their lives. And like I said: if I could write those books, I would do it, for the satisfaction and the bucks. But it's a particular talent that I don't think I possess.

So, what do you think? Is it snobbish, stuck up, apt, misguided, idiotic, or what to compare Nora Roberts to Applebees? I'm eager to hear your opinions.


Art O.T. Grid said...

Oh dear, Applebees; is Nora Roberts really THAT bad? I don't know, never read any, but I have eaten at the aformentioned sugar-coated lardateria.
But you know, a lot of people do like to already know what they are reading, watching or looking at & the pleasure is served up in the moment of recognizing the familiar. Maybe we're hard-wired for that. But I've always suspected that I've got a few wires crossed...

Anonymous said...

I think we are indeed hard-wired to want comfort, to want the familiar. But you know, when i was a teenager, I liked everything to be just so...not very threatening, not very odd. There was a period when--i can't believe I am admitting this--my favorite band was Chicago and my favorite TV show was Diff'r'nt Strokes.

But wow did my life improve when I discovered REM, literary fiction, and foreign movies. The world was bizarre, i suddenly realized, and everything I looked at that used to seem boring was now interesting. maybe it was just my inherent nature, but maybe not--maybe I could have gone through life being comforted half to death.

There is nothing wrong with entertainment and comfort--God knows I don't want my Lee Child thrillers to suddenly be about ennui and self-doubt--but I think everyone owes it to him- or herself to dip a foot into the lake of strangeness at least once a year. I am impressed, like Rhian is, by a writer like Roberts, and sure envy her earnings, but my respect is reserved for writers who try to push their readers in a new direction, however gently.

Paul said...

Though I am inclined towards fiction pushing boundaries etc. I feel that all types of writing (within reason) require their own sets of skills. And while I believe that some writers are vastly better than others (Karin Fossum is better than Nora Roberts and Peter Carey is better than Douglas Preston) I have seen the dismal results when "literary" writers attempt genre writing.

I think that those attempts are often overvalued because they tend to be read by readers unfamiliar with the genre.

It is probably easier for a good chef to "attain" and Applebee standard than for John Irving to write like Nora Roberts. But I could be wrong.

Diana Holquist said...

Wow. I almost fell off my chair when I saw Tribute on Ward6. You're a brave woman, Rhian.

I also read this book--my first Nora ever--and agree: it was dull as dust. Actually, I only got through it because I listened to it on audio while I cleaned my house, and I fast-forwarded. On Audible.com everyone complains the reader is bad, but I'm pretty sure it's the dialogue that's hopeless.

But nevertheless, I read it like a mystery for clues as to why Nora is so beloved.

My analysis isn't exactly deep either: no matter how much "verve" and "spunk" the heroine has, the man treats her like a child. He is the ultimate perfect father figure, who boots her up, sees her for the goddess she is, and sets her straight as to her perfection. (And he's also good in bed, but we won't go too Freudian here...)

Okay, we will:

"...I could talk you into bed now, and I really want to...but then we'd both wonder if it was because you had a bad day...so...let's go get ice cream."


Why this appeals to people, I have no idea. Or rather, I do have an idea, but I don't really want to go there. It's as familiar as Applebees, but more deeply familiar, more disturbing. Alpha-male-as-daddy. It's the one forbidden fantasy that's universal. So they say.

I kinda just say, "Ewwww..."

I'll try another Nora and see if my theory sticks...I hope it doesn't.

Still waiting for my New Yorker....

JRL...you gonna take a stab at reading NR?

rmellis said...

Diana... you're brilliant. I never noticed the weird guy-dynamic, but yeah, what is that? I was too preoccupied with how much the guy (whose name is "Ford Sawyer") resembles the Lost character James "Sawyer" Ford... down to the accent and and streaky blond hair...

jon said...

None of this makes me want to read Nora Roberts, life is too short. But I don't think it is a problem with genre writing, since a lot of literary writing (and as Rhian has said before, Literary is a genre)is boring and lifeless for the same reasons. It is the Applebees problem though, corporate product that people begin to think is real, and then the people marketing it having contempt for the intelligence of the audience, whom they claim like nothing else. You see it in politics as well. I write genre fiction i suppose, but in my own mind there's never been a distinction. I don't like most sci fi, but i write it, probably because I watched Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and loved Blade Runner before ever reading Philip K Dick. I've been fascinated by Romance writing too. Didn't Henry James and Emily Bronte and Tolstoy write romance novels? It's all in how you do it, and, especially with well defined genres, subjecting the narrative assumptions of readers, and yours as a writer, to a shake up or reversal, makes it interesting. I don't think you're a snob for detesting lifeless product of any kind. and is anyone going to poison this with a pun? are you confusing applebees and oranges? sorry!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, literary fiction is certainly not inherently better as a genre than others. But it's the most open and malleable, and so is more likely than the others to produce something really spectacular. jon's sure right though that it usually doesn't, and I generally prefer mediocre genre fiction to mediocre literary fiction. At least with the former you get the goodies.

Diana, there is no way I am going to read Nora, sorry. Alpha male as sexually available daddy is gross.

rmellis said...

I'd be curious to know if any, ANY, straight men read Nora Roberts.

I can't even picture my dad, who used to steal and read my books when I was a kid, reading her.

Anonymous said...

"going to go ahead"? Isn't that deadwood cliche the stigma of the less literate, of the TV instructors, including especially, the chefs who must bloat their chatter with "going to go ahead" and unnecessary prepositions to avoid one second of on-air silence: now go ahead and pour it down over; Im going to go ahead and saute it up; now go ahead and cool it down. It disheartens to see the verbose virus spreading to the literati, the should be concise and ever self-editing in print. I'm going to go ahead and read down over this before sending it on out.

Anonymous said...


rmellis said...

Anon: Nobody used that phrase here, at least not in this post. Anyway, yeah, it's wordy slang -- so whut? This here's a blog!

We've committed much worse sins than that one. I challenge you to read over all of our posts -- and all our published work, too! -- and find them!

Then you can write them on some nice stationery and mail them to us. I promise I'll attach them to the fridge and read them every morning while I stir my oatmeal.

Anonymous said...

I've read Tribute cover to cover, along with about eight other books by Ms. Roberts, for reasons that aren't worth going into now, and I will tell you that they are staggeringly bad, not because they are trashy -- trashy implies fun, lively, juicy, engrossing -- but because, as you say, they are harrowingly dull. Almost nothing happens except sex that makes you never want to have sex again. What is the point of trash without suspense? Honestly, when I think about how many people read Nora Roberts, I am filled with the horrible feeling that Sarah Palin may actually be our president someday.

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