Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have helped romance readers discern the good smut from the bad for years with their blog Smart B*tches, Trashy Books. And now with their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart B*tches' Guide to Romance Novels, they offer a guide through the heady world of the $6.99 novel and defend it with wit and intelligence.
What's up today? Candy and Sarah tell use how they assign grades (they're harsh) to novels on Smart B*tches, Trashy Books and how to navigate book shelves packed with romance novels.
You grade books on Smart B*tches, Trashy Books, A-F; what makes an A? What loses points?
Sarah: A grade-A book for me is one that has a strong plot that takes familiar concepts and reinvents them into something new and different, with memorable and realistic characters, dialogue that is authentic and human, and a story that stays with you long after you've finished. I also find that books that reach A level with me are impossible not to read, so if I pick up the book to look at a page I end up rereading the whole thing.
Candy: An A book generally means that a) I loved it, and b) it's at the very least competently written. There's a certain floor to the craft for an A book. That's not to say I don't love schlock, because I do, but a schlocky book probably won't get an A, no matter how much I love it.
Generally speaking, books lose points if they don't engage me — if I'm able to step back from my immersion in the fictional world and I'm taking a hard look at the gears and bits that drive the machine, so to speak. When my internal editor has slowed my reading pace to a crawl, that's usually the kiss of death. Good books shut my internal editor up, and that's hard to do, honestly — hell, it's hard to get me to shut up, period, much less the pedant who lives in my head and gripes about how people just don't use the subjunctive properly nowadays.
Beyond Throbbing Bosoms was originally titled The Top Ten Signs You’re Reading a Very Bad Romance Novel. Is there a way to know to recognize a bad romance before wasting $6.99?
To see their answers,
Sarah: If a book, any book, doesn't grab you after the first 30 pages or so, it's probably not to your tastes. That rule has served me well in any genre.
But the original title of the book wasn't Signs You're Reading a Bad Romance Novel, though that was part of the book that didn't make it into the final edition. My favorite was the poor copyediting that made a horse change color three times in two pages. Magic chameleon horse in historical England? Not good.
Candy: I call it the 10-page test. It's kind of analogous to bad visitors. The really bad ones generally announce themselves early on and proceed to eat all the hors d'oeuvres you've set out, then belch in your face. Many others, however, survive the 10-page test and prove to be awful visitors when it's too late to get them out of your house. So flip through the first pages, see if there are egregious plot or grammar flaws, figure out if the characters and storyline are your cuppa. It won't catch the more sneakily awful romance novels, but you should be able to root out most of the worst ones.
Check out previous posts from Candy and Sarah, and stay tuned tomorrow for recommendations for romance-novel virgins.