Monday, 5 July 2010

Ego-Search Turns up Unexpected Review

LOST & FOUND cover250 Come on, admit it, we all do it. Every now and then we do a Google ‘ego-search’. That is, we put our own name into Google (real or pen names) and see what turns up. For the most part, we authors should find our own websites/blogs/facebooks/twitters at the top if the list, but you never know what might be on the second, third or fourth pages.

And the recent changes to Google, where you can narrow the search down to categories like ‘blogs’, ‘shopping’ and ‘discussions’ make for even more interesting reading.

Earlier today I came across this post by Roni Gehlke on Romance Book Scene from May 2009. Yes, last year. It’s a review of Lost & Found and not one I’d seen before. Roni gave the book three stars out of five and made some complimentary comments. But she also made some comments that I’d take issue with. Let me explain why.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a reader’s opinion is a reader’s opinion and they are entitled to it. Hell, if we all had the same opinion it’d be a very, very dull world. But in this case, Roni has done something that it seems a number of readers do – project the opinions of one of the characters onto the author and assumed they are his opinions. Which is very rarely the case.

A good author should be able to ‘get inside the head’ of his characters and write them in such a way that that character’s views sound convincingly like a real person’s views – even if those views are the opposite of the author’s views. In the same way that I can imagine, and hopefully convincingly write, what it’s like to have sex in the back of a limousine or be held at gun point even though neither of these things have happened to me, I should be able to write views that are racist, homophobic, or something equally unpleasant, even though they are not my views.

To quote from the review…

The book itself is well written. There are some wonderful erotic scenes throughout the story and the two characters are developed very well. The main problem I had with the book is more a matter of personal taste.

I’m pleased that Roni thinks the book is well written, Beth and Chris well developed and that the erotic scenes are good. And I’m pleased that she has admitted that what follows is a matter of personal taste – not all reviewers would have the good grace to do that.

But…

I like all genres of romance, but I don't believe that political agendas belong in romance. There was a scene in the book where I felt the author was just a little to preachy about the Iraq war.

First off, I don’t believe that Lost & Found does have a political agenda – at least that’s not how I wrote it. I used the Iraq War as a back drop to the story because it was contemporary and because it was dividing public opinion at the time. In retrospect, I should, perhaps, have invented a fictional war, but the war itself is not the point of conflict in the book. The point of conflict is the different views held by father and daughter about the son/brother and his reasons for joining the army in the first place.

The scene to which she is referring is one in which Chris and The Colonel (Beth’s father) have a confrontation while Beth is at work. It’s very tense. They are both very passionate. But that passion is because, in their own ways, they both care about Beth deeply. It comes out as an argument about the war, but read between the lines and you’ll see what it’s really about.

That said…

Chris’ views as he expresses them in the book are typical of the anti-war lobby here in the UK. They do argue that the war was more about oil than terrorism and they are pretty scathing in their opinions of George W. Bush. And Tony Blair, for that matter. But here’s the thing – Chris’ views and words do not reflect my views any more than The Colonel’s do.

For the record, I think that Bush and Blair both genuinely believed the reasons they gave for entering Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power at the time that they gave them and I wasn’t one of the millions that marched on Downing Street in protest. I think they both were led to believe by people they trusted that he was a genuine threat. I think it was a poorly executed war rather than an unnecessary one. The Iraq Enquiry currently taking place in the UK will shed light on its legality – so we’ll have to wait and see on that one.

But anyway…

Aside from Roni projecting a character’s views onto the author, there is something else that bothers me…

He was very insulting to our country and making a poorly chosen reference to our president.

Someone is a bit touchy, aren’t they? Okay, so I’ve admitted that perhaps I should have invented a fictional war – but if I’d have done that one has to ask if it would have had the same impact or indeed if it would have lessened the perceived political agenda (which wasn’t there anyway). But let’s face facts, no country is immune from criticism in fiction, and nor should they be. That’s the nature of free speech. And besides, I don’t think I did insult America. My treatment of The Colonel was pretty harsh, but he was the antagonist and it had to be that way. But look at my treatment of the funeral. Chris “had never seen anything like it” and was taken aback. That scene still stirs great emotion in me. I think it’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever written and I defy anyone to not put them self there, to hear Taps being played and to not feel the tears welling up.

My good friend and beta-reader is American - in fact, this book started out from an idea we kicked about together – and she didn’t feel insulted or that the country was insulted. I wonder, would Roni have felt I was insulting the country had I been American? Would she have reacted the same way? I can’t answer that.

There is a place for these kinds of storylines, I just don't happen to believe it is in a romance novel.

Okay. I have to say this. Who says there’s no place in romance for ‘controversial’ plot lines? Romance as a genre is not taken seriously by many critics and if that is to change then it can’t shy away from things like this. In my opinion, Romance is the ideal genre to tackle issues that make the reader think and examine and question their own views.  Otherwise what we end up with is a host of copycat books where only the names and settings change but the basics of everything else stay pretty much the same. Formulaic books. Books that fail to challenge.

Now, if that’s what some people want to write and some people want to read, that’s fine. All power to them. Me? I prefer the challenge. To challenge and to be challenged. But that’s just me.

Once again, I’d like to thank Roni for taking the time to publish her thoughts on my book. Let me clear, Roni’s review didn’t ‘upset me’. I respect her opinion. She acknowledged that the book was well written, the characters well developed and the love scenes erotic. And, at the end of the day, those three things are what I strive for. The rest, well, that’s personal taste and cause for debate. I if I can get people talking too, so much the better.

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