Length and form in genre storytelling: The Kraken King and other experiments

The first installment in Meljean Brook’s new serialized novel, The Kraken King, was released this week. Brie has an excellent review of it at Dear Author (i.e., I’m sure it’s excellent, but I have to admit that I skimmed it while peeking through my fingers because I want to approach Vol. 1 with as little prior information as possible). I’d heard chatter about the story on Twitter because some of the installments have appeared on Netgalley, and a couple of the commenters agreed with Brie’s positive take on the first four installments.

But the vast majority of comments on the review were negative about the book, the format, the idea of serials more generally, and even toward Meljean. That took me aback, especially the author-directed criticisms, since if anyone has earned the right to experiment with story forms because of past performance, it’s this author. She’s written very high-quality books that respect genre boundaries while exploring them to the fullest, and she takes all kinds of worthwhile risks in her writing. For me, following her to the serial format is a no-brainer even if I weren’t predisposed toward the form.

I asked on Twitter why serial stories got such a strong and often visceral negative reaction and the conversation took off right away. The most common complaint was about price, specifically the fact that buying all the serial installments usually came to more than the price of a book of the same length. There were also a fair number of people who said they don’t like reading in installments, whether these feature cliffhanger endings or not, because they want to read the whole story all at once. And the third criticism was that serials aren’t really serials but are most often a book that’s been chopped up to allow for a cash grab by the author and/or publisher; this is related to the too-expensive argument but not identical.

All of these criticisms are fair, and we certainly see examples of serials that aren’t really serials in romance, erotica, and probably other genres as well. But at the same time, these are criticisms about execution, not the format per se, and they make the instantaneous rejection of The Kraken King (by people who haven’t read it) hard for me to take.

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Fetish reading and genre reading

When I first started reading romanceland discussion boards one of the most confusing debates I encountered was the one over forced seduction v. rape. I didn’t see what the distinction was, but I respected the people making it and I slowly realized that it was a “this is fiction not real life” argument. Because a reader has access to the thought processes of a character, it’s possible to make the argument that she can see and accept that a character is finding a way to allow something to happen that the character cannot openly consent to, for whatever reason. I still am not comfortable with the distinction but I understand it better intellectually.

For me, generally speaking in fictional scenarios and in real life, consent must exist and must be freely given or coercion has occurred. In the case of rape, that means forced seduction isn’t really a possibility for me. I don’t mean that an author can’t write it or a reader can’t interpret a scene that way, I just mean that I am going to have a hard time doing that. When I was younger I read a lot of the standard erotica (classic and contemporary), but don’t anymore, and today, especially when I read stories that are written and marketed as romance, I have trouble giving consent in the sense that Robin has described in her posts on this topic.

My general rule is that women have enough stigmas attached to the expression of their fantasies and desires. Insisting that romance novels cannot feature what is clearly a fairly common fantasy reinforces such stigmas, and I prefer to err on the side of letting in too much problematic material rather than too little. I’m not at all sure I’m right about this, but it is something I’ve thought about for a long time, so if I’m wrong, it’s not for lack of cognitive effort.

All this navel-gazing is a preamble to a discussion about a couple of incidents and subsequent conversations that came across the transom this week. First, there was an author blog post railing against content warnings for problematic material in erotic and BDSM romance. One of the author’s books had received low-starred reviews because readers felt blindsided by the amount of rape in the storyline. There was some spirited discussion in the comments section, and these weren’t newbies to the genre or the press, so we’re not talking about stereotypical pearl clutchers here.

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Status Update

Sorry for the radio silence, folks. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Janet NorCal and Jo Beverley gave us a fantastic conversation about the Rogues (and Mallorens) last week, but even they can’t be expected to prop up the VM forever. I’ve been busy and yet I’m behind on everything.

I spent half of last week in Chicago at one of the two big professional meetings I attend every year. I presented a research paper I co-wrote with one of my graduate students, discussed several other papers on a couple of panels, and caught up with old friends and my editor. I’ve also been participating in several campus events, as is the case in the spring, and then there is the usual slate of classes, meetings, and campus visitors.

But never mind about that. I must report my abject failure in the Big Fat Book readalong. I am still stuck 25 percent of the way into I Promessi Sposi. I plan to finish it, but I have three (four?) books for review to finish first and reviews to write. I managed to read Donna Thorland’s March release, The Rebel Pirate, which I’m reviewing for DA, and I’m in the middle of City of Palaces, Michael Nava’s long-awaited (by me at least) historical novel of Mexico and California. Both are well worth picking up. I’m really enjoying going back to historical fiction with romantic subplots; these are providing an excellent substitute for genre historical romance, which I am having a lot of trouble reading these days.

There are a few HistRom authors that still work for me, but the number is dwindling steadily and I’m reluctant even to pick up a book in case it puts me off reading more generally. That sounds kind of dumb written down, but I don’t know any other way to explain it. There are half a dozen romance novels coming out over the next few months that I’m looking forward to, but by and large I’m not reading much core genre right now. I made it about a third of the way through a highly praised recent release and found myself constantly nitpicking word, concept, and character choices. It may be because I’m reading actual history right now, I’m not sure.

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Jo Beverley’s Rogues Books … Carry On!

This isn’t exactly an April Fool’s column, because it’s not a joke, but the date seemed appropriate since it’s a “what if? …” exercise of imagination. When Janet told me about it, I asked her if I could please post it at VM. Janet is my go-to expert in All Things Rogue, and while I haven’t read all of Jo Beverley’s books, some of hers are among my very favorites. They’re also the gold standard in historical romance for me. So anything that gives us more JoBev is welcomed, even if they’re imaginary. And you never know …

A guest post by Janet W., AKA @JanetNorCal. 

Reading A Shocking Delight, David Kerslake’s story, led me to wonder whether there might be other untold stories in the Rogues world. Taking obsession a couple steps further, I imagined a follow-on story for each book. Here are my proposed storylines and protagonists. I’ll admit to being just a little bit fan*sessed. If you are too, perhaps you have some storylines of your own—please share.

An Arranged Marriage: Kit, the Earl of Stainsbridge, Nicholas’s twin brother. Irrefutable—he’s gay and he’s a widower. Up for discussion—when he was introduced, he was not particularly happy, somewhat of a busy-body, and rather ineffectual, usually looking to Nicholas to clean up his messes. So m/m, but whom? Someone in the art world perhaps, since he raped Eleanor over a piece of jade wrapped up with a blackmail bow. In the years since his shadowy encounter with Eleanor, has he found a modicum of peace, particularly since the succession has been taken care of with the birth of Nicholas’s son Francis?

An Unwilling Bride: Tom Holloway, a handy extra pair of eyes or hands when needed, friend to the Rogue men. He’s somewhat in the background of Rogue hijinks, in attendance at Nicholas’s wedding, and waiting with a carriage after the Rogues descend on Deveril’s sordid townhouse. How about a joint novella with Joanna Bourne? That would give the Rogues’ token hang-around spy a chance to flex his muscles.

Christmas Angel: James Knollis, the eldest son of the Earl of Charrington’s extended family, the one who lied when he told Leander and Judith that there was diphtheria at Temple Knollis. James is quite unprepossessing, “He was of sturdy build, with neat brown hair, and tolerable clothes, but very young to be accosting an earl. About twenty.” A sturdy English squire—how to make his story interesting? But then Leander has such elegant, exotic foreign relatives—could it be a young lady from Russia perhaps. Sables ahoy…

Forbidden: Cather, the young gardener. This was tough since there are so few extraneous characters! But revisit this passage with Serena, Dibbert, Francis’s London butler, Cather (the gardener who ratted out Serena to Francis) and the downstairs cast of characters. It all started with the disappearance of a pound of tea. Is there a power struggle between Mrs. Andover, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Scott, the cook?

Serena noted evidence of a feud there, and from the appeals both women were making to a harassed Dibbert, she suspected he was the bone of contention. The cook, Mrs. Scott, seemed intent on pinning the blame on a terrified kitchen maid who had only been hired the month before. The maid’s wails brought in the young gardener, who came staunchly to the defense of little Katie. That clearly upset the younger upstairs maid. Serena noted that perilous triangle. Affairs of the heart below stairs were almost as complicated as those above!

Serena’s attempt to smooth over the contretemps leaves bruised feelings, particularly with a bitter Cather. Serena thinks “that her kind intentions might cause trouble from him in the future.” How about the enterprising Cather leaves the Middleton household to seek his fame and fortune? A Horatio Alger rags to riches tale…and maybe someday, after he’s made his pile, he crosses paths with his former employer and downstairs colleagues… Hey, it worked with Downton Abbey.

Dangerous Joy: Blanche’s daughter. Blanche shared with Felicity that she, like her, bore a child out of wedlock. Food for thought—this is what I wrote at Heroes and Heartbreakers: “Of all the Rogues, who hasn’t starred in his own story? Did you guess Major Hal Belmont? That’s correct; Hal and actress Blanche Hardcastle’s romance has only been woven through the various Rogue stories. Which I’ve always thought was rather a shame. So my invitation to Jo Beverley would be to shake down the Rogue tree one more time, in the hopes of uncovering a worthy plot. Perhaps it could center on Blanche’s mysterious natural daughter, adopted by a wealthy family when Blanche was little more than a girl herself. What if she …” This story could be so interesting, very Rogue worthy.

The Dragon’s Bride: David Kerslake, no more to be said … you will read all about his tale in A Shocking Delight.

“The Demon’s Mistress” in In Praise of Younger Men and The Devil’s Heiress and HazardMiss Natalie Florence. She’s Maria Vandeimen’s niece, the orphaned daughter of a relative of Maria’s first, unlamented husband. She has continental blood and according to Van, she’s very sensible. Lord Vandeimen asks Race to escort her to a gala Brighton gathering.

When the ladies came down in the evening, Race had no complaints about his partner. Natalie was no beauty—her hair was mousy, she was short, and he suspected she’d always be plump. An enormous zest for life fizzed in her, however, and someone—presumably Maria Vandeimen—had excellent taste … The bodice was low enough on her full breasts to be interesting while still being modest, and her jewels were delicately made of pearls and sapphire chips. Suitable yet unusual, and a reminder to the world that Natalie could be assumed to share some of her uncle’s wealth—the uncle being Maria’s first husband, Maurice Celestin.

Mark me down for being interested in Natalie’s story. But who could her hero be? We know it can’t be Lord Uffham, heir to the Duke of Arran (the brother of Lady Anne, Race’s lady love) because Jo Beverley has said he is not about to change. Tiresome fellow.

St. Raven: Cary Lyne, St. Raven’s loyal friend. He’s quite the philosopher, saying to Cressida (after she turns down St. Raven, again!): “His expression was rueful and kind. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick up the pieces. Bon voyage, Miss Mandeville, but I hope you are very sure of your proper destination.” Lyne’s story could be somewhat of a parallel to A Most Unsuitable Man, a recent story in the Georgian Malloren world.

Skylark: Juliet and Robert Fancourt. A married couple story à la Helen MacInnes. Juliet is Laura Gardeyne’s younger sister, the one who waited two years until her diplomat husband could afford to marry. Perhaps they could be asked by the Crown to undertake a dangerous mission together. I’m envisioning a mystery with undercurrents and strains from their long separation. Juliet says to Laura, when she’s asked where her home is, “Wherever Robert is.” Then Juliet pulled a face. “Well, not Denmark. Or at sea, which is probably where he still is. But yes, our London house is home.”  Does Robert know how playful, intelligent, and resourceful a person his wife is? Her maturity and independence might cause their marriage to alter and change.

The Rogue’s Return: Dorothy, Lady Austrey. Here’s Jancy’s first impression of her, “A slender woman rising from a sofa, dressed in deepest black, must be the widow, Cousin Dorothy, Lady Austrey. She dismissed a hovering maid and smiled with obvious effort.” Dorothy has not had an easy time but she’s been exemplary, even stoic in the face of her travails (bearing girls, not an heir to the earldom, nursing a sick husband for quite some time). What’s ahead for her after her year of deepest black mourning is behind her?

To Rescue a Rogue: Feng Ruyuan, Dare’s healer, guide, and helpmeet in his fight against opium addiction. It was Nicholas, King Rogue, who brought Feng to Dare. Mara seeks him out and they become allies: “…the man who opened the door was dressed in the red monk’s robe, and like the figurine was completely bald. He wasn’t old, however, and his height and broad shoulders suggested strength. He had steady, slanted eyes in a rugged, wide face.”  Jo Beverley doesn’t share much of Feng’s story—but what we see is fascinating. After he gives Mara an oriental disk with the black and white yin-yang design, he says it doesn’t represent good and bad but instead “light and dark, but dark is no more bad than nighttime is. Light and dark also represent the masculine and feminine in each of us.” Mara, Dare and Ruyuan travel to Mara’s home, Brideswell, a special place. Ruyuan says, “People come here and stay here because of the chi. Good people enhance it, but the pure energy comes from elsewhere.” Since Brideswell is holy and has been for centuries, perhaps there’s a healer nearby, a holy woman skilled in the use of herbs. West meets East?

Lady Beware: Frank Cave, Darien’s sailor brother. We meet Lieutenant Cave, RN, when things are at a low ebb for Lady Thea and Lord Darien, “Frank stood at the head of the stairs in his blue naval uniform, not smiling, but still managing to convey clean, honest goodwill and fellowship. No one asked who he was. Dark hair and eyes and the cut of the jaw declared him a Cave, but as always, the magic of his charm worked.” It’s rather predictable to have the hero’s brother star in his own story so let’s have a heroine he met when he was a sailor. Someone from a different hemisphere and culture perhaps and let’s have her be so wealthy that he’s the one on trial—the  one her family isn’t sure they should allow her to wed. There was this admiral’s daughter he had thought to marry but maybe that was a ruse, or Plan B, since he thought the tantalizing “other” was forever out of reach.

So what do you envision? Have you “shipped” any of Jo Beverley’s characters over the years? Please share!

 

 

Reading and reviewing, then and now

Robin’s op ed post this week has generated a lot of conversation, more than any of us expected. She asked if reviewing in romanceland was still fun. There was a torrent of response, and a lot of the response from readers and reviewers centered around their increased apprehension in posting critical reviews (which is anything that results in a rating under 4 stars). Some authors who commented expressed resentment at getting lumped in with the badly behaving ones, and some were taken aback by the level of frustration and even animosity readers showed in the thread.

It’s a topic that gets discussed a lot these days, but one thing that struck me about this thread, which was reinforced in private discussions, was the sense among those who’ve been in traditional romancelandia for a decade or more that the climate is worse today than it’s ever been. Not everyone feels this way, of course; some long-time residents basically said “eh, same old, same old.” But a lot didn’t, and I agree with the people who think it’s really bad these days.

First, the required caveat: there have always been terrible reviewers and there have always been speshul snowflake authors. And there have always been fangirls. The earliest days of The Romance Reader and All About Romance are replete with incidents of authors and their loyal followers going after critical reviews of books, reviews that were labeled unfair, biased, etc. But over the years, say the early to mid-2000s, this kind of behavior slowly became considered inappropriate. Authors reined in their fans, or the fans kept their ranting against reviewers confined to author boards. You could have huge debates (remember Alyssa Tracy and whoever she wound up with instead of the guy she was supposed to wind up with in that Brockmann book?), but it wasn’t just fangirls v. everyone else, it was also reader v. reader. As it should be.

Then the KDP Doctrine was announced and the Manifest Destiny of everyone’s ability and to publish their Great American Novel came into being, and the expanding frontier led to the Wild Indie West we live in now. (Sorry. Horrible metaphor is over, you can stop wincing.)

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