Beyond Heaving Bosoms
The Smart Bitches' Guide To Romance Novels
by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, popular culture (2009)
Fireside, $15.00, ISBN 978-1-4165-7122-3
Beyond Heaving Bosoms is too much like a watered-down book version of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. What amazes me most about this book is how, at the end of the day, I find myself having so little to say about it. Okay, maybe not that little, but it's not a lot either. This book doesn't bring out the enthusiasm in me, but it doesn't make me yawn in boredom either. It's like reading a summary of all the "Greatest Hits" content of that blog.
This book is supposed to be a snarky look at the romance genre, but I feel that there is nothing here that hasn't been said before by the authors and Dear Author or even, if we go back to the days of Web 1.0, websites like The Romance Reader, All About Romance, or hey, even my website. But if you read this book, you'd be hard pressed to imagine that there is even an online romance scene before Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels and Dear Author, because the only mention of Web 1.0 websites is All About Romance, and that's during a discussion of the Too Stupid To Live heroine. Judging from the All About Romance's reaction to someone else naming a blog "Desert Island Keepers", perhaps that is a wise thing to do. Do you know that their best friend forever Robin L Harders, a former English professor who now goes by as Janet on Dear Author, was the first person who identified the concept of "antiheroine" in the romance genre? It says so on page 33.
Still, despite my occasional befuddlement during moments when I can't remember when this or that concept is appropriated by, trademarked to, or credited to the Smart Bitches' circle of friends - clearly, my memory is going - Ms Wendell and Ms Tan manage to get a few chuckles out of me. The flowchart of what makes a romance "Old Skool" or "New Skool" is pretty good, for example. But as someone who has lingered in the community for over ten years now, I find that there isn't anything here that hasn't been said before. Perhaps a new reader to the genre will appreciate the meta-jokes better. Maybe it's the delivery style, I don't know, but I get this feeling that I am merely reading a summary of the blog instead of a book about the genre.
That is not to say that the content is pure fluff, mind you. There are some interviews with authors like Emma Holly about the craft, some passionate defense of the genre that occasionally feels contradictory considering how the genre is (rightfully) mocked for its more ridiculous tropes at the same time, summaries and commentaries of tired clichés and trends of the genre... only, as I've said, I've read and heard them all before so nothing here particularly stands out to me as a revelation or a new point of view.
The authors clearly love romance despite the fact that much of the content in this book can be used by detractors of the genre to mock the genre further - if I don't know of them before, I will still be able to realize this while reading this book because Ms Tan and Ms Wendell's playful but sensible suggestions on how the genre can be made more interesting and diverse do not destroy the essence of the genre. This is not like some ridiculous know-it-all that has never read a romance novel before telling me in a patronizing tone, "You know, the genre can be improved if we get rid of the happily ever after, put in more drama, more reality, some cancer, some AIDS..." The authors know that romance readers want the happy ending and the optimism in the genre and they understand that changing these fundamental aspects of the genre will turn the genre into.... well, something else. They understand the genre, they appreciate the strengths of the genre, and they are not afraid to admit the shortcomings of the genre. This is what makes this book different from an insulting article in some magazine deriding romance novels as trash.
Let's see, what else is here? There's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style activity section that I unfortunately don't find particularly interesting. But that's probably just me. Oh, and there are some brief mentions of the issues faced by African-American romances and gay romances before these two ladies launch into another tired, old, and long defense of their coverage of the Cassie Edwards saga. I find it tedious that they lash out, again, at people who dare to even say anything less than glowing about their coverage, using general terms like "Bitch bashing" to describe the antics of these people. Yes, plagiarism is wrong, but it's not like we cannot disagree about the way the drama plays out (as opposed to saying that we condone plagiarism), no? Let's face it, Cassiegate eventually became boring and tedious because it soon degenerated into a circus featuring a bunch of people coming up with repetitive and un-clever ways to call Cassie Edwards names.
You know what's better than Cassiegate? The forgotten prequel, Cindi Louis-gate. You know, when I had the temerity to put up a "please remove the review of Cindi Louis' Crazy Little Thing Called Love but we can't tell you why" letter from a lawyer, Laurie Gold from All About Romance caught wind of it, and she did some extensive sleuthing to discover from a tight-lipped community that Cindi Louis had plagiarized a category romance for her debut effort? We had plenty of drama, from accusations of racism to rehashes of the Nora Roberts/Janet Dailey saga, and even suspense of the whodunnit kind. And you know what? Laurie Gold never once made a public statement that everyone should be on her side or that if you are not with All About Romance, she and her fans will tar you with the "haters" label and discuss openly about how you must face "repercussions" for your sin of disagreeing with them.
Yes, I know Cassiegate puts Smart Bitches on the radar of Important People Outside The Romance Community and it's their biggest claim to fame so far, but come on, let's not blow things even more out of proportion and act like wounded does just because some people are not proclaiming them to be heroes. Let's not devote a long chapter to essentially all about childishly hitting back at the folks who didn't share your opinion... oh, wait.
Also, let's face it, while plagiarism is not something to be condoned, it's hardly the biggest problem faced by the genre. It's a problem, yes, but I'd go as far as to argue that the two other subjects given a superficial treatment (African-American romances and gay romances) deserve a bigger coverage. There's pervasive and critical problem in the genre, and then there's subject matter that is deemed very, very important by the Smart Bitches because it happens to be their scoop and they want everyone to keep talking about it. Their own constant whining about not being awarded medals for their handling of the Cassiegate matter is threatening to tip Cassiegate into the latter category. The length of the Cassiegate drama coverage, as opposed to the length of the coverages of issues that I feel are more relevant to authors and readers such as the shelving and integration of African-American romances into the genre, only adds to the whole "we are patting our backs" feel of that particularly overly-defensive coverage.
Anyway, the Cassiegate silliness aside, Beyond Heaving Bosoms is a decent read, if an occasionally self-congratulatory one. But I'm not sure whether I'd recommend this book to someone who has been following Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Dear Author, All About Romance, The Romance Reader, or even my website (hello, you) for a long time, because you may just feel that you have read pretty much everything here before. Perhaps they should rope in Jane Litte and Dr Sarah SG Frantz for a second edition so that they can expand the content to include more on gay romances, electronic books, lawyer stuff related to the genre such as copyright, and Suzanne Brockmann. Okay, maybe not Suzanne Brockmann, heh, but such added content would have added more value for money when it comes to this book even if it means that they may have to change the subtitle of the book.
On the other hand, this will probably be a good gift for the casual romance reader who doesn't follow the online romance community regularly, or maybe a non-romance reader who is open to the possibility that the genre isn't all about bodice-ripping.
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