Friday, March 7, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ideological

Earlier in my professional career, I spent a year working as a freelance children's book reviewer for several national book review journals. Writing reviews of 60 or fewer words (which I did for The Horn Book Guide), or longer 150-250-word reviews (for Publishers Weekly) barely gave me enough space to limn a book's plot and write a sentence or two about its literary merit. Analyzing, or even mentioning, the ideology/ies underlying a particular novel or work of nonfiction was completely beyond the scope of such traditional-length reviews. Not that many review journals would have appreciated a reviewer who spent time pointing out a book's gender, racial, sexual, or any other politics. Most journals like to pretend that what constitutes good literature is completely separate from issues of "isms," and that bringing up political concerns will only muddy the literary critical waters. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was to have the chance to review books while discussing not only their literary merits, but also the implicit and explicit expectations about the world, about life, and in particular, about masculinity, femininity, and love that each book contains.

But because I was trained both as an editor and as an academic scholar, I always bring along my own expectations about what good writing is, and what it isn't, to any book I read. Correct grammar, round rather than flat characters, showing rather than telling—these and many other rules I've learned and internalized over the course of almost 50 years of reading shape my reaction to every text I encounter.

I've read many a book that I consider well-written, even beautifully written, but which espouses ideologies I cannot stand. But what happens in the opposite situation? When I read a book which I would consider feminist, but which I find poorly written? How important is it to me as a reviewer to uphold certain standards of writing? How important is it to you as a reader of my reviews? How sure are we that those standards of writing themselves do not contain implicit assumptions, assumptions that may directly or indirectly lead me to exclude certain books from consideration? Can the line between good and bad writing be so easily drawn?

This issue proved particularly pressing for me this week as I read Pepper Pace's interracial romance Crash. On her Facebook page, Pace self-identifies as black, and notes that she is yet to be published. But she has self-published quite a few interracial (IR) romances, and was recommended to me by a commenter in response to a blog post earlier this year about wanting to read and feature more works by African-American writers.

As its heroine, Crash features a woman not unlike Pepper Pace herself, a forty-two-year-old woman of African descent who writes IR romances. Spotting a young runaway out her back window one night, at first Sophie chooses not to get involved. But when she sees that the person is still there hours later, Sophie's memory of her own mother vowing to protect her draws her outside. Sitting on the curb is a young white teen, homeless, the victim of a beating. Sophie invites the boy, Lucas, inside, then takes him to the hospital when she realizes he's not only been beaten, but robbed and raped.

Sophie believes that Social Services will take care of Lucas, but when it turns out that the boy is not a boy at all, but a man of twenty-two, Sophie ends up bringing him back home, offering him a place to sleep in her basement, and a temporary job working as her assistant. Thus begins one of the most unconventional romances you'll ever find, a romance that crosses not only differences of race, but also of age. Pace's novel is vitally interested in how to draw the line between loving and taking advantage, issues of power that come up in both racial and age-related situations such as the one in which Lucas and Sophie find themselves. I found her story unusual and intriguing, and deeply appreciated reading about characters whose stories and voices are so rarely heard in mainstream fiction.

One of the many truisms I've learned
about what constitutes "good" writing
But Pace's story breaks so many of the rules of good writing that I take for granted that, despite my interest in her characters and her story, there were many times when I wondered if it was worth it to keep going. Hopping from Lucas's POV to Sophie's and back again within the same scene, without any warning, made it difficult to keep track of who was thinking and feeling what. Several consistent word misspellings ("Ma'ame" instead of "ma'am," for example) kept tripping me up, pulling me out of the story, as did the constant misuse of semicolons. Long paragraphs that summarized actions instead of showing through scenes kept putting me at a distance, instead of drawing me in to the narrative, the position I most enjoy being in when I read, especially when I read a romance. If I had to give the book a rating based only on the writing, I'd probably give it a 2 out of 5. And that would be generous.

On Goodreads, though, Pace's books consistently earn ratings of 4 stars and higher, so it's clear that not everyone shares my beliefs about what constitutes good writing. Or, perhaps, believes that writing matters to quite the same degree that storytelling and characters do (interestingly, though, on Pace's blog Writing Feedback, she announced that she had been re-editing several of her previously published books, with the help of outside editors, suggesting that she herself is aware that there is room for improvement on the level of her prose).

Does it matter to you? How willing would you be to read a romance that you felt was not well written, but which presented a character, or a storyline, from an underrepresented group? Would you be interested in reading reviews of such books? Why or why not?


  1. Unfortunately, I'm like you. I really, really want to read this, but I suspect the issues with the writing would drive me crazy. Even the couple of sentences on the cover sound awkward.

  2. If a book is not well written, I get out of it, I can't help it. No matter how interesting the story or the characters. We foreigners, have another complaint: translations. When something is badly translated I get very angry, because I feel cheated.
    And about your second question, yes, I'd be interested in reading reviews of such books. Those stories book would get my attention. And it would be very sad if I get angry afterwards because it's badly written.
    Could it be that language is more important to me than ideology? I don't know.

  3. It depends on how bad the writing is versus how compelling the story or the characters are. The worse the writing, the more compelling the story or characters have to be to offset it. Every post devoted to a book that is badly written is one less post that can be devoted to a book that isn't. But some books are worth highlighting despite their flaws.

    While notions of what is good and bad in writing can and have been used in ways that exclude and stifle certain voices and storylines, taking the position that it doesn't matter is tantamount to saying that we can't expect as much from writers of color and unconventional storylines as we do of other writers. That seems condescending and demeaning.

  4. Great post! I've read a few books over the years that kinda sucked, either because the writing was crummy or the message was "WTF?" (or both) because the story compelled me to find out what was going on (you know, stalkery doms and wishy washy virgins, stuff like that). This sounds like something I might read, too, for the same reasons. And I'd wish the whole time that I wasn't so attracted to train wrecks (and weekend marathons of Hoarders: Buried Alive).
    And then kick myself because I could be spending that time writing my own stuff, which might, hopefully, be better.
    I certainly do read things based on reviews...peer pressure and public opinion are both positive and negative, and I'm a "go with the flow" kind of girl. Sometimes I buy something BECAUSE of the questionable review, sometimes I avoid it...and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, and sometimes...
    Anyway, maybe I'll wait until this one's had some professional editing!

  5. I read fiction for pleasure, and I simply do not enjoy reading bad writing. Characters and story are of course crucial, but they cannot trump bad writing, for me. Knowing that the book presented a character from an under-represented group may well make me more likely to purchase it but it won't make me forgive or ignore bad writing. And I don't think it should; that's akin to positive discrimination which I've always found difficult. So thank you for an honest review which did what I think a review should do: assess a book on its merits *as a book*.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts on the importance of writing vs. the importance of ideology. Interesting range of opinions here...

  7. I have issues with the framing of the question in the final paragraph. There's an implicit suggestion that subpar writing is the only way to meet diverse characters. One must lower one's expectations for books working outside the white upper class line. This is obviously untrue.

    As well, the combination of "should I review books with subpar editing" with "I decided to try featuring non-white romance" is a common trap blogs run into. It's the burden of representing one's entire race transferred onto the genre.

    The false question of "should I read books I feel are substandard because they have POC characters?" Is one that deserves unpacking and examining. While I haven't read this author we do have one of her books in the review line and I am curious to see how the reading experiences match up.

    1. Meoskop:

      Thanks for chiming in here. I'm trying to think about this issue in a way that doesn't fall into the trap of "subpar writing is the only way to meet diverse characters. One must lower one's expectations for books working outside the white upper class line." Can I think about the ways in which books written from outside the white upper class line are likely to be different, are likely to challenge expectations, in ways that I as a white upper class reader have been taught to think are "lesser," but may be less about hierarchical standards and more about difference? What standards have I internalized are worth keeping, no matter what the subject matter, and which ones should I call into question? Is there any way to ask these questions without coming off sounding like I'm dissing books by POC? Not my intent, but I know that intent isn't everything -- impact matters just as much.

      Which Pepper Pace book are you/your group planning to read? I'd love to hear your take on it.

  8. I think it's interesting that instead of focusing on the experience of reading (your first, right?) POC romance, you focus on the writing/editing quality issue here. I'd suggest picking up a book that you know is well edited so that you can have one experience without the other. Not that books by authors of color or featuring characters of color are all the same experience, by any means!

    Farrah Rochon's RITA nominated I'll Catch You, almost anything by Beverley Jenkins, or a number of other traditionally published books might suit your writing style taste better. I recently enjoyed Nina Perez's Sharing Space, which is an interracial romance. I'm sure there were some other suggestions when you posted about this last year.

    1. Hi, Sonomalass.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion. No, Pace's book was not the first POC romance I've read, although I can see how it might sound like that from reading this blog post alone. I've discussed other POC romance (primarily written for Young Adults) on the blog before, and have been actively working to read POC romance written for adults since a reader challenged the lack of POC books on the blog a few months ago.

      I've been reading quite a few POC romances of late, and writing about them on Goodreads: Farah Rochon's A LITTLE BIT NAUGHTY; Beverly Jenkins' PRISONER OF LOVE; Shelly Laurenston's PACK CHALLENGE; Michelle Alert's A PROMISE WORTH MAKING; Camille Leon's HEAVEN; Eden Davis's DARE TO BE TEMPTED; Robin Covington's PLAYING THE PART; Brenda Jackson's A BROTHER'S HONOR, to name the most recent. Some struck me as feminist, but either underdeveloped or not well written; others hit the sweet spot writing-wise, but didn't seem all that feminist. If you've read any of them, would you argue differently?

      The challenge for me has been finding novels about POC that are well-written AND which are overtly or implicitly feminist. The latter can be difficult for ALL of romance, no matter the race of the characters or the race of the author, given how many anti-feminist tropes there are in the genre. That's why I was excited to read Pace, and Camille Leon -- they both seem quite invested in feminist ideas. But on the level of writing, their work doesn't match the expectations I've been taught to bring to bear on a text.

      Thus my question: can/should I expand the pool by looking at books that don't meet my "good writing" standards? To what extent are my "good writing" standards based on racist assumptions? These are the questions I'm challenging myself to think deeply about. Do you think there is a way to do so without making racist assumptions about POC writers in the process?

      Thanks for your recommendations. I'll be sure to pick up a copy of I'LL CATCH YOU and SHARING SPACES. And I'm looking forward to reading Beverly Jenkins's DESTINY'S EMBRACE, which I have on order.

      And thanks for your willingness to engage on the blog. I appreciate it.