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No bloggers in the world of online book reviewing have carved out such a distinct niche in so short a time as Sarah and Candy of Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels. The duo are legendary for acute observations on the world of women’s fiction, and romance in particular, delivered with unbridled snark and a liberal dose of profanity. Recently, the two indulged Kathleen and Therese’s curiousity about reviewing books, what readers are looking for, and why man-titty covers are here to stay.

Q: Where did the concept for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books come from?

Sarah: Well, there was this tsunami.

The short answer is that Candy used to comment on my personal site (at LENGTH – you have never met a person in such dire need of her own blog before) and I mis-remembered her as being from Indonesia. So after the tsunami of Christmas 2004 I looked up her email address in my archives and sent her a message saying that I hoped her family was ok.

She responded kindly instead of pointing out what a geographical moron I am, and we got to emailing back and forth. Somehow we ended up on the topic of romance novels, and how much it drove us nuts to pay so much money for a book that ended up blowing donkey butt, and how few honest reviews there are of romantic fiction. Then one of us said, “We should do a website all about romance novel reviews.” And whichever one of us didn’t say that also didn’t say, “You’re nuts, freakshow,” and instead said, “Yeah! We should!” We bought a domain, made a design, and started posting reviews and random bits of stuff about romance novels.

And Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was born.

Candy: Ohmigod, yes. I left many monstrously long comments on poor Sarah’s blog. Oh dear. Anyway, we wanted to start a romance novel review website that was irreverent and independent and scrappy. One that allowed us to say whatever the hell we wanted to say, even if it was completely non-politically-correct, and even if it was offensive.

So, that decided, we tried to think of an appropriate title that would reflect our sensibilities. Sarah initially suggested “Chink and Jewy’s Romance Novels.” After I picked myself up from the floor, I suggested that if we wanted to make fun of her race instead of her religion, maybe we could try for “Chink and Round-Eye’s Romance Novels.” Another idea we bandied around was “Man-Carrot and Chowder,” which…yeah. Heh heh. Somewhere down the line, “Smart Bitches who Love Trashy Books” came up, and it just felt right. We were both reasonably intelligent women who’ve gotten a lot of shit about our love of romance novels, and we decided, what the hell, instead of cringing in shame, we’d fling those words back in their faces. Taking the term back for empowerment, if you will. Or something like that.

Q: Describe your review process. What makes a satisfying read? What’s a wall-banger? Do you think you’ve had any impact on an author’s sales?

Sarah: My review process varies, depending on the book. Sometimes a book is so ineffably bad that I start dog-earing the corners of pages to mark passages, plot points, or stupid moments that I have to revisit in my review. Part of it is to remind my brain that yeah, it was really that bad. Seeing all those dog eared page teeth fanning out at the top of the book is a visual indicator of how much the book did, in fact, suck a butt.

A satisfying read? That’s a big question. It honestly depends on my mood and what I’m looking for. But in a nutshell, satisfaction from romantic fiction for me as a reader comes with a heroine I learn from (I don’t always have to like her but I don’t want to think she’s a dumbass or cruel, for example), a hero I enjoy, a struggle for happiness that is plausible, and most importantly, the tingly feeling of real emotional connection with the story, the characters, and their happily ever after, such that when they achieve it, I feel it.

A wall banger? See, “Books that insult my intelligence.” See also, “Authors who are phoning it in.”

Have we had an impact on an author’s sales? Depends on the author. If I mention Nora Roberts or Jennifer Crusie? I doubt the sales figures move at all! But I do know for a fact, because she told me, that when I reviewed Lani Diane Rich’s books, her Amazon purchase numbers shot up a bit immediately after the review was posted. Which is cool because her books are good n’stuff. (How’s that for a review – “This author’s books are, like, full of words. And also, good.”)

So when it comes to emerging authors or books you might not encounter from the big behemoth stores that only stock the big names and the top sellers in romance, yeah, I think we do make a little difference. And since so many people are buying books from mega-stores that only want to stock top sellers, it’s a kick in the pants to those who ignore the midlist and never put them on their shelves, which then forces buyers to head to the internet for book purchasing.

Candy: My review process: I read the book, dog-ear any pages with problematic passages, do research as necessary to make sure I’m not talking entirely out of my ass when I’m in nitpicker mode, then write. I tend to specialize what I refer to as “explosions on a page”–I type everything out in one glorious rush, editing as I go, then I re-read a couple of times and edit some more. Not the most refined method of writing reviews, but it works.

A satisfying read has to feature at least two of the following:

1. Characters I love
2. An engaging plot
3. Beautiful prose

It’s very, very rare to find books that fulfill all three, and there have been a couple of times when the book is carried almost entirely by one criterion instead of at least two. Dara Joy is one of those people–dear Lord her prose style and plots are terrible, but her characters are so engaging and seem to be having so much fun that I don’t care.

A wall-banger is something that fails spectacularly on all three counts. They get bonus points for bad grammar, plot inconsistencies, and features I find morally repugnant like unrepentant rapist heroes.

I honestly don’t know if we’ve had much impact on author’s sales. The popular authors are going to get bought no matter what, so I think the sort of press we generate is probably more critical for authors who are just starting out and the small presses who take the chances with these authors.

Q: What drives you nuts in romance fiction?

Sarah: You cannot possibly have enough bandwidth for the complete list. I’ll give you the highlights: I cannot STAND heroines with no spines, heroes who cross the line too easily from confident to overbearing blowhard, authors that phone it in and expect me to pay retail for it, and the publishing industry that looks at the romance cash cow and won’t explore any variations on romance for fear the milk will dry up. I’m not stupid, I’m not ignorant, and I’m not falling for another secret baby sheikh paint-by-numbers half-assed offering from a romantic fiction department that slaps a clinch cover on the front and expects me to pay $10 for it, demonstrating admirably that they can’t find their asses with both hands, even if I spotted them a cheek.

Candy: One of my biggest peeves (and one our regular readers will have heard me pontificate on a LOT) is its maddening obsession with sexual purity–especially female sexual purity. Romancelandia is the only land where so many widows are running around with hymens intact and/or without experiencing even the tiniest bit of sexual pleasure at the hands and cocks of their hapless former husbands.

Lots of other things drive me nuts, though we’re starting to see tides turn a little bit on some of these: the whole “nice guys are pussies” assumption, the so-feisty-it-makes-my-teeth-hurt heroines, the Big Misunderstanding, the awful villains….

Q: You both review a lot of e-books. How do they compare with print publications?

Sarah: Well, if I drop the eBook in the bathtub, it pretty much fucks up my cell phone, because that’s where I read them. Seriously, I used to be eBook-phobic, but a nice tutorial and some assistance from the Bitchery readers on how to get them books onto my Treo yielded many a bus ride with a lightweight purse. I don’t have a preference of print vs. eBook, because each has advantages, but I’ll read either, unless I have a headache. Then I’m reading nothing or making Hubby read them to me out loud. Which he HATES to do.

Candy: I haven’t read all that many e-books myself. However, based on my rather limited sampling, Sturgeon’s Law is holding steady with e-books as it does with print books.

Q: We laugh ourselves sick over your Covers Gone Wild columns. Where do you find them? Do you think publishers will eventually be shamed into phasing out “man-titty” and kneeling women one day?

Sarah: As much as I gripe about the degree of insult I infer from a clinchy crap man-titty cover, I secretly hope there are a few published every month so I can mine the Google images for more Monday Morning Cover Snark. I know there are people who stand up in their offices and yell “COVER SNARK IS UP!” and then giggle away. I’d hate to let them down. I find them in various places, sometimes by Googling common title words (Savage + romance, honor + romance, bayou + romance) and sometimes by mining romance fan sites that host cover images.

Do I think publishers will stop with the man-titty? Hells no. They sell. I think that the tide is starting to turn, so to speak, towards the pastel still-life landscape cover, but there are still those that look for the clinch. And we all must seek shelter from the rainstorm under the cozy eaves of the man-titty.

Candy: How do we find those covers? Sarah and I use a divining rod, and we work that rod HARD every Sunday.

(Right. Sorry for the bad pun. I don’t know what came over me.)

(Haaa-ha. Came over me.)

We have a bunch of different methods. In the beginning, we basically picked one cover that caught our eye as being especially dreadful, and we’d snark on that. Since then, though, our readers have become an excellent source of awful cover snarkage–some of them gleefully send us .zip files full of awful covers, while others will e-mail us links or JPEGs. Oftentimes, Sarah and I will also decide on a theme, then go forth on a search-and-snark mission using Amazon and Google Image Search.

As for whether publishers will ever be shamed into stopping their worship of their false idol, Mantitte the Top-Heavy: I don’t think so. Many people have noted that man-titty covers sell books. If it keeps selling, I doubt the publishers will stop what they’re doing simply because it offends the aesthetic sense of a couple of smart-mouthed chippies on the Internet.

Q: Recently you’ve both weighed in on the mini-flame war happening between bloggers who review books and the authors who object to the reviews. Do you think authors should get over themselves, or do they have a point that online reviewers can be particularly vicious?

Sarah: Define “vicious.” Do I get harsh when I think an author is phoning it in and the publishing house lets it fly on through? Yup, I sure do. And more of my ire is reserved for the publishing house, to be honest. I am well aware when I write a review that the author in question was up at 4am writing and editing, and that penning a manuscript in the first place is hard. But is pointing out what didn’t work for me, describing the plot turns that made no sense, and detailing character personality traits that were inconsistent, is that vicious? I don’t think so. I get harsh and use bad words and get plenty pissed off, but I look at it like this (and bring on the flame war for I have donned my protective bustier and hot pants):

If I do a bad job at my place of employment, I hear about it. It’s not that I suck as a person; I didn’t do something right. I am therefore in a position where criticism and instruction are necessary. So I look at novel writing as something of a service industry; writers write their books to entertain, and as the recipient of the entertainment, I see no problem with my writing down and posting what I thought, but I am conscious of what I write. I don’t say ‘It sucked’ without explaining in thorough detail why. If you criticize a hotel or a meal at a restaurant, you’re going to say to the person in charge, “Here is what happened and here is why I am upset and disappointed.” Same with the reading experience: “Here is why I didn’t like this book and why I was disappointed with the story.”

You won’t find Amazon-esque rants of dunce-worthy incompletion at SBTB, because we wouldn’t put up with ourselves writing reviews that consisted of “the heroine was boring and the plot made no sense and that authors sucks.” To that kind of review, I cry Foul, five yard penalty. Why was the heroine boring? Was it that YOU didn’t like her or that she was rather one-noted and never had a reaction beyond, ‘Oh, what do you mean?’ Was she wishy washy and unable to make a decision for herself? Was she a stock character whose every reaction you could predict three pages ahead? Why did the plot make no sense? Was there a giant Deus-ex-machina ending that made you want to holler at the walls? Did you find plot holes you could steer a tugboat through?

I can understand an author getting offended that reviewers sum up her work by saying “She sucks.” She does not suck. I’m sure she’s quite nice and hard working and probably picks up after her dog and manages not to allow red socks into the whites and is a monstrously effective math tutor when it’s time for advanced fractions. So to level the “She sucks” comment is unfair. I am not a fan of the collected romance published works of several authors, and I will say why and how come, but I don’t want to just stand up on my soapbox and say the author sucks and sit back down (I’d probably say, “This sucks and how come it continues to be published when other talented folks find themselves unpublished or in the no-man’s-land of the unshelved midlist?”). It’s her work that I have a problem with, especially if I paid ten bucks for it. As the consumer, I can critique.

Some online reviewers, yeah, they suck as much as their reviews lack grammar and spelling skills. But if an author is not willing to listen to a critique that takes the time and effort to address what the reviewer thinks are flaws in the work, then my reaction is, “Well, that’s show biz, baby.”

Candy: I think the debate would be a lot more honest and interesting (if potentially a lot more inflammatory) if people would stop being so damn vague and started being a bit more specific about who’s getting whose panties in a twist.

I do think that certain types of retail websites, such as Amazon.com, allow fake reviews (both positive and negative) to slip through unchecked, though I’ve seen some authors who are so sensitive that they perceive even relatively reasonable negative critiques as punch in their (figurative) nuts. That’s not to say some reviewers don’t go overboard, because some do (and I’m probably one of them), but I think the authors adopt the “You shouldn’t review unless you’ve been published because you don’t know how haaaard it is” (and of course, there are people who think authors shouldn’t be allowed to review other authors because of conflict of interest—it’s a lose/lose situation, really) or “Don’t say anything if you can’t say anything nice” line are more than a little full of shit.

In short: It’s complicated. Not too surprisingly I tend to fall more on the reader/reviewer’s side of the spectrum; in my opinion, as long as it’s honest and doesn’t attack the author, that we should say whatever the hell we damn well please about a book.

Q: As a blog about romance fiction and the industry, you blog tidbits of news from the romance writers’ institutional overlord, Romance Writers of America. Recently you interviewed RWA’s current president Gayle Wilson at a contentious moment in the organization. Can you tell us what your impressions are of RWA, and do you think it has any influence over the types of books being published in the romance genre?

Sarah: Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a member of RWA. My impressions are that it’s a big organization full of seriously creative individuals who are trying to harness themselves into something of a cohesive whole when they are all located across a magnificently huge spectrum. It’s a hard thing to do, but I still shake my head at the contention between, say, the erotica writers and the inspirational writers. But, as someone pointed out to me recently, that’s completely reflective of the polarity at work in the US right now, both politically and culturally.

Candy: Lordy, I don’t know enough about the RWA to say. Last year it did seem like some of the board members (*koff*tarataylorquinn*koff*koff*) were intent on doing some incredibly stupid things all in a row, what with the cover decency standards, definition of romance malarkey and the awards ceremony debacle, but ultimately, other than my opinions of the actions of of these select members (*koff*assheaded*koff*koff), I can’t really say. Many people who are in the RWA seem to love it, while some aren’t thrilled with it at all and are glad to no longer be any part of it.

Q: Candy, are you ever going to finish Musashi?

That book is seriously spanking my ass and making me its bitch, but I’m determined to finish it some day.

Q: Sarah, you had the temerity to give a Jennifer Crusie novel a D. Any other biggies who haven’t impressed you lately? Any good authors we should be on the watch for?

Sarah: Y’all are hurtin’ over that D, huh? Seriously, the heroine just kept shooting herself in the foot legally and making me nuts over her inability to think in terms of herself AND her daughter and gaaaah. Not my favorite. But that one book didn’t move Jennifer Crusie an inch off my autobuy list.

Good authors to watch out for? Oh my.

I’m going to save my own ass like the wussy I am, and refrain from mentioning names because I know I’ll forget someone who I should have mentioned. I will offer my prediction of two trends in romance: more angels and the advent of the inspirational paranormal – angels, themes of rebirth, etc. I also think we’re going to see as many vampire romances as there are secret baby romances – that is, a lot but many operating on the same theme and plotline.

Q: What’s new on the horizon for you both?

Sarah: Now that we’re accepting advertisements, we have more funds with which to buy bigger prizes for our contests – so look for more writing challenges and competitions in the future.

Candy: Writing. More writing. I need to get my ass in gear over my Stupid-Ass Serial Story, and I’d like to freshen up the look of the site at some point. Oh God, and the sidebar? Is quite horribly outdated. I need to add all sorts of nifty links and prune away some dead linkage.

THANK YOU, Sarah and Candy, for some enlightening–and always smart–bitchery! - Kathleen and Therese

About

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.