Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan occupy some interesting real estate in the romance world; a previously untenanted corner of Innernet and
Romancelandia. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is a different sort of headspace when it comes to a website about Romance novels. It’s frank, forthright, and not above fart jokes.
Wendell and Tan don’t just review novels, they also subject them to analysis, and praise or pan them as the situation requires. They demonstrate an unquenchable and
exuberant love for the entire genre, while acknowledging – and even celebrating – its most ridiculous excesses. They’ve amassed an interesting and intelligent readership who tune in for the commentary and stay for fun. They even popularized the ever-useful phrase ‘man-titty’ as a descriptive aid in the discussion of cover art. And now the original Smart Bitches have written a book of their own: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels
Jenny Crusie, as usual, sums it up perfectly. Her back cover quote reads: “I love the Smart Bitches. They look at romance with clear but loving eyes, and they do it with wit, style, intelligence, and snark”. Yes, to all of that. Beyond Heaving Bosoms isn’t a defense: the genre doesn’t need one. Nor is it a textbook filled with critical application, or a list of good reads. Instead it’s a cheerful guide to the best – and worst – the genre has to offer.
The Table of Contents is fully indicative of the Bitches’ style and approach. The chapters aren’t numbered, they’re named. Chapter Cleavage, for instance, is the introduction. Chapter Corset focuses on heroines, and Chapter Codpiece on the heroes. Chapter WTF deconstructs the tired bromide that Romance is ‘chick-porn’. It’s all good stuff.
Tan and Wendell mix their historical examination with healthy (even heaping) doses of humour. They track the overall change in the genre from Old Skool (1972 to the mid-‘80s) to New Skool (early ‘80s to today). And they do it not from the perspective of distant academicsm but as passionately invested readers. The kind of fans who will happily pay the outrageous price for floor seats… but who will boo and throw popcorn if the team (or in this case writer) doesn’t bring it.
I can’t quite tell how Beyond Heaving Bosoms would work for those unfamiliar with the genre. It’s full of references and allusions that resonate more strongely if you have the kind of familiarity that comes from decades of reading. For me, that added a warm sense of collegiality. Though I’ll confess, despite being an insider I disagree with a few of their conclusions about the nature
of characters, and of stories themselves. But I enjoyed following the path Wendell and Tan took to reach those conclusions. And as they make very clear, it doesn’t matter. There is room for as many kinds of interpretation as there is overexposed vampire angst.
My favourite part of the book was also the most serious. It’s a subsection of Chapter Phallus, titled “Controversies, Scandals, and Not Being Nice”. It’s the section in which Wendell and Tan expose some of the ugly arguments that happen offstage, between readers, writers, and the Romance world in general. Frankly, I think it should be required reading for writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers too, because the questions they raise are important. Should Black Romances be shelved with Romance or in the Black Authors section?* Many readers want to see the Black Authors section grow; many writers want access to the immense selling power of the Romance section. The question of gays in Romance is even more fraught: several years ago a particularly fearful RWA Board tried to pass a motion that would declare all Romances to be “between a man and a woman”. So what does it mean that most of the people writing – and reading – gay e-romances are straight women?
The section on plagiarism didn’t raise questions for me, except of the “What’s wrong with you?” variety. In December 2007, a friend of Tan’s discovered that novelist Cassie Edwards had been lifting passages from other works for years. Tan posted those findings, along with the response of Edwards’ then-publisher Signet Books, and ignited a firestorm of truly epic proportions. What surprised, and disappointed, the Bitches most was how many responders attacked them for “picking on” Edwards. Yes, they had often made fun of Edwards’ books on the site. But plagiarism is wrong, no matter how long you’ve been doing it; how old you were when you started, and how Not Nice it is for a person to point out that you’ve been stealing someone else’s words. Plagiarism is wrong. Period.
As I said, it was the most serious part of the book. I could have read twice as much. But Wendell and Tan play to their strengths, and one of those is a bawdy and irrepressable sense of humour. On occasion, that humour could be grating, in an adolescent way. The first mention of the hero’s Wang of Mighty Loving, for instance, is funny. The tenth? Not so much. But some of their more outrageous exclaimations made me laugh so hard on the subway that a total stranger asked if I was okay. And isn’t that what you want from your non-fiction? Fearless, insightful, and passionately devoted to the genre, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan are very Smart Bitches indeed.
*This may be of those issues in which you realize things really are different in Canada (or at least in Toronto, where I checked several bookstores). In each, Romances were shelved in the Romance section, no matter the colour of the cover model’s skin. Though four bookstore don’t exactly constitute a scientific survey: your mileage may vary.
Chris Szego aspires to both Smartitude and Bitchery.