Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have We Got Stuck in a Rut?

I've just finished reading some novels written in the 1980s by Eva Ibbotson. I learned about her work on the All About Romance forum, which is a place where readers discuss their favorite romances.

I'm finding her work delightful--far more delightful, I have to confess than the current crop of romances I've been reading. They are historical novels with strong romance elements. But what makes them so pleasurable for me is that they break every rule that we modern day romance writers have been told we have to follow to please our audience.

1. Ibbotson uses several two points of view (POV) in her novels which you will no longer find employed in today's romances. One is the omniscient POV where the narrative voice is the voice of the author.

Austen wrote in that voice. P.G. Wodehouse wrote in that voice. It is a voice that lends itself to humor and word play. It works best for comedies of manners or any other kind of story where we don't need to get deeply into the emotions of the major characters. But Austen shows us it can be used to tell an emotionally moving story too. No one would ding Pride and Prejudice because it isn't written in a deep third POV that switches back and forth between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. In fact, P&P would be less entertaining if Austen, the narrator, didn't play the part she plays in telling the story.

Reading Ibbotson's hilarious Magic Flutes (recently reissued as The Reluctant Heiress) made me yearn to write a book in this wonderful, ironic POV. But its unlikely any Romance editor today would allow it.

Magic Flutes is being reissued, ridiculously, as a YA title, probably because it doesn't have hot sex scenes, though its humor and subject matter would be much more likely to appeal to an educated older woman with wide cultural interests and enough experience in life to recognize the targets of Ibbotson's wit.

Ibbotson's Madensky Square was written in the first person POV. She uses that voice to tell a story of a group of inter-related characters in a foreign culture in a way that reminded me very much of Maeve Binchy's best novels--the ones written before she descended to writing sickeningly sweet sentimentality.

Madensky Square is not a romance, though there are love stories in it. Still, the technique of using a first person narrator who functions much like an omniscient narrator while having her own, moving emotional story to tell really intrigued me.

Bottom line: I came away from reading these books thinking that whoever decided ALL romances have to be written in Deep Third Person POV with the POV ping ponging from heroine to hero and back again should be shot.

2. Common wisdom is that you can only sell historicals today if they are set in a time and place the even the most ignorant reader is familiar with. Hence we have book after book about Henry the Eighth [yawn], or set in the Regency, a period which, as much as I used to love it, has become a bit like a wonderful little town in Tuscany that is now so crowded with tour busses you would no longer want to go there. (My next book is set in the years just following the end of the Regency for that reason.)

Ibbotson sets several of her best stories in a historical time and place that was completely new to me: early 20th century Vienna. She brings a completely alien, unknown world alive for her readers to where you end up feeling when you put down the book as if you just took a brief but illuminating vacation somewhere new, exciting and completely undiscovered.

How I would love to read more romances set in new times and places, written by people who have their facts straight and who tells stories that make their historical period come alive.

Unfortunately, Romance has moved in the exact opposite direction with editors wanting stories where heroines behave in ways that would be believable in modern New Jersey, but not 19th Century England. Gently bred virgins jump in bed with handsome men, just because they're sexy. The exquisite sense of propriety which defined that time period for more than a century is forgotten, and the reader who longs for a historical romance finds a modern romance in fancy dress, which is something else entirely.

3. Ibbotson's heros and heroines do not go through wrenching emotional journeys. They do not deal with abuse. They do not suffer intense but highly predictable Dark Moments three quarters of the way through the book. Even so, we end up with a satisfying love story.

Several of her stories turn on Rival themes. The hero is engaged to a woman who is the kind of women other women love to hate. Beautiful. Vain. Materialistic. They kick small dogs and are mean to children. The hero has idealized him, but over the course of the story the scales fall off his eyes and he sees that he has made a huge mistake. The heroine, of course, is all that the Rival is not. Eventually the Rival gets what's coming to her and the heroine gets her man.

It's not noble, but I have to admit, this kind of story can be very fun to read. I also have to admit, I've gotten to the point where all too often I can predict ever single thing that is going to happen in a conventional romance because editors and agents are so wedded to a certain form that no one can publish romances that wander from it.

4. Ibbotson's stories do not focus obsessively on the hero, heroine, and their sexual tension. In fact, they are remarkably devoid of sex and yet great fun to read.

In the place of sexual tension we find richly developed settings and characters. We learn the intriguing details of the environment in which her characters operate. In A Countess Below Stairs we learn all about the "below stairs" world of servants in a large estate. In Magic Flutes/The Reluctant Heiress we learn about what it is like back stage in an Opera company that is filled with wonderfully drawn characters whose peculiarities are both hilarious and believable. In Madensky Square we learn what it is like to be a dressmaker in 1911. In all these stories we meet strongly painted supporting characters who stay in our minds after we put down the books because their characters are so skillfully developed.

In short, her external plot is stronger than the internal plot, something forbidden tho those of us writing in today's romance genre, but something that Ibbotson proves can, in the hands of a skilled writer, provide a delightful, entertaining reading experience.

Of course, the explanation for why we don't see books like this anymore may be that there are very few people writing today who have the writing skill Ibbotson has. That may be why the genre, which now demands that its practitioners crank out a book ever 3 to 6 months, avoid the kinds of books she writes, because written too quickly by writers who don't have her level of talent, the result might be unreadable.

What do you think? Do you long for something just a bit different in the books you buy when you are looking for Romance?


Shayne Parkinson said...

Those do sound delightful. I see that our library has quite a afew books by Ibbotson - and most of them are currently out on loan, so she must be fairly popular here.

Common wisdom is that you can only sell historicals today if they are set in a time and place the even the most ignorant reader is familiar with.

And that's one of the reasons I know I'm unlikely ever to excite a publisher. C19th New Zealand is not exactly the stuff of endless mini-series.

Pamela Cayne said...

I guess I want both--there are times I want to pick up a book and know what I'm getting. Call it comfort reading, call it a fuzzy blanket to my sometimes frazzled brain, but when I want such a book, it works.

However, I do like the different. I love seeing some of these historical-paranormal-suspense mashups, just as I love some of the different ones, like some of the Dorchester 1930s India or Jade Lee's Tiger series.

I like to believe that in today's e-publishing and blogable world there will be more varied fiction coming at us, and we'll be able to find the kinds of books that have broken rules and are the stronger for it.

Miranda Neville said...

Hi Jenny. Loved this post because I too am a recent Ibbotson fan. My one beef with her (and I don't care because I've loved every book so far, especially A Company of Swans which you don't mention) is that her plotting can be a bit clunky. She's a devotee of the Big Misunderstanding. But I don't disagree with a word you've said.

Caroline said...

I love A Countess Below Stairs!

I have a guess why they're YA, though--there are a lot of bright lines in her books. The heroines are (in the books I've read) very, very good and noble and pure, no matter how desperate their lives have become. The heroes have more darkness, but mostly so they can be sucked in by the eeeevil bad people (see: greedy, vain, manipulative fiancee of hero). And the settings, while lovely and different from the bestselling tried-and-true Regency/Scotland romances, are also *instructive*--not that there's anything wrong with that, but I see why publishers would feel it was worth marketing to the YA crowd.