Respecting the Reader

There’s a stack of unread books that moved to New York with me that I’m determined to get through, one way or another. Some are titles I bought for myself; some I picked up because they were free or cheap at library sales; a few were gifted to me, or handed to me because the owner didn’t know what to do with them. Not all of them look interesting to me, but because my parents and I went to the trouble of boxing them up, driving them across the country, and lugging them into my new life, I have resolved to try each and every one of those books (sooner, rather than later). Continue reading

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Alicia Catherine Mant, the Cottage in the Chalk-Pit, and Jane Austen

This Christmas, my grandmother gave me a very cool present: a copy of The Cottage in the Chalk-Pit by Alicia Catherine Mant.

The Cottage in the Chalk-Pit was first published in London in 1822 (under the name Catherine Alicia Mant) by Harvey and Darton on Gracechurch Street. Basically a morality tale for Regency children, it is the story of a rich middle-class family that loses its fortune and how each of the four children conquers their vices to become industrious, responsible mini-adults before their father’s wealth is restored. While a little heavy-handed in morals, Alicia Catherine Mant does a good job of portraying engaging, lovable characters and contriving interesting circumstances in which they can learn their lessons.

The book isn’t just cool because it’s old, though. It turns out that Alicia Catherine Mant is the sister to my great-something-grandfather, Bishop Richard Mant. As if being the descendant of a novelist (a female novelist in pre-Victorian England!) isn’t awesome enough, there’s more: Alicia and Richard grew up in Southampton as the children of Reverend Richard Mant, rector of All Saints. When Jane Austen moved to Southampton to live with her brother Frank, she attended the All Saints church with Mant as her reverend, as mentioned in some of her letters.

Though Jane Austen died several years before The Cottage in the Chalk-Pit was published, I like to think that she and Alicia sat around tea discussing characters, plot-lines, and the woes of getting one’s stories printed just as my friends and I do now (only we substitute the tea with chocolate). In any case, I hope that talent is an inheritable trait.

Responsible Storytelling in Romances

In the midst of a romance kick a few weeks ago, I started a Regency that sounded like it fit the formula to a T: a reticent, somewhat awkward lady encounters a society rake, they initially want nothing to do with each other, and then, of course, they end up together. This is what I look for in a romance because when I read a romance, I’m reading for the familiar experience of the formula. But before too long, I put down this particular romance.

To be technical, it followed the formula. The lady and the rake encountered each other; she shied away from him while he set his cap for her; the dance of pursuit began. Only in this case, it wasn’t the “dance” that you get in most romances: chance encounters, witty banter, some act of fortune that bonds the protagonists together. In this book, it was plain pursuit. The rake wanted to seduce the lady, and so he badgered her, he followed her, and–this is the point where I put it down–he kissed her after she said she didn’t want to be touched by him.

Like I said, romances thrive on their formulas, and part of those formulas is a mismatch between what the protagonists say they want and what they do. But not included in that formula is sexual assault. The way this book handled what was happening was basically an institutionalization of sexual assault; because the rake is just as much a protagonist as the lady, the reader is set up to root for him as much as we root for the lady. Worse, I’m convinced the author didn’t even realize she was writing a story of sexual coercion. The way the rake isolated the lady socially and physically, cornered her, badgered her, and then told her when she said “no” she meant “yes,” was not analyzed, castigated, or even really mentioned: it just happened, because it was the author’s way of filling in the pursuit formula.

My reaction was to stop reading. This wasn’t because I don’t think sexual assault should be written about; we live in a world where sexual assault is prevalent yet unaddressed, and that means we should be writing, reading, and talking about it. But this wasn’t an exploration of the topic or even an attempt to explore what might have been acceptable in the Regency period. This was an author’s attempt to raise the stakes and fill a formula without thinking. That is more than sloppy storytelling: it is irresponsible, and it is all too easy to find in romances.

Have you ever come across a romance that crosses the line without realizing it? Have you read a romance that addresses sexual assault while still fulfilling its formula?

First Date: Why Musicals Rock

This weekend, I attended my first Broadway show as a real New Yorker. It’s a new musical starring Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, and it is an hour and a half of one couple’s awkward first date.

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, then you know my love of realism. As I waited for the show to begin, I started asking myself what it is about musicals that I love so much. After all, how much farther from realism can you get than people breaking into song and dance in the middle of a scene?

Even more than that, because of the songs, Broadway dialogue tends to be sweeping and unrealistic, the kind of dialogue that I would strike out with a big red pen if I saw it written in a novel.

One, simple-yet-complex answer to my question is that music is powerful enough to carry the shows through their other, weaker moments.

On top of that, though, I think there is something to be said for different media being able to achieve different things. A play cannot have the same observations that a novel does because it is bound by different rules. It is a collaboration of many artists; it cannot use narration in the same way because it is using acting; its rules of story telling are often different. Similarly, a novel is restricted in ways that plays cannot: novels aren’t musicals because they can’t break into song and dance (but maybe in the future e-books will?).

In fact, a comment I often make on manuscripts I’m editing is that the writer is being too cinematic. We all watch television and movies, and so we are schooled to record our stories as if they were being watched. Particularly in first person narrations, this means relying too heavily on recording gestures of the narrator or of other characters that the point-of-view character would never actually notice; it means having the narrator guess at another character’s emotions because in a movie, we could intuit something that in the writing, we can’t. Usually, being too cinematic means barely scratching the surface of your scene or story because you are trying too hard to turn it into a medium that it is not.

I loved First Date, just like I love almost every musical I’ve seen, but I would probably have found it trite as a novel. Not all art is the same, and not all art can do the same thing, but when it is true to the medium it is, art is amazing.