Blog in Progress

The ahistorical historical: we’re all id reading now

It’s no secret to readers of this blog, and to readers who pay attention to my reviews at Dear Author, that I’ve had a hard time finding historical romance novels that provide me with a satisfying read these days. Although I’ve somewhat made my peace with historical inauthenticity, all kinds of things will jerk me out of a book, and for whatever reason they seem to be increasing in frequency. I’ve found a few books where the historical aspects work for me, as well as those where the romance is so good that I overlook the historical improbabilities. But a lot of the books that are most highly praised in my online romance circles don’t work for me. At all. These are “serious” books in the sense that the authors conduct background research and diligently work to create settings that are not “wallpaper.” And yet they fall flat when I’m reading them. It’s frustrating, because I want to read and enjoy books in the subgenre. Finally, though, I think I’ve pinpointed why I’ve been having so much trouble.

Last week Liz McC wrote a terrific post about what she’s been reading lately. The conversation in the comments ranged across a number of topics, but the longest discussion was about Rose Lerner’s latest (and long-awaited) release, Sweet Disorder. I had picked up this book with great eagerness when it came out, but after a couple of attempts I DNF’d it. I realized there was no way I was going to be able to lose myself in the story even though I wanted to, and I mentally filed it in the “it’s not you it’s me” category. But after reading Liz’s blog post it was evident to me that her thoughts on it mirrored some of mine, and our take on the book runs contrary to a lot of other readers’ experience, including readers with whom we share interests and sensibilities about historical romance.

The big reason I couldn’t keep going with the book was that setting and context are important to me in fiction, and I couldn’t buy the political setup. The book is set in a highly competitive constituency in the National Election of 1812. Although the electoral reforms of 1832 were still in the distance, there were always a few competitive races in the pre-reform era and it’s not a stretch to believe Lerner’s fictional borough of Lively St. Lemeston could have been one of them.

Lerner wrote about her research on women and politics over at History Hoydens, a group blog in which romance authors talk about the historical materials they find and the processes by which they integrate history into their fiction. In it she relates an anecdote that gave her the concept for Sweet Disorder: during the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Lady Susan Keck sent a couple to Oxford to be married so that the bridegroom could vote in the election as a proxy for his (new) wife, who held property rights over two votes. Like Lerner, I found this surprising and intriguing, and so I followed her citation to the fascinating work of Elaine Chalus and promptly fell down the rabbit hole to read about women and politics in 18thC England.

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Why #Ferguson broke out on Twitter, not Facebook

I’ve been following the protests in Ferguson closely since the shooting of Michael Brown was first reported. I have multiple stakes in this case, not the least of which is that I’ve lived and worked in St. Louis for quite a while. In fact, at this point I’ve lived longer in St. Louis than in any other place. No one is more surprised by that than I am, since I will never feel like anything but a non-native there. But I have a strong attachment to it now, and I realized how strong over this past week.

I’ve spent the summer writing about political violence, riots in particular, so what’s going on now hits home for me professionally as well as personally. When the protest began, it followed a pattern that I’ve seen and catalogued across dozens of such events, in the US, India, and elsewhere, in this century and past centuries. It was clear almost immediately that the “riot” elements were almost non-existent. There was a spontaneous collective response, and on the first night violence and looting by disparate groups of citizens comprised part of that response. But the overwhelming police action transformed the situation within 24 hours, from a popular event to a police-driven one. I can say with great confidence that the overreaction by the local and county police made a bad situation much, much worse. And they have reaped what they sowed. After ten days and counting, what we have now is a classic protest situation, a protest which could turn into something bigger and less politically controllable than the sporadic violence would ever have created.

I could write thousands of words on what is going on in Ferguson, and maybe at some point I will. But thanks to the news and response cycle of such events, we are now at the stage where people who actually understand what is happening are writing insightful commentaries. In this post I want to talk about something else, something that I think people are partially seeing but not entirely understanding, and that is the way the events are being reported and discussed online.

There is a very good article in the New York Times today by David Carr. He points out the way #Ferguson took off as a hashtag and the way mainstream media reporters and sites played catchup:

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Real marketing, fake slavery, and my last nerve

I don’t belong to many social media groups anymore, but I occasionally lurk on reader discussions on Amazon, Goodreads, and blogs to see what books people are talking about, to get a sense of how kerfuffles are being interpreted, and to just generally catch up on book-related news. Many groups, like the m/m Goodreads group, are members-only, but others, like some author groups at GR and the Amazon discussion boards, are open. Ordinarily I skim and then go on my way. And I don’t discuss what I read there (with one exception; a friend is on one board and we sometimes take book discussions from there and continue them one-on-one). I’m not violating any privacy rights by reading them, but I’m not part of the group so I don’t entirely feel I should be commenting on them.

Everyone once in a while, though, I see something so egregious that I can’t just sit on my hands. This time it’s about the discussion that arose around the Belongingverse website which was part of the Riptide Publishing website for a few weeks until it was taken down on Monday. A short discussion, which took place at a board that I have always considered to be a refuge for intelligent and level-headed conversation, completely misrepresented what people opposed to the site were arguing. It took a discussion that was about the marketing of slavefic and represented it as an attempt to pressure readers and writers of slavefic into not reading or writing it. These are two entirely separate issues and the people involved repeatedly emphasized that. No one that I saw advocated that such work be suppressed or removed.

Nevertheless, we were accused of conducting a “witch hunt” and a “vendetta” at DA and on Twitter. I rebutted the “witch hunt” comment with the following:

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The UnSmartphone Chronicles: Month One

I have returned to the land of reliable internet and phone coverage. It’s nice to be back, but I didn’t miss being online as much as I have in the past. I read, I wrote, and when coverage was available I took care of chores and surfed a bit.

I’ve now spent a full month with the Nokia 515. My T9 skills have improved to the point where I’m willing to reply to emails from it, although I’m no speed demon. I don’t miss the RSS feeds I abandoned, and catching up a couple of times a day (when I’m not working on the computer) is more than enough. I continue to read more traditional news stories. I find that I am growing increasingly ignorant of pop culture references: someone mentioned that Chris Pratt was getting a ton of press and I had no idea who he was. It turns out he’s been on a cult-hit TV series I don’t watch and is currently starring in a blockbuster movie I don’t plan to see. My Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is much lower than I thought it might be, which is a pleasant surprise for me.

It’s a surprise because I have historically been known for having an encyclopedic knowledge of meaningless trivia of the pop culture variety. I still have a lot of that knowledge, but it’s about as dated as an actual encyclopedia is now. Ask me about 70s and 80s TV shows and movies and I’m good. Ask me about plays from the 50s through the 90s and I’m good. Ask me about 60s through 90s music and I’m good. Sports? Good. But the 21stC? Spotty at best, and completely hopeless on current TV, film, and especially “celebrity” information. The only reason I know that there is a website called Oh No They Didn’t is because it shows up in my Twitter feed regularly. I had no idea TMZ had a TV show.

I have officially turned into my parents.

All this is a long way of saying that my love of the smartphone was fueled less by my need for its information and communication opportunities than by my love of electronics and my enjoyment of new and shiny things. With the Nokia I’m back to reading the newspaper (albeit online), only desultorily checking Twitter when I’m away from my computer, and reading books rather than websites and blogs. Oh, and writing.

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BFB Readalong and UnSmartphone updates


The Summer BFB is done! I finished Niccolò Rising a couple of days ago. Thank you, Ros, for coordinating this one; it takes away the misery of having bailed on I Promessi Sposi in the spring, and it makes me feel less awful when I look at the list of books that I had planned to read in 2014 (I have read none of them at this point, but hey, the year is still middle-aged). When I started I wasn’t sure if the book really was a BFB, but at 224,000 words, I think it qualifies comfortably.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. It was slow to get started, and Dunnett introduces a lot of characters and relationships without much background, so you have to just go with it. And not only is there no clear hero at the beginning, the male characters with whom we spend the most time seem quite immature and callow. There’s a possible heroine, but you don’t know who she’s supposed to be matched to. The most hero-like person (handsome, powerful, wealthy, talented) is a jerk from the get-go, which makes the whole thing even more confusing.

It’s not that I was expecting a romance, but the difference from the way The Game of Kings opens is striking. Lymond seizes the stage from the opening sentence. With this series, you don’t even know who Niccolò is until you’re well into the first book. Once you realize, however, things start to make sense and by the end of the book it’s very clear that Dunnett has created a character that is going to be at least as brilliant and talented and have at least as many adventures as Lymond did. He’s not nearly as handsome, though which partly explains why he is not the subject of endless fanfics the way Lymond is.

For me, the book really takes off when Niccolò makes the match that gives him the power to lead. Since I had tried to remain spoiler-free, I didn’t see that plot twist coming, but it was brilliant. It was an unusual match, and Dunnett doesn’t minimize the fallout that is created, but it really works to put him at the heart of everything he wants to do, in terms of financial capital, status, and network relationships.

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