Reading Popular Literature Interlude 1: The Romance Problem

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

While I've made an effort to be inclusive about the genres I read in this series, you may notice one obvious omission: Romance novels. So why would I exclude a whole genre? You'd think any attempt to cover the history of popular fiction would have to include one of the most popular categories of books of them all.

I guess I just never got past the stereotype of the romance genre as porn for middle aged suburban house wives (as opposed to erotica, porn for the more adventurous, urban woman). When a pre-teen, before the Internet exploded, I used to sneak into the romance section of the library and page through the books looking for the sex scenes, simultaneously getting horny and giggling at the language ("his turgid manhood thrust into the triangle of my femininity" etc.).

And yet, it's not as if I don't like romantic story lines; I actually like them quite a lot. And I certainly don't have anything against a good sex scene. I've also read people talking about romance as a real genre, one every bit as respectable as mystery or science fiction. But I don't know where to start. Barbara Cortland and Danielle Steel, who are both on the best-selling all-time writer list, seem kind of execrable.

So I turn the matter over to you, my readers. If you've been reading my essays so far, you know something about my taste. Recommend me something in the romance category. Fantasy or paranormal romance are perfectly acceptable, as are more realist fare. Just as long as there are characters with more than one dimension, a premise and plot that aren't insulting to my intelligence, and a style that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Prove to me, if you can, that my long held prejudices are wrong.

Any suggestions?

Fucking Mamatas

Got to give the man his due, nemesis of mine tho he may be, and saws about broken clocks taken into account etc etc, Nick Mamatas is right the fuck on on this one:
End Geek Pride.

Although I should note that in the piece he more or less word for word name drops the title to what I said about this nonsense here two and a half years ago. So naturally I agree with him. Not that he swiped the idea from me, because Nick Mamatas is a Highly Original Voice of a Generation, and wouldn't stoop to aping this particular bonobo-with-a-keyboard's views. I'm sure it's really just the collective unconscious. Or Cryptomnesia at worst. Right Nicky baby?

Reading Popular Literature part 4: The Pulp Era (1920-1941)

Edit: Corrected some embarrassing factual and spelling mistakes

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Advances in publishing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to huge numbers of cheaply produced magazines written to appeal to the widest possible audience. By the 20s and 30s, before television and with radio still new, these magazines were a primary form of home entertainment and sold in the millions of copies. They typically cost 10 cents and were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, and thus called "pulps" to differentiate them from the more expensive, glossy-paper "slick" magazines.

The argument could be made that much of what we think of as popular fiction today was codified in the 1920s and 1930s during the boom period of the pulps. Hard boiled crime fiction, romantic stories both sentimental and lurid, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror all become recognizable in the pages of various pulp magazines. Indeed, before the pulp era, "genre" was a word commonly used to differentiate forms like poetry from prose. It was magazines like Astounding Stories (for science fiction) and Weird Tales (for horror and fantasy) that created the notion of categories of fiction separate from one another, with sets of common tropes and history. In the letter pages of these magazines and in the burgeoning hobby of ham radio, the first genre fandoms begin to arise, as people with common interests begin to find each other and communicate and eventually form the first "fan clubs."

The pulp era ended more-or-less in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's subsequent entry into the Second World War. Paper shortages caused by the war made pulp paper much more expensive, causing many of them to shut down or change format and pricing. (The war had similar impacts on the production and distribution of popular entertainment in other parts of the world as well.) Soon enough comic books, television and the paperback revolution rose up to take pulp's place as providers of cheap entertainment for the masses.

Ebooks Really Are More Profitable Than Print Books

So you remember some years ago there was a lot of hubbub in publishing about how people wanted to pay less for ebooks than print books because of the perception that the distribution and printing costs were so much lower? And the publishers all went crazy telling everyone how books still cost so much to produce because the printing and distribution were actually only a small little bit of the costs of making a book? And then I told publishers to show us the numbers and was met with resounding silence?

Yeah, here's the thing. Turns out ebooks really are much more profitable than print books, but it actually isn't just because of the lack of printing and distribution costs. It's because in the print world, books are returnable, which means that if a bookstore doesn't sell all their copies of something they return it to the publisher for a refund. (Which generally means the book is "remaindered"-- either destroyed or sold to used bookstores for deep discounts.) Because of this, bookstores as a rule overorder everything so that they always have enough to meet demand at no risk, and lots and lots of books are remaindered and wasted. But with ebooks, you only "ship" what you sell, so returnability isn't an issue. So no more overordering, no more destroyed stock. And because of this, publisher profits are actually UP even though revenues are down.

So yeah, while I might have been wrong about the reason, I was right about the conclusion. Ebooks are more profitable than print books. And they should cost less. Period. To anyone who says different, I call bullshit.

Down and Out in the SF Ghetto: Part Whatever; or The Girls of Alpha Centauri

So I just read this.

And it made me think of this.

Which of course brought me back to the thoughts I had in the comments here.

And all of that made me think I wanted to go back to the well and talk, once again, about how the SF Ghetto sucks and try to explain, once again, why it is that a grown up who allows social conventions established while being bullied in childhood is suffering from arrested development and, like certain other groups of people, really needs to expand his or her horizons. And this time I'd explain how all of it is tied up in the pathological politics of identity in our culture for which I similarly have no patience despite my immense amount of sympathy for them.

And then I realized that the thought of doing all of that, once again, left me feeling fucking exhausted.

So I'm not going to do that.

Open Letter To Lawrence O'Donnell

Dear Lawrence O'Donnell,

I have been a regular watcher of the last word with Lawrence O'Donnell since it first came on the air. I have found your unapologetically left wing views on any number of subjects refreshing and insightful. But after the show on Monday March 26, I feel like I will be unable to watch in the future. For me, you have damaged your credibility and lost the moral high ground that you once possessed as a result of taking principled positions on issues based on facts and passionate advocacy.

I recognize that the Last Word is more an opinion show than a news program, but that doesn't alleviate your responsibility either to get the facts right or to be respectful of areas where the facts are not known. Your treatment of a lawyer engaged in representing his client, making personal attacks and challenges to his character for presenting his client's version of events, and of a journalist who reported a story you did not like, by misrepresenting her story as presenting as fact what were clearly flagged as reports from a law enforcement source in the story, were unprofessional and tacky. You should be ashamed of yourself.

I have followed the Trayvon Martin case closely since it first came to my attention a couple of weeks ago, and I am very dismayed by much about the case. I'm saddened that a young man can be viewed as suspicious and killed because of his race and attire. I find the application of Florida's stand your ground gun law horrific. My heart breaks for Mr. Martin's parents and I am furious at the apparent ineptitude of the Sanford Police department to conduct a reasonable and professional investigation of the shooting culminating with the arrest and charging of George Zimmerman. And I am sincerely disturbed that the issue has been drawn into yet another left/right crypto-racist condemnation of the President and liberalism by the despicable likes of Newt Gingrich and the right wing press.

Things They Don't Teach You In Law School

So they teach you a lot in Law School. You learn about contracts and how they are made, what makes them legitimate, what happens when they are breached. You learn about the procedure by which things happen in courts and the importance of getting your filings right and what happens when you get them wrong. You learn about property and criminal procedure and that the constitution doesn't protect as much as you think it does in some places, but protects a heck of a lot more than you think elsewhere.

But they never teach you what to do when everybody you know is wrong about something, doesn't understand why they're wrong about something, and get mad at you for not being wrong the same way they are because based on your political leanings they expect you to react the same way that they have.

That is really hard. And I think it's the reason a lot of lawyers either shut up about stuff or just decide to go with the reputation of being an asshole.

Why Fun Matters

I think if you were going to boil down everything I've been trying to say about literature since starting this site, you'd end up with this:

If you look at the bestselling novels at any given time, one thing almost all of them have in common is that they could be described as fun. Obviously, fun is something we value in our literature. And yet in the common way we think about literature, especially in universities and "highbrow" book reviews, fun is pretty low on the list of things we say makes a book good. Which seems like an obvious disconnect between what we actually think is important in literature and what we say we think is important in literature. Granted that 'fun' can be nebulous and subjective, but so can most values we look for in literature.

So among whatever other criteria I use, for a book to be 'good' to me, it should be fun.