Good Writing Bites
January 1, 1970Probably every author has thought about certain critics: “They wouldn’t recognize good writing if it jumped up and bit ‘em on the ass.”
This cliché came to mind as I looked over my meager store of reader reviews on Amazon and the extremes of variation among them. Now, we all know tastes differ: what reads like elegant prose to one person will seem stilted to another; an incisive treatment of an important theme to this reader will go down like stale cotton candy to that one. It’s a natural reaction, when we haven’t enjoyed something, to call it “bad writing,” and sometimes it is; but sometimes the more honest response is simply, “I didn’t like it.” Some reviews are so odd that the author can’t help but wonder if the reviewer even read her book at all, or if perhaps there was some other agenda, an ass-biting incident that didn’t end happily.
Jane Austen was clearly familiar with this emotion. True to her tough character, one who “dearly loves a laugh,” she collected readers’ reactions, good and bad, to two of her novels, Mansfield Park and Emma. Just as on Amazon, these are amateur reviews. (There were no published reviews of M.P.) Austen kept the ridiculous letters as well as the praise, like the one from a Mrs. Augusta Bramson who “owned that she thought S. & S. and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M.P. better, & having finished the 1st vol., flattered herself she had got through the worst.” For Emma, Austen saved letters from a neighbor who found it “too natural to be interesting;” from a Mrs. Dickson who “liked it the less for there being a Mr. & Mrs. Dixon in it;” and the comment from an acquaintance who “did not like it so well as the others, in fact if she had not known the author could hardly have gotten through it.” There’s even a letter from someone who says he “Read only the first and last chapters because he had heard it was not interesting.”
Bringing up The Divine Miss A. will inevitably lead some people to ask: If it’s genuinely good writing, should it be biting anyone on the ass at all? Well, I think the answer is Yes. Even the rare case of good writing that also manages to be “charming” and “life-affirming,” as The Plain Dealer describes Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, has sunk its teeth into some readers’ posteriors. “Main character achieves all her good results from lying, hates dogs…” says one reviewer, giving it just one star. “BOR-ing” and “Disappointing, a bit condescending” are the headlines on a couple of two-star reviews. My guess is, if you’ve read all of Austen and never once had the sensation of her sharp little teeth nibbling at your rear end, you haven’t really read her work.
Most truly good writing is good precisely because it does jump up when you’re not expecting it and sinks its teeth into your derrière. If that’s not what you’re looking for, or if the author’s persona just isn’t your type, it can feel like a violation. Good writing tends to make the reader think. And sometimes we just don’t want to do that. We want to curl up with something comfortable, something that confirms all our dearly-held beliefs and doesn’t challenge our assumptions. That’s not wrong; I’ve felt that myself many times, and it’s led me to choose genre fiction. In fact, I imagine the books that receive uniformly good reviews are those competent, workmanlike genre novels that don’t take any risks.
But a book doesn’t have to be “literary” fiction to be well written, to be a thought-inducing, even challenging work of art. And it’s the writer who provokes a range of reactions who is more likely to be creating some ass-biting, taboo-breaking great stuff.
Which leads me, finally, to the reason for this essay: I have been invited to be a panelist (speaker) at an interdisciplinary academic conference on the romance novel to be held at Princeton University this coming April. The title of the two-day conference is “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” from an essay in bell hooks’s (she doesn’t use upper case) 1994 collection, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations , and the panel I’m on is called “The Sweetest Taboos.”
I’ve held onto this fabulous piece of news for months now, not wanting to be the first one to boast. I’d like to put a link in here to the full schedule, but there isn’t one yet… But since I haven’t posted for months, I decided to break the silence, let my readers know I’m still alive—and besides, it makes a cheerful Christmas message.
All I can say now is that I am extremely honored to be chosen. I’m certainly the low (wo)man on this totem pole. Along with ms. hooks herself, the participants include nonfiction writers like Stephanie Coontz, who wrote the fabulous Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, and Pamela Regis, who wrote the definitive history of the romance novel, as well as a number of well-known romance novelists like Jennifer Crusie and Mary Bly, aka Eloisa James. The other author on my “Taboos” panel is Joey Hill, author of some bestselling BDSM romances like Natural Law. (I've put links to the books or authors mentioned at the top of this column.)
And it’s made me wonder what, exactly, is so taboo about my work? The ménage? The “bisexual” hero? Or something else? Well, that will be revealed at the conference. I’m still editing my second book, another project I’m not at liberty to talk about, and I haven’t yet had a chance to work on the paper I will present. But it’s clear that at least one of the reasons I was chosen is that Phyllida tends to bite readers on the ass. Many readers are into that, and it’s all good. A few have complained that my heroine is not a proper Regency miss, their outraged tones implying they felt a little…compromised by the experience. I suspect, despite her preference for gothic fiction, Phyllida may be a good writer, like me.