The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #296.

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan are most recently the authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms. They are also the proprietors of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.


Subjects Discussed; Kathleen Woodwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, the beginnings of original paperback romance, genre respectability, romance’s profitability, the stigma of effeminacy, cozy mysteries, arterial bloodspray, the fallacious anatomical placement of the hymen, spontaneously lactating virgins, whether the pun is intended or not, editorial house style and “the magic hoo hoo,” the wandering vagina, Lilith Saintcrow’s “Half of Humanity is Worth Less Than a Chair,” rapists within romances, Candy Tan’s suggestive hand gestures, marriage and choice, intrusive Mercedes drivers and related invective, the frequency of oral sex within romances, how far sex needs to go in art, porn, anal sex, bukkake, double wangs and double penetration, homunculi, the line between romance and erotica, hypothetical genre fusion, poseur man titty and erotic romance, the “shop and run” approach to romances, embarrassing covers, dashing long-haired heroes and bald badasses, game theory and Sarah and Candy’s reading preferences, Candy’s pirate fixation, the sharp disparity between genuine smelly pirates and the twee McSweeney’s pirates, “the big mis,” John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, misunderstandings and character flaws, simultaneous organs, romances and Republican presidencies, Cassie Edwards and plagiarism, and encouraging civil disagreement and discourse in the romance community.


sarahwendellCorrespondent: Science fiction, mystery, YA. These genres are getting respect, particularly in the last decade. And yet romance is still one of those things in which people thumb their noses down. Why do you think this is? Must we always have some place to go for the ghetto? What’s the deal here?

Sarah Wendell: Well, I will point out that romance is actually getting a lot more respect because of the turgid strength of its quarterly earnings. And even though most industries — especially in New York, which is hyper-navel gazing in the financial industry — are experiencing massive losses year to year and quarterly to quarterly, romance is the one erect column in your spreadsheet. And it remains quite strong. So while it doesn’t get a lot of respect from your average cocktail crowd, most financial newspapers are having to pay attention to the strength of romance when you’re looking at it as an investment, or as an indicator of an economy. Which is why I think that Harlequin is chuckling, or befuddled, at the entire economic crisis. Because they were founded during the Depression. I’m sure they’re looking at this, going, “This? This is nothing. Are you kidding? Let me just tell you what it was really like.”

Candy Tan: This is great for business!

Sarah Wendell: I know.

Candy Tan: What the hell? No, I think personally that a lot of the reason why romance novels are the Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction is the stigma of effeminacy. You know, science fiction. They’re “novels of ideas.” Mysteries have lots of blood and guts. Well, some of them do. The ones that don’t get respect, interestingly enough, tend to be the cozy mysteries. The ones in which there’s a cat solving the goddam murder or whatever the hell. You know, those are the ones: “Oh man, they’re not worth taking seriously.” If I remember correctly, and I might be wrong, because I don’t know mystery as well as I should, the hardboiled mystery were one of the first to exit the ghetto.

Sarah Wendell: As long as there’s arterial bloodspray, you get some respect.

Candy Tan: Or you know…

Sarah Wendell: Spooge, not so much.

Candy Tan: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot more respect for male fantasies versus female fantasies in fiction and you see this over and over again.

Correspondent: If we’re going to talk about arterial bloodspray, I think we should point to the fallacious anatomical scenario involving hymens, which you point out in this book.

Sarah Wendell: At length. At great, great length.

Correspondent: Yeah, at great length.

candytanSarah Wendell: You can tell that this is something that rubbed us the wrong way.

Correspondent: Yes, I got the sense…

Sarah Wendell: And to anyone who’s listening, I want a complete pun count at the end of the podcast. And if we can get an accurate pun number, I’ll totally give away a copy of the book and some beaucoup prize if you can identify how many puns we make in the course of this interview.

Correspondent: But the question is: You have so much attention to detail in historical romance and yet this one thing continues to propagate, continues, I suppose, to not be patched up in quite the way that one would expect.

Sarah Wendell: Good one.

Correspondent: And so what I’m wondering is: Do you think romance readers and romance writers want to fantasize about where the hymen is?

Sarah Wendell: No, I think it’s simple oral history. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think that the legend of the misplaced hymen is just something that’s passed down from writer to writer. Much like the historical inaccuracies that plague other parts of the specific historical genre, “Where the hell your hymen is?” is one of them.

Candy Tan: Here’s the thing. I think I’ve spotted the same misplacement of the hymen in other books. Not romance novels. I think I’ve read a couple of horror novels — and maybe it would have made sense if the girl being devirginized were some kind of filthy alien beast. By hymen, you mean vagina dentata. But you don’t. Oh, oh, it’s infected other genres too! How wonderful! Anatomical craziness all the way around.

Sarah Wendell: And that’s not the only anatomical inaccuracy we’ve discovered. There’s a few one off inaccuracies we’ve discovered that are just mind-boggling. Like there’s one Gaelen Foley where the heroine’s a bona-fide virgin. And I mean bona-fide. Not is she like a virgin, but she’s like a princess or some shit? They haven’t even had sex yet. This is the first time they’re kissing in the woods. And he tastes her milk. Because, you know, virgins spontaneously lactate. Like a postpartum woman going into Target and hearing a baby cry. Yeah, same thing.

Candy Tan: It was the most nipple-tacular moment in all historical romance.

BSS #296: Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (Download MP3)

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Tools of Change: Smart Women Read Ebooks

Panelists: Kassia Kroszer (moderator), Angela James, Malle Valik, Sarah Wendell

(For related coverage, you can check out my video interview with Wendell shortly after the panel.)

So if you’ve been following these lengthy reports, you’ve probably developed a sense that there is a profound disconnect between the geeks who develop the technology and the readers who imbibe it. Jon Orwant may have talked with readers during his magazine editing days, but is he really doing this to the greatest possible extent now? Do web stats and trends of the moment alone really account for what the consumers want? Thankfully, Kassia Kroszer, in a nonscientific manner, conducted a survey with 750 female readers, hoping to determine their relationship to books. Yes, they read a lot. And the development geeks may want to consider that they read two to five books per month and that 60% of the readers surveyed between ages 30 and 50.

Malle Valik pointed out that there were three development efforts she made at Harlequin: (1) downloadable audio, (2) manga, and (3) ebooks. And guess which of this digital trio was the proud winner? Harlequin readers liked ebooks. Quite a lot in fact. Valik joked that she should probably earn a commission for talking ebooks up. And when you are considering the many series inhabiting the romance genre, well, wouldn’t you be foolish to avoid making some titles online for readers? But Amazon has often done just that. Further, as Wendell pointed out later, Amazon does not tend to acknowledge the button you press when you express interest in a title. Talk about wasting an opportunity to connect with your customers. (And while I have expressed skepticism about the buzz term “social community,” I think it can generally be agreed that Amazon’s failure to respond to requests certainly represents just about the biggest asocial step you can take if you want to continue to attract repeat customers or sell them on your shiny new toy.)

In fact, as Wendell pointed out, women are the customers. Her website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, had received 16 million hits in January 2009. These are the ebook readers you’re looking for. Women, in Wendell’s view, like pretty objects and usable design. “We will reward you,” continued Wendell. “We will tell you how good you are in bed with multiple swipes of the credit card.” Wendell rattled off recent studies in which 55 out of 96 million spent on electronics were from women, and that 80% of fiction was purchased by women. Is this an audience that any self-respecting businessman wishes to ignore or treat as dumb?

Some more interesting stats from Kassia’s study: 60% of women read ebooks on their laptop. And why is that? Probably because these e-readers are too damn expensive. So why not a $100 price point? Or perhaps, as Angela James suggested, throwing in a few complimentary ebook titles in with an e-reader purchase? And why, given this revealing data, would any self-respecting hardware publisher continue to offer closed ebook formats?

These hardware distinctions are perhaps more important than the developing geeks might think. After all, Ms. James revealed that she had broken up with he Kindle. The Sony Reader had better folder management. And the back of the Kindle kept falling off. The panelists were dismayed that they had to be pegged as criminals because of Amazon’s restrictions. Furthermore, as Ms.James noted, consider that Sony has expanded into non-American markets, while Amazon has kept its focus in America. You can’t use the Kindle’s wireless network outside of America. So what good is it when you factor in the salient realities of human migration?

Wendell noted that $10 seemed to be the “hard stop” on ebook price. If a reader is regularly purchasing paperbacks for $5.99 or $6.99, where then is the incentive to purchase a $25 ebook? There is the notion that an ebook should cost less because it’s not a tangible object that occupies space. But Wendell didn’t have a specific answer about where ebooks should be priced.

And here’s another problem with ebooks. You can’t resell them or loan them. And that’s simply not acceptable to the average reader. Sharing is a vital part of reading, and that’s now become illegal. There was a hypothetical question posed about someone emailing 100 people with the latest Nora Roberts book, with the publisher losing the sales. Valik pointed out that Harlequin was in the interest of obtaining nearly all rights and that she was certainly trying to figure out a reasonable way to ensure that sharing becomes a viable option.

Which returns us, in a more reader-inclusive manner, to the TOC buzz term “social experience.” I think, based on my Tuesday peregrinations, that I’ve observed how people think about technological developments. But I’m not so sure if they’re accounting for the reader. Certainly this panel provided a few more pertinent answers than “The Rise of Ebooks.” But I think it’s important to consider that social experience is something that emerges from the form, often with helpful and ancillary results. But it is not necessarily the form. In order for ebooks to penetrate beyond 1% of the market (and, again, the assumption here rests that ebooks will take off with Wilcoxian dreams of riches and avarice), it seems to me that they are going to have to not only listen to readers (particularly regular readers and women), but consider every aspect that makes the printed book work. These aren’t going to be easy questions to answer. And they’re certainly not going to be cleared up in three days by a bunch of excitable plutocrats at an O’Reilly conference. While the music industry has seen the phonograph switch to the cassette, and then switch to the CD, and then switch to the MP3, we really haven’t seen anything like this with books and paper. Joe Wikert suggested that emerging forms of technology look ridiculous until they’re established. But there’s possibly a greater risk in looking and acting ridiculous when you accept the emerging possibilities without healthy skepticism or learning a few lessons from the past.

(More reports on Wednesday’s events, which I am presently in the middle of, to come.)