Monday, July 17, 2006

Writers Who Bare All

Not literally! But I was thinking about what's involved when authors write about themselves, their books and their genre. There are so many authors who have blogs and websites, and on many of these one can read the writer's thoughts about the romance genre. Similar essays can be found in Mussell and Tuñón's 1999 North American Romance Writers and in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992).

It's an issue which is discussed by writers and readers alike, with some readers declaring that they've been put off buying books by certain authors because they don’t like their personalities.

As someone interested in studying romances from an academic perspective, I find all this extra information fascinating, and sometimes extremely useful. The essay collections in particular offer an important insight into how writers were thinking about the genre at a particular moment in romance history. Many author websites also include articles offering writing advice, some of it about writing craft and some of it about the business side of being an author (e.g. about how to write a query letter). These essays can give readers an insight into the business and into an individual author's technique. Blogs can help build up a picture of events which may have shaped the author and her writing and of the author's personality. It's not that we need or want to psychoanalyse the author but rather that blogs and essays can sometimes give us a few clues about whether we’re going in the right direction in our analysis of the novels. One of the points brought up in the recent discussion about academic analysis of romances both at Romancing the Blog and continued here is that we might ‘OVERanalyze, looking for deep meanings that may not be there’ or that ‘maybe people do tend to over-analyze and see hidden meanings that really aren’t there for the sake of academics’.

Knowing a bit more about the author can help keep us on track. It’s not essential, of course, and there are plenty of authors from the past about whom we know extremely little and whose works have been studied in huge detail. It could be argued that knowing next to nothing (or even nothing) about the author just adds to the mystique of the work and opens up more possible interpretations. That’s particularly helpful if one’s interpretation is more focussed on the reader’s responses, and on the reader’s interpretations. But a bit of background knowledge about the author really does come in handy if

(a) one doesn’t want to look like an idiot. Getting details wrong about an author, details that any real fan knows, is not going to make an academic look either knowledgeable or serious about their subject.

(b) one perhaps wants to find out a bit more about their background. No-one writes or lives in a vacuum and it may well make a difference whether a writer is from Australia, or New Zealand, Canada or the US, England or Scotland. There's already a book just about Australian romance, for example.

(c) One might be interested to know which romance authors are really men writing under a female pseudonym (particularly if one were writing about male authors and male readers of romance). It could come as a big shock to discover that an author was actually two authors if one had been speculating about ‘her’ background, but it might also help explain certain differences in style or characterisation or plotting that might otherwise have been put down to uneavenness in a single author’s writing.

(d) Titles, like covers, are something that romance authors often lack control over, and academics need to be aware of that. For example, I happen to think that Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting has a really appropriate title. But it turns out that it wasn’t Crusie who thought it up. So while the title may tell us a lot about the book, we have to be careful about drawing assumptions on the basis of the title alone.

And there are lots of other minor details about books and authors that could be helpful to know. Anyone want to add to the list? Or do you think the less we know about the author the better? And maybe there are some authors with items to add to the Romance Wiki list of resources?


  1. I have been of the opinion that, for the most part, art is incidental to the artist. Of course, if I knew that a particular romance was written by Saddam Hussein, that might indeed color my perception of the novel.

    Otherwise, I really don't care. In fact, I'd just as soon not see a photo of the author on the back flap. If I knew the author of the romance I was reading was actually a man, I might read into it things that I wouldn't ordinarily, and I don't want to do that.

    I find I don't want to hear the things about Laurell K. Hamilton's private life that so many people have been talking about. It seems like celebrity gossip. Her books may have suffered, but I think they should be judged on their own merit.

    On the other hand, I did find it interesting to learn, after wondering for years what had happened to Pamela Kauffman, that her husband and son had died in the years since she published "Shield of Three Lions" and "Banners of Gold." I'm glad she has now finished the trilogy.

    So, no, I don't think it matters who the author is, but the help they can give to other aspiring writers is admirable, so by all means, blog on.

  2. I'm assuming you do know that Saddam Hussein has actually written some romantic fiction (not a romance, since it didn't have a happy ending), but for those who didn't:

    Of Saddam's four novels - Zabibah and the King, The Fortified Castle, Men and the City and Be Gone, Demons! - the first remains the best known and best-selling. Published in 2000, it is a torrid, romantic tale with an obvious political analogy. Zabibah, the heroine, represents Iraq; her cruel husband is America; and the strong but vengeful king is Saddam. "Once upon a time," the fairytale-like story opens, "there was a great and powerful king ... His influence was widespread ... He was surrounded by respect, peace, love, and trust as well as awe and fear ... This king was obeyed by his people, either willingly or by force."
    The Guardian

  3. Yes, and I wondered if Saddam was a fan of Georgette Heyer or Rosemary Rogers and if he was inspired by those ladies in his own work. From your description, there's definitely an alpha male hero who's more in the Rogers mold. "Sweet Savage Love," indeed.