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text 2018-04-23 01:10
Frye on Dickens and Scott
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) - Northrop Frye

I'm enjoying this.  Because the contents are actually lectures given at Harvard, I'm wishing I could hear Frye's delivery.  I suspect there may be some significant sarcasm.  Some of his other lectures are available on YouTube, so I may try to find some time this coming week to watch them.

 

As expected, however, the hours on the rock saw this past week provoked serious response from my tendonitis.  Although I was able to do a tiny bit of work in the studio this morning, by noon I was all but paralyzed with the pain.  It's impossible even to hold a book, and any time at the keyboard is sporadic at best, punctuated by breaks to clutch a bag of frozen rice to my arm.

 

One passage in this book merited the extra effort to make note of it here:

 

[Sir Walter] Scott came finally to be regarded as too much of a romancer to be worthy of close study.  [Charles] Dickens fared rather better: he too was darkly suspected of being a mere entertainer, but he had obvious social concerns, and besides, he wrote Hard Times, a novel so dull that he must surely have had some worthy nonliterary motive for producing it.

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text 2018-04-19 19:42
I slept on it, and I think I'm more angry than disappointed.

A long, ranty follow-up to earlier post here regarding whether to be disappointed or angry.

 

And in part this is prompted also by Elentarri's comment to that earlier post, an excerpt from which I quote here:

 

. . . if someone was bright enough to get into university they were supposed to be intelligent enough to do a lot of self-study. The professor was only there to provide a few hours of entertainment in class every week and provide course material/mark exams, which was the proof the rest of the world required that the students were doing work.    (Elentarri's Book Blog)

 

In many respects, I completely concur; certainly my graduate classes were often like this, with little or no guidance from the professors, even though a couple of them did nothing much more than talk, talk, talk about nonsense unrelated to the course material.  One even refused to answer questions, and when I finally demanded that he at least address the reading we were doing and which we all agreed none of us understood, he laughed at me and said "Welcome to grad school!" before launching on another tangent.  He didn't like it when my evaluation of the course was highly critical of him.

 

Another prof in another graduate class lost complete control of the situation to the point that one student physically threatened me and I in turn accused the prof of encouraging the abuse.  I found out later he was terrified I would report the situation and he'd lose his job.  He admitted to me -- and to the rest of the class after I had walked out -- that he had let things go too far. . . because he found it entertaining.

 

But those were graduate classes, and they were "seminar" formats where there was supposed to be discussion and even debate as contrasted to more typical teaching formats where students did the assigned reading, then came to a class session where the professor led the instructive process.

 

My gripe is with the undergraduate experience, where professors failed to provide guidance and/or information that was specifically asked for.

 

I was expected to meet with my advisor for the honors thesis at least a few times during the six months or so I researched and then wrote the actual paper.  As I wrote in the earlier post, her area of specialization was women's history, not women's writing or literature or anything like that.  She pretty much admitted she knew nothing about my subject and was as much interested in learning what I had to say as she was in actually helping me write it.  She did recommend one book for me, and it provided some very useful information, but that was the sum total of her contribution. At one point prior to my actually writing the thesis, I gave her my bibliography.  She had few comments.

 

My other two readers were from the English department, but I only met with one of them once, to go over the basic premise of the project.  She, too, admitted to knowing absolutely nothing about romance fiction.  When I asked if she had any suggestions for areas I could add to my research, she offered nothing.  She did not ask many questions about what research I had already done or what references I had consulted.

 

All three of these full professors -- two were then or had been recently heads of their departments -- knew that I was very much a non-traditional student: In addition to being over 50, I had come back to college after a 25 year hiatus, I had a minimum of humanities background, and I had in fact taken exactly one literature course.

 

Everything I knew about literary criticism theory I had in fact learned on my own.  There had been absolutely none in that single class, which was titled Contemporary Women Authors (most of whose works we read in translation).  The focus in that class was on the woman's experience as depicted in the writing, and not on how it was written or where any of the individual novels/stories fit into the general literary landscape.  Whether the professor simply presumed we had already learned all that stuff in prior classes, I don't know.  The whole subject was one of those unknown unknowns as far as I was concerned: I didn't know enough about lit crit theory to know what I didn't know.

 

So I went ahead and wrote the thesis.  I gave the first "final" version to my advisor for review.  She had virtually no comments, criticisms, or suggestions.  I then distributed copies to the other members of my committee, and prepared for my defense.

 

I knew, of course, that I was defending more than just the paper I had written: I was really defending the entire genre of romance fiction as it had been defined -- or redefined -- as a powerful segment of popular fiction, of feminist literature, of women's financial empowerment.  I had laid out some of that in the paper itself, and I already had a traditional publisher interested in a book-length version.  So I went into the conference room probably over-prepared for the defense.

 

Well, probably didn't come close to describing it.  I'm pretty sure all three of them had actually read the thing, but their questions about the paper led me to believe they hadn't understood any of what I had written.  I remember one question in particular was about the difference between a romance novel and a television soap opera.  The simple answer, of course, was that one ends at "The End" and the other never ends, but that didn't seem to be enough.  "Happily Ever After" is guaranteed in a romance novel; there is no "ever after" in a soap opera.  And on and on, until I realized the question was actually intended to confirm the bias that romance novels are the same as soap operas, and that both serve to entertain poorly educated women who don't work outside the home and have nothing better to do with their lives.

 

But the thesis was ultimately accepted as written with a few minor adjustments.  I got my degree with honors, and the following fall I started the graduate program.  The book length version of Half Heaven, Half Heartache got put on hold for a whole lot of reasons (not least among which was my own lack of confidence in it).  A few years later, Pamela Regis came out with her The Natural History of the Romance Novel and I set HH-HH aside more or less permanently.  I couldn't afford to buy Regis's book, but I figured it said everything I had intended to say anyway.

 

When I finally did acquire a copy a few years ago, I discovered quite the opposite.  I also discovered how incomplete certain aspects of my own original research had been.  I went back to Christopher Vogler's book, I went back to his co-written work Memo from the Story Department, then I began with the Joseph Campbell source material for those two books.  What I wasn't finding was the basic theory of Story that I wanted, and that was essentially missing also from HH-HH.

 

In what I read of Regis, I found no references to Campbell or Vogler, but I did find some to Northrop Frye.  I was vaguely familiar with the name, but that was it.  Quick research informed me that Campbell's work had predated Frye's, so I continued to expect my reading of Campbell to provide that bedrock.

 

It wasn't there.  And though I eventually gave up on both of the Campbell works to which I had access, I didn't retain any expectation that they contained it.

 

In amongst this, and because my time was constrained by art shows and so on, I began rereading Stephen King's On Writing.  I enjoyed the memoir part, the struggles with poverty, the family issues, the shock of sudden financial success, and so on.  I still haven't finished all the actual text on writing.  But something in there, something in the respect King gave to his own popular fiction writing, kept the other fires flickering in the back of my brain.

 

So I picked up the first of the two Frye books I had purchased (used) from Amazon.

 

And there, in the first few pages, was a theory of Story. 

 

I returned to my research on Frye.  And that's what aroused my disappointment first and now real anger.

 

Frye is often considered one of the leading literary theorists of the twentieth century. Not one single professor with whom I discussed HH-HH ever mentioned him.  None of his works were in my bibliography.  He's not referenced in the text.

 

It is one thing, as Elentarri states, for professors to grant their students freedom for self-directed study.  None of the professors I consulted with during the six months or so that I spent on the thesis really had enough information to be able to help me find specific research material; many of the works I did use were unfamiliar to them.  And certainly none of them had ever read a romance novel.

 

But I had specifically asked for help.  I knew I was in uncharted waters, and I made no secret of my ignorance.  I trusted those individuals to at least steer me in the right direction.  Instead, they simply let me drift.

 

What might have happened if just one of those professors suggested I look at the literary theories of Northrop Frye (a Canadian)?  What if just one of them had suggested I look at the literary theories of F. R. Leavis (an Englishman who was mentored by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who also mentored Daphne DuMaurier)?

 

I feel almost as if I'm starting over, from scratch.  That's a disappointment.  The feeling that I shouldn't have had to is what makes me angry.

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text 2018-04-18 06:07
A very different take from Campbell
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) - Northrop Frye

I purchased this some months ago, and frankly I expected it to be far more dry and academic than the Joseph Campbell works.  So far, though I've really just started, it's far superior.  I'm feeling much more enthusiastic.

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review 2018-04-17 20:12
Ripping off a thousand masks
The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell

After the bitter disappointment of The Power of Myth, I wanted to try Joseph Campbell's original work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I hoped it would be more illuminating than the pretentious nonsense of Campbell/Moyers collaboration.

 

If anything, it was worse.  I managed to slog through about 50 pages before giving up.  There isn't enough time in the world to waste on this.

 

I was expecting an analysis of myths from around the world to show how they fit Campbell's pattern, but what I got seemed like fragmentary stream-of-consciousness ramblings.  Though his "nuclear unit" of story construction made sense, nothing else did.

 

That nuclear unit posits three main parts of a myth or story.  The hero begins in his/her ordinary world, then leaves that world to have some kind of adventure in a non-ordinary world, and finally returns to the ordinary world with some special knowledge or talent or gift that fixes whatever was wrong in the first place.  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again - that sort of thing.

 

If he had taken that core and expanded it into the more detailed structure of Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Threshold Guardian and so on, I might have felt there was something of value.  But his examples of myths rarely illustrated his premise.  The last one I bothered to read was about the Chinese prince who didn't want to get married, but Campbell ended the chapter without explaining what the point of it was!

 

The other negative for me was the inclusion of dreams, either from Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis.  First of all, I'm not all that impressed with either Freud or Jung, though Freud really rubs me the wrong way.  But second, and far more important, was that I just don't feel random dreams, taken completely out of context, are a valid foundation on which to build a theory of story structure.

 

A few nights ago, I had a dream that a volcano was opening up under a portion of my house.  In the dream, I was trying to keep certain objects from falling into the volcano, but they were relatively valueless objects.  As I came to the realization that there were far more valuable objects to be saved, and that I did have the means to save them and escape the path of destruction, I exited the house and began to select items to be packed and taken away with me.  As I did so, however, I discovered that someone was cutting down all the trees and big cactus on my property, with the explanation that he was doing so to stop the volcano.  At that point, I woke up.

 

Because I'm aware of the context in which that dream developed, I know that there's not a whole lot of Freudian bullshit involved.  Were the dreams cited by Campbell also taken out of an everyday context?  Not knowing for sure, I just brushed them aside as meaningless.

 

That, of course, made much of the rest of the discussion equally meaningless.

 

The book was definitely not what I expected, and I really didn't find it useful at all as a basis for analyzing story structure.

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text 2018-03-13 18:16
I have no clue what's going on in Romancelandia, but . . . it's not new

Most of yesterday the pain in my elbow was so bad I could neither read nor write.  I couldn't hold a book or my Kindle or the laptop.  I couldn't sit at the table even to write longhand.  Mostly I watched television -- not good, since I only watch news -- and made occasional posts here and on Twitter.  Even those occasional posts brought renewed pain, sometimes severe.

 

I tried to read through some of the posts regarding the latest shake-ups in romance publishing, but that, too, proved more than I could physically handle.  I posted a couple more or less generic tweets about it, and that was it.

 

Regardless what the shake-ups are, however, it's nothing new, and the writers will get the short end of the stick.  They always do.  (The readers will, too, but they will be blissfully ignorant of the majority of what goes on behind the pages.)

 

As I wrote in one tweet, this shit has been going on for more than 40 years.  It may be different shit and it may be affecting different authors, but it's still nothing new.  An account of the ways in which publishers and their evil minions the editors have tormented authors would be a book in itself: minuscule royalty rates, delayed royalty statements, incompetent editing, crappy covers, cancelled contracts, and the list goes on.

 

Does this behavior on the part of publishers affect only the romance genre?  I don't know for sure, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it does. From personal experience, I remember the late George Alec Effinger exclaiming at a science fiction convention in 1987 that he had never received any royalties, even though he had sold ten or twelve or fifteen novels.  He was amazed that romance writers -- I was one of a couple in the room at the time -- actually earned out their advances and got royalty checks.  Of course it often took a romance novelist two or three or more years after publication to see those royalties.  And of course it also meant that an established science fiction novelist was being paid up front for anticipated earnings rather than having to, you know, actually earn them.

 

As I wrote in another post here, fantasy author Terry Goodkind came under fire a few weeks ago for publicly shaming the artist who did his cover, which he ended up not liking.  I'm not sure why Goodkind didn't like the cover, but at least he had input on it.  Many romance writers have little to no say in what goes on the cover of their books; sometimes we're horrified or embarrassed, but there's not much we can do about it.

 

During the fifteen or so years I was a member of Romance Writers of America, I saw agents rip off their romance novelist clients and never a word was officially whispered against them. Oh, you say, that's just rumors and gripes from disgruntled authors.  Um, no.  I was one of the clients of an unscrupulous agent that RWA refused to take any action against.  She lied to me about contract terms that she herself had negotiated, which was bad enough.  Delaying payment was worse still.  Sending me not one but TWO rubber checks was beyond professional.  Even so, the professional organization to which I paid dues flatly refused to take any action, and one of the many reasons put forth was that the unpublished writers needed agents, too, and one of the benefits they received from RWA was access to agents. 

 

"Even if they're bad agents?" I asked.

 

Yes, I was told, even if they're bad agents.

 

RWA was in the business of keeping the dream alive for the unpublished, even if it meant the published members got screwed.  RWA depended on the dues and other financial contributions of the unpublished and wasn't going to do anything that would discourage the unpublished.  At that time, they outnumbered the published membership by about eight to one.

 

RWA stood up for the editors and agents and publishers, until the published authors started to fight back.  Even then we ran into resistance.  First we formed PAN, the Published Authors Network, but that didn't solve many of the problems.  A few years later I established PASIC, the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, specifically to protect the writers from the depredations of publishers, editors, agents, and even of RWA.

 

Yes, you read that right.  I did it.

 

On the evening of 13 October 1993, in a discussion on the GEnie Romex online discussion board, I proposed the formation of a "special interest" chapter of RWA that, like other similar chapters, could limit its membership to those who met certain requirements.  The main desire at the time was to hold a conference where published authors could get the workshops they needed, addressing their professional needs, without the interference of the unpublished, the never-gonna-be-published, the I-wanna-write-a-book-someday fans who made up the majority of RWA.

 

I did the work.  I filed the paperwork.  I organized everything.  I was tired of the writers getting screwed over.  I was tired of the shitty royalties, the bad editing, the long delays, the . . . everything.

 

So of course I was the one who got screwed the most.  I was excoriated by former friends in RWA, including members of the board.  I was stabbed in the back by friends even within PASIC.  When my editor demanded the impossible of me, I was warned that part of the reason was because I had set up PASIC to challenge the publishers and she didn't like it.  No one stood up for me when that editor ruined the book of my dreams.

 

No one stood up for me when my career crashed.

 

Those writers who went along with it, who sacrificed their creative integrity on the altar of Traditional Publishing, they came out all right.  They got on the New York Times best-seller list.  They kept getting contract after contract, even though they were shitty contracts.  Harlequin's royalty rates became an effective one percent or less, based on the wholesale price rather than retail.  Mail order book club sales were even worse.

 

Over the years, we watched publishers come and go.  The early 1980s saw the proliferation of contemporary romance lines but by the end of the decade, most were gone.  Anyone besides me old enough to remember Candlelight, Candlelight Ecstasy, Rapture, Second Chance at Love, Loveswept?  Playboy Press and Pinnacle put out some great historicals, but when they folded what happened to the authors?  I knew several Pinnacle authors who had to fight to get their rights back to books that were under contract.

 

I left all that in 1998 when my last year of RWA membership lapsed.  I'd been personally stabbed in the back by too many so-called friends -- yeah, I'm lookin' at you Maureen, and Stephanie, and Laraine, and Dixie, and Betina, and Robin, and Janis, and Alison, among others -- to whom I had given help whenever asked but never got anything in return.  I watched my own career go down the drain because I dared to have faith in myself and my book.  So I walked away.  Or limped.  And I cried -- a lot -- privately.  Because I knew no one cared.  They told me they didn't and I believed them.

 

When I came back around 2011, there had been massive changes to the industry, mainly due to the explosion of digital publishing and print-on-demand production.  Both of those had been just peeking over the horizon in the late 1990s when I left the business.  Both were approaching full flower when I returned, and I was delighted.

 

Had all the problems gone way?  Of course not, and even I wasn't eager enough to think they had.  Within months of my becoming an active writer and hopeful self-publisher, I got to witness the implosion of Dorchester/Leisure, who held the rights to one of my novels.  Then it was the ugly demise of Ellora's Cave, which often left me gasping in horror as I  read the online accounts of how the authors were treated. 

 

And then there was the reliance on publicity and promotion . . . and reviews.

 

Back in the day (80s and 90s) romance writers had to depend on Romantic Times and a few other magazines for reviews.  No matter how many copies were sold, romance novels rarely made the NYT or other lists; that started to change so that by the time I was reading the news online, the lists were often dominated by romances.  But one thing hadn't changed: Publicity was still the responsibility of the author, and the more I've read and watched, the more discouraged I've become.

 

"Back then" it was bookmarks and other giveaway items that the authors spent most of their advance money on to boost visibility and (one hoped) sales.  And conferences, where you gave a workshop and signed some autographs and maybe got some of your expenses comped by the group holding the conference. RWA might give you a free hotel room and waive the conference fee for you, but transportation and meals and all the other costs were just part of your publicity budget, if you had one.

 

A local author here in Arizona told me she spent $5,000 on promotion for a book she got a $500 advance on in 1992.  Don't gasp and call her foolish until you compare that to all the freebies given away by hopeful self-publishing authors today, and all the time they spend on "blog tours" and the other activities required to keep a book in the public eye online.  The cost of a decent website isn't cheap; the time writing your own blog (or reviews on BookLikes!) is time you aren't writing your next book.

 

I was struck last night reading a tweet from an author who expressed an emotional reaction to his editor's firing because of all the grief she had given him.  No, not grief.  Abuse.  Abuse not dissimilar, apparently, to the abuse women suffer at the hands of more powerful men, whether it's discrimination and harassment at work or verbal/emotional/physical abuse in an intimate relationship.  Thinking back to what I had experienced at the hands of an editor who held the fate of my career in her hands, I knew exactly what that author was going through.

 

But my experience was over 20 years ago.  Had nothing changed?

 

No, nothing had changed.  Nothing at all.

 

Those of us who have dreams are the ones who get hurt.  If we have other resources, like $5,000 to promote a $500 book, maybe we can weather the storm.  Or maybe not.

 

The reactions of the badly behaved authors who lashed out at their critics sometimes surprised me in ways I didn't always make known.  Because I'd been in their shoes more often than most of my online friends suspected, I knew that they had dreams of being best-selling authors and were confident that This Book would do it for them.  They had all their little friends, who knew nothing about writing, who assured them it was the greatest book since Gone with the Wind or The Godfather or Lonesome Dove.  Great-aunt Maude loved it, and they had their high school English teacher proofread it.  They simply could not believe that random readers on Amazon thought differently.

 

And they had to take the criticism in public.  As aspiring authors thirty years or more ago, most of us romance writers took our criticism in small, private groups where no one knew we'd been ripped apart for our bad grammar and spelling, our insipid heroines and brutish heroes, our laughable lack of historical research, our nonsensical plots and contrived HEAs.  It hurts to have your dream destroyed.  It hurts even more to have it done in public.

 

Are you asking now why I wasn't more sympathetic to them, since I knew how they must feel?

 

I wasn't sympathetic because a.) I knew it wouldn't do them any good and b.) I knew it wouldn't do myself any good.

 

The problems in Romancelandia have changed, and yet they haven't.  They certainly haven't gone away.  Is it because, deep down at the very core, romance is still women's fiction and women don't get any respect?

 

We still have the bloggers who won't rate anything below four-stars, because they want to keep getting free books or at least keep getting readers.  We still have BBAs.  We still have shitty publishers and shitty agents and shitty editors -- and shitty books.

 

I seriously considered rejoining RWA a couple of years ago, but frankly the financial cost was more than I could justify.  And for what?  So I could belong to the same organization that had let down the writers time and time again, and that had stabbed me in the back when I tried to help . . . us?

 

I've paid the price for my honesty, and I've paid it more than once.  I lost the writing career that was all I'd ever dreamed of practically since I first held a pencil in my hand.  I lost friends.  I suffered the threats from the authors whose books I didn't like.  I spent more hours and effort than I really could afford on reading and reviewing books that gave me pretty much no pleasure at all.  I lost my membership on Goodreads.

 

Whatever happened at Riptide Publishing over the past few days, whatever happened with this "SH" author(s), whatever happens tomorrow or next week in romance publishing, it's not going to surprise me.  Few of the Big Name Authors will ever do anything to fix the problems, and most of the dreamers won't either. The problems are not going to disappear.  I feel sorry for the victims, because most of them are good, sincere people who believe in their work and just want to get the best deal they can.

 

But there are a whole lot of enablers out there.  There are a whole lot of enablers right here, too.

 

I'm not a good leader, which is why I've steered completely clear of anything resembling politics.  I won't even run for a position on the board of my local artists' group.  (They would never elect me, anyway.)  So if you want to stop following me now, feel free.  It won't hurt my feelings.  But at my age, I'm just plain tired of the bullshit.

 

Romancelandia never stood up to the bad guys.  Did some individual authors?  Did some readers?  Did some reviewers?  Yes.  But the industry has had plenty of warnings, and there are a lot of people still protecting their personal turf.

 

I love romance fiction. I will stand by it as an art form, as a shaper of thought via its influence in popular culture.  I will even support its authors.  But I will also call out those hyenas in kitteh disguise.

 

I've struggled through this writing, and the pain is getting pretty bad.  I've weighed it all against the notion that I should be writing something that might actually become a book.  Then I went back to Twitter to see what's going on in the world, and I got hit with the reminder over and over and over again that it's the silence of good folks that enables the worst behavior.

 

 

 

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