Amish Romance and Pensive Protagonists

The Library. That temple of reading I love so well. Yesterday, I paid a visit and did my usual meticulous search through fiction (A-Z this time, last time was Z-A). As I browsed the stacks, judging books by their spines and covers, I noticed something odd. Amish romance novels. Yeah, that’s a thing. Fresh-faced girls with proper bonnets on their heads looking ready to be wooed (under supervision, of course). Oh.

I am sure my fellow library goers have noticed that there is a science fiction and fantasy section, and there is a fiction section. Some science fiction and fantasy, the more ‘literary’ books graduate from the sci-fi section and take up residence among the regular fiction. Next to the Amish romances. A corner of my brain stewed with indignant anger as I browsed thinking, ‘they should make a section for romance and clear it out of the main stacks.’ Ah, typical geek delusions of persecution. We look at someone else’s fast food of reading and turn up our noses while crying foul when they do it to us.

It struck me as a bit wrong that I was trying to do to the romance genre what is frequently done to the science fiction and fantasy genres. After all, just as there is low-level sci-fi/fantasy, there is low-level romance. Conversely, just as there is top-notch literary sci-fi/fantasy, there must be top-notch romance. Of course, when fantasy impresses the gatekeepers, it is dubbed ‘Magical Realism’ or ‘Speculative Fiction’ in order to separate it from the riff raff and make it acceptable to read in public. What does romance become? Of course, whatever that is, I have serious doubts that the series of 20 Amish love tales make the cut.

Who am I to judge anyway? Growing up I consumed every piece of science fiction and fantasy I could get my hands on. Some of it was pretty bad (original Battlestar Galactica, yikes!), but I enjoyed it. Poorly written, pulpish sci-fi and fantasy are like the McDoubles of reading – cheap, fast, and providing the salt I crave at the moment. Neil Gaiman (by the way, he recently made his way into the main stacks at my library) spoke of the fact that the sections in book stores, libraries, video stores, etc. are more there to help you avoid what you don’t want, rather than help you find what you do want. Exclusion for the sake of expediency. Perhaps if the science fiction section merged with the main stacks, patrons would be annoyed to have to flip past all those space sagas and sword-wielding barbarians in their search for some good wholesome Amish romance. In any case, I wonder who are the gatekeepers at my library deciding what makes the cut for the main stacks.

Since I was feeling judgmental anyway, my thoughts turned to book covers and titles. Writers pour their life and soul into a work, then the industry gets involved in reworking titles and designing covers that will sell. The result is trends. One trend led to a plethora of books titled The ____________’s Wife/Daughter. It is so prolific as to be a turn off. Early on in this trend, Audrey Niffenegger published The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is an excellent read that is now saddled with old trend of a title. A quick search on my part revealed that Emily St. John Mandel published a blog on just this topic back in 2012 (http://www.themillions.com/2012/03/the-___s-daughter.html). For the most part, these titles signify historical romance and have the corresponding low-bodice, big skirts cover.

Speaking of covers – the pensive protagonist. That man or woman (usually woman) looking off into the distance contemplating woe. I began to wonder how many authors shuddered when they found their book reduced to this cliche. How many looked and said, “this girl is about 15 years younger than my protagonist!” Mandel, from the above link, noted the prevalence of the empty shoes and the headless, sundress wearing protagonist. These are typically a quick message to me that I will not be ‘into’ the book. As I skipped over all the pensive protagonists, empty shoes, headless girls, and wives, and daughters, I began to wonder, what short cuts do the publishers use to catch me? As it turns out, pseudo-Victorian cut-outs, misty or foggy scenes, and textured covers. I might not buy or check out the book, but as I browse, I stop to examine these. I enjoyed The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern), and I find myself taking a glance at covers utilizing the black, white, grey, red cutouts. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke), and The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker), so I give the misty, textured covers a second glance. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Slade House hooked me, so I pause over sparse, geometric covers. Enter C. Robert Cargill’s Dreams and Shadows – the cover (geometric cut-outs and a misty view) caught my eye, and the book delivered. Marketing works, and I am hardly immune.

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