Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On Comfort, Challenge, and "Importance"

J has posted a variety of thought-provoking comments on Jennifer Crusie, and more generally on the enterprise of treating romance fiction from an academic perspective. I've replied to some of these already (the exchange is over here); the most recent ones, though, deserve to be addressed "above the fold," I think. I'm not sure I can do them justice under current circumstances (I'm blogging in the basement, with my daughter foraging for entertainment not three feet away), but let me throw out a couple of ideas.

J began by quirking an eyebrow at what seems to her (to him? I don't want to presume) to be a recycling of formulaic elements in Crusie's novels, devices that have been around so long they have grown, in J's word, "trite":
I am not criticizing her use of pets and children. Of course the pets are cute and need rescuing, and naturally the children are loveable and need rescuing. That's what the heroine is for -- to rescue the weak and helpless. And then to be rescued herself by the hero with his sweet kiss.

The other day I was reading an Amazon review of one of her books, and found the comment "First off, where were the dogs?!" Okay, it's every reader's right to expect love and romance from Crusie, but must our author also deliver canine companionship, as well?
The first thing that strikes me about these comments is their witty, debunking tone: the tone of a reader who is not, by gum, about to let an author pull a fast one on her. I actually rather like that tone, since it reminds me of Min in Bet Me, but as a professor, it also puts me on my guard. Whenever my students strike it--heck, whenever I strike it myself in my own reviewing--I'm generally about to say something funny, but reductive: something that breaks whatever spell a book has tried to cast over me. I'm not a sucker, it says. And, indeed, a moment later, J offers this observation:
I suppose if I had to write a paper on Crusie, it would be on the topic of women's tendency to seek comfort in familiarity. Time and time again I read women's comments that they read a certain author because "they know what to expect." It's the key to Nora Roberts' empire, I think.
Now, maybe it's just because I've been properly humbled one or two times in my day, but I'm awfully wary of generalizations about "women's tendency" to do anything. Are women more likely to seek comfort in familiarity than men? Two days ago I was at a Cubs game with my son: we ate familiar ballpark food, wore familiar sports fan clothing, watched an utterly familiar, indeed utterly rule-bound activity for, what, 3 1/2 hours or so, and drove home listening to extra innings of yet another baseball game. Was there anything unpredictable in what transpired? Well, the Cubbies won, which is certainly an unfamiliar experience this season. But that's a little condiment of unfamiliarity spicing up an utterly comforting-because-familiar, even ritualized activity.

Suppose, then, we change J's comment to read: "If I had to write a paper on Crusie, I'd write it on the topic of the human tendency to seek comfort in familiarity." Fair enough, say I--but to get anything more than a C on that paper, you'd have to address not only the familiar elements in Crusie's books (say, the motifs she comes back to over and over again, like the animal friends and pop culture references), but also the way these novels address familiarity thematically, and also how Crusie attacks the aesthetic problem of over-familiarity, too. What does she do to vary her material, if only just enough to avoid boredom? In which novels is she more successful at this, and in which is she less effective as an artist? Does she ever address the question of familiarity directly in narrative or dialogue, or otherwise show some literary self-consciousness about the issue? (She was, after all, an academic before she became a novelist, and her dissertation was on narrative structures in men's and women's fiction. Surely she's as aware of this issue as any of us are.)

Now we're not asking snarky questions, but serious ones: in fact, the same serious ones we can ask about Petrarch, or about the Jewish poets of the Golden Age in Spain, or about qasida writers in Islamic world, of haiku poets in Japan, or about virtually any other literary artist working within a highly conventionalized framework. (Such conventionalized frameworks are, I would hazard, the norm in literary culture, except in isolated periods that value individualism and originality. Those are the exceptions, not the rule.) We may call romance fiction "romantic," but it's a classical art, and needs to be read as such.

Bet Me, I would argue, is a profoundly self-conscious book: probably Jenny's most visibly structured, visibly "designed" novel, and one in which the appeal of the conventional, the familiar, and the predictably appealing is addressed in many ways. J could write about how the superfluity of fairy tale material in the novel--allusions, both subtle and obvious, discussions of fairy tales between characters, and so on--makes the text both familiar and playfully self-conscious about that appeal to narrative and explicatory comfort. (It's a literary game as old as Alexandria, but here it's one that many readers, not just the cultured elite, can play.)

Min's resistance to the fairy tales, and her need to give in and articulate her own HEA, would then seem to match the reader's need to give up his or her cynicism in order to savor the text. (I think here of J's later comment that "I don't believe in fairy tales. They have much to teach us, like don't eat houses made of candy and don't expect your birth parent to keep your wicked step-parent from tormenting you. But if you lie around waiting for your prince to come and rescue you, you'll end up sleeping for 100 years.") It is also congruent with her resistance to fats and sweets, which suggests that fairy tales are the literary equivalent of those culinary pleasures, all of which we are suckers for, simply due to biology. We slim ourselves down by refusing them, the novel suggests, but at what cost? Is that cost worse than throwing up if we eat too much of them, as Harry does? Certainly we can't cook [create] our own chicken marsala [HEA] while leaving out essential ingredients, although we may want to, since those ingredients are the ones that some Nanette voice inside us insists we refuse. (It took me longer than I'd care to admit before I caught that joke about "No, No, Nanette.")

J finished that particular post with this challenge:
That stated, I reiterate that I enjoy the books; I enjoy the cute little pets that never seem to make nasty puddles on the heroine's carpet or chew her favorite shoes; I enjoy the children who are never hideous, spoiled brats. The writing is funny. But is it more than an entertaining and comforting formula? Is it "important"? Does it challenge us in any way?
I don't have time to address each part of this at length. For now, suffice it to say that I do not admit that "importance" is equivalent to "challenge," nor do I buy the notion that entertainment and comfort are unimportant, unworthy of intellectual inquiry. These seem to me the cliches of modernism, beloved of English teachers everywhere who want to show their students that the texts they enjoy are not as worthy of attention as the ones they are now being forced to read and write about for credit. In many moods, I think that NO literature, no art at all, is "important" in the way this question assumes. Rather, there are works that let us flatter ourselves that we are doing something important when we read them, like thinking about, I don't know, war and famine and political corruption, as opposed to the pleasures of food and sex. Less cynically, let me just suggest that Crusie herself addresses this question in Bet Me, embodying it in the pair of restaurants her characters visit.

Other kinds of art may get more credit, more acclaim, than romance fiction, Bet Me suggests, because they "challenge" us. In the end, though, they are the Serafino's of literature--places where an author "makes a statement," but does not please. We may convince ourselves that food that tastes bad must be "important," especially if the restaurant critics all concur. But do we really want to, in the end? Emilio's may boast innumerable cliches both of menu and decor, like romance fiction itself, but it also satisfies: not least, it satisfies our most embarassing, because most conventional, cravings.

That's not a full-blown essay, J--just an hour on a Tuesday morning. Give me time and coffee and I can do the job better, but this will give you some idea of how I think about this novel, and about the very good questions you raise!

24 comments:

  1. Well, it may not be a 'full-blown essay' but I really liked what you said about literature often being judged 'important' or 'unimportant' on the basis of the types of topics it explores. Although, really, why is thinking about famine more worthy than thinking about food, or why is political corruption a more serious topic than the pleasures of sex? I paired those deliberately, as the 'light' topic is really often just a different aspect or approach to the 'serious' subject.

    And can you explain the 'joke about "No, No, Nanette"', because I don't even remember, never mind understand it? What was it about?

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  2. Hi, Laura! Min's mother is named Nanette, and she's the one who wants Min to say "no" to carbs, etc. There was a famous Broadway musical in the 1920s called "No, No, Nanette," which has been revived a few times and released as a movie, too. There's a little introduction to it here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No,_No,_Nanette); I note that it featured a song called "I Want to be Happy," which sounds appropriate to "Bet Me" as well!

    Re: politics and the pleasures of sex, I always think of Donne's line "Princes do but play us" in that context.

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  3. I had a discussion with my "Intro to Lit" students about the historical and literary "importance" of two films by the same man: Stephen Spielberg's "Jaws" and "Schindler's List" in the context of (Capital letter) Great Literature vs. (little l) literature. I asked them which is the more culturally "important" and predictably got SL. I asked them about which is the more "artistic" film and got SL. I asked them which would be considered the most important in how it changed and affected the movie industry and got "Jaws," which just blew their mind, making them reconsider what all the terms meant that we were using to analyze these films. So which is the more "important" text and what exactly does "important" mean?!

    Do I read SEP because I KNOW it's going to provide me with humor, a great ensemble cast, and more than one romance? You betcha, which is why "Breathing Room" and "This Heart of Mine" disappointed me so much. Do I read Suzanne Brockmann's romances for the great sex, great dialogue, really hot military guys, and strong female characters? You betcha. Do I read Laura Kinsale for incredible historical fiction that will blow my mind and educate me about something new AND provide brooding, emotional men? Oh yes. Do I read J.R. Ward for hot, tortured, asshole alpha males? As often as she'll publish. Do I read *Jane Austen* for "familiar, comfortable" things? Absolutely. Does that make any of them less "Literary" whatever that means, or less "Great Literature" or less worthy of analysis? I personally don't think so.

    Dickens is nothing if not formulaic. Shakespeare "plagiarized" like nobody's business. The Brontes are nothing if not melodramatic. But it's what they choose to do with the specifics of that, it's the layers under that that make it like an archaeological dig to excavate it and discover its secrets, that make something worth analyzing. And romance has that, in all its forms.

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  4. What interests me about Crusie is not so much the places she's consciously playing with the Romance form, but rather the places where there seems to be real tension between her self-conscious manipulations of the narrative and the intrusion of certain formulaic elements that I don't think she's in complete control of. For example, her heroines are often "soft" and "round" and their sexiness is tied to these physical markers of maternal comfort, often for heroes who have cold or absent mothers. THAT interests me on a critical level, because to me, anyway, Crusie's books are always in a state of rebellion against themselves, an ambivalence about the very things they offer and attempt to secure (love, comfort, happiness, etc.).

    RE SEP: Sarah, how do you feel about SEP's habit of tying her heroine's sexual egagement with the hero to her sense of self-worth? In It Had to Be You, there is a moment where Phoebe is in bed with Dan, and the text (I can't remember whether she's thinking this or it's being narrated) directly offers that she's "reclaiming her womanhood" in that act of sexual joining (yeah, I get that she's on top and everything, but that wasn't enough for me). There are many examples of this that I've found across her books, and they always have a very negative effect on my enjoyment of the book. Connected to that is the whole domestication fantasy, which is certainly at the heart of so much Romance it would be stupid to try to prune it out. But in Breathing Room, for example, SEP ties that fantasy to the sexual well-being of the heroine, doubling my discomfort with that particular book. SEP is problematic for me, because while certain elements of her books feel empowering (to use a Crusie term), others feel borderline reactionary, and so I never know whether I'm going to love one of her books (i.e. Dream a Little Dream) or hate one (the one with Jane and Cal, which I hated so much I've mentally blocked the title).

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  5. Hi, Robin! I'm fascinated by your observation about Crusie's books being "always in a state of rebellion against themselves." Any chance of an essay on that for the collection?

    E

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  6. her heroines are often "soft" and "round" and their sexiness is tied to these physical markers of maternal comfort, often for heroes who have cold or absent mothers.

    Does Crusie explicitly mention the roundness and softness in the context of maternal comfort? While I can see how something round and soft might be nice to hug, caress etc, the words themselves aren't ones which I'd automatically associate with mothers. There seem to me to be many non-maternal things/people which/who are soft and round, for example, many cats, dogs and soft toys. It could be that she's trying to redress the current fashion for very slim women by extolling the pleasures of the more padded figure. But if she does explicitly associate motherhood with softness and roundness, that would be very interesting, especially given what you say about the heroes (and I think quite a few of the heroines have absent/problematic mothers themselves).


    Crusie's books are always in a state of rebellion against themselves, an ambivalence about the very things they offer and attempt to secure (love, comfort, happiness, etc.)

    I think you're right. They don't have entirely neat endings and I thought of them when I read the Northrop Frye quotation about

    We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back (52, from Eric's post on Northrop Frye, in June)

    Crusie's novels seem at first glance to be much more real than many romances (they're contemporary, set in real places, with people doing fairly ordinary jobs) but then, it seems to me, there's a sense of ironic comedy which pushes them back towards the myths, so that they're somewhere between myth and verismilitude, and question both.

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  7. I'm fascinated by your observation about Crusie's books being "always in a state of rebellion against themselves." Any chance of an essay on that for the collection?

    Hi E! Oh, man, that just sounds like so much work, and already my summer is disappearing into work and an independent study I'm trying to finish up for one of my law school classes before regular school starts up again next month. Oh, and I'm trying to write an article on a completely unrelated topic, as well. Was that an answer? Now I've confused myself!

    Does Crusie explicitly mention the roundness and softness in the context of maternal comfort?

    She doesn't have the hero come right out and say, "gee, I think those breasts would offer me the comfort my momma never did," but I do think the link is pretty overt. The two examples that come immediately to mind are Cal from Bet Me and Alex from Anyone But You. In both books, the hero has either a cold or an absent mother, and in both books, he comments specifically and repeatedly about the round softness of the heroine, with some requisite sinking images, as well. While I understand completely that Crusie is consciously eroticizing the fleshy female body (THANK YOU for that!), I also think she is -- perhaps unconsciously -- offering the heroine as comfort for the hero in the absence of his unavailable mother. Although I don't remember Phin from WTT referring to Sophie as round and soft all the time, how could any of us miss the fact that she's everyone's surrogate mother and a distinct contrast to Liz Tucker? Actually, I think it would be interesting to look at all the mothers in Crusie - because there be lots of trouble for the heroes AND heroines in those relationships.

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  8. You wouldn't have to write the essay now, Robin--just an abstract, to help us land a publisher! No actual essay would need to be written for ages now, if my own experience (as both editor and writer) is any indication. It sounds like you could write two or three--how about if you just choose the one that sounds best, play with the ideas for a while, and let us take it from there?

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  9. You wouldn't have to write the essay now, Robin--just an abstract, to help us land a publisher!

    How about I'll think about it -- by when would I have to write an abstract?

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  10. Mid-September, Robin. Lots of time. And you've practically written one already about the mother issue (grin)! Feel free to email me directly if you want to negotiate terms & timing, by the way--my wife's an attorney, and I remember law school all too well.

    Best,
    E

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  11. The end of September for the abstract. The full call for papers is on my website : http://www.vivanco.me.uk/modern_romance_scholarship/nothing_but

    Mothers/motherhood in Crusie sounds like a really interesting topic. [That's a not at all subtle hint/attempt at encouragement from me. I'll follow it up with a few subliminal whispers of 'go on, you know you want to']

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  12. Robin--I find that SEP's "formula" is the woman has to realize that she's a great person, a perfect person, without the hero. This is most strong in "Heaven, Texas," when Grace realizes that as Bobby Tom is raging at her after his proposal. Then the hero has to realize that he's NOT a perfect person without HER and beg to get her back. That occasionally bothers me, especially in BR, and I don't think she succeeds with it in "This Heart of Mine."

    I identify too much with Phoebe's body-image problems and how she deals with them (become sexier without really meaning it) to think that her reclaiming of her sexuality with a man is a bad thing, because that's exactly what I did myself (still with him, 16 years later). So I can't really answer that question with any kind of objectivity. I can see how it would be a problem for other women, though. :)

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  13. Well, I am certainly glad to have sparked such an interesting discussion, at any rate! I appreciate having my comments taken this seriously, as I am not accustomed to any serious discussion about romantic fiction. I was a literature and history major in college, and the things I knew about history I couldn't dare tell my professors I'd learned from reading romance novels! So I'd have really enjoyed taking some of the courses you speak of.

    Suppose, then, we change J's comment to read: "If I had to write a paper on Crusie, I'd write it on the topic of the human tendency to seek comfort in familiarity."

    I really considered writing something like this, since the metaphor of men and baseball and other sports occurred to me too, but I did not because I have heard women remark so often that they read a particular author because "they know what to expect" and will find comfort in that, even if the writer is formulaic, mediocre, and rehashing the same plot. Unfortunately, that is a reputation that romance novels have for people who don't read them, and I want romance novels to do more than comfort us with platitudes that love conquers all. I really want them to strive to be great, to be great stories, whether the covers are dumb or not.

    Whenever someone makes fun of me for reading romances, I say, "But almost every great story is a love story." (Okay, maybe "Jaws" isn't, but to recount the ones that are, I'd need a bigger boat.) So when I ask if Crusie challenges us, I don't mean why isn't she writing "Atlas Shrugged." And I have to be fair, you raise many good arguments for looking at "Bet Me" more critically than I have done before. You say fairy tales are the literary equivalent of fatty foods and sweets, but I have always compared food to love and sex. It seems the more you indulge in the first, the less you get of the others. The more you need love or sex, the more dangerous it seems food is. I appreciate Crusie for bringing these issues to her novels and for giving food such an important place in her characters' lives. And, at least in "Bet Me," the male protagonist joins the heroine in eating, though you know he will never gain a pound from it.

    I appreciate also that her heroines are not always classically beautiful and are sometimes difficult. But then I start to wonder why they all have curly dark hair. The "challenge" is, I suppose, not to be more "literary" but to keep us guessing. To not fall into a pattern such as we think we are reading the same book over and over again. Are the dogs and kids being used to some purpose in the books, or are they just trotted out to say, "Aw, that's cute! Okay, Heroine A is a good person with a lot of love to give if only some handsome man will only notice." That's all I'm asking.

    Okay, I, also a Jennifer, and who used to write a blog on eating until I went on a diet, am starting to ramble, so I just want to assure everyone I don't think Morrison's "Beloved" is necessarily better or more important than "Bet Me." :)

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  14. Nothing to add except that you all ROCK! What a wonderful discussion you've all been having. I can see that I'm going to have to read a lot more Cruise (loved BET ME, but haven't had time to round up the back list). Some time ago I stumbled across a quote by an anonymous romance reader (I think it was in RT): “Hockey isn't that different from romance fiction: you know what's going to happen; the appeal is in how.” I loved it so much I put it on my website!

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  15. I hate to knit-pick, J, but I feel like I have to object to your gender stereotypes here: "I really considered writing something like this, since the metaphor of men and baseball and other sports occurred to me too, but I did not because I have heard women remark so often that they read a particular author because "they know what to expect" and will find comfort in that, even if the writer is formulaic, mediocre, and rehashing the same plot. "

    I'm sure I'm beating a dead horse to a certain extent, but I have to protest on behalf of all the women who love baseball and other sports. Not all romance readers are women and not all sportsfans are men - there may be a statistical majority, but not enough to make sweeping generalizations. I think the idea of enjoying something because there are strict rules that you know it will follow is interesting, and, as Eric pointed out, you never know what might happen. Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) the Cubs win a game and a romance novel will surprise you.

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  16. I find that SEP's "formula" is the woman has to realize that she's a great person, a perfect person, without the hero. This is most strong in "Heaven, Texas," when Grace realizes that as Bobby Tom is raging at her after his proposal. Then the hero has to realize that he's NOT a perfect person without HER and beg to get her back. That occasionally bothers me, especially in BR, and I don't think she succeeds with it in "This Heart of Mine."

    Ooh, interesting insight; I need to think about it some. I was so frustrated in BR by so many things (I HATE the uptight career heroine who needs to be sexually 'loosened up' by the hero), that it was hard to pick what irritated me the most. Basically I feel that SEP has some liberated moments for her heroines, but ultimately falls back on a really conventional and socially conservative ending for them, if that makes any sense.

    I identify too much with Phoebe's body-image problems and how she deals with them (become sexier without really meaning it) to think that her reclaiming of her sexuality with a man is a bad thing, because that's exactly what I did myself (still with him, 16 years later). So I can't really answer that question with any kind of objectivity. I can see how it would be a problem for other women, though. :)

    I think the reason it's a problem for me is because I don't think SEP is simply referring to Phoebe's sexuality; I think she's referring to everything that makes her a woman, and THAT bothers me. Under the right circumstances I enjoy a "sexual healing" theme in my Romance (i.e. in Crusie's Fast Women and SEP's Dream a Little Dream and Lisa Cach's Dream of Me and Laura Kinsale's Shadow and the Star). But sometimes I feel that SEP concentrates the heroine's broader sense of self worth in the hero's sexual attraction to her (and I don't think this is really unusual in Romance, so it's not just SEP).

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  17. I've been reading Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart this morning, and she says she was writing it at the same time as Crusie was writing Faking It and that Crusie was sharing her research on cons with Ivory. Both books deal with cons, and the con artists are both muffins, though in the Ivory book, it's a female con artist. Anyway, the reason I'm mentioning it is that the heroine of the Ivory book is plump and soft, just like the Crusie heroines we were discussing:

    "She was round everywhere, he realized, soft-looking, yet very pretty. Pudgy-pretty. Like a little muffin, indeed. Not fat. Padded. She had just enough extra flesh to eliminate angles, to be all curves. Even in a few places where one might expect an angle on a female - her jaw, the knuckles of her round, little hands, her elbows - she had none." (page 72)

    Just thought I'd throw that into the discussion, in case it's relevant. There's definately a connection between Crusie and Ivory, but I'm not sure if they have similar reasons for creating plump heroines. What do you think?

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  18. Robin--if you want to talk about romance authors who make me uncomfortable with their almost "hidden" conservativeness, I can talk for a long time about LaVryle Spenser. I love most of her stories ("Spring Fancy" is one of my all-time favorite romances), but her underlying conservativeness that I find in everyone of her stories really really bugs me sometimes.

    Re: SEP. I guess I see her heroines as finally enjoying sex rather than revelling in being attractive to this one man. So, it's more internal validation than external. For me. I'll be interested to read "This Heart" and "Breathing Room," both of which I've only read once because I did not like them, with these thoughts in mind and see if they affect my understanding of why I didn't like them. Have you read her "Glitter Baby"? Her first contemporary, back in the 80s. It's being reissued--and it was just incredible! But then, I always tend to focus more on the hero, and the hero in GB is just amazing.

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  19. There's definately a connection between Crusie and Ivory, but I'm not sure if they have similar reasons for creating plump heroines. What do you think?

    I think the connection might be more personal than artistic.

    I think Ivory and Crusie are writing very different types of soft heroines. UMH is one of my very favorite Ivory books, and I think she does a more coherent job of drawing the fleshy woman as a purely erotic figure than Crusie does. Even, as I did yesterday, if you look at the mama issue in both books, Staurt's relationship with his mother was much different. She was ugly, she was (like Stuart) a victim of her husband's cruelty, she was someone who learned to hide herself among the living, and, as reflected in the earrings Stuart remembers, she could appreciate beauty for its own sake. I think Stuart identifies with her more than anything, and he wants to avenge her sad life at some level, too.

    What I think draws him to Emma is her transgressive nature, because he, too, is a rule breaker, and I love that he's not the one who magically gets Emma to realize that about herself. Heck, she's breaking the rules by stealing the $$ for her dead lamb. Her body is another way in which she's breaking the rules -- even when Stuart notices her running away, it's as if the laws of physics and gravity don't apply to her body.

    In general, I think Ivory is MUCH less conflicted about her characters and her vision (although I'm scared to see what she's done to Starlit Surrender, aka Angel in a Red Dress, given the totally Avonized cover and title). Where Davy and Tilda, for example, have to fumble towards sexual compatibility (and where Tilda has to get over her own sense of guilt to have good sex with Davy), Emma and Stuart are both surprised by the ease with which they both cross that boundary at the same time. UMH is, IMO, a book about negotiating consent in what I think is a really straight up way. Faking It, OTOH, is, to me, a book about negotiating EVERYTHING. Stuart and Emma recognize each other very quickly, IMO (not superficially, but as kindred spirits), whereas Davy and Tilda have to get past so much stuff (i.e. many, many forms of guilt, and most of it Tilda's) in order to find their rhythm. I actually think that Phin and Sophie in WTT are closer to Stuart and Emma than Davy and Tilda are.

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  20. if you want to talk about romance authors who make me uncomfortable with their almost "hidden" conservativeness, I can talk for a long time about LaVryle Spenser. I love most of her stories ("Spring Fancy" is one of my all-time favorite romances), but her underlying conservativeness that I find in everyone of her stories really really bugs me sometimes.

    The only Spencer I've read so far is Spring Fancy, and actually, I thought it was pretty innovative and subversive, what with the heroine being the cheater, and the way she's drawn as athletic and not all soft and weak, and the whole deal with her mother and her fiance. I have a bunch of her books TBR but haven't read them yet (although I started the one where the guy gets the girl pregnant after one drunken encounter and that one seems very interesting). What do you find conservative about her work?

    As for SEP, I haven't read GB, but I did read Fancy Pants, which I found much more interesting than a lot of her later ones.

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  21. "Hot Shot" is another of SEP's early books that I adore. I just reread FP and liked it more than I expected.

    Spenser...yes, I find SF very subversive as well, which is why I was so interested in her backlist. "Morning Glory" is another of my absolute favorite books as well. But some of her others squick me every now and then with the axioms of the world of the book. As in, X is "The Way It Is" in the world of the book, and the assumptions that back that make me uncomfortable. Can I remember any of them now? No, of course not. It's been a while since I reread any of her books, so I can't remember specifics. Sorry.

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  22. Lurker here...

    It's never so simple as all that-- women like the familiar. Yes, Jenny writes about the comfort of the familiar, but notice that she also writes about how dangerous it is. How often are women in her books shown to be "stuck", sometimes literally? The comfort of the familiar is exactly what makes it so seductive and so destructive sometimes.

    Too often, I think, authors aren't given credit for presenting an issue and undercutting the conventional approach-- even while seeming to highlight that conventional approach. Romance readers usually know that it's in the subtext that the excitement lies-- that love, for example, really messes up the familiar, but that's part of the allure.

    The whole point of popular fiction is to entertain, of course, but also to explore the world we know and find its depths and contradictions and secrets. That's why most popular novels (of any genre) tend to start with the familiar. It's not pandering to readers' need for comfort or whatever; rather it's a recognition that the familiar is worth examining and exploring, and that the changes are even more interesting when juxtaposed against the previous status.

    Anyway, I think Jenny Crusie probably uses familiar elements to provide that background "soundtrack", but I'd say her books are usually about change, about getting out of the rut.

    Also it seems that comic novels by the same author often do "re-cycle" elements (we can start with Shakespeare here :) because then they accumulate for a cumulative effect, such as Wodehouse's use of initials and abbreviations, which become funnier and funnier the more you read his work. Comedy is so much based on the familiar, on establishing a common understanding, and then subverting it. So from book to book, from standup routine to standup routine, elements will be repeated. Carl Hiassen uses the Florida setting over and over. Dave Barry has catchphrases ("I did not make this up!"). Author voice is going to be much more consistent in a series of comic novels than in a series of dramas, because so much of comedy is in voice-- in timing, word choice, worldview.

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  23. Comedy is so much based on the familiar, on establishing a common understanding, and then subverting it. So from book to book, from standup routine to standup routine, elements will be repeated.

    Yes, I think you're right about this. I hadn't thought of it before. I can see how it would build a similar rapport to in-jokes, like the cherries. I have a feeling that Welcome to Temptation was the first book of Crusie's to feature a Cherry (which I think was at least in part how Crusie's Yahoogroup members ended up being known as 'cherries'), and after that I have a feeling that cherries turned up again (doesn't Min have shoes with cherries on in Bet Me?).

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  24. I remember a professor referring to some radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and how there was in almost every episode a scene where Fibber (the husband) goes to a particular closet and opens it and it's completely full of stuff, which inevitably falls out on him when the door opens. (This sounds JUST like my cupboard, the one with all the old coolwhip containers. I bet we all have cupboards like that!)

    The professor (who was old enough to remember radio :) said that the script always made a big deal of Fibber deciding to go to this closet: "Oh! I think that old tennis racket is in the closet! I better go get it!" and then taking plenty of time to get to the closet. This got the audience primed for the "punchline", the sound of the door opening and poor Fibber once again being pelted by objects. It was the very familiarity of the sequence that was funny. The professor said he and his family were always helpless with laughter by the time the door opened.

    Familiar is funny. By making something familiar to the audience (the closet, the cherries), the author is inviting the readers to be "in" on the joke. It's a reward for the loyal reader because they'll get the joke when the new reader might not.

    So yes, I agree-- the cherries might not have started out as a comic element, but become so through repetition.

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