Trolled by the Future

Yesterday I wrote a thought piece about writing. When I wrote it, I was thinking about what I write, basically, which is serious literature. I used the word “serious” to mean, you know, serious. Serious, not better, not important, but serious. Anyone who’s read any of my books knows they are serious shit. Leprosy? The Protestant Revolution? Depression and the Crusades? Crossing the Atlantic and dying enroute? Betrayal? This is about as serious as it gets, I think. I’m kind of writing a novel now and am having a hard time figuring out some important things like which of two characters is the protagonist.

Most important about the now deleted post, it doesn’t make a point at all. It’s me thinking.

In the trolled post (since deleted) I mentioned how, at a book-signing a conference of writers of historical fiction I attended, another writer pointed out that most of the historical fiction represented there was “bodice rippers.” I’d never heard the term before. He made the point that he didn’t think that’s what I wrote. I wrote about the (rather disturbing, surreal) image of suddenly (at the end of the reading) women suddenly appearing in costume, most of which involved corsets worn outside their clothes or approximating Victorian underwear. They were having a great time; I wasn’t. I envied them and was simultaneously disgusted by them. It was very uncomfortable and still inexplicable. Anyway, I left and had dinner with friends.

I wrote about how I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but no agent or publisher has picked up my books which, of course, makes me doubt myself. Is it because what I write is so serious? Who really wants to read about leprosy or the Protestant Reformation? I don’t think anyone wakes up thinking, “Oh man, if I just had a good story about a leper.” I wrote that my editor (whom I pay) described my writing as “sophisticated,” and I wrote that I don’t know what she means. I don’t, and when I asked her, I didn’t get an answer. Do I think my writing is sophisticated? I have no fucking clue.

I wrote about how I’ve been watching film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, how Jane was unknown in her time and now? What would she think if she knew? If she saw such leading lights as Kiera Knightly or Emma Thompson traipsing around in period garb on the big screen? Her novels look at the people around her, daily life is well represented, and while many of the characters hang on some rung of minor nobility, they are not kings and queens. Great matters of international destiny are not addressed in her books — not directly anyway (see Mansfield Park which obliquely contends with the slave trade in Barbados). Austen writes from and within a world that was once called “the woman’s sphere.”

One of her books — Northanger Abbey — pokes gentle fun at “gothic novels,” the bodice rippers of her time. She doesn’t criticize the novels; her criticism is leveled at people who believe they represent reality.

Expecting to hear about women writers who took a male nom de plume or wrote using initials, I then wrote about a writer — A.C. Barnard — who made a living and supported the family — mother, father and sister — by writing serialized gothic stories. Then, one day, this writer wrote straight from the heart, and out came a book that has been made into at least 15 filmed versions — big and little screen — as well as an opera and stage plays. The first film version was made in 1912 and the most recent in 2019.

Never did I say “bodice rippers” or their cohort, “romance novels,” are inferior to what I write. I don’t think so. But they are not serious. They are not meant to be. And if they were suddenly, serious, they would be something else altogether. My “troll” went off on a whole rant accusing me of being “elitist” and various other post-1980 terms used in academia to address the socially privileged, stuff written by “dead white men.” She appears to be from the generation that was taught to look at Hemingway as a misogynist rather than looking at his writing. Uh, sweet-cheeks, no. But…

Some literature is intrinsically better than other literature. I’m sorry. I know you were taught otherwise, but yeah. Some literature is fantastic, but so of a historical moment that its greatness fades in time. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of books over the course of my life, books like Black Like Me that end up being read in history classes or studies of “1960s American Literature” or something like that. Jane Austen’s work is an example of what I would call really great literature. She — all on her own without any social support for her work — found the pulse of the human heart. Does she tell “great” stories? Serious stories? Not really. Really good literature entertains — and even now the adventures of Odysseus have that power. And what is entertainment? Something more than the genitalia must be engaged, yet something more than the brain must be engaged. The great literature has the ability to exist in the domain of the bodice ripper and the domain of more serious themes.

She accused me of writing a “humble-brag,” and no, it wasn’t. I think anyone who is serious (oh that word again) about their writing is going to care about where their work fits into the world of finished work, especially, maybe, when they embark (as I have embarked) on a new project. It’s a very vague moment — who am I as a writer? What do I do? What do I want to do? What do I want to do differently than I’ve done in the past? Anything?

So…I naturally checked out her blog. Very erudite, very focused on popular literature and its value (which I don’t dispute — my thesis was basically on popular fiction of the mid-19th century) and a kind of oblique vindication of romance novels. Well, sweet-cheeks if you’re reading this, first, romance fiction doesn’t need to be justified. I can’t write it. I’ve tried. People should read and write whatever they want and derive from it whatever is there for them to derive. The historical bodice ripper? I can’t do it. There are some chapters in my serious novels where people get blow jobs and have sex with their brother’s wife, other scenes when their long-term yearning results in the miracle of requited love, but those scenes don’t drive the stories. You made the (salient) point that anyone who reads (or writes) romance novels has first and foremost to be interested in romance. I’m not. No judgment there, it’s just not a “thing” for me. I completely agree that the yearning for love and sex drive the world on every level for every species, but it’s not my metier in life or in writing.

Anyway, I ended up feeling really crappy after reading that comment. I felt like I had collided with a future I didn’t like when it was in the process of emerging. It was a future that made me happy I didn’t teach literature. I saw that future on the horizon when I first saw The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature. How did the more-or-less accidental appearance (or non-appearance) of certain genitalia turn into a literary genre? I honestly couldn’t fathom it. To me — then and now — literature is apart from the writer because the writer and his/her world will pass into oblivion. The writing might remain and those who have sense of historical responsibility will attempt to learn what they can about the world in which that writer lived, but we can never know the assumptions, beliefs, struggles or anything, really, about the back-story of the existence of people in the past. To me that matters. I abhor slavery but I also realize I’m not living then or there, in the Maryland of my ancestor who was a slave-holder. That man’s descendant went on to marry the daughter of a lineage that first opposed slavery in Pennsylvania. How in the world could I ever comprehend that? And can I judge it? I don’t feel I have the right.

28 thoughts on “Trolled by the Future

  1. Couldn’t agree more! That was exquisite…point made. No judgement, just what is. Your writing sets you apart because it is a history of what has happened along with real-life people. Romance novels and fiction are light-hearted fun meant for entertaining. But there are many who are truly interested in how and what happened. Your writing is indeed spectacular. Whoever said whatever, “sweet cheeks” should step back a pace or better yet, buy your book and read it!!!!!!!!!!

    • Thank you. Now that I’m not living in the world of academia any more I really think a lot of this comes down to personal taste and where a person is in life. I wouldn’t have said that forty years ago. I can write funny stories but when I tried writing romance, it just didn’t happen. “Sweet cheeks'” post explained why that is. 🙂

      • It’s true. Either your interested in history and as a teen I read everything I could get my hands on, and now I write light-hearted stuff. Mystery with a little romance thrown in because it’s escapism. I can’t fault people for enjoying that these days, and I’m constantly hopeful that the younger generation will pick up a real book and read about the past and how we got to where we are and hopefully learn from it. I love your writing. Your incredible. Sweet cheeks can go hang! hehe

        • I think I wrote some pretty “sweet cheeks” type stuff back in the day. I remember one piece that was published in a now defunct academic journal about being proud of my “ivory tower” university degree. Now Sweet Cheeks has accused me of being in the “Ivory tower.” I don’t deny it but less than she knows. I love mysteries, but not to read. I like to watch them. 🙂

  2. I am speechless. I love historical novels and “serious” writing. When in HS a good friend insisted I read a “bodice ripper” as a break from my usual fare (I think I was reading my way through Adam Bede). Anyway it was silly but I read it because she wanted me to. Then she gave me another. I skimmed it and returned it. The next one she gave me I summarized the (formulaic) plot without opening it. She was both impressed and sad. I haven’t read one since… We all want our writing to be accepted and enjoyed (yes some people do enjoy serious topics). Stay the course and let the new generation of writers do their thing. There is room for both especially since the readership is heavily weighted in favor of the silent/boomer generations who are loath to read books containing LOL, TTFN, LMAO etc!

    • I think it’s a matter of personal taste which is a really superficial thing to think (according to my academic training) but I think that’s it. I look back over my reading “career” and in my 20’s I was looking for information about life and self-discovery. In my 30’s I was reading Chinese novels because I had no idea where I’d been. In my 40s, I started writing my own fiction and reading became research. Through all of it I loved real-life adventure stories and nature writing. But it was purely for pleasure. I went after a literature degree just because I liked to read. I had no “elevated” motives. As a writer I don’t have any elevated motives either. 🙂

  3. Personally, I have never appreciated romance novels. I prefer “serious” literature, mysteries, biographies, and a few other genres. I love 19th century gothic stories and medieval literature. – Don’t let one troll discourage you. Has she even read your books? I have. And, I am a fan. Do not put down your pen (or keyboard).

    • Don’t worry, Robin. I don’t think I can put down my keyboard. 🙂 Mostly I was stunned by the intensity, passion and the inaccurate assumptions thrown out by the ‘troll’. It did make me reassess what I’d written and maybe that’s never a bad thing.

  4. Yeah… it’s a matter of personal taste: “different strokes for different folks.”

    Don’t sweat the ‘troll minds’ out there. You can write, lady. Trust me. You can lay it down when you get rolling. Don’t worry about the publishing end of this deal. We write because *we are moved to write*. And though nice, we don’t write strictly to get published.

    My advice: Find where your writing passion (and best talent) lies. Write therein for yourself. Be true to yourself. Don’t worry about the *context*. Don’t fret somebody’s else’s vision. Takes a season or two to find your best *groove*. I was 50+ years old before I even recognized writing was a primary passion. Still finding my *groove*.

    Best Regards, and again YOU CAN WRITE, lady. Don’t sweat it.

  5. I loved historical bodice rippers when I was a teenager. Emphasis on teenager. I soon came to learn that the history in them was fake and that quite a lot of the bodice ripping was not consensual. So I moved on. I did read a few a couple of years ago. They were written by a scientist friend. They were hilariously full of bodice ripping cliches, which she freely admitted. I’m not sure that her other readers realised this, or if they did, they certainly didn’t care, and as a writer, my friend would never be condescending to her readers.

    I’m not sure that I would describe your books as serious literature, which I interpret as I need a dictionary to read it. Your books are thoughtful, well written, well researched, and demonstrate a deep understanding of the human condition with all its foibles and its blessings.

  6. Never was a bodice ripper fan. I cannot think too much of someone who enjoys tearing down someone else’s thoughts. Jealous much, sweet cheeks? Blow it off, Martha. Glad you are back.

  7. I’m sorry that you were trolled. I did read that piece you wrote before you took it down and I did not feel that you were bragging. I think what people like to read is entirely their own business and I try not to be judgemental about it. I have read bodice rippers but they are not my favourite genre whether historical or modern. I always think “Get on with the story already.” and leave the graphic descriptions out of it but that’s just me. I know that many people enjoy the genre because it is escapist, not something you have to think about too much. As I said, each to their own.

    • Yep. I don’t mind escapist stuff — that’s why I watch some of the stuff I watch on my laptop. I’m glad you read the post I pulled and I’m very happy to have your opinion. I wasn’t bragging.

  8. Wondered what happened to a post I was saving to read later. Great post. Trolls = bullies with self-esteem issues. Ignore. Seems to me the reason we writers of whatever label even have a place in the writing universe is because there are such diverse tastes and genres, audiences eager to read. Can’t we simply enjoy whatever floats our boat – as a writer and/or a reader – without judgment or shame?

  9. I can’t write popular fiction either. And it isn’t for want of trying. I’m not sure I was ever destined to be popular. It probably bothers me less than it bothers you because long ago I realized my limits as a writer. I’ve had decades to realize what I can do and what I can’t do.

    At one time, I thought I could write a books called “First chapters” and include all the first chapter or first two or three chapters of books I’d started, then ran out of plot or story or characters … or something. Eventually, it became less important. I did want to write a Great Novel — or even a pretty good one that people would want to read. It just didn’t happen.

    But you do write beautifully. Yes, it’s a bit heavy, but it’s also good and interesting. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just who you are, which is a GOOD thing.

  10. I actually read a bodice-ripper once. Aside from being terminally politically incorrect, I seriously wondered where the main character got so many bodices and whether she bothered to repair them or just got new ones. After the first bodice, it got… boring.

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