Romance

‘The Victorian and the Romantic’ Review: A Doctorate in Desire

29 August 2018
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From The Wall Street Journal:

 As a burgeoning memoirist, Nell Stevens specializes in starting out in the wrong direction. In 2013 she went off to the Falkland Islands to write a novel. She ended up writing a memoir about not writing a novel, published last year as “Bleaker House.” In this year’s memoir—“The Victorian and the Romantic”—she details her efforts to finish her dissertation on the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and describes her pursuit of love instead.

In parts of Ms. Stevens’s narrative, former graduate students will recognize the narrow monomanias of early attempts at scholarship: the gnomic comments from advisers, the Sitzfleisch in rare-book rooms, the heart-stopping error in a transcribed quotation. But that’s all really just background for Ms. Stevens’s grande passion: Max. Even as she waxes lyrical about Max’s “tousled black hair,” “the reassuring thickness of his forearm” and the charm of his “chin, or his waist, or his knees,” Ms. Stevens is conscious that “other people’s desires . . . are always hard to comprehend.” As she notes, “former passions of my own . . . seem overblown and embarrassing with hindsight.” And yet she cannot resist the all-too-human desire to see her own feelings for Max reflected everywhere around her. Which takes us to back to Elizabeth Gaskell.

Outwardly, the journeys of Ms. Stevens and Mrs. Gaskell are quite dissimilar. In 1857, Gaskell, the middle-aged wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, traveled to Rome with two of her daughters to give herself a vacation after writing what turned out to be a ground-breaking biography of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. In 2013, Ms. Stevens, a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, took the Eurostar to Paris to meet up with her as-yet-unrequited love interest, a former MFA classmate whom she had gotten to know when she was studying in Boston.

Inwardly, however, Ms. Stevens identifies her own situation with Gaskell’s: embarked on a quest for a marriage of true minds. One member of Gaskell’s Roman circle was a younger man already famous for his gift for friendship, the sunny-natured Charles Eliot Norton. His father had had the distinction of being Emerson’s most disliked professor at Harvard, and he himself was a Harvard professor (in fine arts) as well as one of the co-founders of the Nation magazine. He showed his good literary judgment in writing the first positive review of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. From across the Atlantic he had already admired Gaskell’s novels, the best known of which today are “Cranford” and “North and South.” “A wonderful story-teller,” Norton had written of her, “never exaggerating and always dramatic.”

. . . .

Here, for instance, is a piece of a letter that Gaskell wrote to Norton four years after their time in Rome: “Oh! Don’t you long to go back to Rome. Meta & I were SO talking about you . . . and about your face as we first saw it,—and this morning comes your letter.” How did Gaskell feel as she wrote this sentence? Ms. Stevens believes Norton’s face was “an object of desire” that made Gaskell’s “heart thud and her cheeks flush.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Kindle Romance Bestsellers 

25 August 2018
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Kindle Romance Bestsellers

 

Romance – Kindle Bestsellers

9 August 2018

 

To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm

16 July 2018

From The Verge:

On June 4th, a group of lawyers shuffled into a federal court in Manhattan to argue over two trademark registrations. The day’s hearing was the culmination of months of internet drama — furious blog posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, claims of doxxing, and death threats.

The lawyers carried with them full-color exhibits of the trademarks in context. First up, two shirtless men with stethoscopes, embracing a woman, with the words Her Cocky Doctorsboldly printed below. Next: two shirtless men flanking a woman in a too-big firefighter’s jacket, with the words Her Cocky Firefighters emblazoned in the same font.

“What is in the content of Her Cocky Firefighters?” asked the judge, surveying the exhibits.

“It appears to be a male-female-male romance,” said a lawyer for one of the defendants. “Beyond that, I imagine it involves one or two of the male characters is a firefighter.”

The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”

“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.

They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

The fight over #Cockygate, as it was branded online, emerged from the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm. Trademark trolling is just the beginning: There are private chat groups, ebook exploits, conspiracies to seed hyperspecific trends like “Navy SEALs” and “mountain men,” and even a controversial sweepstakes in which a popular self-published author offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they reviewed his new book.

Much of what’s alleged is perfectly legal, and even technically within Amazon’s terms of service. But for authors and fans, the genre is also a community, and the idea that unethical marketing and algorithmic tricks are running rampant has embroiled their world in controversy. Some authors even believe that the financial incentives set up by Kindle Unlimited are reshaping the romance genre — possibly even making it more misogynistic.

A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.

In other words, self-published romance is no joke.

. . . .

Qhen author Dakota Willink attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, she didn’t know anything about the “cocky” trademark. She hadn’t heard of Faleena Hopkins, the self-published author who registered the mark, or of Tara Crescent, the other author whom Hopkins is now suing.

The RWA conference is the beating heart of the romance industry, a business-first trade conference with editorial pitch meetings and marketing workshops. It’s also the center of the warm, accepting, and woman-focused culture that the romance community is so proud of. In an episode of This American Life in 2003, reporter Robin Epstein expresses surprise at the environment she encounters at RWA. “What the hell is going on here?” she asks herself rhetorically. “The famous writers are nice, the editors are nice, and this is the publishing business.”

This was Willink’s first time at RWA, and she was spending much of her time with her new personal assistant, Lauren Valderrama.

Valderrama is also the personal assistant for several other successful romance authors — names that frequently dominate the romance charts on Amazon. In the world of self-published romance, a personal assistant does anything from formatting books to handling social media and publicity to sending out advance review copies. It’s enough work that it was a little unusual for Valderrama to be handling so many top-ranking, prolific clients. But that track record was appealing when Valderrama had originally reached out to Willink, professing to be a fan and suggesting that they work together.

According to Willink, over the course of RWA, Valderrama told her about certain marketing and sales strategies, which she claimed to handle for other authors. Valderrama allegedly said that she organized newsletter swaps, in which authors would promote each other’s books to their respective mailing lists. She also claimed to manage review teams — groups of assigned readers who were expected to leave reviews for books online. According to Willink, Valderrama’s authors often bought each other’s books to improve their ranking on the charts — something that she arranged, coordinating payments through her own PayPal account. Valderrama also told her that she used multiple email addresses to buy authors’ books on iBooks when they were trying to hit the USA Today list.

The Bookclicker chat group exists on Ryver, a clone of Slack (internal chat software for businesses). It was founded by a USA Today best-selling author named Chance Carter, known to some as a “notorious Kindle Unlimited abuser.” Carter’s name came up in half a dozen interviews as a pioneer of questionable and highly lucrative marketing practices. In the middle of reporting this story, almost of all of Carter’s very popular books were removed from Amazon, for reasons that remain unclear. A spokesperson for Amazon said that as a matter of policy, the company did not comment on individual cases.

. . . .

It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.

Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.

The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.

. . . .

Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”

. . . .

The stereotype of a Kindle Unlimited author is someone who is “pumping out short, pulpy reads,” in the words of best-selling romance writer Zoe York. But even if you write well, write prolifically, and cater to the market, it still doesn’t mean you’ll find success. “That skill set of finding a cold audience, getting them to hook into your product, and then consume through your product backlist, that’s harder than it sounds,” says York. The people who do succeed have that skill set. “They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers.”

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Kathlena for the tip.

The Changing Face of Romance Novels

9 July 2018

From The New York Times:

Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends. She found refuge in romance novels, frothy stories that allowed her to experience intense feelings that were clearly spelled out on the page, always with the promise of a happy ending. “It was like I found a pure, undiluted drug,” she said.

Many years later, as a mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Hoang began researching autism and realized that she’s on the spectrum, a condition that makes it difficult for her to hold casual conversations, read emotional cues, have an office job and meet new people. She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself.

So far, romance fans have swooned over Ms. Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” a multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.

The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities. Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers’ varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types.

“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said the romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including “Sated,” which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”

. . . .

“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Ms. Koch said.

. . . .

Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The last time PG checked, KDP doesn’t ask for the racial background of an author before publishing a book. He suspects the large majority of traditionally-published authors have never told their agents or publishers their racial identity.

Is there an assumption that, unless an author discloses their racial identity that they are a person of no color? Is there an assumption that an author of color will always mention that fact? From what source does such an assumption arise?

PG is old enough to remember when apartheid (separateness) was the law in South Africa and each person received an official racial designation recognized by both law and tradition – white, black, coloured and Asian. That racial identity was the basis of how each person was treated socially, professionally and legally. Racial identity was the most important part of a person’s identity and underpinned a racial spoils system that distributed favors, prestige, rights and riches based upon a person’s race.

Apartheid was and is rightfully condemned as a violation of fundamental human rights and a deep moral failing of any nation that practices it.

For a very long time, a government and society that was colorblind, recognizing rights and providing favors and opportunities regardless of racial identity was the epitome of fairness and justice, the polar opposite of apartheid.

PG finds a renewal of apartheid in 21st century America and elsewhere to be disgusting and distasteful. The idea that we must always be aware of each person’s race and take steps to adjust individual privileges, talents and desires so that any group of individuals is comprised of all racial groups in the proper proportions strikes PG as apartheid with a data-centric face. There are, of course, exceptions to these rules that apply to almost any group in which persons of color are overrepresented. Overrepresentation of a particular racial group on the basketball team is fine, but overrepresentation on the swimming team is a problem.

If the Romance Writers of America need to pay a lot more attention to the racial makeup of its membership because the racial background of romance authors is an important metric of racial equality, what about the racial background of romance readers?

Should the owner of a bookstore recommend books by Anglo American authors only to white readers and steer African American readers to books by African Americans and Hispanic readers to Hispanic authors? Should a bookstore have separate sections for whites, blacks and Hispanics with appropriate signage and instruct its clerks to direct those walking in the door to books with the appropriate racial pedigree to the appropriate racial section? What is the store to do if it is unable to locate a book about the Balkan Wars written by an Hispanic author to stock in its history section for Hispanics?

PG apologizes for a political take on a topic related to authors and their books, but he finds the idea of a kinder, gentler apartheid and the excessive attention being paid to the racial composition of various groups of people to be insultingly retrograde.

Jane Austen’s Practical Concerns About Marriage Are Still Relevant

23 May 2018

From Lit Hub:

I wasn’t the type of young person to seek out Jane Austen on my own. Period manners and marriage plots? Thanks, but pass; I’d seen Clueless and was pretty sure I got the gist. But with few discernible interests apart from books (and tastes that, I’m mortified to report, leaned more toward Bukowski than Brontë), combined with an even less developed sense of professional aptitude, my undergrad self ended up settling into a new identity as an English lit major. Austen, naturally, became a part of my new life. My 18th-century British lit professor, an affable young adjunct with a clump of Day-Glo orange hair, put Pride and Prejudice squarely on the syllabus during our semester on the Romantic era. This novel, he told us, signaled a major shift in social values, and was therefore important to understand. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Pride and Prejudice famously concerns the courtship of a family of sisters who need to marry into money to preserve the family’s social standing as members of the landed gentry. The new, period-specific catch is that the sisters should also, ideally, be fond of the well-off dudes they marry—and it’s this new requirement of affability, even maybe something akin to love, that leads to dramatic tension and lessons learned by all. But to me, it barely seemed worthy of being called a predicament.

. . . .

It seemed much less intimidating to accept an eligible suitor on the simple grounds of mutual regard and material security—to say, “I like your bank account and can tolerate your person,” and move on. The clear directive to simply secure an economically advantageous match would have certainly taken the guesswork out of my own romantic future. I’d been brought up with the same expectations of a majority of my straight-leaning female friends: that it was not just possible but preferable to expect everything from one person, forever.

Austen’s era marked a relatively new way of thinking about the role of marriage, one organized on the individualistic notion of personal happiness rather than the participation in a tradition of social and family organization. The Romantic period made way, you could say, for romance. And in Austen’s novels, the folly implicit in the pursuit of romance drives the action. Not that Austen was herself a fool for love; as a writer and thinker she acutely recognized that the ideal relationship is a tough one to come by. (It feels mean but important to mention here that Austen died alone.)

Even considering how she put love on the agenda, the expectations of marriage Austen laid out in her works, by the standards of their 21st-century analogs, verge on the enviably quaint. Contemporary relationship narratives apply unending pressure to settle down without ever settling for. We are told, loud and clear and over and over, that Mr. Right will come along, and he’ll give us butterflies and the feeling of home, he’ll be our best friend and the man of our dreams. To compromise would guarantee a lifetime of regret and undermine our self-respect—the opposite of the girl power we’ve grown up with.

Austen’s heroines have been beloved through the ages because they still read as wise, rising above the bullshit that their more tragic foils inevitably succumb to. Elizabeth Bennet only accepts the hand of wealthy suitor Mr. Darcy once she recognizes his strength of character. Her younger sister Lydia, meanwhile, narrowly escapes social ruin by taking up with the moneyless cad Wickham, who then has to be bribed into marrying her. Austen’s heroines do not compromise; they just happen to gravitate toward their most ideal outcome, as though self-interest were commensurate with moral fortitude.

Link to the rest at Lit Hub

PG says part of Jane Austen’s genius was writing about fundamental human emotions, traits and behaviors that have transcended time.

He suggests it’s the same reason Shakespeare’s plays are still widely performed while plays written by contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson have disappeared from today’s culture.

Fantasy for Romance Readers

19 May 2018
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From All About Romance:

I love romance for the same reasons I love other genres: intriguing characters with problems, who need others’ help to find solutions.  In romance, the main romantic couple are generally the intriguing characters, and they help each other to solve the problem, whether it’s loneliness or something more complex, like thwarting that evil old uncle who’s trying to divert your inheritance to his unsavory pals.  In fantasy, there may be a couple of main characters, or there may be a larger group with more complex interrelationships.

This post is meant to provide a beginner’s guide for romance readers who’ve wanted to try fantasy but were feeling daunted by all that’s available; hopefully, those who are fantasy readers already might find something new, though I’m focusing on older, ‘classic’ books that one might not come across in casual browsing.

If you’re in search of epic fantasy, Kate Elliott has a couple of series that should appeal. Beginning with Cold Magic [2010], she created a world in which Carthage never fell, with consequent huge differences for Europe and North and South America; there’s an “opposites attract” romance as well, though not until the second volume.

. . . .

Many romance readers already love the addictive work of Lois McMaster Bujold, either her long-running and devourable Vorkosiganscience fiction series, or her more recent fantasy series, Chalion [2001] and The Sharing Knife [2006]. Bujold is known for her large casts of likeable characters who face seemingly unsurmountable challenges…until they conquer those challenges in ways you would not expect. Her series are especially fun because they reward re-reading.

Link to the rest at All About Romance

Advice for Fathers in Romance Novels

15 May 2018

From BookRiot:

I’ve read a fair number of historical romance novels in my day, and though the genre has a wider range than its detractors would have us believe, there’s one thing that remains by and large consistent throughout: 90% of the main characters’ fathers suck eggs. Whether distant and cold, wildly irresponsible, or flat-out abusive, romance novel dads are by and large the absolute pits.

. . . .

Since their failings generally fall into familiar patterns, especially where the Regency is concerned, I thought I’d put together some advice for any fictional fathers who might be looking to improve their parenting skills. Especially if they’re dukes.

  • Don’t raise your highly sensitive child on a dilapidated estate on a remote, howling moor, constantly reminding them of your family’s past glory while the house falls to pieces around your ears.
  • Don’t encourage older sons to tumble the parlourmaids (or tumble them yourself).
  • Don’t deliver coldly dismissive lectures or hypocritically pious sermons from behind a massive desk in your well-appointed library or study, an ornate and heavy desk that looks as massive as a ship to a child’s impressionable eyes. If you must deliver such lectures, just be aware that your child will have sex on that desk after your death in order to exorcise those demons. It’s just a thing that’s going to happen.

. . . .

  • Don’t get yourself embarrassingly deep into debt with the local tradesmen and then die.
  • Don’t be gouty.

. . . .

  • Don’t construct any of the following rooms on your estate: a dark, cavernous dining room far too big for two with a table so enormous it impedes conversation; a cold and unwelcoming nursery with no toys; a study in a constant state of disorder meaning that key financial papers will be lost amongst your voluminous correspondence after your death; a lengthy portrait gallery featuring only your most unattractive and disapproving ancestors and perhaps one haunting likeness of your dead wife. Maybe try a solarium instead? Solariums are nice!

Link to the rest at BookRiot

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