Thursday, May 15, 2014

Career Advice, Courtesy of Elizabeth Peters

Back in the 1990s, I devoured every Elizabeth Peters mystery that my local library system owned. I greatly enjoyed the humorous Amelia Peabody mysteries (which combined my love of Victorian history and Egyptology) and loved the romance elements of the Vicky Bliss books. I also read a number of stand-alone mysteries, few of which left an impression. The Jacqueline Kirby mysteries were fewer in number and less well-written than Peters' other series. However, it was the third in that series, of all Peters' books, that had the strongest long-term influence on my life.

The relevant book is Die for Love, a murder mystery set at a romance writers' conference. I remembered it as a rather sharp and scathing satire of a subculture. I assumed that Peters had at least some knowledge of writers' conferences, even if she focused on a different genre. I was initially left with the impression that one could attend such a conference and make valuable contacts with agents and editors and practically stumble into a writing career (as -- spoiler alert -- Jacqueline Kirby does by the end of the book). I told myself that someday I would do that, when I could afford to take a risk on a new career, or when I had enough free time to write in addition to my day job.

For a variety of reasons, that time came this year. Being 20 years older and far less naïve about career-building in general, and having access to vast online resources to research the industry, I no longer expected to be signed by an agent that I just met at a conference. I still expected it to be a valuable learning experience, however, and it was.

I decided it would be fun to re-read Die for Love now and see how inaccurate it was, given my new first-hand knowledge. The Chicago Spring Fling conference was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Peters' fictional romance writers' conference.

I can't be sure how much of the conference in Die for Love was just fictional bullshit and how much was simply the way conferences were in the Old Skool days. There were some clear signs that the novel was written in 1984, besides the copyright date. For example, at the opening luncheon, a character asks if smoking is allowed. Some of the characters discuss the disturbing prevalence of rape scenes in romance novels of the day.

The characters are over-the-top parodies, and the satire is often mean-spirited.  However, it is also clear that Elizabeth Peters was very familiar with romance novels and with the publishing industry. Her characters are described with the same flowery language typically found in the genre she was lampooning. One of the "authors" is a hunky actor who dresses like a cover model and has his novels ghost written. This was rather prescient, since I think the novel predates Fabio's celebrity by at least a few years. A fake excerpt from one of the other characters' novels contains winking nods to at least two well-known romance novels of that era. Another character uses extensive passages from Victorian-era public domain porn classics like The Lustful Turk in her books. This is also somewhat prescient, given the plagiarism scandals that have hit some romance novelists in recent years (though they are eclipsed by the plagiarism and forgery scandals that have rocked other genres).

I am also unsure how many of the seemingly-scathing observations are meant to be taken seriously and how many are meant to be taken with a great deal of salt. The novel is told from the POV of Jacqueline Kirby (although she is not the narrator), and she is portrayed as a self-centered, impatient (somewhat misanthropic) intellectual snob.

In some ways, Die for Love reminds me of Sharyn McCrumb's mystery novel Bimbos of the Death Sun, which takes place at a science fiction convention and is also told from the POV of someone new to the subculture. However, I was already familiar with science fiction conventions when I read McCrumb's book, and although it contained biting satire and scathing observations about some of the people who typically attend cons, I found it to be reasonably accurate in its social observations. It was funny because it was true.

I expected to have the same reaction when re-reading Die for Love, but instead I am perplexed and disappointed by how inaccurately Peters portrayed the writers' conference. Her characters' interactions have more in common with an episode of Dynasty than with the conference I attended. Rather than backbiting schemers, I found myself surrounded by friendly and supportive strangers who included me in their conversations. Unlike Jacqueline Kirby, I was not once approached by an agent who handed me a business card, "just in case" I ever finished a manuscript. The authors at Chicago Spring Fling largely wore business casual attire and were not easily distinguished from the agents and editors.

I am only about halfway through my re-read of Die for Love.  I am hoping that Peters will show more respect for romance authors and readers as the story develops.  I will never regret reading it, however, since it helped focus my vague ideas about one day becoming a novelist myself.

1 comment:

  1. It's no more accurate than most murder mysteries... It presumably wasn't meant to be.