Sunday, December 27, 2009

Announcing: “Philosophy of Romance” Book of the Year for 2009:

“Autumn Rains” by Myra Johnson
Heartsong Presents, 2009, 172 pages

A Distinctive New Voice! -- ‘Romantic Realism*’

While “Autumn Rains” meets all the requirements of a genre romance**, it still reads with the natural realism of a Steinbeck or McCullers novel.

I don’t know if there is an official subgenre of romance called ‘Romantic Realism’. I have never encountered it in the literature. I checked Google and didn’t find an entry for ‘Romantic Realism’ there either. If this is the case, and there is no official ‘Romantic Realism’ subgenre, then I suggest that “Autumn Rains” is a logical candidate for being the first novel in this ‘new’ category.

As I turned the pages of “Autumn Rains”, I didn’t feel like I was reading a category romance. The story had the ‘look and feel’ of serious mainstream literature.

An Authentic New Voice

I found “Autumn Rains” to be the most distinctively realistic romance that I’ve ever read. Myra Johnson writes with an authentic new voice…a voice which reminds me of the first time I heard an Enya song played on the radio. Enya’s voice was so unique that I wanted to hear another Enya song right away. I felt this same way after reading “Autumn Rains”. I wanted to read another Myra Johnson romance immediately. I am very curious about what she will write next.

Myra Johnson is a very serious author. Her first published book, “One Imperfect Christmas” (reviewed on this blog) is an insightful look at life from the perspective of three different generations. It’s no surprise that her literary skills would be highly appreciated by “The Philosophy of Romance blog. “Autumn Rains” was the clear choice for our “Book of the Year Award for 2009”.

The “Autumn Rains” Difference

Examining how “Autumn Rains” differs from a typical genre romance is almost a study of the romance genre itself.

The title of the book “Autumn Rains” is significant. The author uses natural events,(in this case, the oppressive heat lingering well into the fall season) to mirror the conflicts going on in the characters’ lives. This is a literary technique that has been used by great writers like Thomas Hardy and many others. In the contemporary romance field, Elizabeth Lowell also has used this literary technique extremely well.

Naturalism – Not a One Time Event

I’m not talking here about one rain storm to reflect one scene in a book. I’m talking about an aspect of naturalism where nature almost ‘breaths’ along with the characters from the start of the book to the last page. This is not easy for an author to do and it is not even necessary in today’s commercial market. An author uses this technique to add texture and depth to the reading experience. It’s a sign the author cares deeply about her craft.

Tension and Resolution

When the autumn rains finally arrive, to end the emotional pressure-cooker of the seemingly endless summer, the characters are ready to simultaneously experience a catharsis of their own. These simultaneous events come at the end of a book-long buildup. This is very powerful writing. You’ll have to read it for yourself to enjoy the full impact.

About ‘Romantic Realism’

Romances tend to be idealized. I always know when I am reading a romance because my expectations are usually fulfilled. The hero is handsome, usually over six feet tall, he has broad shoulders and in most cases has a college degree or is certainly smart enough to earn one. When the hero and heroine enter a public place, other women are sure to eye the hero with envy. Difficult or unpleasant topics are usually avoided as romances are generally written to provide a comfortable reading experience. I agree with and enjoy all these romance genre conventions. Indeed, I’ve read and enjoyed over 1000 romances of this idealized type.

“Autumn Rains” is not Idealized

In “Autumn Rains” things differ from the idealized romance. The hero is just out of prison after serving sixteen years for manslaughter. I don’t know if he is handsome or very tall. I do know he has a bad scar on his arm from a prison fight. I also know he did not finish high school but did get a GED while in prison. His name is Healy and he is a real man with real problems and he is not at all idealized.

What’s in a Name?

As a reader, I was about to object to the name ‘Healy,’ (for one who tries to heal the heroine), as being a little too allegorical, like something out of “Pilgrim’s Progress”. However, the heroine quickly makes this same observation for herself. The author beat me to it. With everyone in her family trying to heal the heroine, I think it would be inevitable for the heroine to make this same observation about the hero’s name herself. Even in this case, the author couldn’t avoid letting realism win out.

An Agoraphobic Heroine?

The heroine, Valerie, suffers from a severe case of agoraphobia. She even fears venturing out into the back yard. This condition has gone on for years since her husband was murdered before her eyes and she was severely injured herself. Counseling has failed in her case. She compulsively resets the security alarm every time she enters the house – even though there are people in the house and it’s broad daylight. There are additional problems that I won’t even mention in this review. Obviously this is a heroine who is not idealized.

Very Difficult Theme

The theme of this book is so difficult, I am surprised that a new author would even attempt it. Of 1000 romances I’ve reviewed over the years, I’ve only encountered one romance with a more difficult theme. That book was about a beautiful woman falling in love with a wheelchair-bound paraplegic with no feelings below his waist. (I am sure that everyone who has read this book can easily bring it right to mind.)

Christian Fiction & Realism

To complicate matters even more, “Autumn Rains” is a Christian fiction romance. So how does an author make this difficult theme work, in only 172 pages, while being convincingly realistic the whole time? That’s a good question. As it turns out, the characters’ practice of Christian values is the force that enables “Autumn Rains” to bring a resolution to the diverse and strongly conflicting elements in this story.

A New Level of Christian Fiction

By design, “Autumn Rains” almost must be a Christian novel. I believe that Myra Johnson’s unique structuring of “Autumn Rains” takes Christian fiction to a new level.

The Three Levels of Christian Fiction

Level 1: is a story of good people who happen to be Christians.

Level 2: is a story of people who exemplify Christian principles by the lives they live. Because they practice Christian values, their lives are better or more meaningful.

Level 3: is a story that is so uniquely structured that, by it very nature, it has to be a Christian novel in order for the plot to experience a successful resolution. That is, the story is ‘necessarily’ Christian fiction rather than ‘incidentally’ Christian fiction.

I believe that “Autumn Rains” is an example of a level three Christian romance.

The Everyman Hero

The hero is a good man who makes me think of Mary’s Joseph: he’s not flashy, not glorified, just a dependable honest man. The actions that the hero takes, in order to help others who are in trouble, are totally consistent with his past life and his future aspirations. You can’t read “Autumn Rains” without admiring the hero. This admiration is well earned. It is not idealized.

The Everywoman Heroine

The heroine is emotionally damaged and yet she’s such a worthy individual, (who has suffered so much), that the reader will ‘feel’ a vicarious victory with every painful step she takes towards recovery. Valerie is real and may be the least idealized heroine I’ve read in the romance literature.

Realism Enhances the Enjoyment

When a romance makes you feel good in situations in which you expect to feel good, the experience is enjoyable. However, when a realistic novel makes you feel good in situations where you did not expect to feel good, then the reading enjoyment is compounded. It’s a richer, more rewarding, experience.

Try a New Reading Experience

If you have yet to read a realistic romance like “Autumn Rains”, I suggest you read this book. I found the difference between reading “Autumn Rains” and a traditional romance, similar to the difference monaural music and stereo. Of course, this difference will never be more pronounced than it was for me during this ‘first time’ encounter with Romantic Realism.

What about the HEA?

One could well ask how does a realistic author handle the HEA: the Happily Ever After? Realism is realism. How many HEAs are there in real life?

In nearly all the traditional romances I’ve read in the past, I’ve vicariously enjoyed the HEA along with the hero and heroine. That is, the HEA was something I would have liked to experience for myself.

The HEA in “Autumn Rains”

The HEA in “Autumn Rains” seemed different to me. It is not an HEA I would prefer to experience for myself. However, it is the HEA that the characters in the story would want to experience for themselves. This fact is evident in the epilogue which takes place a full ten years later. Ten years is a very long time for a traditional romance to wait before the epilogue begins. Too many bad things could have happened in ten years. I’m not even sure that the romantic part of me even wants to know what happens ten years after a romance story ends. Yet, I believe that this long wait and what happens in the meantime is part of the “Autumn Rains” realistic charm.

Many Excellent Christian Secondary Characters

There are many good Christian characters in “Autumn Rains”. There are also some Christians that are not so good. Even the good Christians have their faults. Just the same, all the characters play an important role in demonstrating Christian values. Even more, they do this without preaching to the reader. I hate to be preached to in a Christian novel. (I’ll read sermons if I want to be preached to.)

“Autumn Rains” is the most authentic Christian qua Christian romance that I’ve read.

“Book of the Year” 2009

The Philosophy of Romance, ‘Book of the Year’ is awarded to the best Romance book. The fact that “Autumn Rains” is also a work of Christian fiction is just a bonus.

Look for more Awards in 2010

I expect “Autumn Rains” to be nominated for other ‘Book of the Year’ awards in the months ahead. For maximum enjoyment, I suggest that “Autumn Rains” be read now. The reader can then enjoy watching what happens with the book in 2010. I know I will.

Is There a Future for Romantic Realism?

Will there be more Romantic Realism novels in the future or is “Autumn Rains” a one-of-a-kind romance? I don’t know but it is going to be interesting to find out.


*I would tentatively define ‘Romantic Realism’ as a subgenre of romance that:

1. features a non-idealized hero and heroine
2. avoids romantic clich├ęs and stock situations (e.g., toes curling, knees turning to jelly, whisper soft kisses, etc.)
3. avoids standard romantic themes (like: hidden child, marriage of convenience, mail order bride, runaway bride, etc.)
4. tends to be perceived by readers as being mainstream love stories rather than category romances.
5. may have a more realistic HEA that the reader feels less happy about than the characters do.

**A romance is a story with its central focus on the process of two individuals falling in love and which ends happily with a marriage or the expectation of a marriage in the near future.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Philosophical Problem with ‘Writing Rules’

How the Big Picture is Often Obscured by ‘Rules of Thumb’

A thumb is a very useful thing to have on your hand. A writing ‘rule of thumb’ can also be very useful to an author. But no one would want ten thumbs! Being useful and being true can be two different things.

An author is creating a ‘reading experience’ just as a composer is creating a ‘listening experience’. Both the author and the composer must consider how their individual actions impact the total experience being created.

When I read a writing ‘rule of thumb’ like “change all ‘telling’ to ‘showing’” or “add conflict (or tension) to every sentence” the philosopher in me just cringes.

When I read that conflict is what keeps a reader reading and when things are going smoothly for the characters that the writing is boring, I want to shout: No, No, No! I don’t even believe this is true for a suspense novel.

Can you imagine a symphony where all you hear is tension and conflict, measure for measure, until the climax of the piece? It would be hell.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167

There are also more ways to keep a reader’s interest other than conflict and tension. In fact, the reader can be kept turning pages as long as she is being rewarded for reading.

Such rewards are many.

The author can provide fascinating information, stress relieving humor, interesting insights, heartwarming resolutions to minor conflicts, and the discovery of new feelings. The reader can enjoy the author’s poetic beauty as a character describes seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere for the first time while camping in the Australian Outback. There’s charm, surprise, delight, and wonder. The writer has no fewer instruments of interest in her pen than the conductor has instruments in his orchestra.

Now, conflict is good and it works well to keep a reader’s interest. However, I think putting conflict in every sentence is like using a hammer at every stage when building a house.

Rules of thumb are limiting by their very nature. That is, “do it this way and you’ll be OK.” You give up the beauty of complexity for the safety of simplicity.

The author should consider the total ‘reading experience’ and judge each action on how that ‘reading experience’ will be impacted. When it makes sense to add conflict, then add conflict. When it helps to change ‘telling’ to ‘showing’, then make the change. The problem lies when an author makes every rule of thumb change thinking it will produce a better story.

An author should be able to step back, see the total picture, and think in terms of the reading experience and not worry if she has followed every rule of thumb in her toolbox.

'Rules of thumb' should be taken with a grain of salt whenever they are not taken with a little more gravitas than that.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“One Imperfect Christmas” … A Perfect Reading Experience!

“It’s Like Watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie”
By Myra Johnson

Abingdon Press, 272 pages, copyright 2009

Simply telling what “One Imperfect Christmas” is about does not do the novel justice. It would be like saying that “Tom Sawyer” is simply a story about 19th Century boys growing up in the Midwest. “One Imperfect Christmas” is a serious book and warrants a serious review.

In good novels the characters change in significant ways as the story unfolds. In serious works, like “One Imperfect Christmas”, not only do the fictional characters change but the reader changes as well. This potential for growth in the reader’s consciousness is what gives great literature its universality and its timelessness.

Serious literature has the potential to impart experiences, knowledge, and sometimes even wisdom. More importantly, literature can enlighten the reader in a way which might not be possible in any other fashion.

Here’s what I mean:

Have you ever lamented: ‘If I only knew then what I know now’?

I think this lament is common to all mankind. The desire to learn from our mistakes, before we make them, is so prevalent that some have even said that ‘youth is wasted on the young’.

This is because young people usually lack the life experiences necessary to view life ‘now’ as they will eventually view it in the future when they are older (and hopefully wiser).

Why mention all this in regard to “One Imperfect Christmas”? Because reading this book reminded me, in a most forceful way, that there is a way to bring the future into the present. This can be achieved via the vicarious experiences provided by serious literature.

“One Imperfect Christmas” is serious literature. The situations covered in the story span three generations. Therefore the reader ‘sees’ and ‘feels’ the story from three distinct perspectives.

When reading “One Imperfect Christmas” the reader will experience what it is like to be a middle aged mother overwhelmed by the guilt and anger she feels towards her incapacitated mother while at the same time having to deal with her wayward teenage daughter.

The reader will feel what it’s like to be a husband who is trying to do everything within his power to save his marriage and help his beloved wife. And the reader will suffer his anguish when nothing he does works and when, time after time, he is rejected by the one he loves most.

The reader will also experience what it feels like to be the teenage daughter who has no idea of the depth of her parent’s problems. The reader will watch helplessly as this loving daughter tries simple and naive solutions to the complex problems facing her family. The reader will feel the good daughter’s sorrow when her ‘foolproof’ plans come to naught.

Life often does not provide simple solutions to complex problems. The reader will also experience what it is like being a helpless parent in her sixties seeing how her problems are causing serious discord to the ones she loves most. Indeed, the reader will feel the angst of being powerless to do anything about problems that seem self-induced.

“One Imperfect Christmas” is a drama that calls for faith. It is a faith based story that is full of hope and challenge. The story features a beautiful fifty-year romance and what might yet, with God’s help, become a second fifty-year romance. While the story has ‘Christmas’ in the title, the action spans the period between two Christmases a year apart. It is a timeless story that can be read at any time of the year.

The story shows that sometimes the stresses of life can be too much. Given enough stress, a personal crisis may cause even a well disciplined life to spin out of control. Since this loss of control can be hidden from everyone else, at least for a little while, the victim is likely to suffer without any support. Others may even think the suffering victim is causing his or her own problems.

“One Imperfect Christmas” is not always easy reading but it is always worthwhile reading that is both rewarding and heartwarming. It’s not easy because it is so true to life. It’s not easy to watch and experience the obviously self-destructive behavior of the mother who is trying her best to get professional help but who is too fragile to find traction. It’s not easy reading but it is always enjoyable reading. I loved every minute reading “One Imperfect Christmas” from the first page until the last.

“One Imperfect Christmas”
is serious literature. After reading the book I felt wonderful. I felt I had seen God’s hands in action. I also felt like I had done something good for myself: that I had learned things that will make me a more understanding and sympathetic person in the future. Reading “One Imperfect Christmas” was like watching a memorable Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. I believe most readers of “One Imperfect Christmas” will feel the same way.

I not only give “One Imperfect Christmas” my highest Recommendation – I consider it the Required Reading for One’s Christian Heart.

>“One Imperfect Christmas” Will Make A Keepsake Christmas Gift!